My mother posted a link to “Always Burning: 2” on the Facebook wall of my old baby-sitter. Her comment: “This is what I am going through with [him]; I’ll be glad when he comes home.” They may be unnerved by the passage where my coworkers and I evacuated the office to avoid tear-gas and then smoked a sheesha.
I too seldom write about my everyday life, since there is no shortage of drama and issues to recount in Palestine. Smoking is not for deviants and rebels in Palestine; they smoke like Americans did in earlier, harder times. People know smoking is bad for them but they have also heard fried food is ‘not good’ and the distinction is often lost. There are so many, quicker ways to die and cigarettes are part of a daily ritual for regular people. It restored me to normal in a time of near-trauma. Readers should note, still, that I have smoked less than a half dozen times in my life, all after my return from Sheikh Hussein bridge.
Nicotine is a dear friend in the moment but a mistake for the future, I know. Like cannabis, it deters and kills insects for a plant that could care
less about our buzz. Unlike cannabis, nicotine is legal and does not impair judgment in any way except one: it is fiercely addictive. Yet the tobacco made a ritual available to us in a tense time. It is an aide to normalcy.
Nicotine and alcohol, both, are best omitted from daily life and saved for ceremonial use. A stimulant will temporarily lift a person out of their fatigue but alcohol anesthetizes them as they finally allow themselves to relax, sink. I went with colleagues (Dawid & Drew) to a place they knew where we could have beer. The inhibitions I maintain sloughed and I started to converse more freely, even laughing and singing. Later in the evening, I realized that the alcohol enabled me to be more open and social, which I needed desperately, but I should be able to do that of my own accord. Alcohol cannot be my every day companion because it does impair my judgment. If I try, I can do for myself what alcohol does but much better.
Once a person reaches the point of being burned-out, it is much harder to consciously do for oneself what nicotine does automatically. Living here has given me much more compassion for people living challenging, unfair lives everywhere. Smoking is not an intelligent habit but that does not make smokers idiots – life is hard! Cut smokers some slack. Still, we should all become ex-smokers together because our bodies are not made to be on that artificial roller-coaster. Now that I have seen the CDC file on sheesha, I am convinced there must be a better way.
Unfortunately, my sinking mood might have other causes. Swallowing difficulties forced me to visit the doctor, who found an infection in my throat and prescribed an anti-biotic. Doses of amoxicillin seem to coincide with moody episodes, for me. The line between sickness, stress and drugs is paper thin right now. These episodes remind me, in a muted way, of the terrible time I had when doctors prescribed an anti-depressant for me in the wake of my 2005 surgery. My emotions ran unnaturally high on Zoloft, owing to unpredictable minutia. My emotional state deteriorated rapidly After 11 PM every night until I quit the drugs and picked up a trumpet: therapy.
I will never understand that nightmare era except to know it precipitated the era I am exiting, this stage characterized by fluctuating esteem, uncertain purpose, and intentional distraction—behavioral addictions. I feel all that coming to a slow, aching end as Advent begins. I can choose to move forward. I took a big step forward when I ‘attended’ a webinar through Eastern Mennonite University on trauma and peace-building. At a personal level, I finally found a way to see myself both as an aide and affected – the facilitators said their trainings were meant to do that, exactly, to equip people to care for others and themselves.
They spoke of trauma as a wound that is often on our dignity. My trauma was never of safety or loss but damaged integrity, instead. I was singled-out and forced to undress twice at the bridge-crossing, then accused of lying while all my possessions were scattered across examination tables. I had to maintain my story, verbatim, or else be turned away. When the guard looked me in the eye and entreated that I tell her the whole truth, my heart skipped at the chance to be honest but I quelled the impulse and won the battle of wills after almost seven hours. All that day, I was yawning and shivering, sometimes trying to rub a pins and needles feeling out of my hands and legs. I learned this week from the webinar that these are ways the body tries to release trauma energy when overwhelmed. Affect I held inside, intentionally, remains there like a coiled spring.
Between affliction and transformation, there is the traditional sacrament of the morning: coffee. Caffeine is a steadier friend, for mind and body, and coffee is its natural vessel. It would take gargantuan amounts of coffee to hurt us while a tiny cup does what nicotine would do… but more gently! Coffee is more than a stimulant in Arab culture because there are social rituals for drinking it. It gathers our staff in the morning, to talk through issues and keep company with each other. We pour the fine black liquid for each other to show respect and affection, saying “please” and “thank-you”. Coffee, and none other, is the beverage that legally binds a Sulha mediation. I wrote “Between Tea and Coffee” about coffee’s powers of magical realism. Could coffee revive the dead artist in me? Revive the dead in us all?
Coffee is my anti-drag. My memories with coffee began when I was a teenager, working with my grandfather and wanting to be more like him. In college, it was a welcomed lift after walking across a snow-filled campus. Now, the original coffee culture is offering me a rescue from other drugs. There is a time to say no to even coffee but it is a matter of doses and applications: one coca leave in the cheek is good for altitude sickness, they say. Yet coffee remains an aide, not a cure. Even coffee-drinking can become just another excess.
So, here I am, deciding what therapy is right for me this Advent: what should I do?