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.

Bad History and Poor Choices in the New Jesus flick

Several years ago when Mel Gibson’s the Passion of the Christ hit theaters, I was a sophomore at Wabash College, and there was a riveting discussion panel about the film particularly concerning whether or not the film was anti-Jewish. Average churchgoing folks felt strongly that the film portrayed anti-Roman sentiment but wasn’t in any way anti-Semitic. Those of us who had studied the text more carefully knew better. We could see there were dangerous extra-biblical, artistic choices that – whether intentional or not – gave credence to the notion of Jewish deicide. That’s the charge that the Jews and their ancestors were responsible for the death of God. And it’s precisely that charge that’s lead to an untold amount of violence against Jews over the past two thousand years.

So, when Son of God, the newest crucifixion flick, hit theaters, I was excited to watch it not only to see how the past decade or so has changed how evangelicals approach the story but also to see iconic shots of Morocco where the movie was filmed. In fact, most of the movie was filmed outside of Ourzazate in southern Morocco, a ten-hour bus ride from where I lived two years as a Peace Corps volunteer. As such, watching the movie was, to me, less a leap back to the first century and more a leap back to two years ago, and in that sense, I very much enjoyed the film.

So, too, I was pleased to see that there have been some serious strides made in the realm of Jewish-Christian dialogue. Abraham Foxman, the director of the Anti-Defamation League, nearly praises the film even calling it an “anti-Gibson” film. The producers and directors went out of their way, he says, to consult Jewish and Christian scholars, though Foxman still worries that the film had several historical inaccuracies that were “unfortunate,” and I couldn’t agree more on that point.

Other bloggers have been even kinder. Paul Anderson, a professor at George Fox University, writes that the film has a diverse cast and furthers inter-religious sensitivity (emphasis mine):

First, I was impressed by the interracial presentation of characters within the narrative. Indeed, many of the main characters were British actors, largely because many were recruited among London’s theater district, and were thus Caucasian, but other races were also represented. In the brief overview of Jewish history, Samson is presented as an African, as is Balthazar — one of the wise men. Joseph of Arimathea is black, and as the filming was done in Morocco, the presentation of Mediterranean townspeople worked very well in service to a sense of realism in the narrative. I also liked the way that inter-religious sensitivities are shown. In one particularly gripping set of sequences, Jesus is praying to God in the Garden, Caiaphas and Jewish leaders are blessing the Lord during the Passover, and the wife of Caiaphas is praying to her gods in her own way. All are sincere in their faith, yet they also come at the issues from different perspectives.

For whatever positive strides this film makes in the realm of Jewish-Christian dialogue, I felt that it raised new concerns as a film shot in a Muslim country with Muslim actors but with the intention of being sold to a largely Islamaphobic audience. With such a large number of evangelicals bemoaning that Barack Obama is a “secret Muslim” (as if having a Muslim president would be a terrible thing or as if being secret about your faith weren’t an oxymoron), is it not absurd to see those groups packing stadium seating to watch a film about Jesus where at least half of the cast are a racial group these people fear or despise?

If that’s not bad enough, the character of Satan, played by the same Moroccan who played Satan in the miniseries “the Bible”, was completely cut from the film because of concerns that he “looked like Barack Obama.” So, let me just get this straight: You have a film being made for an evangelical Christian audience. The evangelical audience, by and large, despises Muslims (and those who they think might secretly be Muslims). The person you cast as Satan is Muslim. Most of the other major characters in your film are Westerners. You shot the film in Morocco and used Moroccans as your extras because you wanted to portray something historically accurate to your film, but history was less important when it came to Jesus’ skin tone or that of his disciples?

I’ll grant you that the Mediterranean was a diverse place, but I also found Mr Anderson’s choice of referring to Joseph of Arimathea as “black” somewhat strange given that the actor is a Moroccan man named Noureddine Aberdine (it’s possible Prof. Anderson was intending to refer to the actor who played Simon of Cyrene who was of darker complexion; however, that actor was also Moroccan). North Africans are most often considered Caucasian and more specifically are usually of Arab, Berber, or Arab-Berber descent, so I do wonder whether there might be some need to change the race of minor actors or actresses to feel better about claiming the film offers an “interracial presentation of characters.” That it does. But it places minorities in lower roles, or as Satan, and then delivers it to an Islamophobic audience. That’s troubling to say the least.

So maybe this film is, indeed, one step forward for Jewish-Christian relations, but if that’s true, I fear it might be two steps back at the same time.

More than Just a Song, Part One

Here is a full playlist of all the songs mentioned in this blog. Or, if you’d prefer, you can pick your own to listen to as they’ve been individually linked, as well. For some time now, I’ve wanted to jot out a kind of musically history of sorts – the bands I loved, why I came to love them, and the songs that stuck.

It was December in my senior year of high school. And it was in the Hardees parking lot in the south of town where I refused to go inside with my parents. I just waited in the car while they ate. I don’t remember now what I was upset about. I just remember feeling very incredibly alone.

Growing up, the car was somehow always tuned to the same radio station, 103.1 FM, which always hearkened back to the days of the Wonder Years, and images of Kevin Arnold and Winnie Cooper walking down a dark street at night pushing their bicycles slowly could have easily been my Mom and Dad. By high school, my sister had taken to listening to Green Day’s “Dookie” album or Smashing Pumpkins or a series of women singers who, at the time, I thought all wanted to kill themselves. I’d never taken to Beth’s style of music. I saw it as rebellious like her, but I had to be the “good” kid, which meant I was stuck with the Mamas and the Papas, or worse, the Carpenters.

But here I was sitting in the car by myself, upset for God-only-knows what reasons, still tuned to “Kool 103,” and for once, instead of playing something from 1955, “I am a Rock” by Simon and Garfunkel came on instead. I soaked in the lyrics: “I have no need for friendship; friendship causes pain. It’s laughter and it’s loving I disdain.” That made me smile. Someone else out there understood exactly how I felt.

I guess that was the first time that I realized music was more than just something to sing along to for fun, the first time I saw it as art or realized it could touch the inner psyche and move us to the core of ourselves.

Strangely enough, I never bought a Simon and Garfunkel album. For my birthday, instead, someone bought me John Lennon’s “Greatest Hits,” which I put on repeat, and over the course of the next few years, I rebelled from 50s music by obsessing with music from the 60s instead. Some rebel, huh?

I started buying every Beatles album I could get my hands on until I had it all, and the only other music I was willing to listen to was anything that John Williams had performed. I made it my mission to own every soundtrack he’d ever composed from Jaws to E.T. to Jurassic Park to Star Wars to Born on the Fourth of July to, well, you name it, and I probably own it.

One summer morning sleeping in, I remember waking up and shoving Revolver into my CD player and blasting as loud as I could “I’m Only Sleeping.” It was summer, and no one could tell me what to do. I could sleep forever. Lay in bed all day. But then, my Mom walked in crying, I turned the music down, and she told me that my grandmother had unexpectedly died during the night. Sometimes, there are songs that carve their way into us because of the words they say or they way they move us and speak to us within. Sometimes, a song sticks with us just because it’s what we were listening to when something significant happened. Granny was sleeping now. And that’s all that song would ever mean to me.

I hated high school, and going off to college became an escape to a level of freedom and independence I had yearned for. By the time I started packing, I wasn’t listening to Beatles anymore. I’d stolen old CDs from my sister – particularly one of the Smashing Pumpkins albums, and as I packed, I listened constantly to their “Greatest Hits,” especially Drown. Somewhere in there, that became my official “pack-and-go” music, and to this day, if I’m getting ready to leave to go somewhere, you’ll hear me listening to the Pumpkins.

College was for me what I think it is for everyone – a time of musical exploration and sharing. My first year of college, I stumbled onto John Mayer (who I stopped listening to after my then-girlfriend confessed she asked him to sign her breasts at his concert) and Emitt Rhodes and Jack Johnson. At other times, movies or even commercials became a way to familiarize myself with new music. There was an old Volkswagen Cabrio commercial where a group of people were driving to a party, but then when they arrived at the party, they decided they just wanted to keep driving instead. Nick Drake’s “Pink Moon” was the backdrop to that. After watching the Royal Tenenbaums that year with one of my fraternity brothers, I stumbled onto another sad little man named Elliott Smith, a singer-songwriter who was heavy metal unplugged.

I remember one of my fraternity brothers walking into my room one night while I was studying and listening to Elliott, and he exclaimed, “Bolton! [my name in college] Why do you always listen to such sad music? I get depressed whenever I walk in here. It’s God-awful.” That made me smile. By my sophomore year, Elliott had stabbed himself in his heart – twice (pulling out and going back in) – lending some credence to my fraternity brother’s concerns.

There were happier songs, too. I found Ben Harper at camp in conversation with my friend Zach and used a lot of his music in worship as a camp director there. There were other songs that I played whenever I thought of a certain girl or two. And breakup songs in their wake.

But all of that was background noise to my life. The lyrics were a kind of commentary to what was happening. Rarely did the song itself poke at me.

But then, the Beatles made a comeback when I traveled abroad with a friend to Scotland, and on our way up, we stayed a night in Liverpool. I took a long walk looking for the famous Strawberry Field, and when I got there, I discovered that the song was actually named for an orphanage where John Lennon played when he was a kid. Those words “no one I think is in my tree” were words about family that I could deeply connect with as someone who had been adopted. I felt a kindred spirit with Lennon – whether I should have or not. Other songs of his, like “Yer Blues,” where he sings, “My mother was of the sky, my father was of the earth, but I am of the universe, and you know what it’s worth,” became a mantra of sorts for me. And that semester abroad became an exploration of music, home, and family – and what all that meant. I turned those two songs over in my head for a long time.

And then I graduated college from the Athens of Indiana and moved to Nashville, music city and the Athens of the South. I’d been born in Nashville and fell in love with it with its one tower too tall, its Bat poet on cable, and the Americana music that you could find any night somewhere in the city.

More to come in part two.

 

Troy and the Woodpecker

One of the things I really wish I could understand is why some memories stick with us while others just wash away. It’s almost like some moments in our lives become stories we tell ourselves (and others) over and over, and those stories go beyond just being part of our story-telling cache; they become a part of us, embedded into our very being. I think we live out the things about ourselves we like in those stories, or maybe even the things we don’t like, too. But I’m not sure why, and I’m not sure I understand what it takes for someone or some thing to impact us in such a way that we carry that moment beyond the moment itself.

A few years ago – probably about nine now, actually – I had driven up to camp during my spring break from Wabash to see my friend Troy. At the time, I was getting ready to work that coming summer as one of the directors for a camp of at-risk youth, and Troy – the program director at the time – was going to walk me through what all I needed to do. I want to say I was probably about 21 or 22, meaning Troy was at most 26 or 27. It’s funny how, looking back, I now think we were both so young, but at the time, I thought of Troy as some wise sage imparting his great advice on me. Not that he wasn’t. It just seems strange to me in hindsight.

Troy’s house was behind the camp on what was called “Mockingbird Hill,” a small neighborhood of what most folks would probably consider lake houses for their summer weekend getaway. Troy’s place was, quite literally, a “cabin in the woods,” smaller than the rest, with a trail leading from Troy’s house to the camp. We eventually extended this trail all the way to the Wilderness camp, making it a solid 30-minute walk with a group of campers. Along the way, you were guaranteed to come across muscadine grapes, wild berries, and maybe even a deer or two.

My first trip to Troy’s cabin happened before Troy was married (or dating, for that matter), so the cabin hadn’t yet been renovated and had a kind of bachelor pad feel to it. Not that it was dirty, but it did sort of feel like an all-wooden dorm room. In fact, one of my favorite things about the house was the fact that the bathroom walls (sandwiched between Troy’s bedroom and a guest bunk-bedroom) didn’t actually reach the ceiling. So, if you were in the bathroom taking a dump, everybody heard every single noise you were making. Truly an intimate experience….

I have a lot of memories of Troy, most of which were deep conversations walking through the woods. Some are memories of Troy asking me, “What the hell were you thinking?” when I’d made a stupid decision. Others are memories of us driving the camp trunk together to recycle all the cardboard the camp had collected. Or when we went to see Ira Glass together, and then on the way home, Troy got sick and vomited on the interstate (and I do mean the interstate, since there was no median to pull over in what was practically downtown Nashville). But my favorite memory, by far (and I don’t know why exactly), was that first trip to his cabin.

Most of that weekend I don’t remember clearly, to be honest, or rather, it’s all meshed up with other memories of Troy. I do remember getting to camp and the whole place being empty and quiet, and I played basketball by myself for two hours before Troy showed up. I remember us scrounging the cafeteria for food and me being excited when I found leftover macaroni. I don’t remember what we talked about that night, but I’m sure we probably stayed up talking about the Simpsons or God or who knows what. And I remember we’d agreed to wake up around 9:00 a.m. the next morning.

But then around 5:00 a.m. the next morning, something started tapping the side of Troy’s house first in quick successions and then with a moment of silence before going at it again. After thirty minutes or so of these shenanigans, Troy jumps out of bed, runs to the door, swings it open and screams, “GET THE *()#@! OFF MY HOUSE!” as loud as he could. He then walks back into his room and all is quiet for a few hours. The bird, a woodpecker that had been absent all winter and was suddenly making a grand return as a true sign that spring was upon us, managed to leave us alone the rest of the morning.

Have you ever had one of those moments where you wake up from a good night’s sleep, and it was truly a fantastic night’s sleep? Like, you wake up and you aren’t remotely groggy or tired. You feel like someone pressed the “charge” button during the night and all your bars are fully charged, and you’re just happy and comfortable and ready to go? Around 9:00, when Troy’s alarm went off, it triggered his CD player and this song began playing:

So, my eyes started to open, and I’m having that moment where you realize you’re fully rested, and this goddess, this siren, is lulling me awake. That happens, right? You can “lull” someone to wake? Rousing them from their nesting spot?

“Hey Phil, you up?” Troy asked.

“Uh yeah, who is this goddess beckoning me to fall in love with her by way of her voice?”

“Ah yes,” Troy responded, “This is the wonderful Aimee Mann.”

We got up, well-rested, had a laugh about the woodpecker, to Troy’s annoyance, and then started our day.

I don’t know why that’s memorable or why it just seemed to stick with me. Maybe it was the song. Or the woodpecker tapping on Troy’s house. Maybe it was the very rare night’s sleep. Or the quiet wilderness setting of a cabin in the woods. Maybe it was all of those things or none of them. But I like it. I like how simple it was, how simple all things were back then.

They didn’t stay that way.

Post-Pre Service Training, or everything I needed to know to execute a cool project (like the glasses project), or extended thoughts from the Middle Atlas

It’s been kind of a long, tough week.  Actually, that’s an understatement.

Let me back up.  Everybody knows my love for Wabash.  My undergrad was kind of a tight-nit community, a bubble of sorts.  We called it “Camp Wabash” as a joke because it felt more like summer-camp than it did like college.  So, naturally, if you’re in a foreign country for a very lengthy amount of time, it just makes sense to see if there are other Wallies around.  So that’s what I did.  A few, quick Google searches, and I came across Thomas Hollowell, ’00.  Thomas has been living in Ifrane (around the corner from one of the princes), one of the coldest, most beautiful cities in Morocco, for a few years now and runs a travel business there.  He was kind enough to cook a few meals for us, with great conversation, and take us on a hike into some of the hills between Ifrane and Mischlifen near a few inactive volcanoes.

I, of course, uploaded several of those pictures to Flickr, and I should say that Ifrane is a kind of French-Swiss skiing town built to mimic the Alps, and seeing as how Switzerland is one of my favorite countries, Ifrane was like a nice, European escape from dust storms and endless fields of brown dirt.

Oh and there were cows.  Of course.  So, the week started off pretty grand, no joke.

Then I went to Azrou.  Between fashion shows, dances, driving across town to visit the Small Business Development sector folks, hour after hour of useful but monotonous information we needed to hear, discuss, and copy down, you can imagine how tiring it was and not necessarily in a bad way, but it quickly becomes an environment of stressors.  We showed up with all these joys and concerns about our sites and our experiences these past three months, and it can be a lot to bear, a load to carry.

Living in another country is not easy.  For anybody.  I think sometimes about all that is expected of us.  We carry these multiple roles and have to navigate them to perfection – friend, coworker, ambassador, volunteer, professional employee, American, the list goes on and on.  I’m not very good at being half of those things (friend, coworker, etc.), I’m discovering, but that doesn’t mean give up or don’t at least try to be better, right?

So, we have to figure out how to make those things fit together.  Then, on top of needing to navigate these different roles, we have to find time to plan projects, cook for ourselves (almost always from scratch), get by day-to-day in places where we know a fraction of the common language.   In all honesty, I have every ounce of respect for anyone who does nothing more than survive in a foreign, developing country for any amount of time.  Nevermind all the work we may or may not be able to accomplish.

On top of that, my language hasn’t been where I wanted it to be, but that’s mostly because I was told during my “mock” language test three months ago that my language was better than it is now.  I try not to let it get me down very often.  The truth is, we should be proud of what we can do, not disappointed in what we cannot.  A reminder I need to give myself from time to time.

Of course, there are little strides we make along the way.  A few months ago, my friend Caity read an article in National Geographic about a pair of glasses that could change the prescription on the spot by adjusting the amount of silicon that was pumped into the lens (as well as a newer model that slides refracting lenses against each other to change the prescription).  Caity contacted the Oxford physicists who were working on the glasses, then went to Oxford to see the glasses for herself.  The organization – Eyejusters – is aiming to distribute over 10,000 free glasses across the developing world to children and youth between 12 and 18 by 2012.  Big goal.  Caity, because she has gotten busy and is trying to get a school bus to her site, handed me the “glasses project,” and this weekend, I was able to present the idea to my programming staff, the Country Director and her assistant, as well as to my entire Youth Development sector.  In the next few months, we’ll be helping improve literacy by providing glasses to children and youth who would otherwise not be able to afford them.  And that is definitely something to be excited about.

So there are ups and there are downs, and that’s sort of life whether you’re in America or Morocco or anywhere else.  A night or two ago, I was on the roof at the Auberge Hotel in Azrou looking out at the city and the Middle Atlas mountains that surrounded me.  A little overwhelmed with how to meet all these different expectations and roles, I just sort of sat there and watched the sunset.  Then, a phrase that had been lingering in the back of my brain kinda found it’s way to my mouth, and I thought, “Don’t forget where you are.  This is Morocco.”  When all else seems to fail, don’t forget the most important thing, that I’m here in this beautiful country, meeting and greeting and – hopefully – helping its beautiful people.  Let that be enough.  Let that be what it is.  And in the meantime, if I can figure out how to better myself in other ways, that would be nice too.