Thoughts from Home

When I arrived last August, my intention was to be useful and effective. I played a comparison game with myself during the first visa, out-competing the younger Boys & Girls Club Intern as the quarter-century-old version of myself at Wi’am. As the Autumn progressed I had less and less energy to devote to task-oriented goals. After a while, my mission became more about being faithful than about what I did.

This past Thursday, the Swede and I took photographs of a children’s birthday party while the mother’s slowly filled us with fattening morsels. I teenager cornered me in the garden and practiced her English on me: she would like to be a fashion designer and has been to California. I had to leave her, though, to greet a group of Academics from Ireland. For another couple hours, I took a few notes while my supervisor talked with them. I like to fold my hands together and listen for new things, allowing the familiar parts to be reinforced.

He is the same guy who almost ran over my leg the day before. I was halfway into the back-seat of the car with a bag of falafel when the car started to roll over my foot. “ABU TAREK*! STENA SHWAY!” I yelled. He stopped. Later, we showed the tire marks on my leg to everyone at the office so they all could tease him about almost crippling his intern. The conversation took place mostly in Arabic and I understood the important parts, especially when Adnan slowed down and repeated for me. Somewhere in that exchange, I stated aloud that I could get deeper into these conversations if I only had more time in this culture.

“Stay!” said Zoughbi, “Stay another year-and-half; ask them and tell them to talk to me!”

Later in the morning, Adnan returned with his little son George and we had a grand time waving hello and getting him to repeat words.

 

Janet wanted pizza and beer. I arranged a meeting with her to discuss my feelings in general, though that Wednesday I felt great despite the tire-track on my pants. “You know,” I began, “I could understand how someone might be frustrated with working at Wi’am if they wanted to put together a portfolio of some kind. At some point, I chose to let that go to the back burner so I could just be available and open to learning. I never write anything good anyway right?” Her brow furrowed.

I began to tell her about my plans for graduate study, in vague terms, and about the prospect of staying. Without missing a beat, she said “but you’re under contract… well, a letter of agreement…”

“What’s that even mean? The Methodist Church isn’t divested [from occupation activities] and I feel more loyalty to Wi’am than the agency. Maybe it’s because of the position I was in when [UMC] annual conference happened…”
“Well, you’re still under a contract,” she shrugged. I shrugged-off her shrug, knowing that people of earlier generations put more stock in things like contracts. My mission is undermined by the parent organization that sent me, especially when they send a pair of Hewlett-Packard laptops to the new office. “Do they know how to read? I thought the UMC agreed to boycott?”

As the conversation continued, though, it was obvious that I do want to return to the US and cut purse-strings like theirs (and the US government’s) from the Apartheid regime here.

“My problem is that I started letting myself love the people deeply, as soon as I knew I would be in Bethlehem for six months straight instead of three. I want to keep all of them with me…”

I drank a little too much and went to be early, without finishing my piece about the wedding. Sublime happenings are painful to portray so briefly, leaving a sense of emptiness. I started running from that emptiness long before I came to Palestine. It came with me that August.

 

Thursday morning I rose early to talk to a contact in Japan about Arts Based Approaches to Community Peace-building. Where I expected awkward pauses, and emptiness, I found some understanding and positivity. I saw a path going forward: I realized I have the right talents. That moment can come for anyone, we hope when they are sixteen for their sake but I mused that if it comes at twenty-six then its no less precious. I went to breakfast with my Swedish colleague. He is another great person in my life. We also went to an amazing concert together, where artists from the middle-East and Scandinavia combined in mixed ensembles.
“I almost cried when the girl from Syria started to sing by herself…”
“Yes, I did too. It touched my soul…”
There is no doubt that I am getting closer to finally being home, even as my time is ticking away so quickly. I found a rhythm at the office that allows me to work for and with my colleagues. Effective and efficient are not the same. Effective is synonymous with perceptiveness – with knowing what to do at the right time, rather than filling the time totally. I carry chairs, pour tea, pick-up trash around the grounds, and appear automatically whenever there are new visitors. Now, I also appear automatically when there are children – even if I understand them less than half the time. Whatever is missing in my portfolio was added to my character, where I really need more help.

 

My thoughts are running in so many directions right now. It seems that this is an especially significant equinox but its qualities are still hard to understand. There is a new impetus in my life that is carrying me away from media addiction, away from codependence, away from self-deprecating constantly, and possibly toward a life of relationships and even creativity. My motivation to create seems to run dry whenever I am alone with my emptiness. I’ve been blessed to have so many meaningful experiences to reflect upon in Palestine. I may not be dry forever, after all, now that I am healing. I’m pushing away many lesser coping mechanisms and starting to look back on the pain in my past knowing that the people in my life, right now, care about me for my own sake – not for the sake of the things I do but for who I am. Pride ebbs and Love flows.The story is not over, for me. I still have feverish episodes when I become politically charged. I still have quiet times of depression. Yet, I might be ready to write new narratives ~ for my past and for my future as a writer. What matters the most, tonight, is that I choose to go forward. I could never have done that if Bethlehem had not become my home.

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Torn to Pieces

I was walking up the street with my new colleague from Sweden (Dawwid) and I noticed all the little ones from the nearby girls’ elementary school scampering down the hill in their matching dresses. It bubbled to mind how I miss writing about the intimate details of peoples’ lives in Palestine. Last fall at this time, I wanted to use my stories to tackle big abstracts. I quickly became an essayist and analyst, less of a poet. The tiny girls slowed, by their presence, the chaos at the intersection half-way up the hill, as the young men who run the bakery there puffed their Saturday cigarettes and brought out bags of bread—four shekels each. Less than twelve hours earlier, the same intersection was ablaze –literally—with an ominous pile of trash, branches, and tires. Teenagers ran into dark alleys to grab more junk, greedily, laughing and saying “nahr! b’shoof, nahr!” Fire! Look, fire! I mumbled my disinterested recognition and hurried back down the same hill, now strewn with litter.

It is no small thing that these ‘demonstrations’ are happening. The water went off, undoubtedly because Bethlehem exceeded the unrealistic quota set by Israel, while fountains spewed the contents of the West Bank aquifer onto the lawns of illegal settlements. The municipality, the Palestinian Authority, and the water company (with its now smashed front windows) are targets of proximity. Yet,  truly microscopic details bother me, like when I was talking to a group visiting Wi’am from California and I made a comment about how it’s better to get visas at the border, bypassing Israeli bureaucracy and using an apathetic foot-soldier. Dawwid pulled me aside and warned me one of the people at the table said he studied in Jerusalem. The guy left shortly after that. No one we asked seemed to know who he was and a terrible feeling struck me. I felt stupid. At the same time, I wish someone had known him so I could say to them, “ask your friend why he left before Zoughbi told his story – ask him if he was afraid to even listen, like so many Israelis I hear about…”

Yesterday I had plenty of dishes to wash, first thing in the morning. Big dish-piles are my historical place to brew–to ferment; my ‘call to ministry’ precipitated out of soapy water one December night. Yesterday’s group left a prodigious gob of dishes in our tiny office kitchen. A friend of Wi’am from Belgium, Ruben, arrived just then and me with the dishes since Zoughbi was too tired from his morning commitments to socialize. Gradually, we built enough trust to swap secrets…
“I told them I would stay in Jerusalem…”
“Me?” chimed-in a Palestinian American, “I’m ‘in’ Yafa…”
We have a partner in Haifa; it is the same. You know,” I said with a faded playfulness, “soldiers have tried to warn me about how dangerous Bethlehem is.”
“Really?”
“Yes; I feel safer here than I do in Jerusalem.”
“Yes yes, me too” Ruben said, drying a dish vigorously, “so it is still safe to be out at night?”
“Very much,” I said confidently, but then appended, “…except for the burning demonstrations. It is better to walk around those.”

I am fond of Dawwid the Swede. Among his redeeming characteristics is the fact that he studied briefly in Syria, so his Arabic is good and he will not be easily shaken. I think we both are people more bold in our presence than our speech: it’s a quiet invincibility. A few times we have gone, calmly, to the fig tree behind the office and spoke sparsely about important things. If you have ever spoken lightly of heavy things, painted serious pictures with gentle brush-strokes, you know what I mean. He told me his hotmail had been hacked shortly after he started a picture blog about the Annexation Wall. I furrowed my brow and found a fig to offer him. We chatted about the possibilities; Zoughbi said to us, on the car-ride to Cremisan, it was undoubtedly Israeli intelligence. I don’t dare disagree; never, after we have fielded suspicious ‘Germans’ together – ‘Germans’ that seem to speak excellent English until a word like “Justice” or “Restitution“ enters conversation and they want Zoughbi to define it ~ to say something contentious? Usama, perceptively, directed one of them to an ‘actually-German’ partner of ours.
“You know,” said Zoughbi, “we like to be welcoming but also to be careful…”

I was walking across my grandparents’ front yard with my colleague – they both died before I met her. She pointed-up to the sky. There was a tornado coming directly at us, though there seemed to be no wind, rain, or even chill in the air. We ran to a low-spot near the lake and I threw myself over her and held her tight. I want to ruminate on that for a moment: she wanted to be held while the storm passed. I welcome your silent speculation regarding how I might feel about her because, as of right now, I am sensing some ambiguity*. When we looked up to the sky again, we saw the dark funnel curl like a pig’s tail and rise into outer space. Then she kissed me and started to reach for a button on her shirt. I said “wait a minute!” She asked me to quit drinking; I have not drank alcohol since my tattoo. Then the Palestinian American laughed from behind a nearby fence, offering us some chips. I realized I was dreaming and I needed to go to the post-office. A cell-phone alarm sounded.

I went to Jerusalem. The Jaffa-gate post-office is disconcerting to me because the workers speak Arabic but they are rushed and do not exchange pleasantries. I always feel like I am doing something wrong. My mother had sent me a massive package that contained, God bless her heart, a pair of shoes that I left behind intentionally. I walked from one jebel to the other, to the Scottish Presbyterian church to hear a friend preach on James 2 and Mark 7. Afterwards, I climbed on the bus with my package and the driver sped-away from the curb as soon as I boarded. A gentleman in the front held my package steady while I paid. By the time we arrived at the check-point, he rose quickly and left the bus before I could tell him “God be with you”. I carried the package all the way across Bethlehem under my arm. Along with the shoes, Mom sent a water-filter, a new watch, new socks that I desperately needed, other things, and old mail. Amongst the mail were the real treasures: pictures of my sister, my mother, and the farm but also an Easter card from a friend in the Ukraine. I mounted them on my refrigerator door with electric tape and now I cannot help smiling.

At Cremisan I transformed myself into a flag-pole. Not every demonstration is a march or protest. The young photographer, Nicola, smiled at me from across the crowd and snapped a shot. We’re facebook friends. Every Friday the priests hold a demonstration called “mass” where a group of Jesus followers will gather in the olive grove that is slated for violation by the apartheid regime and take communion. No burning tires or projectile stones ~ it must be so much more frightening, for Israel, to see EAPPI, CPT, MCC, and even little-old-me standing behind their so-called terrorists: a collection of Palestinian Catholics with their eyes closed and their palms turned up to heaven. Most people on the other side of the wall never see this beautiful demonstration. I wondered if I deserved to hold the Palestinian flag but then I realized I had some right to feel proud because it represents many things I believe in. I resisted writing an essay in my head about flags, knowing we are so close to “Patriot Day”: a piece of dystopian propaganda that belongs to my passport country—the United States. The Empire lends legitimacy to the rebels** but who says we want either of them running our world? I love the people eating the bread and wine.

I sat on the sofa yesterday night with an uncanny sense of emotional constriction, even asphyxiation. Smashed between my restlessness and a really eerie sense of inertia, I was paralyzed. I wanted to write but at the same time I wanted to do nothing. So many times, while I lived in Grand Rapids, I felt this depression, this pain I mislabeled intentionally, but I believed it was my responsibility to conquer it, lest I repel employers, potential mates, or even friends. I pickled myself in self-blame. My friend from college speculated via Skype that I could be beginning a battle with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, since stress can be absorbed vicariously. Living with a community conflict mediator, I wonder if there is some metaphysical diffusion of strife happening. I confess that I would rather admit to PTSD than just being lonely and broken-hearted. Would I rather be aborted by something real than just failing of my own volition, as I felt I did during my months of unemployment? Why?!? Of course, I think what my friend wants me to see is that it is not ‘all my fault’ and that is why she continues to be my friend. All of the spare-time and coffee in the world may not have ever been enough anyway: I had to be shaken to be stirred. Mercifully, I have a less stigmatized reason to turn and face the darkness. From here, my thoughts are diverging and I think my train of thought will skip away: to home, to my boss, to his family living in Northern Indiana, to mine in Southern Michigan, and the fact that at some point in time we were only a few counties away from each other on the other side of the world.

I was hanging my laundry, wringing each wet piece of clothing onto the rose-garden three stories below, and I drifted into a day-dream. My thoughts go many places, often in no particular order. This time, I wondered what it would be like to speak at a church, or bowl with friends… or go on a date. She might be a mistake just as easily as a nice person. It reminds me of the day that Zoughbi looked me in the eye and said “you will find someone; you are too good not to find someone. Let me tell you,” then he paused, “nothing replaces having a wife and family.” I nodded but my gut reaction was to think ‘you are wishing for me what you want for yourself – for your kids to have opportunities and your wife to have a visa so you can all live together, in the West Bank, for the rest of your lives.’ He is, among many things, my best example of the golden rule. Yet, I could  hardly stop myself from wondering what it would be like to make a lady smile again –the difference is that this time I must learn to smile alone, first.

 

* I welcome your vocal speculations about how I feel about myself; that is what dreams really tell us.

** Yes, I just said that the US worked to legitimate Al-Qaeda. They funded them versus the Soviets, then posed as their scapegoat in the middle-East. The Empire has strange bed-fellows in interesting positions. Picture that a moment.

Between Tea & Coffee

Beverages matter. My co-workers once called me down to the foyer and offered me tea brewed with maleesa (an herb). I added sugar from a small metal bowl, using a little spoon, to my tiny glass cup with no handle. Just then, Saliba came from his office. I immediately rose and went to the kitchen, bringing another glass and setting it on the tray.

“He doesn’t take tea– but you are getting better…”

Two microscopic ripples of emotion collided in that moment. I saw the shift in my orientation, my ability to not only notice there was not a glass for Saliba but be actively caring whether or not there would be enough glasses for everyone. At the same time, I felt sad that I had sat with Saliba so many times and not noticed that he usually is just sitting with us: being present.

I do not know how to tell these people I love them in a genuine way. In fact, I feel as if the normal activities of life are supposed to be love, so that it does not have to be explicitly mentioned. When we orient to ourselves, we want our acts of love recognized as special. When we orient to others, we want our acts of love to make them feel welcome and accepted. Since I have returned, I notice how often Adnan is ready with the coffee-pot, filling our فناجين as we enter. Today I sat by the coffee-pot and did the same, for everyone but especially Adnan. Shortly after, he asked for the pot so he could pour himself a second cup. Then, he put the pot by his feet. That is what I should expect from a Sulha man (a mediator) and his negotiating tools: I suspect he usually keeps the coffee under his thumb. My imagination engulfed me and I tried to picture all the فناجين of coffee Adnan has drunk, plastered in a pattern on the giant concrete wall by our office. I cam confident that if there were an individual فنجان for each dose

Tray of Arabic coffee

Small but mighty

of Arabic coffee, we could really do something like that. Now I am picturing all Zoughbi’s cups, plus the cups from all of Bethlehem and the surrounding villages, materializing and clinging like hungry suction-cups to the annexation wall. Then, by magic, the wall disintegrates and fills all those little coffee-cups. They fall in waves and cascade down our adjacent driveway, or into the playground, or the ditches around the distant Qalandia check-point near Ramallah. Cups falling in Al-Waleje, in Al-Masra, and rolling down the divided streets of East Jerusalem.

When all the cups have finished their work, we can see Rachel’s Tomb and all of the Israeli officers running into the street with their guns drawn, panicked, because they know what Arabic coffee is but they don’t begin to understand what it represents, nor what it could do for them if they did.

Playing John Cena: Taybeh & Ramallah

My first encounter with the Cenation phenomena was at the Steil Boys & Girls Club in Grand Rapids, Michigan. At that time I was their half-competent volunteer coordinator, loitering in the games-room.  One of the other staff introduced me as “Mr. John” and some junior high geniuses quipped “John Cena?” An nine-year-old’s war cry rang out as he rose from the bean-bags and knocked my knees from under me. Not wanting to spoil my blessed ignorance of professional wrestling, I never researched John Cena.

Wrestling is popular across Arab nations, including Jordan and Egypt. I could not trip over my shoelaces in Amman without either meeting an Egyptian waiter or seeing a John Cena T-shirt. Perhaps the handsome wait-staff are key vectors of this acquired taste. Some of them are not much older than Wi’am Center kids. I emerged from exile just in time for Wi’am’s yearly summer camp. Drafted as a photographer, I had the privilege of making funny faces at the small children while they did their crafts and, thanks to ocular technology, taking sniper snap-shots of self-conscious teenagers. The middle-school boys learned my name was John and henceforth greeted me with seismic slaps on the back and exuberant exultations of “John Cena! John Cena, حبيبي*!” If I had a pro-wrestler’s body it would all be cool but three ‘shabaab’ at a time was too much. The staff finally intervened when boys started grabbing me by my shirt and yelling “you can’t see me!” in my ear.

The camera’s memory went bad the day before the field-trip to Taybeh and Ramallah. Zoughbi knew I was digesting a funk so he coaxed me into simply going anyway. Taybe is famous for being all-Christian and home to Palestine’s most excellent brewery. I boarded the bus to crows of “John Cena!” and “صورنا!, bicture!” Bristling a little, I wormed into a seat in the middle of the bus near one of the chaperones and her young son. The little boy peered several times from behind his mother and whispered in her ear. She looked at me and smiled, then winked and said, “He thinks you are really John Cena. He says ‘he has changed a lot!’” I hesitated five seconds to let her clarify for him that I was another John but she just patted him on the shoulder and smiled at me again. I felt like an unbearded mall Santa Clause doing his first Christmas.

Camp is for the camper. I can deepen my misery or transcend self-centeredness and let the kids give me some of their energy. The juxtapositions I saw working with these kids were more than enough reason to disregard my ineptitudes and just stay present with them for a day. It is a special treat. For example, the image of a sugar-charged mob, dressed in all kinds of graphic t-shirts, swarming heedlessly into Taybeh’s historic Roman Catholic Church for an art lecture from a sweating nun (the portrait of St. Khader slaying the dragon came to life through several grotesque-sounding reenactments– thanks boys). The kids seemed even more out of place at the Taybeh home for the elderly, where I saw nothing resembling a program to hold their attention. They are so funny. I did not dream we would visit the brewery but, indeed, there we were: guiding them between vats and trying to keep them hushed during the beer-making video which was, interestingly, in English. The good folks at Taybeh Brewery sold the kids some of their nonalcoholic brew. One of the mothers was putting driblets on her finger and feeding it to her infant; he relished it, testifying the excellent character of Taybeh beer.

The crusader chapel on the hill was the highlight of the morning. We scrambled up the ancient stone steps to look upon…
…a huge blood-spot. Someone had hung a carcass from the hook in the disembuildinged doorway and slaughtered it right there, I concluded; alternatively, there was a blood sacrifice in an all-Christian village. Kids filtered into every nook of the ruins, scaling the remains of walls. Feeling spry and game, I jumped to a perch of my own in the sun. For a minute I gazed over the valley below I pondered being faux-John Cena and tried to come fully to grips with the fact that, whether by lies or faith, I was in the West Bank again. Being alone so much had made such reveries second-nature, which is why it was for the best that a familiar word jarred my attention Earthward:

“Motherfucker!”

The boy clasped his hands to his mouth, shocked, when he realized I spoke English. He knew what he had done. I met his eyes and said “”شو حكيَت, حبيبي؟ (what did you say, my lovey?)
He shook his head. I laughed and told him, basically, not to worry. I stopped worrying, too.**

The summer camp field trips have several goals. Exposing the kids to their heritage and building a sense of collective responsibility is certainly a priority. Yet under no circumstances should the value of cutting-loose and having fun be under-estimated. That kid’s day should not be ruined because he said ‘fuck’ once, considering the glance I threw at him was enough edification. The Wi’am camp stresses fun, which is as it should be for youth who live in a tense political situation. We want to give them a piece of their childhood before it is all blown-away. There was no question: I needed to swallow my pride and get onboard with the John Cena gimic.

The final stop in the day was the amusement park in Ramallah. The staff held that over their heads to keep them to a low boil until the afternoon, when they could explode all over that park. The rides were mostly carnival cast-offs (except for the 4-D theater, which was amazin

Me, looking crazy happy!

Sometimes, it takes a voluntary attitude adjustment!

g!) but these kids were undeterred. I’ll keep details to a minimum; what matters is that I learned John Cena’s hook-line. He does some thing where he waves four fingers in front of his face and says “you can’t see me!” That explained the ringing in my ears; it was only a matter of putting it to good use when my ‘friendly backslappers’ boarded the roller-coaster. Just as they came around the first bend I popped-out from behind a concession stand, waving my four-fingers in front of my face and yelling “YOU CAN’T SEE ME!”

*boys & girls alike waved  back in kind* “JOHN CENA! YOU CAN’T SEE ME!  YOU CAN’T SEE ME!”

*An Arabic term of endearment meaning “my lovey”, often used between same-sex friends.

** On a previous day, I heard two young ladies chatting openly with each other in English. I forget what one of them said but I looked in their direction and wrinkled my nose. The other girl’s eyes went wide as she said, “Oh my God, that guy speaks English…”. Apparently, they were using English as their private language to critique the camp in front of less fluent staff-members. I hated to rain on their parade…

What am I doing, again?

Double exposed picture

Remember the good old days when we could still accidentally double-expose a picture?

“What am I doing here?”: A question often framed in the most existential terms, as asking about the origin and purpose of one’s life.

In my case, I posed it to myself when I laid down to sleep on a cane bench in rural Mindanao, Philippines. Why is the Mission Intern in Palestine eating fish breakfasts and touring barangays? Why does coconut wine taste like vinegar? Do the backward curving horns on the karibaw make it easier to ride? Is there Mexican food on this island?

“What am I doing here?!” I asked my colleague the following weekend. He lit a cigarette as we climbed on the back of a motorcycle and rode to a remote series of waterfalls, sharing private thoughts with one another. I could not have imagined that, in 2010, anymore than drinking tea beside a guard tower – every work day for six months.

Almost two years ago I took a spiritual gifts assessment. I wanted to answer the question “what am I doing here?”  A minister-friend concluded that I was not going into ordained ministry, that my gifts were too creative, not pastoral or administrative. I knew that but there was no thunderclap of clarity. There is no how-to-heuristic for creative people who want to do ministry.  Instead, I did the Christian-Pacifist equivalent of joining the marines: short-term mission work.

I took another step forward during the second week of workshops. The course was titled “Arts Approaches to Community Conflict”. Our facilitators were an art professor from Japan, Kyoko, and an animated Kenyan named Babu—a good story-teller. My classmates hailed from East Timor to Afghanistan, all points in Asia between, plus a Swissman, a Canadian, and three George Mason University students (other ‘Americans’—spooky).

The very first day we were sent back to kindergarten. We made three-dimensional maps of pretend communities which our facilitators decided to wreck so we could address catastrophes in our community settings — made of paper, clay, and bits of stuff we found outside. The antics did not stop for the entire week: singing, dancing, role-playing. Speaking of playing, we seemed to be doing a lot of playing around. The faux-professional element in me became restless—I needed some scholarship to send to the New York office so they would pat themselves on the back for funding my training. Luckily, I was too tired from the previous week to fake seriousness. It was time to have fun rather than take pages of notes that I would never look at ever again. I threw all of my heart and energy into each ‘game’

It was through play that we became comfortable enough to really share our thoughts. Each activity built upon the foundations of the one before it and each had a purpose without needing all the hollow signs of being ‘serious’. Being ‘serious’ is an anemic excuse to be emotionally detached from the work of community building. If I had not been at play with my classmates, I could not have shared with them my feelings about spending Palm Sunday with my boss in Jerusalem and the significance, both, of his being allowed into the city for just a few weeks and of my being exiled from the country for much longer. I was ready to share because we had been like children together while respecting each other as adults

Bearing all that in mind, I still needed to make an artistic class presentation. My trumpet was useless, safely stowed with a colleague in Hong Kong. I had arrived in Davao with only some clothes and my propensity to make every dilemma into a story. That self-fulfilling prophesy is manifest in these very words but I digress. Determined not to simply stand-up and start telling stories I decided I needed a musical element to make my presentation, yonniΘ, “legit”. Fred taught me how to make ‘lemme sticks’ when I worked for him at Camp Kinawind and I decided that make-shift percussion would be my salvation. I used a lunch-break to wander into the jungle looking for suitable materials. Things rot faster there. I briefly considered a coconut and a shard of broken tile. I had almost given-up when, as if by destiny (epic?), I found a flawless stick. Next to it was a long, unfamiliar roll of organic matter. Palm leaves, apparently, curl like scrolls when they dry out. It reminded me of something I would find in Michigan: birch bark.

My existential crisis dawned once I had my materials. What was I doing, really? That night I sat down with a pad of paper and began to sketch a story about building a fire with birch bark. The setting was an over-night excursion with teenage kids. The premise was that it had rained and the boys had to make breakfast for the girls after losing a s’more eating contest. I promised myself that I would have everything plotted before I went to bed that night; this was going to be my turning-point, I decided. It was time to get ‘serious’. Concurrent with becoming ‘serious’,  I developed unbreakable writer’s block. The cycle never fails: apprehension, seriousness, inertia, despair, vice –

–The vice for the night was beer. It was an excellent choice of vice because I enjoyed it in the best of company, by the hotel pool, and in moderation. “With my propensity to turn every dilemma into a story, I can partially redeem this…”

The next stage in the cycle of hopelessness is supposed to be shame as a precursor to apathy and quitting. Instead, I chose to be weird. The next morning I took my palm-leaf scroll and my mysteriously-perfect walking-stick out to the gardens and began pacing around, telling the story in my head and using the props for sound effects. I even shook a candy tin filled with broken pencils to simulate a box of matches. In less than an hour of pacing and creeping people out I was satisfied with my story and decided that life was too short to miss breakfast. I volunteered to make my presentation first.

“Everything was there,” said Babu. The whole class seemed satisfied. It puzzled me for a few minutes because I knew I had not hammered on that presentation more than three hours total. Then I remembered my spiritual gifts assessment and understood: I might not be The Superlative Artist of All of Society but, yonniΘ, I am an artist. I may be under-practiced and screw-up; I may strive for other goals most days; yet, I still have these gifts. I know that too often I have believed I have to be excellent to have a purpose when my willingness is what matters most.

One of the American students made an interesting comment about English professors. He said they tended to think and write from inside their heads and not from “out there” in reality. I stifled my misgivings: I’ve known some better English professors than his. Instead I said, “I know what you mean – I never wanted to be that guy.” So, to answer the question “what am I doing in an Amman hotel running a high fever?” I can reply with confidence that I am “writing from out there”.

Θ: “Yonni” is an Arabic equivocator. It means “kinda-sorta” but functions, shwaya, differently grammatically.