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.


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!

Photo does not belong to me in any way: this is the internet. God bless America — we need it dearly.

Drugs & anti-Drag

Xavier's Mother

My Mother: cute but worried.

My mother posted a link to “Always Burning: 2” on the Facebook wall of my old baby-sitter. Her comment: “This is what I am going through with [him]; I’ll be glad when he comes home.” They may be unnerved by the passage where my coworkers and I evacuated the office to avoid tear-gas and then smoked a sheesha. Wonderful, temperate women like my mother and Mrs. [baby-sitter] are not wrong to worry.

I too seldom write about my everyday life, since there is no shortage of drama and issues to recount in Palestine. Smoking is not for deviants and rebels in Palestine; they smoke like Americans did in earlier, harder times. People know smoking is bad for them but they have also heard fried food is ‘not good’ and the distinction is often lost. There are so many, quicker ways to die and cigarettes are part of a daily ritual for regular people. It restored me to normal in a time of near-trauma. Readers should note, still, that I have smoked less than a half dozen times in my life, all after my return from Sheikh Hussein bridge.

Nicotine is a dear friend in the moment but a mistake for the future, I know. Like cannabis, it deters and kills insects for a plant that could care

Awesome green sheesha pipe.

Sheesha: decadently delicious, top of CDC’s tobacco no-no list.

less about our buzz. Unlike cannabis, nicotine is legal and does not impair judgment in any way except one: it is fiercely addictive. Yet the tobacco made a ritual available to us in a tense time. It is an aide to normalcy.

Nicotine and alcohol, both, are best omitted from daily life and saved for ceremonial use. A stimulant will temporarily lift a person out of their fatigue but alcohol anesthetizes them as they finally allow themselves to relax, sink. I went with colleagues (Dawid & Drew) to a place they knew where we could have beer. The inhibitions I maintain sloughed and I started to converse more freely, even laughing and singing. Later in the evening, I realized that the alcohol enabled me to be more open and social, which I needed desperately, but I should be able to do that of my own accord. Alcohol cannot be my every day companion because it does impair my judgment. If I try, I can do for myself what alcohol does but much better.

Once a person reaches the point of being burned-out, it is much harder to consciously do for oneself what nicotine does automatically. Living here has given me much more compassion for people living challenging, unfair lives everywhere. Smoking is not an intelligent habit but that does not make smokers idiots – life is hard! Cut smokers some slack. Still, we should all become ex-smokers together because our bodies are not made to be on that artificial roller-coaster. Now that I have seen the CDC file on sheesha, I am convinced there must be a better way.

Advent Solo, anonymous

Me & my kludge Trumpet: awesome, anonymous

Unfortunately, my sinking mood might have other causes. Swallowing difficulties forced me to visit the doctor, who found an infection in my throat and prescribed an anti-biotic. Doses of amoxicillin seem to coincide with moody episodes, for me. The line between sickness, stress and drugs is paper thin right now. These episodes remind me, in a muted way, of the terrible time I had when doctors prescribed an anti-depressant for me in the wake of my 2005 surgery. My emotions ran unnaturally high on Zoloft, owing to unpredictable minutia. My emotional state deteriorated rapidly After 11 PM every night until I quit the drugs and picked up a trumpet: therapy.

I will never understand that nightmare era except to know it precipitated the era I am exiting, this stage characterized by fluctuating  esteem, uncertain purpose, and intentional distraction—behavioral addictions. I feel all that coming to a slow, aching end as Advent begins. I can choose to move forward. I took a big step forward when I ‘attended’ a webinar through Eastern Mennonite University on trauma and peace-building. At a personal level, I finally found a way to see myself both as an aide and affected – the facilitators said their trainings were meant to do that, exactly, to equip people to care for others and themselves.

They spoke of trauma as a wound that is often on our dignity. My trauma was never of safety or loss but damaged integrity, instead. I was singled-out and forced to undress twice at the bridge-crossing, then accused of lying while all my possessions were scattered across examination tables. I had to maintain my story, verbatim, or else be turned away. When the guard looked me in the eye and entreated that I tell her the whole truth, my heart skipped at the chance to be honest but I quelled the impulse and won the battle of wills after almost seven hours. All that day, I was yawning and shivering, sometimes trying to rub a pins and needles feeling out of my hands and legs. I learned this week from the webinar that these are ways the body tries to release trauma energy when overwhelmed. Affect I held inside, intentionally, remains there like a coiled spring.

Between affliction and transformation, there is the traditional sacrament of the morning: coffee. Caffeine is a steadier friend, for mind and body, and coffee is its natural vessel. It would take gargantuan amounts of coffee to hurt us while a tiny cup does what nicotine would do… but more gently! Coffee is more than a stimulant in Arab culture because there are social rituals for drinking it. It gathers our staff in the morning, to talk through issues and keep company with each other. We pour the fine black liquid for each other to show respect and affection, saying “please” and “thank-you”. Coffee, and none other, is the beverage that legally binds a Sulha mediation. I wrote “Between Tea and Coffee” about coffee’s powers of magical realism. Could coffee revive the dead artist in me? Revive the dead in us all?

Coffee is my anti-drag. My memories with coffee began when I was a teenager, working with my grandfather and wanting to be more like him. In college, it was a welcomed lift after walking across a snow-filled campus. Now, the original coffee culture is offering me a rescue from other drugs. There is a time to say no to even coffee but it is a matter of doses and applications: one coca leave in the cheek is good for altitude sickness, they say. Yet coffee remains an aide, not a cure. Even coffee-drinking can become just another excess.

So, here I am, deciding what therapy is right for me this Advent: what should I do?

Tray of Arabic coffee *drool*

Arabic Coffee: smart

Always Burning: 1

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

* * *

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

dreamteam - EAPPI

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

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

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

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

* * *

“Flatten their neighborhoods,” they said,

“as the United States did

twice in Japan, with no pause for mercy.”

They quoted from the book of Exodus

to Gazans without exits.

Whether ‘Pillar of Cloud’

or ‘Pillar of Fire’, Israel invoked

that column of permanent taint

and destruction that spread

over Nagasaki in Hiroshima’s wake.

That pillar of cloud seared

the fabric of our human heritage,

as it toppled institutions, buildings,

ravaging flesh and the very genes within but

especially our vision, our solutions— our

minds. Enthralled with quickening violence,

these politicians tapped the poisonous tree

to scare citizens more than rebels

but they called it a “Pillar of Defense”,

and made the Torah a shield of lead,

when their empire rained

fire upon the trapped people of Gaza.

* * *

They battered it down to the wire…

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

Israeli government applies cosmetic fixes to systemic problems.

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

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

* * *

To be continued…

Thoughts from Home

When I arrived last August, my intention was to be useful and effective. I played a comparison game with a past-version myself during the first visa; I tried to out-compete the slightly younger Boys & Girls Club Intern iteration of my self, as the quarter-century-old version 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 mothers slowly filled us with fattening morsels. A 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 bed 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.

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.”
“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.