America! A Top Ten of Sorts

When I landed in Dallas, the whirlwind of the past few weeks hit me pretty hard, and I had this moment when the plane took off to Madrid where I just sort of thought to myself, “Was I just in America?  Is that what this place is?”

All that time I spent overseas, and much of it gave me a chance to view America from outside the bubble.  I guess I thought when I returned to the bubble, I’d be more aware of all those things I’d analyzed when I was outside of it, as though I’d managed to take it apart and rebuild it in a way that made more sense to me.  I guess I thought that would make the bubble different somehow.  But instead, I feel a little like I just sort of fell right back into things, as though I’d never left.  And that was a bit disappointing.  Right down to the little things.  I wanted to be deeply aware of the warmth of the house or the cushioned couches or the soft carpet.  But instead, it just felt natural, to the point that it didn’t even phase me, and that was strange to me when I looked back in hindsight.  So I guess it did phase me, just not in the moment.

And then on top of that, something about America just left this really sour taste in my mouth.  Something toxic.  I haven’t been able to put my finger on what it was exactly, only on the simplicity I value with my life in Morocco.  Maybe if I knew the language better, I’d be more aware of the politics and the daily, interpersonal struggles that are as true to Morocco as they are to America.  Actually, that’s not true.  I am aware of those things.  I encounter them all the time in Morocco – whether between volunteers or between Moroccans.  So why does it bother me so much more in America?    Maybe it’s because it’s so temporary that it doesn’t even really matter.  I don’t get caught up as much in the turmoil of life in Morocco, because well, life in Morocco isn’t really my life.

Or is it?  That’s another conversation I’ve been having in my head lately.  Isn’t everything temporary to some degree?  Morocco is my life, because Morocco is where I am right now.  It’s about living in the moment and not dwelling or longing for the past.  If only I could learn to think of America in those terms.

But anyhow – I didn’t just want to write a blog slamming America or saying something was wrong with my country.  There was a lot there I was reminded of, a lot there I deeply love and care for, and that’s what this blog is actually about.  So, without further ado, an American top ten list of all things I loved, have missed, care deeply about, or will continue to miss, in no particular order:

10.  Harold Burdette.  Nashville.   When I wrote the blog about culture shock, I’d only been in Jackson, my hometown.  It wasn’t until the end of my trip, when I trekked off to the place that had been my actual home for almost four years that I realized just how much culture shock I still had ahead of me.  I drove my dad’s SUV to Nashville, and I was telling Katie after I got there that I realized during the drive that culture shock makes you sound like you’ve been smoking something.  “Woah mannnn, look at all these trees.  There’s just so many trees.  And the road is soooo smooth.  Dude.”

I could go into what a joy it was to see so many Nashville folks, whether they were friends from Lakeshore, Vanderbilt, or Rehoboth, but the part of it that really made me feel “at home” was that it was an actual homecoming of sorts.  Most people reminded me that America can actually be a very hospitable place.  Katie and Harold did their best to help me pursue eating at every restaurant possible that was left on my list, including a midnight run to Dunkin Donuts, and Greta and I did Chinese take-out, and to have people so attentive to the fact that you’ve been without what is ho-hum and normal to them is something I cant be thankful for enough.  When I got ready to leave Nashville, Greta reminded me that her home was my home, and I’m pretty sure I could kick Jacob out of his room as soon as he graduates if I wanted a place to crash in Nashville indefinitely.

9.  Abner “Ghralid” Doubleday, puppydawg extraordinaire.  In Arabic, “ghralid” translates as “fat.”  So, just gonna put that out there to anyone I might know who feeds Abner chunks of bread.  My dog is turning into a Berber woman who never leaves the house.  Aw, who am I kidding, I love that little butterball!  But he’s not this kid anymore:

I don’t think the poor guy has forgotten me at all.  He whined and whined the first night when Mom put him in his crate, and so I let him crash with me.  And every time I walked into the house, he about went crazy.  Definitely miss that puppy dog.

8.  Heated buildings.  Seriously.  The fact that I had the luxury to wear a short-sleeve t-shirt inside my house still baffles me.  I’m in Rabat now, and I’m not, like, freezing cold or anything, but the idea of not wearing layers is just absurd.  My friend Driss just told me that it’s going to be -6 (22 degrees) in Fes tomorrow.  That’s not okay.  If McDonald’s is warm, I know where I’ll be spending all day.  But in America, we take for granted that it’s even cold elsewhere.  I could bear walking outside for a few minutes in America with just a hoodie on, because I knew I’d be able to return to a warm house.  But here, my next two months will be spent longing for spring and a warm day outside.

7.  Taking baths.  No, seriously.  Again.  I don’t take baths.  What am I?  A Man?  But oh, I took a bath in America.  I took a bath every day in America, and the part of me that kept telling myself, “you’re terrible for wasting this much water” nevertheless enjoyed every single second of it and will not regret it, at least, for a long time.  I’m about to move into a house with no warm water (I currently have a water heater that I spent almost a hundred dollars on), so I’m sure I’ll value it even more this time next year.   But being completely surrounded by scolding hot water and almost falling asleep in it… well, that’s the essence of pure excellence, and it’s something I’ll think fondly of when I’m taking ‘bucket baths’ in a few weeks.  Not to mention how much fun you can have taking a bath, and don’t think I didn’t break out my rubber ducky or my submarine:

6.  My Grandfather’s Farm.  A few days before taking off to Nashville, I went out to my grandfather’s farm with Hope Montgomery (who is planning her own trip to Morocco right now).  The hundred year-old farm is a hundred fifty acres of creeks that run into the Forked Deer River, of hills and ravines, of old barns, logging trails, corn and soy crops, and even a pond or two.  It’s become one of my favorite places to walk around and explore with friends, and I’d build trails through the woods if I had the time.  Hope and I managed to walk the property line (see photo), and at one end of the property, we discovered a three-foot tall waterfall that bled into a pretty deep “lagoon” of sorts in the creek bed.  As we kept walking, we ended up somehow deciding to push over dead trees, and the winner of the day was the person who pushed over the most trees.  I won, but Hope is claiming the “tree of the day.”

I don’t think there’s a whole lot better than hiking around a place you love with someone you can talk to about just about anything, and Hope is one of those “old souls” who yearns for deep conversation ranging from theology to whatever ensures an intentional purpose in life and everything we do in it.  I’ve actually been thinking about that a lot lately, you know, about how I’m sort of tied to this brooding, this deep-thinking I can’t really seem to escape, and it is something I love, but I think it sets me apart or makes me seem arrogant or distant or shy at times.

Some people can approach something like, say, their love for their country, and that’s just natural and what it is.  You were born an American, so you’re proud to be an American.  Plain and simple.  I feel the same way.  I love my country, but at the same time, I’m not satisfied with just being born into something and accepting it.  I need, I yearn, to ask more of myself and others.  I need to ask, “What is patriotism?” or “What does it mean to be an American as opposed to something else?” or “Can it be patriotic to disagree with my country?”  And those are things that I can’t process unless I take them to some existential level.  And patriotism is just the example.  I’m really talking about, well, everything I do.  I guess all that is to say, I realize there’s a lot of people out there who probably can’t wrap their minds around me or the way I think, or how ridiculous I can be when I start my brooding, but I also hope I can make it make more sense to them.  An attempt at mutual understanding.

But walking around in the woods, seeing nature firsthand and being thankful for it, and chatting with a friend.   Well, it just doesn’t get much better than that.

5.  Church.  But not what you’re thinking.  While I was in Nashville, I went one night to get dinner with Alex Thompson and his family, a family that attends Rehoboth, where I worked as a youth director before joining Peace Corps.  Before the dinner, Alex’s dad asked Alex to say the prayer.  Alex then said, “Actually, I was kind of hoping Philip could do that.”  It caught me off-guard.  I hadn’t spoken a prayer out loud like that in over a year.  I hadn’t stepped inside of a church, except the ones that were basically museums in Portugal, in over a year.  I thought to myself, “I wonder what would happen if I busted out chanting, ‘Bismillah!  Allahhhhhh Ackbar!'”  We bowed our heads and I recollected myself and said a prayer.   One that was honest and from the heart.  One that was deeply thankful that we were able to be together.

Later in the evening, Alex and I were upstairs in his room, and he mentioned that he felt like he needed to work on his “relationship with God,” something he felt he had managed to lose sight off, especially with not attending church as much or Bible Study.  I looked at him and chuckled, and said something like, “If that’s what it means to have a relationship with God, stop wasting your time working on your relationship with God.  Work on your relationship with people instead.  Forgive someone who wronged you.  Ask for forgiveness from someone you hurt.  Directly to that person (as opposed to making a public “apology” and not really caring whether they get wind of it some way or another, which for the record, is not an apology).  Get out there and work in a soup kitchen and talk with the people you’re serving.  Ask questions, lots and lots of questions.  Don’t be satisfied with what you hear from the pulpit or what you read in the Bible.  I’m not saying Bible study or prayer or going to church aren’t important, but I believe that God is most present in what’s relational, not all this interpersonal, self-focused crap that doesn’t force us to face other people or figure out how to love them rightly.  It would be nice if you did all that through the Church and with the Church, or if the Church isn’t doing it, hold the Church accountable or be the leader who steps up to make it happen, but if that can’t happen, what’s important is that you’re loving people, and you’ll find God in that – whether in the Church or outside of it.”

The next night, I was surrounded by former youth, all of whom are driving now – which was weird.  I don’t think there was a prayer said or anything “churchy” that happened.  We just sat around and ate chocolate pretzels and watched pictures from Morocco flash across the screen, and yet, it felt like some communion; it felt like family.  It felt more like what Church should be than what Church is today.  And when I see those youth, I stop worrying about the direction of the Church, because with or without Church, I think they’re all going to be okay kids who turn out just fine, and maybe even better despite the hurt that so often happens within the Church, they’ll know they are loved, and they’ll know they’re still children of God.

That said, I really, really want to believe that the Church is necessary and relevant to our lives, especially as someone who considers ordination, and I definitely believe it’s important to have that community, that family, like the youth group sitting around eating chocolate pretzels.  And I do think a lot of Church’s do a lot of good, and I think Rehoboth continues to be one of those places that’s working on getting it right.  It’s important, after all, to recognize that the Church is the broken body of Christ, and I was reminded of that while I was home in America, especially as I considered my parent’s decision to leave our “home” church and how that’s affected me.  It’s a broken body.   It’s not perfect.  I get that.  But a broken body without a resurrection, without hope or forgiveness, isn’t worth our time or effort, and while some churches get that, others don’t.  Many are too focused on all the wrong things to even see the problem.

There’s an ongoing myth, really an outright lie, that updating the church with new music and sleek musical instruments, with new, state-of-the-art technology and even state-of-the-art ideas will attract a vibrant, younger audience.  I don’t doubt for a second that the church does need new music, new instruments, new technologies, and ideas, and when I was at Rehoboth, we took that to heart, implementing the contemporary service (the first of its kind at that church), helping bring a LCD-projector and screens to the building, forming a youth band, etc.  But hear me on this: my generation is not abandoning the church in droves because they don’t like old people who are set in their ways or because they don’t like high church music.  And my generation will not – absolutely will not – return to the Church just because they finally got around to singing “I can only imagine” instead of “Morning has Broken.”  My generation stays at home, because my generation is tired of the way this thirty- or forty-something generation bickers over things like music, worship style, or the color of the carpet.  Rehoboth grew in size because there was love happening there, and my generation is ready to love people, and they’re doing it already – many of them outside of the Church or in spite of the Church, and I’m quickly coming to a place where I support their mass exodus when Church’s feel the need to defend their misdeeds rather than show the kind of humility that comes with, “Well, we just don’t know if we got this right or not.”  A kind of humility that widens and includes as many as possible rather than delivering the messages that say, “This is what we’re doing; join us or leave.”  Because Jesus was a peripatetic and not a “Church”-planter, and there might actually be something more like “church” the way Jesus understood it far beyond four walls where our obsessions are with control and winning rather than love or service.  And while I’m not naive enough to think that that ideal picture of church won’t come with it’s own brokenness (it will), it’s time for this age-old story about change in the church and the way to fix it to be replaced with something better.  Because if it can’t be, there won’t be a church when my generation is older.

4.  Family.  And friends who are like family.   Let’s face it.  That’s what most of this blog is really about.  So I won’t even say more there.  It just deserves it’s own place, because I couldn’t have a better set of parents who are so nurturing and kind, and because I know I drive Mom up the wall with my ocean-hopping and my gallivanting.  She loves me anyway.

3.  Steve, and her wonderful owner.  I got to spend time with Maria Mayo, who has the uncanny ability to size me up in a few words after only a few moments, and is probably one of the only people I know who can do that and get it pretty close to right.  Maria’s fifteen year-old cat, Steve, was also present, and I’ve mentioned Steve before, or at least, I think I have.  I might have even posted this video of Steve, but it was wonderful to see Steve and Maria, to share with them (well, really just Maria, because Steve stayed in her closet most of the time) where my path seems to be taking me.

2.  Restaurants.  Five Guys Burgers & Fries.  I know I said this top ten list was “in no particular order,” but let’s be honest about this for a second: Five Guys, you’re number 1 in my heart, or should I say stomach?!  I’m hoping somebody in corporate reads this and immediately sends me a message offering me free Five Guys for the rest of my life for mentioning you and my love for you in my blog.  No, seriously, I’m not joking.  Make me a lifetime member of your restaurant, because you make the best burgers on the planet.

As many of you may recall, I had a list of places I wanted to eat while I was home.  Of the sixty or so places on the list, I think there may have been ten that didn’t happen.  But that’s alright, I think.  This is sort of strange, because most places I ate were disappointing.  I think I’d just hyped it up so much in my head that when I actually ate it, I wasn’t all that excited about it anymore.  I even thought at one point, “I make better Mexican food than this,” and that was just disheartening.  But Five Guys!  You lived up to the hype!  Thanks for always being there!

1.  The Seventh Grade Students of Greta Frensley’s Geography Classes.   On my last day in Nashville, I took time out of my schedule to go visit my “Peace Corps Coverdell Worldwise School,” which is what the Vlog is for.  I talked to three classes of about 30 students in each group about my life in Morocco, about Islam, about couscous and Moroccan culture.  I fielded questions left and right from a very attentive class.  Students would walk by and say, “Philip’s here!”  And I even got to see the bulletin board titled “Philip’s Travels” or something like that.  I’m working on getting a hold of video for this event.  Maybe pictures if I can take them from the video.

The real treasure came from Greta’s – or sorry again, Ms. Frensley’s – email that came later that day:  “When I asked for questions or comments about the morning’s discussion, [one student] said that it meant a lot to her to hear about the way that you had been treated by Muslims and that they were nice …[r]eally, that was the coolest.  And it is what I strive for all of the time… that the kids will come away from class with some new understanding….”

When I hear something like that, I think about the different goals of Peace Corps, and how the third goal, to share Moroccan culture with the people of America, really might be one of the most important goals I could have to fulfill.  That goal will be what makes this experience a lifetime experience, and it’s something I deeply, deeply value.

Well, there you have it.  Another top ten list down.

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