Rooted and Unsettled

Over the last two weeks I’ve been traveling around the Midwest and Texas, playing pickleball exhibition matches, giving lessons and selling paddles. I’ve driven over 2,000 miles and worked 7 days a week. It’s been a fruitful, tiring and long trip.

As I’ve traveled, I’ve gotten to reconnect with my extended family across the region. I’ve stayed with aunts & uncles, second cousins, first cousins once removed – you name it. I love getting to meet these people as an adult, learning about how I’m connected to them and the interesting tidbits about our family tree.

It’s fascinating to me how rooted my family is in the United States. For at least 5 or 6 generations on each side, my entire family was born here. That goes back into at least the 1800s. Many have been here much longer than that. I have slave-owning ancestors in Georgia. There are abolitionists Arkansas. As legend has it, I have native American blood from Oklahoma. I get the sense of being rooted here, like I should belong because my family has so much history.

So what the heck happened to me? I barely qualify as American and although I have history, when asked where I’m from I don’t always answer America. It’s more complicated than that. I often wish for the simplicity of being from a single place. I wish I could be content never leaving, able to invest my life somewhere. I would know people, have unquestioning resolve in what I believe and listen to the global news with a concerned but uninvolved interest. I wouldn’t have any skin in the game. I wouldn’t have to answer the question, “Where should I live?” because it would be answered for me and other questions like “what should I do” and “who should I marry” would follow easily. When eating a banana in America I wouldn’t have to think about how much better it was in Africa. Life would certainly be simpler being from one place; not necessarily better, just simpler. Yet for one reason or another, that is not my story.

It makes me think of this quote:

“You will never be completely at home again, because part of your heart will always be elsewhere. That is the price you pay for the richness of loving and knowing people in more than one place.”

It is hard knowing people around the world. Yet I wouldn’t trade it for anything – It’s now on my bucket list to know someone from every single country. People are the same everywhere, but the hardships and struggles that they have overcome in some places are baffling. After hearing those stories, you can’t ever go back to not caring about what happens in other places.

One last comment. I recently listened to a book called Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adiche from Nigeria. What a cool name. Anyway, it made me laugh thinking about the funny quirks of Africa and how similar African cultures are. It also made me think about what it means to be an immigrant and the value of knowing more than one place. I would definitely recommend it, as in many ways it mirrored my own experiences.

That’s all for now. Thanks for reading

Pickleball in Middle America

For the past week, I have been traveling the midwest playing pickleball and giving clinics. As strange as it is to say, after winning prize money in a tournament I am now technically a professional pickleball player. People see me as the expert – they have even asked me to sign their paddles!

On this trip, I’ve played pickleball at all kinds of interesting places and met great people. In Kansas City they took 6 tennis courts and made them into 12 pickleball courts, holding a tournament with over 60 participants and letting me do a clinic. Topeka, Kansas has converted their public tennis courts into 10 dedicated pickleball courts and has plans to make 8 more. In St. Louis, they play in between the pits of a concrete horseshoe pitch at the International Horseshoe Hall of Fame. Edwardsville, Illinois uses an indoor roller-hockey rink. Pickleball is exploding across the country and it’s cool to get to be a part of the movement.

The Horseshoe Hall of Fame

The Horseshoe Hall of Fame

My impression of the midwest is that it’s not the greatest place (sorry, it’s kind of flat) but it has some of the nicest people I have ever met. People all over Kansas and Missouri took me in and welcomed me, almost like I was part of their family after just a couple of days. I went to one family’s house for pizza and the Royals game, I stayed with another guy I had never met and went out to dinner with several others. I’m sure there are people like that in Colorado, but they don’t seem quite as overtly friendly.

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Pickleball and beer in St. Louis

I’m now in Arkansas and I’m on to Louisiana, Texas and Oklahoma for more pickleball! Keep following my blog to get updates, and check out pickleball at http://www.usapa.org to see what it’s all about. Also, check out Paddletek, the paddle company I am sponsored by and let me know if you are interested in playing pickleball or becoming an authorized dealer.

Here’s another video of me playing in Kansas City!

Reflecting on Syria

4 and a half years ago I quit college tennis to pursue my dream of living in the Middle East. I joined a study abroad program, residing in Egypt for 3 months and traveling to Turkey, Syria, Jordan and Israel. I got to talk with journalists, politicians, religious leaders, cultural icons and average citizens in a quest to gain a deeper understanding of the cultural, historic, religious and political landscape of each country. I did things I never could have imagined. I lived in a lower-class Egyptian family’s home (no English) for a week. I talked to Israeli and Palestinian college students on consecutive days who had irreconcilably conflicting world views. I experienced Palm Sunday on The Street Called Straight in Damascus and Easter in Jerusalem, getting recruited to carry a cross with Serbian Orthodox Christians down the Via Dolorosa. That semester will be forever ingrained in my memory – without a doubt, I learned and expanded my worldview more during that semester than the other seven combined.

Carrying my Cross in Jerusalem

Carrying my Cross in Jerusalem

It was not without its struggles. The Middle East is the most complicated place on earth and coming back to America, people didn’t understand my experiences. It’s easy to laugh about all Muslims being terrorists when you don’t know any.  Much of what I had been told about Israel and Palestine was wrong, simplistic or biased. I learned that people are the same everywhere. I didn’t want to be spoon fed information or be told what to believe anymore because there are at least two sides to every story.

The most complicated of all places

The most complicated of all places

And perhaps the hardest part was having my understanding of God shaken. In an essay titled, “Who gets into heaven and why?” I had to answer precisely that question. Having made life-long Muslim friends and coming to the realization that if I had been born in Egypt, I would have wholeheartedly believed in Islam made writing this essay instrumentally more difficult.

I have been to Syria, and my reaction to what’s happened over the last three years is that it’s incredibly sad for the people. When you’ve seen a place, you can no longer think of what happens there as merely news or statistics. Syrians were some of my favorite people in the Middle East. They were so talkative and friendly – even when we only spoke limited Egyptian Arabic. One street musician invited my friends and I to his Aladin-esque home where we sipped tea on the floor while listening to his live performance. And I learned how incredibly diverse people are. On Palm Sunday, throngs of Syrian Orthodox Christians paraded in the streets of Damascus, carrying dyed chicks instead of Easter eggs. While there, we also visited one of two towns in the world that still speaks Aramaic – the language that Jesus spoke. Other parts of the country are made up of Sunni Muslims, Shiite Muslims, Christians, Druze, and various other minority sects and religious groups. American news channels tell a single story about Syria and the Middle East but it’s more complicated than that: There are so many good things amongst the bad, just like anywhere else.

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I don’t even know what to say…

There is a TED Talk by a Nigerian author on the dangers of telling a single story, check it out if you get the chance.

I think it’s interesting that Arab countries, Iran, Israel, Europe and The United States have all rallied around defeating ISIS. That’s a good thing. Unfortunately, my guess is the world hasn’t unequivocally agreed on something this strongly since World War II (And not everyone agreed about that) and right after defeating ISIS we will go right back to bickering.

As a hypothetical question I wonder though, given the choice, if ordinary Syrians would choose to overthrow Assad’s regime again? Assad was a brutal dictator and there’s no doubt freedoms were restricted under his rule, especially for Sunni Muslims. There were soviet-style torture chambers and secret police. We didn’t have access to Facebook or YouTube and we had to be extremely careful about what we wrote or e-mailed because big brother was always watching. And yet I think most people now would probably give up those freedoms in exchange for the security they had under Assad. I don’t know if that’s depressing or just human nature. One could potentially argue the same thing in Iraq and to a lesser extend, places like China and Singapore. Everyone gives up freedom in exchange for security – our choices are just not as drastic as theirs.

A crooked building on the Street Called Straight

A crooked building on the Street Called Straight

I wish I could offer hope or an easy solution to the conflict in Syria. I can’t. But I can stay informed, acknowledging that we live in a broken world and offering prayers for people in suffering. Hopefully we learn something from the lessons it has to offer and use those to make this world a better place.

Spices make the world a better place, why can't we?

Spices make the world a better place, why can’t we?