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.

Reflections of a Lifelong Education

It was the spring of 2002, my senior year of high school, and I’d been invited to Wabash College for the Lilly Honor Scholarship weekend, along with thirty other guys, many of whom were a lot more accomplished than I. Imagine a room full of thirty Max Fischers fighting at a chance to go to Rushmore Academy, and that’ll give you a decent idea of the steep competition I was facing. Ten of us were going to win a full ride to the school, plus a stipend to travel abroad – valued at about $101,000. The other twenty would likely go home empty-handed.

To win the competition, there was no paper or computer exam. No essay. No tests. There was just an interview – a thirty minute interview with a few professors, alumni, members of the Board of Trustees, as well as the President and Dean of the college. The interview was the test – an opportunity to hear about us, but it wasn’t quite like a job interview or even a news interview. We were told that we’d be asked one serious question about a major current event but that the rest of the interview was to revolve around who we were, what we did and didn’t like, etc.

And of course, there was a lot of superstition around the interview. Rumors of rules we needed to follow if we wanted to win. “On the table, once you walk into the room,” an alumnus told me, “there will be a glass of water in a pitcher. Pour yourself a glass and drink the water. All of it.” Rumor was, historically, the winners of the scholarship were only those who finished the glass of water. I was instructed not to take any chances. Pour the water, drink it all just to be safe, or as my friend had put it, “Finish the damn glass.”

I remember when I walked into the room, I was a deer in headlights. There was a large, rectangular oak table. Around it sat men in business suits and bow ties, grey hair or balding. There was only one empty chair – at the head of the table – and it was mine. On a tray to the side was a pitcher of water and a pitcher of lemonade. My stomach churned: “Oh God, options.” I picked the water, poured it, and took a seat at the end of the table. I was nervous. I took some awkward sips. But I didn’t finish the water.

Then, there were a series of questions, and I had an answer for all of them. “Do you think Sept. 11 changed the world?” or “Why did you choose Wabash?” and “What do you think you want to study here?” At the time, I had my mind set to study biology, actually, or maybe art. I don’t quite remember which. But I remember a religion professor – the renowned Dr. David Blix – a short, stout man sitting next to me as he leaned back into his chair and dryly asked, “Tell us, Philip, what kind of music do you like?”

It seemed like a joke of a question. And it probably was. When I answered that I loved the Beatles, he followed it up by asking me what my favorite Beatles song was. And I went blank. And not like I took a few seconds to think on it and then found an answer, no. I mean Brick Tamland-level blank. I stumbled over words, laughed awkwardly, named like five or six great Beatles songs before finally settling on one. “Love” by John Lennon, I told them. Yeah – it’s not even a Beatles song. I walked out of the interview kicking myself. I immediately started listening to Beatles songs straight through – every single one of them. I was going to pick a favorite Beatles song, and for the rest of my life that was going to be my answer. I settled on “Norwegian Wood (This Bird Has Flown)” and even bought a sitar. I should probably sell my sitar.

When I’ve told this story to friends in the past, I liked to say that my inability to answer that one simple question was why I didn’t win the scholarship. In truth, it probably had something to do with me telling the committee that I didn’t think September 11 changed the world. I didn’t actually believe that. Of course I thought September 11 changed the world. But I was so convinced that would be everybody’s answer that I decided I was going to try my hand at being different. Probably a bad decision in hindsight, though I think I did a half-decent job making the argument at the time. I told them that Americans had changed momentarily. September 11 had brought us together as a nation. Suddenly, everyone was a patriot with an American flag on his or her car, and we’d become all rallied up. Disaster, after all, unites people. But I told them that change was not to be long-lasting. I told them that those flags on the cars would fad with the sun, that people’s sense of unity would eventually corrode. I told them that it was an important, huge event that had altered us briefly, but people always get back to the ugly business being people in the end. Yeah: I was a cynical kid. And though I wasn’t entirely wrong, I didn’t quite have the foresight to quite understand what it means to change the world. And at this point, Iraq was still not on the table.

I guess there were two lessons I learned that spring of 2002. The first was, “always have an answer ready,” and the second was, “don’t assume being different makes you better.” As I’ve gotten older, the first lesson seems immature to me. A better answer to the Beatles song question would have been a simple: “I don’t know; they wrote so many great songs, the one I value today isn’t always the one I’m going to love tomorrow. We change with our music, and it also changes us.” There’s wisdom not only in not knowing but also in accepting how little you know and being a-okay with that.

The second lesson is one I still struggle with. I’ve always been someone, maybe partially because of having been adopted, who felt different and even wanted to be different. If I were in a room full of conservatives, I needed to be a liberal voice, and if I were in a room full of liberals, I needed temper that with a more conservative yearning. I loved being a devil’s advocate, because I felt I always learned more by being skeptical, but there was a cost. In a world with considerable deconstruction of every idea and ideology, I often found myself desperately looking for a way to build things back up again, to fix the world I’d deconstructed or helped deconstruct, only to discover I couldn’t do so without sitting around in a cesspool of contradictions I’d uncovered leaving me totally, existentially isolated from everything and everyone I once valued. I think these days, I’m busy doing the work of finally deciding what’s right for me and not just being, well, contrarian.

In the end, I did win a scholarship, though not the Lilly. I won the college’s Fine Arts Fellowship covering half tuition, actually. And even when I changed my mind about majoring in art history and pursued the religion route, the college let me keep the money. But in a way, that one interview four months before I started Wabash was my first real class at the college, and I haven’t forgotten that weekend at Wabash, the Lilly weekend, where a few first challenging questions that probably shouldn’t have been so difficult have given me a deep pause to reflect on what it means to be educated and keep educating myself and others.

Education is Power

When I was attending Wabash College several years ago, there was a visiting professor in Political Science named John Agresto who actually left the college in 2003 after receiving a call from President Bush asking that he come to Iraq to serve as the “Senior Advisor to the Ministry of Education.”  Agresto left America a staunch supporter of the war and came back in the fall of 2004 to give a lecture at the college on “why we failed in Iraq.”  He also now has a book out called Mugged by Reality: The Liberation of Iraq and the Failure of Good Intentions.  I remember at the time of his lecture being excited to hear how one academic had gone from supporter of our efforts to saying, “Wow, we got this wrong.  We got this really, really, really wrong.”

But his point at the time was that where we really failed in Iraq had everything to do with education of all things.  It wasn’t war strategy or even the mess that was the “post-war” plan (or lack thereof).  It was all about our expectations (primarily that we thought democracy would stick if you threw it at freedom), none of which took into consideration how Iraqis had been educated their entire lives.  You can’t hope to change a society or a culture for better (or worse) without understanding how its education system works.

Of course, my own opinion on that is that we had no business going to Iraq in the first place and no business “spreading democracy” in the second.  But it’s an interesting concept to return to in light of these recent revolutions, many of which are pushing for democracy across North Africa and the Middle East, and when people ask why this is happening, I can’t help but think of John Agresto and the failure of Iraq.

Earlier today, I had the opportunity to sit in on a few English classes at the high school.  The book (it’s called “The Gateway to English”) for students in the class is filled with chapters entitled “Women and Power,” “Citizenship,” “International organizations,” etc.  Today’s class in particular was on “Internet Addiction,” a concept that would’ve been (and maybe to some degree still is) completely foreign to Moroccans just three or four years ago.  To watch these students raise their hands and answer questions about the internet (in English) was fascinating for me, and as I glanced through the book, I couldn’t help but think about the education students are receiving across North Africa, across the Middle East.  How much of it is this, well, Western-centric?  How much of it fosters a spirit of capitalist ideals and democratic procedures?  And if it is Western-centric, does that have anything to do with why youth, using the internet, suddenly began to rise up and declare that they be allowed to enjoy certain freedoms?  Moreover, is the Internet a “liberal arts” experience?

Before French colonization, Moroccan education was essentially Koranic memorization.  And that was a little more like someone learning the Latin mass or memorizing the Torah for a Bar Mitzvah without knowing either Latin or Hebrew.  No one understood what they were learning, but they still needed to know it.  Because of that history, there’s still a heavy emphasis on copying, memorizing, and learning through blatant repetition rather than employing critical thinking skills, but even with that, much has changed.  Nowadays, education is not all that dissimilar from the French system (which isn’t terribly dissimilar from the American one), and by the time youth are in university, they’re blabbing on about Karl Marx, dreaming about leaving Morocco, or many of them are talking favorably about secularism.  Much has changed indeed.  And it started in the classroom.

In the American classroom, critical thinking skills are valued above almost anything else.  A liberal arts culture teaches you to how to think, not what to think.  It gives you the tools to approach any situation rather than telling you what to believe about individual circumstances.  Why?  Because critical thinking is really the art of asking tough questions, and very often, asking those tough questions means challenging authority.  The end goal of critical thinking, after all, is to foster change to better oneself or better our world.  Why else ask tough questions?

And at the heart of that ideal is what it means to be an American.  The American spirit is rebellious.  It boycotts and pickets.  It’s suspicious of authority, any authority.   It celebrates the freedom to ask those tough questions, even the freedom to ask dumb questions.  And that’s all embedded into everyday ABCs, 123s of the American education system.  We were raised to think that way, raised to question authority.

And now that’s happening here, in North Africa and the Middle East, and while this revolution couldn’t have happened without the advent of Facebook or the internet to bring people together easily and quickly, Facebook and the internet are nothing more than mere tools.  The real cause, in my opinion, is that people are thinking differently about their lives, about their society, than they used to think, and youth all over are beginning to ask tough questions, to question authority, to exercise their inalienable, human rights.

And it all, all, starts in the classroom.

“I don’t know why you say ‘Goodbye,’ I say ‘Hello.'”

Well, it’s been a really weird but a really good few days.  I guess when you’re about to drop off the face of the planet, the world kind of moves in slow-mo, because I feel like I’m taking everything in but in small strides and with deep care for every moment.  So, if this blog seems a little more boring or longer than some of the others, it’s because I wanted to document a few of those moments in time, for me.

What a few months ago was supposed to be a fun, short trip to see Katie Frensley in Berea (she’d been pestering me to visit for, oh, three years or something like that) quickly turned into a mini, nostalgic vacation into the past.  I’m not sure how, but I managed to plan this trip so I could go from eastern Kentucky to northwestern Indiana to Missouri and each time drive exactly four-and-a-half hours.

I didn’t want to drive from Jackson to Berea in one day, so I spent the first night in Gallatin at the Frensley household.  Greta Frensley’s manicotti recipe made me want to do the Peace Corps in Italy (or in the Frensley household) instead of Morocco.  Delicious.  And we topped it all off with my mom’s breakfast cinnamon cake, which as I told her was actually “anytime cinnamon cake,” not just “breakfast.”

The next morning, I ventured to Berea and got there in time to eat at Buffalo Wild Wings (or BDubbs for connoisseurs), where Harold – Katie’s boyfriend – is a server.  Afterward, Katie and I went to see the new Steve Carrell flick and then home for a “game night,” complete with Katie, Harold, and two other friends.  I don’t want to bore you with just a list of all the things I did while in Berea, but there’s another reason altogether it’s worth mentioning.  Two reasons actually – traditions and community.

It seems that it’s fairly commonplace for Katie’s friends to gather together to play board games, especially on Friday nights.  What wholesome family fun, right?  There’s nothing really striking or surprising about that; lots of people have these little rituals or traditions, even routines, from time to time, but what struck me was how my life in Nashville was completely different and lacked any sort of regular, consistent gathering of friends (or even of one friend for that matter).  Honestly, the past year in particular, I lost all my routines too.  Looking back, I’m not really sure how I survived it.  I’ve had no community outside of my Church, and while Rehoboth was what sustained me, it was also my job.  Outside of it, I really struggled in Nashville, and that’s not necessarily all bad.  I do like being independent.  I do well on my own and always have, but we’re made to be in community with one another, even if we’re terrible at it.  It’s time for me to return to that and not isolate myself so much.

That might sound funny coming from someone about to go to a world where no one speaks their language, a world that can be incredibly isolating (even more so than Nashville was for me), but at the same time, the Peace Corps is all about building community (even if slowly) – with your American counterparts and with the people of your host country.  I’m excited about meeting new people, and the first nine weeks are close-knit with the American volunteers (before we’re sent off on our own to do our jobs, so to speak).

The last time I was placed in that kind of setting (there’s a shout out to living in liminal spaces) was the archaeological dig in Israel, and that experience was the best month of my life.  There’s just something about forming a bond with total strangers who face the same circumstances as you.  Together, we’ll all be Peace Corps “trainees” – not quite “volunteers” but certainly beyond the invitation stage.  So, as we learn to face the struggles and joys of Morocco together, it’s inevitable that we’ll form bonds, and in my experience, the best friendships I’ve ever had were formed in those kinds of situations.  So, yes, to say that I’m excited is an understatement.

Saturday was an incredibly filled day.  Harold, Katie, and their friend Paul, and I went to Anglin Falls about fifteen minutes outside of Berea.  It reminded me a lot of Fall Creek Falls in size and amount of water (and the fact that you can walk right under it), but what was especially exciting was hiking to the top of the falls and looking down on where we had just been from the edge.  Spiderwebs aside, it made for a grand adventure, and I’ve posted some pictures on Flickr (as has Katie) chronicling our day, including the board game “Stratego,” which we played later (and I smoked Katie).  While I did upload some of those pictures into the blog, definitely click the Flickr link and check out the others, as well.

Of course, Katie was also gracious enough to take me to Lexington to go on a shopping spree for some of the things listed in the previous blog (mostly clothing-related) when staying at home and being lazy might have been far more enjoyable.  It’s funny to me that one of the people I will miss the most is someone I rarely ever got to see in the first place.  I couldn’t ask for a better best friend.

Saturday, I drove to Wabash with a short stop over in Greenwood, Indiana for Roscoe’s Tacos.  My friend Steven Heit had asked me in 2005 to give Roscoe’s a chance while I was still at Wabash.  I never did.  So, finally, I can say that I have tried Roscoe’s (Nachos Supremo), and it was absolutely delicious, though probably also the cause of the heartburn I’m currently battling.  I dropped Steve a text to let him know and make him (and consequently, his brother Scott) jealous.  They both wished they could’ve been there, and I wish they could have too, because the Cowboy Cookie I had for dessert should never be eaten alone.

I then took a tour of the “new” Kappa Sigma house at Wabash.  The rest of the campus had not changed.  I have to say I’m disappointed in the new house and glad I never lived there, even though I spent the better part of four years complaining that the house we were promised we would live in by our Sophomore year never existed.  There’s no cold dorm for the Freshmen; the Chapter Room is entirely too well-lit and looks more like the old Tube Room than what a Chapter Room should look like; and to top it all off, there are no individual rooms, only suites.  The only things I liked were the kitchen with its new walk-in freezer, mainly because I know that has to be Laura’s (the cook’s) heaven.  Anyhow, I realize this is a bit on the boring side, but in case some of my pledge brothers are reading, I did want to mention my thoughts on the house.

I, of course, walked every nook and cranny of my Alma Mater, and it felt good to be back, but when I walked up to Center Hall and hiked the hallowed, creaky steps to the second floor, something was missing.  Around at the corner office, Glen Helman, the chair of the Religion & Philosophy Department was sitting in his “new” office, or as it will always be to me, Bill Placher’s office.  Bill was my adviser and professor multiple times, and he had become someone I greatly admired.  He died abruptly in December of 2008.  When someone you care about dies, there’s no greater reminder that they are no longer with you than being in the same place you last saw them in their element.  It’s like being haunted by the past or a memory that isn’t easily shaken.  But it’s a good memory, so it’s not one I necessarily want to shake, either.

I stepped from Placher’s office to the classroom next door, the very classroom where he’d given my first religion lecture eight years ago and convinced me on the spot to become a religion major.

I could hear him and see him like he was right there, leaning against the chalkboard and dirtying up his jacket.  With his glasses about to fall off and his loud, contagious laughter, his presence filled the empty room.  I thought about all the kind words and advice he offered me in my time there, and the meals he cooked for his students in his home.  I thought about him driving to Nashville to present a paper only to ditch the going-ons of the Conference so he could get dinner with me and the other Wally’s.  That humble spirit of his would probably be embarrassed that we Wabash students still go on about him like he was a god.  He wasn’t.  But to us, he understood God better than anybody else I ever met, both in the heady, theoretical sense but also on the ground in the most practical way possible.  He impacted my life so much more than he ever could’ve realized.

I mean, I’d be a snobby Harvard graduate if it wasn’t for Bill.  Thank God he saved me from that!  Vanderbilt showed me that no school really measures up to Wabash, and I’d much rather be in debt to Vanderbilt than to Harvard right now.  Of course, I’m still snobby.

The remainder of my time in Indiana was spent with my pledge brother in Indianapolis, Tim Barnes, or as we called him in college, Diva.  Diva, so aptly named because he was a music major and a football player, was a kind of confidant in college.  We’d stay up late musing about God and life and how little of it all we understood.  Then, we’d trail off singing songs to Diva’s impressive guitar strumming and his rather boisterous voice.  With his girlfriend Kelly on my side, we managed to convince him to pick the guitar up again and play us a few songs, including some he’d written a few years back in college.  Have a sampling (my apologies for the low quality, but the sound is still good):

As much as I love Wabash, Indiana was but a brief stop.  St. Louis is home to another pledge brother, Chester, or Patrick Drake and his lovely wife Lindsay who is quite the cook.  Chester was sort of my best friend in college.  That’s not to say I wasn’t close to Diva or Raul or any others, but Chester, with his cynical nature, quick wit, and his ability to reason his way out of any situation, just made sense to me and made life, especially during pledgeship, bearable at Wabash.  Honestly, it’s a shame we haven’t made more of an effort to stay in touch with one another, but it was nice to know we could get right back into things, like no time had passed.

Sometimes, I think, you just need someone by your side to complain with, to help you pass the time and get through a tough day.  Yes, misery loves company, but maybe that’s because company makes misery less miserable.  Our pessimism kept us just positive enough to survive.

And the funny thing about that is how so many different people enter our lives and fulfill or complete us in such different ways.  I could run to Diva’s room at two in the morning to tell him that one of my good friends from Lakeshore had just lost his girlfriend in a tragic wreck on Valentine’s Day.  Diva was the right person for that.  At the same time, Gable and I could walk down the streets of Crawfordsville in the snow talking about how we were getting sick of the atmosphere of the fraternity house, especially how annoying it was when a girl came around and all the guys changed who they were just to impress her.  Or I could be just completely off the wall and silly with Randy or Keebler on a weeknight.  Whoever it was of my fraternity brothers, each of them filled a different void, and all of them were people I cherished, I still cherish, in their own way.  They were all my brothers, no matter how different or how alike, and I think that’s an important lesson I take with me into the Peace Corps, knowing that I’m going to encounter people who are so incredibly different from me and yet so incredibly similar at the same time.  That is, at the heart of things, we all have something to share with one another if we look closely enough and love hard enough.

Friendship is not always about how alike we are so much as it’s about the effort we make, no matter how small to simply care, and as I’ve learned, caring is an action verb.  It goes beyond simply saying or thinking that you enjoy someone’s company or think they’re funny or like the same music as them.  Real friendship is meaningful conversation over a sub sandwich on the roof of a high-rise, driving long distances just to laugh with someone one last time, or even the willingness to be so honest with someone that you risk hurting their feelings.

These past few days have been a whirlwind of hellos and goodbyes, of smiling faces I hope not to forget, and I’ll definitely make more of an effort, even if it’s from Morocco, to find a way to keep in touch.  As I gain new brothers and sisters a world away, I’m sure to be overwhelmed by all of those I have back home, as well.