Caught in the Fog

This week there was a fog that covered Shelter Island for an entire day. It was light enough that standing in the middle of it, the warm colors of the autumn leaves blurred together a little like the yellows and reds of a Van Gogh. The distant trees on a small hill could’ve been any mountain in the Smokies of East Tennessee. Or, that is to say, had the fog been a little thicker, I might’ve questioned what world I’d woken up in. Forty feet out into the Peconic, there wasn’t a bay anymore. There wasn’t the sight of the North Fork I’ve grown accustomed to seeing these past few months. There wasn’t even any water. Just a white, endless haze lingering for what seemed forever. Haunting. Beautiful. And unlike every low-hanging cloud I’ve ever experienced in my life, this one didn’t lift.

Fog

On Tuesday, scallop season opened, and as luck would have it, I had a free ticket (worth some $22) to a local 41st annual scallop dinner. As I’d never had scallops before, this seemed like the right way to be introduced to them: caught that very day there in the waters by my home. The dinner – hosted by a Methodist Church in Cutchogue – was so well-attended that there were three seatings over the course of four hours, and I heard-tell of people traveling as far as two hours to come to the meal. One couple at our table, in fact, had driven around from the South Fork (or, perhaps making their meal a $60 meal, taken the two ferries through Shelter Island) to get there.

The dinner conversation was pretty standard for what you might expect being seated with strangers. You know, the usual questions people ask you about what you do and where you live, the best ways to prepare scallops, etc. A woman across the table, on hearing about life on Shelter Island, asked about the local post office, casually dropping the name of the Postmaster (who is really quite wonderful). [As no mail is delivered on Shelter Island, the Post Office becomes a kind of hub for islanders to meet-and-greet and gab on about the weather or whatever else, and though I’ve only introduced myself to my Postmaster once, she has remembered not only my name but my P.O. Box, as well. And that makes the place feel incredibly warm and inviting.] It wasn’t until the end of the meal that the woman inquiring about the Postmaster revealed that, in fact, the Postmaster was her daughter.

At another point in the meal, having said that I lived in Morocco for awhile before moving to New York, a woman sitting next to me mentioned that you can pick up Ras Al-Hanut, a Moroccan spice, at the Love Lane Market in Mattituck, and the gentleman across from her mentioned that he’d lived in Morocco working at Port Lyautey at the Naval Air Station there in the early 1950s and that a friend of his had been a Flight Mechanic in Casablanca during World War II. Small world: so was my grandfather. Another couple yammered on about how bad this winter might be, yet another about how much the East End has changed in the last ten, twenty, thirty years.

Stories. All of them containing pivotal little moments – when someone’s daughter became the Postmaster or when someone found themselves on African soil or when there was the one winter way back when no one has ever forgotten. Those were the stories being told. Within them, I knew, a thousand layers, not only to what was told but to how it was told, to what was left out, to what had been forgotten or intentionally kept quiet be it momentarily or forever. Lately, I’ve been painfully aware of the way our lives are constructed by the stories we tell, even the brief ones to strangers over a warm meal. And I’ve been painfully aware of what’s contained within those stories: the hellos and the goodbyes, the questions of roads not taken or frustrations over the ones that were. And we seem desperate, clinging in a way to determine what our story should say or how it should be told – the thousands upon thousands of decisions that could make or break our story, whatever we wanted it to be. More than that, we sometimes seem so caught up in the book cover or in how well it could sell that we don’t actually just live it and see where it goes.

But that’s all because it comes back to the fog. We’re plagued by that fog more than anything else. The one that some day may not lift. We’re plagued by the questions that arise in it, by the unfamiliarity of it, by how hard it is to find anyone else – let alone ourselves – out there in the haunting yet beautiful abyss. The questions of the fog cripple us from living our story. But the thing is, the ferry still runs in the fog. In the distance, you can hear the foghorns, the bells tolling, the gongs striking. The little birds you couldn’t see through that white haze you could nevertheless hear playing, fishing, flapping their wings unconcerned over the lack of visibility. The fish rippled through the waters, their world unaffected. And those of us upon finding ourselves in the middle of the fog kept on walking discovering the beautiful autumn leaves were still very much visible – that right here, right now, right where you are trudging forward without seeing perfectly clearly what’s ahead… that might still be good enough. There might yet be plenty of beauty in that. We might find ourselves as someone else’s foghorn or playful bird or unconcerned fish. We might find that we can, in fact, embrace the fog and live to tell the story after all. And if not? Well, at least the scallops were fresh.

Because It’s the End… Until It’s Not

If I could categorize my life down into relationships and work and education and just sorta divide it all up, it would be easy to think of the last several years as having been a series of beginnings and ends – the ‘Wabash years’ or the ‘camp years’ or the ‘Peace Corps adventures,’ and so many of those two- to four-year chunks of time would feel completed. Something about the way my brain functions seems to draw me into compartmentalizing life to try to make the most sense out of it as I can. But maybe it’s not that clean-cut with such clear endings.

I remember finishing college and thinking, “Well, that’s it. I’m done with Wabash.” But in so many ways, Wabash was never really done with me. The things I learned there carried into my Vanderbilt education and went with me to Morocco. And, speaking of Morocco, there’s the Peace Corps. There was something incredibly final about leaving, as the boat pulled away from the Port of Casablanca. You could say, I don’t live in Morocco anymore. That chapter of my life is closed. Except it’s not. The third goal of the Peace Corps is lifelong: “To help promote a better understanding of other peoples on the part of Americans.” That’s why I started blogging, and it’s why I’ve talked in churches and classrooms about Morocco and about Islam. It’s been crucial to me to get this message out that says, “Hey, I lived with these folks; they aren’t terrorists. They’re incredibly wonderful, incredibly hospitable, and I consider them family.” In a period of transition right now, I can’t say where that adventure leads me, but when the boat pulled away from Casablanca, I now know that wasn’t the end of that experience. I mean, the fact that I still dream in Arabic speaks volumes, after all.

When I got back from Morocco, one of the things I thought I was done with was organized religion. For too long, I’d either watched religious people hurt one another or even been one of the folks causing the hurt. It was easy to typecast religious people as manipulative, controlling hypocrites, cause a lot of the time, they were, and so I said I was done, that it was time to distance myself from it for good. And that’s who I was; it was who I needed to be in the midst of that grief. But in coming to realize that life is process, not outcome, I’ve come to see that, sometimes, we’re done… until we’re not anymore.

I’m not done with Wabash or camp or Peace Corps or organized religion. Those things are embedded into who I am and always will be. We may sometimes have moments where, for our own sakes, we have to distance ourselves from the people or the institutions that made us who we are, but we’re never really done with them. We’re “in the soup” with them, so to speak, constantly working through and negotiating how our past is going to navigate our present.

Time

One of my Facebook friends shared a picture this morning (above) that shows two images of time – how we perceive time as a linear movement of cause-and-effect vs. what time actually is, an intertwined collection of causes and results that lead to other causes and results. That first image is what we like to believe because we really do want to hold to this notion that we can categorize our lives with beginnings and ends. That’s the easy way to make sense of it. But in reality, one thing just leads to another which leads to another, and there’s no reason to think we won’t eventually be brought full circle. That image of time may be chaotic and crazy, but there’s something refreshing about it. And it’s worth remembering in those moments when we think and claim we’re done, with anything, that we never really are.

The Open Sea

Yesterday, when I was headed to board the MSC Poesia in Barcelona, there were two large buses shuttling passengers to the harbor.  I stood in line next these absolutely beautiful Spanish girls and just thought, “Oh yeah.  Awesome.”  Then when I showed the bus driver my ticket, he said, “No, no, your bus is the next bus.  We’re going to a different ship.”  Okay, slight disappointment.  But that’s okay.  This is still a good sign.

I climbed onto the bus to realize almost immediately that I was the only person on the bus under about 45 years-old.  And I’d put the average age closer to, I dunno, maybe 65.  I couldn’t stop laughing.  Here I was, a lone American on an elderly person’s cruise ship.  And all I could think was, “No, this is still too awesome.”

I am probably not your average cruise goer.  I don’t really drink.  I generally tend to think twelve hours in a country isn’t long enough to really appreciate it.  I’ve no interest in playing bingo or really any of the ship’s activities.    [Although, there was a lecture today on the history of Morocco, since the ship arrives at the Port of Casablanca tomorrow morning, and that was a really nice capstone to my past two years.]

Still, each night, when the “daily schedule” is delivered to my room, I sit down and plan out the entire day, the majority of which is spent sitting somewhere on board with a view of the sea and working hard on my most recent novel.  That’s what this trip is to me: an opportunity to romanticize this experience just enough to let it work my creative juices.  After all, I have six thirty-page manuscripts to clean up for graduate school applications.

What time isn’t spent writing will be spent dealing with culture shock.  Tonight’s dinner, for example, is formal attire (suggested by the Captain).  However, I do not own a tuxedo or a tie.  I have to say, I have had this incredible fear that someone will smell me and think I smell like sheep or goat.  Dinner is assigned seating, and I am the only American at a table of seven Brits – Fiona, John, Nigel, Patsy, and I don’t remember the other three.  As we sat there discussing the super yacht’s they had toured in Barcelona (which cost 475,000 quid to rent per week), all of us with our own forks and knives, I couldn’t help but think of Driss or Omar, of eating with Ahmed – one dish, no utensils.  Two weeks ago, I was sitting on the floor of Allal’s house to eat lunch.  Now, I’m surrounded by carpet and cushions, and everything is perfectly upholstered and clean, so painfully clean.  And everyone is dressed like we’re going to a wedding or something.

The only escape I have is the bow, really more to the starboard side, where I like to stand and look out at the open sea.  It’s quiet and no matter how fancy the ship is, nature brings it all back for me.  It always has.

The open sea is not the hues of blue you might expect.  That color is a lie crafted by those who never ventured far from the shore.  Instead, the waves are a thick, rich black abyss as far as the eye can see, and as they ebb-and-flow, the color shifts from a lighter black to a darker black.  This, of course, changes depending on the location of the sun, and in the distance – particularly closer to the horizon – those deep black tones fade into a grey and eventually a white or yellow where they meet the sky.  The only other place the sea is not this darkened color is next to the ship as she moves swiftly cutting through the waves and churning up a thousand blue-and-white ripples and bubbles.  If I’ll see any dolphins on this trip, that’s where I’m expecting them to play.

Tomorrow morning, I’ll be back in Morocco.  I have not made plans to get off the boat.  My time with Morocco has ended for now.  When I say goodbye one last time tomorrow, I’ll do so the same way my grandfather did some 70 years ago, leaving Casablanca by boat.  In the meantime, I’m going to sort through what few clothes I have that are not completely disgusting and try to put on something half-decent for dinner and the Gala.

America: What I’m Most Excited For, or A Top Ten List of Sorts

Over the course of the next few weeks, in anticipation of my two-year anniversary of living in the Kingdom of Morocco (Sept. 15), I’ll be posting a series of “top ten lists” detailing some of my favorite things and some of my least favorite things about this country, some of the ways I’ve changed, and all the things I will and won’t miss as November quickly approaches and my time here comes to an end.

So, without further ado, I bring you the first in this series, a top ten list of what all America has to offer, from everything I’m excited to get my hands on and buy to all the people and animals I just can’t wait to see:

10. Fox News, Tea Partiers, the American South, and all the things I just can’t stand — I guess there’s just one point I want to make here, and that’s that I love America.  I even love the part of America that I despise.  Why?  Because I just love to despise it.  Two years abroad really brought out for me just how awful of a country we can be – how bigoted and idiotic, and I won’t start down that path, because my point really is that I’m so excited to get back to America that I’m even excited to get back to that side of America that disappoints me.  It’s like sitting down in front of the T.V. to watch an episode of Walker, Texas Ranger.  It’s a guilty pleasure, and you do it not because it’s a good show (it’s not), but because there’s nothing funnier than watching Walker round-house kick some awful Texas stereotype that misrepresents someone’s race or gender in some terrible way.  And so while I am, honestly, terribly disgusted with some parts of American culture, I’m still glad that America comes with all these rich complexities, that we’re filled with so many different human beings from all walks off life, some good, some bad, and most just trying to get by for themselves.  I think when you remove yourself from a place for any lengthy period of time, you long for that place in such a way that it’s like you’ve stepped outside of a box and can now describe every detail of the box with a clear memory.  That’s, in large part, how I feel about America.  I left one box for another, and now that I’m re-entering the old box (or about to), I worry a little how that will go.  It’s as if I became box-less in there somewhere, as if I lost my culture, because I no longer wanted to be associated with all the quirks and traditions and social stigmas that make up whatever we call ‘us’.  But rather than re-entering the box and suddenly regaining culture, I just want to be able to appreciate what it is for what it is without having to be a part of it.  And while I think there’s a lot wrong with our culture, I do earnestly want to believe that most people, even though they may get caught up in silly little beliefs and traditions, just want to be good people.  No one wants to believe that they are guided or socialized by Fox News or CNN or whatever Pastor so-and-so has to say or whatever the popular music of the moment may be.  So even though we may get sucked into all of that, I like believing that no one wants to be.  It’s the only way to trust people, and it’s the best way to believe that we all have a good heart in common underneath all that crap we’re fed all the time by our interwebs and T.V. stations, and etc.

9. New things of 2012, from clothes to shoes to cars to interwebs — It’s not just because my shoes are falling apart.  Or that a series of Moroccan haircuts have officially resulted in my growing of what some might call a combo between a “fro” and a mullet.  It’s just that Peace Corps is going to hand me this nice, fat readjustment allowance, and I’m tired of living off $250.  I’ve detailed some of the things I’m going to be buying in my “Official Wish List,” (see the bottom of the list) in case you’re just eager to buy it for me first.  *Wink.*  Shameless, I know.  I’ll let the wish list speak for itself, though.  Moving on.

8. My Transatlantic Cruise, followed by a six to nine-month vacation of doing absolutely nothing.  No, I don’t mean a second round of Peace Corps.  I mean really doing nothing —

I’ve already posted about the cruise, but here are the details again.  I’ll let this speak for itself, and for any naysayers who realize this isn’t really “America,” two weeks of luxury aboard the MSC Poesia are the antithesis to my life in Morocco.

7. Finding Moroccans in America and using Arabic with them — Several weeks ago, my friend Zach went to a “Moroccan” restaurant in Memphis called “Casablanca.”  I’m just going to go out on a limb here and guess that there’s probably one Moroccan working there, if that.  It’s probably just some Arab guy who decided that a restaurant named after the famous movie would probably make more money than, say, Saudi Arabia Restaurant in Memphis (although “Lawrence of Arabia” could’ve been a good restaurant name).  The menu looks delicious, but very little of it is Moroccan, except for harira (Moroccan soup), a couscous dish or two, and kifta (ground beef or lamb).  Actually, the idea that I could get kifta (if it’s prepared anything there like it is here) in America is incredibly exciting to me.  The rest of the menu is Levantine food between baba ghanoush, chwarma, and hummus.  Still great food, and on a rare occasion, and I can find it in Morocco, but I am hoping for something traditionally Moroccan.

You just can’t have an experience like this living in a country for two years and then suddenly be plopped back into your own culture, as if you’re supposed to forget this two years like it was all some fantasy.  All that is to say that one of my chief goals getting back to America is to find a Moroccan community or at least one Moroccan person and surprise them with some Arabic.  Or actually get to know them.  I’m not going to pretend like I wouldn’t love to meet a Moroccan-American girl either (take note Katie Frensley).  Or my God, if I could make friends with some Moroccans, and they invited me to their house for some real Moroccan food?!  Best idea ever.

Whatever it takes.  I just want to know that I can continue to connect with this beautiful country even when I’m far from it.  It’ll always be a second home of sorts.  Next.

6. The Unknown

[vimeo 7670356]

Although it can be the source of significant stress, I like not knowing what’s next.  I like the betwixt and between stage of life and the crisis that comes with it as you’re sorting out what to do or where to go.  I like the freedom that comes with that – some feeling that I could pick up and go anywhere in the world and do almost anything, and I like not knowing what that is, because uncertainty fosters dreaming for me.  Of course, I love planning and scheming, too, but I don’t take them seriously anymore.  So much of the time I spent planning things out, I’ve come to realize, is all part of the imagining and dreaming I like to do in the place of all my uncertainties.  Once, that was a place of angst for me, and I loved the angst.  But I no longer have fears about what’s next.  I just trust that whatever’s next will be here before I know it, or as the song says, “The doctor asked him what he was afraid of, just what he was running from; it’s not a fear of success nor of closeness; but of going through life feeling numb.”  You could say, the experience of Peace Corps has made me want to experience so much of life, as much as I can get my hands on, but grabbing hold of those experiences often means not knowing what’s next – of always being on the go in some sense.  I think that fits and describes me well.  And even now when I’m heading home, I’m still heading into the unknown.

5. Nashville, Tennessee – the Athens of the South — Despite all the scene and hipster kids who just want to use Nashville to break into the music world with their raspy, wannabe folksy voices, Gotham City – so named for its one tower too tall – is a lovely, cultured community with everything from the Bluebird Cafe to Vanderbilt University to an arboretum of trees planted by Andrew Jackson.  After living there for nearly four years (and being born there), I’m proud to call it my home, and there’s nothing quite as exciting to me as driving around the 440 with  my city in sight.

I’m most looking forward to hanging around the Bicentennial Park, my favorite state park in the world with its grassy mall, its large state map engraved into the concrete, and a 1400-foot “wall of history” that stretches the length of the park.  To one end of the park, there’s an international market, where I’m hoping (but not sure) I can buy couscous and Moroccan spices, including Moroccan tea, but I’ll have to explore the market again to see if that’s true.

So, yeah, Nashville had to make the list.  It’s just a great city, and it’s a place I very much look forward to calling home again, even though I’m open to moving almost anywhere in the world if that’s what I gotta do to make some money or get back into school.  That Nashville would be on my list should come as no surprise, though.  Who couldn’t love a city that gave us the Bat Poet:

4. Five Guys Burgers & Fries. [and other restaurant chains of American cuisine] — At this point, they really should hire me for all the press I give them.

Every Peace Corps Volunteer, probably every person living abroad ever, has experienced the craving, the deep, heartfelt yearning for American chain restaurants.  That’s because like cigarettes, the internet, heroin, and fast women, Five Guys Burgers & Fries – and other chain restaurants across the United States – are blood-sucking, money-grabbing forms of addiction.  You think I’m joking, don’t you?  Just try to go six months without eating that beautiful, cheesy Gordita crunch from Taco Bell; go a full year without a Lemon-Berry Fresh Fruit Slush from Sonic.  You’ll see what I mean.  If you can make it past two weeks, you’ll know what I’m talking about.  You’ll crave it.  You’re stomach will gurgle and ache for it.  You’ll dream about it, and you’ll even have visions of a giant taco singing, “Eat me, Philip.  Find me and eat me.”

Then, just when you think you’ve broken free of that horrid addiction, they come out with this, a dorito-based taco shell.  And you think, “My God, America.  What have you done?!  What is this delicious morsel sent from the third circle of hell to appease the second deadly sin?  You sweet red, white, and blue damsel, you.  I’m coming for that Doritaco.”

I should not be writing this while I’m hungry.  That was a terrible idea.   Whatever, you get the point: I’m looking forward to sinking my teeth into a double-bacon-burger with cheese cooked medium well with lettuce and tomato and extra ketchup and served with a bag of heart-attack fries.  Oh God.  I’ve opened Pandora’s Box.  Next.

3. Abner Doubleday, puggle puppy dawg extraordinaire — I’m afraid, over the last two years, Abner has become like some big Berber woman who loves chomping down white bread and sprawling out on the sofa watching hours of daily soap operas.  Abner has gained approximately 120 lbs. since I left, so once I’m home, we’re going on a strict diet.  While I’ll be busy gaining back the 40 lbs I’ve lost (and that number is not a joke), Abner will hopefully be losing the same amount (that one is).

Truth be told, while Abner is my dog, I haven’t decided what to do with him.  It almost seems cruel to strip him of his life of luxury.  He does pretty much whatever he wants.  He’s a puggle living like a King at the Eubanks’ residence.  And his friendship with Gibson, our golden lab, is like no other.  The two play in the backyard for hours until Abner gets to go inside, while Gibson watches longingly in the sweltering heat.  Actually, according to Mom, Abner didn’t go outside as much this summer to visit Gibson, because it was too hot.  He’d just stand at the door waiting to be let back in to the cool air conditioning.  That’s my dog.  He knows where it’s at!

But since I don’t yet know where I’ll be in four months, let alone six to a year, it’s a bit premature to predict what will happen with Abner, whether I’ll schlep him up north if that’s where the winds take me, or if he’ll continue living like a King at Chateau Eubanks.  Time will tell, but we’ve come a long way since those early days of bein’ a puppy, so I’m looking forward to giving him a big hug and letting him curl up to nap with me in the fetal position.

2. Katie Frensley, Harold Burdette, and the Frensley Family Extravaganza — There’s a lot of people I’m excited to see, a lot of folks who are like family to me, and I hope I don’t offend any of you if you didn’t show up on this list.  But I figured Katie, Harold, Greta, and Jacob had a special place on this list, because come January or February, there’s a good chance I’m movin’ in.  For good.  I’ve warned Katie about this, and to a lesser degree, Greta, but never tell someone they’re “like family” if you don’t want them mooching off you like a leech.  I mean, all I asked for was a corner, and Jacob’s already offered his whole room, so….

Of course, they’ve no need to be too worried.  They are more than welcome to pass me around.  Two weeks at one Frensley residence, three weeks at another.  I’m also willing to cook Moroccan dishes or soups or other delicious meals.  I require very little maintenance; although, if they have guests over, I guess I can try to shave and put on deodorant and use toilet paper temporarily.  And if the guests are still offended by me, they can always just warn them ahead of time: “We, uh, we have a Returned Peace Corps Volunteer staying with us, and uhm, he doesn’t always use utensils when he eats… and he’s kind of offended if you use your left hand to eat… and don’t be surprised if he takes your clothing from you and gives you something of his own in a strange barter system of sorts; he means well.  Oh and sometimes, he clicks.  One click means yes; two clicks means no.”

In all seriousness, though… no, wait, I was being completely serious.  I am moving in, Greta.  Get ready.

But seriously.  Srsly.  I can’t name the number of messages, texts, or emails I’ve had from Katie or Harold reminding me how much they miss me and how much they just want me home.  I think having a community of people is really important, and in some ways, they are my home base, my center-of-gravity, my fan club, my band and we’re gettin’ the band back together.  You get the idea.  Being around them is like being in a sitcom.  So, while I may eventually head off to some new city for school or work, or while I’ll be in Jackson for some time, too, it’s nice to know that I’ll always have a place I can return to – my own little posse, my homeboys (and girls), Team Fouad.  I need to stop doing that.

It’s just that I think one of the things that scares me about America is that I’ll turn into some recluse, that Jackson or whatever city I end up in will be some stale place to me, and the task of having to start over, to work at making friends again, is just this daunting reality I have no desire to face.  I don’t want to explain Peace Corps to people.  I don’t want, like I had to do at Christmas, to have somebody say to me, “So, Morocco, what’s that like?” and then have to explain an entire culture in a thirty-second sentence the other person could care less about.  Katie and Harold and Greta and Jacob are four people I don’t have to start over with or explain myself to.

And besides, Katie is on a mission to find future Mrs. Eubanks anyhow.  She’s got a tough job ahead of her, you know, finding a girl who’s going to be totally okay with the fact that I am mooching off of my friends indefinitely.

There are, of course, a lot of jokes here, and I’m not willing to divulge fact from fiction, so yeah, moving on….

1. The Eubanks‘ — Family first, right?  Although, I don’t mean that in some hokey, cheesy way like, “Oh man, I missed Mama and Baba so, so much these last two years!”  I mean, I did miss them, but not in some overly emotional outpouring of love.  It’s more of a quiet love, an understanding that comes with a heck of a lot of freedom.  Mom’s [been forced to get] used to the fact that traveling is, well, kinda my thing, and I’ll be surprised if anybody’s expecting me to stick around for more than three months before I’m off again on some ridiculous adventure or another.  But over the past few years, I think I’ve developed a new appreciation for how weird I think my family is (though everybody thinks that about their family, right), and I feel closer to them in that I feel as though we actually discuss things like adults these days.  Even though my mother will always remind me if I packed extra underwear and remembered my toothbrush (yes, Mom), between being home for Christmas and a few Skype dates here-and-there, you could say I’ve come to appreciate the range of subjects we can talk about these days.  I no longer feel like a child being talked down to, even though my parents are often saying things I, like a child, need to hear.  In some sense, they are probably the most civil, normal people that I know, and that’s actually what I think makes us so darn weird.  I mean, my parents are some cross between Hank and Peggy Hill from “King of the Hill” or maybe even the Wilkersons or the Morgendorffers.  And Beth is just Beth, you know – hippy sister extraordinaire whose got a bad side and works constantly.  But I love them all anyhow, and I fully expect Mom to be all teary-eyed at the Nashville International Airport in November.  Maybe I will be too.  Who knows.

I guess it can be a little cliché to say that “family” is my number one – what I’m most excited to get home to, but when you go from living in a family-oriented culture like that of the Muslim world, you sort of get this different picture for the value and importance of family.  I think I grew up just thinking that family was a support network of people who loved me, and it is that, but I think it’s so much more than that now.  I think the people who you call family, even if those people aren’t biologically related to you (and I mean those few special friends, too), are the only people you can trust or expect to be there.  I think all our lives are spent trying to find and identify those we regard as that kind of family.  So, it’s a little inevitable that two years in this kind of culture, a culture where family equates with rigid expectations of dependability, and I’m glad to be going home to a place where I know I’ve always had that even though that’s so rare in some ways.

So, there you have it.  Ten things I can’t wait to have or see.  People and places that are consistent in my life.  The days are numbered, and I know at least some of you are counting them down.

Sacred Goodbyes

A lot has happened lately.  There’s a thousand little stories to pick from.  My friends leaving.  New ones coming to visit.  Glasses being distributed left and right.  Emails that show up with exciting or wonderful news.  Emails that show up that cause you to take a step back and take a few, slow and deep breaths.  I wish I could dip into every one of those stories and give you little pieces of all of them, since I’ve been sort of absent from the blog for awhile, but I think I’ll just find one story and stick with that:

Hope Montgomery was here the last few weeks, and I got a chance to show her around my village and put a really clear image with lots of names of places and people I had referenced in a thousand conversations.  I’m not sure if there’s anything more fulfilling than bringing a story to life like that when you can share something tangible that before was just words.  Every moment, from weaving through a little olive grove to watching a mountain be painted by the sunset to little sacred conversations in the windowsill of a hotel room to eating tuna sandwiches behind a waterfall to climbing on top of an ancient Roman ruin to watch a city’s veins be pumped with the ebb-and-flow of a never-ending chaotic liveliness….  all of that… it all just makes you feel painfully awake and aware of everything around you.  I think that’s something that Hope and I had both been searching for, you know, that moment where you strip yourself of all the complexities of life and find that in the simplest of things, when life is its most raw, we are more one with ourselves, more alive than ever.  That’s God to me.  I think Morocco has been that for me in a powerful way, constantly watching the order out of chaos that moves like a cycle, a little Islamic samsara, if you will, birthing and deathing us from one moment to the next.  It can just get tough when those births and deaths seem to come in quick successions and overwhelm you.

On her last day in Morocco, there was a protest of 50,000 people in Casablanca, and I’m pretty sure I know what they were pissed about for once.  Hope leaving.  On the train, we split a couple of oranges and some cookies, but the train was running late, and as it pulled into the airport, her flight was scheduled for take off in 30 minutes.  We had to stop at a  bank to pull out some money with her card.  I took a gander at the board and told her to go ahead to Terminal 1 to check in, that I would catch up.  But I ended up stuck behind some French couple, and in five short minutes, I’d lost Hope.  At Terminal 1, I couldn’t find her anywhere.  I ran (literally) between Terminal 1 check-in and Terminal 1 International departures.  I kept saying out loud, “Where is she?  She’s going to miss her flight.  This is crazy.”  I was absolutely frantic.  10 minutes passed.  Her flight was leaving in four minutes.  I walked to an info desk, something I should’ve done ten minutes before, only to discover that her flight was leaving from Terminal 2.  I ran.  As fast as I could.  But when I got there, it was too late.  No Hope.  I paced back-and-forth and asked a guard if he’d seen a girl in blue, and he retorted that everyone was wearing blue.  I said something awful to him in Arabic and should’ve been arrested on the spot, but I guess when you’re crazy kind of frantic, you get away with more.  I did the same thing to a lady at an info desk who refused to help me contact Hope or make sure she’d made her flight.  As the feeling sunk in that Hope was gone, I kept repeating out loud, “Not like this.  It wasn’t supposed to be like this.  This is so wrong.”  I walked toward a front desk to see if I could purchase a ticket to Paris.  Hope had a nine-hour layover.  There was a chance I could get there to say goodbye on a later flight.  No passport.  It was in the orchard, eight hours away.

I pulled out my phone and dialed, but before my friend Sairah answered, I was already in tears.  I bawled to Sairah on the phone that I didn’t get to say goodbye to my best friend, that I’d been robbed of my sacred goodbye, while I crouched in the corner of the marble floor with my head in my hands sniffling.  There was a chance Hope had missed the flight, so I waited.  I waited for an hour, and then another.  That was when I decided the best thing to do was to get back to Rabat and check the computer to see if Hope had made it to an internet kiosk.

When I got back to the hotel, everything was eerily right where we’d left it, my laptop on one of the beds, cookie wrappers on a table, the windows wide open to the street below with the view of the Parliament building across the street, and the curtain flapping lightly against the wind.  I had a text from Hope’s mom saying she’d called, and a few minutes later, Hope popped up online.  Her story wasn’t all that different from mine.  She’d been told to go to Terminal 2 and kept looking for me.  She’d gone through the check-in and then the gate entrance and realized I couldn’t get there.  She’d tried to double-back but the guard stopped her.  She’d tried to message me on some guy’s smart phone, but he turned her away harshly.  Like me, she’d found her way to a frantic chaos and welled up in the same tears feeling so wrong about something that was supposed to be as good as the whole two weeks had been.

You could say, I’m still recovering from all of that.  It was all like a Wes Anderson film gone wrong.  And yet, at the same time, it all just goes back to what I was saying earlier, that liveliness that grips you birthing you from one moment to the next.  It was like we were jolted off of the wheel, that for half a moment, the cycle hiccuped, and all those past lives and even the future ones met in one place and in one time.  I’ve always thought of Hope as an old soul like me, so when the goodbye didn’t happen, the only comfort I could find was in knowing that even when the cycle hiccups, it keeps moving.  More births.  More deaths.  More sacred moments.  More waves slamming into the beach as they’re prone to do.  You can’t stop it, life.  It keeps coming.  And pain and beauty mix together and find an agreement or a resolution or a balance, just a balance, somewhere in all that mess.   I think that balance is where you find what’s most sacred, where you figure out what’s truly “right,” if there is such a thing.  But all that endless going and coming, and I could see Hope in a thousand lives that had passed and in a thousand lives that were to come.  Not that many people fit into my life that way but the ones that do are the ones I learn to cherish and love the most.

So yeah, I guess you could say a lot has happened lately.  But no matter how good or bad, it’s all been sacred.  And that’s always something to write home about.

19 Months

One month before I left for Morocco, I wrote a blog called, “A Legacy of Service, or Why Morocco Mattered to Me Before This.”  Call it a tribute of sorts to my grandfather who I’ve written about in multiple blogs now.  If you’re a regular reader, you already know why my grandfather was so important to me, and you ought to know that he spent time in Casablanca working on planes as a mechanic during World War II.  It’s just a little thing that gave me a strong sense of purpose in coming to this country, and so, I reference it quite often.  At the end of that August blog, I wrote this: “I look back at his generation, and I see a people who were mobilized to make a difference, and I want badly for my generation to be as eager and as willing to do that as our ancestors.  I want us to look on that people who’ve been called “the Greatest Generation,” and live into that calling, to be great and to do something that genuinely is helpful and good in this world.  I don’t know what kind of dent I can really make in teaching Moroccan youth to write English or even in just loving people the way I’ve always believed we should.  The last thing I want is to come away from this experience and be arrogant about the fact that I gave two years of my life to help people.  I don’t want this to become some yuppy white boy experience to add to my resume.  I just want to love people and love my grandfather and do something for once that’s not all about me.”

19 months.

That’s how long he lived in Morocco.

And now that I’m moving into my nineteenth month of living in this country, I’m a little beside myself.  19 months is a long time.  This has been – or felt like – a huge, important chunk of my life.  It was, I know, a huge chunk of his.  He was still talking about it on his death-bed.  But now that I’ve been here the same amount of time as him, I need to rethink some of those words about living a legacy.

Coincidentally, my grandfather was roughly the same age as me when he set foot on Moroccan soil, so in a way, I imagine we were both in the same place mentally and emotionally (not physically; I’m sure he was healthier than I am).  Of course, we’re talking about seventy years ago, so I would imagine that’s not entirely true, but it’s something I relate with deeply.  It makes me feel connected to him in a way I’m not sure I could have connected to him while he was alive.  It’s a funny thing how that works.  Sometimes, we get closer to people once they’ve died than we could’ve gotten to them in life.  It’s the ways we live out those we’ve lost that makes them immortal.  

And yet, my life is worlds different from his.  My attempt to “help” Moroccan youth teaching them English or bringing them glasses isn’t remotely comparable to fighting a war against a common enemy in Nazism.  I work in a youth center; he worked on aircraft on an airfield that is now Mohammed V International Airport.  I travel all across Morocco, meeting and befriending multiple Moroccans in their common language; he was, as best I can tell, confined to the greater-Casablanca area, knew very little Arabic or French, and interacted with very few Moroccans beyond “the shoe-shine boy” he sometimes talked about.

And yet, those differences don’t stop me from thinking frequently about what his life was like here.  Before I came here, saying that my grandfather lived in Morocco wasn’t really something I could make sense of, as it was this distant world I knew nothing about, and to say he was here for nineteen months meant virtually nothing to me.  It was just a meaningless block of time, but living it made it tangible.  When I’ve had great days, I could stop, sit back, and think, “There may have been a war on and all, but I bet he laughed and enjoyed conversation with friends or playing cards or whatever.  I bet he had days when he genuinely enjoyed being here, no matter how awful the circumstances were that brought him this way.”  When I’ve had bad days, I think also, “This wasn’t just some empty block of time in my grandfather’s life, but there were days when he, I’m sure, yearned to be home, to see Kitty [his wife to-be, my grandmother], when sending a letter just wasn’t good enough.  Days when planes wouldn’t fly right, and he just couldn’t seem to fix anything, despite being a mechanic.”

And then there are places here that do the same thing, places that seem to call him up from the grave like a kind ghost sitting nearby with that slight smile of his, an old soul not easily forgotten looking out at some pasture wondering how Moroccan farming differed from the techniques of Americans.  I cannot go to Casablanca without thinking that.  The train ride to the airport cuts south of the Anfa district and runs through stretches of green, grassy fields.  Surrounding the train tracks are slums, mere cardboard boxes of houses with Moroccan youth running and kicking a sorry excuse for a soccer ball about making the best of what you and I would think was the worst.  It’s those fields where I see him the most, standing near some crooked, old olive tree staring at a donkey that’s pulling a makeshift tiller across a field as the Moroccan sun sets toward the Atlantic.  It’s things like that I’m most excited for my pledge brother and his wife, Patrick and Lindsay Drake, to see.  It’s what I’ll be excited to point out to Hope Montgomery on our ride from Casablanca to Rabat when she arrives.

All that aside, and I’ve had to be really careful not to let those ghosts haunt me to the point that I feel like what I’m doing isn’t good enough.  Or that what I’m doing pales in comparison.  I didn’t come here to save the world.  Which is especially funny, because even though my generation may think that of his (that they were “saving the world”), I bet my grandfather probably thought at times, as he was repairing planes, “I didn’t come here to save the world.”  I can just hear him saying that now.

But that’s not what Peace Corps is to me.  I don’t think of it as a mission-oriented organization.  It’s about cultural exchange, and I’ve been doing everything in my power, despite my efforts to bring glasses into this country, to avoid becoming a “do-gooder.”   I don’t know why that bothers me so much.  I just fear the notion of ever assuming that I have something better to offer these people than what they already have.  It’s not that I think I’m not helping people (or that I don’t want to help people); it’s that I don’t think I should define my service in those terms without recognizing that this experience, at the end of the day, will do (has done) more for me and who I am than I could ever hope to offer another human being.  This experience is as much about me and my love for my grandfather as it ever was about Morocco or Moroccans.

So, I hold those two things in constant tension: on the one hand, always questioning whether what I’m doing is “good enough” and, on the other, trying to avoid becoming a “do-gooder.”  It’s like walking a tight-rope, and part of living the legacy of my grandfather is learning how to just balance myself in my own way, where my steps don’t have to be the same ones he took, but as long as I’m taking the steps that are right for me, I’m still living into his calling, as I see it.

So no matter how much I wished and yearned to follow in those footsteps before, I have my own story to tell, too, and I can only follow him so far and in so many ways.  Being a legacy isn’t about becoming someone or even following in their footsteps so much as it’s about just remembering who you are in light of who they were.  Im not Jewell Francis Jones.  I just love him.  And that’s good enough.

Intriguing Find

Leather  nameMy parents came across this the other day on my grandfather’s farm as they were cleaning the place up.  It seems like every few months, something more intriguing about his life in Morocco pops up in his house, and I wish that I could ask him about his life here, about his interaction with Moroccans.

The word “morocco” actually means leather.  In Arabic, the name of the country is actually “Al-Maghrib,” a name I’ve mentioned elsewhere on the blog.  It doesn’t mean “leather.”  It means “the West.”   But the country is certainly known for its leather (e.g. the tanneries in Fes), so it’s no surprise that my grandfather had his name sewed in leather in Arabic while he lived in Casablanca.  I really wonder how far away he got from Dar Baida (the Arabic name of Casablanca, or “the white house).  Did he go to Fes?  There are pictures of him traveling to see some of the countryside on my Flickr.  Oh, the things I’d like to ask or wish I’d known to.

Anyodd, I have no idea what this actually is – part of a wallet or just a nametag, perhaps.  If anyone has guesses, throw them out there.  I’d love to get one made while I’m in country.  I’d put “Fouad” across the bottom.