Welcome back loyal followers. Those of you first time readers, where you been? Haha just kidding, feel free to take a look at my previous posts before/after or even during (if you got that ADD like me) the reading of this post. We went through a dry spell that actually almost perfectly coincided with the real dry season over here in Cambodia. However just like the rains that returned at the beginning of this month to bring back the lush green fields of the countryside, my desire to write has returned as well. I want to take a chance to reflect on my year and give you all some insight into what I have gone through. However, I am not going to do it conventionally. Ever since I was able to choose the music I listen to for myself I have been captivated by the rhythm and poetry of the rap genre. Much like any other music fans I take the lyrics I hear and apply them to my life in an effort to create connections to the artist and myself in an attempt to find some clarity in this crazy thing called life.
Just over two weeks ago my favorite rapper on the planet came out with a new mixtape and I haven’t stopped listening to it since it came out. Chance the Rapper is a young MC from Chicago and although he is an extremely talented musician he has become a philanthropist and icon for his city, something I truly admire. When he released his most recent mixtape “Coloring Book” I had no idea the impact it would have in causing me to reflect on the year I have had thus far. His upbeat, soulful and sometimes gospel mixtape gives the listener a feeling that anything is possible and there still is good left in the world worth praising and striving for. A surprisingly intelligent and insightful Youtube comment stuck out to me the other day while listening to this album. The comment read: “Chance always seems to release music at the perfect time in my life.” In a sense I agree with this comment because it came at the end of a year that required reflection and recognition of my blessings. Although I love the mixtape from start to finish some songs really inspired me to think about the year I have had and how thankful I should be for this wonderful experience. The beauty of music is that it’s a two-way street, those who make the music and those who listen can hear the same song and think completely different things and that is ok and that is beautiful and that is music. Here are a few lines from the album that have caused me to reflect and think deeply about my experience here in Cambodia.
All We Got
I have always been very taken by music, especially rap. Although a lot of people will dismiss the art form for its sometimes questionable content, there is no denying that the right song can fit any mood I am in. “Music is all we got, we know we got it (Kanye West)” is how the chorus goes and man could I not agree more. Throughout this year I have leaned on music like a crutch. In the beginning of the year it was what kept me happy and monitored my mood. During times of loneliness one can easily spiral into states of doubt and even depression. For myself, I was human so I did certainly feel these emotions. However, music is what would get me out. When I was down I could find a song that could bring me back up. In only the way music can. I could go from “wow what a tough day, hope tomorrow isn’t like that” to “alright maybe there were some good things today, life is good, bring on tomorrow” by the time my carefully crafted playlists ran their course.
Music was always there for me. It was constant, and I always knew what I was going to get from it. Songs don’t change in their structure or the way they play in the most literal sense. However, they can take new meaning and you can hear them a whole new way depending on the way you are feeling or the way you are listening. Listening to music taught me a bit of how I should look at this year. I recognized this change in tone from the same song and realized that this could be applied to the way that I function within my community and within myself. The way I approach and function around the people I live with and work with will deeply impact the relationship that I have with them this year. When I was down the community that I was in seemed down, but when I was up and excited the world seemed bright and positive.
Lastly and I think most simply, music was something I had control over. In my room, or in my headphones I was the master of my universe. What I chose is what would play. In a world so foreign to what I knew it was nice to have control over something. I relinquished a lot of control when I began this program and when I came into this country. A lot of decisions were made for me as I was much like a baby when I began here, unable to make good decisions for myself. Unable to speak the language, unable to read the social cues and lost in a new landscape so different from where I came from. Music was familiar, music was my decision and music was English. Although I have been fortunate enough to be in the company of quite a few people that speak English, you begin to miss speaking to a native speaker rather quickly. For myself I could listen to my favorite rap songs, close my eyes, rap along and be transported right back to my room at home in Minnesota. Music was a wonderful connection to home and I am thankful every day for the emotional connection I have with it.
“This is the sheep that ain’t like what it heard (Chance.)” Last year around this time, I was burned out. I had been working in a tough school in North Minneapolis giving my heart and soul to a group of kids who seemed to be last on the minds of many people. I was frustrated and exhausted and needed a change. Boy did I find it. Cambodia has been a wild and crazy adventure so different from anything I have ever done and I wouldn’t want it any other way. I came into the year with no expectations and have been so pleasantly surprised at how different this side of the world is. At times I sometimes wonder how somewhere so culturally different can still be on the same planet. From the lack of regard for safety and traffic laws to the exotic foods that we Americans wouldn’t even dream of eating. On the other hand, their undying and unwavering hospitality, combined with their incredible generosity is something you can only find in pockets of America let alone across the entire nation. Also their sense of community and fellowship that at times makes an individualistic American cringe and crave some alone time is just everyday life in Cambodia. All these things have given me a new set of lenses to view the world through. Seeing that things can be done so differently and that there are positives and negatives to both systems is helpful going forward in life.
“Imma give satan a swirly (Chance.)” In a way this year of commitment to the church is like giving Satan a big ole swirly. Also I just really like the image this lyric creates. Makes me giggle.
“Socks on concrete, jolly rancher kids (Chance.)” This song is all about the beauty of summer when we were kids. The verses rap beautifully about all the fun Chance had during the summer and the joys of; playing with friends, riding bikes, eating ice cream, catching lightning bugs, and even mowing lawns to make money. The chorus goes “summer friends don’t stick around (Chance the Rapper and Francis & the Lights.)” which for me I applied in the sense that this year in Cambodia has been one long summer. The heat has made that an easy way to think of it, no way around that. However, in the second sense of this chorus my friends here are going to be physically gone from my life in a month. Something that is unfortunately inevitable at the end of a YAGM year. You will notice though that I just said physically, for me the friends and relationships I have made will stick with me for the rest of my life. I will never forget about the people I have met here and the friends I have made. I would also like to think that this goes in reverse. Not just for the individuals of this country but in the way they interact with next year’s YAGM, that relationship that continues will be emotionally connected with me. Although I am not directly impacting the program once I leave, part of me will always be here in the spirit of the lives I was a part of and the way they were changed.
“May the lord give you a journey of mercy, may you be successful and grant you favor and bring you back safely (Audio Clip.)” This is a sound bit that is thrown in the mix near the end of the song and it speaks so clearly to the sort of prayers and blessings I received prior to leaving the states and I know I will receive before I leave my host community here. “I would always treat my gang (friends) like family members (Jeremih.)” This is the final chorus before the end of the song and I can’t say enough how much I agree with this for myself. In the most literal sense the young adults and students I live with have called me brother. To them I am part of their family of Christ. I have been given the chance to meet most of their families in their home villages as well. From village to village I was treated with care, respect and love just like any other person who had grown up there. I was a part of the village family as well. Overall I feel as though I am an older brother to many of the students here and I think that feeling is mutual. It is an interesting feeling as I am the youngest in my immediate family back home. However, mentorship and teaching was a large part of what I did, and it wasn’t always done in the classroom but rather done in an informal one on one life lesson sort of way.
D.R.A.M Sings Special
This one goes out to Maridith. My love, my one, my everytihing….
“You are very special, you’re special to… Everyone is special, this I know is true when I look at you (D.R.A.M.)”
She has been with me since day one of this journey and I wouldn’t trade her for anything. I am so proud of how well we have done this year and what we have accomplished separately yet together. Although physically we are separated by almost two entire continents emotionally we have managed to stay in the same room. She inspires me to do my best, and be my best. She helps me to see the good in the world and realize that everything else can be special too. I love her for who she is and I know that goes double for myself. She is a truly special woman and has done an amazing job making me feel like the luckiest man on the planet. Although we have only been able to look at each other through computer screens for the last 9 or so months it hasn’t slowed down our love. One of the most polarizing feelings I have had all year came during week 3 of me being here. I had known before I left that I loved her however it was that week that I realized I could not live without her. Life felt incomplete and unfamiliar without her at my side. A truly difficult feeling to realize when you are what feels like a million miles apart at the beginning of a yearlong commitment to being separated. As far as I was concerned we could have been on different planets this whole time. Yet we have stayed strong and learned how to support each other despite the distance, and now are just over a month away from seeing each other once again. To say I am excited would be an understatement. I love you Maridith. See you soon.
“When the praises go up, the blessings come down (Chance.)” I have been blessed with the opportunity to worship in a growing Lutheran Church community here in Cambodia. A young, passionate and vibrant community made up of mostly college students who have chosen to convert to being Christian in a society where they become the extreme minority the second they make that choice. It is beautiful to be around people who are so passionate and driven to worship and serve the same God I have praised so many miles away from them. “It seems like blessings keep falling in my lap (Chance.)” My blessings started long ago and have kept on coming. I consider everything involving this YAGM opportunity to be one long and extended shower of blessings. Chance sings about how when we praise God we are blessed by his power and might. I can say that in general this year has been a blessing and I wouldn’t have been able to do it without this incredible faith community and all around wonderful people supporting me and loving me. The fact is though; I didn’t choose this group of people. It was handed to me through this YAGM program and I cannot be thankful enough for them putting me into this situation and putting me in a position where I could thrive. This YAGM year literally fell into my lap, and there aren’t enough prayers in my mind to express how thankful I am for receiving this blessing.
“I know the difference in blessings and worldly possessions (Chance.)” This could very well be my favorite line from the whole mixtape. To me this is a truly beautiful and magical piece of poetry. Somehow a man from a city over 8,000 miles away from me has summarized a very important concept I have learned this year here in Cambodia. I have talked a little bit in other posts about this idea only slightly. However, the musical genius who is Chance has reminded me with his carefully crafted words that this concept is not to be forgotten. In the lines that follow he talks about the blessing of having his child and falling in love with a woman who he had lost feelings for and how that could not have been better for him. I realized I have been blessed with friendship, family and faith among other things and that these are the things that matter most to me in life.
Further, this line examines a common issue we face in America, the land of consumerism and stuff. We sometimes get so connected to things and attempt to use them to fill a void where happiness and blessings should reside. Rather than be thankful for what we have in our life emotionally and relationally such as significant others, friends, brothers, sisters, mothers and fathers we get so caught up on what our next purchase is. When in reality we should be buying into our relationships and managing them accordingly. I think this is something I have done well and although I could use a little work on it, I genuinely have the best intentions at heart.
“I got my city doing front flips (Chance.)” Phnom Penh has been my city throughout this year, and being a tall white kid with long hair and usually some kind of offbeat facial hair (read: twisty mustache, handlebar mustache, scraggly beard) I get a lot of looks. In a land of darker skin than mine and black hair I stick out like a sore thumb. However, the people of Cambodia have made me feel like a movie star all year. From women all over the country commenting on my nose to men calling me handsome I have always felt loved and appreciated. When I speak a little bit of Khmer it’s as if I am an exhibit at a museum and everyone laughs and repeats the words along with me, as they stare on in wonder. When I get up and start dancing whether it be at a wedding, during a small party or sometimes just out in the village with the construction workers, people come to watch and smile as I make a fool of myself. In all these ways the ice is being broken and walls that separate us are breaking down. Although we look different and that is something we talk about, we are able to move past that as well. In the end a smile and a polite bow goes a long way. “I got Angels all around me, they keep me surrounded (Saba.)” I feel as though God has been with me through this whole process. He is with me when I dance, with me when I laugh, and with me in my loneliness. I feel as though I have been blessed with a fleet of angels to keep me and protect me along this year of life in another country. “I’m the blueprint to a real man (Chance.)” I am proud of who I am. I am proud of what I have done. I hope that one day my children will look up to me as a real man.
Chance brings us to church for 5 minutes and 37 seconds. The song begins with a gospel choir singing a beautiful rendition of “How great is our God (Choir.)” My heart has truly been here in this place, and I have been singing God’s praise since I got here and I will continue to sing as I go home from this place as well. God is great. Amen. “Magnify, magnify lift it on high (Chance.)“ It is easy to get lost in your own thoughts when you are subjected to isolation of this kind. Although I was surrounded by many people we didn’t speak the same language and at first felt like we had nothing in common. During that point I was under a magnifying scope of my own wielding. Everything I did I thought of from twelve different perspectives and was unable to get outside of my thoughts. A truly exhausting point to be at. However, as time went on I was able to use my magnifying glass to look at things of importance. In a way that would make Sherlock Holmes proud I used my glass to evaluate my year and my place in this world rather than my feelings of anxiety and loneliness. “I was lost in the jungle, like Simba after the death of Mufasa, no Hog no Meer cat (Jay Electronica.)” Cambodia was my jungle, Mufasa was my America, my Timone and Pumba were family and friends. In the first few months I was lost. Physically, emotionally and spiritually. My core was shaken and as I spoke to my family in very serious tones I uttered the words: “I think I have lost my sense of humor.” For someone who strives to make a joke out of almost everything that is a big statement to make. I had lost my biggest weapon of laughter, word play. Trying to work in a language that wasn’t native tongue to my new friends, puns became useless and unusable. After hitting my point of super seriousness and trying desperately to find my voice of humor again I was back. Since then I haven’t looked back. Yet, through this experience of super seriousness I was able to embrace my serious side a bit more. Something I may have needed to take that next step in maturity.
My favorite song on the whole album right here. “Scars on my head I’m the boy who lived.” When I was really young I cracked my head open and had to get some stitches in my head. During 5th grade I cut my lip open and had to get some more stitches. I got scars in different places on my head and here I am, living. Not too long ago my mother told me a story of how I almost died of an asthma attack at a very young age while living in Madagascar, yet I survived. (Those Angels we were talking about earlier might have had a little something to do with these experiences…) She told me “she knew I was meant to do great things.” That is something that has stuck with me. Although I wouldn’t consider the things I have done this year as profoundly great. I think there is a bit of greatness in the complexity of relationship. Nothing is easy about being in relationship with someone. We are taught as YAGM’s to accompany the people we encounter during our year. This means to meet them where they are at and walk alongside them in life. I have not come here with the intention of making great change and in that regard I have made a larger impact than I think most can. In accompaniment you are saying to the other person or people that you don’t have all the answers and that’s ok. You are saying you are willing to work with them to find the answers. A quote given to me from my sister in law Stephanie via my Father Tom goes like this: “Stay in a country for a day you can write an article about it. Stay in a country for a week you can write a book about it. Stay in a country a year and you will never write a thing about it.” This is to say that being in relationship with a country and learning to love it and respect it comes with the burden of knowing too much. When you are in a country for up to a month you never get out of the honeymoon phase, where everything is fresh, exciting, new and wonderful. Throughout my year I have seen so very much of this country, many good things and many bad things and many things just in between. The magic of this is that something that began as pretty one dimensional and easy to explain turned into something complex and multi-faceted that goes beyond a simple answer. Something that will surely be difficult to manage when answering questions upon my return to the States.
“Are you ready for your blessings, are you ready for your miracle (Chance.)” This is just the beginning of a new life. Once you experience the world outside your comfort zone you gain a new perspective for everything. For myself I now know the blessing and miracle that is four seasons. I know the blessing of choice when it comes to cuisine. I now know the blessing of being healthy and in shape. I know the blessing of being young and spontaneous. I know the blessing of being independent and self-confident. I now have a new found perspective on the blessings of family, friends, and my girlfriend. These just to name a few. My blessings will keep coming and I am excited to see what the future holds. Here is to life, exploration, courage, compassion and new experiences! God bless Chance the Rapper for inspiring me once again to write and God bless you all for taking the time to read this post.