Analysis, Memories, Observations, People, Reflection

Zenkai and The Steadfast Cactus

I moved to Bethlehem in August of 2011. Jesus’ Bethlehem. I was on a mission, so to speak, but it isn’t important who sent me. My hope was that living and working for Wi’am* would thrust me into renewed life.

The preceding few years in Michigan felt like a tar-pit: unprepared for the economic recession, losing role-models to death, toxic family situations — it was a sticky tangle where I understood my role(s) better than my self. Without knowing the word “Zenkai” (see previous entry here), I was thirsty for a reboot that would turn damage into gain.

Like the inseam of my jeans, the word ‘resilience’ seems faded by the friction of use. Educators, counselors, and self-help scams all use it with varying fidelity; it has become dilute. Google defines resilience as “The capacity to recover quickly from difficulties,” as well as “toughness.” A second, physics-oriented definition adds more depth, saying resilience is “the ability of a substance or object to spring back into shape; elasticity.” That reminds me of a BrainScoop video; a Field Museum Curator explains that diamond is hardest but jade is tougher; a diamond resists being scratched or cut but an impact could shatter it. Jade is the resilient gem, carvable with wet string (rubbing back and forth, thousands of times) but resistant to blows.

Newly learned words from other languages lend fresh vividness to familiar ideas:

الصمود للصبر
الصبر الصامد

**”aS-Sumud lilSabr, aS-Sabr aS-Sumud” — I tried to pun, saying “The Steadfastness for Patience, The Steadfast Cacti”; the Palestinian colloquial word for the prickly-pear cactus and its fruit is a word for patience: ‘Sabr’. The imported cacti flourished in the Levant and became hedges between houses in many of the villages “depopulated” in 1948. Attempting to erase the memory of these communities, occupiers demolished homes and burned the cacti. A lattice-work of cacti regenerated from their roots a few years later: a ‘second-coming’ in Jesus’ land.

‘Sumud’ is more than ‘steadfastness’, to me, because I lived and worked with Palestinians. They enriched the word with their character. ‘Perseverance’ is a threadbare English word we could use, too, but I prefer to say that some are like prickly-pears, tough and unexpectedly sweet. Some are jaded but many are precious as jade.

A mural dedicated to 89.3 WPFW, my listener supported radio station in the Washington, DC metro area.

Over three years later, Arabic words still resonated for me in the DC Metro area. I told my (then) girlfriend to call me “Sabr” like the cactus. I called her “mishmish” after apricots~ apricot season is unpredictable, short, and precious in the West Bank. “Mish” means ‘not’ so “mishmish” also sounds like ‘not not’ to my ears. ‘In apricot season’ — “fee’al mishmish” — is an expression for ephemeral or distant things hoped for; depending on the speaker’s tone, the phrase is wishful or else bitterly cynical. What happens when proverbial apricot seasons come and wilt — then all the apricot trees are burned? When I could not get a new job, lost my apartment in DC, lost my girlfriend of 18 months — the woman I loved the most, even more than Laura — then and only then was the collapse profound. I survived, found a seasonal job, exhausted the season, and was ‘reverse exiled’ to where I came from in 2011: the Michigan coastline.

My thoughts about Zenkai transformed into an unexpected opus. I revisited the circumstances that created “Reverse Exiled”; that title was intended to be paradoxical and a little ambiguous. There is no doubt I was in exile when I started this blog in Amman, yet where I belong and to where I return are not static. After leaving the United States voluntarily, I took a long journey into Jordan, Hong Kong, and Philippines to visit friends when I lost access to Palestine for ten weeks because of Israeli bureaucracy. I spent seven more months in Bethlehem; exile may be reversed by returning somewhere but the tangle of departures and arrivals continued. Returning to the United States was not a return to anything I called home, anymore. Years later, I had no plans to leave Washington, DC for Holland, MI. The meanings of “Reverse Exiled” are elastic. Presently, R.E. is “a set-back that sends me to a place-of-origin where I do not belong… anymore or yet (or whatever).”

“Stronger” by Kelly Clarkson was playing on the radio the morning my Pontiac’s alternator started to fail and a slew of car troubles began in Autumn 2018. I felt comforted, knowing Kelly Clarkson understood.

Throughout 2018, suspected ‘conditions’ turned into shields against feeling my losses. I hid my unslaked grief under the presumption that something was permanently wrong. I told myself despairing lies, as if I did not deserve what I lost. As I wrote about Zenkai, I discovered that what clinical labels fit or didn’t was a false focal-point. It is true that there were some underlying problems with my chemistry and family that worsened ’09 and ’10. Also true, I endured an unusual amount of damage in ’17 & ’18 too: I should have been hired but wasn’t, losing a romantic partner is devastating, and the home I had in Washington is gone. With hard work, I rapidly untangled my inner-life and explored new regimens. My efforts were a success; now (2019) I am ready for more. Considering all I was able to do between 2011 and 2017, without the tools I have now, I am better equipped and more qualified than ever–

–it’s cactus season! It was a matter of time! Building strength usually takes place over a long character-arc. I am not suggesting that we never look for leverage points. Getting strong enough to pull our levers is rarely an epiphany-moment, though. One-step-back, two-steps-forward. With these sentiments expressed, I feel confident about moving forward. Up until the night I slid off the road, I had a tenacious spirit that sustained great, limited bursts of energy (Kaio-ken?).

I am building a new, balanced confidence. This more peaceful confidence requires I give myself a measure of grace but also that I practice taking initiative when I feel uncertain. It could mean developing more of the discipline it takes to do a small amount of a large task even though I have always been one to finish things in big gulps. However, I am finding that isn’t necessarily so difficult for me lately — so perhaps it was never that I lacked discipline but that I simply needed the aide and space I received in the past year. This morning, as I revise this series yet again, I am thinking less about my self and more about my voice — my various “dictions”, my perspectives, my overall agency — and how I want to use the powers that Zenkai has conferred.

*Wi’am: sometimes translated as “cordial relationships”, it stems from a sense of compassion and collective responsibility. Visit to learn more about The Wi’am Center, where I worked.
** Google translate is confused by my phrasing. If a native Arabic speaker sees this, please offer me your critiques. Computers are failing me!

3 thoughts on “Zenkai and The Steadfast Cactus”

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