All Hail the Storm King

img_20160914_180955254_hdrThere’s something monstrous and all-encompassing about New York City, as though the longer you’re there, your memory of the way the world works elsewhere is slowly cached until it fades into oblivion. Everywhere about the City, nature prevails. The pigeons come close and tilt their heads to look at you as though you’re the one that doesn’t belong amid this concrete, not them. The mice and chipmunks and squirrels are perfectly content to live among the steel-and-glass ignoring you, mostly. The trees manage to climb surprisingly high, a wooden skyscraper unto themselves, their roots searching the dirt beneath until it slams up against the concrete veins and arteries of the Metropolitan Transit Authority. Everything here unnatural seems to have grown together so well that it may have become one with Mother Nature herself.

Until, of course, you leave New York City and discover that this is not the norm, that – in fact – it’s a kind of beautiful, artistic and architectural blasphemy unmatched the world over.

img_20160917_104720302_hdrSuffice to say, it is still jarring to me that less than an hour away, the signs of the City are replaced with countless acres of trees and farmland, of mountains and lakes, of the River Valley where the remnants of the Appalachians come crashing into one side of the Hudson and pick up again on the other as though there’d not even been a creek in the way or perhaps as though Moses learnt to part rocks the same way he’d parted water. In the early days of autumn, just when the dog days of summer have tired out, and there’s a light breeze whispering to some of the trees that dying is a part of living, you can escape here and forget there ever was any concrete or steel or glass or plastic or car horns or subways. This is the land of towns with names like Fishkill and Beacon and Doodletown and Stony Point. It could just as easily be Tennessee.

It is not a place without its reminder that New York City is close by, of course. The train to Montreal whistles off the Hudson and churns on the tracks like a tornado rolling through, and the traffic and passers-by are a diverse lot of run-down hooptie cars, the people packed-in tight on their way to the next ‘job,’ juxtaposed with an occasional Tesla driven by a lone Frenchman who wears G Star Raw and is environmentally-conscious. And yet, in the same way the City can make you forget this place over time, this place – this dance with Mother Nature – manages to flood back over you singing, lulling that this is the real America. Cue Paul Simon on a search.

img_20160917_113923636And what is the real America but that hard, tried juxtaposition, that reminder that nothing is simple or can be easily broken into ‘this vs. that’ but is instead some mosaic of anything-and-everything we’ve ever done, imagined, or desired – the best and the worst of us – all thrown into the same mixing pot we once celebrated in this country.

Here is the Catskills, and here, maybe ten minutes west of the river and buried in its rolling hills there is an art gallery stranger than most. Imagine an outdoor museum, five hundred acres of it – something akin a postmodern Stonehenge with giant architectural feats planted like seeds that grew uncontrollably large in a river valley. It is the exact opposite of New York City: these structures that seemingly don’t belong actually make a very good case that they were born and grew up here and couldn’t reside anywhere else but a garden ‘that rivals Versailles.’ Against a backdrop of perfectly groomed green grass, knolls perfect for sledding, and oak and pine, these artistic gods – like a Picasso come to life – tower toward the pristine blue above to kiss the clouds. Their rusted metal – black and red – screams to the sky, but it’s somehow overwhelmingly peaceful. Once again, what didn’t belong found a home, and at home, you can scream loudly and find peace in it.

img_20160917_121225180The name of the place is fitting, too: Storm King, as though just around the mountain to the east there lurks Zeus ready to fire his bolts directly at the towering metal structures. I half-expected a postmodern ‘Night at the Museum’ were I to hang around until after dark.

Maybe that’s because seeing a giant, rusty metal structure next to a pond gives it life. But I think, too, its wild shapes, its shadows, the way the light might hit it at different times of day, leaves you to imagine that this one stationary structure could be a million things to a million people across a million eons. Somebody throws one gargantuan slab into the pasture, sculpted in steel, calls it art, and it tells a vastly different story at sunset from what it told at sunrise. Could it be said to be the same thing on a cloudy day when the sun doesn’t give it its sharp shadow that, arguably, is as much a part of the sculpture as the body the artist built? Or does the absence of its shadow breathe into it new life altogether?

img_20160917_121025271We small creatures who look upon such vastness are made somehow smaller still by this place. What of life is any different? Is not everything we look upon equally as complex? I am caught often, chained even, by my very limited perspective: that how I encounter you or the things you and I have made depends on just how the light hits us, just where we’re found in it, and just the time of day (or week or month or year) that your life and your creation may have graced mine. It is difficult, sometimes, to wait through the cloudy days to see again the shadow. It is that much more difficult, should they remain, to not let the clouds skew our view of what we know or once knew to be true. We are the storm kings and queens tasked to wade through the layers of our limited perspectives, to call out with humility precisely what those layers for us may be and to view it all as the birds of New York City might: looking curiously on and wondering what belonging is while knowing and claiming, this is our home.

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Cultivating Change from Then to Now

My family’s house in Jackson – the home I was raised in – sits on a wooded hill that’s made mostly out of a reddish mud-clay mixed with brown top-soil. I’ve no idea if those are the correct geological terms for what the stuff is; I just know that’s what it looks and acts like. It’s about the most infertile stuff you could imagine for growing grass, and ever since I was five or so when we moved there, Dad has never been in line for the local yard-grooming award, which was pointedly awkward since the next door neighbor is a professional landscaper.

As a kid, of course, this was fantastic. Grass to the American homeowner is springy, green, and appealing to the eye, but there’s nothing like dirt, dust, and mud to make an eight year-old happy. And I’m not just talking about makin’ mud-pies or that moment when you walk inside and your mother spits on her finger to wipe the mud off your cheek. I think I mean something deeper than that: that exposed earth between the tall oaks and maples was so unusual in a land of perfectly-groomed yards that, as a kid, I felt the call of the woods and the wild, wild wilderness right in the heart of suburbia. When fellow neighborhood children might venture off to a local creek that twisted and wound its way to the Forked Deer, that was exciting and adventurous and all, but there was something wonderful about knowing I only had to go as far as my back doorstep (or as far as my imagination) to be in a whole other world from the sameness of the suburbs. That little shaded hill with its crappy dust-bowl and with clay that wouldn’t do for molding a pot for the kiln was a land of magic to me. And it was mine.

For the past few weeks, though, Dad’s been at work tilling the mud-clay and mixing in fertilized soil from a cotton field, seeding it with what I’m guessing was Kentucky bluegrass or something similar. Other dry-patch spots of dirt unkind for walking my puggle in the rain have been covered with actual sod, and to see it is somewhat jarring for me. It looks like, well, all the other yards here in the neighborhood. And while it’s a good thing, ultimately, to have finally tackled the yard some twenty-five years later, a sadness comes with it. I miss already the exposure, the open-and-honest grit-and-grime, the sounds of the backyard childhood.

A week from now, I’ll be on the road to another mystical land (another place wooded and on a hill), this one in New York and surrounded by water and love. I’m not sure why, but it seems fitting now – at the beginning of this change – to see the ground tilled, the grass planted – the home, once home – new and different. To see the change go with me, I guess. I am a person who from the ground I came and to the ground I am returning, and I yearn to always be mindful of that. It’s something sown into my persona to the point that I’m a little too eager sometimes to get to the root of things, no matter how much of that ugly gritty ground is left exposed in a world where we too-often prefer our “yards” nice, neat, landscaped. And yet, as much as I love getting to the roots to know them, I think I do so because I want to be a part of cultivating them, of seeing them mowed down and bare to growing something that belonged there in the first place. There is no ugliness in the barren land to me; only potential and hope. Because eventually – no, now – long-gone are the dead, dry grasses who have made way for something better, something longer-lasting. That’s what I hope for myself. It’s what I hope for everybody.

A Trip to Camp, or Surveying the Remnants of Eubanks Bank

Yesterday, as I was driving to visit the church camp I used to work at, I had a moment where I decided that if there’s a hell (and if I go there), I will probably spend eternity in a continuous loop of being forced to drive Highway 641 North between the interstate and Camden on what has to be the most boring stretch of road ever constructed. Inevitably, I’m always stuck behind a car going forty in a fifty-five, and the speed limit should’ve been bumped up to sixty eons ago.

Camp, though, is the opposite of hell to me, and maybe that’s why it’s such a pain trying to get there, since you’re likely to twiddle your thumbs on the steering wheel in anticipation that whatever camp holds is good and can alter your current mindset of “not-good” or whatever else the world outside of camp seems to always deliver. It’s a sanctuary, a holy ground, a tabernacle, a sacred grove. It’s home and family and memories of family – the ones we’ve hurt and been hurt by and the ones we’ve loved and been loved by. And so, it’s a refuge of sorts.

That said, I think there’s a fine line between seeking refuge or replenishment and seeking to escape, and sometimes the same place can be both, and sometimes, we need both of those things to cope, but when I sat down with the old staff (and by “old” I mean “wise” in case they’re reading this) – whether it was a candlelit Mexican dinner with Martha or closed-door conversation spouting out painful honesty with Gary or silliness and serious banter with Chris Alexander – I’m convinced that, at camp, we find ourselves always able to say, “Here, it’s okay to be you.” I think anybody who’s ever been to any half-decent camp, secular or sacred, would have similar findings.

Earlier this afternoon, I set out on a mission of sorts to locate a part of camp that bears my name. A few years ago, one of the staffers built an orienteering course in the backwoods of camp property than ran along a creek called “Polk Branch.” Using a compass and a small map, you’re tasked with the responsibility of finding ten locations named after former Wilderness camp directors. They’re places like the “Taylor Tall Beech Grove” or the “Brock Grassy Knoll” or “Pulliam’s Squeeze.” And one of them near an embankment is called “Eubanks Bank.”

Orienteering Map

When I set out to find my little spot in the woods, I put the compass in my pocket and decided I didn’t need it. The map looked easy enough to follow, I told myself, but about thirty minutes in and on a tight schedule, some part of me was debating whether I should try to recall exactly how to use the compass from my Boy Scout days. I wasn’t exactly “lost.” I knew those woods well enough (because I’d been lost in them before), but for a split second or two, I did have the sickening feeling that I wasn’t prepared or that I might not be able to find what I was looking for. When I stumbled upon the first marker in a copse of beech trees, the tension eased up and instead of trying to figure out what to do with the compass, I settled on just following the creek and letting it lead me where I needed to go.

The orienteering paperwork describes my little spot in the woods thusly:

Eubanks Bank: named for Philip Eubanks, Director 2006, this embankment rises up about 5 feet above the valley and flattens out like a table just above the creek and floodplain. There are signs of old cornrows in the ground here that are still visible from when these woods were farmland.

When I stumbled upon the marker, I sorta crouched down in the remnants and kind of admired the serene scene much the way I imagine an explorer planting a flag in the ground to lay claim to new lands. I powered on to Al-Chokhachi Balcony and a few others before I ran out of time and had to head back.

As I was walking back to the road, I thought a lot about my refusal to use a compass on an orienteering course. It almost seemed to defeat the purpose in a way. I had this map and this compass both of which gave me straightforward directions (quite literally) but instead, I chose to let the creek and the wind be my guide. I thought about how the compass and the map were symbols of religion and religious texts to me, but somewhere along the way, I’d been so angry with the compass and the map that I’d gone the extra mile to also ignore the creek. And yet, the creek was a power to be reckoned with. On the surface, it’s quiet and peaceful and glides along the little pebbles, but it’s a great mover and shaker – one that carves the whole landscape and replenishes the roots underneath. For too long, I’d turned a journey into a destination, but with the compass and the map in my pocket, it all came flooding back – who I am and the things I need to cultivate and care for. The veins and crunch of every yellowed leaf, the birds soaring overhead, the call of the creek flowing into itself: who needs a compass to know where they’re going? Or, to quote Tolkien, “Not all who wander are lost.”

Driving back to Jackson on good old Highway 641, Tennessee was beautiful. The redbud is in bloom leaving a lavender touch on a green and gray landscape. The pine trees have kept their promise through the winter and are still green. The road lies and leaves the false impression that you’re surrounded by land as flat as Indiana, but in fact, if you pay attention you’re sure to notice rolling hills and even a cliff or two somewhere between the interstate and Camden. It was a drive I can say I thoroughly enjoyed.

Jackson’s Bad Rap in Crime

About a month before I left to go to Morocco as a Peace Corps volunteer in 2010, a family friend had remarked, “Well, is that safe? I mean, with all those Muslims there and all. Will you be safe?” Though even at the time, I thought it was a bit of a ridiculous question, I won’t pretend like there wasn’t some part of me in the back of my head going, “Well, I mean, is it safe? You don’t really know much of anything about this country.” What I did know about Muslims was, as I’ve said before, “driven by the media’s only focus on Islam: terrorism.” Even with an education where I’d studied Islam in dialogue with other religions, I still found it difficult to shed the images I’d been sold about this religious group.

Eventually, I did shed that fear. Through my host mother, Fatima, whose first words and the only English she knew was, “I love you; you are my son;” through Hamza and Omar who danced with me late into the night or welcomed me to meals; through Driss whose English was arguably better than mine and who loved a spirited debate over mint tea; slowly, I was able to realize that not only did I have nothing to fear but, in fact, I had plenty to love about Morocco, about my Muslim brothers and sisters. I even felt safe enough to travel alone thirteen hours across the country multiple times and through just about all kinds of weather, day or night. Mind you, I probably shouldn’t have felt safe doing all of that. A certain one-eyed taxi driver, in fact, insisted on going over 120 km/hour in a sandstorm with zero visibility, and I’m still pretty sure either that or using butane gas to cook was probably the least safe thing I ever did in Morocco or maybe my whole life.

But now that I’m back home in Jackson, Tennessee, safe and sound in America and in a community I care about, that question from the family friend strikes me as especially odd and even off-putting. Was I safe in Morocco in a Muslim community where I was welcomed with intense hospitality? I certainly felt so. But are you safe in Jackson?

Recently, an article published by a California real-estate company listed Jackson as the third most dangerous “small city” in the nation. That went viral on Facebook and Twitter within the Jackson community and prompted the Jackson Sun to seek comment from both the Mayor’s office and from the Chamber of Commerce. Their response, by and large, was essentially to ask who is some California company to tell us how things look in Jackson (you can almost hear them exclaiming in Southern Drawl, “Calaforna!?”)? Both offices questioned the credibility of the report suggesting that the statistics were somehow overstated.

For fun, I decided to do a bit of a comparison and just see how the numbers spoke for themselves. I thought about comparing Jackson to Mos Eisley, but eveybody knows you’ll never find a more wretched hive of scum and villainy. So, instead, take a Moroccan city like Fes. Admittedly, it’s much bigger than Jackson at a population of just over a million. But Fes only had 37 homicides in 2013, compared with 11 for Jackson. That may not sound like many for either city, but it’s a rate of .17 per 1000 for Jackson versus .04 per 1000 for Fes. Fes is looking a lot safer per capita, as did all Moroccan cities I looked at. In fact, for Fes’s homicide rate to equal Jackson’s, you’d have to see 175 murders instead of 37. That would require of Fes a 79% increase in murders from one year to the next.

So, this isn’t looking too good for Jackson. But let’s look even closer at some of Jackson’s statistics: if you live in Jackson, you have a 1 in 68 chance of being a victim of violent crime. Compare that with 1 in 155 statewide and in 1 in 110 in New York City. That’s right, you’re more likely to be a victim of violence in Jackson than you are in the Big Apple. Not only New York, though. In fact, 96% of cities in the nation are safer per capita than Jackson is.

The thing is, Mayor Gist and the Chamber may well be right to suggest that the statistics are overstated. There are a lot of complex factors that contribute to crime rate, after all, and they’re certainly right to point out things like the Hub City’s location smack between Memphis and Nashville or directly on one of the busiest Interstates in the country (I would add that Jackson’s unemployment rate is at 9.6% compared with 7.3% nationwide; or that Jackson is filled with an even mix of white and blue collar professionals who are primarily “young, single, and upwardly mobile”). So, too, while the amount of violent crime in Morocco is significantly lower than Jackson or even all of America, I shouldn’t suggest that Morocco doesn’t come with its own set of issues. There’s far more likely to be a terrorist attack in Morocco than there is for one to happen in Jackson (although, if you considered gang violence as a form of terrorism, you might argue terrorism is a Jackson issue). And there’s a significant risk to females and foreigners, such that traveling at night across the Atlas Mountains would certainly be ill-advised, as it would be anywhere. Every city, every country, comes with its own set of complex factors that contribute to the problem of violent crime, and each of those places must come up with their own, unique solutions to those problems.

And yet, even if the statistics are overstated, Jackson has a very serious crime problem that neither the Mayor’s office nor the Chamber of Commerce nor local churches nor local citizens should ever be making excuses about or too quickly dismissing. Where are the people calling for and suggesting real solutions? Or, as someone who isn’t quite sure what the solutions might be, at least a real discussion, a conversation about how churches, citizens, the Chamber, or the Mayor’s office might take to task the crime before us lest it become the norm? As I see it, the Mayor and the Chamber are in the business of maintaining a positive perception, which is important to drawing companies and tourists to the area. But suggesting that Jackson’s crime rates are “normal for cities this size” in order to maintain that perception is risky business at the least. We live in a world where what social and news media tells us is all too easily the gospel truth when it’s backed up by our experiences or our preconceived notions. Yet, no more should we sell the perception of Jackson as a safe place than we should a Muslim country as one that’s filled with terrorists when in reality both have problems that need solutions beyond painting a pretty picture.