Dragonfly Hypothermia, Purgatory

Last August was hot.

My apartment on North Capitol Street was like a take-out box tucked in a refrigerator: a windowless, squashed box fermenting slowly in the artificial cold. Some days my patience with the sputtering wireless would expire and I would sling my messenger bag over my shoulder and toast lightly for six blocks as I walked to the local Starbucks. By then the bag had toasted in Bethlehem, Amman, Hong Kong, Davao and all the way back through Tel Aviv where its contents were the focus of meticulous, pensive searches. Yet no one cared what hung upon my shoulder in the coffee shop, anyway. My anonymity had returned.

Photo by Thomas Shahan of Hotspotmedia

Photo by Thomas Shahan of Hotspotmedia

I leeched coffee and wireless, browsing programs in Conflict Resolution. My feet were cold, in the sense of the worn, wedding cliché: fatigued from work in the mid-East, there was no way I would commit to a Masters’ Degree. I wanted to stay away from the heat, learn to imagine and write again. The word processor booted and I surveyed a blank page, an Antarctic continent unmarred by civilization where even God’s marks lay beneath a tranquil blanket of white-space. Some treasure waited for me, I gambled, in the glaciated spaces of MS Word if I could… just… focus… no:

Antarctica is Hell put in reverse. Hell in reverse is the freon balloon that bursts in one person’s heart when another boards a train, leaving a simple goodbye and a brief hug. It’s the feeling of January blooming from inside one’s veins while February precipitates around them. I wish I had the imagination to paint these images but I used snapshots: memories like 45mm frames digested into English. No premonitions of that feeling percolated into the fragrant purgatory of Starbucks in August, though. My gaze sailed to the picture window, un-mooring from the desolation of the blank page.

A dragon-fly rested in resplendent, fragile gravitas upon the sill as if in a museum display case. Her long waist boasted a glinting armor of iridescent azure and violet. Her eyes were like dark and finely, infinitely faceted jewels bending my reflection into a perfect rings as I approached. Her four wings suggested as much of sci-fi space-craft as they did of biplanes, simultaneously primeval and sophisticated. The Order Odonata: 300 million years of aerial majesty. But I fixated on her eyes: she hunted with loch-blue eyes. They were figuratively blue, too, pressed against the pane of her prison.

She was lethargic from the cold of the air-conditioned room and probably fatigued from flying against the glass. She shuffled to the side when I drummed my fingers next to her — still alive. No one else had known or cared to do the obvious: carry her outside. Days later, I shuddered to think of what else I might have done: toppled her into a to-go coffee cup and kept her corpse like a jewel, maybe pinned it. It would be no great crime, since her kind is not endangered; neither is mine. Golden rule edict, I swear to Jesus. It’s the same reason I chased spiders and cockroaches around my next apartment, loosening the bathroom screen so they could crawl to new life.

~before I return to this beautiful story, please picture me shooing plus-sized cockroaches into a salsa jar with an old greeting card~

I brushed her slender abdomen with my right middle-finger, coaxing her to amble into my left palm. Something tiny can still be ponderous, plodding along the creases of a sweaty hand. She needed some help; she was ‘not herself’. The star(bucks)-crossed little huntress turned and crawled away from her hypothermia, her dignified yet certain demise. I ‘bite’, at times: I wondered if she could bite, if she would bite the hand that warmed her. I squeezed past patrons filling from the row of pump-action carafes and pushed the front door open with my butt. We emerged, backwards but alive, into the August sunshine.

The next handful of minutes was a special time. A few minutes can be an entire era if their significance reaches full potency. My time with her felt like that. I wanted her to stay with me as long as possible. I knew that she was a dragon-fly and I was not; we were mismatched by type but not by season: we could overlap for a moment. A summer breeze seethed between the hastily rising buildings of “NoMa” in the District of Columbia but I saw no movement from the dragonfly. There was no knowing how much time she spent indoors. Beyond being cold, she could be mostly starved. “At least she can pass away warm and loved—” I murmured, “even if the latter is beyond her understanding.” She was relaxing. At the end of our epoch, she wiped those gorgeous eyes. Wings began to rustle at an accelerating pace until…

Buzz. Zoom! My writing has been unsteady but I can still ‘dragon-fly’. Someday, I will dragon-fly much better than I did tonight… I hunt by touch, so it is my hands that are figuratively blue.

It takes a minute to get warm. A minute is an epoch like a page is a continent. In an epoch a continent can change. Now I have come to the difficult part of the entry, where I might to tie the Starbucks-purgatory to an episode from the winter that followed. I wanted to do that when I revived this draft in February. Through words, I might make partings beautiful. I still could. Today, August links to August. The hand that warms me could be a church or a theater — perhaps a library at American University. After that hot August I reaped many friendships and this August yielded a new living situation with a beloved colleague and a different graduate program, filled with people to meet. The meetings make purgatory not all too unpleasant — and reunions are Heaven.

Dark DC-Metro

“Less-than-nothing” is not the end. It’s temporary.




July & August: 48 Hours

Rise and Shine…

Morning dawned on the last day of July and the breeze still carried the refreshment of evening. I could work-out the next day; my late night writing session earned me an extra hour of rest. Content to snuff my alarm, I nestled back into the cool sheets. Time has been kind to my soul this month. My perspective has grown deeper, though not always wider – which is fine. Below, Zoughbi was already frying a pan of vegetables – onions, tomatoes, peppers of both kinds, garlic – I told him he could drop two eggs into the skillet for me. He loves to extoll the virtues of such breakfasts, when he remembers to make them.

“People really are crazy right now,” he noted, “a woman’s husband killed her.”

Morning dawned on the first day of August and my back felt like a gang of mountain goats had stomped on it. The first pangs struck so hard, the night before, that I went to bed early. It felt even stiffer by morning. Time has been unkind to my body this year. I could not possibly work-out; an hour later I phoned my boss to apologize for running late.

I awakened him with my phone call: he had mediated a late-night case.

Ten minutes later, we ate an odd collection of fruit with bread dipped in olive oil and powdered thyme. I went into the living room and sat perfectly still in the softest chair.

“Perhaps we should get you some bengay…”

Well Begun is Half-Done…

My friend in the USA asked me, just hours before, what I typically did at work. When my boss and I arrived at Dar Sansour (our office), I descended to the patio for coffee with Saliba and Adnan– two cups. Excusing  myself inside,  I climbed into my alcove and started the computer. I edited a report for Zoughbi, started my July newsletter, and skimmed an ICHAD update. My main task was to talk with Usama about a grant-proposal to upgrade our software and equipment for a fresh campaign aimed at financing garden renovations. In the process, it was decided that I should have logins for all Wi’am social media platforms. All my pistons were pumping. Still, I reminded myself that this was just one kind of ‘typical’. I heard voices through the open window and, spying a familiar face, I left all my activities in order to reconnect…

I knew ‘five minutes in the municipality building’ with my boss would be at least fifteen but it became more like fifty. I accepted my fate and an offer for tea, using the hot sting of the tiny glass to keep awake while the older men mumbled in Arabic to each other. My eyes drifted around the deputy mayor’s office to the spoils of overseeing Bethlehem – the glint of gifts from pilgrims. I also noticed the really expert carpentry of the moldings and doors, only outdone by the relief carving of the coffee table. Everything was done in such a way that it need never be done again – the first chance may be the only opportunity.

One man wagged his finger forebodingly as he told a story, then drew it across his throat. The others shook their heads and whispered inscrutable admonishments into space.

“هذ  عنف—مجنون –مجنون” It suddenly made sense to me.

Expect the Unexpected

I sat for five Palestinian minutes, alone with a crock of lamb and rice in Saliba’s car. I decided to tag-along with my co-workers “just in case” they needed help picking-up food from the community oven. These two speak minimal English, slightly better than my Arabic. Of course Adnan has a face and personality that transcend the language barrier. I adore watching Adnan be himself. He can be so gentle as he carries out the pleasantries of pouring the tea or reading the newspaper but then his cell will ring. Accustomed to the enthusiasm of Arab telephone conversations,  I opened the car window to release excess shouts. Saliba took it in stride. He is our elder statesman with the heart of gold. He pulled the car to a stop.

“Sit sit, rest,” insisted Adan, waving both hands. “Five minutes, no problem.  Stay.”

I tried not to fall into a bottomless pit of thoughts. Just then, a woman in a white cotton dress started walking up the stairs toward Star Str. She was obviously foreign. I watched the breeze caress her flowing brunette hair and exposed calves. I wondered where she was from—

she smiled at me. The warmth of her glance was wholly unexpected.

Just as I came to the water-cooler, Zoughbi announced we were going to a demonstration. Adnan, Saliba, Imad, and I piled into his battle-worn Volkswagen and shuttled to an old city area where a plug of people had formed in the narrow street. Our co-worker, Lucy, stood resolute in the middle as people pressed around the clot with bags of groceries. Imad whispered quietly that they were protesting the fatal case of domestic violence from a few days before. They marched from the site of the crime to the nearest traffic circle and chanted about an end to violence in the home. Some of them wore hijabs, some seemed to be Christian women, but a few were men. I stood with my other co-workers. Zoughbi became interested in forty shekels worth of faqoos; before long, I was carrying them into the pharmacy, where I bought locally-made muscle cream. When I emerged, Zoughbi took the heavy bags from me. It was then that I noticed Lucy: did she have a post-demonstration glow? She is another person who can be gentle or quite passionate.

We picked-up Adnan at the top of the hill, pacing deliberately with a phone clutched to his ear.

So Typical…

While I was eating with our Mennonite visitors, a familiar face began to say, “remember when I mentioned having dinner with Daryl and Cindy in Amman and met a guy who lived in a hotel across from Hashems Restaurant?”

He pointed at me.

“Thirteen weeks gone?” another one said, “that is a long time, isn’t it?”

“Yes, I think it is…”

‘This is another type of typical day,’ I whispered to myself as I foraged the office refrigerator for broken cookies. An aching back, several unannounced interruptions, but nothing had fallen behind schedule yet. ‘And the day is young; good things can still happen—or more bad. Oh! Here’s some salad…’

Hanging-Out After Work

A narrow staircase leads from the barber shop to Walid’s second-floor den. We greeted one another warmly and I sat in the black leather chair next to his desk. His workspace is several shades darker than the desert sun but it projects a cool, clean motif: like a photographer’s dark-room melded with a doctor’s office.

                “Do you want to drink anything?” he said.

                “Whatever you are drinking, if you please.”

                He called for two Schweppes orange sodas. He browsed photographs on a large, wall-mounted monitor, tapping the occasional note on a netbook. He shook his head and whispered something, then turned the netbook around and said, “look at this.”

                “Oh damn.” There was a woman lying on the ground in a nest of hair and spilled blood, eyes stark open, with a gash on her neck.

                “Crazy. Her husband or boyfriend or someone was so angry that he just killed her.” Walid waved his cigarette in the general direction of the traffic circle.  “Right over there. Crazy…”

                “Crazy…” I said, popping open my soda. I could tell Walid was feeling some acedia and it was nice to sit in the air-conditioner and keep him company for a few minutes.

                “Well, okay, let’s see how it’s doing.”

                “Yeah; just let me take my shirt off, in a minute…”

                 He looked intently at my chest and said, “come back in four or five days…”

“شو سويت اليوم؟” asked Imad, knowing very well what I had done that day.

“انا كتبت رسالين و …شغل ثني…” I replied.

“شغل ثني؟ شو سويت بعد؟” ‘And other things’ was not specific enough, for him.

“رحت معهم (معك) إلى…”,  I hesitated.

“You went with us to the demonstration. We call it [مسيرة], like a ‘march’ in English” he said, scribbling on the whiteboard. I scrawled Arabic characters onto my lined notebook.

“Why did they demonstrate? Tell me in English…”

“A woman was murdered.”

“’Murder is [قتل ] and murderer is [القاتب]. Crime is [جريمة]. Who killed the woman – tell me in Arabic.”

“رجل– الجوز الأمرأة”


“جوزها—” –“her husband.  Did [الشرطي ] come?”

“Yes, they arrested him [ هم أعتقلوا الرجل… ]”

There was a pregnant pause as we each shook our head.

“It is a shame,” said Imad, “enough about that – what will you do later tonight…”

After the Arabic lesson, we sat on Imad’s porch with his mother and ate grapes. The sky seemed clear but there was actually an even scattering of fine dust that gave it an antique quality, as if someone had painted the dome over our heads years ago and it had faded just a little.

“After it rains, you can see to Jordan from here.”

All’s Well That Ends Well? 

When I arrived home, I ate chocolate-spread on pita and paced around the apartment. Walid’s acedia had passed into my system and I fell asleep on the couch with a Bible on my chest. I tried to continue in devotion when I awoke but the previous night’s activities were taking their toll.  Hoping my quick nap would fuel my impetus for the evening, I brewed some tea and studied Arabic for the next day’s lesson. The deterioration continued at a steady pace in spite of my ambitions for a new blog entry titled “Bethlehem Ink”*. Past ten in the evening, it felt like an iron baboon crawled onto my back and grabbed my flesh with twenty fingers. I went outdoors with my tea and a lit candle to try praying under the full moon. All I could think about was the pain in my back and anti-Semitism. I wrestled with questions about the Occupation and ethnic conflict for several minutes. I could not get to the kernel of my prayers. Relenting, I went to bed.

When I arrived home, I ate chocolate-spread on pita and paced around the apartment. With nothing to lose, I decided to take a shower. I even allowed the water to get hot, though I was nearly done by then. Afterwards, I rubbed on my new medicine. It worked just as much as I expected, not more or less. Nothing could replace having a special loved-one rub my back for me but I was grateful for my consolation prize:

“Made in Beit Jala – suck my toe, Israeli pharmaceutical companies!”

I studied my Arabic in the same fashion as the night before, at the same slow pace, with the same frequent tea-breaks. At intervals, I chatted with friends from Michigan State University on Skype. It comforted me to know they had initiated conversation, this time, which was so unlike my days in Grand Rapids when I was too desperate for any kind of contact.

“Perspective is my counter-attack; I did a little less than I did yesterday but I’m satisfied with myself because everything I did today was in spite of pain. I refused despair.”

When I went outside to pray, I butted against the same problems. God answers under the surface of our consciousness, sometimes, and I noticed

Life is a blessed gift… even with back pain.

that I was deeper into my thoughts than my surroundings. Whoever said that prayer disconnects us from our environment? Maybe prayer is becoming aware of what God is doing in our environment. The moon was bright, subtly haloed by the fine scattering of dust and illuminating rooftops, minarets, steeples, and cars.

                “Thank you for the Moon, God – hey! That’s what I forgot last night: I have quite a few things to thank you for from the past 48 hours…”

                And I did. I still do.

*Come back in four or five days…