A Year at Sea.

One year ago today, I stepped off a boat that crossed the Atlantic and walked right onto American soil after twenty-seven months of living in the Kingdom of Morocco. It’s hard, almost painful even, to recognize it’s been a year. A year of what? A year of job-searching and soul-searching – probably more of the latter. A year of readjustment and reverse culture shock that was never quite what I thought it was going to be. A year of solitude, which at times was the quiet I needed it to be and at other times was a quiet that haunted me. A year of writing culminating in the form of a rather lengthy, heavy novel that was a way to process where I’d been and where I was headed. In that sense, it was more of a journal than it was fiction, but I’m not sure I’ve ever been more happy to complete something creative I’d put my mind – and eventually my heart – into the way I did that book.

I’ve had rough years before, sure, but I’d never had one like this, one that literally casts you out into the sea and exclaims, “Swim or don’t.” There were days, I remember, when I was crossing the Atlantic, where all I could see surrounding the ship was water for three or four days straight, and I knew when I stepped onto American soil that some part of me was still at sea. (Literally and figuratively: for weeks, I had sea legs).

When you feel like you’re stranded in the ocean like that, you spend a lot of time, I think, just floating on your back, staring up at the sky, and asking where your ancestors are way up in the stars, old light made new the moment you’ve seen it. When you wash up onto land finally, weary from the swim, it can be tempting to believe you washed right up onto the same shore you were cast out from. There’s both fear and rejoicing in that. But it’s not the same old beach. And you realize that pretty quickly when you realize there’s a lot of people out there toe-testing the water, going, “Hmm, I could swim that; doesn’t look so bad.” They may even jump into the bay and believe they’ve battled tidal waves. They know nothing. Only when you’ve washed up on the other side of the gulf, slowly getting your bearings straight, do you realize just how, well, silly they are. I do wonder how much more we’d love each other if we were all forced to jump into the sea and try to make it to the other side. Just our knowledge that so few of us make it ought to be enough reason for us to love one another passionately, earnestly, and with sacred admiration.

And so, if you’d asked me two or three months ago to describe 2013, I would have answered with a series of expletives. Now that I’ve washed up on the other side, soaked in a little sun, and brushed off the sand, I see it differently. Maybe it’s cliché to say that the hard years are the most important. I certainly don’t want to face anymore of those anytime soon, and yet, I’m now on my own two feet moving forward into the forest that’s ahead. It’s a whole other unknown world. But it’s dry land. And once you’ve weathered the sea, you carry nothing but gratitude and strength going forward. No matter the dangers you’ll face in the forest, there’s always nothing but gratitude and strength for what has already come to pass. 

And for that, this year, you won’t find anyone more thankful to be good, to be alive, to be on his own two feet, than me.

Write it Out

When I lived in Morocco as a Peace Corps volunteer, the purpose of my blog was clear: I wanted to share with the folks back home what life was like in a different culture. I wanted to educate people about Moroccans and about Islam and be able to provide a bird’s eye view of this whole other world apart from America.

When I got back, I shut down my Peace Corps blog – what I had titled “My Moroccan World.” My service had ended. What was left to say? I was entering a time of job hunting filled with transitions, and if I was going to brood about that process, I wanted to do so privately.

Then, in March, my need to write lead me to reopen my blog under a new title – “Saunterings” – but I kept it private, only inviting a small handful of folks to join and read along. With the blog private, like much of my life during this transition phase, I began to feel comfortable saying whatever I wanted. That lead to me adding “sections” to the blog, where I could write a lot about some of my passions in a thoughtful way, especially adoption, but also other socio-political and religious commentary. Anybody who knows me knows those are things I deeply enjoy discussing.

But now, I’ve decided to take the blog public. 

Not because I expect anyone should want to read my endless pontificating. I’d love the discussion if people do end up here and want to engage, but let’s be honest: this blog isn’t anything more than a guy who writes because he needs to; I’m not looking to impress you with anything I have to say so much as I’m hoping to be impressed by what you have to respond. My decision to move the blog from a private place to a public one is less about the audience and more about me. For months, readjusting to American life, I confess I’ve been somewhat of a recluse, and I think the private blog has been a place to foster that quiet solitude. Not that a public blog breeds a social life, but in moving the blog to a public place, I think I’m also saying, maybe symbolically, that I’m ready to get back out there in the world, slowly but surely.

And for me, the best way to do that, to come out of my shell and claim who I am and want to be, has always been to write it out. That is what this blog is really all about to me, when it comes down to it. It’s a place to make sense of both the sacred and the mundane and to figure out how to walk the line between the two.

The readjustment phase, the transition of moving from Morocco to America, isn’t over. I am still deeply “reverse culture shocked” but in ways that aren’t obvious. I am still looking for a job. I’ll take one anywhere in the world I can find one, and I’ll be awesome at it. I expect the next few months to have the same highs-and-lows the past eleven have had, but in walking the line between them, that same line between the sacred and the mundane, I’ll be writing it out, and my hope is that I’ll no longer be intent on doing that alone.

So, if you’re just coming here, welcome to the blog. You can see I’ve put a lot of time and energy into it. If you happen by, I hope you’ll “write it out” a little with me.

Some Thoughts on Reverse Culture Shock after Being Gone for Two Years

So, I know you’re all wondering what it’s like being back.  I’ll do my best to explain it briefly.

In a nutshell, it’s this strange sensation that makes you feel like you never actually left.  But there’s this huge gap in your head and, to a lesser degree, your body that makes you feel like everything is very, very different even though it all looks and sounds and acts the same as it was before.  Mom and Dad seem the same.  Abner is the same (even if slightly fatter).  The house looks the same (aside from some new furniture).  The squirrels still play in the yard.  The blue jays and the mockingbirds still hop about.  It still rains like it used to.  It’s still cold in December like it was before.  But none of it seems quite right.

So you could say, it’s a little like I had this dream that was Morocco, and the dream deeply changed me, but I woke up, and I don’t know how it changed me.  Everything around me seems just like it was when I went to sleep minus a few minor differences.  Now, Im trying to sort out just who I am or who I’m supposed to be in light of the dream that happened.

At least, that’s what it’s settled into.  When I first got back, it was a little like this honeymoon period. [I will spare any volunteers reading this by avoiding any mention of the cheesy gordita crunch I ate or the home-cooked lasagna my mother prepared].  At first, everything was more comfy, more clean, more spiffy.  Everything makes you smile a little, because hey, it’s home.  You see something like well-paved roads or ride in a car where you’re actually wearing seat-belts  and it’s expected rather than offensive to the driver.  There’s no dust.  Just green trees everywhere, and if you comment on something like that – like, “Oh man, trees.  Everywhere, trees” – you sound a little like you’ve been smoking the reefer.  I mean, I’ve never been high, surprisingly, but I imagine it’s a bit like culture shock.

Then, it just gets weird.  You drive the first time, and you drive like a grandpa, because even though it’s hard to forget how to drive, you’re just extra cautious.  Or in my case, I drive by my own street I grew up on and actually miss the turn off.

Part of all my driving has been trips to stores to buy different things.  New sweatpants I’ve wanted for months.  Gifts for Christmas.  Lots of window shopping for things I had in Morocco and miss.  I spent two days looking for a tagine in Jackson.  Epic fail.  Still, every time I made a purchase, I hated myself a little.  I’d think in Moroccan dirhams and think, “Oh, God, this is adding up.  You’ve almost spent 2000 dirham and haven’t even been home for a week.”

One of my first days back in Jackson, I went with Beth to see Lincoln and that was my first monetary culture shock.  Except, the issue wasn’t really how much the movie cost so much as it was the fact I couldn’t understand the lady asking for money.  That’s actually been the biggest shock, I think: Southern Drawl.  I’m so acclimated to British English or, at least, very, very accentuated, clear English, that I had forgotten what people from the American South sounded like, and I could honestly not understand the word “fourteen” (the cost of the movie for two).

“‘at’ll beh fart-ten dohlarz.”

“Uh…”  I stood there with my wallet while Beth paid.  I just felt dumbfounded that whatever had just been spoken did not compute at all.

That’s just it, though.  It’s the little things that are the real shocks.  And they slowly add up and create this whole experience of feeling out-of-place and confused.  Like – I stood at the window watching squirrels play and realized I hadn’t seen a squirrel in two years and how weird that was for me.  The day after that, it rained, and I mean, it wasn’t just raining, it was pouring, and I realized that I’d only really seen a few light drizzles in Morocco.  It just doesn’t downpour in the desert very often.  This was an outright storm by my desert standards.

On the more utilitarian side, I kinda hate using forks and knives when I have perfectly good fingers.  Oh, and so you know, yes, I have returned to using toilet paper, and it’s not all that bad, although I very deeply miss squatting.  It’s so much better for your back and your bowels.  It’s what we were made to do when it comes to bathroom etiquette, so it kind of annoys me that we think of this porcelain throne as a symbol of civilization when it just makes us look kind of stupid, in my opinion.

A lot of people told me, and I wrote about this a while back, that I would be depressed when I got home.  Even Peace Corps has offered three free sessions for a psychologist because reintegration is supposedly that difficult.  I can’t really say I’m depressed, but I understand already why that would be necessary.  Morocco, after all, was my life.  Even when I had nothing to do, I had a reason to be doing nothing.  The aching beauty of such a rugged culture bred and encouraged this lively feeling that just made you constantly want to scream, “This is Morocco.”  You always felt alive.  Here, in America, everything is… well… normal.  And the norm is numbed and dulled and expected.  It’s not the unknown I’ve come to love.  Mom asked me yesterday why I’d asked for “so much camping stuff” for gifts this Christmas with a degree of consternation.  I think she’s worried that I’m already planning some escape.  Am I?

In the meantime, I have to admit, I’ve been keeping a low profile.  If you haven’t heard from me, well, you’re probably not the only one.  My day is consumed with teaching myself French (I learned colors, numbers, and the verb ‘to be’ today), working on my novel, and looking up job or school opportunities.  It’s quiet and unobtrusive, and I actually like it.  The few times I go out, if there are lots of people around, I get anxious.  I have set up shop literally right in front of the Christmas tree, and it’s about the most therapeutic place I could ask for to write and think and do all the things I do best.

So, there you have it.  That’s where I’m at for now.  A good dose of reverse culture shock combined with a productive schedule.  I hope you’re doing well, whatever you’re doing and wherever you are.

Announcing the “Adopt a Volunteer” and “Peace Corps Repatriation Programs”

I think living alone in a different culture makes you really want to share that experience with someone back home.  You have these moments where you just need to show a tiny image of what your life is really like, and with my friend Patrick and Lindsay Drake visiting me these past few weeks, I’ve gotten a few opportunities to say, “So, what do you think?  Is this just all crazy, or what?”

Chester (Patrick) was my fraternity brother in college, and he keeps saying (and this may not be a joke) that he wants to start an “adopt a volunteer” program where Americans can sponsor, for a small fee, the rough-and-tough lives of Peace Corps Volunteers.  Think Sarah Mclachlen’s “save a pet” commercial but to the tune of “save a Peace Corps Volunteer.”  Of course, then we realized that the “small fee” is actually just America’s tax dollars.

So, then, Patrick came up with the idea of what he called the “Peace Corps Repatriation Program,” where volunteers returning to America after a few years in a different culture would need to go through a “program” to help stop them from many common faux pas, as they re-entered American life.  Here are just a few we worried many of the recent volunteers who have returned to the States (like Caity, Avery, and Nicole) will be dealing with for the next few months:

1. Trying to bargain for prices at Target: “What do you mean this lamp is $39.95?!  That’s my rent for a month!  Jump down on the price a little, please.  Please, I speak your language.  Just knock the price down a tiny bit.”

2. Pooping in the bathtub: “I’m sorry, Mom, but the drain was a hole in the floor, so it just made sense.  Can’t you buy a bucket?”

3.  Table manners, or lack thereof, as everyone stares at the returned volunteer, shocked, “Did Avery just suck the marrow out of that bone?”

4. Using bread instead of utensils at the Olive Garden, “Uhm, sir, we’re going to have to limit you on bread sticks.  We are running out of bread.  Can you not see that you have forks and knives to eat your lasagna?”

5. Transportation: “I’m thinking about taking a trip to Chicago or Florida this weekend.  It’s only an twelve hour drive either way, and in Peace Corps time, that’s nothing.”

You get the idea.

It’s been nice having them here.  Sharing this life with someone has been extremely important to me for quite some time, so I’m glad to finally have been able to do it.  I think they get why I love it here, and that’s important to me, too.  I’ve managed to get a few of their pictures uploaded onto Flickr and whatnot.  Have a shufty.

Culture Shock Delight

(Reverse) culture shock is a whole different animal from what you might expect.  It can actually be really funny.  I mean, for me, it was most apparent looking for a lighter to light the stove.  Or how I just exclaimed, “America” over and over after using Glad Press’n Seal Multi-Purpose wrap.  Isn’t that stuff wonderful?

But all that’s very surface-level stuff.  It’s the snout and foot of the elephant in the room, and the room isn’t really big enough to hold an elephant.  To be honest, it was a lack of those blatant culture shock moments that’s been so surprising.  My culture shock, if that’s what it is, I think, has more to do with being shocked by how not-shocked I am.  And that runs deep.  I don’t feel like I’ve been gone for a year, but I want to feel like I have been; I want to feel like it’s been a long time, but instead, I feel like I left last week, and in the week I was gone, a lot happened to me.  A lot that I can’t fully express in words or with pictures.  Enough to make me feel socially awkward.  Not that I wasn’t socially awkward before, but I was better at being socially awkward, if that makes sense.  Like I had a comfort with it.  This kind of socially awkward just sort of makes me feel like I’m not able to fully express myself, as though Morocco and my life there are as different as the language that I speak when I’m abroad.

And then there’s the part of me that feels like, despite having this profound experience, I’m still the same Philip from before.  That Fouad can’t cross the ocean with me.  I don’t think anyone I’ve spent time with would say I seem any different.  But I think some part of me deeply wishes the changes I went through in Morocco were more obvious.  Maybe that’s because my “Americanness” is so obvious to any Moroccan, but here, there’s no standing out.  And because my changes are all so internal, it’s hard to pinpoint them and name them, and that just adds to the perception that I only just left last week.  That life isn’t that drastically different.

I was with my sister, Beth, who drove  by her husband’s work, where I met several of his co-workers.  One of them, Jay, exclaimed, “Morocco?!  What’s that like?”  Oh, you know, cause I’m gonna sum up an entire country and its culture in the thirty more seconds we have to stand here in the cold.  Because, even if I did have an hour or two to talk about it, it’s just not something that I can adequately describe, and it’s probably not something Jay cares to hear about.  It’s just niceties and small talk.  And there’s nothing wrong with that.  It might even be appreciated.  I have certainly enjoyed talking with friends and family about my experiences, but when someone you barely know asks, something about it just rubs me the wrong way, or I’m just left uncertain of what to say or how to say it.

And of course, despite me thinking otherwise or perceiving it to be the opposite, a lot is different.  My parents are at a new church.  My dog is fatter.  A lot fatter.  My closest friends have babies or new jobs or have gone through major life changes in some way or another.  But at the heart of things, my parents are still my parents.  The church is still the broken body of Christ.  My friends are still my friends.  And Abner still just wants bones to chew on.  No matter how profoundly (or not) we change, life just sort of goes on, doesn’t it?

I have one more week in America, and the road to Nashville is ahead of me.   I hope I cherish every moment of it before returning to the desert.