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.

Ford

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.

God [Bless] You

A week or so ago, on my way to the metro in downtown St. Louis for a ride to the airport, I was stopped by a man who begged me to buy him a meal. I don’t usually offer anything to beggars, partially because I don’t have anything to offer and partially because I worry that doing so creates systemic problems of dependence. Every once in a while, though, empathy gets the best of me, so I reached into my pocket and gave him all that I had at the time – three bucks. “Three bucks?! I can’t do nothing with that! Give me some more,” he demanded, and I walked off a little stunned.

[Before going any further, I should pause to make two worthwhile notes: The first is that my last experience with begging happened in North Africa while I was a Peace Corps volunteer where, for the most part, if I handed someone the equivalent of 6 cents American (50 cents in Moroccan dirham), they usually responded with, “God bless your parents,” and moved on. While North African beggars could be persistent until you told them a phrase in Arabic that roughly translated, “God ease your burden,” I never carried fear of beggars there. After all, it would be pretty strange to come across a Moroccan beggar who had a knife, let alone unheard of to come across any Moroccan carrying a gun unless they were a soldier. So, maybe it’s because of the reality of that fear and how different life is in America, or maybe it’s some kind of inherent racism you’re bound to be born with if you were raised in the south, but I feel like it’s important to acknowledge that I’m an incredibly privileged white dude who was carrying out these conversations with poor, black men (one of whom I stereotyped to be gay) in an area with a history of violence, and to say my fears weren’t fueled by stereotypes isn’t owning up to those realities. So let’s start there.]

Burned by the lack of gratitude at first, I gave a rather forceful “no” to the next beggar that asked. And even though I knew it wasn’t fair to carry the stereotype from one experience to the next, I had a tough time shaking the shear chutzpah of the man who demanded more after seeing my wallet empty. In response to my “no,” the next man glared at me and said in a sarcastic tone, “Well, God bless you, then.”

No one had sneezed. He said, “God bless you,” I heard, “God has blessed you, and yet you do nothing.” I heard, “God blesses you but curses me.” I heard in his tone not the word “bless” at all but the word “curse,” and in the tone, I realized just how interchangeable the two words are. So many blessings, so many curses, all right before us and many are one in the same. The curse of being privileged is the real risk of forgetting or misunderstanding what it means to be blessed in the face of those who have endured so few blessings.

There’s a scene early in the Book of Job where the blameless Job has already lost nearly everything that matters to him. His children are tragically killed and now even with failing health and “boils” showing up all over his skin, he scratches at them to remove them one-by-one with a pottery shard. His wife looking on kind of mocks him in 2:9, “Are you still holding onto your integrity? Curse God and die.” In the English of this text, the word “barech,” or barak, is translated as “curse,” but – and here’s the interesting part – it also (and more frequently) means “bless.” In the Hebrew, much the way “God bless you” was spoken to me on the streets of St. Louis, the antithetical “curse” was what was meant. It gives you a good picture of the tone of Job’s wife: “Yeah, sure Job, everything will be better if ya just keep scraping off all those boils like that. Why, you should just bless your maker who’s given you this abundance of awesomeness and go on ‘living.'” Needless to say, I bet Job’s wife and I would’ve gotten on well.

Because, in a sense, Job’s wife hints at a deeper meaning that there is no blessing without a curse. Nor is there a curse without a blessing. That’s kind of how I read the whole Book of Job. I don’t like to think of Job [spoiler alert] being rewarded in the end with a new family and riches all as a result of his faith so much as it is a recognition that life is bound to deal out this endless cycle of blessings and curses all meshed together for which anyone might endure regardless of what they’ve done or who they are. To walk the streets of St. Louis, no less the streets of Morocco, is to encounter that two-sided coin, of which everything is, and to live in the tension of never really knowing which side of the coin you’re giving or receiving. And even when the answer is almost always “both,” that doesn’t really clear a whole lot up. Though privileged, I am not a person without trials or temptations or without my own baggage constantly being schlepped around with me. So too, I do not know the in-depth, personal trials of those who walk the streets hungry, wanting, faced with desperation. Have they known what it is to be cursed? Surely to God and sadly, and yet, I suspect, they’ve known better than I what it is to be blessed at times, as well. The great challenge of this stupid, beautiful little life is to see not merely each other’s blessings nor simply each other’s curses but to lovingly accept the painful beauty of both.

Gateway to the Somewhere

Walking around St. Louis lately, I’ve noticed how the city changes for me the more I get to know it. It’s like when you walk down an unfamiliar street, and the first few times you do it, the color of the pavement blends just enough with the dull tone of the concrete buildings to almost make it into a blurred background image easily forgotten.

The Lou

Your first time venturing anywhere new, you’re so focused on the destination and on not getting lost that the details of the place just kinda fade. But the more you walk a path, the more familiar it becomes, and the more familiar it becomes, the easier it is to notice the little things. This past week, meandering throughout downtown St. Louis has been that for me as the city morphed from that weird blur of general “downtownness” to something with a personality and a feel to it. There was that one dilapidated Tudor building with the timber framing sitting lonely among the steel-and-glass. Or the way, at night, Washington Avenue is lit-up like Christmas. There was the realization that the Public Library, architectured almost like a great, academic cathedral of sorts, was due west of the apartment and only a few blocks away in relation to everything else that’s come to matter to me since I got here. And, of course, the people – conversations of kindred that even when you don’t know them at all have offered something to the familiarity of the place. Yesterday in the gelato shoppe, a man decked out in a soldier’s uniform walked in with three young, black boys probably between eight and ten years old and bought them all something. On his way out, he confessed, “I don’t actually know them at all. They just saw my uniform and asked for an autograph, so I figured I’d do something nice in return.”

I used to think a place chooses you. Like, if you grow up on a farm, you’re bound to grow into that and the lifestyle that comes with it. I wouldn’t say that I deny the truth of that necessarily, but nowadays, I tend to think we choose the place, too. That it’s a both-and kind of thing. The more familiar a place becomes, the more likely you are to claim it as your own, after all. And St. Louis has become mine in a way that I’ve enjoyed making it mine. Even the buildings that aren’t quite as aesthetically pleasing as the others lend to the familiarity like puzzle pieces filling in the parts to make it whole, and sometimes, it’s the pieces that are the same color as all the others that, without them, keep the puzzle unfinished. In that sense, I’ve come to love and want to know more every nook-and-cranny of the city I can absorb and commit to memory.

To me, St. Louis is a city of choice, a kind of merging of paths. I get why it’s called the Gateway to the West, but a gateway West is a gateway East, too. I sometimes feel as if I’m looking as far down each path as I can see with the naked eye, imagining where it might take me if I choose that path but at the same time perfectly content to simply imagine until something greater pushes me in that direction rather than forcing it. But as I imagine, I’m grown content to be in the here-and-now standing at the entrance neither too eager to enter or exit and recognizing that the door does both at the same time. A city of choices is a city bound to the cycle of life, its ends and beginnings. And I’m grown content to be present to that cycle, however brief or lengthy that may be, without getting caught in the need to move through the doors. It’s a bit like serving as a kind of doorkeeper watching the world pass before me eager to keep some constant pace rushing West or East as though they’re caught in the blur rather than absorbing all the wonderful chaos they might have noticed had they stood still for just five minutes. Having been on both sides of the doorway, it’s nice to just stand there observing, greeting, growing familiar.

St. Louis, Baby Ramsilicious, and Making Memories

Just got back from a nice little trip to St. Louis to see an old fraternity brother and his wife. The weekend was packed with museums, great food-and-drink, and nostalgic conversation. It’s funny, really. When you see someone you haven’t seen in a while, and it’s like everything just falls back into place as though a year or two was just a few days. That’s a bit cliché, I realize, but I think it’s humorous how I might walk down a St. Louis street with my friend Patrick and imagine we’re back at Wabash, or I might walk through Cambridge with Avery, and at any given moment, I’m worried about falling through an uncovered manhole, just because that was a danger we had to watch out for in Morocco.

When those memories come flooding back, they’re usually ephemeral for me. It’s more like they drip instead of flood. Like, for half a second, my mind flashes back to a very vivid image, but the image doesn’t stick; it’s not something I can turn over and chew on. More than that, the past is less something I can imagine, as in picture, and more oft than not, it’s something I only feel: a happy moment or a sad one all thrown together into a few milliseconds of colorful images somewhere in the fleeting recesses of my mind. I sometimes wish it would play like a movie, but it never does, and I wonder if I’m unique in this or if this is how everyone experiences remembering the past. Because when I say that I “remember” something, I really mean I have words that recognize that I was there, but to hold onto the memory is incredibly difficult, especially to hold onto it exactly as it was.

I guess that’s why we take pictures and videos, really, but I don’t think photographs can capture the raw emotion of a memory, or it’s rare that they do. In fact, I’d go as far as to say that watching an old family video or looking at a picture doesn’t feel as real to me as how I imagine it to have happened, even if I know my memory has distorted it and made it different from how it really was.

RamsA few days before heading off to St. Louis, I had lunch with my friend Sarah along with her toddler, Ramsey, who I lovingly call “Ramsilicious.” I’ve been pretty skittish around babies for awhile, probably in part because Moroccan children were so mean to me but also because I find it so difficult to imagine having one of my own. I haven’t figured out if Ramsey has grown on me because she’s constantly smiling and laughing or if it’s just because she’s still so darn cute even when she’s not, but I’d murder anyone who tried to hurt her, and I told Sarah today that I have every intention of making sure she doesn’t listen to crappy music! So, when lunch ended the other day, and Sarah asked me to carry Ramsey to the car, she sneakily snapped a photo of the two of us just about the time Ramsey started crying over having to get in the car seat. It was my first time to hold a baby, ever. And in that sense, it’s something I won’t be forgetting anytime soon.

And yet, when she was finally settled in, I couldn’t stop thinking about the fact that I’m not able to remember anything before, like, the year I was in the first grade. Ramsey will not remember being held or loved on as a toddler. She won’t remember having her diaper changed or doing whatever else it is that babies do. By the time she’s five, in fact, she’ll probably have forgotten what all that was like. I mean, maybe there are some weird folks out there who do remember what it was like being a few months old, but I’ve yet to meet any of them. The catch is this: just because we forget those early years doesn’t make them any less important. In a way, they’re the most important of all. In fact, I remember an episode of This American Life where they talked about how the first year of life could essentially determine how the rest of your life was going to go. In that sense, Ramsey may not be able to recall the memories she’s making, but they’ll be with her always regardless.

That got me to thinking that maybe the stuff we either forget or can’t recall can be more important than the stuff we think we’ve got down pat — that our emotional memory is just as crucial as the physical one with its deceptive, vivid images. And for me, there’s some comfort in the fact that whatever might be buried in my brain isn’t ever really “forgotten,” that every moment I encounter and experience is so, truly precious that I’m bound to carry it with me one way or another – whether it’s being held and having had my diaper changed as a baby or walking the cold streets of St. Louis with a dear friend.