Family, against all odds

I had a friend in college who once said to me that, though he considered himself an atheist, he wanted so badly to believe there was something, anything out there watching over us with tender love and care. He just couldn’t. I was always struck by this because I felt the exact opposite: whereas he was burdened by his lack of belief, I was always burdened by my faith. I wanted not to believe. The last thing I wanted to accept is that this life is all part of some grand plan, some ornate and elaborate blessing after blessing or curse after curse or some hodgepodge of the two. And while I don’t know whether I was ready to throw it all to coincidence, it just feels to me even now like it might be a little simpler if I were more in control of my fate, if God or the Universe or the Great Whatever wasn’t hovering over, because like most of you, I cringe at the notion of being out of control.

But my friends who know I’m adopted from birth and know that I’d communicated with my New Jersey birth family since returning from Morocco will know that some strong sense of purpose, some path-crossing synchronicity, has complicated all of those doubts and beliefs of mine over these past few years. Unbeknownst to me, it was finding out my birth father had worked in the church – just as I had. And it was finding out just after returning from two years of living in Morocco (a place Peace Corps had sent me some seventy years after my grandfather had lived and worked there in the War) that in fact, I was tied to Morocco in another way, since my biological father had traveled there and to Southern Spain around the time of my birth. Of all the places on the planet to be tied to my New Jersey biological family and to my Tennessee adoptive one, it seemed so strange that Morocco would be it.

Sometimes, when you get this kind of news, it seems so unbelievable that it feels like it came out of a movie. People call it “stranger than fiction,” and it is. I worry it’s so strange that it inflates my ego and gives me the false notion that I’m in some sort of Truman Show scenario. Would someone please tell Ed Harris to stop already? There is even a part of me that hears it, knows it to be true, and yet cannot fully accept it, because to do so makes me feel sometimes as though I’ve either fabricated these events in my head and am a pathological liar, or even if it is true, why entertain it because no one else would ever believe it anyway? If there’s anything I’ve learned these past few years, it’s that truth is almost always the scarier reality. But sometimes the more beautiful one despite the silly things we fear.

On Christmas day, I left a little sentimental gift for my girlfriend’s adopted brother, Zech. It was a children’s book I loved that was mostly drawings by John Lennon, and I’d penned a little note on the inside saying that I’d always felt a kindred spirit with this Beatle who’s mother had died when he was young and whose father had disappeared. You gravitate a little to the people who share and understand your story, even if theirs is slightly different, and in the past few months, I’ve gravitated more to Zech and really come to think of him as a brother of sorts.

Truthfully, even though I’d known her family for years, I didn’t even really know Mattie had an adopted brother until we started talking just before I moved to New York. I’d only really known Mattie as someone with roots in Tennessee and had been close with her aunt for years since Mattie and I had both “grown up” at the same camp where her aunt worked, Lakeshore. A few months ago, we discovered that Mattie’s mom, too, in attending Lambuth University in my hometown, had known my grandmother who worked for the Dean. Small towns are small towns, so no major surprises there, and the Methodist community is not a terribly large one. But it was still one of those nice human connections that we made, one of those moments when you discover you have a shared history in some way or another, and that’s always a little affirming.

When I left Shelter Island almost exactly a year ago as I write this, Mattie’s family was a refuge to me as I job-searched New York City and New Jersey. They took me in and treated me as family. It seemed fitting that I’d end up somehow in New Jersey since my roots were on the Jersey side of Philadelphia. And when Zech moved home, it felt like just one more member of the family was showing up.

So, on New Year’s Eve when Zech and I were talking about our Irish ancestry, he mentioned his birth name, and I jokingly asked how he spelled it since it sounded similar to my own. When it was the same, I asked again, “Wait, I’m a Johnston; aren’t you from outside of Philadelphia?” We both started naming areas: Cherry Hill, Mt. Laurel. I mentioned my birth father’s name, and Zech mentioned his grandfather’s name, and that his grandfather had died three weeks ago, and he pulled out a picture of my birth father, his grandfather. My girlfriend’s adopted brother is my biological nephew. His mother is my biological half-sister.

Like I said, stranger than fiction. I want to write Nate Silver, the famous statistician, and ask how that’s statistically possible that a girl I met in Tennessee happened to have someone adopted into her family who was my biological kin in New Jersey. When we sat down with the family to tell everyone else what we’d discovered, Zech joked that I will be more related to his child than anyone else in the family once the kid is born. These days bring a quiet reflective awe, an awe at the power of fate or coincidence, whichever it is.

And so, indeed, back to that whole conversation about coincidence and fate. What am I to say? The facts are in front of me. They are either the craziest coincidence ever or there’s some force pushing us toward a certain reality. Or maybe that’s too limiting a view? Maybe this happenstance and others like it are far more common than we realize or might choose to believe. If you told me that my grandfather had crossed paths with a Moroccan who knew my biological father fifty years later and who also met me when I lived in Morocco, I just don’t think I’d be surprised at all anymore. In fact, knowing how small Morocco can be, I half-expect that was the case. And not because fate wills it that way or because coincidence rules the day with its own sense of destiny or lack thereof but because we, dear humans, are so much more connected than we too often choose to realize. Redneck jokes and “I’m my own Grandpa” music aside, we cannot deny the interconnectedness we all share – sometimes an interconnectedness we may know nothing about. What if this revelation had never come my way? In a way, it changes nothing, because I’d already decided to love Zech as family. Nor does this revelation take away from the daily decisions I’ll make down the road. I am not bound to Zech now anymore than I was before. Because unless I am bound by love, all other sense of duty and obligation is vapid and meaningless. Who we make our family is as much a matter of our choice as it is a matter of blood, and that has far-reaching implications for the world we now face, a world where we seem so divided by our choices to be distant, by our perceived sense of kinship: “you who are not my kin because you think differently or look differently.” I’ve played into that narrative too frequently myself, and maybe sometimes, we do distance ourselves from the ‘family’ because doing so becomes temporarily necessary for our safety and sanity, but how should I act if the family is much bigger than I was prepared to admit before? How should I act if the family is, yes, blood, but is also bigger than blood and, indeed, global? To that friend in college who struggled to believe, I think our sense of the divine, then, is rooted not in belief but in active, faithful choices of love. Whether there’s a God overseeing that or not is less important as whether you chose to love as big and bigger than you might have intended when you started on this little journey we all share. And anything we might call God that lacks that faithful action really isn’t a god I’d like to believe in anyway. However I construe it, I do see something sacred and whole in the choices behind me and in the choices ahead.

In the meantime, you can just think of me as your crazy Uncle Phil. Whether by blood or by choice, there’s a good chance we’re related anyway.

St. Simons and Seashells by the Seashore

On the coast of St. Simons Island in the Golden Isles of southern Georgia, you’ll find Spanish moss dangling off the branches of the old oak trees, dolphins and manatees gliding about in the waters as the sun rises, and a rich history tied to John and Charles Wesley, two brothers who both spent time on the island at nearby Fort Frederica. There they camped and worked as ministers before their involvement with the Methodism movement really took off, and that’s where I got to
spend my week last week “camping” with a national gathering of camp and retreat leaders as part of the United Methodist Church.

St. SimonsI can’t say enough for how beautiful the island is and probably always has been; the way the sunrise peaked through the Spanish moss and graced a nearby chapel was captivating indeed. And a few days were warm enough outside for a picnic or a nice stroll by the water. To waltz around on the island was a reminder to me of how much I crave knowing a place. Like my grandfather’s farm or my little house in the olive orchard of Morocco – I savor what a place is from its history to how I experience and come to love it. I fear a day where there are no longer places we can do this, sacred places apart where we can step out and still see our natural world. So, when I do get a chance to grasp hold of something removed from our fast-paced, technology-driven, world of false connections, I find that important. And there by the waters of St. Simons, a few deep breaths went a long way to rejuvenate me and make me feel, well, human again.

Don’t get me wrong, I love a good grassy field or a mountain here or there, but at the end of the day, I think I’m drawn mostly to water. It’s rhythmic, eternal, powerful. One of the speakers at the conference asked us whether we wanted to be a swamp or a river: dead still or moving forward, and I spent much of my week thinking about that metaphor – about the different kinds of waters I’ve swam in or swallowed up or sat and stared at for hours. An island is a good place to be if you’re thinking at all about the power water can have to transform a place or a person. There’s a reason John the Baptist washed cleaned repentant people in the Jordan. It’s a little like that Carnival Commercial that was played during the Super Bowl where JFK speaks about the calling of water and the way we’re called to the sea; after all, we are made up of the same concentration of salt water:

But maybe what struck me the most was what can come from that mighty force with its current and creatures swimming about just feet below the choppy surface. A great sea can leave many gifts in its wake. When I was a kid, I spent nearly every summer with Mom and Dad walking the beaches of Fort Walton hunting for seashells. Then, we’d collect several of them, bring them home, wash them up, and put them in a jar like the spoils of a great treasure hunt. I was reminded of that at St. Simons this week when I saw cases of conch shells, sand dollars, and starfish – all sizes, shapes, and colors. Why is it, it seems then, that the greatest shells were found a generation or two ago? I don’t remember the last time I was able to find a sand dollar; I feel like the largest conch shells I’ve ever seen – the ones where you can hear the ocean if you hold it up to your ear – seem to be missing from the many trips I’ve taken since I was a kid. My grandmother left a whole case of them behind fragile glass as if to peer in and wonder what universe they’d come from while the shells I’ve found scouring the beaches since then were mere remnants of another time, just a few broken pieces away from being sand.

Fort Fred

I think we sometimes do the wrong thing with the little gifts that wash our way. We ooo and aaah over them and then encase them behind glass, as the world is depleted of its natural treasure. We store them away like they belong in a museum. I’m half-tempted, though, to grab a jar of shells and dump them back into the ocean where they belong. I’m not sure if that metaphor really makes sense or if I even want to explain it rather than just letting it be whatever it is, but I’ll say this much: in my own life with the many gifts I know I’ve been graced, I’m not sure I’ve always used those gifts in the right ways or in the right place. I think I’ve sometimes oooed and aahed at them or wanted to put them behind glass to admire them without actually letting them be what they were really meant for. And that leaves the beach barren, cold, full of remnants. At St. Simons this past week, I think I finally got a sense of what I might need to do with all those seashells. I think I heard my calling back to the sea. And that’s something I would hope we were all able to find.

To Cherish What’s Old

I like old things. Sometimes I like to think maybe it’s because I inherited all my grandfather’s old war stuff, but the truth is, I’ve always loved what’s old: an antique store with everything under the sun in it or the smell of old paper bound to a book of poetry or walking around in a cavernous, quiet museum surrounded mostly by the sounds of footsteps and slow breathing that echo off the emptiness.

I’ve made an effort lately to frequent my grandfather’s farm and rekindle that love of what’s old. While I’m there, I like to think I take “Pop” on a little in the farmer’s stride I inherit when I saunter around his place in Chester County, Tennessee – one hundred fifty-seven acres of pristine field and forest sandwiching Turkey Creek. The farm is one of the most sacred places on earth to me. I write about it frequently. I even wrote a novel set there. It’s been in the family for over a hundred years, and no matter how many hours I walk around exploring, I almost always find something new in the midst of all the old. I think that’s what I love the most about “old things”: they give us a chance to confront our lives and recall that those who came before us once faced the struggles we do and overcame them despite the odds – golden years refined by the tests of flames.

There are three barns on the farm that used to house chickens and horses and tractors and old milk crates, and nowadays they’re mostly in ruin filled with remnants of the past – rusted metal thingamajigs and corn husks, really. Beside a logging trail that runs by the first and second barn is a ravine covered in leaves from winters past, and underneath the leaves is an old garbage dump where my grandfather regularly threw out the family trash. This week, I decided to rummage through the old garbage dump kicking around old leather shoes that took my grandfather, I imagine, many miles by foot, Coke cans from what had to be days when Coke had just started using aluminum, and an old glass ketchup bottle that was begging to be made into a candle holder. Digging through all the junk, now treasure, I had flashbacks to my time in Israel rummaging through some four thousand-year old “trash” on an archaeological excavation back in 2008. I couldn’t shake the feeling that my grandfather’s trash told some great story of American culture and history. I couldn’t shake the feeling that my own trash, my own junk, were I to toss it out, might one day do the same.

Ketchup Bottle

The people of our past have given us their trash and their treasure. We’ve been handed the very difficult task of distinguishing between what’s worth cataloging, worth cherishing, and what belongs back in the heap of nonsensical junk we may as well forget, forgive, or toss aside. When and if we honestly try to be people of faith or hold dear a sense of spiritual self, I think a lot of what we’re really doing is the hard work of excavating our pasts and determining what of that story must be told. In that journey, a lot of the trash that we often want to throw away is actually treasure we’ve got to learn how to carry proudly into the present. That’s no small task. It’s one that I suspect takes a lifetime to get right, and then – maybe – when we’re dead and gone, somebody else comes along, picks up our story and starts to ask the same questions of themselves we once faced.

Or, at least, that’s what I really like about old things – that they connect us to a thousand lives before and a thousand lives to come.

More than Just a Song, Part Two

This should be obvious, and it’s been pointed out recently, but a little over a hundred years ago, if you wanted to hear music, you went to the symphony. You might have heard one great piece once and then never heard it again. Contrast that with today. We carry our own personalized symphony in our pockets. A song that could be heard only once in 1880 can now go with us no matter where we go. Technology has enabled us to make music an everyday part of the human experience. More than that, music is something that connects us. How many times as a teenager did you seek out someone with “similar music preferences” as a friend or romantic companion? Did you ever dance with someone to “our song”? Did you ever have a song that got you through a breakup?

The emotional drama of music pulls something out of us that we may not be able to speak or word. But we’re able to hear it in the sounds shared by others. We can play it so many times through our headphones that we bore ourselves with it, tire ourselves of it. That’s pretty fascinating, you know, that we can essentially carve a song into our lives.

And so, as we live those lives, our musical tastes and preferences change with us. What we listened to in high school is something that can hear to conjure up nostalgia – throw us back to a specific place or a specific time. I can’t listen to REM’s “Night Swimming” and not think about working as a camp director where I would lifeguard at night always playing that song for my camp. I can’t hear “Christmas in the Room” and not think about the year I fell in love with Christmas spending a cold, snowy few days in the heart of America with the first girl I really loved. That’s what music is about to me. It does more than just provide background noise to our lives; it tells our history. I could catalog my life in song.  And in a way that’s what these last two blogs have been about.

And yet, I couldn’t even really begin to do that. In Part One of this post, I set out to highlight some of the really meaningful songs of my life, but as I started to do it, I realized that list was too long. There’s just too much music that has spoken to and moved me to the core of who I am.

But I figured to close this blog out, Id pick three songs that have deeply affected me in the last few years – a song that had a hand in propelling me to Morocco, a song that, in so many ways defined my experience in Morocco, and a song for where I am now. The first is a song I obsessed over in the wake of my grandfather’s death. The second is a song that defined life living in a desert. And the final documents what the last few months of the job search have been to me. Of course, if you’d like to hear all the music from both blogs, here is a link to that, too.

So, here ya go. I hope some of this music will touch you as much as it has me:

 

Ten Ways the Peace Corps Changed Me, or Another Top Ten List of Sorts

It would probably be better to title this, “The Ten Ways I’ve Changed in the Last Two Years,” because I doubt that it’s fair to say what role Peace Corps did or didn’t have in the ways my life has drastically shifted.  But those changes took place here, in Morocco, within the context of hearing the call-to-prayer five times a day being constantly reminded by what I eat or how I speak or what I see that this isn’t America.  So while some of these changes were the result of outside forces, they were only understood within this very specific context.  I’ll try to speak to that a little.

Anyhow.

Why a top ten list on the ways I’ve changed, you might ask?  Maybe it’s just that I’ve changed that much.  Or maybe it’s just my need to reflect on the impact of this experience.  Every once in a while during my service, I’d come across a volunteer who would say something to the effect of, “Oh, well, this isn’t really your life; I mean, this is just two years; it’s so temporary, so it’s not who you really are.”  I disagree wholeheartedly.  The fact that there was a time-limit on this experience didn’t negate the impact of the experience.  Morocco will go with me wherever I go for the rest of my life.  I’ll carry it with me secretly at times.  Other times, I’ll share stories out loud, to the annoyance of everyone in the room.  But the experience is mine, and it’s carved the direction my life seems to be taking these days.  All the more reason I need to understand it the best I can.

Finally, a word about the words below.  It’s a top-ten list, so it’s kind of like a countdown, but I wouldn’t say any of these changes outweigh the others (except maybe the last few).  They all sort of flow together instead, which brings me to my next point:  I don’t mean to imply that you’re going to see me back in America and suddenly be like, “Wow, Philip’s changed so much.”  Most of these changes are related to the way I reflect on life and understand it.  So, it’s all interpersonal brooding.  In fact, I’d be willing to bet a ten-minute conversation with me would have you saying, “Geesh, Philip Eubanks hasn’t changed at all.”  My sometimes sardonic wit still shines.  I’m still very much socially awkward, and if anything, now I’m both socially awkward and lacking any hygienic sensibilities.  But I think the people who spend real time with me will see something different (not just smell it).  And I don’t know what that looks like exactly or just how different it will be or feel once I’m through the reverse culture shock that is quickly approaching.  But I think the people who really get to know me, if they knew me before, will see that I’ve changed, and that it’s been a good change.

But enough on all that.  Without further ado, here’s just a few ways I currently feel different.

10. I’m a cook.  I love cooking.  And I’m not too bad at it, either.  Peace Corps gives you all kinds of time on your hands, and very few processed foods.  I suppose if I had wanted to, I could’ve spent two years jumping from house to house eating with Moroccan families, and in fact, I think most families would’ve absolutely loved having me over that often.  But with all that time and all the vegetables you have to figure out how to manage from scratch, it’s inevitable that you’ll learn how to cook.  So, I’ve got a few favorite recipes.  I love doing soups, especially a tomato soup, and I usually mix in carrots.  I’ve gotten incredibly good at whipping up a French roux, or making curry dishes.  Then, of course, there’s always “Outat Tacos” or ravioli with the pasta and the cheese and the sauce all from scratch (this one takes a while).  And Avery, before he left, got me into making lentils on a regular basis, and I’m tellin’ you, I can cook up a mean set of lentils like nobody’s business.  So, yeah, there’s something kind of awesome about picking up cooking skills in two years.  You could say that the Peace Corps Recipe Guide might be the single-most important document I will bring home to America aside from my passport.  No joke.  But sadly, I won’t be returning with the knowledge on how to cook many Moroccan foods.  I mean, most of them, I could easily figure out, especially with the recipe book, but it’s just hard getting an in with a Moroccan woman who is comfortable letting a boy hang out in the kitchen.  I might try to finagle my way into the kitchen at my landlord’s house.  We’ll see.

The one Moroccan dish I did learn how to cook (and even helped to cook with a friend named Abdelcreme) was the tajine.  I uploaded this video a while back, but here it is again if you’d like to know how to cook a tajine:

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9. No fear of failure. Peace Corps is really a lesson in failure.  I mean, you have all these twenty-somethings show up right out of college gung-ho about changing the world, and then they get into the thick of it and realize, “Oh, I don’t have the language to navigate this country’s insane bureaucracy, so I guess I’ll just stay in my house and read books.”  I don’t mean that to be a critical statement against volunteers who give up and do that.  The bureaucracy almost killed me on more than one occasion, so I have complete respect for anyone who tries even once to battle this ministry or that just to do one ounce of good in their community.  I also don’t mean to suggest that Peace Corps is just some joke of an organization.  To the contrary, I think in my two years, I saw a lot of volunteers doing a lot of good things, and despite all my efforts not to become one of the technical assistance do-gooders, I guess I had a bit of an impact myself.  But it wasn’t an impact without its obstacles.  I can’t name you the number of hours that all I did was sit and wait for someone’s stamp just so I could hand out glasses.  I can’t name you the number of times I was told “inchallah” when it meant “no.”

You know, we came here not to just do what we wanted to do but to help our community do what it wanted.  That was part of why it  became so frustrating at times when you had people voicing, “We want this,” or, “We want that,” but there was always one official or another in the way of making it happen.  And usually, that official gave you some menial task sending you out of his office, only to be shocked later when you showed back up in his office with, “Okay, I did what you asked; what’s next?”  And sometimes, no matter what you did, it was still met with a “no” in the end.

I feel a little like I’ve been rejected and told “inchallah” and “no” so many times that they’re just the norm.  Life here wouldn’t be right if I wasn’t having to jump through those hoops.  And all the failure made the few successes we had all the more exciting.  So, yeah – I’m not afraid of getting turned down anymore.  It just means I get to try a different angle.  It’s like approaching life through the goggles of a mad scientist.  Everything you do is “trial-and-error” with the hope of perfecting the trial.  You come to expect your experiments will go wrong with a kind of curiosity that asks, “I wonder how big the explosion will be this time,” and when you do stumble upon an amazing scientific discovery, you realize the best ones happened by accident.  That, my friends, is working with Peace Corps in the developing world… in a nutshell.

8. A patience with sadness rather than a rush to anger.  Along with failures comes patience.  If you don’t learn patience in the Peace Corps, you’re doing it wrong.  It doesn’t matter whether you’re on hour five of sitting in a room during a baby-naming ceremony (isboura) doing absolutely nothing; it doesn’t matter if it’s hour three of sitting on a sidewalk curve waiting for a taxi to fill.  Life moves little-by-little, and you will learn patience, even if you thought you were already the most patient person in the world.  You’ll have it all tested over again here.

I think when I showed up two years ago, I had already undergone this shift toward recognizing that I had some serious anger issues.  Maybe it was that one email I fired off to a former boss comparing their new hire with Hitler (that one came back to haunt me for a while).  Whatever it was, I had a knack at opening my mouth and saying really cutting things and immediately regretting it.

That patience I mentioned, though, has slowed my anger significantly.  Sure, like anyone, I still get angry, but I’m quick to warn people ahead of time, and I’m quick to apologize afterward.  I’m also less likely to fire off an angry email or explode in your face unless I earnestly feel I’ve been wronged.  I think for far too long, I carried around this mentality that made me think of myself as some sort of modern-day prophet telling too many folks why they were wrong.  Such is the nature of an opinionated person, I suppose, but – and maybe this has more to do with getting older and, well, giving up – nowadays, I just sort of shrug my shoulders, recognize that I ain’t gonna change the system, and then I huff-and-puff and resign with a sense of sadness.

And I think that’s actually a good thing, you know, being sad instead of being angry.  There’s more humility in it.  It leaves open a door that recognizes how wrong I could be, even if I don’t feel wrong.  So, maybe what’s changed in me isn’t so much my temper but my willingness to try to look at every situation from the standpoint of as many perspectives as possible.  And that breeds a humility that holds my temper at bay, too.

7. How I understand Relationships.  I used to say – and I think this is true still – that college and graduate school is a really selfish time in our lives.  I mean, you go to school specifically to better yourself.  You major in something specific to what you want to do for how much money you want to make.  You’re learning to be independent for the first time, which requires a lot of you-time.  It’s a time for dreaming and following your dreams, and that doesn’t always leave open lots of doors for sustainable relationships, and I’m sort of talking here about the so-called “significant other,” but I think that statement is somewhat true for friendships and family, too.

I started to feel during my Peace Corps service a little like all my friends had chosen this settled down lifestyle, watching all of them get married or have children or get into serious relationships, and meanwhile, I was off gallivanting across the Moroccan desert doing my own thing with little time for anyone but myself.  None of my relationships, even friendships on some level, seemed lasting, largely because I was focused on following dreams and traveling and not on, well, people other than myself.

That’s not to say that I would’ve been less selfish had I married and settled down.  I sometimes wonder how many people have kids just so they can live vicariously through their own little mini-me they created just for the purpose of some giant show-and-tell.  Anything can be selfish.

But I can’t say I want to stop living this life of always being on the go with few commitments. Let’s face it, I’m a bit of a nomad, even if that is selfish.  I think what I am trying to figure out these days is how to have my cake and eat it too – how to follow my dreams and travel and whatever else while remaining mindful of how selfish that is and trying to find a place that says, “Let’s not be quite so selfish this time.”

I used to either want all the doors open or all the doors closed on relationships of any kind.  Nowadays, it’s as if I’m not really closing or opening any doors.  I’m just walking.  I just want to take a walk.

I’m a-okay if that metaphor makes absolutely no sense.

6. A stronger sense of Impermanence.  Along with that thinking, I’ve sort of stepped into this fully Buddhist notion of impermanence.  I no longer have any expectations that any relationship of any kind can be lasting.  People die.  People change.  People hurt each other.  Even our notions of God over the past few millennia paint a rather impermanent picture.  If the sacred is lasting, we’re incapable of capturing any immutable understanding of whatever is divine.  We cannot place our hopes that anything lasts, and you might think that sounds sad, but I’ve come to think of it as very freeing.  Rather than looking hard to find or make something permanent out of this life, we can more simply carry a gratitude for the fleeting moments we do have with the people who shortly grace our lives.

That is, I don’t mean for that sense of impermanence to carry with it the kind of fatalism that I encounter here all the time, and I think that’s an important distinction, because I think the fatalism of Islam certainly informed my thinking on all the ways life isn’t very lasting.  There’s just something about getting into a taxi with no seat-belts, driving 140 kilometers per hour through a sandstorm with zero visibility and trusting that God will either keep you alive (or God won’t), and either way, it’ll be just fine.  There were times when I sort of took that attitude on and figured, “Well, if I die in this country, so be it.”

But I don’t think impermanence, at least not in the Buddhist sense of the word, should evoke that kind of fatalism.  Living carpe diem cannot mean living destructive lives.  To the contrary, our willingness to recognize the preciousness of life should give us pause and help us grow thankful for the time we get.  It should demand we move with care and ease through every walk of life.  Or, to restate that, you don’t seize the day so there’s no tomorrow.  You seize the day so when tomorrow comes, you can be proud of what passed the day before.  It’s like when Gandalf tells Frodo, “All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given to us.  There are other forces at work in this world Frodo, besides the will of evil.”  Impermanence is something we can trust.  It is a kind of permanent state itself.

5. The Maghrebi in Me.  I’ll never be Moroccan, but some part of me will always carry Morocco in my heart.  I hate how cliché that sounds, but it’s true.  During our Close-of-Service (COS) Conference last week, I read over an aspiration statement I’d written two years ago filled with goals I’d set for myself, and the very first thing I said was that I wanted to build a kind of kinship with this country.  I think I have.  I think I’ll go home to America and my heart will still be with my brothers and sisters in Morocco.  I’ll ache for this Kingdom for a long time.  I’ll miss its language and it’s food.  I’ve got two blogs coming up all about that in the next few weeks, so I’ll just leave this one nice and short.  Next.

4. The truth about legacies and our need to carve our own path. When I sat out on this journey, it was very much – and still is – about my grandfather, Jewell Francis, who lived in Casablanca for nineteen months during World War II.  I admired him and wanted to follow in his footsteps, but somewhere along the way, I figured out that you have to carve your own path.  We can’t just mimic the exact same moves of those who came before us.  We inevitably find our own way.  It’s as if I was thinking of a legacy as a kind of inherited obligation to live like the people you admire.  But the problem with that is that we do a disservice to the people we admire when we make them out to be something they weren’t in our admiration for them.  I think I adored my grandfather so much that I was remembering the idea of him and not the actual person.  I mean, by the way I used to talk about him on the blog, you would’ve thought he was some All-American G.I. Joe movie star riding a camel with a cigar in his mouth or something… I dunno… maybe that’s a bit much.  But the point is, he was human.  He made mistakes.  He carried huge regrets with him throughout his life for some of those mistakes.  There were times in my service where I got disappointed in myself specifically because I thought he would’ve been disappointed in me, as if he would’ve been let down by how I’d handled this or that situation, but I think I was holding him on a pedestal and trying to live up to some impossible standard when I did that.  In hindsight, he would probably be eager to hear my stories about Morocco, would probably listen intently with an occasional nervous laugh, and he would be deeply, deeply embarrassed to know how much I admired him and how much I wanted to follow in his footsteps.  And he would be proud.  No matter what.  Because that’s what grandfathers do, and he was especially good at that.

At one point, I had thought that I would join the military as a Chaplain after Peace Corps.  It was one more way to follow in his footsteps.  But somewhere in my service, I realized that I needed to make my own path, and while I think I could handle the toils of boot camp (I know who you are, doubters), let’s face it, that’s not who I am.  It’s not the path I need to take, and I can still admire my grandfather and “live a legacy” without having to follow some strict path based on my assumptions of a man so complex I couldn’t have begun to understand why he did all the things he himself did.  Maybe he, too, had moments where he was trying to follow his own legacies.  Hard to say.

3. Religion.  I’m a theist.  I’ll always be a theist.  I think it’s absolutely essential that we concern ourselves with questions that are connected to what’s sacred – “the intuition of the universe,” as Schleiermacher called it.  But what I regard as sacred has expanded in some ways and contracted in others.  Since coming here, for example, I left the United Methodist Church, because I felt the way I saw that Church treating the people I loved was completely opposite to its mission, and I’ll just say rather bluntly that I do have an absolute disdain for much of modern Christianity, if not all of organized religion.  I can hear you younger folks snickering to yourself, “Oh look, Philip is just like everyone else in his generation.”  Maybe.  But I’d like to think that I held out a little longer and tried to fight the good fight, the fight worth fighting until I just reached this point where I had to separate myself from it.  It doesn’t mean I don’t still regard it with respect or even love.  It doesn’t mean I’ll never go back.  But somewhere in there, I got tired of watching hurt people hurt people.  I got tired of being one of them.  Of course, I know removing myself from what the average Joe calls “Church” doesn’t remove me from what I believe is “Church.”  It sickens me, in fact – and always will – how many other people out there got to hijack the definition of Christianity.  Contrary to that, I know that hate and bigotry and manipulation are just as bad and just as prevalent in all institutions, not just the Church.  I know that, despite its hypocrisy, most religion exists for the sole purpose of welcoming hypocrites and giving them a place they can dwell on something more positive than their brokenness.  I know that there is good happening in the Church, because so many people I do care about are involved in making it happen.  But I just need my time, need my space.

Maybe that’s weird to say when I haven’t really been involved in Christianity in over two years, but religion has been at the forefront of this experience.  It’s been even more a part of my life here than it was at home, and while Islam is quite different from Christianity, you’d be surprised how similar the two felt at times.  Whether it was watching Mohamed tell stories about Adam and Eve, or having some seven-year old girl warn you that your prophet is a liar and that you’re going to burn, we’ve sure done a good job the whole world over focusing religion on the exact opposite of what its prophets – liars or not – intended.  I think it would be nice, in a way, to go about living life a little like the prophets intended without getting together with other people once a week to have them judge whether or not you’ve lived up to the standards or ideals they had nothing to do with creating, the standards and ideals they still rarely consider on any deep, moral level.  If I ever am a part of some form of organized religion again, it will be a place that breeds humility in a way that questions are welcome and even expected.  Faith will need to be something engaged, not merely some black-and-white rule book and not merely some social setting where people fight each other for power over the kind of music or the color of the friggin’ carpet.

I don’t think I’ve lost something, though, by setting myself apart from the UMC.  I think I’ve gained more than I ever had before in being even more open to acknowledge the sacred in every aspect of human life.  I hope – and pray – that I can remain committed to fighting that fight, one that hopes for a day when all our petty differences are set aside for something better.

2. My Calling as a Writer.  When I gave up on Chaplaincy (and a little later on Ph.D. programs in Religion), I really had to sit down and figure out what it was I wanted to do – at least for now.  Come this fall, I’ll be applying to MFA programs in Creative Writing.  The MFA is a terminal degree, so I could use it the same way I would a Ph.D. (i.e. to teach in the university) without all the ridiculous “dissertating” my poor (literally, they are broke) Ph.D. friends are always doing.  More importantly, it gives me a chance to accomplish another personal dream of mine that’s growing into a calling almost – to publish fiction.  Now, I don’t know if I can pull any of this off, but I know I’d like to try, and while publishing a book that actually sells would be exciting, I don’t think of it as sustainable.  That’s why the MFA gives me an opportunity to do something else I regard as a “dream,” which is to teach abroad.  Get me into Al-Akhawayan University as a professor.  Or any American-run university.  I would eat that up.  And I’d be great at it.

So, what changed?  After all, I’ve always liked writing.  Well, basically, Peace Corps gave me the time to write for the first time ever, and last Ramadan I wrote a 55,000 word novel, and this Ramadan, I made it halfway through a second one.  Somewhere in the process of actually finding time to plan out a book, I discovered that it wasn’t just an enjoyable pastime; it was something I needed to do.  In fact, I don’t even always enjoy the process of writing each chapter, largely because I’m too eager to get to the next chapter, and it’s just this incredibly burdensome process, but it’s this insatiable desire to get all of my thoughts onto the screen.  And I’m not happy with myself until it’s done… and done right.

But it’s not as simple as just doing it and doing it right.  There are problems.  I’m a writer, so naturally, I don’t really think I’m a very good writer.  In fact, I’m pretty concerned I’m not good enough to get into any programs.  Case in point, for those of you who have read this far, props to you for battling through my dangling modifiers and my wordiness for, let’s see, we’re up to 4077 words now – wow, you made it this far reading what I’ve written; pat yourself on the back!  Was that last mumbo-jumbo even a sentence?!  Seriously, though, I know I can throw together a few verbs with some nouns every so often (maybe even with an occasional adjective), but then I read John Steinbeck or listen to David Sedaris and, my God, I’m a terrible, wordy writer.

But, maybe an MFA program can help me with that.  Maybe some of it isn’t just talent but skills we can actually learn.  Time will tell.

1. Origins.  Eight years ago, I was studying abroad in Scotland, and every Scotsman I met always asked one or two questions into our first conversation, “So, where ya from?”  And every time I answered “Tennessee” or “America,” I was always met with the same response, “No, no – where are you originally from?  Where does your family hail from?”  As an adoptee, I didn’t have an answer to that question.  And that semester was spent piling on question after question about my beginnings and where I came from and how I ended up there.  I searched and searched to understand “home” and family.  While I was in Liverpool, I remember walking upon Strawberry Field, an orphanage John Lennon wrote about in his famous song.  I felt deeply connected to that place.  Later that semester, I remember that Garden State came out, and there was a scene in the movie that really clicked with me:

“Maybe that’s all family really is,” Andrew Largemann says, “A group of people who miss the same imaginary place.”   I loved that image.  I latched onto it, and the next few years were spent thinking of family in terms similar to that.   By the time I was at Vanderbilt, I was writing about family and kinship in nearly every class.  I spent my time as a youth director reminding my youth group that we were a “family.”  And even when I was writing my aspiration statement for Morocco, I was still writing about kinship.

Morocco has gave me an answer to those questions about family, an answer that I already knew, but it solidified it for me.  I’m a Eubanks.  I grew up with Gordon and Frances and Beth and Beau and later Gibson and Abner.  My home is Jackson, and I’m an American.  And that answer always was good enough.

So, there you have it.  Ten ways I’m different.  Ten ways I think differently about who I am or who I was.  More to come next week.

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.

Remembering.

A year ago today, my grandfather died.  A year ago, everything sort of set in motion, and if you’d told me then that I’d be here, in Morocco, where my grandfather lived for nineteen months, well, I wouldn’t have believed that.  But as it were, next Tuesday, I will have lived in this country for six months straight.  That’s insane when you think about it.  How quickly the time is flying.

Anyway, I posted the song above, because the day my grandfather died, I played it over and over again and again.  I also played it a lot for my sister when we were driving to the funeral.  It doesn’t really have a lot to do with funerals or have some significant message.  It’s just one of those things, when a song seems to define a moment in time for your life.  And it’s a song I deeply cherish, so if you’ve never heard it, I hope you love it.

That’s all.  Safi.