Lead Us Not Into Penn Station

I’m not sure why, but lately, I’m hypersensitive to all the sounds that surround me. Maybe it’s because I’m used to a more rural environment that the sounds of the City are just that jarring to me. Maybe it’s because I’m living just next to the Garden State Parkway, which leaves in its wake a low, constant buzzing almost like that of a hummingbird. Whatever it is, lately I’ve heard it all.

I’ve heard the click-clack of the train that runs over the tracks in the morning, the screeching of its breaks, the muttering of passengers who’ve come to know one another, the familiar lines, “Tickets please,” or, “Remember, if you see something, say something,” the latter of which in reference to terrorism seems to be used to maintain a constant state of communal fear.

I’ve heard the taxis honking, the subway’s mechanical voice promising, “There is… a… local up-town train… one station… away.” I’ve heard quiet, though even quiet is filled with background noise: the harsh police sirens, a jackhammer, the wind weaving through and beating the buildings above – or is that the cars on the street? It sounds so similar to the buzzing of the Parkway. To this country-turned-city boy, so much of it is, well, kind of harsh. There’s no respite, it seems, in the sounds of the City.

In fact, the other morning, I heard screaming. A woman in the train car behind me was giving voice to some kind of anger, though I don’t know the cause. She ran through the aisle cussing at no one and then stood between two train cars. When the train pulled into Penn Station, she started screaming louder and began spitting on the glass door that was about to open – the one we were all standing behind. A man warned a woman in front of me, “Hey, watch out for this nutjob when the door opens.”

The screaming woman was obviously poor and in some kind of psychic pain. I thought immediately about the man’s use of the word “nutjob” to further disconnect her from us and how, in America, her mental illness and poverty were likely deeply in cahoots and were both things we used to see her as somehow “less” than us. For a moment – a brief moment – I considered attempting to console the woman or shaming the man for typecasting her in such a way that robbed her of her humanity. But I did nothing, said nothing. After all, she might spit on me. Or, I thought, I wasn’t trained or prepared to know how to deal with her situation. So I just let the words fill the air as more harsh sounds, and when the doors opened, the police entered the car and whisked the woman away. I have no idea what came of her. But I couldn’t escape the notion that her psychic pain was likely intensified by our collective apathy, or worse, our disdain for her situation which mirrored our fears of what could, perhaps, happen to us or to those we love. The police carted the ugliness away so we didn’t have to hear her suffering any longer. God bless them?

In one of his trips to encounter Syrian refugees, Pope Francis has remarked, “We are a society which has forgotten how to weep, how to experience compassion – ‘suffering with’ others: the globalization of indifference has taken from us the ability to weep!” I think he’s right. There’s no “suffering with” others; it’s us and them, and we want the sounds of their screams, their tears, their harsh contribution to the world to simply be removed, forgotten, compartmentalized from the public sphere. I find myself too often among those who want that.

But if I stopped there, having heard only the harsher sounds of the City, I don’t know what hope would be left. And I do know that I would not have heard all there was to hear:

On Thursday, I met with the director of three Christian-run hospitals that were set up to serve the people of Lebanon and, since the Syrian crisis, have come to serve (indeed, being overrun by) Syrian and Armenian refugees, as well. While much of what he shared was hard to hear, there was hope to it, too. He described the relationships between many Christians and Muslims in Syria and Lebanon as a “mosaic,” that in suffering together, their religious differences had not always gotten in the way of their willingness to help one another. He described churches which were distributing water to anyone, regardless of creed, in Aleppo since those ancient structures had been built on top of water wells. He described instances of Muslims protecting Christians from ISIS and vice versa. And he described the good work he was doing: offering psychosocial support for children experiencing PTSD, healthcare to refugees even when the UN refused to fund it and the clinic picked up the cost; the list went on and on, and in it all, what I heard was not the sound of dogma or hopelessness but of the dignity of all people and the hope of a brighter future for those currently entrenched in conflict.

In the afternoon, as I headed back home to New Jersey, there were certainly still those harsher sounds. But that’s not all I heard: I heard a violinist in the subway and a jazz band filling the air in Penn Station. I heard gratitude in all the chattering on the train and people ending their phone conversations with love. I heard conductors from the train wishing passengers a good day as they exited. I heard a car honk – but to get the attention of an old friend. And as I got closer to the humming of the Parkway, I heard a mourning dove cooing a friendly reminder that it’s finally spring.

What I’ve noticed for me is that there are some sounds that pull me back into the full symphony of life. It’s so easy, so tempting to get sucked into one section or hear only a solo and be convinced of the domination that sound holds over the whole corpus. But while the ambiance of brokenness is assuredly in harmony with the ambiance of love, we need not forget that love leads the melody. Sure it’s all happening at once, each screech and scream perhaps isolated to a painful solo that in that moment needs to be heard, but what the mourning dove or the violinist or the kind conductor adds to the world is not isolated but is heard by those with ears willing to listen. And so, too, we contribute our own euphony or cacophony to the orchestra of life. Sometimes, we give both. Sometimes, we give more of one than the other. And sometimes, for better or for worse, we find ourselves silent. What we add or take away from the symphony is often entirely up to us; other times it isn’t. But perhaps the best we can do is simply listen, to be as aware as we can of how it all comes together (or doesn’t); that before we decide to contribute, we know exactly what we’re going to offer and why and how it belongs in this space where there are so many other sounds seemingly detached but, in truth, are just a completely different instrument yet still in connection with one symphony. Needless to say, I guess I’m a little thankful that I’ve been so hypersensitive to all these sounds lately. They might just have something to teach me.

The Power of a Song

I listen to music like I’m on a mission. It’s never been about just enjoying a song. Or even a matter of having some nice background noise while I went about whatever. I needed to find the right song for the right moment, and about the time I found it, I went looking for another. I’m not sure if there is a “perfect” song, so much as there’s just been good songs for certain moments of my life, but nevertheless I definitely operate like I’m in search of that one masterpiece.

Maybe that’s because during some of the darkest moments of my life, one song or another wasn’t just some melody that spoke to my heart. It was a person with artistic talent who (coincidentally, using a melody that spoke to my heart) had shared in a similar experience as me. It was empathy, and knowing there was another person out there who “got” me and “got” how hard whatever we were enduring was, brought about just the comfort I’d been searching for. In that sense, to me, music is relational. It connects us not only to an artist we don’t even know but to others who may also find solace in whatever that artist has offered and placed on the table for our consideration.

Nearly a decade ago, a dear friend of mine was having a rough day as she was remembering a dear friend of hers, a young man named Cory, who had driven to an empty field and shot himself ending his life while he listened to the Counting Crows “Round Here” on repeat. Over the years, I’ve played that song again and again and always think of him, this guy I never knew, sitting there in his car absorbing that song. Over the years, I’ve had my own moments where I, too, put a song on repeat and only heard despair, and it’s made me think a lot about the power of a song. I sometimes wonder how different for Cory things could’ve been had someone been there, like a ghost, to push “next” on the CD Player. Or what it must’ve been for him to have come to that one song and felt he’d heard all the music he could, that there was nothing else to hear. Wherever he is, I like to think there’s a sweeter tune on repeat, but not stuck there.

Lately, coinciding with reading some of the theologian Paul Tillich, some of which I’ve had to read again and again (not only because I didn’t understand it fully the first time but also because I wanted to make sure I had absorbed the richness of everything he was saying), I’ve been listening to the new Damien Rice album, as well. Rice’s new album is a collection of the kind of shear honesty that belts out loudly and proudly, “Here I am. Take me as I am. I know you can.” That’s also at the core of what I read in Tillich who believes, in spite of all that makes us unacceptable – to ourselves, to the world – that there’s this invitation on the table that says, “Come, no matter what, just come to the table. You are welcome.” Tillich words it much more beautifully but perhaps not as beautifully as Damien in his song, Trusty and True. I can’t share that song with Cory, who I never knew, but in one way or another, getting myself and those I love to click “next” on the MP3 player to hear something new, perhaps an invitation like the one Damien sings so heart-fully, is all I really want to do with my life. I’ll end this one with the song and the lyrics, which say much more than this blog ever could:

We’ve wanted to be trusty and true,
but feathers fell from our wings,
and we’ve wanted to be worthy of you,
but weather rained on our dreams,
and we can’t take back what is done, what is past
so fellahs lay down your fears,
cause we can’t take back what is done, what is past
so let us start from here,
cause we never wanted to be lusty or lewd,
nor tethered to prudish strings,
and we never wanted to be jealously tuned,
nor withered into ugly things,
but we can’t take back what is done, what is past
so fellahs lay down your spears,
cause we can’t take back what is done, what is past
so let us start from here,
and if all that you are is not all you desire,
then Come,
Come, come along, come with fear, come with love
Come however you are, just come,
Come alone, come with friends, come with foes,
Come however you are, just come,
Come along, come with me, and let go,
Come however you are, just come,
Come along, come so carefully close,
Come however you are, just come,
Come, come along, come with sorrows and songs,
Come however you are, just come
Come along, come let yourself be wrong,
Come however you are,
Just come.

The Curious Case of the Toilet Seat Picture Frame

A few years ago, when I was working at a church near Nashville, I took my youth group on a trip to do service work in the Appalachian Mountains at a summer camp there. It was a week filled with hack saws, lots of paint, and conversation with poor or elderly folks of the Grundy County community in East Tennessee. When a former youth of mine began working full-time a few years later at the same summer camp, he mentioned one day that in an office used by summer staffers, there was a make-shift toilet seat on the wall that functioned as a picture-frame. Inside the picture frame? Me.

Toilet Seat

At first I thought it was hilarious, and on some level I still do, but at the very least, it was an incredibly befuddling thing. Who would put a picture of me in a toilet seat picture frame? What had I done that irked them so, or did they just want someone attractive to be hanging there on the wall (ha-ha)? Were they trying to make a statement about me by hanging my picture in a toilet seat? Where did they even get the picture?

After an old friend asked around, at least some of those questions were answered this week. While I still don’t know who was behind the curious case of the toilet seat picture frame or how they got the picture of me, I now know why they hung the picture. And the answer is Sufjan Stevens.

At the end of our week in 2010, a group of my youth wanted to perform a song for the Friday night talent show. With one of them on banjo, two on guitar, and a percussionist, we performed “Casimir Pulaski Day” for seventy or so youth and adults. Since none of them wanted to sing, I offered to provide the vocals, which is weird because singing isn’t really my thing, but I wanted to be supportive. So, we sang the song straight through, and when it was finished and we’d sat back down, a woman behind me (probably in her mid-40s) sneered, “Well, that was just inappropriate!” At the time, I just shrugged it off and hadn’t thought twice about it. Apparently, though, one of the staffers also thought it was inappropriate, and rather than addressing it with me directly, decided hanging my picture behind a toilet seat was the best way to handle it.

The truth is, I don’t really care. Summer camp staffers are usually in their early 20s, and even us 30-somethings can be incredibly petty sometimes. And yet, I think it’s a really good example of some of the wider problems the church faces today – namely in the way Christian people can sometimes cower in the face of anything a little too human:

“Casimir Pulaski Day” is a heartbreaking song that narrates a crisis of faith in the midst of losing a friend to terminal cancer. It raises questions about morality – the complications caused by a tempting kiss and the shame of creating those complications for someone about to die. It questions God, particularly God’s seeming absence in the face of bone cancer, yet still manages to find “glory” in the face of God whom the narrator encounters the day his friend dies.

“Casimir” is the first and only song I know how to play on guitar, and singing it with my youth group was probably one of more special moments of my three or four years working with them. When I found out someone had found the song offensive for a Christian camp (to the point that they felt putting my picture up as a symbol of human excrement was of equal merit), I poured over the lyrics. There is that one line that says, “Tuesday night at the Bible study, we lift our hands and pray over your body, but nothing ever happens.” Maybe they thought the song was pushing a kind of agnosticism? But no less than the Psalmist (Ps. 22:1) or Jesus crying from the Cross in Mt. 27:46, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Sufjan himself acknowledges this in an interview discussing the song when he says, “Firm belief is a bit unreal. That leads to religious fanaticism. Doubt is inseparable from Christianity. With every figure in the Bible you find doubt – Abraham, Moses, all the kings and the apostles. Even Jesus doubted. So isn’t it funny how religions – especially Christian institutions in the U.S. – have eliminated all doubt? They don’t understand how important it is to doubt.”

Or maybe it was the line about the kiss? In the song, the girl kisses the narrator’s neck, and he says to her that he “almost touched your blouse.” Or even later, there’s an unclear reference to something shameful they’ve done in the night. There’s nothing sexual about it at all – unless you’re looking for something sexual there. But even if it is something risqué, this fear some Christians have that demands topics always have a G-rating can sometimes make Christianity seem at least a little fake. There’s something heart-wrenching about the honesty of a young man torn by the temptation to share an intimate moment with someone dying. In its prude, proper obsession with “holiness,” a lot of Christianity forgoes the earnest struggles anybody could relate with to instead champion some artificial propriety. Those Christians make sin into a kind of laundry lists of do’s and don’ts rather than the simple concept of being alienated or separate from that which we hold sacred. The beauty of “Casimir” is in Sufjan’s heartfelt search for something sacred in the goodbye of this friendship, in the way the things we hold dear can so easily be taken from us, and so he sings, still finding glory in something, “All the Glory when he took our place, but he took my shoulders and he shook my face, and he takes, and he takes, and he takes.”

One of the things I love about Sufjan is that very shear honesty. Or maybe honesty is the wrong word. Maybe it’s just some very blunt confrontation with reality. I see that in a lot of people my age. If we can’t get to the heart of matters, acknowledging the best and worst of ourselves pretty quickly, then we’re probably going to lose interest just as fast. In that sense, I kinda hope my picture stays behind the toilet seat for a long time. Like a badge of honor, it symbolizes, for me at least, that I’m a person who is willing to sift through a few heaping piles of dung if that’s what I have to do to watch the garden grow. Admittedly, those of us eager to sift through the manure seeing it as fertilizer rather than something stinky and awful are bound to offend from time-to-time. But the fruit is riper, the vegetables larger, and for that we should make no apologies.

Learning to Let People Sing their own Songs How they Need to be Sung

Have you ever listened to a song and in that moment that song was exactly what you needed to hear? Like, for me when my grandfather died, I had Blind Pilot on repeat, or there were times in Morocco where certain songs just powerfully spoke to me.

It’s been a few years since my grandfather died or since I was in Morocco, and I still love those songs, but I don’t keep them on repeat anymore. They spoke to who I was in that moment, but I’ve moved on to other songs that capture new moments or frustrations, songs I currently put on repeat.

C’est la vie.

When I was in the fourth grade, I remember going to camp and having my wallet stolen, and I was so angry that some “Christian” would actually steal at a church camp that for years I carried anger with the church over that and even claimed I was atheist for a while all the way into high school. And that’s okay. It’s where I needed to be in that moment. It’s who I needed to be. Like those songs that find us in the right moment, sometimes, we just discover that’s where we are, and anybody asking us to listen to a different song isn’t going to reach us. We know what we need, and that’s not it. So, we keep playing what we need to play until the right tune comes along at the right time, and we fall in love with a new song.

I feel like I can name countless examples over the years of how my songs have changed: A youth director telling me at the beach that, to him, there was nothing wrong with being angry or questioning God and religion; to him, growing closer to what he called God demanded we ask questions, no different than how we’d grow closer to one another by asking each other questions. And then there was a dear professor who handed me a powerful pamphlet he’d written during his sabbatical that got to the heart of some of the questions I was needing to ask. Or, then, there was news of a growing church schism back home that left me bitter and angry and needing to remain in that place for some time. Or, once, a few unexpected emails that were both shocking and profound enough to alter everything about how I pictured the universe at the time. Songs, the lot of them – moments that either defined or changed me in a meaningful way.

I’m not sure if this is one of them because it seems too trivial, but yesterday, I caught an episode of the Daily Show, and John Stewart was interviewing Bill Maher, who is a pretty staunch atheist. Maher bemoaned all of religion. He praised the fact that millennials, he feels, have discovered that “drugs are good and religion is bad.” He commented that he believed Barack Obama is a secret atheist, which reminded me of conservatives claiming Obama is a secret Muslim.

I rolled my eyes at first. To hear Maher lump all religious people together made him seem to me to be just as egocentric as the literalists he was criticizing. He’s always struck me as someone who values being intellectual, so how could he miss the blatantly obvious false dichotomy that suggests you’re either religious or you’re smart. It made me think of how the mainstream media, whenever there’s an argument about religion, always brings only two sides of the argument to the table: the right-wing Evangelical and a liberal. That misses the mark on the number of devout, faithful people throughout history who held their churches and their governments accountable to bring about real progress. People like the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Or Gandhi. It forgets the role churches played (albeit slowly and still many with much left to do) in spearheading the feminist movement (cf. Welter, B.). And it ignores the countless liberal theologians and Biblical scholars who have been writing for decades pushing for gay rights. So, I rolled my eyes at first, annoyed.

And then it kinda hit me: Bill Maher is just a song some people need to listen to because that’s where they are right now, and it’s where they need to be. And that’s okay. Whatever’s happened in their life that’s brought them to that place where they need to be angry with religion (or politics or whatever), Bill Maher is one of the people who may offer them comfort through laughter or critique. Having said that, I think he might argue that I’m suggesting his point of view is a mere stepping stone when he believes it to be the end goal. And if that’s his end goal, that’s okay with me, but for me, I’m more interested in the journey than the destination, and in the sojourning I’ve done thus far, the Bill Maher song is one I don’t need to have on repeat anymore, though it’s had its useful moments.

At the dawn of civilization when life was more tribal, an “us vs. them” image of the world didn’t just make sense; it was crucial to survival. We’re all born a little egocentric, born into that tribal mindset, so to speak, but in the age of the internet and on the cuffs of globalization, we can no longer afford to advocate tribal mentalities. Not in our religions. Not in our politics. Not as Christians. Or as atheists. Or as anything in-between or completely different. If I had to pick where my song was these days, it’s there – advocating something world-centric, something pluralistic, and yet something still faithful and devout – a prayerful journey eager to hear more songs.

And that song, the song that moves me most these days is one that no longer dislikes or bemoans the reality that other people need to listen to their own favorite music at their own pace. And my music isn’t better than anyone else’s. It’s just what speaks to me at the moment. But that’s not to say I’m not interested in seeking out others who want to sing along. So, in this moment of your life, what song are you needing to hear the most? It might be vastly different from the one you listened to years ago or the one you’ll be whistling along to in the years to come. Realizing that we’re all doing that, singing our different songs however we need to, is maybe, just maybe, to bring a little harmony to a whole lot of discord.

Reflections of a Lifelong Education

It was the spring of 2002, my senior year of high school, and I’d been invited to Wabash College for the Lilly Honor Scholarship weekend, along with thirty other guys, many of whom were a lot more accomplished than I. Imagine a room full of thirty Max Fischers fighting at a chance to go to Rushmore Academy, and that’ll give you a decent idea of the steep competition I was facing. Ten of us were going to win a full ride to the school, plus a stipend to travel abroad – valued at about $101,000. The other twenty would likely go home empty-handed.

To win the competition, there was no paper or computer exam. No essay. No tests. There was just an interview – a thirty minute interview with a few professors, alumni, members of the Board of Trustees, as well as the President and Dean of the college. The interview was the test – an opportunity to hear about us, but it wasn’t quite like a job interview or even a news interview. We were told that we’d be asked one serious question about a major current event but that the rest of the interview was to revolve around who we were, what we did and didn’t like, etc.

And of course, there was a lot of superstition around the interview. Rumors of rules we needed to follow if we wanted to win. “On the table, once you walk into the room,” an alumnus told me, “there will be a glass of water in a pitcher. Pour yourself a glass and drink the water. All of it.” Rumor was, historically, the winners of the scholarship were only those who finished the glass of water. I was instructed not to take any chances. Pour the water, drink it all just to be safe, or as my friend had put it, “Finish the damn glass.”

I remember when I walked into the room, I was a deer in headlights. There was a large, rectangular oak table. Around it sat men in business suits and bow ties, grey hair or balding. There was only one empty chair – at the head of the table – and it was mine. On a tray to the side was a pitcher of water and a pitcher of lemonade. My stomach churned: “Oh God, options.” I picked the water, poured it, and took a seat at the end of the table. I was nervous. I took some awkward sips. But I didn’t finish the water.

Then, there were a series of questions, and I had an answer for all of them. “Do you think Sept. 11 changed the world?” or “Why did you choose Wabash?” and “What do you think you want to study here?” At the time, I had my mind set to study biology, actually, or maybe art. I don’t quite remember which. But I remember a religion professor – the renowned Dr. David Blix – a short, stout man sitting next to me as he leaned back into his chair and dryly asked, “Tell us, Philip, what kind of music do you like?”

It seemed like a joke of a question. And it probably was. When I answered that I loved the Beatles, he followed it up by asking me what my favorite Beatles song was. And I went blank. And not like I took a few seconds to think on it and then found an answer, no. I mean Brick Tamland-level blank. I stumbled over words, laughed awkwardly, named like five or six great Beatles songs before finally settling on one. “Love” by John Lennon, I told them. Yeah – it’s not even a Beatles song. I walked out of the interview kicking myself. I immediately started listening to Beatles songs straight through – every single one of them. I was going to pick a favorite Beatles song, and for the rest of my life that was going to be my answer. I settled on “Norwegian Wood (This Bird Has Flown)” and even bought a sitar. I should probably sell my sitar.

When I’ve told this story to friends in the past, I liked to say that my inability to answer that one simple question was why I didn’t win the scholarship. In truth, it probably had something to do with me telling the committee that I didn’t think September 11 changed the world. I didn’t actually believe that. Of course I thought September 11 changed the world. But I was so convinced that would be everybody’s answer that I decided I was going to try my hand at being different. Probably a bad decision in hindsight, though I think I did a half-decent job making the argument at the time. I told them that Americans had changed momentarily. September 11 had brought us together as a nation. Suddenly, everyone was a patriot with an American flag on his or her car, and we’d become all rallied up. Disaster, after all, unites people. But I told them that change was not to be long-lasting. I told them that those flags on the cars would fad with the sun, that people’s sense of unity would eventually corrode. I told them that it was an important, huge event that had altered us briefly, but people always get back to the ugly business being people in the end. Yeah: I was a cynical kid. And though I wasn’t entirely wrong, I didn’t quite have the foresight to quite understand what it means to change the world. And at this point, Iraq was still not on the table.

I guess there were two lessons I learned that spring of 2002. The first was, “always have an answer ready,” and the second was, “don’t assume being different makes you better.” As I’ve gotten older, the first lesson seems immature to me. A better answer to the Beatles song question would have been a simple: “I don’t know; they wrote so many great songs, the one I value today isn’t always the one I’m going to love tomorrow. We change with our music, and it also changes us.” There’s wisdom not only in not knowing but also in accepting how little you know and being a-okay with that.

The second lesson is one I still struggle with. I’ve always been someone, maybe partially because of having been adopted, who felt different and even wanted to be different. If I were in a room full of conservatives, I needed to be a liberal voice, and if I were in a room full of liberals, I needed temper that with a more conservative yearning. I loved being a devil’s advocate, because I felt I always learned more by being skeptical, but there was a cost. In a world with considerable deconstruction of every idea and ideology, I often found myself desperately looking for a way to build things back up again, to fix the world I’d deconstructed or helped deconstruct, only to discover I couldn’t do so without sitting around in a cesspool of contradictions I’d uncovered leaving me totally, existentially isolated from everything and everyone I once valued. I think these days, I’m busy doing the work of finally deciding what’s right for me and not just being, well, contrarian.

In the end, I did win a scholarship, though not the Lilly. I won the college’s Fine Arts Fellowship covering half tuition, actually. And even when I changed my mind about majoring in art history and pursued the religion route, the college let me keep the money. But in a way, that one interview four months before I started Wabash was my first real class at the college, and I haven’t forgotten that weekend at Wabash, the Lilly weekend, where a few first challenging questions that probably shouldn’t have been so difficult have given me a deep pause to reflect on what it means to be educated and keep educating myself and others.

Poindexter, Dave Matthews, and following your heart

When I started Wabash, I remember the day my parents moved me into the Kappa Sigma house was a really hot August morning, and when we walked into the fraternity house, I remember being greeted by “Bill” who was huge and shirtless and immediately intimidated the hell out of me. I was a gangling munchkin by comparison, and something about fraternity life still scared me. When Bill walked across the green carpet floors of the living room, the whole place creaked, but it turned out Bill was a huge teddy bear, probably one of the nicest guys in the house, if not too nice. He asked me who I was, knew exactly where I should go, and offered to carry some of my things. Books and covers and not judging or something along those lines, right? 

Because Wabash at the time  was nearly 75% Greek, fraternity houses were used as dormitories until the end of pledge week. I moved in that morning and I never moved out. I don’t think I even looked at a single other fraternity. As Bill helped me schlep my belongings upstairs to “Upper North,” I was immediately introduced to a senior named Glenn E. “Hambone” Smith IV – or his pledge name, Poindexter. Yes, the Poindexter from Revenge of the Nerds. And there was a striking resemblance.

P.dex, as he was called, turned out to be a psychology major who could play any musical instrument he picked up. Guitar, bass, drums – he was really good at drums – and some part of me wants to say he could play the saxophone, as well, but it may just be that every time you walked into his room, either Charlie Parker or Stan Getz was blaring from the speakers. I’m pretty sure there was also a long phase in which P.dex listened heavily to Bossa nova among other random Brazilian jazz.

Midway through the first semester, there was almost a routine in place. As we sat in P.dex’s hunter green room, we chatted usually about music or God or studied quietly. P.dex was a member of Campus Crusade and never missed a Sunday morning of church – probably one of the only guys in the house who attended any church, certainly the only who attended regularly. He seemed together to me, though there was the air that life hadn’t always been that simple, and that by his senior year, he’d really figured a lot out. We were paired pretty early on with what down south everyone calls “bigs” or “big brothers” in the Greek system, though at Wabash we called them “pledge fathers.” It came as no surprise that my pledge father was P.dex, given our shared interest in religion and music and the fact we were already roommates.

One of the more poignant moments of my freshman year came in the library. I was working on a religion assignment, and P.dex sat across from me doodling on a sheet of paper. He scribbled down the words, “Where are you going?” It was the second semester of his senior year. For P.dex, it was something of a literal question. What’s after Wabash? For me, with three more years ahead, I wasn’t ready to think about what was next. I’d only just declared myself a religion major. But the question still burrowed its way in and became something existential. At the time, I might have just as easily worded it, “What are you about?”

Back in the hunter green jazz room, Glenn broke out his guitar and started strumming and singing Dave Matthew’s song, the same words he’d doodled out in the library. A song that was so obviously a conversation between a guy and a girl was, to P.dex, a conversation between himself and his understanding of the sacred, of Something Greater, of God. Dave sings, “I know one thing, that’s where you are is where I belong; I do know where you go is where I want to be.”

Lately, that mantra has sort of settled over me, and I feel some of P.dex’s old dilemma. My sense of God today is not the same as it was when I was that gangling freshman in college, and it never quite matched what P.dex’s believed. Still, I’ve always felt pulled, moved, directed by something bigger than me. This morning, one of my old TA’s posted an article he wrote for Huffington Post, and in the article he confesses: “Maybe God is imaginary. Maybe love is too. So what? The imagination matters. It shapes civilizations and the saints (and even the tyrants) they produce.” These days, I feel a little like I’m learning what it means to sit with my imagination, though it’s beyond what happens in my head. I wish there were a word in English for the kind of “imagining” the heart can do. There are days where I am haunted by the fact that I don’t have a clear answer to the question, “Where are you going?” But there is a phrase that is settling on me as a kind of constant reminder to listen to myself. It’s simple, straight-forward, and it’s not the answer I wish I had, but for now is good enough: Follow your heart.

So tell me, heart, where are you going?

 

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.