My Future, Sculpted in Play-Dough

Sometimes I over-think my narrative and try to make it grand.  Let me tell you all a story; I will try to let

flow.

A guest lecturer from “Living Classrooms” came to my graduate-level curriculum class. She was a white-lady from South Dakota named Monique who taught in Rwanda with Peace Corps and now coordinates educational programs in Washington DC. Twice she mentioned teaching in prisons and on an indigenous peoples’ reservation in The West.

In the middle of the lesson she gave us each a canister of play-dough. The uncanny salty scent of a once familiar, now exotic,

Find more of Joan Peters' artwork here: http://www.nlapw-sarasota.com/members/joan-peters.htm

Find more of Joan Peters’ artwork here: http://www.nlapw-sarasota.com/members/joan-peters.htm

childhood filled the air. Mine was a green like cactus. I looked around to see if anyone else had

cactus play-dough. No. Prickles rose up the back of my spine. She instructed us

she encanted

…instructed us to sculpt our future in play-dough. She instructed us

she encanted

…instructed us to choose a symbol of what we wanted to be and make it from play-dough

the uncanny, salty scent of a once familiar, now exotic, childhood filled

…play-dough. I started making the fronds of a cactus, like green pancakes. I thought I would be clever and use my secret canister of purple play-dough to make cactus fruit. In Palestinian Arabic, the colloquial word for cactus fruit

صبر

puns on a classical word for patience. I remember the land left latticed by cactus rows surrounding

nothing

…land left latticed by cacti after radical militia burned and bulldozed Palestinian villages

the houses are gone, burned and bulldozed by radical Zionists in 1948

…Palestinian villages. Now, pears that pun patience grow green with great, sweet fruits in a lattice

because the roots did not die and the stalks regenerated

….great, sweet fruits the color of my secret play-dough grew in a village whose name meant

صبر

prickly-pears-bowl-1…grew in Beit Jala West of Bethlehem where I lived for 17 months more than 27 months ago. I wanted to symbolize patience, resilience, and the persistence of memory but the play-dough could not stand erect like…

صبر

…so I smashed it into a lump and began again.

***

 I finished my play-dough bridge just as time expired. I glanced around the room at an owl, a magnifying glass, a cocoon, a house… then back at my bridge. It looked like a tongue draped over four pencil-eraser butts with a pair of disfigured dorsal fins. Green like chewed wintergreen gum, it sagged in the middle. Its columns were fat and squishy, its suspension towers were useless decorations. The lecturer nodded at my explanation: “I want to build a connection between areas that once seemed separate.” In saying so, I tried to re-anchor my thoughts from over four years ago. I paced around a retreat center in up-state New York, rehearsing my elevator speech about entering into mission service and becoming ‘a bridge’ —

“Great job everyone,” she said slyly, smirkingly — furtively. “Now smash-it and make a new future.” The message was that we always needed to stay malleable as educators and teach students to imagine multiple futures and…

I wanted to be free

…multiple futures

I want

…to imagine multiple futures and I wanted to be something clever and free like a fox or

Coyote lays in forestmaybe a coyote listening in the woods, head and ears erect, laying in undergrowth with my front paws nestled beneath my chest and my back legs idly cocked to one side, extended. I was alert but relaxed

sculpting a coyote future from green play-dough

…with my tapering cloud-tail and my upturned snout, smelling

the uncanny, salty scent of a once familiar, now exotic, childhood filled.

“I made a coyote because I can be adaptable and free and I can do whatever I want, when I want.” Classmates complimented my handsome sculpture as he listened to them with perky ears, still green like cactus.

This future is vastly different than a bridge. I left the coyote resting on the edge of my desk until the period was concluded. Everyone nodded as my pet returned into the canister, into formlessness.

stay malleable as educators and teach students to imagine

…nodded as the beast returned.

To Be Continued…

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Pentagon City Mall: Contrapuntal Imagery

Lough Tay Wicklow, brought to you by explorelight.com via a quick google search. Go gaze on their brilliant photographs of Ireland!

Lough Tay Wicklow, brought to you by explorelight.com via a quick google search. Go gaze on their brilliant photographs of Ireland!

An image surfaced as I journaled two days ago, neck-deep in the food- court. I was surprised that any peace of mind — that any piece of my mind — could be floating in the swamp at the bottom of the mall. I dove into the middle to prove I could, to make friends with the absurdity rather than pace endlessly outside until it was time to board the train again. As I suspected, the insanity of the mall would not subside, yet some current running through that loony place stirred me. I needed to be dredged.

It is not a poem yet. In fact, I did not have much luck wrestling with the images on lined paper last night. A tower keeps vigil over a treeless sea-coast. There is a bushy beard of mosses and algae clinging to the outcrops and the low-rumpled skies are the slightly purple gray of an expiring rainstorm in late afternoon. The storm has stripped the tower’s facade like old wrapping paper, leaving tatters stapled to the cross-beams around its waist: a ruined tutu. It may be in shambles but not from neglect: it’s not old enough for that. Though the very base is made of field-stone, most of its height is stitched together from long steel beams that stretch skyward, like a giant inverted and funnel-web, frozen brittle, pulling away from the luxurious coast toward an unseen heaven. When my vocabulary and my muse return to me, I want to stand on the highest ledge and swing a grappling hook at a passing comet… when my muse comes alive and I have the words with me, like arrows in a quiver…

—no, like a magazine clicking into the stock of a semi-automatic rifle and (maybe not that either)—

The metaphor, here, is that my desire for success is like that tower. The material is excellent but the structure is poorly wrought. Like the tower of Babel, this spire of success is actually reverse engineered from my failure to reach the heavens. The Bible tells the story precisely backward, as if God must have foiled our plans. Human Beings are arrogant and we needed a sound explanation for why we could not unite for a greater good but, instead, chose to stay fragmented once some of us left Africa. Likewise, I always envisioned myself as Cassopolis’s greatest progeny but after a few decades I was “just a guy at college” (my aunt’s words, taken out of context), just an unemployed graduate, and then just an ironic missionary who fought hard for good, with my bad attitude. Soon… a guy with a notebook. I need an explanation for why I never lassoed that comet, anything other than “comets cannot be lassoed”.

Music videos from the nineties played in the food-court: Pearl Jam, No Doubt, Smashing Pumpkins. Aromas crawl from under the tables of a nearby Starbucks, other scents whisper of greasy meats from a 1950’s themed diner beyond…

…but I smell damp air rising from behind the boulder that sits by the foundations of my tower. A fissure appeared where the steely buttresses of that failed edifice drive their stiff fingers into the stone like freshly kneaded bread. As the tower leans flaccidly to one side in the driving wind, the Earth beneath it is pried wide. The trickles of water snaking along the beams coalesce and tunnel there way into that opening. How long does it take to make a cavern from rain-water? How long did I hang far above, fussing with rivets and cursing the sky, while a passage grew organically beneath my gaze?

—how long have I been in the damn mall, again?—

I read that poets should write not as themselves but as if they are the person who knows them best: JD gets lower than he ever imagined, further from the stars and away from the rain. I finally see him entering the cave. His hands are rusty brown with the soggy grit of its opening maw. Protected from the wind, the atmosphere congeals; it swallows him one tentative foot-plant at a time until he is subdued by the cool, heavy aura wrapping around his chest. The shivering subsides and his eyes come to the verge of adjusting. No, he grows whiskers. This is magical realism so I want whiskers coming from my face, elbows, and knees like an otter plumbing along the bottom of a river.

You all can imagine: it’s a work of contrasts. Here I want the readers to feel the burgeoning closeness as I descend. They should feel the walls constricting like veins and hear the muffled churning of distant calderas beneath extinct or infant volcanoes (the difference is only in whether the eruptions are past or future). I wanted to write two contrapuntal litanies of oblivion. In the first, I could be swept away into the most exhilarating, yet final, act of my life as I make a desperate leap for a wispy, gambling miracle to consummate my career as writeractivistmusicianperson. I imagine JD swept into the wind yelling “I always Loved You!”, while I watch myself from the ground, asking “what!? Who in the world am I talking about?” In the second, I could be rendered functionally dead at any moment. A heavy stone might slide into the tunnel behind me and force me to write myself deeper and deeper into the cave — maybe into a submerged chamber. Maybe eat some mysterious fungus and grow gills— no! JD dies a boring death, whispering in vain “did you love me, [ ]? How about you, [ ]? Or you… or you… or me? I wish I’d brought an instrument to play…” In the cave, he resigns to obscurity. He can do anything he wants until decay sets in and concludes his eccentric metaphor for thwarted self-actualization.

An alternative ending is that my friend Cliff crawls in behind me and says, “Dude, what are you doing down here? We’re having a barbecue. There’s going to be kabobs and fruit-salad– probably some hard-boiled eggs—”

“—the fertilized duck-eggs you ate in the Philippines?”

“Sure. It’s pretend. You can even have a gorgeous wife, if you want.”

“I want to try one of those — I mean a duck-egg. I also… okay nevermind: let’s just go. I don’t care if you’re in Los Angeles & I’m hallucinating in a D.C. mall. Yulla & bye-bye, hole-in-the-ground…”

I didn’t come to this point — to tolerating the mall — via tower or tunnel. I came via barbecue: people have crawled in behind me and said “Uh… we like you; do you want some food? You obviously have places you would rather be…” This ties in closely with themes of acceptance I can explore another time — where success is a river and (no: another time… I promise we will get there).

I shut my notebook and opened my eyes: the entire mall was at my disposal.

Always Burning: 1

“There is always something burning,” I said. Drew wondered if the ominous nebula percolating between the buildings could be from the demonstration. When we saw a masked figure wheeling a dumpster toward the flashpoint, some neighbors had suggested an alternative route from the check-point.
“Something is always burning? Oh, you mean literally,” he said, as we sauntered down the deserted side-street, “I thought you were being poetic.”
“Yes, figuratively too. It would make a good poem title, if I ever remembered to write poetry…”
Then, a sensation like the sting of a thousand onions being shredded by power saws overwhelmed our eyes. I tried to laugh as the burn spread to my mouth and up my nose but, even at that distance, the fall-out from the tear-gas was miserable. We thumbed a ride to the next corner.
“They brew their gas stronger than anyone else would yet it won’t hurt enough to make people forget: over a hundred Palestinians murdered in less than a week.”
I harkened to the sound of stones striking against the concrete Wall and guard-tower in the distance.

* * *

I had lost the will. A month ago, in the wake of my last newsletter, I shied from reflecting at all. In distant Yanoun, near Nablus, I finally found just enough silence to feel the vacuum which had opened inside of me. Without any sense of what had drained from my soul, nor how, nor why, I

dreamteam - EAPPI

Members of EAPPI stationed in Yanoun, Bethlehem, and Yatta look out over the Jordan Valley.

was unnerved to my core and yet uncannily touched by the simple beauty of owls calling to each other from centuries-old olive trees. I felt I could be whole again but there were no guarantees.

Then Gaza was attacked. Yanoun evaporated and I ignited. Twitter became my life-line for everything important, everything that mattered to my heart, as I selected a generous roster of journalists to follow, foraging for articles to read and repost at regular intervals into the night. Solidarity makes me a wraith: why should I have the right to rest? It is difficult to tell myself “I need quiet” when the voices shouting from my depths say “the world must know!” With all of my fuel lines plugged in (tea, music, media) I hovered for hours, then burrowed into my bed as if it were the chrysalis that turns edgy missionaries into peace-gurus. I awake as myself, every day.

Meanwhile, my better sense is objecting to the cycle of push and crash. The signs were there long before the trip to Yanoun, the retreat in Jericho, or the day picking olives in Beit Jala. The first signs may have been my trembling hands, eating a sandwich with lady IOF soldiers who thought I was going to Haifa. Arguably, the writing was on the wall one winter day in Grand Rapids Michigan when I started lecturing my soapy dishes about divestment. I needed this Calling but I will be forced to examine my deficits again when the steam that fills my core cools, condenses, and runs away.

* * *

“Flatten their neighborhoods,” they said,

“as the United States did

twice in Japan, with no pause for mercy.”

They quoted from the book of Exodus

to Gazans without exits.

Whether ‘Pillar of Cloud’

or ‘Pillar of Fire’, Israel invoked

that column of permanent taint

and destruction that spread

over Nagasaki in Hiroshima’s wake.

That pillar of cloud seared

the fabric of our human heritage,

as it toppled institutions, buildings,

ravaging flesh and the very genes within but

especially our vision, our solutions— our

minds. Enthralled with quickening violence,

these politicians tapped the poisonous tree

to scare citizens more than rebels

but they called it a “Pillar of Defense”,

and made the Torah a shield of lead,

when their empire rained

fire upon the trapped people of Gaza.

* * *

They battered it down to the wire…

The technique must be key, though I make sure never to be around. One morning, a huge bite was missing from the charred base of the guard-tower by the big gate in the annexation wall. The heaps of smoking trash and tires had already been swept away by municipal workers in small earth-movers but the asphalt remained stained black and the air still smelled of gas and gas: kerosene from below and mace from above. All of the US tax money, poured-out solid and gray, becomes brittle when exposed to fire. The youth will first come in waves, running forward with kefiahs over their faces to cast a barrage of stones. Each stone whispers something just before it hits the fiberglass shield: “we are David and you are Goliath. We are the rightful inhabitants and you are the monstrous, foreign invader.” The soldiers have nothing but their orders: their society handed them cocktail after cocktail of pride and cowardice throughout childhood. When the stones fly they follow procedure, shooting rocket-propelled tear-gas. The stinking nebula is designed to push back and quell the indigenous voices but instead it provides cover as more masked protestors come forward with accelerants and pre-lit dumpsters. After a while, they dissipate to let the purifying flames take their toll. Then, another wave comes with old pipes and batters the foot of the tower down to the rebar. They cannot quite punch a hole, yet.

Israeli government applies cosmetic fixes to systemic problems.

Call Ahava: we need some illegal cosmetics for this illegal wall!

Within 24 hours of the ceasefire agreement, Israel laid the cosmetic foundations. They installed new barricades that slowed traffic and painted the burn marks with a bluish gray the color of sleeping Western skies in the early morning: backs turned to the sunrise. Yet the latticework of rebar remained exposed in the tower’s deepening scar, almost invisible for being that same, dull blue.

* * *

To be continued…