All Hail the Storm King

img_20160914_180955254_hdrThere’s something monstrous and all-encompassing about New York City, as though the longer you’re there, your memory of the way the world works elsewhere is slowly cached until it fades into oblivion. Everywhere about the City, nature prevails. The pigeons come close and tilt their heads to look at you as though you’re the one that doesn’t belong amid this concrete, not them. The mice and chipmunks and squirrels are perfectly content to live among the steel-and-glass ignoring you, mostly. The trees manage to climb surprisingly high, a wooden skyscraper unto themselves, their roots searching the dirt beneath until it slams up against the concrete veins and arteries of the Metropolitan Transit Authority. Everything here unnatural seems to have grown together so well that it may have become one with Mother Nature herself.

Until, of course, you leave New York City and discover that this is not the norm, that – in fact – it’s a kind of beautiful, artistic and architectural blasphemy unmatched the world over.

img_20160917_104720302_hdrSuffice to say, it is still jarring to me that less than an hour away, the signs of the City are replaced with countless acres of trees and farmland, of mountains and lakes, of the River Valley where the remnants of the Appalachians come crashing into one side of the Hudson and pick up again on the other as though there’d not even been a creek in the way or perhaps as though Moses learnt to part rocks the same way he’d parted water. In the early days of autumn, just when the dog days of summer have tired out, and there’s a light breeze whispering to some of the trees that dying is a part of living, you can escape here and forget there ever was any concrete or steel or glass or plastic or car horns or subways. This is the land of towns with names like Fishkill and Beacon and Doodletown and Stony Point. It could just as easily be Tennessee.

It is not a place without its reminder that New York City is close by, of course. The train to Montreal whistles off the Hudson and churns on the tracks like a tornado rolling through, and the traffic and passers-by are a diverse lot of run-down hooptie cars, the people packed-in tight on their way to the next ‘job,’ juxtaposed with an occasional Tesla driven by a lone Frenchman who wears G Star Raw and is environmentally-conscious. And yet, in the same way the City can make you forget this place over time, this place – this dance with Mother Nature – manages to flood back over you singing, lulling that this is the real America. Cue Paul Simon on a search.

img_20160917_113923636And what is the real America but that hard, tried juxtaposition, that reminder that nothing is simple or can be easily broken into ‘this vs. that’ but is instead some mosaic of anything-and-everything we’ve ever done, imagined, or desired – the best and the worst of us – all thrown into the same mixing pot we once celebrated in this country.

Here is the Catskills, and here, maybe ten minutes west of the river and buried in its rolling hills there is an art gallery stranger than most. Imagine an outdoor museum, five hundred acres of it – something akin a postmodern Stonehenge with giant architectural feats planted like seeds that grew uncontrollably large in a river valley. It is the exact opposite of New York City: these structures that seemingly don’t belong actually make a very good case that they were born and grew up here and couldn’t reside anywhere else but a garden ‘that rivals Versailles.’ Against a backdrop of perfectly groomed green grass, knolls perfect for sledding, and oak and pine, these artistic gods – like a Picasso come to life – tower toward the pristine blue above to kiss the clouds. Their rusted metal – black and red – screams to the sky, but it’s somehow overwhelmingly peaceful. Once again, what didn’t belong found a home, and at home, you can scream loudly and find peace in it.

img_20160917_121225180The name of the place is fitting, too: Storm King, as though just around the mountain to the east there lurks Zeus ready to fire his bolts directly at the towering metal structures. I half-expected a postmodern ‘Night at the Museum’ were I to hang around until after dark.

Maybe that’s because seeing a giant, rusty metal structure next to a pond gives it life. But I think, too, its wild shapes, its shadows, the way the light might hit it at different times of day, leaves you to imagine that this one stationary structure could be a million things to a million people across a million eons. Somebody throws one gargantuan slab into the pasture, sculpted in steel, calls it art, and it tells a vastly different story at sunset from what it told at sunrise. Could it be said to be the same thing on a cloudy day when the sun doesn’t give it its sharp shadow that, arguably, is as much a part of the sculpture as the body the artist built? Or does the absence of its shadow breathe into it new life altogether?

img_20160917_121025271We small creatures who look upon such vastness are made somehow smaller still by this place. What of life is any different? Is not everything we look upon equally as complex? I am caught often, chained even, by my very limited perspective: that how I encounter you or the things you and I have made depends on just how the light hits us, just where we’re found in it, and just the time of day (or week or month or year) that your life and your creation may have graced mine. It is difficult, sometimes, to wait through the cloudy days to see again the shadow. It is that much more difficult, should they remain, to not let the clouds skew our view of what we know or once knew to be true. We are the storm kings and queens tasked to wade through the layers of our limited perspectives, to call out with humility precisely what those layers for us may be and to view it all as the birds of New York City might: looking curiously on and wondering what belonging is while knowing and claiming, this is our home.

img_20160917_131600555_hdr

My Summer, 2015

DepositI had this moment today driving through the Catskills where I realized I was sipping Pepsi in a glass bottle as I drove a red, Ford truck from the early ’90s, and I just felt overwhelmingly American. I couldn’t help but be a little culture-shocked. Before me were acres of pristine, seemingly untouched conifers lining the mountainside and surrounded by fields of corn. In the valley sat large red barns, black-and-white cows as if from a painting you’d find in Cracker Barrel, a run-down Harry Ferguson tractor or two, and the vibe of rural America in all its depressed, hard-working love. Appalachia stretches all the way to New York in more ways than geography.

To me, this is how America should be seen: on the road – and not the interstate system – sipping a Pepsi. But it was so foreign to what I’ve come to believe is “New York” (living in what’s basically the Hamptons) that I felt somehow removed and jarred by it all. It was one of those strange moments where I could peer over the last five, even ten years of my life and think on the many roads I’ve ridden over that brought me to this one. And how vastly different those roads have been.

In some ways, this summer has been one of the most wonderfully-strange summers in recent history. And I think it’s because of moments like that one. Where you just open your eyes and realize you’re driving through the Catskills and it’s all a little surreal somehow, because you never quite saw your life unfolding in that way. My summer started off with earning a series of certifications I needed (“Team building initiatives,” “First Aid & CPR,” “Lifeguard Manager,” “Food Handler’s Certificate,” etc.) to be able to run the camps where I work. On my birthday, the day after I earned my CPR certificate, I was walking around in Greenport with Johnny Gall when a man collapsed and started bleeding on the street. It was the first time in my life I’ve ever actually had to direct someone to call 911 (and for a complete stranger at that), and that it happened the day after I finished my certificate was, well, just one more of those surreal moments.

A few days later (and this has become a regular thing that sometimes annoys me), someone visiting [one of the two] camp[s] where I work was just beside himself that I was in the kitchen serving him food. “I don’t understand,” he said as nicely as he could, “You have a seminary degree from Vanderbilt, and you want to be here, doing this?!” [This is sort of a general theme I encounter often: that “camp” is not a “big-boy job,” and when are you going to get your “big-boy job,” especially if you have a Master’s degree.] I don’t think anyone means it harshly. It’s just that it’s a position that tends to be associated with someone who’s in their early 20s and still figuring out life, and yet, as I served the food, I couldn’t help but think, “But wouldn’t you want to be doing this?” In St. Louis, I went to a seminar with a friend that was all about achieving financial freedom, and the underlying message of the seminar (which I don’t agree with at all) was that what people are really looking for in saving up their money is to be able to have the freedom to do what they really want to do. If you can plan out you finances early on and in a smart way, you can retire early enough to achieve your real dreams. That sounds stupid to me. Somehow, I managed to figure out how to live on a friggin’ beautiful island only accessible by ferry – and do it cheaply. I’m two hours from one of the greatest cities in the world, and I can take a bus or a train there almost whenever I want. Want to kayak? Sure. Learn how to sail? Why not? Travel around for work? Yup. Live in a haunted cottage? Well, okay, maybe not that one. But help young and old alike learn how to find their true selves all while getting to do the rest of that stuff? Yes. I could go get a “big-boy job,” whatever that even is anyway, or I could just live a little of that dream now. And have a meaningful impact on people’s lives while I’m doing it. But even that is yet one more of those surreal things. Was I right to choose this path that people don’t usually take, that I chose to defy some of the “normal” expectations to money-making and living and dreaming? I don’t know.

Ford

Still, as I was driving around this afternoon, and I was thinking about all the roads I’ve crossed and the different directions I could’ve taken, I kept thinking how much I loved the endless skyscape out here. I know those two clauses don’t seem like they go together, but hang with me. Something about the mountains makes the sky so much more grand. Maybe it’s because the sun has more to work with when it’s busy painting its sunset or sunrise not just in the sky but in doing wondrous things to make green trees yellow-orange. Or maybe it’s how much more blue the blue seems against a green backdrop. You do not get this effect in the bay as much. A sunrise over the sea is unquestionably beautiful, but it’s a very different kind of beautiful. It’s one kind of blue flowing into another kind of blue. It’s the kind of beautiful that is repetitive and predictable (seriously, how many sunset pictures can you take before it’s kind of a tired meme?) – and while I don’t necessarily mean that in a bad way, it does make the mountain sky a little more appealing to watch at times.

And yet, I am called to the sea. For as much as I love the mountain sky, the waters of the open ocean refresh me whether they’re stilled and calm or churning in a mad splash that threatens drowning. Last week, a gale bringing in gusts of around 80 miles an hour passed over the camp knocking down a few trees and setting a transformer smoking (and eventually on fire). Somehow, I woke up before the storm began at 5:45 in the morning and sat through it in the stairwell of my cottage watching a 100-year old oak sway back and forth like it was a sapling and listening to trees literally five feet from my cottage crack, split, and hit the ground with a thud. Immediately after the rain passed, I rushed outside to check in on campers, review damage, call the electric company, etc. I was at home with myself in a way I’m not sure I’ve ever been. Here on the sea, I knew what to do. So much of life is spent juggling between what we think we love and where we really belong, and sometimes those things can match up, but the greatest sadness I have ever experienced is in discovering where those two things pull us in the most opposite of directions. You can love the skyscape of the mountains, but will you know your heart and calling belongs to the sea? Can you accept that truth not just when the seas are calm but also when the gale threatens to blow your house down? Can you – as surreal as it may be – love the mountain for what it is, temporarily gracing it with your presence, but then return to where you actually belong when your days in the woods are done? Either way, you should at least try sipping a Pepsi in a glass bottle while you drive a red Ford through Upstate New York sometime. I highly recommend it.

What I’ll Miss Most, or a Top Ten List of Sorts

Jon and I were sitting at a cafe yesterday afternoon just waiting for the head of the diabetes association to show up, and as I sipped my ice-cold Fanta Citron, I just thought to myself, “My God, Fanta Citron, I am going to miss the daylights out of you.  It’s gonna be back to Squirt, the grapefruit drink, for this guy.”

Every which way I turn, I’m faced it seems with final moments, and even though I have fifty-something days left in Morocco – which is actually quite a long time – I’m already beginning to feel a little bit homesick for this place.  You know you’ve got it bad when you’re saying goodbye to a soft drink.

That seems a fair introduction to this final top ten list, so without further ado, I bring you the ten things I think I’ll miss most:

10. Bromance.  Not that Harold Burdette won’t fulfill this category in full, but a patriarchal culture like Morocco is one big fraternity house.  I’m being a little bit cheeky here, because I think the bad (y’know, like, women’s rights) might actually outweigh the good in a culture as patriarchal as this, but even when the bad outweighs the good, that doesn’t mean the good should be forgotten or ignored.  I think there’s something nice about the fact that men here can have friendships, you know, real friendships with each other, but in America, we live by some kind of code that prohibits that behavior.  If you don’t believe me, think for a second about the fact that meaningful connections between males (i.e. a good, ole platonic friendships) are rare enough that we have a special word – bromance – just to signify how we think of two dudes who genuinely like each other.   You know, like it’s not “manly” for two guys to hug in some parts of American culture vs. Morocco where two dudes are walking down the street holding hands, and nothing about it is remotely erotic.  (Okay, well, usually not anyhow).  But no one’s going to question it or go, “Hey, look at them.”  This is something that just baffles my mind, because you would think that the more patriarchal the culture, there would be more boundaries against a dude showing affection toward another dude, but no, only in the far-less patriarchal America do we find bans on males, you know, caring about each other.  Or, to sum all of this up in the words of Jermaine from Flight of the Concords, “Why can’t a heterosexual guy tell a heterosexual guy that he thinks his booty is fly?  Not all the time, obviously; just when he’s got a problem with his self-esteem.  Don’t let anybody tell you you’re not humpable, because you’re bumpable; well, I hope this doesn’t make you feel uncomfortable.”:

9. The convenience of your friendly, local l-hanut.  You’re hungry.  The pantry is empty.  You need to go to the grocery store, but that means getting in your car, spending gas money, and driving somewhere between five and ten minutes to buy something.  Not the end of the world, but the nice thing about Morocco is that there’s a local vegetable store around nearly every corner.  It’s not driving distance; it’s walking distance.  You might be thinking, “Well, that’s more work.”  Maybe.  But, especially when I lived in the January house, there was just something so incredibly wonderful about thinking, “Oh no, I just forgot to buy butter.  Oh, that’s okay, I can leave this cooking while I run out and grab it really quick, because there’s a place I can buy butter a two-minute walk from here.”  I mean, I guess if you live in a big city (or just really insanely close to local food stores and other shops), then you can easily have that, but it’s really something I’ve loved here.  I like the little conversations at the mahaliba (the milk store) with the owners there.  I love the Super-Hanut, which is the one place I can buy canned pineapples and redball (gouda) cheese.  The guy who owns that place is so, so incredibly nice and funny.  I love that it’s not just some giant chain with people in the same color uniform, but that I can stop and have nice little conversations with the people I’m buying food from, knowing that my money is actually something sustaining to their livelihood in some occasions, and not just chunk change thrown at some large, corporate market.  When will I ever have that sort of Mom-and-Pop convenience store experience ever again in my life?  Maybe never.

8. Moroccan cuisine, including lamb tajine with plums, pastilla, arfissa, etc.  You know what.  I can’t even write about this. I just can’t.  Thinking about it makes my stomach growl, and I think my taste buds are actually screaming.

7. Mak-Doh Abroad.  That’s right.  I said it.  I’m going to miss McDonald’s.  You might be thinking, “But Philip, you’re coming home to America; there’s a McDonald’s on every corner.”  No, my friends.  Mak-Doh (the appropriate Moroccan pronunciation) is a venue of high-class and luxury.  It’s like going to the movies in America; it’s where the cool kids go on a Friday night.  And it tastes better, too.  Come to think of it, the one we went to in Porto was even beautiful.  I mean, when was the last time you felt dirty after you walked into a McDonald’s, because everyone there was dressed nicer than you?  I’ve now had McDonald’s in the UK, Spain, Israel, and Morocco, and I can honestly say, I’ve never been disappointed in Morocco abroad.  But don’t think you’ll catch me there in the States.

6. Bab Boujaloud, and the Mdina Qaddima.  There’s no city in the country I love more than Fes.  I mean, I wrote a whole blog about it.  Check it out.

5. Cafe Culture, complete with Mint, Sage, or Wormwood (Absinthe) Tea.  First of all, you might again be thinking, “But Philip, America has Starbucks!  You can get your tea or coffee, quite literally, on any corner.”  Not the same.  In fact, not only is there a cafe on every corner in Morocco, but for every corner cafe, there’s five more cafe’s in between each corner.  And I can promise you this, I can’t get absinthe tea; I can’t even get Moroccan traditional mint tea prepared the same way.  Where will I find a perfectly chilled bottle of “Coka” at a cafe in America?  Where can I sit and people watch while I sip a ns-ns (half and half: half coffee, half sugar, a tiny bit of milk)?  Where else can I sip freshly-squeezed orange juice or banana milk or avocado milk whilst munching on harcha or malawi?   It’s, by far, one of my favorite things about Morocco.  It’ll be something I crave secretly for a long time.

4. Taking the Train.  When I first heard that President Obama had proposed a high-speed rail as part of his 2008 platform, I was ecstatic.  Sadly, America is just so incredibly huge that a high-speed rail would have a lot of trouble competing with the plane, but something Europe – and Morocco – have done right is the train.  You know, come to think of it, I can’t picture myself taking a taxi, a bus, a van with a goat cage on top, or a train anywhere in Tennessee.  This may be the third world, but the third world knows how to travel a lot better than we do in America.  It’s a shame that we’re all so obsessed with having cars in America or that public transportation is somehow a “lower class” phenomenon.  I just love falling asleep on a train and waking up, and bam, you’re exactly where you wanted to be.  I can honestly say that I wish America would invest in this idea, even if it doesn’t pay off in the end.

3. The Arid, Mountainous Geography of the Boulemane Province.  Morocco’s geography, I like to say, is a lot like California. We’ve got the sand dunes, the beaches, the mountains, the arid desert, and the green forests.  It’s just far more condensed and probably a little more on the arid side.  I’ve lived near farmland and on a beach (twice) and in the suburbs, but I’d never in my life lived in a place like the Boulemane Province before I moved here.  There’s no place quiet as desolate, quite as beautiful.  I discovered that I actually really love mountains.   But over time, I’ve really grown to love the Middle Atlas in particular.  I mean, just behind Avery’s village was the second tallest mountain, Bounasseur, in all of North Africa.  I got the opportunity to hike a lot of it, over the Tichoukt where I stood at the peak and saw green on one side of the mountain and an endless desert, the Sahara, on the other side.  I think one day I’d like to live on an island with a mountain and a desert.  And I’d live in a suburb really near a large city.  Somebody find me that island.

2. The People: Hassan and Hamou, Allal, Lahcen, Ahmed, Kaotar, Omar and Hamza, etc.  How did I manage to not have a Mohammed in there?  I’m finding it more and more difficult to speak about some of the things I’ll miss.   I just regard them as something I hold dear, and there’s not much more to say about it.  Today, I cracked jokes with Hassan about the history of our village.  Earlier this week, I was having lunch with Allal, and a week or two ago, I bought a beautiful carpet from Ahmed.  It’s a no-brainer that the people are what I’m going to be missing the most of, their smiles and their laughter and their jokes.  They are who I came here to get to know, and I will never, ever say this experience was about me helping them.  They helped me.  They helped me appreciate and love life a little more, and I can’t be more thankful for that.  They are more Morocco to me than anything else ever will be.  To say anymore would be to do an injustice to who they were to me deep down.  So I’ll just leave it at that little bit.

1. The Olive Orchard.  My home in the woods.  My first encounter with an olive grove, ever, was the Garden of Gethsemane.  I loved it, because that’s probably my favorite Biblical story ever – the disciples still getting it wrong, the sacred tempted by the profane, the dark and mysterious garden of trees whose branches are like the arms of monsters.  There’s this peace here I can’t really fully describe to you.  It’s not constant.  It’s very often interrupted by a donkey or a stampede of goats or even an occasional car rushing by.  But there are moments when I feel and know it, when the wind just rushes through this quiet place, and I feel a little like I’m part of it, embedded into it, like I could fall asleep just like those disciples, or maybe – more fittingly – a little like Rip Van Winkle.  It’d be a nice place to sleep for a 100 years.  Or maybe forever.

Well, there you have it.  On Saturday, my big project with Jon – the so-called “diabetes project” – is finally happening.  We’re distributing 100 workbooks in Standard Arabic on literally everything you could ever want to know about diabetes and nutrition.  Then, after training fifty youth on how to teach diabetes nutrition, we’re dispatching them into the community to do just that.  Keep your fingers crossed for us, because there are a lot of people we have to depend on to make sure this whole shindig goes off without a hitch.  I’ll leave you with an exciting preview – the cover of our workbook, put together by myself and Jon with some Moroccan help.  It says, verbatim: “Booklet Sickness (of) Sugar and Nutrition” followed by the name of our village and then “Peace Corps America.”