The Little We Know that Keeps us from Empathy

Earlier today, my Mom told me a story about my grandfather from when she was in college. Over the course of several months, he began to grow increasingly paranoid for the family’s safety and eventually began to hear voices in his head. That lead my grandmother to intervene when she feared his unfounded paranoia was getting out-of-control. Probably one of the hardest things she ever had to do was sit at the kitchen sink washing the dishes while she watched the local sheriff confront my grandfather in the garden to take him to the mental hospital. He stayed angry with her for a long time over that one.

Somehow, I never knew that story. The grandfather I knew and loved was perfectly healthy, and dozens of years had passed since he’d overcome that difficult time in his life. Of course, I knew he’d been in the war and struggled with that on a psychological level. I knew some of his co-workers were, as I understood it, downright mean and conniving. But we like to keep so much of our past secret. We only share the good stuff, especially with the grandchildren.

It’s not surprising, really. Mental illness still has this big stigma surrounding it that it really shouldn’t have anymore, and I think the reason it should lose that stigma is because I don’t know anybody – literally anybody – who I couldn’t classify as mentally ill at some point in his or her life. Seriously, hand me a copy of the DSM and give me some time to get to know you, and I guarantee you I could use a little armchair psychology and diagnose you with multiple illnesses you have or had at some point in the last few years.

When I left for Morocco, I did so following in the footsteps of that same man, my grandfather, a man who had served in World War II in Casablanca, and I took really seriously that I was living out this legacy of someone I so deeply admired. By the time my service had ended, I felt like I had placed him on a pedestal. I wasn’t following in my grandfather’s footsteps anymore; I was following in the footsteps of an ideal I’d fabricated – a person who had never really existed. There were times in my service where I felt like I had failed my grandfather, days when I didn’t feel like I was able to live up to the man I believed he was, but when the end of my service rolled around, and I looked back on it and gave it some thought, I finally realized that there was more to the man than the ideal I’d made him into. I wrote at the time,

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.

By the time you’re old enough to be able to dissect and analyze your world in any meaningful or mature manner, your grandparents have already lived to be at least sixty-five, probably older. That means that you’ve known them for only a fraction of their life. To us, they become “Grandmother and Pop,” or whatever other epithets we have for them. Those titles are so momentous and so limiting to who they are in reality. I remember thinking when I hit my 19th month in Morocco, the same amount of time that my grandfather had lived there, that 19 months is a really long time. In that short span of time, I was sure he had seen and done so much, just as I had, but by the time I heard his stories about the place, they were short, five-minute stories.

One of the things our parents and grandparents and ancestors pass on to us are just that – short five-minute stories. Little quips about their life, about some of their most monumental or perhaps even their silliest moments. And yet, embedded in those five-minute stories are months and months of other stories or of every day mindless banter. Of struggles and laughter and tears. And those come out of just the stories we know. There’s a thousand others kept from us, locked away forever, perhaps.

I guess I’m coming to a place where I feel it’s extremely important, even crucial, to unlock those stories when and if we’re given the chance. Hearing the story about my grandfather’s struggle with mental illness didn’t make me ashamed of him. It made him more real to me. It made me like him more. It made me be able to identify with him, because he was no longer perfect the way I’d kept him in my head. That’s forgiveness to me – learning to see another person and all their faults not as faults of their character but as complex struggles that are bigger than them, bigger than us all. And then finding empathy in that struggle.

Mom closed her story by telling me that she went to visit my grandfather in the mental institution, and one of the first things he said to her was, “You can go back to college and tell your friends your daddy is a crazy fool.” Tearing up, she gave the biggest smile she could and responded, “I’ll tell them I’m proud of my Daddy.”

You can only find that kind of love when you’re willing to look beyond the epithets and labels and five-minute stories and let people be the complex, struggling human beings that they are.

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.

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.

Because “Nothing Succeeds as Planned”

So, I’m sitting on a train with Caity, Avery, and Nicole making our way to Rabat, the capital of Morocco, for a training on how to educate people on healthy lifestyles and HIV/AIDs prevention, and I’m not really sure what it is about trains, but you can get lost in the moment staring out the window watching the world whiz by you.  It’s almost like this strange out-of-body experience where you know you’re not physically moving yourself but being carried along hurriedly, and as you focus close up or far away, the speed seems to change.  Far in the distance, you can focus on one palm tree that will remain in the window for what seems like an hour, while the little details of the foreground – the rocks and tracks below, a crop of sunflowers so close you’d think you could pick them out the train window – just fly right by you.  And when you take it all in at once, there’s this strange overwhelming sense that even life is just flying right by, the little details mushing together with the big picture and all the while there’s the sensation of being carried through it all, even on days when it felt like you were struggling to put one foot in front of the other from shear exhaustion.

It’s things like that, when the world seems to throw the little details and the big picture together where you start to ask yourself how it all fits or whether it even should, as though life is a puzzle, and the different aspects of your life eventually come together to tell a clear story.  The path that lead me here, from majoring in religion to following the footsteps of a grandfather who lived in Casablanca, almost starts to look like a linear path, a few chapters to a good story with intrigue, fate, and faith.  As much as I’d like that, I’m not sure life is that clear or succinct.  We like – we need – to find ways to make it that clear; we add a narrative to give us a sense of meaning and purpose, but sometimes, life can be a little more random than that, for better or for worse.  We move from phase to phase and from unexpected moment to unexpected moment.  Our plans, whatever they may be, don’t always turn out the way we wanted or thought they would; no surprises there – thought I’d be finishing my first year of PhD candidacy this June.  But I live in Morocco, and still have yet to grasp that fact, especially considering how happy I could be doing something totally opposite of what I expected to be doing.  We should live unexpectedly open to whatever comes our way.

Case in point, our first day in Rabat, we found ourselves across the street from a garrisoned wall that turned out to be the Chellah, or an ancient Roman city (which had been built over during the 13th century, as well).  Rabat was the last place I ever would’ve expected to happen upon a major archaeological site with Roman streets, forums, or old graves paying homage to Constantine.  But when in Morocco, expect the unexpected, I suppose.

But back to phases for a moment.  I look around me, and largely, that’s what I see – that we move from phase to phase in our lives, and it’s pretty cut and dry how we do it, even though we take some side routes to get there sometimes.  It usually involves some combination of school, work, a family, more work, maybe a little more school, and then helping the family follow the same cookie-cutter path we made.  One of the fears I’ve had to face this year and the last, especially as I suddenly found myself headed to Morocco out of nowhere, is that my life might be headed in a different direction than I expected, one that doesn’t clearly follow some known path.  Now that I’m no longer afraid of uncertainty and the unexpected for my life, my real fear is missing out on the cookie-cutter path – looking back and wondering what could have been if I had just settled down and been like everybody else.  Or maybe that’s too arrogant of a view; I can’t be that different or that special.  I can still see my life in phases, between college and summer camps, an archaeological dig, or living in Morocco.  It’s like being on that train, and it all mushes together and tells a story, but I’m just learning how to make that story my own and live into it as carefully and as intentionally as possible.  I guess, the reality is, we all have to do that one way or another.

Or to go back for a moment to the HIV/AIDs training.  We happened to be in Rabat at the same time Shakira was giving a free concert – a concert that has gained a significant amount of protesting in the days following, given how much money the government spent to bring Shakira to Morocco.  Many Moroccan online boards posted in the wake of the concert, “We don’t need Shakira; we need bread.”  Some levels of violence appear to be increasing in many of these protests, mostly with police attacking protesters (one protester killed in the town of Safi), though the government is denying this.  I had planned to attend the concert with Liz, but when we realized the taxis were charging ungodly amounts to get from downtown Rabat (near Parliament where protests have taken place on Sundays ever since 20 February) to Agdal, it just made better since to make a night of staying in instead.

In the days following, I made my way north with Caity, Avery, and company to Asilah, a town within a day’s walking distance along the beach to Tangier.  My in-service training was taking place four days later in Mehidia, and four days wasn’t enough time to make the trek all the way back to the desert, so I figured I’d use the opportunity to see some of this beautiful country instead of returning home only to have to turn around and head back to the coast.  Asilah is gorgeous and known as an artist’s haven of sorts, especially for ex-patriots who needed a place to find inspiration.  The Old Medina there is a labyrinth of white-painted streets with blue doorways that seems to stretch on forever inside of a fortified city.   Given that it’s the off-season, the lack of tourists gave us the opportunity to explore the city and its beaches on our own.

I decided on our second day there that I would go on a walk on the beach with a new friend, Galen Welsch.  We weren’t sure how far we were going to walk, but we both agreed that tanning on the beach was just too boring for us, especially when there’s miles and miles of beach to explore.  So, we left the girls behind and begin our walk in search for shells and marine life.  After about two hours, we finally came across a shell or two, though nothing special, really.  Then, an hour later, finally saw some signs of marine life, though all of it dead – a washed up octopus and a washed up eel were the best we could do.

And then it happened…

A day spent on the beach seeing almost nothing but sand and in the distance we saw what we thought was a cow.  And then another.  And then another.  At first, we were denying the possibility that there were five cows – three laying down – on the beach, but soon there was no denying it.  It is Morocco, after all.   The cows watched us as we approached, laughing at them.  Then they watched us as we kept walking, the rest of the beach completely empty for what looked like miles of nothing but two guys and five cows on a sandy beach.  As I said before, in Morocco, expect the unexpected.

I had planned to head to Mehidia for my training after a few nights in Asilah, but we decided to leave Asilah a day early to trek further north to a town called Tetouan (I’ve mentioned it before, because it’s the town for which the Star Wars planet, Tatooine, is named after).  When we arrived at the taxi station, an argument ensued, making it clear that the director of the taxi stand was trying to overcharge us and didn’t want to take us to Tetouan, so instead, we decided to go to Tangier.  Not what I was planning, but whatever.  Go with the flow, right?

I won’t go into every single story from Tangier, but one stands out in particular as worth writing home about.  Tangier, you should know, like Asilah, is an artist community, mostly of ex-patriots, many of whom had established themselves there in the 1960s.  The city inclines slowly from the beach, where you can see Spain in the distance across the Strait of Gibraltar.  Atop the hill sits the medina, with its occasional, beautiful views of the beach and marina down below.  Tangier was especially famous to the beat poet movement, so one of our first stop-offs was at the Cinema Rif Cafe, a hotspot for poets and artists alike, especially in the heyday of Tangier.

We sat down and chatted briefly with a Moroccan who was part owner of the cafe and who insisted on giving us free t-shirts, because he was aware of and respected what the Peace Corps was doing in Morocco.  While we were sitting there sipping tea or coffee, we lost track of Caity only to find her later sitting with two older gentlemen in an odd setting that looked as though she had found herself in the midst of a scene from Alice in Wonderland.  The two distinguished gentlemen she sat with, we would discover later, referred to themselves as Francisco, a Baron from Chile and an unnamed Duke from Ireland.  As Caity tells it, she was taking a picture of the Cinema Rif when Francisco, wearing a grey blazer with black trim around every edge of the jacket (on a sunny day), his hair slicked back looked similar to Doc E. Brown from “Back to the Future,” called to her saying, “Excuse me, darling, why are you taking a picture of this fine establishment?”  After she explained to them that she just thought it seemed like a picture worth taking, they prodded her with more questions, tried to guess where she was from, and eventually asked her to join them while they argued with one another over who was more knowledgeable about the city of Tangier, its history, and blabbed on and on about the politics of the ex-pat community.  From our perspective inside the cafe looking out on this strange encounter with the Mad Hatter and Cheshire the Cat, it just became clearer and clearer that it was another one of those things, you know, that only happens when you least expect it.  And so the list of the unexpected grew longer and longer.

After leaving the cafe, I found myself standing in the middle of the main square of Tangier when I got a phone call from another PCV I didn’t know was in the city when he saw me from his hotel roof.  The next morning, we ended up taking the train together to Mehidia where I’ve been this week in training.  I spent part of my afternoon today walking down another beach, wondering if I’d happen upon any cows only to happen upon a shipwreck instead.  The hull was all that was left, and the ship appeared to have – at one point – measured somewhere between thirty-five and forty feet.  By the time I walked to the ship – alone – I found myself along a stretch of beach where I could see nothing but sand and water for miles, no people, no buildings.  Just me, an endless stretch of sand and an endless stretch of water.

Standing there at the shipwreck forced me to think back to my childhood.  My parents made a point of taking us every year to Florida, something I’ll always cherish, and I can remember having my first taste of freedom being allowed to walk down the beach for miles and miles – several hours alone.  As a youngster, it had been a place where I was most overwhelmed by some divine presence.  Something about the rhythm of the waves, the never-ending nature of it or the very fact that the water would continue and nothing could bring an end to the life it gave as it slapped and beat its foams against the countless grains of sand below.  Everything about it was eternal and beautiful, and standing in the middle of it – alone – you couldn’t help but feel as though it was you and God and nothing else.  Nothing else mattered.

I found myself remembering and sifting through those same thoughts I used to think when I was younger; I found myself being thankful that I was in a place where I could now expect the unexpected.  Sometimes, those unexpected things that come our way give us cause to be saddened.  Other times, we giggle to ourselves walking by a group of cows who decided they’d spend a day at the beach.  But whether we expect it or not, whether it’s some mix-up of the big picture with the finest details, we find our ways to give it all meaning.  Some way or another, it all adds up and starts to make sense to us.  Some way or another, there’s something eternal to it.  I don’t know whether we give meaning to a life that has no meaning at all.  I don’t know how much of the unexpected is total chaos and randomness at work.  But I like the narrative we try to give to our lives.  I like living into a greater meaning and purpose and feeling that great sense of divine presence overwhelming us whether we’re walking on a beach or just sitting in a cafe overwhelmed by things seemingly a bit more mundane.    That’s something in my life, that beauty and eternity, which despite everything else that happens, I know I can always count on, always look forward to, always expect.  Even when something unexpected comes my way.

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.

Deciding to be Happy Already.

I’m not one to tout karma, but last year when load after load of bad news kept coming my way from my grandfather dying to multiple graduate school rejections, I felt like something good was destined to happen.  I even felt like I deserved it.  After all, I’d hit rock bottom, and it was past time for a bounce.

Well, here I am, in the bounce, and I’m not sure if it’s crested or what, but I’m loving it.

I’m actually not so sure I believe the world works that way either.  I tend to think it’s a lot simpler than that: sometimes, bad stuff happens; sometimes, good stuff happens, and it’s not weighed out on some grand scale that eventually equals out somehow.  It just happens.  Still, when we’re in the moment living from day-to-day, it’s no surprise that we feel as though there is some giant scale weighing out the good news with the bad, because we begin to view our lives, to view the past and the future, in those ridiculously dualistic terms.  It’s the Plato in us.  We never really let go of that.

Hamza, Omar, and I have spent the past two nights dancing in their room (that’s right, I said dancing) and then doing push-ups and sit-ups (yes, I said we exercised), just for fun (yes, I said it was fun).  Then, we lay on a blanket on a floor in an empty, cold concrete room exhausted and listening to more quiet music overwhelmingly content with the way this evening had come to a close.  Me and my brothers just completely zoned out and happy.  It’s ridiculous how something so simple can mean everything to you.  The modern age, I think, has fooled us into thinking we need something big to happen to be happy, when just lounging around with someone we care about is often enough.

I caught myself wondering after I went to bed last night when my luck would run out, when things would go back to “normal,” whatever that meant, or when I’d find myself again trying to climb out of some rut.  Then I thought, “That’s not the right attitude to have; life is what you make of it, and it’s all about your perspective,which may sound cliché, but things that are cliché often become trite solely because there’s truth to them, right?  I think I’m just still in shock with how genuinely happy I’ve been lately, something I mentioned in a recent post that I’m finally trying to pin down and understand.

The thing is, there are plenty of reasons I could be sad if I chose to be – I’m far from home, from family and friends; I don’t have a great grasp on the only languages everyone here knows; I’m almost always tired; I don’t remember when my stomach was churning out something remotely normal (maybe the day before I flew to Philadelphia); you get the idea.  But for some reason, minor or even major frustrations that enter my life can’t seem to get in the way of this inner joy I exude.  I call it “joy,” because it’s more long-lasting than having just a “good” day, and don’t be fooled into thinking I walk around smiling all the time hugging people like a Care Bear.  No.  That will never be me.  But deep down, I’m changed.  It’s kind of like a happy identity crisis, because I’m not really sure who this new Philip (or Fouad) is, but I like living this way.  It feels so much healthier than the past.  Maybe it’s the food?

Of course, that’s not to say I was depressed back home.  But last January, I kinda got hit extra hard, and most people who know me know I can be cynical from time-to-time.  Or harshly realistic.

Maybe this newfound joy is just how you feel when you’re in the place you know you’re supposed to be, whatever that means.  Again, not to tout karma or fate, but when I look around my house, at my host brothers, or sitting in a cafe and looking across the dusty, sandy desert plains here, I tend to think, “Of all the places in the world I could be right now, I can probably think of a few that are prettier but no place I could actually go and gain such a sense of belonging at this time in my life.”  So, this place is becoming a kind of home away from home slowly but surely, from the amazing, though small, community of Americans who live nearby to the beautiful Moroccan people I encounter everyday.

That’s not to say I don’t “belong” back in Tennessee.  I can see my Mom ready to strangle my neck already, but there’s something about this place carries a constant reminder about why I’m doing this and why I’m here, and that’s just one of those very wholesome feelings, for sure.

Let me be more specific:

One of my first nights in my host family’s house, an old refrigerator kicked on and took me back well over ten years to my grandparent’s house (my paternal grandparents).  Something about that buzzing noise took me in time to my childhood, reminding me of family, the food we ate around Christmas and Thanksgiving, and hours of sitting on a couch wishing I could be anywhere else.

But it was a fond memory, one of those memories you don’t realize was a good one until years later when you can look back on it and think, “That was a special time in my life with people I will always hold dear.”

I think a lot of what contributes to my joy in this place is how much this place reminds me of things I had forgotten or things I hadn’t forgotten but deeply cherish.  I talk often, actually, about my grandfather and his having served in World War II in Casablanca.  Earlier today, in fact, I pulled out an Army Air Force publication he gave me called “Rocket Run” that was printed in Casablanca in 1942, a book he received when he arrived in country specifically about Morocco, and I looked over parts of it with Omar.  Here’s an excerpt:

“Soon after take-off from Cazes Field, your ship will settle on a course almost due east.  Rugged mountain country follows the [s]table land of the Atlantic coast.  Far to the south may almost be seen the dim outlines of the Atlas mountains.  The higher peaks are snow-capped.  Later, the mountains come closer, for the Middle Atlas range bends across this country from South Morocco northeast to the Mediteranean.  Occasionally, you will pass over towns which look almost like medieval fortresses.  These are walled native villages [where] the Berber [and Arab] people live.  […] You would see, were it possible for you to get off your plane at one of these native keeps … blue tattoo marks … displayed on the chins and foreheads of the women; [and] orange henna protect[ing their] hands and feet.  … These people live almost entirely on sheep and goat.”

Some of the information in his book is no longer accurate (if it ever was), but as I read that portion, I kept thinking, “That’s me; that’s where I am right now, here in this little book my grandfather carried around with him for months and months in Morocco.”

The fact that Morocco hasn’t changed a whole lot (some of my pictures of Rabat look almost identical to some of the pictures my grandfather took in the 40s of downtown Casa) makes me feel sometimes like I got in a time machine and stepped back into the very same world my grandfather saw only sixty-something years ago.  For example, I remember sitting in a cafe one of the first days I got here sipping a banana smoothie and listening to Lady Day while a few Mafioso-esque Moroccan men smoked cigarettes in the dark corner of a nearly abandoned room that looked like it hadn’t changed since at least 1950.  Even the transportation on the street, an old broken-down Volkswagen or a mule standing right outside the cafe, all made me feel like I was in a different time rather than a different place.  And it was a time I have always kind of longed for and wanted to experience.  That gave me a powerful sense of connection to my grandfather that I can’t begin to fully describe and that I don’t think I could’ve experienced any other way.

But I think that’s where my joy of late comes from… from knowing that I’m doing something that always reminds me of such a good American who lived such a good life, to continue – in some weird way or another – to try to live out a legacy of sorts.  I haven’t mentioned him a lot on the blog lately, but I think about him often, carry his dog tags and a few other trinkets of his with me, and try to view the world the way I think he would view it.

So maybe being happy isn’t such a complex thing after all.