Changing Trains, or a little life update of sorts

There’s this moment after leaving the Secaucus station where the train ducks into a tunnel, and the deeper into the dark it goes, the quicker the air pressure changes as if to suck the little sickle cell up the vein to the heart of Manhattan. From under the Hudson, all the passengers are adjusting their ears with those closed-mouth yawns where they move their jaws into their throats repeatedly to equalize the pressure. And all the while they are staring into the black windowpane as though just outside the train there’s more to see than the bleak concrete tunnel. In reality, the windows have become mirrors. And in the tunnel, the train feels smaller, a community traversing together even if momentarily. There’s the woman doing her make-up because she woke up a little too late. The twenty-something is wearing a pair of Beats and bouncing his head up and down as though the whole train has been sucked into his favorite Eminem song. A woman walks the aisles begging for loose change so she can get home. A balding, slim man with glasses reads the Times. Another man with slightly hipper glasses, the Daily News. Most today are buried in their phones. The Quiet Car, the “no-talking” section of the train, is surprisingly louder than the other cars, mostly because everyone is so quiet that every screech, every bump, and every “Oh my God is the train about to break apart!” cacophony has been deafeningly heightened. Everybody is waiting. That’s what this is more than anything else. The City is coming but it isn’t here yet, and we have all resigned to the hard fact that this just is what it is and isn’t about to be any faster. Commuters are surprisingly patient people. Most of the time.

Sometimes, I think, I get so good at waiting that I could just end up living there in the train. I used to think it was because I loved the unknown that I ended up in wait. But the unknown implies some kind of obsession over the destination, and maybe for better or worse I just really like the journey. Suffice to say, I’m no longer on Shelter Island. I guess I sort of unintentionally traded it for Manhattan. And so, the last month and a half has been train ride after train ride between the City and New Jersey. I worked briefly delivering food via phone app as I walked from Greenwich Village to Harlem and back again. The tips were terrible. The work was exhausting. But when you walk miles on end around New York City, it’s hard not to fall in love with all the steel and glass – the way it stands fixed and stately while the arteries and veins below and beneath are dangerously alive and well.

In all the walking I did, I found myself meandering about some pretty fascinating places. I attended a faith table in the halls of The Riverside Church where Dr. King and Paul Tillich and past Presidents once preached. So, too, I found myself laying down in the street of Federal Plaza to stage a “die-in” protesting deportations of undocumented immigrant children that ended in their death. I spat on the steps of Trump Tower. I slurped down my first oysters with an old friend from the archaeological dig in Israel. I grabbed drinks in a quaint little bar in the Upper West side making new friends as we discussed just how to tackle the problem of Islamophobia head on. There’s something about this city, its mecca of ideas and hope, that makes you feel as though this could be where it all begins, whatever ‘it‘ is exactly. Every part of me that believes in changing the world, however narcissistic it may be to believe I could get to have a hand in doing so when that task belongs to us all, nevertheless feels called to this island more than any other.

Of course, it hasn’t been without its eye-openers. I was in Penn Station recently doing what people in Penn Station do: waiting. And killing time there, a homeless man approached me and asked me to buy him food. I hesitated and wanted to ignore him but went into Duane Reade and bought him a sandwich anyway. Afterward, I was upset with myself for having done so. My mind wandered to concerns about the “system of dependence” and whether I’d contributed to that. I felt guilty for having helped someone. And then it sort of hit me: is our country so broken, am I so broken, that there’s inevitable cultural guilt now ingrained in helping someone in need? And it’s not really about whether I’d bought the bloke a sandwich so much as it’s about the authentic kindness I was so hesitant to offer. I’m not even sure there was anything kind in the way I bought him a sandwich. I just wanted to give him the food as quickly as possible so he could go his way and I could go mine – both of us returning to our different worlds of waiting. And looking back on it, I don’t even think my hesitance or lack of kindness was about concerns over “systems of dependence,” the way my brain had conjured up that lie to make me feel better so much as it was about this very strange human desire to not want to confront real pain and suffering – be it our own or someone else’s. Suffering is something we’re so afraid of, given we’re so determined not to be reminded of our own mortality or our own flesh, that we’ll add to the pain by ignoring it as long as we can lest we have to see and do anything about it. But it’s the very fact that we have absolutely no idea what to do about it, how to help, that we end up preferring to ignore than to act.

A few weeks before, uncertain of my future and reeling from all this unexpected change, my girlfriend Mattie and I went to see Avenue Q and then to a Moroccan restaurant afterward. When it was over, we headed back to Penn Station for what had been a fantastically-successful evening. But when we got to Penn, we discovered there were no trains out until 11:11, two hours off. We were both exhausted but figured, “Hey, the City is ours, so let’s just keep walking around.” But every corner we turned, the City was just covered in darkness. A man wailing for help as if the world was ending. An addict coming up and begging for money from Mattie as his hands shook. When we said we wouldn’t give him money, he started grabbing for Mattie. I stepped between them ready to do whatever was necessary. There was more: people who smelled so badly you couldn’t sit within twenty feet of them in the train station, drunk people vomiting, a woman touching herself, a man who could barely walk. It was as if our romantic, privileged night had had the veil pulled, and the suffering side of the world was out in full force. It was scary, all that suffering. And so we naturally turned to those questions about what the hell we could do. Admittedly there was something off-putting to our white privilege luxury of getting to ask these questions. I was job searching and technically “homeless” and still saw “them,” these sufferers, as a “them.” Again, was assuming we can do something not kind of narcissistic? Who the hell are we to think we could tackle any of the problems these people have?

So, too, Mattie and I are really different in how we approach solutions to problems. There’s that old metaphor you might know about the guy walking on a beach with his friend, and he sees thousands of starfishes. Every so often, he picks one up and throws it back to the ocean. His friend asks, “Why are you doing that? It’s not like it matters,” and the guy responds, “It mattered to that one.” Mattie is relational. She sees throwing one starfish back into the sea to be hugely important even if it’s small in the grand scheme of things. I’m, sadly, embarrassingly, not often interested in the starfish as individuals – not as much as I feel I should be. It’s not that I don’t want to help. It’s that I’d rather go find the scientists, find out why all the starfish washed up here to begin with, discover it’s, say, the cause of Big Oil or some form of pollution, and then I want to go and speak truth to power. I think there’s salvation in Mattie’s approach. We need to see each other as people and not as broken systems even if the systems desperately need change. But I struggle with that.

We talked more: we joked about creating an organization of lobbyists who lobby lobbyists but for good causes. Such organizations are out there, I guess, but I don’t really feel they’re collaborative or united enough. We pressed the metaphor more. Mattie works in a pet store and is well-aware of how broken the pet industry is; she’s literally raised caged birds from the egg. The system is broken, and though Mattie abhors the notion of caging these creatures meant to soar, she understands that as much as she’d like to free them, a broken system means more birds, and it’s unlikely they would survive in the big blue yonder. She can do what little she can, though, and that’s to make sure they have good homes, that their cages are clean and well-kept and enough for them for now. It isn’t really a solution to the systemic problem, but it’s necessary work. A homeless shelter, a food pantry, a welfare check, food stamps: they don’t fight the system. They may even inadvertently shore it up at times. But until someone really tackles the Powers that Be, really breaks them apart or exposes them for the injustice they bring to our world in a way that begins meaningful change from the top-down, Mattie is right in caring for the caged birds, in throwing back one starfish at a time, or at least drizzling a little water on it to keep it alive. I don’t mean in using these metaphors to in any way cheapen that I am talking about people, human lives in reality. But it’s a point worth acknowledging – that it takes a metaphor about animals (where the power dynamics between human-to-animal are obviously very different than they should be when we’re talking human-to-human) before we often empathize with our fellow humankind, that we recall that they are, indeed, an us. And it’s fear, ours and theirs alike, that’s rendered us a them to them and them a them to us.

Our fellow humankind. Our brothers and our sisters. That’s where I’d like to leave this little blog. Back in September, a Facebook argument with a former Wabash professor of mine went from a post on his wall to a private message to exchanging emails. I won’t rehash the argument entirely, but I will say that the late Dr. Webb and I were on two polar ends of the political spectrum, and yet, he was more than willing to engage with me not just civilly but kindly, something I deeply valued and haven’t always been able to do myself. We talked, mostly, about adoption and how adoption should be understood by Christians in particular. He, as an adoptive parent, and me, as an adoptee, and again, we mostly disagreed, but on one point in particular, Dr. Webb and I couldn’t agree more: For him, his adopted children were his children. To put the word “adopted” in front of that cheapened it. They are “my family,” he stated, “My kin. As much inside of me as my ‘biological’ children. That’s a miracle made possible by grace.” I felt the same way of the wonderful people I call Mom and Dad. Where we disagreed was in the nuance: Dr. Webb felt strongly that blood is what makes someone kin, and to adopt someone was to make them by grace your own flesh and blood. While I appreciated what he was trying to do with that, I felt too much of our country’s negative history, of racism and tribal mentalities, were tied to privileging blood over choice. To me, our own flesh and blood are not our kin unless we’ve chosen to make them so. In a sense, even if someone is “biologically” yours, only through adopting – that is, choosing to nurture them – do they become yours or you theirs. If adoption creates blood bonds, as Dr. Webb argued, the family remains too small for me. The beautiful act of choosing to love, to adopt, radically reshapes how large the family can and should be, and it removes those barriers that keeps us an us and them a them.

But those barriers aren’t broken unless we strive to know each other, too, to really know each other, and that means to know our suffering, to confront and help carry it for one another. A week before his untimely death, Dr. Webb posted a beautiful, albeit haunting, article on depression, and as I read it over, I couldn’t help but think that it’s those old fears and those same broken systems that have kept us disconnected from one another. Dr. Webb’s beautiful theological definition for depression is that it is “when your need for God is as great as your feeling of God’s absence.” He goes on to say, “If joy happens when your gifts fit the needs of the world around you, depression results when your emptiness echoes God’s silence.” This is true and God’s seeming silence, I believe, is felt most by the “silence” of those who surround us and by our own ways of silencing our true selves. But finding our voice and hearing others is hard work, and I can say I have, sadly, incredible understanding of when and why we fail to do so. I am thankful to have known this little giant of a teacher; his voice was heard. And will continue to be.

And so, the train keeps moving. We can put down our phones, our headphones, our newspapers, our staring into the bleak windowpanes and begin to talk again. We can begin to view those of us on the train car (and those off it) as an us and not a them. We can do the hard work of giving voice to ourselves and to others but only if we are willing not to give into our fears of the inevitable suffering that surrounds and too often destroys us. For now, I am gainfully employed in the City. I’ll be securing resources that will benefit on-the-ground workers from Syria to Gaza and from the horn of Africa to India. And every morning and every evening, I’ll hop on a train or a subway car, and as it sways back and forth in some rhythmic chant to the bloodstream of the City, I’ll try to do more than just waiting. Because the City isn’t what we’re waiting for. It’s not some distant place we’re trying to get to when the train pulls into the station. It’s right here, right now. It’s the train and the people on it. And it’s up to us whether they’ll be family or not.

Caught in the Fog

This week there was a fog that covered Shelter Island for an entire day. It was light enough that standing in the middle of it, the warm colors of the autumn leaves blurred together a little like the yellows and reds of a Van Gogh. The distant trees on a small hill could’ve been any mountain in the Smokies of East Tennessee. Or, that is to say, had the fog been a little thicker, I might’ve questioned what world I’d woken up in. Forty feet out into the Peconic, there wasn’t a bay anymore. There wasn’t the sight of the North Fork I’ve grown accustomed to seeing these past few months. There wasn’t even any water. Just a white, endless haze lingering for what seemed forever. Haunting. Beautiful. And unlike every low-hanging cloud I’ve ever experienced in my life, this one didn’t lift.

Fog

On Tuesday, scallop season opened, and as luck would have it, I had a free ticket (worth some $22) to a local 41st annual scallop dinner. As I’d never had scallops before, this seemed like the right way to be introduced to them: caught that very day there in the waters by my home. The dinner – hosted by a Methodist Church in Cutchogue – was so well-attended that there were three seatings over the course of four hours, and I heard-tell of people traveling as far as two hours to come to the meal. One couple at our table, in fact, had driven around from the South Fork (or, perhaps making their meal a $60 meal, taken the two ferries through Shelter Island) to get there.

The dinner conversation was pretty standard for what you might expect being seated with strangers. You know, the usual questions people ask you about what you do and where you live, the best ways to prepare scallops, etc. A woman across the table, on hearing about life on Shelter Island, asked about the local post office, casually dropping the name of the Postmaster (who is really quite wonderful). [As no mail is delivered on Shelter Island, the Post Office becomes a kind of hub for islanders to meet-and-greet and gab on about the weather or whatever else, and though I’ve only introduced myself to my Postmaster once, she has remembered not only my name but my P.O. Box, as well. And that makes the place feel incredibly warm and inviting.] It wasn’t until the end of the meal that the woman inquiring about the Postmaster revealed that, in fact, the Postmaster was her daughter.

At another point in the meal, having said that I lived in Morocco for awhile before moving to New York, a woman sitting next to me mentioned that you can pick up Ras Al-Hanut, a Moroccan spice, at the Love Lane Market in Mattituck, and the gentleman across from her mentioned that he’d lived in Morocco working at Port Lyautey at the Naval Air Station there in the early 1950s and that a friend of his had been a Flight Mechanic in Casablanca during World War II. Small world: so was my grandfather. Another couple yammered on about how bad this winter might be, yet another about how much the East End has changed in the last ten, twenty, thirty years.

Stories. All of them containing pivotal little moments – when someone’s daughter became the Postmaster or when someone found themselves on African soil or when there was the one winter way back when no one has ever forgotten. Those were the stories being told. Within them, I knew, a thousand layers, not only to what was told but to how it was told, to what was left out, to what had been forgotten or intentionally kept quiet be it momentarily or forever. Lately, I’ve been painfully aware of the way our lives are constructed by the stories we tell, even the brief ones to strangers over a warm meal. And I’ve been painfully aware of what’s contained within those stories: the hellos and the goodbyes, the questions of roads not taken or frustrations over the ones that were. And we seem desperate, clinging in a way to determine what our story should say or how it should be told – the thousands upon thousands of decisions that could make or break our story, whatever we wanted it to be. More than that, we sometimes seem so caught up in the book cover or in how well it could sell that we don’t actually just live it and see where it goes.

But that’s all because it comes back to the fog. We’re plagued by that fog more than anything else. The one that some day may not lift. We’re plagued by the questions that arise in it, by the unfamiliarity of it, by how hard it is to find anyone else – let alone ourselves – out there in the haunting yet beautiful abyss. The questions of the fog cripple us from living our story. But the thing is, the ferry still runs in the fog. In the distance, you can hear the foghorns, the bells tolling, the gongs striking. The little birds you couldn’t see through that white haze you could nevertheless hear playing, fishing, flapping their wings unconcerned over the lack of visibility. The fish rippled through the waters, their world unaffected. And those of us upon finding ourselves in the middle of the fog kept on walking discovering the beautiful autumn leaves were still very much visible – that right here, right now, right where you are trudging forward without seeing perfectly clearly what’s ahead… that might still be good enough. There might yet be plenty of beauty in that. We might find ourselves as someone else’s foghorn or playful bird or unconcerned fish. We might find that we can, in fact, embrace the fog and live to tell the story after all. And if not? Well, at least the scallops were fresh.

Broken Shells in all their Goodness, or the Adventure of the Mystery Black-Orange Pottery Pieces

On the southwestern tip of Shelter Island, there’s a hidden public beach called Shell Beach. I say it’s hidden because you could easily drive right by the unmarked turn-off for it in a residential area and never know it was there. But the beach itself is nearly a mile-long peninsula just barely wide enough for a one-lane, gravel road. And all along the beach are thousands upon thousands of shells. On one side of the beach, in fact, the shells have beat up against the bulkhead and are about a foot thick. The tide has just kind of dumped them there in a treasure trove of conch shells, clams, and cockles, among others.

I went there this afternoon with our summer staffers Charlotte and Wendy and Wendy’s kids Jamin and Cora, and we just kind of walked around in awe at the beauty of this little, underpopulated hidden beach. While Wendy and Cora swam, Jamin and I – decked out in shoes and socks and not remotely prepared to get wet – went digging through the thousands of shells instead.

“What about this one, this one’s cool?” Jamin would hand me one of the jingle shells and point out something about it he liked. I kept tossing the shells about with my feet, occasionally picking one up, inspecting it, and determining whether or not it was good enough for keepsake. There’d be one that was oh, so close to being perfect were it not for the chip on the side. And I wondered out loud, when there’s so many thousands to choose from, what the rubric was for deciding a shell was worth picking up and calling it yours. Did it have to be exotic and different or weird? Or just colorful enough? Or shinier than the others? Jamin couldn’t decide, but it seemed like his rubric was a lot different than mine. He’d pick up fully-broken shells, funky shells, rocks, whatever and acknowledge how wonderful it was. I was pickier. Too picky.

I found a rare conch shell that could easily still function as a home – not a single crack, not a single hole in the shell at all. “Oh yeah,” I told Jamin, “This one’s perfect.” But Jamin wasn’t all that impressed. “No, it’s not perfect, ’cause there’s not a conch living in it,” he laughed.

Shell BeachAt one point, we started finding bits and pieces of what looked to be black pottery with orange paint on it. It was curious enough that we started to collect a little of it, only to discover that the more we looked around, the more there seemed to be. Ten, twenty, a hundred yards, there was more and more of the broken black pottery with faded orange paint. It became easier to spot as if our eyes had grown accustomed to look for it and nothing else. Jamin and Cora began to collect mounds of it, and we placed it in a pile and discussed what it could be. On a few pieces were the letters, “CH,” or a registered symbol. It took me back to my time in Israel digging through Iron age pottery and wondering whether the piece I was holding was Egyptian or Phoenician. There was a mystery at hand, and we were determined to solve it. As Jamin and I walked looking for more pieces with writing on them, I started thinking through it: it was too much and too spread out to be only from one jar or bottle. It felt ceramic, maybe hardened rubber and broke fairly easily under stress. The “CH” probably spelled “Champion,” and the orange paint and word itself seemed to indicate some kind of sport-related equipment. I told Jamin I thought it was skeet and explained, the best I could, what skeet is. By the time we met back up with Wendy, she’d been thinking the exact same thing.

Searching a beach through a treasure trove of shells and skeet, and I can’t help but shake this notion that we find what we’re looking for – what we were probably looking for before we even stumbled upon the treasure. Earlier this week, I read an article on CNN about how UFO experts have grabbed hold of some of the pictures taken by the Mars’ rovers and claimed they see alien life encased in the rocks. Others have come to call what they saw “pareidolia,” the trick the human mind plays in that we often see something that isn’t really there because our mind wants to bring recognizable shapes together to create meaning from them. It’s the very same thing with seeing Jesus in a piece of toast. And it felt similar somehow digging through shells, seeing in the shells the worst and best of ourselves:

There was brokenness within me built into my drive to find the perfect piece. There was happy, childlike love in Jamin’s discovery that the broken pieces were still whole and wonderful in his eyes. There was such absolute grace in Jamin’s admonishment that what I saw as the “perfect” piece lacked perfection because it was merely an empty house and no longer a real home. There was the mystery of the broken pottery and our very real desire to know the stories that brought the brokenness to this beach – determination in solving a puzzle that would somehow bring us comfort. All summer long, what I’ve seen in myself, in others too, are these very things. We want so badly to find the perfect pieces when there just are none. We could choose to pick up the broken ones and see them as just as beautiful, if not more so, than the ones that just haven’t been around long enough to break, but too often, we end up blaming the whole treasure trove for not having enough of what we’re looking for rather than asking why we’re searching how we’re searching. And I think that’s so very important – to recognize that our perception is our reality and may very well need to be questioned, even if it’s questioned by a seven year-old. That our frustrations, our struggles, our puzzles before us so often have so little to do with what’s right in front of us and so much to do with the baggage we’ve stored up and carried to this very moment where we find ourselves frustrated, struggling, or puzzled in the first place. At any rate, I’m not sure I’ll ever pick up a shell again the same way without seeing how beautiful it really is, but I will be going back to Shell Beach.

What it Means to Know a Place, or Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea

For the past month, when I’ve been driving around, I’ve had the radio on “scan” just trying my hardest to get a feel for what Long Island and Connecticut (since we pick up some of those stations) have to offer. I’m fairly certain at this point that there’s some kind of unstated rule where every station has a Billy Joel quota to meet. But aside from that, Long Island radio is what I imagine would happen if a few of Nashville and Memphis’s best radio stations got together and said, “Let’s make it impossible to find awful music in this area.” I mean, I have to say, I have not been disappointed. Even the public radio station out of Southampton – WPPB – has to be one of the most impressive radio stations I’ve ever heard.

BikeySo, earlier today, I folded up my bike (cause it does that), hopped into a friend’s Honda Fit, threw on a pair of silly sunglasses, and took the ferry to Greenport. Sidenote: There’s this magic thing that happens the very moment you cross the ferry where a huge sense of relief comes over you, and you realize that you’ve been “water-locked” for the past however long it’s been since you left the island, and now that you’ve escaped, the possibilities feel endless. Maybe it’s some kind of cabin fever, since an island is basically just a big anchored boat. I haven’t figured out what it is about the ferries or the island that make it feel like this exactly. Although, yesterday, I overheard a conversation that went something like, “Oh yeah, I was biking down Nordstrand Avenue, and it just ends. I didn’t realize it would just end like that,” and then someone else interjected, “I mean, it’s an island; pretty much all roads on this rock are going to do that.” Fair point. It reminds me a little of the weeks on end in Morocco where I hadn’t left my village for a long time, and then the moment you got into a taxi to head to the capital or anywhere really, this excitement inevitably came over you.

So, I’m cruising off the ferry, listening to Long Island Public Radio, and this George Harrison song I’d somehow never heard comes on, and all I could think was that you never really know a place until you have come to know its radio stations. And I started to think about how quickly Long Island has become my home. In just a short two months, I’ve driven through the City and back more times than I care to count, learned the names of all the places out here that end in “-ogue” (though I’m still not sure how to pronounce them all, and it even seems they don’t all have the same pronunciation). And I’ve finally reached that point where I’m not using my GPS anymore to get to the places I need to go – both on and off the island.

All that is to say, there’s an ownership in knowledge. A friend made fun of me on Facebook for referring to Shelter Island as “my island,” but the more I’ve come to know the place, the more that’s exactly what it is. There were times in Morocco where I distinctly remember thinking, “This is Morocco, and don’t you forget it. Don’t you let this place ever lose its newness. Don’t let the desert become your normal. Don’t get bored of looking at camels. Don’t take it for granted,” but as I came to know it and grew frustrated with sandstorms and the struggle of Arabic and the slowness of time, and as that all became my work and my life, it was only when someone new showed up that I was reminded to see it as new again, through fresh eyes. In a manner of speaking, the same is slowly happening with Shelter Island. As I come to know the place, the love of it grows and fades together. To learn about the islands history with slavery, to see it as a cushion of continued white wealth, to hear some residents use “summer” as a verb, I’m made painfully aware of what lies beneath the pristine little pearl of the Peconic. And yet, for the frustrations that pop up the more I learn about the place, I find that I love it anyway. I love it in spite of the things I don’t like. I love it, in some ways, SHAbecause of the things I don’t like, and there’s a part of me that feels like that’s an important way to love. We’re a society that wants so badly to toss away, to ignore, to forget all the ugliness of our history, of ourselves, whether that’s over a flag or statues or celebrating that “love wins” eager to move beyond the ways in which love is very much still losing in some places. It would serve us well to love more “complexly.” It would do us good to acknowledge that the “better angels of our nature” don’t render the rest of our nature devils. Or when the devil within is what we choose to see, that we would see it more fully, that we would see the whole self and not merely the part we love or the part we hate. That task is not easy. Most of us, often myself included, would rather just flip on the radio and get lost in the music.

From Point A to Point B, or Learning to Navigate the Sea of Change

One of the first times I got on a plane, I remember being mesmerized less by the crazy notion that I was several thousand feet above the earth and more by the notion that in a matter of hours I had gone from point A to point B and found myself plopped into an entirely different culture. A giant flying bus did more than leave the ground; it took me to a whole other way of thinking about and approaching the world. A big air-pressured container was built to take me out of my comfort zone. I’m still blown away by this. There’s this moment when you step out of any given airport and realize that “here” is no longer “there” and “there” isn’t really “here,” and everything immediately after that is all about negotiating those differences in order to navigate whatever comes next. In a manner of speaking, I feel like I could plot the last several years of my life into that metaphor of being dropped into point B and finding myself somewhere new only to begin again the process of collecting myself, surviving, then thriving. That is something I crave and love out of life. But it isn’t an easy way to go about your life, because it demands change and all the struggle that comes with that. It’s as if a caterpillar goes thru the hard process of becoming a butterfly, and you don’t really imagine the butterfly on the other side of the process going, “What do I have to do now to become a bird?” Maybe being a butterfly really is good enough. And I sometimes feel like I went from, “Butterfly was fun. Let’s see what turtle is like now.” The cocooning process is hell. But worth it. Too worth it.

On a similar tangent, I’ve been traveling a lot lately. A few weeks ago, I found myself taking two ferries (the first to Long Island and the second to Connecticut) to head north of Boston for a basic counseling skills workshop for adventure education with a group of social workers and therapists. Maybe it was the nature of how open-minded you might expect those folks to be, but the group cohesion happened almost immediately.  It was as if we were plopped into Point B but all treated it as Point A together. We trusted each other right off the bat, maybe not because we chose to trust strangers but because we trusted ourselves and knew who we were well enough to be able to put ourselves out there with incredible honesty. It was one of the most refreshing experiences I’ve ever had – to be around people as eager as me to get to the heart of matters and skipping all the social pleasantries for something more honest. So ever since the workshop, I’ve been thinking about this process of entering a new community – the struggle of being your full self, the fear of being judged, the excitement of finding new people who mesh so well with you.

In the study of anthropology, there’s a concept known as “liminality” which applies to rituals observed in tribal groups. The technical term, deriving from Latin, refers to a “threshold,” a point at which a tribal ritual has begun but is not yet complete. In that space, in the betwixt and between, something magical happens – relationship. Actually, the technical term they use to describe it is communitas, referring to a shared, common experience which transforms the group into something new and can sometimes relate to the manner in which the group has been driven together by what it lacks and, thereby, what it seeks to attain or achieve together. The concept isn’t so foreign really: it’s the cohesion formed by a military unit of new cadets or pledges in a fraternity undergoing some form of hardship, if not hazing. It’s the awkwardness of twelve year-olds in a church confirmation class as they learn to question what it is they do and don’t believe – together. It’s summer camp and those first few moments when the kids are staring at their lifelong best friend whose name they don’t even know yet. They will be tested by the very normal experience of community and the hardships that come with the unfortunate promise that we will love each other and probably hurt each other, too, to hopefully learn to love each other again. Point A to Point B to Point A to Point B, and again.

So, this afternoon, when I found myself sitting in a small bedroom of a building built in the late 1880s that overlooks the Peconic Sound, I found myself again in the betwixt and between, among new friends, each and every one of us facing transition with worry and excitement, and I realized that I was where I needed to be, despite some awful allergies. There in the threshold was communitas waiting, and whatever was right ahead would be faced and endured together. The best of it and the worst of it, and what mattered was that we were (and are) “we” and not I. That as lonely as the cocoon can feel, it is a process all caterpillars encounter and endure. And what incredible hope there is in that. Even there in the upstairs of that 130-year old building, I suspect we weren’t the first people to sit there and realize the scary and exciting transitions that lay ahead for us. It had been done before and will be done again. Wherever you are, whatever you’re facing, I hope you can remember this much: there are other caterpillars in the cocoons, other people on the plane or on the bus, other campers in the camp, and we all – if we’ll admit it – know what’s come and what’s coming. And we can and will, if allowed or desired, hold one another in accountable love in that space. So, see you at Point B. …or will it be Point A? Or aren’t they really the same?

Peace Corps on Shelter Island?

FerryAt the risk of sounding like I’m boasting, I’ll avoid any overuse of the words “idyllic” or “bucolic” or “precious” to describe the little island I recently moved to on the Eastern end of Long Island. But it’s hard not to have this strange overwhelming sense of awe when I drive around Shelter Island – a land without streetlights, a land without postal service to your home, a land with no speed limits over 35 mph. It’s… a different place.

Between Long Island wine, the Hamptons, or some of the homes on Shelter Island that are on the market for millions of dollars, there was a part of me at first that felt deeply out of place. My last exciting adventure took me to northwestern Africa, and though it’s been a few years since, the images of a developing country are never far from my mind. And they are even more evident in the midst of some of the wealth I encountered moving to the “not-exactly-but-almost” Hamptons. That is not to badmouth people who have come into wealth by any means. It’s just to say that it’s been a somewhat jarring experience to move to such a place from, well, the kind of poverty you might expect to encounter in a Peace Corps country. No surprises there, I guess: going from one extreme to the other is always going to be jarring.

And yet, maybe that’s why this next sentence is going to sound so insanely ridiculous: Shelter Island is more like Peace Corps than just about any other place I could imagine moving to in America. But maybe not how you think.

The first reason why it’s so much like Peace Corps here is transport. Like Morocco where I lived in the Peace Corps, you often find yourself limited to travel by certain hours. Shelter Island has a very reliable ferry system, but the fact that it shuts down between midnight and 5:45am could leave you stranded on the island or on the mainland. When there is no bridge or tunnel, you have to plan everything around the ferries. And in bad weather? You could find yourself stuck on the island for a few days at least. That does two things: it creates a tight-knit community on the island but it can also make you feel isolated at times. I can’t begin to tell you how similar that was to my life in Peace Corps.

The next thing is the wildlife. My first morning waking up in my temporary little cottage in the woods (still with a seaside view), I woke up to deer, turkeys, and chipmunks running around outside. Deer are heavily populated on the island, having swam here across the Peconic. But it was really the turkeys that took me back to Morocco. So much of the experience of Peace Corps made you feel like you were backpacking, always communing with nature in some way or another. That is very evident to my life currently. And there’s plenty other sea life to enjoy: whales and sea lions in the winter, ospreys and seagulls everywhere.

Finally, it wouldn’t have been Peace Corps if it wasn’t meaningful work. I am working on Jennings Point at Quinipet Camp & Retreat Center where we do spiritual and environmental education and run both summer camping programs and retreats for very diverse groups. The work we do impacts people in real, meaningful ways, and that’s something I needed to be doing, something I see myself devoting my life to one way or another.

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So, to some Shelter Island residents, it might sound a little crazy to compare the place to a developing country in Africa, but I think it’s worth noting that it’s those very characteristics that drew me to this wonderful island sheltered between the North and South Forks of Long Island. It’s those characteristics that are why I’ll stay.