My Classmate & I
Memories, Narrative, Observations, People, Reflection

Leading with my Body

My Classmate & ITuesday night she found me, nearly asleep, on the alphabet carpet beneath the paper-mache jellyfish. My classmates were perched on itty-bitty chairs examining a collection of sea-creature-themed mixed-media projects labeled in English and Spanish.
“I guess I shouldn’t be surprised to find someone passed-out in kindergarten — with or without booze— I’m Melanie, your new improv teacher.”

“I’m JD and I woke-up at 5 AM to try to outline my book about living in the middle-East. Next week, I’m sleeping-in.” I wasn’t kidding.

I just graduated to level 1B in improvisational comedy; it was the third week of class but my first time meeting Melanie. I missed the first session to pledge my devotion to Lindsey Stirling (LIVE IN CONCERT) and Melanie missed the second week to take one last vacation with her partner before she gives birth. To review: I am learning better ways to play pretend, in a bilingual elementary school class, from a pregnant woman.

—and, wow, she’s just as good as previous teacher—

Dan-O is a teacher at-heart who is also a top-shelf improviser; when he subbed last week, he let us run each ‘game’ with relatively little interference, taking notes and giving blurts of encouragement. It was like old times for everyone who took 1A from Dan. He later guided everyone through his notes in a fire-side chat style, breaking-down the process. Melanie cannot wait to coach; she was pantomiming and calling-out suggestions from the wings (in this case, from behind a shelf of picture-books), often stopping the action to rewind us to an earlier point.

“Some ass-hat stole my slipper,” I said to Carlick walking with one, imaginary flipper across the imaginary stage careful not to topple any real tongue-depressor artwork.
“Stop,” said Melanie, “don’t make it about some mystery person off-stage. Carlick stole your flipper — do it again.”
“You ass-hat! You stole my flipper!”

–the scene took on a new energy. Melanie is an improviser at-heart who seems to be a top-shelf teacher, too. I would relish Dan teaching me any subject, honestly, but I am really excited to be learning to improvise from Melanie. I like the way she paced the initiation exercises, when we had to establish who, where, what and our emotions in smaller and smaller increments of time. As the alarm on her phone sounded sooner and sooner during each set, we threw ourselves into character with more and more velocity. Melanie will teach us how to create a show which is greater than ourselves, an organic entity greater than the sum of its parts.

Yet we have more confidence during exercises than during our montage sequences — our ‘mini-shows’; having more liberty sabotages our inner-freedom– the pressure mounts. Melanie’s advice is to know what our strength is and focus on using that to create who, where, what and especially our emotions. Earlier Tuesday night, I’d almost gone to floor to become a paranoid shut-in terrified of his mail-carrier; some classmates who were with me in 1A teased about my tendency to throw myself down on the floor to wrestle alligators, become a skunk, or swim across a radio-active pond.

“I don’t want to be defined by a gimic,” I told my therapist the next day, “—but I think that physicality might be my anti-freeze. Another classmate gave me the most outrageous compliment — he said I never freeze. Last night I started doing tai-chi in a set and I instantly felt more comfortable just moving my body rather than trying to compose interesting dialog…”

“How might this idea of physicality relate to your feelings about activism?” she asked. We paused.

IMG_4593Saturday’s demonstration played on a loop in my head for the next several days. Initially, I was afraid to go. Once we had all coalesced, it felt right and relieving to chant, march, and wave pro-Palestinian banners. Doing all of my advocacy online leaves me without satisfying outlets and, worse, skews my perspective by keeping me focused on Israeli suppression and violence rather than communities in historic Palestine. Of course, Israeli society deserves to be free of its addiction to segregation, free of its own inevitable demise, but there is a way of being in Palestine that is worth fighting to preserve, one I hope to capture in my developing book. Like dealing with trauma perpetrated against a loved-one, it is easy to get focused only on the trauma and forget what made us love the traumatized person.

IMG_4588Unfortunately, the impetus for this particular demonstration was a traumatized loved-one: Tareq Abu-Kheidr, a 15 year-old Palestinian-American raised in Baltimore and brutally beaten by Jerusalem police (ass-hats). I want to write about it but I am afraid I will not do the feeling justice in so few words. Tareq’s cousins were at the demonstration, which should be their right. What I hesitate to tell you all is that I was uncomfortable. Their behavior by itself did not bother me at all; I happily stood alongside their countrymen at a Land-Day Demonstration in March of 2012. I believe strongly in their right to be angry, to wear the kefia, even to shout in Arabic through the loud speakers. I wished I could join them, wished that my Arabic were not so dreadfully poor (I understood less than half of what they said), wished I had not lost my black-and-white kefia in the Amsterdam airport more than a year ago. Kefias are comfort items, to me: an everyday article of clothing that protects faces against cold rain or the prying eyes of cameras. Certainly, they wanted to safe-guard against being deported for any reason; growing-up in Israel’s shadow (unlike their little cousin) they learned to distrust government.

Yet I knew that the tourists on the sidewalk neither understand Arabic nor the legitimate frustration of Palestinian people — many of us never saw our family members so brutalized. Some Arab masculinities digest grief into righteous anger; I don’t find fault with that but I wish they had stayed home in Baltimore to grieve. The audience on the side-walk needs everything reduced to baby-food and fed to them with a spoon; they can’t chew it. They cannot be force-fed. Most Americans lack illuminating experiences in the mid-East — they don’t see Tareq’s family with the compassion I do. It drives me crazy that I cannot chant loud enough to overcome that deficit…

“—just like we discussed with your father, JD: sometimes the message gets lost in the way it is delivered.” Often, I want to argue with my therapist. Yet lately my sense of urgency is dulled by the realization that I used to have a grip, a sense of patience and proportion, but I lost it somewhere in France when a quack therapist tried to get me to “admit” to being anti-Semitic.
It would be simpler if I were just a rotten Jew-hater but instead I have a slew of pro-justice Jewish contacts who are also counting on me to remain engaged with the solidarity movement for the sake of their tradition’s integrity; Zionism pirated Judaism without their permission. I wanted to speak the Truth in all its bitterness in defiance of those insinuations on the part of that crack-pot in France. I remember nearly composing a piece about it on the train going through Switzerland… but I forgot.

My sense of intention began to get more and more ragged in 2013. Anyone who reads back into my archives knows I have a complex personal history with this topic that drove me into relative silence here in “Reverse Exiled”. I benefited from bringing the full breadth of myself with me wherever I went in Palestine, as Christian, musician, language-nerd, and goofy-guy. When I returned to the USA I slipped into my activists’ skin and never took it off in defiance of admonitions to calm-down. Outlining the book is reminding me not only of the rest of my life in Palestine but the ways that I ‘led with my body’ without realizing it. When I was able to use my physicality to process stressors — by playing soccer in the tiny court-yard of Beit Zoughbi or going with Rajaee and Zoughbi to pick, clean, and eat cactus fruit.

Still, I am not fully recovered from inertia.

Another outrageous compliment my classmate paid to me was ‘he does activism’. In the interest of being myself to the fullest, I think I need to get in contact with Dan-O again. He mentioned to me that there was a form of improv that incorporates free-style movement, almost like modern dance: Contact Improvisation. I have yet to research the idea fully. The idea of it intrigues and frightens me because if it is what I believe it is then it could offer me a healthy outlet. The problem is that I have never trained as a dancer…


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