Red Car versus Cold Blues

“This is it,” I whispered as my 2005 Pontiac Sunfire lost traction, sledding past the edge of the sloping curve, down a snow-swamped bank, and into an inescapable pocket next to a stump. My luck made itself known immediately: an officer from the county jail found me and let my chat with him in his truck. I was one county away from home after a half-day’s drive from Washington DC, I explained, and once I got into South-west Michigan I decided to take country roads so I could be in from the blizzard faster. Officer John and I discussed life transitions and my employment situation; I accepted what had happened, waiting there for my stepfather and trusting that all would be well. I was impressed with my own calm. The journey had already changed my perspective in small ways — listening to pop music, realizing what was important to me back in Maryland, convincing myself that my time in Michigan would be formative. It is becoming formative but, believe me, losing my car off the side of the road has not been the greatest challenge. The tow-truck driver treated us terribly the next morning, due to a miscommunication between county and state police about the status of the vehicle, but even that seems like a funny anecdote now.

Unemployed and in debt, I returned at the suggestion of my mother and stepfather, for no more than eight weeks, to help them with my grandmother and earn some money to pay my back-rent. I thought it might be a simple respite from feeling stuck. I did not realize how deep my rut in Maryland has really been… nor did I fully appreciate how it was affecting someone else until… …mind if I skip around a little? This is going to be gloriously POORLY written because I just need to—

* * *

Fiona at camp, 2009

I named her Fiona Sunfire. One day in April my paternal grandparents shocked me with the gift of a key-fob… with a key in it. They walked me, in a half-stunned state, into the driveway to meet a red compact with gorgeous lines (I don’t care what anyone else thinks about Pontiacs or Sunfires– I was elated). Fiona didn’t make my life instantly better; I was finishing my undergraduate studies and unsure how to find employment. A then-girlfriend (AC) invited me to work with her at the summer camp where we had met– by awful coincidence my parents split-up and my maternal grandfather died in the same weekend. Just like that, I was climbing into Fiona Sunfire to find a space of peace, a space I could control, and a means of going forward. Undercurrents of emotion that had laid dormant or else stifled during college came to the surface like geysers. One relationship ended while another began; my circle for friends became different, smaller; I was angry at my father for initiating the divorce and as for my mother– nothing I said seemed to make a difference to her but… …gradually, I found an abandoned cabin on camp grounds where I could scream, sing, pray. All of the nameless angst seemed to suddenly have labels. Two years later, I changed all the labels and moved out of the country. While Fiona sat in a garage on the farm in Michigan, I was angry with the apartheid regime in Israel. In Washington, the feelings followed even as the attached issues continued to change. I notice, as I reflect, the anger faded into irritability, that into anxiety, and sometimes that would wear away to reveal… …nope. For a long time I went to therapy and kept-up the story: there were irritations, injustices, and worries. I gave all of my feelings the same level of dignity, assigning them real-life causes and explanations. I was tentative to suspect what I suspect, now… …or perhaps I suspected but refused to indict. Is the effect the same?

* * *

My friend Megan poses in Charlotte, NC

I once loaded Fiona and drove overnight to visit my friends in Charlotte. I knew my mood was slipping and I believed that seeing friendly faces in a different climate would make the difference; I wanted a quick fix. Quickly, I hustled through the snowy night, across the plains of Ohio, and into the mountains of West Virginia. Then, Fiona had siped tires (tiny grooves cut into the treads for better ice-traction). Despite the falling snow, I sped through the mountains and into Virginia and North Carolina at speeds in excess of 70 mph, passing other cars with confidence and glee. The snowy weather moved even faster. A few friends makes some difference but the glum pall lingered even there. It seemed vanquished in the Palestinian summer, six months later, but at a year-to-date from my Charlotte trip it was raining in Bethlehem, and in Ireland, and it might as well have been dark in Amman by the time I was there… alone with no orders to busy myself with nor means of going forward…

* * *

It gets worse, first. Last May I had a terribly job and a wonderful girlfriend. I lost the former. My car became my greatest financial asset, something assured and safe. It was the vehicle of our vacation, my means of shuttling back and forth to her home, to Quaker meetings, and would-be interviews — there were few. The labels and explanations became her stalker, her ex, my former supervisor, our current president, myself… …this part is hard to explain. I thought I had outrun decline, at last. Fiona carried me out of the house where my room was too small into a beautiful apartment that cost much more. Fiona carried me back to somewhere every day/night I wanted. The apartment became the symbol of my tunnel-vision for the past several months. As long as I could stay there, I thought everything would be okay. Even as the spaces of that apartment became haunted with — intrusive thoughts. The disappointment seemed to ferment and distill into bitter thoughts. To go into detail is painful. A steady trickle of intrusive, bitter ideas had followed me since I first packed Fiona for camp, they born from tensions in college that, themselves, I had always found ways to catalog and explain. My trickle became a stream, then a river. It overflowed its banks — I stayed two months extra in my apartment without paying, convinced that a job break-through would become the dam. Becoming displaced seemed like the worst possible thing. At the same time, I was apprehensive to share how dire my situation was becoming — except with my girlfriend. I would explain further but I think I should just repeat: my girlfriend was fully aware of the state I was gradually working myself into but the rest of my network remained largely un-activated — I imagined waiting until my breakthrough, to break the good news that I was going to be okay, that I had overcome the adversity of my own power, that I had worth, that I should be loved by… … …me? Meanwhile, she has way too much on her plate already…

* * *

The 1970 Stingray I got to TOUCH under the hood.

When we finally got her away from the tow-truck driver, Fiona had a bad case of the shakes. I recognized the end of an era creeping upon me. I was ready to accept. Yet what I surmised and what I felt were not the same. Soon, Fiona was in the auto and boat shop with my stepfather and his cohorts. We gleaned the snow and grit out of her undercarriage and the shaking ceased. I learned to change the oil and the oil filter, watched a broken headlight repaired, and worked with Mike and Paul to secure my loosened muffler. Fiona was going to be okay but I was not.

For a while, the carpenter with whom I was supposed to work was out of contact — but he called and I worked with him this week. That was not the problem. In the mean time I spent some time looking after my 94 year old grandmother; she is increasingly frail and confused– but that is not the problem, either. I went to work with my stepfather in the car and boat shop many of these days but that is definitely not the problem. His coworkers have been downright sweet and supportive to me; Paul let me help him check fluids on a 1970 Corvette Stingray. For just a moment I sat in the driver’s seat to pop the hood… but that doesn’t make it all better.

The sinking feelings became heavier and heavier — I am having some right now. I felt the cold, the distance. Text messages are not enough. Sitting next the lamp, reading to distract myself, I couldn’t stop checking. Most days are overcast like dull nickel and just as dark, the temperatures often below… below…
I imagine myself walking down the beach at lake Michigan. I imagine myself walking onto the pier. I imagine the end is icy, that there might be ice going out for yards, that there is a lapping edge… “If THAT happens, then…” and etc. and etc. I know it’s toxic but. I know but what will I do? I don’t know what to do. It’s dark. If something good happens, then. Is she…? We’re okay? I know I should be doing. Which? I can’t decide. I just want. If THAT happens. What’s? Is something wrong over there? What’s wrong with? Me? The Lake. That would work. Every thing, all of it, would finally.
These thoughts hearken-back to others had throughout the Autumn.  I said to her once “I wish I was dead,” and I’ve regretted it ever since. That should have been when I called the therapist but I was habituated to the morbidity in my thoughts.
“Maybe I’ll… maybe I’ll” “Staying the course, quit panicking…” “I need to check, I need to stay close with her…” “Maybe I’ll drive back, since Fio–” “The Lake, it’s cold enough, if THAT happens on top of everything else–” “Don’t let any of this show… you can’t show. Don’t talk about it. Just. I should be doing some–” “Maybe we’re okay–” “I’m not okay but–” “But the Lake is cold enough if–” “Don’t become a self-fulfilling prophesy–” “Why? Whywhywhywhywhywhywhy” “Don’t let anyone see…..”

One morning I felt the presence of the Holy Spirit washing over me like waves on a shore; I cried and understood it as a reassurance. I ought to know by now that God is the sort of parent that pats me most tenderly right before an even greater level of pain and difficulty. Don’t stop reading– come all the way to the end with me.

Finally, the power-cord to my computer died. Let me take a deep breath instead of explaining my luck with electronics. As soon as the power-cord died, I decided that what I was doing was not working. I decided I needed help. It was prescient of me. The next day I had a conversation I had been dreading and– it was private. Nothing is completely under water. There are reservations. There is the need for space. There is… more passive voice to describe without giving details. How much is too much to say? I understood; I found clarity. The anxiety issues are becoming more clear in hindsight. I feared to see them because the way forward is not … my apartment. I wish it were daylight when I am writing this. Where is daylight? How am I going to prove… What am I doing?  Not jumping into a cold lake. Never. That line of thinking and all similar are now flagged as invaders. They cannot be reconciled, or ‘solved’ — they must be dismissed. Not by ignoring. We’re going to. I promise there is hope. The cycle is going to end, even if THAT happens. If THAT happens, I’m still going to hang-in-there. I’m never going to threaten The Lake to try to prevent THAT; that’s not what I want! I want to LOVE! I want to be here to show support.

What am I doing?

* * *

I have been taking action ever since. It’s mostly because I love her, I can’t lie; I couldn’t get started down this path any other way– not with my history. Someone had to love me as the adult I am, not get hungover on loving me for the child I was. As the support network comes alive, they say the things they should say, things that are correct but not resonant. I am supposed to focus on taking care of myself. Something people have difficulty understanding is that my self-respect and self-love are not the same; that conceptual difference escapes most people. Someone said “but they go hand-in-hand” to which I said “yes, and one of them is limping.” My self-respect is what I believe about my capabilities and the ideals I should represent– it’s high. Self-love is more nuanced. For the first time, I am willing to entertain that getting treatment is not a temporary course to correct something detrimental in my experience but a life-long course to do whatever it takes to be functional — to love myself and others as best as I can. In the former case, medicine seems like something to be avoided because it introduces variables that could prolong. The latter accepts that this struggle is already prolonged –it denies the narrative I’ve told myself: that I have successive, separate struggles. All struggles are one because she loved me for as long as she did– because she said she still does, despite reservations. Inherent is a threatening uncertainty but a basic truth remains: somebody loved me, finally! Wonderful! Terrible! Wonderful because this cycle of labels and escapes and and and would continue but now it is going to end. Terrible because I might have come to this point too late to save the love that made it possible? Too late to become strong and return that love twelve-fold? It would be such a shame and I won’t let that happen without putting forth the best effort…

I am doing things…but I will not do them alone. This is the time to contact everyone I was shy to ask for assistance. I’m trying not to judge myself anymore as I spit all of this out. I was so afraid to discover that there wasn’t any hope at all and boxed myself into that apartment. Yet. Yet there was always this will to go forward, ever since I first put Fiona into gear. I remember a counselor I saw for just eight weeks, named Lennox Forester; he had the aura of a church-uncle but I’ll never forget his answer to my assertion that ‘nothing had worked yet’ — “you haven’t given-up yet, though…” he said, smiling at me. Some might call my elevated self-respect ‘pride’ but it also does not allow me to ever fully despair. When my thoughts about Lake Michigan became a near-plan for suicide, I made even more explicit plans to see my cousin in North Carolina if “THAT” happened… even if I had to repeat my feat with Fiona, driving 70+ through the mountains in the winter. A major source of hope is actually tangled-up in my bad behavior. All of my coping mechanisms, misleading categorizations, and other not-quite-enough efforts… all of that is evidence of my determination to overcome, even when my understanding of “what will I do?” was less clear. I am actually just as strong as I always wanted to be– I just have a greater handicap than I ever wanted to realize. I can be worthy of love (of self-love?)… I can get where I need to be, I’ve always had the WILL. I need help with direction and, yes, there is help…

I called my old therapist and set an appointment for two weeks from now. Fiona and I are running into the sunrise together — we’re stopping to see good friends in Pennsylvania (arranged). My Quaker Meeting is creating a support committee that will help me discern what my next steps should be. When I lost my apartment, I was welcomed into the home of a former classmate… who works in my career field. He told me to “hang-in-there”. A friend from college: “hang-in-there”. A close mutual friend of my girlfriend and I: “hang-in-there”. Mike and Paul in the auto-garage: “hang-in-there”. Old friends on the telephone, with whom I haven’t spoken in months, say “hang-in-there”. I got notification about a possible interview, I told myself “hang-in-there”.

Pessimistic thoughts. Impatient thoughts. Angry thoughts. Fatal thoughts. Jealous thoughts. Prejudiced thoughts. Self-righteous thoughts. Tired and discouraged thoughts, panicked thoughts: I told them all “Well, that’s not helping.” I’m talking back to them — like they are coming from somewhere else. They are not coming from my core-intentions. They were never coming from my core intentions. That’s why I was always of ‘two-minds’ about my girlfriend’s children or her ex or whatever thing… this anxious streak has trouble with uncertainty but I, me, myself, JD, am a loving person. I intend love, strength, and support. I’m going to talk back to these errant thoughts with a new confidence. I used to discuss with them as if they were part of me but not I am going to shout-them-down because they are not ‘me’. They are gliches, bad-wiring. I am a noble machine with a few cross-threads and crossed-wires… I’m not going to the junkyard, I’m a classic. I need T L C from my communities…


This turned from a story into a long vent. A vent that I needed. There is so much more……….

This piece ought to end with some neat piece of information. Over two years ago my sister met a man at a costume party in Fort Wayne, IN hosted by mutual friends. They dated long-distance. I met the guy several times and thought he was okay — yet I was reluctant to put much ‘heart’ into getting to know him. I knew my sister loved him but the distance in their relationship made me wonder if they would last. He and I finally talked… about relationships, anxiety, depression, and the processes involved. He talked about feeling like he was ‘smart’ and supposed to “think his way out of it” — Me Too. He shared about his reluctance to talk about it or get any attention for his struggles because… people would laugh? He didn’t deserve the attention? — Me Too. We both took years. Both of us, each of us, sunk years into trying to attach whatever-it-is to outside reasons, to circumstances or other people. Though I’ve spoken with many people since THAT-almost-happened, this conversation was the most comforting of all. He understood so well — and he could be my brother-in-law. It was uncanny how relieved it felt to finally connect to him; I felt a little pang of resistance at the beginning but I let it go. That little pang of resistance is something I’m learning to let go, even though it didn’t appear to be related to the BIG aches. There are many small appendages to ‘this’ … and none of them quite belong but all of them require more patience, more love, from me. Love for me from myself for the sake of addressing these ‘impulses’ that are not welcome in myself. Not anymore. Even if THAT happens and no one loves me again, I’m not letting the love I experienced go entirely to waste.

Even if Fiona breaks-down (she will)… I suppose I don’t need her to run forever because I have stopped running forever.


“Things Ain’t What They Used To Be”

A 2005 Sunfire named “Fiona”

…the CD player sucked the newly purchased album into its slot. That was the perfect moment to push the pedal completely to the floor, just as I cranked my wheel into a tight left turn. In a wave of synesthesia, the g-forces splashed me with the first exquisitely loud burst of rock music. It erupted through the sun-roof, spilling onto the hills that line Michigan’s wrist on US-20.

“This is my home now –my red Pontiac~ my Fiona.” I loved speeding through the Irish Hills on my way to work at camp, desperate to start fires and lose myself in the woods, again, and forget… forget… forget…

* * *

I dragged my tail from the blankets like a komodo dragon on codeine. I flicked my tongue through the air a few times, then brushed the bacteria off my fangs. I was bound for Jeru—check that—Al-Quds Sharqia in less than an hour. I fumbled for my keys but…

“Oh… my car ain’t here, on the continent. Just as well, I couldn’t ever find a place to park it…”

I hung my Sunday best over my carcass and smirked; “they can’t stay up all night any more? It’s two days later and I am more dragging than ‘dragon’…” My youthful energy was also at an ebb. Emma Clare and I caught the 21 bus at the cross-roads and I slipped into a trance. Just as we passed into area-B, I realized my passport was still next to my bed.

She helped me pull an idiot-couple routine, where she handed them her passport and I patted myself down, faux-distressed, and then looked up at the guard and entreated, “I left it in the safe at the hotel!” Of course, the other guard waved it off and we passed. My heart was throbbing anemically somewhere in my intestines. “You know, after going all the way to Haifa to get a legitimate visa, monkey-business like this doesn’t satisfy quite like it did nine months ago…”

Close to church of the sepulcher, a street with cafes.

After we visited the Jaffa-gate post-office, Clare and I went to a cafe for breakfast.  I had already started to ferment a journal entry called ‘Things Ain’t What They Used to Be’ in my mind but it was not enough: Clare and I had to talk about the passage of time in Palestine. She said that events from before she left the United States seemed ‘closer’ than her first day in Bethlehem. In a similar fashion, that day I climbed on a bus, full of conservative settlers and soldiers, bound for the bridge feels more distant than a less harrowing day when I walked from Bethany to the Holy Sepulcher with friends, which seems more distant than boarding a train in South Bend Indiana but not more distant than riding the back of a motorcycle across Geneva. Events happen in a particular order but they age differently, depending on the momentum and succession of experiences curing in our memory. I knew how to get to the post-office from Damascus Gate, by the way, but I had not done it since February.

I knew I had the day off on Friday, so I had stayed-up the entire night on Thursday having a video-chat with friends in the United States. They all quipped that I ‘must be young’ to stay-up all-night and it secretly rankled me. I want to be the prodigy but I also want to ‘belong’ – the reciprocal of what I wanted when I smoked the hookah with Tim and Clare, playing the sage but trying to regress. Yet my existential moment caught me completely off-guard because I felt my age precisely. I arrived at Dar Annadwa for a program I would never see, since it was running late. Going out into the court-yard to pray (and wait?), I noticed the ancient pine trees above, cuddling against walls and balconies, and labyrinthine passages below, lined with planter boxes. It struck me that I was “here”, in one of Bethlehem’s church-embedded intellectual oases. For the first time, it sank into my intuition that I would never have alternative attempts at life on Earth. A thousand times, I thought about replaying life due to regret but for the first time I wanted to replay life to have additional, alternative memories of bygone times. I wanted existence to be like reading a new book or starting a new file on a video-game just to see if… if – but I FELT I could not. I always ‘knew’ but this time I FELT it. Returning home immediately, I took an eight hour nap.

My story is becoming an essay, today, about time and aging: how one passes, how neither is repeatable, and how the latter feels. I reached my maximum age, so far, after twenty-four years but I reached maximum maturity yesterday. These qualities ebb and flow, since I felt oldest when my mother was suffering relentlessly, and I was trying to show everyone how responsible I could be, but I felt most mature when Zoughbi said “he is Palestinian now—he has suffered” and I said “no, you treat me too well – we have tea with sage, today.” Zoughbi had surprised me in the morning, while I was eating my thyme and oil (زيت و زتر, هذا شاتر!) and he looked me straight in the eye and said “you will meet someone and get married—you are a nice man; and, I tell you, nothing can replace having a family…” His comments were out of the blue, in the flow of my life, but made perfect sense when I took time to see where he was: his sons left for the United States to join their mother just a day before. He wished for me what he wanted most for himself. My own father took offense to the word “ditched” in my prologue. He has the self-aggravating problem of

trying to mitigate the wretchedness of his image, actually drawing more attention to the past that made him wretched to me.

More than memories, these photos remind me of how much I miss my friend from high school — just being close.

But things ain’t what they used to be. I deleted my reply to my father because I love him much better since I decided his decisions were no longer central to my life. A treasured friend chimed-in with her sympathies, in regards to disappointing fathers we love, and reminded me of how she was never quite a ‘memory’ during all those dark times, always just a few days delayed with a call-back or a message of encouragement. She will be married soon but I am invited to visit  when I return– a future so close I can smell the pizza, though I will probably be somewhere I cannot imagine first. Friends pass through our lives like comets but a few drop into orbit with us. As for family, I wonder if that is necessarily those friends who will not leave our orbits, since Western family structures seem unable to persist as strongly as those in Palestine.

We feasted in honor of Khader Zoughbi this weekend. Clare and I were the odd foreigners among three generations of Zoughbis. I am amazed to say that the entire flock of little ones were all grandchildren of Lorette and Nicola Zoughbi, the elder brother and respected clan-leader. It was refreshing to see Nicola pick-up his youngest grandson and go…

“lo-lo-lo-lo-lo-lo-lo-lo-lo-lo-lo!”, until the baby giggled.

The beautiful little grand-daughters raced up-and-down the stairs and ramps of Wi’am Center while I watched, with a glass of mango juice in my hand. One of the mothers started calling for hers and I noticed she was not with the group. The next thing I knew, I was hurrying toward the back of the property. When someone found her in a perfectly safe place, I had caught myself in the act of worrying.

Things ain’t what they are going to be, even when it comes to things that already were. I had dinner with Clare again  at Casa Nova and we somehow started talking about television shows. I was incredulous that “How I Met Your Mother” could be running for seven years. I thought it was three years old: one year before I watched it, one after, and the year I followed it with my friends at Michigan State University… three years ago. Noticing the problem with my math, I let the conversation drift elsewhere. For now, life continues to add material to my train of thought. She and I segued into a conversation about relationships… it came-out that I was a nice guy and I repeated what my boss had said.

Pizza on Tuesday, Wednesday and Saturday only?!

She said, “you are a nice guy as opposed to, you know, a ‘nice guy’.”

“…no, you might have to make that distinction for me… I don’t quite understand.”