“It’s All Downhill From Here” – Uh-oh.

When I was in middle school, I thought I would “arrive” once I got into high school.  When I got into high school, I thought I would “arrive” once I reached my senior year.  When I reached my senior year, I thought I would arrive when I went to college.  And now I’m in college.

If the high school version of Jared Shank was right, then I’m here.  I have arrived.  This is what all of life is all about, and all those people that told me to enjoy these four years like they were the best ones of my life were spot on.  But for their sake and for my own, I hope that they (and high school Jared) are wrong.  Before I tell you why I hope they’re wrong, I’ll tell you some of my views on why people treat college like it’s the bright and shiny Mecca to which all other life stages point.

1 – All of your friends are right here.  Wanna go play tennis?  Walk a few feet down the hall and ask your buddy.  Wanna study with someone?  Everybody you know uses the same library.  Wanna play video games?  Well, unfortunately that one won’t work: this is Chapel Hill.  Video games are for B students.

2 – Every aspect of your life is right here.  Work?  Lots of jobs for students in the area.  “Extra-curriculars”?  Pick a list-serve, any list-serve.  Sports?  Part of your tuition pays for the campus gym – have fun!  School?  Duh.

3 – Anything you need is right here.  For once in your life, not having a car is not the same as not being able to do anything ever.  The dining hall, plenty of restaurants, school supplies, book stores, theaters – all within walking distance.

Don’t let the sarcastic undertones fool you: these are good things, convenient things, even life-enhancing things.

But they are not all things.  The college life is missing a great deal, and I believe it can be quite harmful if people aren’t careful.  Granted, I’ve only lived through three semesters of college so far, so my knowledge is limited, but I think the things I’ve learned so far – primarily these two – are worth noting.

The first thing that can be particularly harmful is complacency.  People become incredible complacent when everything they need is just a few steps away.  This isn’t so bad with the simple things like groceries and supplies and things you can buy – being able to get stuff quickly is one of the things I miss about on-campus-living.  Where complacency does its dirty work is in relationships.  I didn’t realize how much effort it took to maintain a healthy relationship until I moved off campus.  If I want to spend time with someone, I can’t just walk down the hall anymore.  I have to call that person, see when they have free time, think about what we want to do, and so on.  It’s inconvenient, even with my newly acquired iPhone super-powers.  And all this is coming from some kid who lives in an apartment ten minutes from the building that all his other friends live in.  Imagine what it’ll be like when we all get jobs and have families and move to different towns, not to mention when we have to make friends with people that aren’t our age.  It will not be convenient.  It will not be like college.

Now, some might say, “Everywhere should be like college, relationships would be so much easier.”  But is that the goal?  Were we placed here to be involved in the easiest relationships, sacrificing as little as possible?  On the contrary, relationships are founded on sacrifice.  My mom and dad didn’t choose to have me because it was convenient.  For the past twenty years, the two primary relationships in my life have been marked by sacrifice; by outpouring of energy and time.  And because of the intensity of sacrifice between my parents and I, those relationships are the strongest and healthiest of all, flawed as they are.

College friendships are fun, but they set up an expectation in us that is backwards.  Instead of going into the world expecting relationships to be difficult and demanding, we are conditioned to believe that what is easy is what is normal. We are ill-prepared for one of the most important human functions.  That is unhealthy.

The other main shortfall of college living also has something to do with relationships.  A typical college student (at least at Chapel Hill) has nothing like an integrated community.  I don’t mean we aren’t involved in anything.  Carolina students are known for their activity in local non-profits, campus clubs, charities, and other organizations.  The problem is that none of these environments overlap.  We have our friends from this class, our friends from that class, our friends from work, our friends from church, friends from this club, friends from that group, and so on.  But very rarely do our groups interact or overlap.  We don’t talk about music with our friends from psychology class – they wouldn’t understand.  Our work friends don’t know what’s happening in our study group, nor do our church friends know what happened at our campus ministry this week.

We naturally adjust to fit each environment, and because our environments don’t overlap, there’s no one to confront us and say, “Why were you acting like that there when you act like this here?”  No one can convict us and tell us who we really are.  For a moment this sounds attractive – we can create our own image wherever we go, and everyone will like us.  But eventually we forget where the mask ends and the face begins.  We forget which reality is real.  We don’t know who to trust when they say, “You are this and not this.”

In a culture where going to college in your late ‘teens and early twenties is the norm, it’s no wonder so many “tweeners” are having an identity crisis.  We’re taught that we can decide who to be; we can write our own story.  We accept the idea because authority sounds nice, but we never stop to think about how enormous that pressure is, let alone how unable we are to deal with it.  I’ve realized that for me, it’s just too much.  I’m done trying to write my own story.  I need someone else to tell me who I am and who I’m not – someone who knows me and sees me in every one of my all-too-disconnected circles.  This is the need of every college student, and of every person.  I expect the best years of my life to be when this need is met the most – college seems to meet it very seldom.


Okay. Nothing To Say, Either.

So, I lied.  Last time I said some touchy-feely-this-really-matters stuff about blogging when there was nothing to blog about.  I was sure that I could find something to write even when I’d be doing next to nothing for the foreseeable future.  But after a summer of whistle-twirling, thumb-twiddling, and third-hyphenated-action-I-can’t-come-up-with-at-the-moment…ing, I’ve got to say, I was wrong.

Maybe somebody could figure a way to make a trip downstairs for coffee sound like it was important, but I’m just not that guy.  Accomplishment is important to me.  I need to know that some part of the world is different at the end of the day because of what I did.  But for the past two months, I haven’t known that.  I mean, you could say that it was because I was standing beside the pool with a whistle and a first aid fanny pack that nobody drowned at the Y today, but your thought process would have to get very, very stretchy.  So would a blog post that was trying to say something about it.  And mama always said, “never make stretchy blog posts.”  Or something like that.

Thankfully, a change is on the way.  I’m moving back to Chapel Hill soon, and that means schoolwork, regular work (not lifeguarding), and lots of freshmen to welcome to college life.  Whether I’ll have more meaning or more adventures to write about, I don’t know, but I’ll certainly have a little more to say.  Now, whether or not I’ll say it here is another question.  We’ll see.


Nothing To Tell, Plenty To Say

I created this blog so I could keep you all updated on what I was doing in Europe, so I’ve always had at least a decent reason to write.  My being in a different country was a good enough premise for most people, so I never had to have something in mind when I sat down at the computer.  I would recount some recent goings-on, and if I arrived at some profound metaphor or something, cool.  If not, I was in England or Ireland or France anyway, so, again, cool.  Now motivation is a bit more limited.  The relative nothing-ness of what’s been going on with me lately seats me comfortably in the I’ll-Write-When-Something-Worth-Mentioning-Happens Chair.  But the active writer can show deep meaning in something as simple as a trip downstairs for a cup of coffee.  And that story could matter more to someone than the recounting of a 4-month trip in Europe.  It might sound like there’s more going on in the latter, but good stories are good because of what they mean, not because of what happened in them.

Take “The News From Lake Wobegon” as an example.  Every week after church, my family tunes the radio to 90.7 FM to listen to A Prairie Home Companion.  My favorite part of the show is when Garrison Keillor sits down and talks about nothing for about a half-hour.  This week he told a Cari, NC audience about a silent husband watching a fuzzy caterpillar creep up his wife’s arm.  It was hilarious, but it wasn’t a good story because of the caterpillar or the husband or the wife or the silence or the arm.  It was good because of the way Keillor told it.  From what would usually be a relatively small happenstance, this writer/entertainer/performer/genius wove a beautiful story.  It probably wasn’t even factual.  But it was true.  There was next to nothing to document, but there was plenty to say.

That has been the case with me since I’ve been back.  Other than a quick trip to Clemson, I haven’t done much.  I’ve been living at home, looking for work, playing music and watching too much TV.  There is really nothing to document.  Because of this relative lack of action, I’ve been thinking that I don’t have any reason to write.  If this blog is just for the sake of documentation, then I’m right, and I should stop blogging.  But if this blog is for more than that, which I hope it is, then I will never have any reason to stop writing.  No matter how enthralling – or not – the facts are, there is just as much potential for meaning in the ordinary as in the extraordinary.  It may be a bit harder for me to realize that potential these days, but it’s there.

So even though you thought I was done, you’re stuck with me for a while longer, and there’s nothing you can do about it.  Except go to a different web page.  That would work, I guess, if you feel like doing something ridiculous.  But if you feel like doing something really ridiculous, keep reading.  I think I still have plenty to say.

Buckle up.


The Beginning of an End Followed By A Rebeginning

I don’t know how to start writing about the fact that my 4 month journey is ending tomorrow.  At first I thought I’d try to say something witty about Paris, but my mind is too blank.  Then I thought I might try to make a list of all the things I’ve learned on this whole trip, but my mind is too full.  Maybe it’s the constant stimulation of the big city and lots of art on which to focus my attention that’s put me in a bit of a haze.  But honestly, I think I’m just weary.  Big time.

Before I continue with that train of thought, let me assure you that it doesn’t mean the trip sucked.  The trip didn’t suck.  But it was very long – perhaps too long – and I am incredibly drained.  There’s now no doubt in my mind that being with people and getting to know them is what charges me up, and especially since I left L’Abri, there’s been a shortage of that.  I think the mask of French romanticism may have kept me from foreseeing how much I would miss community.  But I think because of that, it was quite a learning experience: the lesson has plunged its roots deep into me.

Thankfully, school’s almost out.  Paris has been good to me, and I’d love to tell you about her some day, but right now my mind is not in Paris.  It’s on its way to the airport.  The rest of me will join it very early tomorrow morning, and all of me will be home tomorrow night.  For now, I’m gonna pack up, then enjoy my last night in Paris.  See you all very soon!


City of Lights – Samedi

Made it!  The fast train to Paris was a bit late, but I made it to the apartment with enough time to settle in and have a beer with my hosts.  They are incredibly generous, just like all my hosts have been, especially the ones I’ve met in France.  I have either come in contact with only exceptions to the French stereotype, or the French stereotype is absolutely wrong.  I have a sneaking suspicion that it’s the latter.  I think when Americans think “French people,” the term they’re really looking for is “French Parisians.”  You know: the pointy, turned-up nose; the baguette; the bottle of wine; the cigarette; the thought that they’re better than everyone, especially Americans.  Actually, apart from the nose and the snootiness, that’s just about every Frenchman.  But the rest is a stereotype held by everyone else in France, and most of the non-French people in Paris as well.  So if you ever come to Paris, don’t worry: not all of them hate us.

My day started in a market right across the street from the apartment, where I bought a freshly made crèpe for cheap.  The crèpe part was nice enough – I’ve had crèpes before, and they taste pretty good everywhere – but the cheapness made it that much better.  Because they’re everywhere, they’re always cheap, and a good option for a snack or a light meal.  After the market I took the Metro to Musée D’Orsay.  I spent about the first 45 minutes just looking at the few marble statues in the entrance area.  I must say, it’s amazing how detailed and lifelike a statue someone can make from a block of stone.  I also must say that this part of the Museum was rather inappropriate…those rocks are all naked.  Later on I saw a few pieces by Van Gogh, Gauguin, Monet, and Manet, to name a few.  Good thing I don’t know all that much about art – otherwise I may have been too weak at the knees to do the walking tour after the Musuem.

At 1 PM I went to Place St. Michel for a free walking tour of a few highlights around the city.  It was rather quick, but it gave me a good grasp of what I really want to see in the next two days, and what I can pass by.  After the tour, a few people stayed with the guide and went to a restaurant, where we talked about where we were from and what we were doing in Paris.  Also, I had frog legs.

The day ended with some journaling in the park by the Tour Eiffel, which I didn’t climb because it’s 10 euro for the stairs, and more for the elevator, and there was a line and…you know?  Not worth it for me.  Sure, I’d be able to say I did it, but one thing I’ve learned well on this trip is that that’s not a good reason to do something.  I had a good enough time lying in the grass and looking at it from there.

Tomorrow I’m headed to Notre Dame rather early, and then I’m catching another tour with the same tour company to Versailles.  This one’s not free, but transport is included, the tour is non-touristy and interesting enough, and all the fountains will be running tomorrow.  I’m looking forward to it.  For now, a glass of wine, a bit of reading, and then to bed.

Bonne nuit.


Paris!

Once more, I must leave the familiar for the unfamiliar.  As I write this quick post before I leave for the train to Paris, I find myself feeling the same way I felt when leaving L’Abri.  Even though this stay has been much shorter, my heart is racing, my hands are shaking, and I’m sad to be leaving the people here.  Honestly, we never got very close, because it was a short time and the language barrier is pretty high here.  But still, I will miss Mas de Libian.  They have been incredibly kind to me.  It will be sad to get on that train.

But again, I must carry on.  Thankfully, the kindness of my WWOOFing hosts will go with me into Paris, as they have arranged for me to stay with friends of theirs.  For my three days in Paris, I’ll stay with a young couple in the 11éme Arrondisement, instead of another impersonal hostel.  I have been amazed at the generosity of all the French people I’ve met: the couple agreed to letting me stay with them, free of charge, like it was the most natural thing in the world.  I could learn a lot from these people.  The guy is a German chef, and the girl is a Québécoise – I don’t know the exact term, but she’s in charge of the wine at a central Paris restaurant…which is known for its wine.  Boom.

I’m excited for my stay in the city of lights, but at the same time, eager to get home.  Thankfully, I’ll have plenty of things to distract me for the next three days: Musée du Louvre, Musée D’Orsay, Notre Dame, and Montmartre, to name a few.  I hope I’ll be able to post while I’m there, but if not, I’ll catch up with you soon enough.  I’ll be home on Tuesday.

À bientôt!


Highlights

Greetings from St. Marcel D’Ardèche.  Oh, and happy America Day. We’re not working today because it’s the celebration of the arrival of the Americans and the beginning of the end of World War II.  They probably call it something else, but I’m calling it America Day.  Bam.

I thought I’d give you a few highlights from my few weeks here, so here begins my little list.

1 – Work.  I have a little less reservation about calling what I do here “work” than I did about calling L’Abri chores “work”.

First of all, that’s because I didn’t give my word saying I wouldn’t do it, like I did in England.  My interaction with the border agent at Marseilles-Provence airport went something like this: Me – Bonjour. (Gives passport).  Agent – (Stamp).  Me – Merci.  Way easier than England.

The other reason it’s easy to call this work is because that’s exactly what it is.  The façade of romanticism fades as quickly as a window-fog smiley-face when you actually step onto the vineyard and start hoeing.  For about 2 and a half weeks, my job, along with a few other workers and my host, was to remove the dirt from the base of all the vines – “piocher” en français – and to pull up weeds.  My back got very strong.  It’s only getting stronger now, because now we’re trimming the vines, which is easier on the arms, but you have to pretty much shove your face into the plant to see what to trim.  That’s much lower than you have to bend for hoeing, so my back hurts at the end of the day.  I may be in southern France, but work is work.

2 – Cheese.  French people love their fromage.  And I love it too.  At the end of every lunch and dinner, there’s a cheese plate.  Not like Kraft singles arranged in pretty patterns.  We’re talking real cheese, the stinky kind, the kind with crust on the outside, the kind it’s hard to get in the states because it’s not pasteurized.  This might put some people off their appetite, but for me it’s the perfect ending to a meal (even one that didn’t have any meat).

3 – Cherry-picking.  Normally, I am strongly opposed to cherry-pickers because, normally, they’re the guys that don’t do any work and just stand in the end zone waiting for a frisbee to fly their way so they can use their ridiculous lankiness to reach above everyone else and claim it, along with all the glory and lots of stink-eyes.  This cherry-picking is much better, especially because non-lankiness doesn’t keep me or Estelle (my host’s little niece) from succeeding.  Along with all the vines and olive trees around the property, there are a few cherry trees near the house, and they’re getting ripe.  So for the past few days, when I get back from the vineyards and Estelle gets back from school, we’ve been going cherry-picking.  It’s been a joy.

4 – Music.  Thankfully, I just can’t escape it.  I ended up giving the guitar I brought to a guy I met at L’Abri, so I came into France with no instrument in hand.  But Catherine (my host’s sister) is learning to play, so every time we eat at her house, which is fairly often, I get to play her guitar.  I’ve shown them a bit about bluegrass, and even got to play with Catherine’s teacher last week.  He dresses like a cowboy and actually plays a mean bottleneck blues.

5 – This list would be utterly incomplete without the mention of the one thing I do every day: home-missing.  Because the work doesn’t require an extreme amount of concentration, I have plenty of time to think, and for a while each day, I think about home.  Sometimes I think about the restaurants I crave, or the house I grew up in, or the bike I love, or the smell of a campfire and a pipe full of Carolina tobacco.  But I think more often about the people who love me so well.  Sure enough, there are good people here and everywhere else I’ve been, and they have loved me and I have loved them.  But there’s no getting around the fact that I miss my family and my friends.  Especially these last few weeks, I’ve felt a little bit like Alexander Supertramp in the film, Into the Wild.  I’m doing some pretty idyllic things, but they are not enough.  It may sound like the perfect place for self-discovery, but as I am made for relationship, I can only discover myself in relationship.  “Happiness (is) only real when shared.”  I’m ready to share it with the people I love best.

I’ve only got three more days in St. Marcel, and then I’m arriving in Paris on the night of the 11th.  Three days to discover the city, which I predict I’m gon’ enjoy thoroughly, and then I’m headed home.  I can see the light at the end of the tunnel, and I’m ready to reach it.

See you on the other side.


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