Analysis, Criticism, Memories, Quirky, Reflection

Surveying the Mountains’ Tops

A Mountain in a Valley

Jericho is weird. ‘The Scent’ (Jericho, translated from Arabic) is tinged surreal. Even funky. Standing in ‘The Scent’ I watched the first rainstorm of Autumn creep over a distant ridge and dive into the Jordan Valley. The rain disappeared over my head, around sea-level. I saw rain falling above but the uncanny-air licked it from the sky.

I went there one weekend in October 2012 because I felt tired and lost. My coworkers agreed I needed to refresh and reset. So, they sent me to ‘The Scent’ for something different. Two of the six times I’ve smoked tobacco were that weekend (all six were that Autumn). People took naps at work to escape the heat, in ‘The Scent’, then stayed out late that night. No moral judgments were made about that; not there.

The Mountain is to the North: ‘The Mount of Temptation’. It’s desolate. Hiking would have been a trial– I went up in a little gondola via cable. The monastery was the furthest I could go. From there I could see a slab of foundation supporting nothing but a manifest parable at the summit. The Latin and Orthodox churches couldn’t agree whom had the right to build atop the mountain, so neither could finish a church there.

It’s just as well, since Jesus probably crawled in a tiny cave to pray and fast — to meditate and starve — for “40” days. “40” means any big number. If 15 days is too many, 40 =16. If it takes 50 days to starve too much, then 40 = 51. He chose a dry hole on that mountain, itself a bump in a dry trough of Earth. That was the place to find his Truth.

After the Rain

sunrise background orange
The view from my 3rd floor patio, 2011; The Herodium [center]

Being ‘religious’ and being ‘spiritual’ are not the same. Synonyms only exist at low-resolution. Focus closely and we find two words that do not connote the same; they evoke distinct sets of images and feelings, despite overlaps. To me the distinction manifests in whether institutions and traditions take precedent in a cosmology or if inquiry and discovery do. Even if I’m inaccurate, I’m still precise; I want to look closely enough to find fine gradations.

I was a missionary; nominally. I don’t even like the label “Christian” anymore. Defamation by association: too many cruel and willfully ignorant people claim to be Christian. I thought I could change that by being a better example and reformer. It’s hard to make converts of the self-assuredly-“saved”. Now, I don’t care what I’m called; I’m probing for who I am, here. Better: I’m asking “what do I do?”

Sudden subject change:

The Herodium is an artificial mount and fortress. I could see it from my patio in Bethlehem when I stared East into the pink sky at the end of the day. I didn’t realize the sky was full of dust until the first rain.

Mountains appeared! The East Bank appeared after the rain scrubbed the sky; Jordan appeared like magic. I never imagined climbing that distant ridge in a taxi cab, some months later, bound for Amman. The dust was up, again, by April and the last rain of spring was mud. I felt a little tired and very lost watching mud rain down in Amman.

Tabor’s Top & Transfiguration

COLOR PHOTO OF MOUNT TABOR TAKEN IN THE LATE 19TH CENTURY BY FRENCH PHOTOGRAPHER, BONFILS

Feeling very tired and a little lost, I agreed to tag along with a group of Americans visiting Galilee. I needed a change of scenery, again. On our way we saw Mount Tabor: a green mound on an ever-greener journey North.

Mount Tabor is what inspired me to almost write about mountains eight years ago. It’s a boob! I’m not the first to say so. The earliest Arab visitors noticed the shapely mountain, crowned with a monastery that looked like a nipple, and called it ‘The Breast’. I share their longing; I wanted to climb it: high, verdant, pleasantly round. I wanted to be alone with Mount Tabor but we couldn’t stop and linger. We were on our way, then.

The transfiguration of Christ happened on Mount Tabor (hence, nipple-monastery). Jesus’ robes turned impossibly white and a voice spoke out of the mist. His disciples saw glimpses of dead prophets; they tripped balls. Scared witless but hooked, they wanted to to pitch tents and live there. They had a ‘high place’ experience! He was Shiny-Jesus! Then it was over. Dirty-robes Jesus said, “We can’t linger here anymore.” They were on their way, then.

Taybeh the Sweet Island

Taybeh is where the brewery is. THE brewery. Taybeh means ‘sweet’ …but not precisely? I don’t understand its origins but I recall what made it sweet to me.

Photo by Lisa Jackson; https://www.eater.com/drinks/2015/12/10/9881736/palestine-beer-Taybeh-Brewery

There is a fantastic view from the ruins of the crusaders’ church in the late afternoon. Ramallah was to the West and Nablus to the North; I couldn’t see them but I knew they were there. Somewhere to the South, Bethlehem and al-khalil too. Taybeh village nests on a ridge in an off-level ocean of West Bank landscape… fields, orchards, piles of rubble, pastures dotted with livestock, tides of sunlight passing easily from the unseen Mediterranean to my face… Taybeh was a peak without having a summit.

During the beer festival I felt like I was on an island. I didn’t imagine any hostile force crossing the seas-of-land around us to invade Taybeh’s shores that day. Several of us went for a hike. We roamed an uncultivated track, unbothered. I felt invigorated; I knew where and who I was. But it takes more than a day to be free. I couldn’t linger any longer; I had to go on my way by evening.

Blanc

I got into a little gondola and ascended via cable; there were other people but I couldn’t feel them there. I was on the French/Swiss border in January: extremely tired, almost totally lost, and cold. Were we ascending Mont Blanc? I don’t recall. I might have just seen it (or gone all the way up it); I don’t even care. The surrounding mountains were black and white; me: desaturated.

A week after France, I boarded the train in Geneva with two remarkable, beautiful women: my colleagues, my friends. I just wanted to be held but I couldn’t muster the words to request that, nor survive the pain of hearing ‘no’. The loneliness itself was raw and simple but entangled with complex questions, ways to be misunderstood. My mind collapsed like a dying star.

A soul can split and retreat into different dimensions: outward to the scrolling Alps, inward to reveries— remembrance, speculation. I was stuck. I couldn’t cry. I couldn’t joke. There wasn’t a path to feeling ‘resolved’. I hoped a dark serpent of alpine lake or a powdered-wig of alpine peak could be my Tabor-Jesus… a Shiny-Jesus savior. Even if I’d found something sublime in the dazzling white snows I would have to ‘leave that island’, watch my robes go dingy again… or, if I went high enough, the dazzling purity would never end. And my loneliness would be endless, too.

Sugarloaf Pestilence

Sugarloaf Mountain is a monadnock. I imagine sentient glaciers mowing a path through Maryland, chewing and chewing, then getting to Sugarloaf Mountain and saying “this piece is too gristly; just leave it.”

These mountains are also called “inselbergs”. My ex-lover and I hiked Sugarloaf together on the second day of a weekend alone together. We were swarmed by biting flies the entire time. The plague was a portent of things to come… do the details even matter? Maybe to me but not for this post. Things fell apart in the ensuing months; that’s all that matters.

Not all ironies are cruel. The first day of that weekend with my lover was wonderful (truly wonderful). We went to the beach and swam in The Atlantic Ocean. We even saw the fluke of a migrating whale! That was a true high. That was the summit, down by the sea: riding the peaks of waves.

I still haven’t explored the idea of inselbergs as metaphors but I can start here: they must be somewhat like Hope. Everything else is swept away but Sugarloaf remains (plagued by flies). Hope is gristly?

The inverse of an inselberg is a kettle lake. A piece of glacier calves and sits, heavy, gnawing down until a deep depression forms. When such a lake is only fed by rainwater it can turn into a bog: cold, nutrient poor, and sometimes inescapable. Kettle-lake bogs are like Despair.

Scoping atop Scopus

He was very tired but not lost. He understood what he’d done and what was going to happen, that Thursday night.

Gethsemane was the closest I came to ‘feeling’ Jesus. That time, in that place, I had a heavy moment. I felt tired. Not lost: I understood. There were certain things I’d never lost, reference points that couldn’t be demolished, and because life is counter-intuitive those mooring points are what make me so lost. I cannot unknow without un-saning myself. That moment wasn’t other-worldly; it was hyper-worldly. I could picture someone leaning against an olive tree in the dark, waiting to be arrested. The sense of foreboding seemed more apropos than what I’d seen earlier that day.

The Orthodox Church plastered over Jesus’ probable burial place was impressive, but not ‘real’ like the Garden. And I really hated the other possible tomb-site, infested with singing pilgrims. The tomb itself was reminiscent of what it pretended to be but the exuberant Christians ruined the effect. A man died under Roman occupation and, all around us, are signs of occupation, segregation, and militarism. It’s not a time for praise choruses.

Looking from the top of Mount Scopus, I imagined the events of Holy Week superimposed on Jerusalem. The higher I climbed, the harder it was to ignore the signs of modern oppression. Even though the view was not sublime, at least I saw the truth: the separation barrier crawling across the landscape like a cement centipede, devouring. I believe dissolving injustice was the purpose behind Jesus’ campaign in Jerusalem. He left Mount Tabor to die for his principles. It was only a matter of days before Jesus vandalized the money-changers’ tables at the Temple on Monday, sealing his fate that Thursday night in Gethsemane. He pursued his message to the full extent, knowing the consequences. Not just death: pain. A Dirty-robes Jesus Savior shows The Way but can’t make it easy; he’s not a Poptart-Jesus. I can never be a Poptart-believer.

“The resurrection isn’t the resuscitation of a body; it’s the beginning of the transfiguration of the world,” said a friend in her Easter sermon. That idea is lingering in me.

Crags of Temptation

The Mount of Temptation is craggy; it gets its name from Jesus’ meeting with Satan/The Devil/The Evil One This passage comes from the 4th chapter in Luke.. I don’t believe in discrete evil entities. I don’t read “Satan” or “The Devil” literally; I read them as literary devices.

The Monastery of the Temptation, photo by Fr. Gaurav Shroff; https://bit.ly/3dQnyTS

Satan is a real phenomenon, a train of thought running through Jesus’ mind after 40 days in a hole. Centuries before Carl Jung was born, the Gospel authors needed a way to talk about shadow archetypes in the mind. Hence, we have ‘The Devil’. The temptations read very differently when I imagine Jesus arguing with himself.

In verse 3 Shadow-voice says (I’m paraphrasing) ‘–let’s make rocks into bread with our god-powers,’ and Dirty-robes Jesus replies [paraphrasing] ‘we can’t live by bread alone.’ Reading the passage allegorically, Jesus rejects doing things the easy and comfortable way. Humanity’s problems don’t have poptart-style solutions.

Second temptation of three: He has a vision of all the world’s domains under his control. Reading directly from verse 6 (NRSV), Shadow-voice says “to you I will give their glory and all this authority; for it has been given over to me, and I will give it to anyone I please. If you, then, will worship me it will all be yours.” Imagine Jesus saying this to himself. If he really believed he was THE immaculately conceived son of God (I’m not sure he did but let’s suppose he did) it would dawn on him to simply have everything: consume! He wanted more than bread, well, here it is… ALL OF IT. “It is written,” replied Jesus, “worship the Lord your God and serve only [God].” I don’t need to explain; we live in late-stage capitalism. ‘Having it all’ isn’t the same as having everything we need.

I didn’t understand the 3rd temptation until this week. Shadow-voice dares Dirty-robes Jesus to jump. He dares him to be Shiny-Jesus and jump from a high-place: “…for it is written,” says Shadow-voice, “[God] will command [God’s] angels concerning you, to protect you…”. Shadow-voice tempts Jesus to take the Bible too seriously and too literally. Am I crazy? “Satan” tempts Jesus to dislocate from reality and put full Faith in something written in a sacred text. Jesus rebukes: “It is said, ‘do not put the Lord your God to the test.”

Are you paying attention?

Don’t be a fucking idiot, in other words. Jesus reinforces common sense: don’t jump. You can’t jump from the mountain or temple and expect angels to catch you. Why the fuck would you? That’s not the point of any of this. What the actual fuck does it accomplish? Not justice, that’s for sure. Not love, either.

‘The rule of threes’ suggests to me that this is the most dangerous temptation: let go of reality, bury your senses in religiosity. Zealots superimpose their ideas on texts (‘sacred’ texts assigned power by our cultures) and become susceptible to their own hubris and idiocy.

It’s key to stay alert and engage intelligently. Doubt is healthy: it helps us pause long enough to consider the implications of what we do and say. From the mountaintop, we literally see further; the consensus is ‘go high’ for perspective. Couldn’t we spiritually see further, too? Not Jesus, if he was down in that hole. He went up the mountain to get away from society, then tucked himself down into a cave. Later, he went down to Gethsemane and sat between the olive trees. That’s food for thought: do we find our Truth reaching up or digging down? Down to the river…

Done with Satan, Jesus went past ‘The Scent’ to the Jordan River to be baptized by his cousin. Or did that happen before his chat with The Devil? I can say this confidently: our journalist friend got us through the demilitarized zone (~2000 years later) so we could watch Orthodox priests perform an epiphany ritual. The coming of the Holy Spirit during Jesus’ baptism was represented by the release of a live dove. The dove fluttered out of the ceremonial tent and circled it a dozen times. Finding the opening again, it landed on a priest’s shoulder.

My boss leaned over and said, “I think he trained the bird; it came back to him.”

The priest stroked the dove tenderly and I nodded. “Yes.”

“It wants to be at home, where it is fed and warm.”

“Yes.”

Restless Cubs Made of Sand

In West Michigan we have the dunes.

I’m fixating on the shiftiness of dunes after so much mountain-talk.

Sleeping Bear Dunes National Park is home to the grandest one here. We call her ‘mama’. Indigenous stories recount how she and her two cubs attempted to swim Lake Michigan during a storm. The cubs were overcome and fell to the bottom, becoming the two Manitou islands. Mama waits between the inland lakes and the coastline: huge, tentatively placated by the trees on her back.

Why should only the islands be bear-cubs? Humps of sand move like hulking bears all along the western coast. Once there was a logging-town called Singapore. Trees help dunes stay asleep; deforestation is a call to breakfast for restless waves of sand. Singapore disappeared beneath a tide of dunes. The cubs avenged their blanket of trees, yes, and yet gratefully ravaged the settlement. I have a bestial ambivalence about it: sad for the trees but tickled by the drifting mounds. Some call this “dune destabilization” but it’s also “dune re-liberation”. Prairies and forests make hills of dunes; without anchoring roots, dunes become ‘dunely’ again — more bear-like, crawling and mauling.

Thus, I describe my restlessness.

An actual snapshot from earlier that evening; soon it was dark…

Night engulfed me on a dune in Oceana County fifteen years ago. I retreated along the spines of sleeping beasts to a crest overlooking The Big Lake. The air was clear and stars speckled the skies to the West, the Sun gone for hours. I was looking for Evidence: Supernatural Signs. I’d left behind the fellowship group I came with, believing that ‘more’ could be found praying on the dune. I didn’t question why I was so hungry for reassurance, nor whether God’s existence was worth knowing or unknowing. I wanted to find an answer for myself– assumed everything would feel better when I could speak an answer without doubts. I probed the voids between stars billions of years old, thinking deep thoughts, only half-awake to the overall uncanniness of the evening: rising moon, mumbling shore, trees unmolested by wind, the strangeness of being a 20 year old animal conceiving a universe.

Orders of magnitude: 20 years to grow a person, 20,000 accreting a dune, 200,000,000+ to mold and mill-away mountains, 2 billion and more collecting gas into stars. Why? Why anything?

I returned to the retreat center and my friends. We sang songs, traded hugs, confided in each other. I just wanted to belong and secure belonging. What I wanted and still want is to feel loved and never doubt that love, and to give love that nourishes. I don’t want to look at The Lake, the sky, and the land with anything but wonder. All this transcendence is thinly-disguised loneliness. I would trade all the uncanny moments and panoramic views for a cuddle that doesn’t end. Understanding. Affection. Mutuality; Home.

Love. There can’t be Justice without Love, nor Peace without Justice. How will I love people, now?

One thing I cannot lose: I have all these experiences and the benefits that come with so much perspective. Things aren’t just going to get better; I’ve gotten better and grown significantly. Every year since the plague of flies, I’m less tired and less lost.

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