Saying Goodbye to Aaron

I didn’t have many friends growing up. For about nine years or so (from third grade to senior year of high school), I only had one, real friend. I had myself convinced that there are two kinds of people in the world: social people who have lots and lots of acquaintances but few meaningful friendships and then the folks who have very few friends but the ones they have are very deep, meaningful friendships. I remember telling myself that if I had to choose between lots of “friends” versus one, close friend, I’d choose the meaningful friendship every time.

Today, I don’t think our choices for relationships are quite that dichotomous; I think that’s just something I told myself at the time to feel better about the fact that I didn’t have very many friends. But I’m not sure I would’ve done it differently if I could go back in time and redo it.

My best friend was Aaron, a Korean-American adoptee whose family moved into the house across the street the summer after the third grade. One day, when I went to get the mail, Aaron dispatched his brother, Chris, who was the same age as the two of us, to find out who I was while Aaron stood at a comfortable distance in his yard. I remember Chris kind of rudely saying something like, “Who are you? What’s your name? What do you like?” as though I were being screened for some kind of friendship test. For Aaron.

Aaron liked comic books and art and Lego’s and, like Phineas from A Separate Peace, everything Aaron did carried with it a kind of originality I always envied. In intellect, we treated each other as equals, but the truth was, Aaron was much smarter than me. He never presented himself as such, and I’m not even sure he ever thought he was, which is really what made the friendship work. I think if Aaron realized how much smarter he was, our friendship would’ve been too competitive. I remember a class assignment in the seventh grade where we were supposed to write a fiction story, and Aaron’s short story blew the teacher and the whole class away, and I think that was when I realized how gifted he was. We were a bit like the Krelboyne’s from Malcolm in the Middle, except Aaron didn’t know he was Malcolm (the leader and the smartest of the group), while I acted like that’s who I was.

I made a ton of memories with Aaron. One year, he went with my family to Ft. Walton Beach. The next summer, I went on a Greyhound Bus with Aaron all the way to Las Vegas to stay two weeks with his grandparents. Almost every semester, we took art together. In fact, our senior year, on 9/11, we were the only two students by fourth period still interested in following the news of the towers falling, and our art teacher let us drag the television into another room to watch while the rest of the students kept doing class work.

But of all the memories I have of Aaron, and I’m sure I’ll write about quite a few in the future, the one that resonates with me the most and the one I wanted to write about now was the day I said goodbye to him:

First, though, a little set up is in order. A few years earlier, Aaron’s family had moved a few miles down the road to a plantation-style home with a pond and a large barn with a rainbow painted across the top of it that said “JESUS” in large block print. Inside the large white house, there was always a radio playing country music quietly, day and night, and his mom had decorated the kitchen with jars of jam and apple wallpaper lining the walls. The water that poured from the black refrigerator came from the family well and had a sweet, frigid taste I have spent much of my life trying to match (and only topped once when drinking glacier water pouring into a cow trough in Switzerland).  The dining room was dark with pinewood paneling for the floors, and even though I hated and still sort of hate country music, I loved that it played constantly at Aaron’s house. It wouldn’t have been his house if there wasn’t a radio blasting some guy whining about his lost love and his dying dog.

I don’t know why that house stands out so vividly to me or why it’s necessarily to even mention it. I also don’t know why your best friend’s house is always so much cooler than your own. I mean, we always seem to love the things that aren’t ours more because they aren’t ours – because we grow bored of our own stuff. Even today, if I were to buy a house, I think I’d style it a little like Aaron’s. The inside would be dark with pinewood paneling everywhere. There’d be an earthy atmosphere to it, a kind of home-style, country comfort everywhere with ceiling fans hanging everywhere that slowly turned like a helicopter just starting up.

The day I said goodbye to Aaron, I drove over to that house that had become a home to me and stayed until pretty late. He was spending all night packing his bags before, early in the morning, leaving for college in Arizona. I still had three months of summer left before I’d leave, and that night was when I learned it’s much harder to be left behind than it is to be the one leaving.

I remember feeling this need to say something profound, something that could sum up a nine-year friendship or some way to say goodbye that would do justice to what he meant to me. I don’t remember what I did actually say, but I do remember that Aaron just sort of acted like it was any other day. I remember thinking that he seemed callous to it, though in hindsight, I think neither of us knew how to express our gratitude for something like friendship. I was trying to sum it all up and searching for some climactic moment, and Aaron was trying to avoid that.

He walked me outside when it was time for me to leave. He was wearing an orange t-shirt shirt and blue parachute pants. I’ll never forget it. When I got ready to walk to my candy-apple, Pontiac Grand-Am, Aaron put his hand out for a handshake, as though we were ending a good business transaction, and I ignored him and went in to hug him. When I turned around and started walking to my car, I started tearing up, and as I pulled out, I started crying uncontrollably while Aaron stood there with a sad look on his face, his hands in his pockets.

When I drove away, I knew high school had ended and that I wasn’t a kid anymore. And of all the life experiences I’ve ever had, I don’t think there’s any harder than saying goodbye. And that moment was the first time I knew what it was like to really love and care about someone. It was the first time I knew what it meant to be grateful for a relationship.

I don’t talk to Aaron anymore. There’s no bad blood between us. I’m sure if we crossed paths, we’d probably catch up and tell stories like it was yesterday. We’ve just gone our separate ways, grown apart, and probably endured a dozen goodbyes with a dozen more friends I’m sure we’ve both made over time, each goodbye likely harder than the one before it. But that doesn’t make me any less thankful for that friendship or the person it made me into over the years.

Driss.

When you live in the countryside of Morocco, and someone approaches you speaking English, I have to admit, I’m always just a little skeptical.  A lot of the folks who want to use English with you will want to try out the five words of English they know, and that turns into a somewhat annoying repeat of the same five phrases, sometimes just curse words.  I once had an eight year-old walk up to me with the nicest smile on his face and announce in the most genuine way possible, “Hello, f#cks you.”  He had no idea what he was saying.  It was just one of the only English words he knew, so when I tore into him shaming him left and right, I almost made him cry, because despite cursing at me, he really was trying to be nice.

Every once in a blue moon, you stumble upon someone who actually knows quite a bit of English.  But no one I met in my entire two years of living in Morocco had better English than my friend Driss, one of the high school teachers who lived in my town when I first arrived.  We were both new to the place, and in some ways, we were both foreigners.  As a Fesi, people who heard Driss’s accent sometimes responded rather harshly, something to the effect of, “Y’ain’t from ’round these parts, are ya?”  As a result, Driss and I were able to grow considerably close sharing similar cultural experiences despite being from two very separate cultures.

As time went on and I got to know Driss better, I grew very thankful for his friendship.  Driss doesn’t just teach English.  He loves it.  He has a passion for the language, and every day, he tries to learn more.  Driss would be embarrassed by me saying this, and he would refuse to believe me, but he is more fluent in English than most Americans I know.  I mean, the guy needs to get his Ph.D. already; he was born for that.

As someone who craves deep and meaningful conversation, Driss filled a gap for me that reminded me how much I love learning.  He helped me keep my wits about me, so to speak.  When we got lunch today, I made clear to him that he was always welcome in America. But whereas with Omar, that was an invitation I hope he can one day pursue, it’s something I expect to happen for Driss.

It is not easy to go through the visa and passport paperwork to leave Morocco for Moroccans.  And it is also quite expensive.  Or can be.  But when someone is as passionate about Western culture and the English language as Driss is, the opportunity to show him around America is something I earnestly hope I get to do one day.  Of all these little vignettes I’ve been writing about my goodbyes, it is Driss who I think I am most likely to see again.  After a tussle over who was going to pay for coffee and lunch, I insisted that while I’d let Driss pay today, he had to come to America so I could return the favor there.  And if God wills it, I hope I will be as hospitable and as welcoming to him as he was to me.

Omar.

When I first got to his house two years ago, it was just a visit.  Before going to our final sites, Peace Corps dispatched us out on a one-week test run, so to speak, giving volunteers the chance to say, “Y’know, I went to this place, and I didn’t like it; send me somewhere else, please.”  But when I met Omar, and his brother Hamza, I knew immediately that I was where I was supposed to be for two years.

When I first arrived in site, Omar was 17 and studying like mad for his final semester of high school.  After every meal, we sat together in a freezing cold house under one blanket, and I taught him English while he taught me Arabic.  In my first three months of living with him and his family, I watched Omar grow into one of the most responsible and mature young men I’ve ever met.

A few weeks before I moved into the “January house,” I set up my mp3 player and a pair of speakers in my host family’s living room.  I then put my music on shuffle and immediately started dancing like a fool.  The first five minutes, I was a ridiculous joke, and Omar and Hamza couldn’t stop laughing, but after I refused to stop, they decided to join in, and for over an hour, we just danced.  My Arabic was still pretty awful at that point, but when you don’t have a common language, there’s so many other ways to communicate.  Dancing became our way of laughing and bonding.  Like brothers.

I’ve never been so proud as I was the day Omar turned out to be one of the top students in our town, passing the Baccalaureate exam (in English) with flying colors and guaranteeing himself a place in Fes at a prestigious university.  I was sad to see him go, and my second year in site was a much quieter one at first without Omar around to stop by my house.

Omar probably had one of the biggest impacts on me in my service, and I will miss him dearly.

Since today was my last day in Fes, I called him up and ordered him to meet me at McDonald’s where I bought him a Cheeseburger and a McFlurry.  We then took turns sharing pictures on our laptops.  I told him about the book I’m working on writing, and he told me about his plans to apply to school in France or America after he finishes school in Morocco.  I don’t know if that will happen, but Omar is always welcome in America, and I very much hope to see him again.

All Packed Up

My blog over the past few years has been painfully honest.  It was really important to me that I convey some picture of my life in Morocco that told the whole truth and nothing but the truth, but the longer I was here, the more I feared that I was incapable of describing an entire culture to you without being unfair to it.  Or, in other words, sometimes the truth isn’t all that truthy even when it’s true.  

Other times, I was scared to be completely honest, not because I thought there was something to hide but because I didn’t think you could understand what I was saying without actually coming and seeing it for yourself.  And even then, it would be easy to pass judgment or misunderstand something without the language and months and months, if not years, of experience living here.  At one point, it hit me hard that the disdain and mistrust toward Muslims in America isn’t for a lack of smart kids like me blogging about how wonderful Muslims are; it’s just a painful reality that people in America just don’t actually know any Muslims.  They don’t even have the opportunity to get to know them.

I’ve seen and been a part of this culture myself for two years, and there are still so many aspects of it that I cannot wrap my head around.  Even aspects of Islam (or what looks like Islam but isn’t) that baffle me.  When I leave Morocco this week, I do so as someone who fell in love with this culture, despite some of the uglier sides of it.  And I return hoping to love America the same way, willing and needing to recognize the problems of our culture, but still loving it.

A lot of people have said to me, “Gosh, I hope you’re writing down in a journal all about your experiences.”  The thing is, I didn’t save much for a journal.  I put it all here.

Except for this one thing.  I want my last moments in my village to be mine and no one elses.  I want to keep that one little piece to myself.  Because the last few days have been some of the best and the worst of my service, and I think that’s relatively fitting, and I think it explains a lot about the paradoxes within this culture, but there’s just no way I can box it up and hand it to you without incredible bias.  So, today, I won’t even try.  All I’ll say is this: my time in my village has come to an end.  My feelings on that range from being absolutely ecstatic to even a little sad.  In the midst of preparing to leave, I dropped an email to Caity, Avery, and Nicole to let them know it had been six months since they left and my time here was winding down.  They all wrote me back with the same basic message, which I’ll paraphrase: “You might not feel like this now, but soon, you’re really going to miss Morocco.  I miss it a lot these days.  Call me when you get back.”

So there you have it.

One More Week Stateside.

Well, this time next week, I’ll be scrambling to finish any last minute packing so I can get to the Nashville International Airport.  I fly out of Nashville at 7:30 in the morning for a flight to Philadelphia.  I’ll stay the day there for what the Peace Corps calls “Staging” or “Pre-Departure Orientation,” along with sixty-five other trainees making their way to Morocco.  Then, we’ll take a bus to JFDelay (as a pilot to New York once described the airport) for the flight to Casablanca.  Even though we won’t be staying in Casablanca (as we’ll be taking a two hour bus ride to Mehdya, a beach town  north of Rabat), I’m excited to start this adventure in the same city my grandfather lived in for over nineteen months during World War II.  It just seems appropriate to me.

Let’s see, from there, things get a bit more complicated.  We spend a week or so in Mehdya and then move to Fez in the Middle Atlas, and we’ll be in that region for four weeks or so moving between the “hub” site and the “community based training” site.  I’ll try to explain all of that later.  By late October, I should have some idea where I move to and should be sworn in, hopefully, on November 24.  Until then, I’m just a trainee, not a volunteer.

It’s a bit overwhelming to think about, honestly.  Maybe it’s my cynical side, but I have a tendency not to get truly excited about something until it’s happening.  I spend too much time leading up to it convinced something could go wrong, or that it won’t happen at all.  That said – am I excited?  Well, I know I will be the second I step onto the flight for Casablanca.  Right now is more about anxiety and, as you know from the past few blogs, figuring out how to say goodbye.

Honestly, other than Mom, Dad, and a very small handful of people I hope to see this week, I’ve pretty much said all my goodbyes already.  At least, I’ve said my goodbyes to people.  There are a few other “goodbyes” that are going to be necessary, though.  One in particular is going to be incredibly difficult.

As I type, he’s laying on the couch with his head buried between three pillows.  King of the couch, he’s in a kind of regal position, stretched out as though no one belongs there but him, and of course, nearby sits Bearemy Bear, his teddy bear who seems to follow him around to the ends of the earth.  Mom and Dad agreed to hang on to Abner, and I think having him around will make the fact that I’m not around a lot easier in ways.  I mean, no matter how down you are, Abner always manages to do something just stupid enough to get a laugh out of you.  Man’s best friend, y’know.  I am taking quite a few pictures of him with me.

…and of course, there’s the Aztek.  If Abner is my best friend, my Pontiac Aztek is like my armored, black stallion.  Yeah, that’s right; laugh all you want; you know you’re jealous.  Whether it’s sold and in the hands of a new owner by the end of the week or sold a few weeks after I leave, the Aztek will not be here when I get back.  It’s funny that a car would be something I would get attached to, especially when I actually think it’s such an eyesore.  I mean, let’s face it, a Pontiac Aztek is one ugly car.  But ugly or not, we’ve traveled many miles together, from my recent trip across the Midwest to the Grand Canyon sleeping in the back on the side of the road.  It’s carried me and my many friends and family to old and new places, to places I couldn’t wait to get to and to places I couldn’t wait to leave.  So, to look at it all shiny and clean in the backyard, I can’t help but be sentimental.

I don’t suspect, though, I’ll ever own one again.  I like change too much to get another Aztek.  When I get back, I’m thinking… motorcycle.  Or at the least, a small, fuel-efficient car.

Still, what strikes me most is that there are a lot of “things” that I cherish that might seem silly when I’m able to take them for granted, but once I’m in Morocco, how much will I miss them, the things I decided I just don’t have room to take?  I can’t even really fathom what all those things are, really.  A computer mouse?  A t-shirt I like to wear?  A pair of shoes I wish I could’ve taken with me?  My grandfather’s war paraphernalia?  Hard to say right now, but I’ll probably get a “wish list” going once I’ve been there for a few weeks.

We really love our stuff, right down to the things we put on the walls in the museums of our homes.  To strip it all away and start over from scratch, in some ways, really challenges us to redefine ourselves, to really face who we are and what we care about.  The next few months will be definitive for me in that sense.  I just don’t yet know how.

Where the Past meets the Future.

“Saying goodbye” has sort of been the name of the game and a major topic of my posts these past few weeks.   Time is flying by and September 13 will be here before I know it.  In some ways, it hasn’t and won’t really hit me until it’s here, but all these moments with friends and family have made me incredibly nostalgic.  And sometimes, I think it’s hitting me more that I am leaving than it is any one of my friends.

I went to visit Troy and Ally at Lakeshore yesterday, and I said something to Troy, like, “I wonder how different things will be two years from now?”  So many of my friends are married and having kids (who will be toddlers by the time I get back), after all.  Troy pointed out that things are probably much different now than they were two years ago.  Boy, that’s the truth.  Except this time, the change will happen without me.  I’ll change too, but in a separate bubble from everyone else.  Or does the internet, letters, blogs, email, or phone calls somehow keep me “connected” to the world?  Probably not enough to avoid the reverse culture shock, but as disconcerting as some of those fears and worries may be, I couldn’t be more ready to get on that plane.

Troy and I went sailing, if you can call it that, on the Persimmon, Lakeshore’s sailboat.  There wasn’t enough wind to keep us moving, but luckily, the “party barge” came along and “tugged” us to Eva Beach, where we put the boat up for the season.  It was nice being out on the water.  When we were putting the boat up, we noticed a blob attached to the side of the boat.  I’m not sure what the blob was exactly, but I’m convinced it was on its way to becoming “swamp thing” if the boat had not been pulled out of the water soon.  Troy blogged about it on the Lakeshore Blog, as well, and I uploaded pictures of our sailing excursion on Flickr, including a picture of the blob.  If you know what it is, please let me know.

I took the liberty of uploading a few other pictures from this past week, including some from a trip to see Sam Hatch in Memphis and several from my adventure with Kurtis MacKendree to the unexplored portion of my grandfather’s farm.  I won’t say a whole lot about that trip, because the video below pretty much tells all.  I will say, though, that it was nice having Kurtis here in Jackson and a good way to say goodbye to him.  He leaves for Ohio State five days after I leave for Morocco.  It really hit me how much I will miss him; he’s been very much like a little brother to me, and I’m thankful to have gotten to know him.

Being on my grandfather’s farm again was a good experience for me, as well.  Walking around in the woods or in the creek with Kurtis reminded me a lot of my childhood.  I recall walking some of those fields and trails with my grandfather.  I was a quiet kid who would run around in the fields imagining my playmates rather than having real ones, but there was always a simplicity about the woods and the little creeks or the animals that couldn’t talk back to you.  It was solidarity, not loneliness, and I grew up valuing that simplicity.  That was another thing about our trip I appreciated – the simple living that comes with camping and hiking.  There are no worries in the world; it’s just you, the wind and trees, and maybe the one armadillo we happened upon.  It’s strange how the moment you disconnect from the internet or from your phone and despite all those things that are supposed to keep us “connected,” you realize just how disconnected you really are from what actually matters.  I have to be honest, that’s something I’m looking forward to with the Peace Corps – finally being connected to something that matters.  Here’s the video of our exploration onto the hundred fifty acres of my grandfather’s farm.  Enjoy!