Wrestling the Anchor: Dredging for Treasure

“What is a weed? A plant whose virtues have never been discovered.”
Ralph Waldo Emerson

the-past-visits1

This is so weird to see: Omitted-ex & I

In 2010, I bought a journal at a store in Grand Rapids Michigan with that quotation on the cover. Yesterday I read and annotated those hand-written reflections from five years ago. My brief but sweet romance dissolved, a week ago; it was an amicable split that left me both deeply ‘blue’ and hopeful for new opportunities. That is all I need to say of my “Fli” (my so-fly “former love interest”; “ex-girlfriend” sounds negative); the break with “Fli-girl” left me on a higher level than when we met in February, much unlike the scuttled commitment with “Omitted-ex” that burned and sank in 2010. This seems like the perfect chance to understand my ‘story-arc’ better through intentional reflection.

For my sake, take a few steps back to an earlier point in the causal chain, readers; allow me to look more closely at this period to understand the subsequent stages. The journal begins with an unironic “Dear Jesus,” –an earnest salutation that heads all of its entries, starting on April 25th 2010. “I want desperately to shed my skin right now.” it reads, “I think I am still learning it is okay to be inconsistent that way, so long as I draw closer to our Father. […] My own feelings have been hard to reign in. I feel that I have been put back up against familiar struggles in an unfamiliar stage. [Omitted-ex]’s initiation of this stage has put me on a continual defensive. But the point of this journal is to buck-off the past a little and get focused on the building…”

My first sticky-note annotation notes that, “[f]rom the beginning, reigning-in his emotions and defensive” referring to my younger self in the third person.  Near the end of April, the comments begin to get tart. “My prose, here, relies on a Western Christian idiom even though I am talking to myself…” Here is the 29 year old man, the man whose lived between Jerusalem and Washington’s orbit for an accumulation of four years, dissecting a former-self that had not left Michigan. “Where is all the fucking profanity? He was hurting but he won’t say shit.” Rather than following the annotations’ course I decided to focus on unpacking my reading of this old journal.

My five-years-aged emotions were impossible to connect with because the prose was a continual swirl of self-deprecations, as well as generic frustration, coated in this alien phraseology. Especially between mid-May and mid-June of that year, I wrote permutations of the same, impotent ideas — I said little about friends, my job, or events happening in the world. Everything revolves around the grinding de-escalation of this one romance and my corresponding attempt to rewire my spirituality (my ways of thinking and feeling at the intersection of ontology and epistemology). Omitted-ex and I became entangled pursuing a narrow vision of mutuality. There was an idea of “we” whose parameters came from conservative ‘Christian’ authors that she read rather than from improvising together — in absence of an “us-groove”, there was this misfit-chart for securing love. “The haptics do seem to be indicative,” I annotate, referencing how she stopped touching me, “I can see [Omitted-ex] hanging-on when she shoulda’ known it was over.”

May 15th, 2010 marked a critical down-turn. The entry begins with some sharp relational analysis: I speculate that she is chasing an abstract sold to her by publishers, that there could be months of “toil” punctuated by an ultimate rejection or, worse, a miserable courtship leading to “an emotionally abusive relationship of withholding”. This slice of sophisticated pessimism appears like an anachronism but it is the rest of the journal that is out of place. Things I knew before and have known since about Life, The Divine, and relationships were inaccessible to my mind that spring. I start building a wall over my common-sense in the next paragraph, brick-by-brick using the ideas of ‘Faith’ gleaned from those toxic books she wanted me to read. That Faith was made from inertia and introspection, which explains my over-correction a year later: I built a Faith on perpetual activism.

عدالة!

Sticky-note annotations.

Sticky-note annotations.

I could already sense The Dragon trying to cannibalize The Boy; I often refer to my hardened, social-justice-obsessed persona as The Dragon. His breath reeks of burning tires, his claws are like exposed re-bar, and he compares all previous suffering to the burn of tear-gas against the eyes. He emerged from the hot ashes of ‘her’ books when I burned them and fed on hookah smoke in the West Bank while Gaza burned in 2012. “Be compassionate to yourself,” I annotate. When I see things like “I am a very loved stupid person” it is tempting to separate myself from that by starting to mock. That affirms the label rather than recognizing the circumstances that tied my cognitions in a knot: deaths, unemployment, family tensions.  My sense of determination was like a dangling tentacle, eager to wrap itself around that romance because my parents had recently divorced. Perspective was missing, not intelligence– as is the case with many people.

Some paleogeologists postulate there was a period of total glaciation in Earth’s history — Snowball Earth — which delayed the onset of the ‘Cambrian Explosion’. The diversity of life’s forms accelerated rapidly in the Cambrian period and the phyla of animals we know today appeared. June 15th, 2010, three days after Omitted-ex and I split, the first signs of life appeared. “My thoughts stretch on. This growth cannot be about her now. It is quickly going to become about *page-break* vocation.” The word “vocation” slapped me awake as I wiped my brow, sitting on a patio in DC summer humidity. By July 1st, I start to write in ways that I recognize as my own voice. On the 7th, momentum is building: “Wow. My history is discouraging in this department. Yay? Yay for an excuse? No. Not yay or guilt. Move on.” That final imperative struck a bass-string in me, five years later: move-on.

Cross and maskJuly 30th shows me more about who I was, then, than any entry before. “Then I looked in the mirror and saw how odd I looked. I didn’t see a handsome guy with flaws. I saw an odd son-of-a-bitch but… I felt like I could like him. Maybe I want a friendship with myself. To put it through a Faith lens, I knew that your love was unconditional [to Jesus]. Your grace doesn’t un-kink my image or even my insides. You love each ugly bastard.” In that paragraph I see a fragment of myself. This idea of Grace has no Salvation in it. I was unable to see my beauty and felt as if I had to accept feeling ugly, as if there was nothing I could do. Quickly, I ran from the patio into the bathroom to look at myself in the mirror. I looked so good: a runner’s body, manicured soul-patch, grandma Gore’s eyes, grandpa Rice’s crooked smile, and an anchor tattoo. Where he saw a weed I saw a fragrant herb.

Dredged + Salvaged

To my mild surprise, the first mention of “mission” appears in the entry for September 8th, 2010. It is still partially lodged in the same, dislocated ‘Christianese’ scaffolds but it’s there: “My stumbling blocks seems easier to see and process. It is so strange to see the skeletal structure of hidden assumptions I have, even if it is such a mere glimpse. I have the basics of a spiritual plan and one for career (ish) ~ yet I find myself toying with the idea of a mission. What is your will? Am I ready to be sure?”

Reading later entries, I discovered an incarnation of myself with whom I wanted to connect. I remembered him reaching for a sense of balance, often handling things in his life with a basic sense of graciousness that shames my snarky ‘Dragon’ self. At times when I might be angry, he responds with a disciplined humility. At the same time, I see his damaged self-respect and his desire for something exterior to define him. The stage was set. Still, I find it comforting to know that I am returning to myself, again, with some perspective that he lacked. Endless hell will not claim me.

The anchor represents a sense of perspective. Now, I can start talking about my journey abroad. “Do you realize,” I whispered to my past self, “that you are two years away from swimming in a waterfall in Southeast Asia?” Then I realized that it had been three years since I swam in that waterfall — since losing my first anchor necklace. To think that I will probably never see that waterfall again makes me much sadder than the loss of Omitted-ex. The difference between depression and the life-giving blues is clear now: Fli-girl is like the waterfall and I wanted her to stay that way. I said goodbye. I said “move-on”.

To be continued…

Mega Man X Complex: The Shield

As Mega Man X enters Sigma’s fortress, Vile is still yet to be defeated. In game-play, I always assumed that Vile had no particular weakness and so spent time maneuvering, picking him apart with X-buster blasts when the solution was already with me: The Shield. Vile’s weakness, all along, was a weapon called ‘Rolling Shield’ that X acquires in battle with another maverick robot. It makes a florescent bolus that rolls along the floor and bounces off walls— very useful in vertical shafts.

X looks good in pink -- receiving 'Rolling-Shield'.

X looks good in pink — receiving ‘Rolling-Shield’.

The apostle Paul alluded to a ‘Shield of Faith’ in his letter to the Ephesians, though I lack the education to know which Greek word corresponds to ‘Faith’ in this instance. Faith’s multiplicity of shades and convergences with spiritual life are far too complex for blogging, more suitable to extended study. For the record, when ‘Rolling Shield’ is fully charged it envelopes X with an energy that makes him impervious to small opponents. My Faith must not be fully charged, yet…

Though Dr. Light hoped X could choose a more sedate path, he created* X with an operating system compatible with the upgrades X needs to pursue Justice. That resilient operating system endows him with the special ability to take a new weapon from each maverick he defeats. My original plan for this entry was to inventory the Fruits of the Spirit from Galatians 5:22/23 and draw metaphor to each of the eight maverick bosses and their corresponding weapon upgrades. I included a highlight reel at the bottom of this entry, just for laughs. What I really needed, from the beginning, was some self-bolstering. I need to identify my own maverick moments and claim the character enhancements that came to me at each juncture. Indeed, I might need to do it more than once.

One ‘shield of faith’ came to me at the Chinese Restaurant in Bethlehem (there is only one), on Land Day in 2012. That was also the morning when Palestine changed to “daylight savings time”, swinging an hour ahead for the summer. The planned, peaceful demonstration was delayed 90 minutes due to time-shift confusion. The ‘real’ demonstration came an hour after that, when shabaab arrived with kefias around their faces and pummeled the floodlights and security cameras on every guard turret with stones, concrete chunks, and more stones. Several internationals and I retreated to the Chinese restaurant for lunch, which was a foolish mistake. The excited teenagers in the guard tower shot their tear-gas and the excited teenagers on the ground, in turn, pummeled their windows with stones – some of which missed and smashed through the windows of the restaurant instead. I finished eating – no good could come of being shaken.

Something comes loose and it is difficult to know whether it is an ability or a disability. The moment I keep coming back to, during my quiet anxious moments, is the day at Sheikh Hussein bridge and looking an Israeli guard directly in her eyes while I lied about where my work was taking place—I told them Haifa, consistent with my letter of recommendation. She said “we know you’re lying – just tell us the truth,” which seemed, to me, to confirm that they did not have enough evidence to turn me away and wanted me to crack and vacillate. I held integrity with my mission, not the reverse, but I always return to heaviness I felt when I willfully distrusted someone and, instead of being edified, was uncomfortably vindicated by their obvious interrogatory ploys and my extended detention. I regret nothing but I lament all of it.

The entire exile into Jordan should count for some kind of special ability. It was in Jordan that I really knew what it meant to live as a foreigner in a large city and cemented my ‘transactional Arabic’. Far from being perfect, there were too many days where I laid in bed and waited for news about my return but, at my best, I was walking the bending lanes of ‘Al-Ballad’ and learning the dark fissures that formed alleys between its building encrusted hillsides. I befriended the juice-man, the bread vendors, and the Iraqi restaurant owner who served me the best chicken dinners of my life. In Amman, I negotiated with cab-drivers and embassy curriers. In that city, I survived bed-bugs, high-fever, long-waits at the Israeli embassy, and long hours in the Roman gardens watching cargo-planes doing maneuvers. I wondered, sometimes, if my life was beginning there in the shadow of those ancient pillars.

These are the instances I often talk about, separately, but friends are encouraging me to put them together. As I recite, I remember even more lessons; Drew from Alabama helped me face my callousness last fall when he joined us as a new volunteer. I felt irritated by his learning process. The disturbance was intrinsic to me: the exile and return from Asia had changed me in ways that I still do not understand, typing in a Washington DC Starbucks. Drew and I had an uncanny moment when, best I could, I apologized for being so curt with him. He said, “I think God is telling me to tell you that you have been counted faithful.” As he shared that with me, I could see him getting misty and I wanted to soften and cry but I felt calcified. I am indebted to Drew for that tender moment.

I could do myself a great favor by remembering some other pieces I brought home from the middle-East. I developed a greater sense of others’ needs, an ability I call the ‘bottomless tea-kettle of hospitality’. That sense of togetherness was necessarily beyond words because we do not all share the same words. Yet, I felt connected. That gift began to hurt, in time. Months later, I felt continents away from my counterparts in Geneva. At Wi’am in Bethlehem we all could take care of ourselves but we chose to take care of each other whereas my two American colleagues were both so… individual. Perhaps I was waiting for teleonomic cues that were not coming – the tea-kettle within me felt very heavy in Europe.

Since I write so seldom on these topics, then it is not really boasting to share – though if there are half a dozen examples then there might as well be two-dozen because every experience is a chance to learn or unlearn. After six months in Bethlehem, I learned that I was fairly savvy about the conflict. Then I visited Ni’ilin village and promptly unlearned that because, of course, the context was too fragmented for a foreigner to be so savvy. I reinforced the value of my solidarity on that trip, still. After I ‘did’ something –planting olive trees– I watched a video of farmers being mercilessly abused while sitting next to the very same farmers. Just an hour ago I told my friend over the phone “if I were planning a trip, it would be advocacy focused…”

If my enhancements were instant, videogame-quality upgrades, then I would not have to go through a dark period, filled with artistic blocks, self-deprecation, compulsive behavior, and feelings of isolation. This is real life. That is good news; I may have already done most of the work. Results are delayed. Vile is still alive in me but I’ve recovered significantly since February’s slide. There is a subtle relief to embracing the strength I actually find from difficult memories rather than trying to suddenly change the timbre of my script or, as happens too often, trying to deepen the suffering to profoundest woe. Mine is a story of being bent but not broken. I remember long ago, when I finally capitulated and spent eight consecutive weeks seeing a therapist, the doctor and I had a discussion about my efforts. I said I was not seeming to get anywhere and he observed that I had not relented. Again, I capitulated and saw a therapist. This time, I visited once and have not heard back from him. He asked me “what makes you think you can stand-up to the challenges in your life?”
“—because I’ve stood-up before. I’m going to keep standing-up until I’m too dead.”

Where is the Faith in that? I think there is Faith throughout that — the string-like roots of that Faith are something I could spend a life-time examining.

* * * Maverick-Fruits Gag-Reel * * *

“Plus, gleefully torching Maverick bosses on their last health-bar is delicious.”

“… if I were not agile enough, I might be swept into his vortex and have my energy sucked out of my body. Yeah—it’s a nasty long battle.”

“Arguably, kindness is like the Boomerangs won from Boomer Kawanger (I’m not making these names up), that comes back to the user.”

“…and has a chain-like tongue that he uses to whip X…”

“…the storm-blast was excellent for clearing stationary turrets; like self-control, storm-blast…”

“With a limited number of both weapons and fruits, that means Goodness is like ‘Shot-gun Ice’, courtesy of Chill Penguin.”

“I am having trouble equating Peace with ‘Electric Spark’ but I am sure you all can help me by using your imaginations…”

~ can you see why I abandoned that draft?

Out of the Hobbit Hutch

I just spent a week living in a Hobbit Hutch. For those who prefer an equine image, I am a Belgian in a Halflingers’ stall; canine: a Great Dane in a Dachshund kennel. I moved into a reduced height bedroom, the product of a frugal renovation that turned a townhouse with high ceilings into multi-occupancy apartments. My roommates consist of one absentee, a buff and fun-loving guy from Georgia, a tan and very deaf guy from Iowa, and a petite Egyptian who (somehow?) works for the Republican party. She is always amused and amusing. All of what I tell you is true.

 

Objects overhead may be closer than they appear.

Objects overhead may be closer than they appear. (Not my photo of a Wizard in a Hobbit House, just to be clear)

Metaphor is incarnate in reality because people have the ability to create meaning. In other words, my over-stuffed roost is a symbol for my writers’ block. My mental space contains ample material but I could not thresh anything of worth from it between Christmas and my first day of work in Washington DC. Like my writers’ block, the bedroom consists of many artifacts that, in that figurative way that writers love, enable it to tell stories about itself. For instance, the futon by the wall was a brand new floor model my Dad and I found by the counter at “Baer’s Mattress Den” in Fredericksburg Maryland; we had tugged a small U-haul trailer through the rain-soaked parking lots of the usual suspect-establishments: Sears, Denver Mattress, JCPenny’s, Mattress Discounters. This place had only one futon and, no kidding, receipts with bears on them.

The dresser, desk, and stereo cabinet tell the heroic tale of how an underweight missionary (me) and his aging father moved oak furniture up two narrow staircases without dying only to discover, tragically, that there was no power-cable for the stereo. I was pitching a fit right until the moment I rammed my head against the ceiling and had to lay down –not because I was dizzy but because I was too angry to function. In less than a week, I have filled this room with new stories rooted in lasting memories: my desk drawer was filled with leftover detritus from my days of unemployment in Michigan. At an all time low, I cowered indoors last Wednesday and ate nothing but shrimp flavored ramen and Valentine’s Day nerds candy. Figuratively, I was in the fetal position.

My writers’ block is filled with bigger artifacts, still, like the security counter at theTel Aviv airport on that final day; after my mostly-naked-pat-down, I returned to find the two lady guards giggling triumphantly over my luggage, bragging: “we made all your things fit!” From my writers’ block pours the snowy Alps as they creep past windows on expansive Swiss trains;  my morale cascaded into a deep, cozy depression as I sat across from my colleagues, saying nothing. My writers’ block is layered with New York City buildings frosted with the Hudson River, with lake effect snow topping and Boeing 747 sprinkles. Yet in my writers’ block, there was still room to walk down a Michigan road bereft of traffic to a frozen lake – no noise except the eager snuffling of my dog’s nose as he poked through snow-drifts for chipmunks. I wrote none of it.

There were – there are—overwhelming possibilities inside of me. We do, as Nelson Mandela suggested, fear the enormity of such greatness and the prodigious responsibility of living and often failing in it. I dissolved the craft into my deepest substrates, emulsified them with the fallow pleasures of being at the farm-house with Ma and Grandma: nutty bars, episodes of “Big Bang Theory” on TBS, a soft kitty to pet… going to the cinema with my sister. We watched a movie where zombies gradually regain their humanity by learning to love again. It wasn’t supposed to be a serious film. To keep the zombies away the humans constructed a high wall, covered in graffiti and scorch marks, with dystopian guard turrets. In the final scene, they implode the wall together. I wept for the first time in months. My sister kept asking me, “what’s the matter? What happened?” while I tried to hide my face from the befuddled patrons. The metaphor of that crumbling wall could have been the end of a post about taking down the walls inside myself or the beginning of a post about how things did not magically click after that day in the movie theater. I stayed frozen.

In Michigan, I was confident I had burst my chains when I went to the movies with my sister. Yet everything inside my mind, like my room, was too much to pitch into the open even with clear topics available. I was frozen solid at my keyboard.

What makes this apartment a hutch and not a catacomb, though, is that I ventured out into Washington DC. I could not beat my demons, alone in my cell, so I climbed aboard the DC metro, bought a cell phone, and eventually found my way to the new job that is already reminding me who I am.

My new mission: “Associate for Movement Building” at Methodist Federation for Social Action.

–but look what pretentious neighbors we have down the street!

capitolhttp://dkphotocoop.smugmug.com/USA/Northeast/Washington-DC/i-MTgNBPp/1/L/US_Capitol_Dome_East_midday-L.jpg
Photo does not belong to me in any way: this is the internet. God bless America — we need it dearly.

Epiphany & Beyond

firespell-red-candleI must be still, if I am to enter the chrysalis. In order to slough the thick skin that has retained my guts, along with all my potential, I have to allow my eyes to glaze over and the chill hunger of winter engulf me…

Fireworks pierced the air above manger square, buzzing a passing recon drone. The lights of the new Manger Square Christmas tree glowed like thousands of festive lightning beetles in heat. Light spread across wires above our heads, coiled around palm trees, and exploded from fireworks exploding. All of that joyful exploding cracked my stern expression. I saw something new was happening in Palestine, with a female mayor in Bethlehem and a statehood bid. I put aside the hot issue, and my contentious views, for another day. “No one cares what I think – I should take advantage rather than being resentful! I should disappear and find contentment in deficit—maybe find God there.”

If I knew what that actually looked like, I would in essence not be doing it. I always try to imagine but this time I could really embrace nothing: deficits.

I started a blog called Reverse Exiled when I was stranded in Jordan, sweating through a high-fever I brought with me from regions Eastward, waiting for a visa. Now, I want to choose my own exile and reverse tack. Tomorrow, I talk with my new supervisor in Washington DC. It will be less than three months before we shake hands. As I brainstormed for our first meeting, I realized I have the potential to re-imagine myself. I wrote parameters and I deleted them: I can re-imagine. The persona I developed over the course of the past year will need to die.

A phoenix-effect—look at my url. I am Xavier Phoenix. My name was a prophesy even I could not fully intuit: X for variability and the phoenix for re-birth. My blog is reverse exiled: coming back and leaving and coming back and leaving. It was a re-imagining of “In Rainbow Colors”, which I want to retro-duce to you all someday. Then I can retro-duce “Quest in Cold Metal”. Maybe…

The trouble with being Phoenix is that I cannot burrow into my ashes until I have burned exhaustingly hot. Now I must cool. Today I managed to brush away my ideas about random and systemic violence and take a trip with a colleague into Jerusalem to the Scottish Memorial Church. I sang through a stuffy nose and drank too much coffee after the service. We walked into the old City to visit the jeweler who sold me my sister’s gift. He was thrilled to hear that she had graduated from college and would soon receive his special creation. We drank mint tea and he told us about a nun who was kind to him when he was a child, about the dinners she hosted and egg-hunts at Easter. He is Muslim. Everything was different before the first intifada… my colleague later commented that Muneer is someone who is very comfortable with who he is and, thus, able to relate to other people better because of it. He is also a smart businessman, an expert artisan, and a proud father. It seems as if Muneer started by being the best Muneer he could be. What did you all learn from your jeweler, today?

As I typed a vision of the best John Daniel, I saw that I was only mostly like him but that I could choose to be more like him. “I get the feeling, sometimes, that I am very forceful online…”

“Yes,” said my coworker, “but that is how you are working through these issues…”

On some level, I knew I was burning too hot. As my colleague and I walked away toward Damascus gate, she asked me what the peaks and valleys of my service in Palestine had been. My highlight day had been marching into Jerusalem with my boss on Palm Sunday. I finally experienced the city as alive with a soul. My most difficult time was not an event but the season of late winter in 2012, when I felt as if I could make more impact by standing in front of bulldozers at house demolitions, sacrificing myself to make bad press for Israel. My self seemed less important than my work rather than equal to it.

Eventually, I became comfortable with my small role at the Wi’am Center. I realized that I had co-workers who valued and nurtured me. My potential, even my skill-sets, have not grown much while I was in Palestine but I matured. After all, how do I profit from more knowledge and skill when I cannot get past hurting? Of self-centeredness? Or resentment? Now, I return with gifts and perspective, both. Perhaps I can start over as a writer.

At home this evening, I avoided social media faithfully for the first time this week. Dishes completely covered my counter but now they are stacked and drying. My cluttered desk remains for next weekend. Tired of cold showers, I learned I could pour a bucket of hot water for myself in the bathroom sink. I glanced at the mirror and noticed how happy this made me. It was the first time I have washed with warm water since I left Amman. Who could resist pouring a second bucket, just as a reward for being alive?

I think I will allow this entry to defy coherence because it is a breaking away, even if a small one. My essence has never been lost in twenty-six and a half years of being alive but there have been critical junctures. We always wish they were conversion events but most are periods that last more than a month but less than a year. Sometimes, they come stacked together. There was that time of uncertain solitude, then the zombie weeks between my return and olive season, and this latest period of intensity. Now, there is Advent and Epiphany beyond…

The Dome of the Rock, seen from a distance ~ as close as I could get.

The Dome of the Rock, seen from a distance ~ as close as I could get.

Trumpet & Accordion

‘The Cave’ has joined the constellation of favorite jamming places tracing back to my visits to Bogue

Maria’s (Mattson) Adams’ photograph.

Street bridge, freshman and sophomore

years of college. I felt drawn, in an almost mystic way, to that alcove under the bridge crossing the Red Cedar River. By chance, a young artist named Maria found me and took an iconic photograph of my silhouette, with the river in the background and the outline of a trumpet protruding from my shadow. In starkest contrast, I became the daemon of a sunny park bench by the Grand River after the collapse of my last romance. I am nostalgic for the bath of unbridled sound and reddening sunlight that I took every day for a year, finally finding the fortitude of heart to improvise without worry. That was the last place I called home before I moved to Bethlehem. I wept openly, last fall, mumbling “I just want to be by the river again.” Since then, I have managed to dry my eyes –and my heart.

 

A piece of my heaven in the midst of strife.

Friday blustered as if every gust of wind wanted to bring the first surge of winter rain. Wa’el, Drew, and I were out in the drizzle for half the work-day, trying to unhook the tarp that covers the picnic area before it takes any more damage. It was weighed down and holey with a mixture of stones and expended tear-gas canisters, since the nearby gate became the locus of all Bethlehem’s coiled frustrations with occupation, released courtesy of Gaza’s suffering. My own angst started to leak out of me when I got an e-mail to the effect that “It Came Upon a Midnight Clear” was ‘more of a Christmas Eve song than an Advent song’. I had to scrap my rendition of the former for the first Sunday in Advent for what I understood to be a nit-pick. Consequently, we had a discussion in our staff meeting about anger and Sara suggested that I fill some of the empty spaces inside myself with music or sports.

 

Friends make the difference in life. I practiced moodily for a few minutes before the heavy iron door creaked open. There was Rajaee: carrying a square instrument case. He had brought his accordion into the blackening cave to play music with me!  We have a history together, by now. He used to play the piano while Lucas strummed his guitar and Rafiq played the drums – we would all play together, getting gradually more chaotic until we either faded into awkward chord progressions or else ended abruptly in laughter. With only Rajaee and I, we were able to play long improvisations on minor keys or renditions of “Time to Say Goodbye” that decayed into original melodies. There is a point, in encounter like this, that I used to become embarrassed and excuse myself. My need to be ‘perfect’ and ‘excellent’ holds me under curfew during those times but this time I was with my friend. I knew I could play however I felt and we would make it work, together.

 

Eventually, we played something more upbeat and polka-like (this is an accordion and a trumpet: how could we stay drear?). My lips were already beginning to give-out but I continued to pop joyful, staccato notes to match the swells of Rajaee’s harmonious accordion. When we tired, we stepped out into the court-yard area and enjoyed the falling rain. Without introduction, I started to play “Singing in the Rain”.

The Phoenix in the Olive Tree

The phoenix of popular imagination does not belong flat on his back, atop a broken couch and cuddled with his trumpet, in the cave beneath the(A dark phoenix -- Moltres) Zoughbi house. I was sore from the previous night’s stress-release workout. Still, by the time Rajaee found me in my hiding place, my brain was busy piecing apart the possibility of getting a PhD in Peace & Conflict Studies.

We went olive picking the very next day, strained calf-muscle or not. Last year’s olive harvest made an arboreal man of me. This year I felt just as lithe, though not as daring as the Swede since he had a way of getting into the highest branches. As usual, I was looking for things to write about: the teenage hired-helpers and their father, hanging our arms out the side of the car to carry long ladders, plump orbs of green and purple, or the cactus patch –bare of fruit but still menacing. Aloft in the oldest tree, I conceived of myself, as I had in a line from a poem I wrote long ago, as a phoenix alight in an olive tree. ‘I really am a phoenix on an olive branch– a fiery person reborn in the movement for peace.’ The olive tree is made of sleeping fire: when the fruit is squeezed it produces a flammable oil.

…as I was plucking olives from the tree, my mind went back to a discussion I had with a friend about altruism (useful concept?) and the nature of collective responsibility (more useful, I believe…). Writing and peace are where my inner nerd marries my inner geek.

I fell asleep early last night, in the drowse from a beer shared with the Swede, our colleague from Alabama, and Zoughbi (who preferred ginger-ale). I excused myself to bed and slept until six in the morning, rolled out of bed to turn the alarm off, and rolled in again under the weight of my aching body. The weight never quite left me when I rose, hopeful about drafting my vision for life but overwhelmed by the gravity of doing something like that. Tea is often my solution for moments of inertia but I didn’t expect that the next ‘big move’ would strike me as the tea was steeping.

“I need to be reconciled with my ex-girlfriend… I’ve become genuinely thankful that she left me.” I drafted an e-mail, thanking her for making that decision and for the way that she chose to do that. Understand, friends, I had once taken back my sense of pride by criticizing her. Today, I took back my honor by seeing the good in what she had done and appreciating her for it. I want to show respect to my colleagues, and my future, by choosing the restorative way.

My visionary break-through was not waiting for me in Microsoft Word. I dragged my heels and fussed with iTunes but only came-up with this meager skeleton:

Vision Statement:

 

My Biography (free-write)

-Starting in Mindanao, reminded of who I am. Go into flashbacks to tell the story

My Main Interests (free-write)

How Peace is Composed (free-write)

My Related Interests (free-write)

The social media vortex grabbed my attention, as I struggled to be articulate, and I had to thrust myself away from the computer. My hand-written journal was laying open on the couch, book-marked to an entry in July where I write about “recoil effects” from my solitary confinement in Jordan. I know too well that I have had too much solitary dwelling in my history. I fought hard to stay engaged with what I had written weeks ago, to keep from medicating my sense of emptiness with more browsing. I know too well I have too much self-medicating in my history. As I read yesterday’s entry, this passage came into sharp focus:

“Five minutes after I awoke the second time, I was laying flat on my back with my face buried under my hands. At the turning-point of my life, I’m still wondering about bread, vegetables, changing money… [spiritual-director] ‘kicked’ me hard last night, urging me to begin the process of applying to graduate programs and reminding me, again, that I think I don’t deserve it—don’t deserve to go by the seat of my pants, don’t deserve to be a talented writer after my squandered years online, don’t deserve… khalas. I have a number of ‘blocking’ feelings I can’t name and don’t understand…”

Putting aside the hard-back journal, I immediately fell into a fitful sleep on the couch. (Moltres outline) I woke in Palestine, realizing my laundry was dry and that I should probably remove the multiple shirts hanging in crucifix- position on my clothes-line. A little morbid humor was good medicine, just then. A suppressed memory of my dead grandmother emerged, as she seemed to pin my grandfather’s shirts against Michiganian, lake-effect winds and, concurrently, hand me the shirt I took from his closet after he died.

I descended to the cave to try to play away some of that tension but the Swede intercepted me with an offer to help at the office. A half-hour later I was shelling-out pomegranate kernels and listening to my co-worker talk to our Mennonite friend about Israeli assassination conspiracy. I scooted my chair closer. It was my pleasure to join the dinner discussion about a culture of acceptance and the complex prospect of mosques in Germany. This is the essence of the life I found by accident—my greatest challenge and greatest gift—because my commitments in Michigan walked away from me. I gambled with the extra space in my life, hoping to fill it with stories worth telling, writing, or even melting into the fabric of my being. Not one step has been easy yet all have been fruitful, somehow. Now, I live in the bigger-version of our world.

My prayer under the stars, tonight, became a long journey into places I have not seen in months, years. I used to become a black-hole every time I prayed—collapsing inward, looking for my ‘flaw’. What is the opposite of a black-hole? A disco-ball—it’s reflective on all sides, yes, but it’s also a great deal more fun than having your atoms pulled apart. Disco-balls are for dances… for weddings… for hanging in miniature-form on my rear-view mirror. Living through the computer-screen, it’s easy to forget the breadth of visions contained in my brain– begging to be visited, ordered, and reinterpreted. My thoughts careened through the inner-space of night: church hay-rides, a snow-filled college-campus, boat-lights on lakes, camp-fires in the woods, holding my mother’s hand as we leave my aunt’s house on Thanksgiving… Palestinian barbeques. I miss all those places with a hurt that scares me. I want it back.

Inside again, I struggled to sketch what I wanted from my adventures:

I want to explore the way that narratives interface with collective identity

                the way the colonized critique the colonizers; the way traditions critique themselves and each other and the overall goals of culture.

I want to create enriched narratives from my encounters with peace-builders

I wonder how acts of creativity manifest resistance

                mediate the process of building trust or reimagining narratives

I would like to do an ethnographic study of grassroots peace-builders and their stories, perhaps passed through literary/artistic lenses.

                sociological lenses/mass media lenses/IPC lenses

                pertaining to particular biases, synthesized together in restorative ways

Concerned with building a safe-space for story-telling, toward creating common narratives.

                toward a ‘culture of acceptance’ where trust provides a foundation for dialogue

                with acknowledgement to the ‘metaphorical engineer’: friction is always there…

I would like to improve the art of story-telling in myself, using that as a way to create dialogue

                to dissolve the usual power-dynamics.

Ways of fragmentation versus ways of emulsification…

Nobody here but us trouble-makers...

Nobody here but us trouble-makers…

 

An e-mail quietly appeared. It was my ex, the one who turned her back on me in 2010. The precise contents of that message are private but she was appropriately gracious. She wished me luck during the next phase of my life, let me know she was happily married and tending the house, etc. I learned she had left church-work as a career– a beautiful irony that the ‘broken’ person became the missionary and the very religious person found tranquility at home. At the end, she said she had no intention of being friends nor of staying in-contact, which is what I expected since she tended to keep her circle small. Oddly, instead of thinking “Fine: she doesn’t appreciate my friendship—screw-it” I thought, “it would probably confuse her too deeply to try—I’ll let her know I’m removing her from my address book and that I appreciate her reply.” There’s nothing wrong with being happily married and tending house, nothing to hold in contempt. Every woman should have that right – in every place.

My heart ached for just a moment, just a flutter of leftover sadness, but I looked at the other pane on my screen:

The place of peace and conflict studies in my life is to provide foci and goals for diverse interests: writing & literature, history & sociology, consciousness & communication. Still, this field of study is inseparable from a personal commitment to mitigating social disharmony. Without this love, the labor is too difficult to sustain.

She said she knew in her heart I couldn’t be the partner she needed. God bless that guy, her husband. On the other hand, God bless me for being a Phoenix—for blazing brightly, sometimes volcanically. The love I know now was unintelligible then, living with so much hurt in a culture where anguish is taboo. I mistook my codependency for commitment, years ago, but now I can see what real commitment looks like—looking back at me while I shave. The tattoo over my heart reads “to seek justice and resist evil”: resisting it in the world and in myself. It would collapse her world to understand that; it’s better that she remembers me slumped on an old couch, with a potted plant on my lap (because I had to cuddle something to stay composed). Not everyone is willing to see me differently – but I do now. I also want to see myself be vulnerable like that again; I want to merge selves.

 * * *

Moltres, of Pokemon fame.

Moltres, of Pokemon fame.

Xavier Phoenix is barely aflame again, in the ashes of foiled wishes. What fire-bird

A Foil to Moltres: Articuno

Articuno, also of Pokemon fame.

would NOT want to find someone with whom he can dash into trouble—another fire-bird? I could not try hard enough to find her but I hope to cross her smoke-trail.

On the other hand, maybe precisely what I need is a woman who leaves flurries of snow in her wake – someone so cool that she tempers me.

Tonight, though, I feel like I am courting my fate in a different way. As my friend said, “graduate education is not a matter to consider lightly.”

“Of course. I was upset with myself for not taking the step forward earlier, until I realized that peace-studies and I have only been dating since I came to Palestine… relationships take time.”