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.


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.

More than Just a Song, Part One

Here is a full playlist of all the songs mentioned in this blog. Or, if you’d prefer, you can pick your own to listen to as they’ve been individually linked, as well. For some time now, I’ve wanted to jot out a kind of musically history of sorts – the bands I loved, why I came to love them, and the songs that stuck.

It was December in my senior year of high school. And it was in the Hardees parking lot in the south of town where I refused to go inside with my parents. I just waited in the car while they ate. I don’t remember now what I was upset about. I just remember feeling very incredibly alone.

Growing up, the car was somehow always tuned to the same radio station, 103.1 FM, which always hearkened back to the days of the Wonder Years, and images of Kevin Arnold and Winnie Cooper walking down a dark street at night pushing their bicycles slowly could have easily been my Mom and Dad. By high school, my sister had taken to listening to Green Day’s “Dookie” album or Smashing Pumpkins or a series of women singers who, at the time, I thought all wanted to kill themselves. I’d never taken to Beth’s style of music. I saw it as rebellious like her, but I had to be the “good” kid, which meant I was stuck with the Mamas and the Papas, or worse, the Carpenters.

But here I was sitting in the car by myself, upset for God-only-knows what reasons, still tuned to “Kool 103,” and for once, instead of playing something from 1955, “I am a Rock” by Simon and Garfunkel came on instead. I soaked in the lyrics: “I have no need for friendship; friendship causes pain. It’s laughter and it’s loving I disdain.” That made me smile. Someone else out there understood exactly how I felt.

I guess that was the first time that I realized music was more than just something to sing along to for fun, the first time I saw it as art or realized it could touch the inner psyche and move us to the core of ourselves.

Strangely enough, I never bought a Simon and Garfunkel album. For my birthday, instead, someone bought me John Lennon’s “Greatest Hits,” which I put on repeat, and over the course of the next few years, I rebelled from 50s music by obsessing with music from the 60s instead. Some rebel, huh?

I started buying every Beatles album I could get my hands on until I had it all, and the only other music I was willing to listen to was anything that John Williams had performed. I made it my mission to own every soundtrack he’d ever composed from Jaws to E.T. to Jurassic Park to Star Wars to Born on the Fourth of July to, well, you name it, and I probably own it.

One summer morning sleeping in, I remember waking up and shoving Revolver into my CD player and blasting as loud as I could “I’m Only Sleeping.” It was summer, and no one could tell me what to do. I could sleep forever. Lay in bed all day. But then, my Mom walked in crying, I turned the music down, and she told me that my grandmother had unexpectedly died during the night. Sometimes, there are songs that carve their way into us because of the words they say or they way they move us and speak to us within. Sometimes, a song sticks with us just because it’s what we were listening to when something significant happened. Granny was sleeping now. And that’s all that song would ever mean to me.

I hated high school, and going off to college became an escape to a level of freedom and independence I had yearned for. By the time I started packing, I wasn’t listening to Beatles anymore. I’d stolen old CDs from my sister – particularly one of the Smashing Pumpkins albums, and as I packed, I listened constantly to their “Greatest Hits,” especially Drown. Somewhere in there, that became my official “pack-and-go” music, and to this day, if I’m getting ready to leave to go somewhere, you’ll hear me listening to the Pumpkins.

College was for me what I think it is for everyone – a time of musical exploration and sharing. My first year of college, I stumbled onto John Mayer (who I stopped listening to after my then-girlfriend confessed she asked him to sign her breasts at his concert) and Emitt Rhodes and Jack Johnson. At other times, movies or even commercials became a way to familiarize myself with new music. There was an old Volkswagen Cabrio commercial where a group of people were driving to a party, but then when they arrived at the party, they decided they just wanted to keep driving instead. Nick Drake’s “Pink Moon” was the backdrop to that. After watching the Royal Tenenbaums that year with one of my fraternity brothers, I stumbled onto another sad little man named Elliott Smith, a singer-songwriter who was heavy metal unplugged.

I remember one of my fraternity brothers walking into my room one night while I was studying and listening to Elliott, and he exclaimed, “Bolton! [my name in college] Why do you always listen to such sad music? I get depressed whenever I walk in here. It’s God-awful.” That made me smile. By my sophomore year, Elliott had stabbed himself in his heart – twice (pulling out and going back in) – lending some credence to my fraternity brother’s concerns.

There were happier songs, too. I found Ben Harper at camp in conversation with my friend Zach and used a lot of his music in worship as a camp director there. There were other songs that I played whenever I thought of a certain girl or two. And breakup songs in their wake.

But all of that was background noise to my life. The lyrics were a kind of commentary to what was happening. Rarely did the song itself poke at me.

But then, the Beatles made a comeback when I traveled abroad with a friend to Scotland, and on our way up, we stayed a night in Liverpool. I took a long walk looking for the famous Strawberry Field, and when I got there, I discovered that the song was actually named for an orphanage where John Lennon played when he was a kid. Those words “no one I think is in my tree” were words about family that I could deeply connect with as someone who had been adopted. I felt a kindred spirit with Lennon – whether I should have or not. Other songs of his, like “Yer Blues,” where he sings, “My mother was of the sky, my father was of the earth, but I am of the universe, and you know what it’s worth,” became a mantra of sorts for me. And that semester abroad became an exploration of music, home, and family – and what all that meant. I turned those two songs over in my head for a long time.

And then I graduated college from the Athens of Indiana and moved to Nashville, music city and the Athens of the South. I’d been born in Nashville and fell in love with it with its one tower too tall, its Bat poet on cable, and the Americana music that you could find any night somewhere in the city.

More to come in part two.


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

6. The Unknown

[vimeo 7670356]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

America! A Top Ten of Sorts

When I landed in Dallas, the whirlwind of the past few weeks hit me pretty hard, and I had this moment when the plane took off to Madrid where I just sort of thought to myself, “Was I just in America?  Is that what this place is?”

All that time I spent overseas, and much of it gave me a chance to view America from outside the bubble.  I guess I thought when I returned to the bubble, I’d be more aware of all those things I’d analyzed when I was outside of it, as though I’d managed to take it apart and rebuild it in a way that made more sense to me.  I guess I thought that would make the bubble different somehow.  But instead, I feel a little like I just sort of fell right back into things, as though I’d never left.  And that was a bit disappointing.  Right down to the little things.  I wanted to be deeply aware of the warmth of the house or the cushioned couches or the soft carpet.  But instead, it just felt natural, to the point that it didn’t even phase me, and that was strange to me when I looked back in hindsight.  So I guess it did phase me, just not in the moment.

And then on top of that, something about America just left this really sour taste in my mouth.  Something toxic.  I haven’t been able to put my finger on what it was exactly, only on the simplicity I value with my life in Morocco.  Maybe if I knew the language better, I’d be more aware of the politics and the daily, interpersonal struggles that are as true to Morocco as they are to America.  Actually, that’s not true.  I am aware of those things.  I encounter them all the time in Morocco – whether between volunteers or between Moroccans.  So why does it bother me so much more in America?    Maybe it’s because it’s so temporary that it doesn’t even really matter.  I don’t get caught up as much in the turmoil of life in Morocco, because well, life in Morocco isn’t really my life.

Or is it?  That’s another conversation I’ve been having in my head lately.  Isn’t everything temporary to some degree?  Morocco is my life, because Morocco is where I am right now.  It’s about living in the moment and not dwelling or longing for the past.  If only I could learn to think of America in those terms.

But anyhow – I didn’t just want to write a blog slamming America or saying something was wrong with my country.  There was a lot there I was reminded of, a lot there I deeply love and care for, and that’s what this blog is actually about.  So, without further ado, an American top ten list of all things I loved, have missed, care deeply about, or will continue to miss, in no particular order:

10.  Harold Burdette.  Nashville.   When I wrote the blog about culture shock, I’d only been in Jackson, my hometown.  It wasn’t until the end of my trip, when I trekked off to the place that had been my actual home for almost four years that I realized just how much culture shock I still had ahead of me.  I drove my dad’s SUV to Nashville, and I was telling Katie after I got there that I realized during the drive that culture shock makes you sound like you’ve been smoking something.  “Woah mannnn, look at all these trees.  There’s just so many trees.  And the road is soooo smooth.  Dude.”

I could go into what a joy it was to see so many Nashville folks, whether they were friends from Lakeshore, Vanderbilt, or Rehoboth, but the part of it that really made me feel “at home” was that it was an actual homecoming of sorts.  Most people reminded me that America can actually be a very hospitable place.  Katie and Harold did their best to help me pursue eating at every restaurant possible that was left on my list, including a midnight run to Dunkin Donuts, and Greta and I did Chinese take-out, and to have people so attentive to the fact that you’ve been without what is ho-hum and normal to them is something I cant be thankful for enough.  When I got ready to leave Nashville, Greta reminded me that her home was my home, and I’m pretty sure I could kick Jacob out of his room as soon as he graduates if I wanted a place to crash in Nashville indefinitely.

9.  Abner “Ghralid” Doubleday, puppydawg extraordinaire.  In Arabic, “ghralid” translates as “fat.”  So, just gonna put that out there to anyone I might know who feeds Abner chunks of bread.  My dog is turning into a Berber woman who never leaves the house.  Aw, who am I kidding, I love that little butterball!  But he’s not this kid anymore:

I don’t think the poor guy has forgotten me at all.  He whined and whined the first night when Mom put him in his crate, and so I let him crash with me.  And every time I walked into the house, he about went crazy.  Definitely miss that puppy dog.

8.  Heated buildings.  Seriously.  The fact that I had the luxury to wear a short-sleeve t-shirt inside my house still baffles me.  I’m in Rabat now, and I’m not, like, freezing cold or anything, but the idea of not wearing layers is just absurd.  My friend Driss just told me that it’s going to be -6 (22 degrees) in Fes tomorrow.  That’s not okay.  If McDonald’s is warm, I know where I’ll be spending all day.  But in America, we take for granted that it’s even cold elsewhere.  I could bear walking outside for a few minutes in America with just a hoodie on, because I knew I’d be able to return to a warm house.  But here, my next two months will be spent longing for spring and a warm day outside.

7.  Taking baths.  No, seriously.  Again.  I don’t take baths.  What am I?  A Man?  But oh, I took a bath in America.  I took a bath every day in America, and the part of me that kept telling myself, “you’re terrible for wasting this much water” nevertheless enjoyed every single second of it and will not regret it, at least, for a long time.  I’m about to move into a house with no warm water (I currently have a water heater that I spent almost a hundred dollars on), so I’m sure I’ll value it even more this time next year.   But being completely surrounded by scolding hot water and almost falling asleep in it… well, that’s the essence of pure excellence, and it’s something I’ll think fondly of when I’m taking ‘bucket baths’ in a few weeks.  Not to mention how much fun you can have taking a bath, and don’t think I didn’t break out my rubber ducky or my submarine:

6.  My Grandfather’s Farm.  A few days before taking off to Nashville, I went out to my grandfather’s farm with Hope Montgomery (who is planning her own trip to Morocco right now).  The hundred year-old farm is a hundred fifty acres of creeks that run into the Forked Deer River, of hills and ravines, of old barns, logging trails, corn and soy crops, and even a pond or two.  It’s become one of my favorite places to walk around and explore with friends, and I’d build trails through the woods if I had the time.  Hope and I managed to walk the property line (see photo), and at one end of the property, we discovered a three-foot tall waterfall that bled into a pretty deep “lagoon” of sorts in the creek bed.  As we kept walking, we ended up somehow deciding to push over dead trees, and the winner of the day was the person who pushed over the most trees.  I won, but Hope is claiming the “tree of the day.”

I don’t think there’s a whole lot better than hiking around a place you love with someone you can talk to about just about anything, and Hope is one of those “old souls” who yearns for deep conversation ranging from theology to whatever ensures an intentional purpose in life and everything we do in it.  I’ve actually been thinking about that a lot lately, you know, about how I’m sort of tied to this brooding, this deep-thinking I can’t really seem to escape, and it is something I love, but I think it sets me apart or makes me seem arrogant or distant or shy at times.

Some people can approach something like, say, their love for their country, and that’s just natural and what it is.  You were born an American, so you’re proud to be an American.  Plain and simple.  I feel the same way.  I love my country, but at the same time, I’m not satisfied with just being born into something and accepting it.  I need, I yearn, to ask more of myself and others.  I need to ask, “What is patriotism?” or “What does it mean to be an American as opposed to something else?” or “Can it be patriotic to disagree with my country?”  And those are things that I can’t process unless I take them to some existential level.  And patriotism is just the example.  I’m really talking about, well, everything I do.  I guess all that is to say, I realize there’s a lot of people out there who probably can’t wrap their minds around me or the way I think, or how ridiculous I can be when I start my brooding, but I also hope I can make it make more sense to them.  An attempt at mutual understanding.

But walking around in the woods, seeing nature firsthand and being thankful for it, and chatting with a friend.   Well, it just doesn’t get much better than that.

5.  Church.  But not what you’re thinking.  While I was in Nashville, I went one night to get dinner with Alex Thompson and his family, a family that attends Rehoboth, where I worked as a youth director before joining Peace Corps.  Before the dinner, Alex’s dad asked Alex to say the prayer.  Alex then said, “Actually, I was kind of hoping Philip could do that.”  It caught me off-guard.  I hadn’t spoken a prayer out loud like that in over a year.  I hadn’t stepped inside of a church, except the ones that were basically museums in Portugal, in over a year.  I thought to myself, “I wonder what would happen if I busted out chanting, ‘Bismillah!  Allahhhhhh Ackbar!'”  We bowed our heads and I recollected myself and said a prayer.   One that was honest and from the heart.  One that was deeply thankful that we were able to be together.

Later in the evening, Alex and I were upstairs in his room, and he mentioned that he felt like he needed to work on his “relationship with God,” something he felt he had managed to lose sight off, especially with not attending church as much or Bible Study.  I looked at him and chuckled, and said something like, “If that’s what it means to have a relationship with God, stop wasting your time working on your relationship with God.  Work on your relationship with people instead.  Forgive someone who wronged you.  Ask for forgiveness from someone you hurt.  Directly to that person (as opposed to making a public “apology” and not really caring whether they get wind of it some way or another, which for the record, is not an apology).  Get out there and work in a soup kitchen and talk with the people you’re serving.  Ask questions, lots and lots of questions.  Don’t be satisfied with what you hear from the pulpit or what you read in the Bible.  I’m not saying Bible study or prayer or going to church aren’t important, but I believe that God is most present in what’s relational, not all this interpersonal, self-focused crap that doesn’t force us to face other people or figure out how to love them rightly.  It would be nice if you did all that through the Church and with the Church, or if the Church isn’t doing it, hold the Church accountable or be the leader who steps up to make it happen, but if that can’t happen, what’s important is that you’re loving people, and you’ll find God in that – whether in the Church or outside of it.”

The next night, I was surrounded by former youth, all of whom are driving now – which was weird.  I don’t think there was a prayer said or anything “churchy” that happened.  We just sat around and ate chocolate pretzels and watched pictures from Morocco flash across the screen, and yet, it felt like some communion; it felt like family.  It felt more like what Church should be than what Church is today.  And when I see those youth, I stop worrying about the direction of the Church, because with or without Church, I think they’re all going to be okay kids who turn out just fine, and maybe even better despite the hurt that so often happens within the Church, they’ll know they are loved, and they’ll know they’re still children of God.

That said, I really, really want to believe that the Church is necessary and relevant to our lives, especially as someone who considers ordination, and I definitely believe it’s important to have that community, that family, like the youth group sitting around eating chocolate pretzels.  And I do think a lot of Church’s do a lot of good, and I think Rehoboth continues to be one of those places that’s working on getting it right.  It’s important, after all, to recognize that the Church is the broken body of Christ, and I was reminded of that while I was home in America, especially as I considered my parent’s decision to leave our “home” church and how that’s affected me.  It’s a broken body.   It’s not perfect.  I get that.  But a broken body without a resurrection, without hope or forgiveness, isn’t worth our time or effort, and while some churches get that, others don’t.  Many are too focused on all the wrong things to even see the problem.

There’s an ongoing myth, really an outright lie, that updating the church with new music and sleek musical instruments, with new, state-of-the-art technology and even state-of-the-art ideas will attract a vibrant, younger audience.  I don’t doubt for a second that the church does need new music, new instruments, new technologies, and ideas, and when I was at Rehoboth, we took that to heart, implementing the contemporary service (the first of its kind at that church), helping bring a LCD-projector and screens to the building, forming a youth band, etc.  But hear me on this: my generation is not abandoning the church in droves because they don’t like old people who are set in their ways or because they don’t like high church music.  And my generation will not – absolutely will not – return to the Church just because they finally got around to singing “I can only imagine” instead of “Morning has Broken.”  My generation stays at home, because my generation is tired of the way this thirty- or forty-something generation bickers over things like music, worship style, or the color of the carpet.  Rehoboth grew in size because there was love happening there, and my generation is ready to love people, and they’re doing it already – many of them outside of the Church or in spite of the Church, and I’m quickly coming to a place where I support their mass exodus when Church’s feel the need to defend their misdeeds rather than show the kind of humility that comes with, “Well, we just don’t know if we got this right or not.”  A kind of humility that widens and includes as many as possible rather than delivering the messages that say, “This is what we’re doing; join us or leave.”  Because Jesus was a peripatetic and not a “Church”-planter, and there might actually be something more like “church” the way Jesus understood it far beyond four walls where our obsessions are with control and winning rather than love or service.  And while I’m not naive enough to think that that ideal picture of church won’t come with it’s own brokenness (it will), it’s time for this age-old story about change in the church and the way to fix it to be replaced with something better.  Because if it can’t be, there won’t be a church when my generation is older.

4.  Family.  And friends who are like family.   Let’s face it.  That’s what most of this blog is really about.  So I won’t even say more there.  It just deserves it’s own place, because I couldn’t have a better set of parents who are so nurturing and kind, and because I know I drive Mom up the wall with my ocean-hopping and my gallivanting.  She loves me anyway.

3.  Steve, and her wonderful owner.  I got to spend time with Maria Mayo, who has the uncanny ability to size me up in a few words after only a few moments, and is probably one of the only people I know who can do that and get it pretty close to right.  Maria’s fifteen year-old cat, Steve, was also present, and I’ve mentioned Steve before, or at least, I think I have.  I might have even posted this video of Steve, but it was wonderful to see Steve and Maria, to share with them (well, really just Maria, because Steve stayed in her closet most of the time) where my path seems to be taking me.

2.  Restaurants.  Five Guys Burgers & Fries.  I know I said this top ten list was “in no particular order,” but let’s be honest about this for a second: Five Guys, you’re number 1 in my heart, or should I say stomach?!  I’m hoping somebody in corporate reads this and immediately sends me a message offering me free Five Guys for the rest of my life for mentioning you and my love for you in my blog.  No, seriously, I’m not joking.  Make me a lifetime member of your restaurant, because you make the best burgers on the planet.

As many of you may recall, I had a list of places I wanted to eat while I was home.  Of the sixty or so places on the list, I think there may have been ten that didn’t happen.  But that’s alright, I think.  This is sort of strange, because most places I ate were disappointing.  I think I’d just hyped it up so much in my head that when I actually ate it, I wasn’t all that excited about it anymore.  I even thought at one point, “I make better Mexican food than this,” and that was just disheartening.  But Five Guys!  You lived up to the hype!  Thanks for always being there!

1.  The Seventh Grade Students of Greta Frensley’s Geography Classes.   On my last day in Nashville, I took time out of my schedule to go visit my “Peace Corps Coverdell Worldwise School,” which is what the Vlog is for.  I talked to three classes of about 30 students in each group about my life in Morocco, about Islam, about couscous and Moroccan culture.  I fielded questions left and right from a very attentive class.  Students would walk by and say, “Philip’s here!”  And I even got to see the bulletin board titled “Philip’s Travels” or something like that.  I’m working on getting a hold of video for this event.  Maybe pictures if I can take them from the video.

The real treasure came from Greta’s – or sorry again, Ms. Frensley’s – email that came later that day:  “When I asked for questions or comments about the morning’s discussion, [one student] said that it meant a lot to her to hear about the way that you had been treated by Muslims and that they were nice …[r]eally, that was the coolest.  And it is what I strive for all of the time… that the kids will come away from class with some new understanding….”

When I hear something like that, I think about the different goals of Peace Corps, and how the third goal, to share Moroccan culture with the people of America, really might be one of the most important goals I could have to fulfill.  That goal will be what makes this experience a lifetime experience, and it’s something I deeply, deeply value.

Well, there you have it.  Another top ten list down.