Finding Balls on my Walk (another fragment)

Credit: Angela Johnson, wizzley.com

Photo-Credit: Angela Johnson, wizzley.com

I needed to go walking. How I knew I needed to walk can be the subject of a longer reflection, some other time. I varied my pace as I meandered through my Northeast D.C. neighborhood casting glances into obscure alleys or across the surface of familiar houses in order to hook something new with my eyes. I plugged my ears with the sounds of a band I liked before I left Michigan; I plugged into the lyrics of a song by Fireflight:

[Verse] “I want to know you/
There’s so much at stake/
Can’t face the memories/
They bend me till I break/
Hiding from the past/
But it’s eating me alive/
Can’t block it out/
When it’s coming from inside”

“Precious denial, a stone to break my back/
The chains I carry won’t cut me any slack/
Imprisoned by fear with no room for my heart/
My only hope, only you can heal the scars…”

“Every turn leads me to a new dead-end/

lost again, I’m screaming your name/

[Chorus]

Come close come close and call my name/

How can you turn your back on me when you know my pain?/

Stay close, stay close; light up the night/

Save me from the part of me that’s begging to die”

‘John Daniel’ used to mean something but I prefer to be called ‘JD’ most of the time. I closed my eyes for a few seconds and started to turn my palms upward. Quickly, I opened one eye and started to look around: was someone watching? Instead, I kicked a chunk of concrete up the street, up the route I had almost traveled, and took a sharp left toward home, toward the prospect of continuing a project for graduate school. The way downhill to the bridge that spans the train-tracks was punctuated with patches of asphalt, as out of place as tuxedo jackets laid over potholes, and buckled sidewalks like broken saltine crackers. A little rivulet ran along one edge. I weighed staying in D.C. versus looking for adventure abroad. Then, I thought of a friend who said she was moving to Iowa (with a boyfriend) and what a dismal idea that is if she wants to work in our field (International Education). There are solid reasons I might voice my dissent to her but sometimes I varnish better motives with my own vocational tensions — and I know it. These are both the sheen and the stain on my opinions. I stay silent, supportive.

I noticed the rivulet again: its speed, the way it carried debris, the volume of water moving down this little side-street to a storm grate by Vista street. For a second I imagined a capsized pot, the size of a car, spilling an endless supply of water onto the street from its absurd depths. I wondered from where the stream flowed, whether from a broken water-main or an unseen mountain of snow. Only a week ago I meandered through a groove in the snow piled on both sides of every road. A week ago I inhabited, I wandered, I explored a different scene in the same place.

Kirby's Dreamland Villain (cute, stationary)The water disappeared into the curb inlet and I went left, again, along Vista. On Vista my hooking eyes caught dozens of visions. Dropped from some unknown tree were a multitude of… spikey-balls? A fruit or nut of an unknown species, they looked all at once like giant cockle-burs or wilted, alien flowers. They reminded me of cartoon maces or generic, stationary foes from NES video games: “Kirby’s Dreamland” and its ilk.

Mines at sea.Before I could unhook them, they all turned into choices. I could step on them intentionally, with glee or curiosity or even sadness or, rather, I could fix my gaze on the distance and allow myself to trample them like wine-grapes. I could have embraced them, could have allowed them to happen, but I avoided them. Which choice of hundreds could be best? What if they really belonged to someone else and I ruined them? What if they made a mess on my shoes? These multitude futures, I decided, need to be left as they are until I could be certain. I want to come back with a machine, like the ones at the Bethlehem co-op, and pour all of them down its diesel-scented gullet and turn them into oil: dream-oil. Like olives, that cannot be eaten unless they have cured or are processed, I left them all alone. I did not pick one up, because I could not be sure that one of them was not my dream, or a dream I might regret, or…

Each spine became a button, a trigger-ball floating in the stream of my life. No, I did not touch all of those choices and their multitude of futures. They could be mines! Am I ready to explode? Am I fully qualified as the bomb? Have I practiced blowing-up enough? Can I find the time for combustion? What if my explosion isn’t as good as someone else’s… no…

A block further and many sidewalk-cracks later, I stepped in some dog-shit that I had not expected. That was probably gushing with symbolism, too, but I wish it had not gushed into the sole of my shoe. The copious, cleansing snow-piles that covered the sidewalks just a week ago succumbed to time. So I walked back to the minefield on my way to the stream. I wanted to stomp on one of those choices and see what future was inside but it was too late. Going backward, they had all turned into memories. They were all the past, now. Now, my dreams were flowing through the past. I stood on one leg, almost ready to reminisce — but how could I be sure that… how could I be… could I… how?

As I washed the dog-shit off my shoes, I wondered what what secrets bathed and clung to my shoes, what came next, and why this walk made me feel like writing…

A Hot Idea in the Cold Air

cropped-mi_bethlehem_coffee1.jpgA person becomes an idea as soon as they disappear into the ground; I mean down the escalator of the DC Metro, in this case. If I could get out of my own head long enough, I might be able to see myself as an idea too — getting smaller and smaller as I stroll into the darkness of a cold January night on Capitol Hill, letting go of a moment in faith there will be at least one more like it. Let go. The boiling-point of a hug is low. The gesture sublimated into the air and joined the fog pouring from me. I imagined I was one of those suspiciously conical ‘hills’ in Belize, seeping ghosts from a doorway long-overgrown with vines — temple? Gradually, I am absorbing that something happened Saturday — exactly one year after I visited the site of Christ’s baptism.

The cold wind tried to drink me with every pass, sipping the flush from my still-blushing cheeks. Something caught my attention on the sidewalk by the Library of Congress… I should have been less surprised when I saw it: a finjaan, turned lip-down on the sidewalk. The walls between my realities are Capitol Citythinning, as I grow accustomed to allowing myself to pass through them. I was not noticeably shocked. Another pedestrian waddled past without acknowledging my perplexed pause. Those tiny cups are everywhere, in Palestine and Jordan, because the rituals in which they play a part are ubiquitous. There was at least one dirty finjaan (or perhaps “finjaantyn”, 2) on my desk at Wi’am at any given time, a halo of Arabic coffee grounds nestled in the bottom. They were common in Bethlehem, usually bore the same designs in either red or green, and it was normal to see the shards of muddled conversations, perhaps even fumbled mediations, lying on the ground in the form of broken finjaneen (multiple, tiny coffee cups). Yet I had not seen one since Jericho, a year ago on the exact same date: the Orthodox Epiphany. I was a little surprised.

Of course I wanted to touch it! Immediately, I picked it up in my bare hands and flipped it, looking for the tell-tale rings and streaks. It was clean. I was baffled. In fact, I was a little bit sad to see that the finjaan was laying empty on the ground forgotten — as if it had never been used. Bonds forged over coffee can change lives. Insha’allah. I started to walk away with the cold, tiny cup clutched in my left-hand. My veins felt strangely warmed, which I wrote-off as having more to do with where I had just been than where I was going. Then again, where I had just been was exactly where I wanted to be going: to coffee. With someone. The finjaan heated quickly, and soon felt almost as if it had just been filled. Glancing down, I startled. It’s creamy bottom seemed etched with the remains of coffee. Tower

Then I was in Bethlehem again, on the patio at the Wi’am Center staring at the West Bank Separation Barrier. There was no one there with me but I realized, by the scorch marks still on the guard turret, that three of them were with me — with me in Jericho, drinking that last finjaan a year ago! The power of coffee opened a link to the last day of work I never had, the day we went down to the Jordan River instead of into the office. The wind was also blowing in the West Bank, yet slightly faster, wetter, but (mercifully) less cold: filling me with the scent of growing sage and mint. The coffee tray sat on the picnic table beside the herb garden, epitome of hospitality. The pot at its center was hot to the touch. I ran to the door of the center but it was locked. From whence came that hot java, I’ll never know.

CRACK. A stone hit the scuffed pane of the turret. When the stones hit the turret, we used to evacuate before the soldiers retaliated. My colleagues were not eager to be tear-gassed. The protests, as much as the detentions, inhered my PTSD; it was never a severe case …but mild infections sometimes go unnamed longer. In Bethlehem, I absorbed every impact without so much as a chip but the reverberations were inescapable — they haunted me upon return, made me angry and sullen last spring, demanded I undergo therapy. I learned to stop turning the strain inward, in good time.

They battered it down to the wire...

They battered it down to the wire…

That awful November it was Israel that bombed Gaza, the US which blocked Palestinian Statehood in the UN security council, and shabaab in the West Bank who made the protests blazing hot, really and figuratively — during all of that, I went to work to write grants and reports. That was my statement. Hollowed, I returned to the snows of Michigan with no more fuel to push myself out of bed each day: a wraith. Mission accomplished: I lasted. I was done. six months passed in D.C. and I decided to return to an old dream — to this dream: to write creatively! To finally do all the ‘bad writing’ that my perfectionism would not allow. In a sense, I evacuated from the new sense of purpose I was given in Bethlehem and all of what I had learned about myself before ‘Operation Pillar of Cloud’. I spent the Autumn reacclimating instead of preparing for the next battle. Now, I’m kicking myself because I wasted time: I’ll never be happy in the shadows, now. The writer I would have been will never exist and I am at peace with that because… …because I evolved. Peace & Justice work became part of me and broke me from my cycles of dysfunction. Saturday, the coffee brought me back to crisis again — in the best way.

Rhinoceros crushes annexation wall

Sometimes I wish I were just a little bit bigger…

Alone, I stepped closer to that wall. The crack of another stone erupted, faintly, from the next turret. I looked again at the tray of finjaaneen. Once, in a moment of creative clarity, I sat next to Adnan drinking coffee on the bench and imagined that all the tiny finjaan in Bethlehem floated to ‘our’ section of the separation barrier and, like a swarm of locusts, pelted the wall by the thousands. Each finjaan bit a chunk of concrete out of the wall until the section was obliterated. I had imagined raising my arms in the air like Moses, cleaving the wall with a plague of quaint coffee cups. Yet I knew, as the frostiness left my breath at last, that the ‘medicine-touch’ rarely works in such a way. I poured myself a cup of rich, cardamom laced Arabic coffee and savored it to the last drop.

A Hebraic voice ripped the air. A teenager met eyes with me from his perch in the tower. Pouring another cup, I raised it in honor of him and said “someday, my cousin, your blindness will pass. What should work, by the name of God, will work but what should not be will eventually be laid to waste: one cup at a time.” Shaking a little, I sauntered to the base of the wall with my full cup of coffee and stood there while the Israeli soldier yelled, sipping my coffee and ignoring the boy quite intentionally. He calmed, after a while, and the sound of stones faded even further into the distance. Taking the empty cup in my right hand, I dug it hard into the graffiti stained concrete. Though it was solid to the touch of my finger, with the finjaan I could scoop a piece of the wall as if it were all made of ice-cream. One chunk fell from my cup and, shocked, I exclaimed: “You really can destroy Apartheid with coffee! Praise Jesus!”

The cup went frigid again: I stared at the awkwardly nude figures in front of the Library, a stone’s throw from the US Capitol Building. I could still feel the coffee in me but it was American coffee. Just a half hour before, I had enjoyed some coffee in the capitol hill area, though not alone. “Praise Jesus,” I said with a contented sigh, “you really can destroy PTSD with coffee — but not just any coffee…”

I have more to say but this particular piece is done. There is a danger in saying too much. Sometimes, something or someone needs to disappear for a period of time to be recovered fully later. Insha’allah: God brings me closer every day. I’ve decided to keep my ideas and let people be whomever they need to be. If I am mindful of myself, perhaps I will be invited to linger… to catch the same sentiments as they condense again…

Torn to Pieces

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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