Part 1: Growing Up
For the longest time, I’d dream in distinct phases. In college, my dreams were populated by people from high school; in high school, my dreams featured my friends from Kuwait. That pattern has since abated; today, my memories of Q8, as we called it, are still vivid, but the details are hazy & more dreamlike than ever before.
Kuwait is where my sister was born; it’s where I heard Pretty Fly for a White Guy on the US Armed Forces Radio—you had to turn the dial to the very edge of the spectrum, in one corner of my bedroom to catch it; Kuwait was where I struggled with “mental maths” but excelled at “English composition”; where I learned about the birds & the bees and felt the weird emotions that came with their seasonal migration.
The other day, someone asked me where I got my accent from. This was after telling them that my school in Kuwait was British. The answer is: I don’t know, and they didn’t know either, because I was the only kid in my class who said “vase” instead of “vase,” and no one had taught me to say it the way I did. I sometimes joke that I learned English from MTV and that’s probably true.
I loved that school as much as any schoolboy could love any school, but it really was great. My classmates were diverse; diplomat & petro-industry kids from all over the map—Christian, Muslim, Shinto, you name it. My teachers were genuinely wonderful; Mr. Norrish, Miss Holloway, Mr. Errington—on all three, grant eternal rest. They taught us how to think for ourselves & live fully into our own unique personalities. Like how they let me write & co-star in my very first short play: The X-Fools. I was Mulder. My friend was Scully in drag.
I guess a lot of us find the process of growing up difficult; that’s why elementary school memories tend to be charmed. Who knows if Kuwait would still be tinged in the gold of nostalgia if I’d stayed there longer—if I had to deal with high school, with girls, with figuring out everything all at once.
I’d hit that brick wall soon enough, in another country.
Part 2: Moving Away
Moving back to Lebanon in 1999 was a shock to the system; in one summer, I went from feeling relatively well-adjusted, mature, and maybe even a little cool, with plenty of friends, to nothing, nobody, the youngest in my class by far, a punching bag incapable of seeing them coming, to decipher their movements.
In Kuwait, we were trusted with our own student lounge that teachers weren’t supposed to enter—an honor code. Kuwait City as a whole made growing up effortless; we went out to watch The Matrix, to play Aerosmith-themed pinball and eat Johnny Rockets, to ride bumper cars with the girls with a little too much gusto; maybe it was just us, strange children of the 90s, but there was a point when crashing these into each other repeatedly became confusingly and pre-linguistically erotic.
It was fun, but not so, in Lebanon.
In high school, I was made to feel incredibly small, a weak force—negligible. I went from debate club king to morbidly shy; I still feel my cheeks burn when I remember that one time my brain completely betrayed me during a big presentation in front of the whole school. “And my third point is…” gone… AWOL.
It’s not like the taunting never stopped. It did. But not before I’d grown cold, closed off, and embittered. By my senior year, I relished in my outsider status & pushed anyone who came too close away. People actually enjoyed this persona. They found my prickly vibes amusing & joked about how no one had ever been invited to my place—“it must be the Bat Cave.” This, at least, gave me “a thing.” A personal brand that took time to heal.
Kuwait was great because it was artificial; a bubble of cosmopolitan charm held together by a blip of economic opportunity. Lebanon was messy and scarred. I’d have to learn how to relate.
Part 3: Moving On
Tonight is the first Wednesday Evening Prayer service at @EpiphanySeattle this Lent, where I’ll be preaching a homily for the first time in my life. This is not something I ever planned to do, though I guess I’ve been training for this day my whole life; I hate public speaking but public speaking has a thing for me.
I never fully regained my comfort with being in the spotlight after high school because I never fully had it in the first place; but some comfort did eventually return. By college, the thrill of the hunt—to cast the lure, to set the trap, to draw the listener in—was pumping in my veins again, mixed with a little flupentixol/melitracen, as needed.
(Also: I don’t care what anyone says: I love me some PowerPoint. I’ve loved it since my very first “Personal Computer,” Kuwait, circa 1996; I would spend hours building up my oeuvre, & as the file-sizes swelled, I would ingenuously free up disk space by deleting the pointless folders some idiot had put there. You know, the sort of folders with names like c://system or whatever.)
There will be no PowerPoint in the pulpit tonight. There will be this writing and these memories in the back of mind. There will be the sophistry I’ve picked up over the years; the knack for making either argument, as I did in college, getting Hezbollah-types hot under the collar in persuasive speech class then becoming their best friend by switching sides. Or arguing for satanism as a legitimate identity under Lebanese consociationalism, just because. I was *that* guy, and much of that guy is still here, waiting to pounce.
I guess when I found myself nameless and faceless, I decided that was perfectly fine. “I can be brown, I can be blue, I can be violet sky”—that’s how the song goes. That’s how my life went. But there’s only so much multiplicity a mind can take. I learned this the hard way, and now find myself here, with an anchor and some readings and a community of interpretation to share them with. And so, as I go over my text for tonight, I feel the same old devilish glee that comes with the perfect set-up & punchline; but now, this art is for more than laughs.
My life has not been transformed; it has been shaped. This is still the same ship of fools I’m sailing. We are still the same gang of rats. But I think I know where we’re heading now.
(Also: rat gang, for life.)