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 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.

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.

Fragmentation: Recoil-Effects…

It was as ineviMaria's outlinetable as it was unfair. My co-worker lifted me from my bed-bug infested sheets in the valleys of Amman to an air-mattress between the polished sky-scrapers of Hong Kong. She took me swimming and I toured the city, from a beautiful temple to the zoological gardens. There were fine meals and trips to the movies. After a week, I snapped. The second Monday, word never came from Haifa about my visa and I lost control. “I should already [FUDGING] KNOW,” I erupted. It visibly stunned her, though it is not hard to guess what she expected: a vacation would release the tension inside me.

It did.

Her organization hosted an event for migrants that weekend, so we went to the Indonesian market to get their favorite coffee. When it wasn’t where she thought it would be, she was verbally distressed. I lost patience.

“Why are you worried about coffee? Free yourself: you’re working a placement ripe with opportunities to be successful – and they love you! To hell with the damn coffee!” I prayed we would not find it but God edified me, poetically, by ensuring that I found the coffee myself…

 * * *

 * * *

Janet’s friend in Haifa spoke fluent Hebrew. The Israelis at the ministry of interior admitted there were clerical errors and faxed us paperwork to keep me ‘legal’ until my official appointment. I settled into the passenger seat of her cheap but clean Renault and breathed a first sigh of relief on the highway back to Bethlehem.

“How was Hong Kong?”

“Too good for me, apparently – outdoor escalators, air-conditioned subways…”

“Too good for you?”

“I relaxed for about a week and then… the same as Ireland, there was a weird stage.”

“I tried explaining this to the mission psychologist,” said Janet, understanding perfectly. “She said ‘oh, just go to the Galilee and relax’. That makes it worse because all the pressure that builds up working here just, I guess, comes out!”

“Yeah and its impossible to explain to people – especially in the States. It’s like deep-sea diving and climbing on an airplane the next day…”

“Exactly: we’re always pushing against the stress of living here. When there is nothing pushing back on you—“

“I know.”

That night, I sat down in the recliner and fell asleep in front of several people. Instantly…

* * *

I would not let myself write, I said, until I finished the reimbursement form for my visa exit. I was right but not the way I wanted to be. If my writers’ block is numbing, my mathematician’s block was paralyzing. As I laid out the financial burden of my trip, piece by piece, I felt all impetus leaching from my body into the atmosphere. It was a short time before I was obsessively checking twitter, or beseeching friends for attention on facebook, or reading about the Higgs-Boson. The hole began to deepen…

* * *

I laid down on the dusty, legless couch in the lower cave and balanced the trumpet on my chest like a brass teddy-bear . I slipped into a stupor: three months passed, without a note. If only the mouthpiece hadn’t been stuck, I could have buzzed to keep in shape at the hotel. Instead I waited, and every attempt fell flat for a week until, finally, I just prostrated myself…

* * *

I decreed we would get kayik and falafel, just like we did almost weekly before my eighty days of exile. Kayik is rings of fine bread covered in sesame seeds and baked to a perfect brown. I stayed patient while we bought the falafel, not daring to touch the kayik. It needed to stay special. Driving back to Wi’am Center, we saw a man wave to Zoughbi.

“I do not want to talk to him right now,” said my boss, to my mild surprise.  Coming from Zoughbi, that was an omen. The man arrived at the office five minutes later, just as Adnan brought the coffee. He monopolized Zoughbi’s attention, speaking in disruptively loud Arabic and eating freely from the kayik and falafel I had purchased as a gesture to my co-workers. Hospitality dictated that I pour his coffee for him, too…

* * *

The Fourth of July is an excellent day to remember. Gettysburg. I remember the fine rhetoric that oligarchs and imperialists clothe their interests in so that young men die valiantly killing each other. One-hundred fifty years later, a UNITED States protects and endorses an apartheid state masquerading as a ‘Holy’ people: manifest destiny. Nationalism makes me nauseas…

* * *

The chickens start to call just as my cell-phone alarm sounds. I mumble excuses while I reprogram it and settle back into bed, for the tenth time. My morning meditation practice evaporated and my general thought discipline has eroded. Walking back from work, I caught myself dwelling on old family matters – all the times I tried to change my father. Insanity is doing the same things over and over but expecting different results…

* * *

The guy at the spice store asked me if I was tired. I smiled and thanked him for noticing. I took my nutella and baking-soda home and looked at my face in the mirror for a long time…

* * *

The volunteer from Texas lit a cigarette and started playing psychologist-mother with me. In compassionate tones, she let me know I could approach her about anything I needed to talk about whenever I liked. Sweet lady that she is, she admitted she has cried at the end of every day here in occupied Palestine.

“People who cannot cry have reached an even deeper level of depression, you know.”

Since then, I have been more careful when I converse with her. On her first visa, I cannot expect her to understand, let alone be able to offer anything…

* * *

Tim invited me to my his patio for some arak. Passing through my his apartment, it felt like the same place, even with all my things gone and his there instead. I was still trying to get a bead on who Tim was and what brought him to Bethlehem. First I learned he was Unitarian. Second, I realized that I had no idea what that meant. Third, it dawned on me that I didn’t want to hear him explain, anyway. I tried not to think about the fact I was also fleshing-out the details of my sect by behavior, drinking alcohol in small sips and blowing-off the term ‘anti-Semitic’  just like most people dismiss witch-hunts and the notion of “savages”.

“It’s just the ugly rhetoric they hang on people they don’t like—it doesn’t mean anything anymore.” My tongue started to loosen a little and I mentioned the volunteer from Texas.

“…she’s alright but I’m not ready to talk about that, man, especially with someone on their first visa. She basically said that I had slipped into a deeper level of depression. Well, I can’t [fudging] cry every day and expect to do my job. I know Zoughbi says not to have a hierarchy of pain but I can’t go around weeping as if it were my personal tragedy. I guess my insides are fragmented — the tears are locked in a part I can’t seem to get to, right now.”

Of course the air was pregnant with irony: the last time I wept uncontrollably it was on that same patio, the rooftop balcony where I can see the hill by al-Waleje. The annexation wall ties a tourniquet across the main highway, absorbs acres of olive trees, skirts Beit Jala, and then CLEAVES THE HILL BY AL-WALEJE IN TWO. Why? I thought the land was significant because it was Holy but apparently its only important if they can possess it…

“…then I remembered when Jesus rode the colt into Jerusalem, and the way he wept for them. I mean, the people and their self-fulfilling prophesy. I realized Christ really loved all those people, like the ones who started chanting for Barabas to be released, at the merest suggestion… I balled my [fudging] eyes out…”

“Yeah, man…” he said, tinged mellow by the arak. I mellowed a little too.

“I had a hard time connecting with my co-worker in Hong Kong; she is doing such an excellent job, there. The thing is, Hong Kong is a little more conducive to the work, you know?”

“Yeah but, you know, I think suffering is relative man.”

“You’re right: that’s the main thing I learned in Hong Kong. We play to the level of what we’re up against. The pressure is higher here. I guess the deep-sea fish shouldn’t judge the fish on the reef.” He nodded and we finished our drinks…

* * *

I set the vice-grips on the rim of the mouthpiece. I had already tried icing it to make the metal shrink and wrapping it in towels of all different textures to get a better grip. I knew using tools was a terrible idea but I wanted, so badly, to get it loose so I could at least clean it. Instead, the brackets on my lead-pipe gave way and it came loose with the mouth-piece still attached. The trumpet is unplayable but its fragments surrendered a last lesson: sometimes we are falling apart not because we were made too loose but because we have been stuck for too long.