The Transient Paths of All the Creatures of the Field

There’s a family of groundhogs that have been hanging around my house lately. They are joined, strangely enough, by the sudden return of deer who avoided the island like the plague when the summer crowds first arrived on Memorial Day. Some have been brave enough to get within a few feet or so. And driving down the road recently, I saw again a flock of turkeys. It’s as if a “no [insert animal here]” sign was removed much the way the stop signs on Shore Road will be removed soon after Labor Day.

There are, of course, the usuals who never left – the squirrels, the chipmunks, the ospreys, and the gulls – all around and about. But I’m intrigued most by the coming-and-going of the temporary little animals – both the furry, cuddly kind and us human beings, too. It’s almost jarring how quickly life can change, the mode of circumstances that drive us – quite literally – from one place to the next. That’s how quickly I found myself drawn from Morocco to cross the ocean to Tennessee to New York.

I remember when I was in high school and first studying early nomadic humans in Mr. Briley’s world history class and how strange it was to me that people picked up and left and didn’t know one place, really, as home. Our earliest ancestors did what the animals seem to do even now: follow the safest path that has the guarantee of food. But by the time I was reading the Odyssey a few years later, it seemed to me there was a drive greater than the search for safety or food alone that lead us away. Something tied together the unknown, some need to know it, and our need to be. Something nearly guaranteed this kind of transience for a life that’s already, fortunately or not, a fairly transient one. Was some evolutionary pattern instilled in us so that when we did choose to go, we were still just following the food sources subconsciously? That may be, but I think the search for bread and wine can be one deeply symbolic and beyond the physical elements. It’s no wonder that the eariest mythologies, the earliest gods and goddeses, were tied to the land, the river, the well-springs of life. But they were tied to them in a way that followed the well-spring to where it sprang most, and that was something that they found often shifted and changed as the waters moved.

The holiest places, then, were the places we human beings felt it was safe to stop, even if (or especially when) that was temporary. And we still do this. It’s why we camp, why we retreat, why we vacation, or even move. In a society so driven by consumerism, there’s more than money pushing us out of our complacency whether we listen to it or not. There’s a voice that whispers, “Go,” against all our fears of leaving our holy spots, our sanctuaries. There’s another voice that whispers, “Stay,” when we stumble upon our calling. It’s the very reason most great prophets, Jesus included, were peripatetics, sauntering such that their home was wherever their feet were at the given moment. How long are we allowed to stop? How long do we need to replenish ourseles? From where is the water fulfilling enough and can we distinguish it from the bitter waters we choose too often to drink instead? How long before the holy home of rest is grown to something mundane and no longer the haven to us it once was? Will we carry the courage to acknowledge when we must go or when we must stay? Will we connect ourselves to our inner self, to the “Ground of Being,” to others so that we can hear the voices with honesty when they nudge at us? Whether evolutionary patterns or not, we are called to be like the fish of the sea and the birds of the sky or even the little groundhogs scuttering away to the shadows underneath the cottage. But they seem to know better than us how long to be. I envy them and the early nomads for the ease with which the evolutionary patterns seem to be guiding to their most basic decisions. But I’m thankful too for the rest, for the pause, for the return of the little creatures and the role I play welcoming them here to my home, however temporary or long-loved they or I will be.

Options and the Heart

A year ago, I was “fresh off the boat,” literally, and there was something exciting about being back. I was putting out graduate school applications, visiting friends, spending time with my sister whom I adore, and sleeping under the Christmas tree with Abner. The future was this bright unknown that was slowly dimmed and dulled as rejection after rejection came pouring in. As 2013 rolled around, it became very apparent that the first half of it, at least, was going to be tough – and that was before it really got bad.

I don’t wish to recap 2013. It was a hard but important year, and that’s enough said about it. But as it comes to a close, I’m remembering how I felt a year ago. In a way, somehow, that old excitement has returned. Options I wish had come my way a year ago are slowly and surely beginning to present themselves. Nothing is set in stone. Yet. I can’t tell you where I’ll be in a week from now (probably Nashville), let alone a month or two. Boston, Dubai, Morocco, the UK? There’s a short-list of sorts that changes every day. As does the likelihood of any one particular place.

When I got back to America, at first, I just assumed that because I was back in America, I should find a nice city, a place I wanted to be, and settle down. Because that’s what normal people do. Despite how difficult it was to find a job, to even get an interview (one in a whole year of looking), I’m not sure I ever really took the time to consider what I wanted or what was right for me. Now I have, and going again is the direction my feet and my heart are moving together.

If someone handed you a globe and said, “There’s no one and nothing holding you back. Just pick a spot and go,” where would you pick? I don’t pretend that the idea of saying goodbye again isn’t difficult. To my family. Or to a handful of friends I hold dear. But to do what’s right for me is to not be held back by something that leaves me incomplete. And holding onto that globe and all the freedom it contains has never felt better.

And so it is that I’m poised, renewing a passport, and ready to pack.

A Year at Sea.

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

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

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

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

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

A Happy Eid from America

Today is Eid Al-Adha, and it’s the first one in three years where I wasn’t helping somebody slaughter a goat. Instead I spent most of the quiet Wednesday working on editing my novel while it rained outside. Maybe it’s the rain or the fact there’s a little cold mixed in with it, but it felt like Eid today. It feels like Thanksgiving and Christmas are just around the corner, and I’m already eager as all get-out to bring on the Christmas music. Funny how Eid would kick in the American holiday season for me. It’s a stunning realization, really, to recognize that a holiday that isn’t my own, perhaps because of the solidarity I feel toward the many Muslims I came to know and love, is now a holiday that carries a deep meaning to me. I marked it by firing off a few messages to some of my Moroccan friends and exclaiming, “Happy Eid!” or literally, “Mbrouk!” Congratulations!

For the Columbus weekend, I took a hurried trip to Nashville to see a couple of friends, and on my way into the city, right around Charlotte Pike on I-40, I filled with this sense of excitement I haven’t felt in a long time. It was a sense of belonging, really. Nashville: This is my city, I exclaimed to myself in the car. Kinda silly in hindsight, but having been born there, I feel I can stake a claim to it. I suppose when I lived there, I probably had some things to gripe about, but there’s very few places I’ve ever returned to where I got that excited to be there. I can think of three besides Nashville – Lakeshore, Rabat, and San Diego.

I guess it’s funny to me how a place can get under our skin and make us feel so at home, even to the point that later on in life there’d still be remnants of those places, such that I’d give a quiet little nod to Morocco on Eid or shout with joy when I saw the Batman building in Nashville or just be excited my plane – on its way to Seattle a few years back – made a pit stop in San Diego. In a way, I think, we become the places we go. And we leave our little mark on those places while we’re there, as briefly as we may grace that little spot. That’s why it’s so important to be mindful of where we’ve been and where we’re going and to never forget that one informs the other. It’s like my mother’s insistence to “never forget where ya came from.” I think it’s just as important to never forget where you’ve been.

So, to my Muslim friends out there – and to my other friends, too – happy Eid. It’s a good day to be thankful.

 

Hicham and the Paradox of Cultures

A few weeks ago, I was on a train for Rabat, and I met this guy named Hicham.  Hicham was dressed to the hilt in religious garb, all black, and his beard would have put Sam Beam to shame.  To be honest, I had no desire to talk to Hicham; I was tired and not remotely interested in using Arabic.  Speaking in a different language can really drain you, and I had not spoken out loud to a native English speaker in over a week at that point.  The last thing I wanted to deal with was another conversation that started, “Are you Muslim?”

Instead, the conversation drifted in the direction, “What are you doing here?”  I got a chance to talk about our recent diabetes project going around my town with several local youth educating folks at shops and stores nearby.  Hicham mentioned that his own twelve-year old son has diabetes.  Despite being tired and uninterested in using Arabic, I liked Hicham a lot.  He was young, like me, and had studied world religions, like me.  At one point, he praised an American institute devoted to “the study of religion and liberty” and this week, he emailed me their website.   Hicham was a well-educated, well-to-do Rabati on his way home.

Now here’s where the conversation got interesting.  In the train-car with us were two other Moroccans who were, for lack of a better way of putting it, poor.  They were “bladi,” as we volunteers sometimes like to call ourselves, which probably translates to something akin “country bumpkin.”  So, in this train car were two bladi Moroccans, an American volunteer, and a well-educated religious man from the city.  It’s like the beginning of some joke.

As I was explaining what I do in Morocco, the two bladi Moroccans were incredibly confused.  The concept of volunteerism is sometimes lost on people in the countryside.  “Why would anyone sacrifice their riches in a place like America to come here?” they may well ask.  But Hicham got it.  He understood development work, the importance of volunteerism, multiculturalism, cultural exchange, religious diversity – you name it.  Hicham got me.  But then, when Hicham turned to explain to the two Moroccans why I was here, his Arabic was so full of French (and I mean, literally, “French;” that’s not some euphemism for curse words), that they could not understand him.  I had to actually step in at one point and help the two bladi Moroccans understand what Hicham was saying by translating his French (which is funny since I don’t know any French, really) to help bring everybody onto the same page.  Hicham had been so used to speaking to other well-educated Moroccans in the city where the French language symbolizes wealth and class and is essentially still the lingua franca, that it just never occurred to him that his way of speaking Arabic might fly over the heads of the lower classes.

So, here I was, in the middle.  I understood Hicham.  He was so much like me – the privileged man, a scholar of religion.  But I understood the bladi men, too; I understood their frustration with Hicham.  I understood that this train ride was hurting their pocketbook.  I understood none of the French that came from Hicham’s mouth.  I had somehow managed to cross into all of their worlds and none of them at the same time.  Over my two years, I’ve grown to live in the middle of some paradox in this beautiful Kingdom. I belong to it.  And I very much don’t.  At the same time.

And maybe I’m coming to realize that I feel that same way about America.  In fact, I think all of us find ourselves caught somewhere in the middle sometimes.  I’m not sure if it’s as stark as sitting in that train car pulling into the capital city, but I do think the more aware we are of our culture, the more aware we are of the things that shape and mold and influence us, of how exactly those things do that, the more likely it is that we’ll step back and ask, “Where do I fit in here?”  And that’s a question I wish more of us were asking.

Official Packing List, Redux

One of my top, all-time posts from this blog was a packing list I made two years ago.  It got the most hits, mostly by other Peace Corps Volunteers who, like me, were preparing to leave and wanted advice on what to (and not to) bring.  I’ve got several blogs up-and-coming (a few top ten lists – one on change and one on things I loved and one on things I hated; a post-Ramadan update, etc.), but before I dug into those other blog posts, I wanted to offer a redaction of the original packing list to help future volunteers sort through what they really do need.  Granted, this is my personal opinion, but it’s my opinion after having been abroad two years, so it’s based on some level of experience.  Here goes:

Three things first – 1) I originally suggested listening to the Smashing Pumpkins while you pack.  This is not a bad suggestion.  I love the Pumpkins, and they’re great – I mean great – packing music.  But just for “funsies,” have a listen to a few things a little more packing appropriate: William Fitzsimmons’ “So This is Goodbye” or Eels “Packing Blankets.”  2) Peace Corps asks all its volunteers to show up to staging (the city you fly out of as a group) dressed “professionally.”  I recommend against this, unless you’re just looking to absolutely destroy a nice blazer.  Look – wear a nice pair of khakis, a good belt, and a dress shirt (if you’re a dude) that you’d actually wear again in your host country.  Leave the blazer and the tie at home.  You’re going to a place that is likely sweltering hot, dusty and dirty, and probably a little smelly.  You are unlikely to return to America with even half of the clothes you are taking abroad.  Don’t waste a good blazer on Peace Corps telling you to “be professional” for one day out of eight hundred fifty.  3) The items listed below was based on weather ranging from 130 in the summer to below freezing in the winter, so I was aiming for all extremes.

Anyhow, without further ado, here is the Official Packing List REDUX as it now stands, with commentary bolded:

One Larger Camping Pack:

LOWER COMPARTMENT (items not immediately needed) –

  • Windbreaker
  • Wool Down coat
  • Coat Shell
  • Thermal Underwear (depending on country, lots or little)
  • Fleece gloves
  • Hoodie, sweatshirt
  • Two Small Towels One quick-dry towel
  • Swimsuit Bring athletic shorts and plan to just swim in those; saves you room and still does the job
  • New Balances, or some version of a really, really good pair of shoes.  Or even two pair.  I have gone through at least seven pairs of shoes in this country.  I’m not even joking.  I went through two pairs of Keens.  After destroying the first pair, I complained to Keens, and they credited me $90 bucks, so I bought a second pair, because I like the design of their shoes, but the second pair were destroyed in less than four months.  Despite being made specifically for hiking and adventure sports, they’re not well-made shoes, or at least, they couldn’t handle the dust and rocky desert.  My New Balances lasted me almost a full year in this country, my Adidas six or seven months, and the Keens four months each.  Don’t be surprised if I buy a new pair of shoes in the friggin’ airport in Miami.  I’m desperate.  I’m trying to make my shoes now last me for just one more month, but I’ll be shocked if it happens without duct tape.  If I can find duct tape.  Pack duct tape.  Lots of it.  
  • Socks & boxers (close to top) If you’re a dude, expect to lose some weight.  Might not be a terrible idea to packet one pair of something one size too small.  

MIDDLE COMPARTMENT –

  • Separated Hammock/Straps Go to Eagle’s Nest Outfitters.  Buy yourself a hammock, even if you’re not in the Peace Corps.  Do it now.  You will not ever regret this decision.  (No, no ad companies are paying me to do this, but they should – *wink*).  
  • Athletic Shorts
  • Duct Tape
  • Leatherman
  • Spork & Bowl
  • Freezer bags Get something zip-lock with some fancy tight-zip technology.  Get a bunch of them.  The bigger the better.  What you don’t use, you can give away to families.  It’s really a great gift.  
  • Trousers (including cargo, lightweight, and regular)
  • Dress Shirt
  • Shirts (Polos, Tees, and long-sleeve) I don’t really wear polyester, Under Armor type clothing in America, but during my service, on a hot Ramadan morning… dude, you can’t go wrong with that.  It’s also great when you want to pack six days of clothes in a small backpack.
  • Standard Toiletry Items (near top)
  • Burt’s Bees …it’s small, so you can’t really bring too much of this.  
  • Extra Pair of Glasses & Sunglasses

STRAPPED TO OUTSIDE –

  • Sleeping Pad Unless you’re going to go out of your way to purchase some unbelievably awesome sleeping pad that’s like $300 bucks, don’t waste the packing space.  There’ll always be either a bed, a blanket, or some hay that’s just as comfortable as that sleeping pad.  

Multi-Day Pack:

  • North Face Sleeping bag I brought a light-weight sleeping bag, and I think this was smart, but I didn’t use it a whole lot, and I probably could’ve gotten by two years without it, though I would’ve wished for it maybe ten times in my service.  
  • Hoodie
  • Socks & Boxers
  • Assortment of extra shirts and trousers …yeah, I didn’t include a number on these, because I think that’s personal preference, but the fewer you bring, the more often you are going to have to do laundry… by hand.  Keep that in mind.  My suggestion: buy some of those huge air-tight zip-locks that lets you suck all the oxygen out of the bag and pack as many clothes as you can in that, and if you’re packing lots of polyester, that’s even more you can fit in those air-tight zips.  Those were one of the smartest purchases I made.  
  • Netbook Laptop with Plug — The netbook is dead.  Don’t do it.  Mine died halfway through my service, and while the size was incredibly convenient, it’s not designed to do what a laptop does… but because it looks like a laptop, you use it like it is designed for more than it’s capable of doing.  Just pay $100 extra bucks and buy the full monty.  Laptops are cheap these days, anyhow.
  • Zune Plugs
  • USB Drive
  • Rechargeable or Solar Powered Batteries/Charger
  • 220V Converter
  • Nikon Camera
  • Adidas
  • Empty Nalgene, although, yes, I did break my Nalgene bottle during my service by dropping it.  That’s right.  I destroyed the infamously indestructible Nalgene during my life in the desert.  It can be done.  Life wasn’t that much different without it.   
  • Flashlight
  • Journals/pens/pencils
  • Classic novel (suggestions, anyone?) Feel free to bring something small for the airplane, but honestly, I have too many books at this point, and getting them all back to Rabat is going to be a headache-and-a-half.  Peace Corps has a good library, so use that.  
  • Bible/Dictionary/Thesaurus It’s called, the internet.  Of course, you may not be lucky enough to have that, but then, you will have the Peace Corps library.
  • Pop’s Patches/paraphernalia
  • Pictures of friends and family and I’d add maps to this.  You’re a Peace Corps Volunteer.  Bring a big map of America and of the world for your wall.  You love traveling, and nothing will feed your wanderlust like staring at a map for eight hours straight.  Ha.  You think I’m joking.  Cute.  
  • Sticky tack
  • Bandanas/caps
  • Padres Cap
  • An oven mit.  You’ll thank me later.  

So there it is.