“I don’t know why you say ‘Goodbye,’ I say ‘Hello.'”

Well, it’s been a really weird but a really good few days.  I guess when you’re about to drop off the face of the planet, the world kind of moves in slow-mo, because I feel like I’m taking everything in but in small strides and with deep care for every moment.  So, if this blog seems a little more boring or longer than some of the others, it’s because I wanted to document a few of those moments in time, for me.

What a few months ago was supposed to be a fun, short trip to see Katie Frensley in Berea (she’d been pestering me to visit for, oh, three years or something like that) quickly turned into a mini, nostalgic vacation into the past.  I’m not sure how, but I managed to plan this trip so I could go from eastern Kentucky to northwestern Indiana to Missouri and each time drive exactly four-and-a-half hours.

I didn’t want to drive from Jackson to Berea in one day, so I spent the first night in Gallatin at the Frensley household.  Greta Frensley’s manicotti recipe made me want to do the Peace Corps in Italy (or in the Frensley household) instead of Morocco.  Delicious.  And we topped it all off with my mom’s breakfast cinnamon cake, which as I told her was actually “anytime cinnamon cake,” not just “breakfast.”

The next morning, I ventured to Berea and got there in time to eat at Buffalo Wild Wings (or BDubbs for connoisseurs), where Harold – Katie’s boyfriend – is a server.  Afterward, Katie and I went to see the new Steve Carrell flick and then home for a “game night,” complete with Katie, Harold, and two other friends.  I don’t want to bore you with just a list of all the things I did while in Berea, but there’s another reason altogether it’s worth mentioning.  Two reasons actually – traditions and community.

It seems that it’s fairly commonplace for Katie’s friends to gather together to play board games, especially on Friday nights.  What wholesome family fun, right?  There’s nothing really striking or surprising about that; lots of people have these little rituals or traditions, even routines, from time to time, but what struck me was how my life in Nashville was completely different and lacked any sort of regular, consistent gathering of friends (or even of one friend for that matter).  Honestly, the past year in particular, I lost all my routines too.  Looking back, I’m not really sure how I survived it.  I’ve had no community outside of my Church, and while Rehoboth was what sustained me, it was also my job.  Outside of it, I really struggled in Nashville, and that’s not necessarily all bad.  I do like being independent.  I do well on my own and always have, but we’re made to be in community with one another, even if we’re terrible at it.  It’s time for me to return to that and not isolate myself so much.

That might sound funny coming from someone about to go to a world where no one speaks their language, a world that can be incredibly isolating (even more so than Nashville was for me), but at the same time, the Peace Corps is all about building community (even if slowly) – with your American counterparts and with the people of your host country.  I’m excited about meeting new people, and the first nine weeks are close-knit with the American volunteers (before we’re sent off on our own to do our jobs, so to speak).

The last time I was placed in that kind of setting (there’s a shout out to living in liminal spaces) was the archaeological dig in Israel, and that experience was the best month of my life.  There’s just something about forming a bond with total strangers who face the same circumstances as you.  Together, we’ll all be Peace Corps “trainees” – not quite “volunteers” but certainly beyond the invitation stage.  So, as we learn to face the struggles and joys of Morocco together, it’s inevitable that we’ll form bonds, and in my experience, the best friendships I’ve ever had were formed in those kinds of situations.  So, yes, to say that I’m excited is an understatement.

Saturday was an incredibly filled day.  Harold, Katie, and their friend Paul, and I went to Anglin Falls about fifteen minutes outside of Berea.  It reminded me a lot of Fall Creek Falls in size and amount of water (and the fact that you can walk right under it), but what was especially exciting was hiking to the top of the falls and looking down on where we had just been from the edge.  Spiderwebs aside, it made for a grand adventure, and I’ve posted some pictures on Flickr (as has Katie) chronicling our day, including the board game “Stratego,” which we played later (and I smoked Katie).  While I did upload some of those pictures into the blog, definitely click the Flickr link and check out the others, as well.

Of course, Katie was also gracious enough to take me to Lexington to go on a shopping spree for some of the things listed in the previous blog (mostly clothing-related) when staying at home and being lazy might have been far more enjoyable.  It’s funny to me that one of the people I will miss the most is someone I rarely ever got to see in the first place.  I couldn’t ask for a better best friend.

Saturday, I drove to Wabash with a short stop over in Greenwood, Indiana for Roscoe’s Tacos.  My friend Steven Heit had asked me in 2005 to give Roscoe’s a chance while I was still at Wabash.  I never did.  So, finally, I can say that I have tried Roscoe’s (Nachos Supremo), and it was absolutely delicious, though probably also the cause of the heartburn I’m currently battling.  I dropped Steve a text to let him know and make him (and consequently, his brother Scott) jealous.  They both wished they could’ve been there, and I wish they could have too, because the Cowboy Cookie I had for dessert should never be eaten alone.

I then took a tour of the “new” Kappa Sigma house at Wabash.  The rest of the campus had not changed.  I have to say I’m disappointed in the new house and glad I never lived there, even though I spent the better part of four years complaining that the house we were promised we would live in by our Sophomore year never existed.  There’s no cold dorm for the Freshmen; the Chapter Room is entirely too well-lit and looks more like the old Tube Room than what a Chapter Room should look like; and to top it all off, there are no individual rooms, only suites.  The only things I liked were the kitchen with its new walk-in freezer, mainly because I know that has to be Laura’s (the cook’s) heaven.  Anyhow, I realize this is a bit on the boring side, but in case some of my pledge brothers are reading, I did want to mention my thoughts on the house.

I, of course, walked every nook and cranny of my Alma Mater, and it felt good to be back, but when I walked up to Center Hall and hiked the hallowed, creaky steps to the second floor, something was missing.  Around at the corner office, Glen Helman, the chair of the Religion & Philosophy Department was sitting in his “new” office, or as it will always be to me, Bill Placher’s office.  Bill was my adviser and professor multiple times, and he had become someone I greatly admired.  He died abruptly in December of 2008.  When someone you care about dies, there’s no greater reminder that they are no longer with you than being in the same place you last saw them in their element.  It’s like being haunted by the past or a memory that isn’t easily shaken.  But it’s a good memory, so it’s not one I necessarily want to shake, either.

I stepped from Placher’s office to the classroom next door, the very classroom where he’d given my first religion lecture eight years ago and convinced me on the spot to become a religion major.

I could hear him and see him like he was right there, leaning against the chalkboard and dirtying up his jacket.  With his glasses about to fall off and his loud, contagious laughter, his presence filled the empty room.  I thought about all the kind words and advice he offered me in my time there, and the meals he cooked for his students in his home.  I thought about him driving to Nashville to present a paper only to ditch the going-ons of the Conference so he could get dinner with me and the other Wally’s.  That humble spirit of his would probably be embarrassed that we Wabash students still go on about him like he was a god.  He wasn’t.  But to us, he understood God better than anybody else I ever met, both in the heady, theoretical sense but also on the ground in the most practical way possible.  He impacted my life so much more than he ever could’ve realized.

I mean, I’d be a snobby Harvard graduate if it wasn’t for Bill.  Thank God he saved me from that!  Vanderbilt showed me that no school really measures up to Wabash, and I’d much rather be in debt to Vanderbilt than to Harvard right now.  Of course, I’m still snobby.

The remainder of my time in Indiana was spent with my pledge brother in Indianapolis, Tim Barnes, or as we called him in college, Diva.  Diva, so aptly named because he was a music major and a football player, was a kind of confidant in college.  We’d stay up late musing about God and life and how little of it all we understood.  Then, we’d trail off singing songs to Diva’s impressive guitar strumming and his rather boisterous voice.  With his girlfriend Kelly on my side, we managed to convince him to pick the guitar up again and play us a few songs, including some he’d written a few years back in college.  Have a sampling (my apologies for the low quality, but the sound is still good):

As much as I love Wabash, Indiana was but a brief stop.  St. Louis is home to another pledge brother, Chester, or Patrick Drake and his lovely wife Lindsay who is quite the cook.  Chester was sort of my best friend in college.  That’s not to say I wasn’t close to Diva or Raul or any others, but Chester, with his cynical nature, quick wit, and his ability to reason his way out of any situation, just made sense to me and made life, especially during pledgeship, bearable at Wabash.  Honestly, it’s a shame we haven’t made more of an effort to stay in touch with one another, but it was nice to know we could get right back into things, like no time had passed.

Sometimes, I think, you just need someone by your side to complain with, to help you pass the time and get through a tough day.  Yes, misery loves company, but maybe that’s because company makes misery less miserable.  Our pessimism kept us just positive enough to survive.

And the funny thing about that is how so many different people enter our lives and fulfill or complete us in such different ways.  I could run to Diva’s room at two in the morning to tell him that one of my good friends from Lakeshore had just lost his girlfriend in a tragic wreck on Valentine’s Day.  Diva was the right person for that.  At the same time, Gable and I could walk down the streets of Crawfordsville in the snow talking about how we were getting sick of the atmosphere of the fraternity house, especially how annoying it was when a girl came around and all the guys changed who they were just to impress her.  Or I could be just completely off the wall and silly with Randy or Keebler on a weeknight.  Whoever it was of my fraternity brothers, each of them filled a different void, and all of them were people I cherished, I still cherish, in their own way.  They were all my brothers, no matter how different or how alike, and I think that’s an important lesson I take with me into the Peace Corps, knowing that I’m going to encounter people who are so incredibly different from me and yet so incredibly similar at the same time.  That is, at the heart of things, we all have something to share with one another if we look closely enough and love hard enough.

Friendship is not always about how alike we are so much as it’s about the effort we make, no matter how small to simply care, and as I’ve learned, caring is an action verb.  It goes beyond simply saying or thinking that you enjoy someone’s company or think they’re funny or like the same music as them.  Real friendship is meaningful conversation over a sub sandwich on the roof of a high-rise, driving long distances just to laugh with someone one last time, or even the willingness to be so honest with someone that you risk hurting their feelings.

These past few days have been a whirlwind of hellos and goodbyes, of smiling faces I hope not to forget, and I’ll definitely make more of an effort, even if it’s from Morocco, to find a way to keep in touch.  As I gain new brothers and sisters a world away, I’m sure to be overwhelmed by all of those I have back home, as well.

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