Reverse Exiled: Bill the Cowboy & Beyond

The Aukstronaut considers prickly-pear...It is 4 AM. This night is a metaphor. Sometime around 8 pm I felt tired and decided I would take an evening nap and awake at midnight to begin my career as a writer. What I never mention to myself is that this has happened before: I sleep until midnight and then reset the alarm for 2:30, then for 3:30 — eventually for 6:45 (NOCTURNAL WRITER WAITS UNTIL DAYLIGHT?!). It is 4 AM, the night is not yet gone, and I am contemplating a cowboy named ‘Bill’. Bill was the main character of my submission to young authors’ day in 3rd grade and my first protagonist other than myself. Bill leaves the ranch to visit Africa, India, Australia and Southeast Asia. Even if rife with stereotypes plucked from television, “Bill the Cowboy Travels the World” set the stage for my vocational crisis. Bill circumnavigates the planet but decides to return to the work he began — a ranch-hand can do anything he/she wants but the ranch is still home. At the end of his journey, Bill returns to the ranch to share his stories. I drifted from a writing-life, without great success, and now I am returning — for better or worse. If nothing else, I need to finish this (THIS) journal entry (THIS ONE).

I want to wrestle this octopus; I described the feeling as “The Beige Ninja” when I was in college: something lethal (TERMINAL), lurking in our unremarkable surroundings. Not even a ninja can match an octopus for elastic strength and baffling stealth, nor its many arms. Its epoxy tentacles dragged the greater part of me into the abyss when I jammed it into the recesses of my psyche. The apartment on 1336 North Capitol Street was terrifyingly appropriate for my mental state after coming through so many consecutive challenges — newly refurbished, liberally cluttered, and noxiously cramped. It just dawned on me, as the faintest light percolates through the mini-blinds of my new apartment, that this is the largest space I have ever furnished for myself. I escaped alive (FREEDOM!).

As my oldest living dream, the authorial impulse is entangled with more shame, self-thwarting, and peculiar fits of denial than any of my other vocational affairs. I spent the greater part of childhood pacing around our yard imagining things (MOSTLY DINOSAURS), slowly accepting I could not will myself to become a cartoon character. At twelve, I decided I was too heart-broken from a girl to begin my novel about a cyborg pre-teen — he struggles to comprehend falling in love, despite the large processor mounted on his skull. At sixteen, my dog

walked me in endless circles through the woods while I imagined characters like I saw in action cartoons, eating irradiated fruit and struggling with new-found powers (THEM; I ONLY WISHED I HAD POWERS). I dreaded the moment anyone would see me pecking on the family computer and ask me about my ideas. Ridicule would have destroyed me so I simply imagined. At university, I discovered the Internet on my laptop… and blogging via LiveJournal. I wrote long pieces of nonfiction (LIKE THIS ONE), became a university writing consultant, enrolled in creative writing courses, and started my first novel as a senior thesis. I got credit for that project… and there it lies, petrified. I practice a concoction of procrastination and avoidance, with promises to salvage lost progress. My subscription to writers’ digest lapsed before I read a single issue. I threw them away, too; those issues of Writers’ Digest are like e-mails sitting in rarely opened files or the myriad of webpages ‘bookmarked’ because I was “too tired to focus properly on this right now,” — then deleted quietly at a later date: forgotten.

Palestinian 'X'My innate creativity dessicated in post-university life. I never wanted to end my life but I would lunge for a ‘reset’, a ‘do-over’. Understand: the hunger for significance predated even my desire to be an author: I led the class academically and trailed socially. Sometime after “Bill the Cowboy Travels the Globe” I became fixated with being the best. Doubts floated to the surface and left a ring of scum around my professional life that I could never quite scrub away, even with some modest accolades from writing professors and talented friends. I fell behind my own internal clock, that precocious force which drove me to be “advanced” or “a prodigy”. I ran myself into a psychological debt with myself — one that I could not repay in the wake of family tragedies, much less in the Levant.

The feelings of sadness surface like sweat — I am learning to notice and describe the messages my body is trying to convey. Imagine a briny acid forcing its way through the pores, as if secreting lemon-pulp, and a dull burning sensation like habaneros on the lips. Until last week, I thought it was enough to say I felt depressed; I invented physical reasons to feel as if I were being pickled like last Autumn’s olives rather than make the connection to unmet expectations. That ‘pickling feeling’ is unassigned regret. It is the bodily manifestation of an inkling that the past decade could and should have happened differently. As aging professionals, we lament the loss of our most precious aspirations — to be an ecologist or a jazz musician, perhaps start a family (DO NOT UNPACK THAT BAGGAGE). My relationship failures represent the loss of my most humble aspirations: (I SAID ‘DO NOT UNPACK’ IT) — okay, fine. The one aspiration that will not expire is the very first aspiration, the one that began at age eight — to be an author of books. I deliberated on the possible irony of that for twenty minutes but this reality festers and itches so much because it does not defy anyone’s expectations for me — including mine. I know what it takes and I have not done it for fear of failure.

I was the child for whom things came easily or else they were not worth doing; to dedicate myself to something at which I might never be the best was frightening. Looking at an issue of Writer’s Digest, I knew there were so many things I did not know about the craft and so many reasons that the publishing industry might never notice me. I hate a potential waste. I constructed a reality where I was supposed to pursue another vocation but ‘fell back’ on technical writing or where my mind needed to be fertilized with painful or exotic real experiences before, spontaneously, I would emerge from my chrysalis (MADE OF CALLOUSES) as a virtuoso and never have a manuscript rejected. Something supernatural — an epiphany or miracle — would emerge and be my salvation.

Never seen a pale-face in a kefia? Get used to it.

Never seen a pale-face in a kefia? Get used to it.

I wrought a work of ingrown fictionalization, a powerful character that overwhelmed all self-doubt without having to be written. He is me — activist me. I am not quite sure from where I draw the energy to write, which might explain why this obstacle is so hard to overcome, but ‘Daniel Xavier’ (LEGIT ALIAS, BABY) uses outrage to fuel his endeavors, and the more he endeavors the more he finds to be outraged about, so that I became engrossed in a figurative fire-nado of social justice indulgences. I welded him into a social justice machine in my imagination, though in every day life I was preparing grants and reports (WRITING), not wrapping a kefia over my face and defying Israeli oppression. Yet the activist in me is not just an escape, though because what is constructed is still real. When I opened a Writers’ Digest e-newsletter last week (BEFORE THEY STARTED TRYING TO SELL THINGS) I gleaned a piece of advice that almost scared me back into denial. “Most successful writers don’t score until their fifth manuscript…” Not counting those who never find their ‘muse’, authors average four failed book pitches.

“Something still needs to happen,” said the fool in me, “and then…”

“It’s too late,” said the octopus, “you’ve already had ideas but you didn’t—”

“THIS IS DANIEL XAVIER: YOU NEED TO FAIL FOUR TIMES, THEN COME SEE ME.”

Octopus says, “That’s ridiculous — let’s check Facebo—”

“BE SILENT — QUICK JD: IF YOU HAD TO PICK ONE STORY IDEA TO FAIL WITH, WHAT WOULD IT BE?”

“He doesn’t actually know—” (HOW IS AN OCTOPUS TALKING?)

“I actually do — I know the right story to learn with…”

“MAY IT BE SO; BETTER TEN YEARS AGO THAN NOW BUT BETTER NOW THAN TEN YEARS HENCE!”

I have to be honest: the octopus is still with me, still affecting me. My first night working on character development with Scrivener went well; the second night I caved and searched for thrift stores online. The third night, I started developing ‘Jem’: an antagonist who will become my hero because the protagonist of the novel needs to be challenged (THEY ARE BOTH PART OF ME). Sunday night, I did nothing more than pick backgrounds for the Tumblr I want to begin. It will be called “Interpolar Ice Field”, a pun on interpolations and the ‘principle of the iceberg’. My new handle is ‘Aukstronaut’ — invoking the extinct arctic bird, the sounds of awkwardness, and voyages into yet unexplored frontiers. This morning, I will finish this definitive piece of ‘Reverse Exiled’, though I have not fully defined what it means to be “reverse exiled”. At last, I might raise more questions than I answer. This week may keep me too busy to write.

Tray of Arabic coffee *drool*

Or maybe my writing will keep me too busy for this week; no one knows the future but I do know that Hope is a more powerful force than even Faith because an audacious Hope is a more redeeming Faith than just Believing in something unseen; that Hope moves us to action. Only my fascination with Creative Hope could draw me away from the writing life but I believe such a Hope is simultaneously my reason for writing, the one thing that will keep me writing, and a main thread in the pieces I will write. I can work with Muslims, Jews, and whoever may share my Hope but I struggle to stay engaged with resigned Christians. I need to get past this pet-peeve because they will be my target audience: when everyone has Hope (THAT HOPE), they can join together to beat Fear and help ‘reverse exile’ us all.

 

Correction: it is now 9 AM on August 27th of 2013 and I am a writer.

Epiphany & Beyond

firespell-red-candleI must be still, if I am to enter the chrysalis. In order to slough the thick skin that has retained my guts, along with all my potential, I have to allow my eyes to glaze over and the chill hunger of winter engulf me…

Fireworks pierced the air above manger square, buzzing a passing recon drone. The lights of the new Manger Square Christmas tree glowed like thousands of festive lightning beetles in heat. Light spread across wires above our heads, coiled around palm trees, and exploded from fireworks exploding. All of that joyful exploding cracked my stern expression. I saw something new was happening in Palestine, with a female mayor in Bethlehem and a statehood bid. I put aside the hot issue, and my contentious views, for another day. “No one cares what I think – I should take advantage rather than being resentful! I should disappear and find contentment in deficit—maybe find God there.”

If I knew what that actually looked like, I would in essence not be doing it. I always try to imagine but this time I could really embrace nothing: deficits.

I started a blog called Reverse Exiled when I was stranded in Jordan, sweating through a high-fever I brought with me from regions Eastward, waiting for a visa. Now, I want to choose my own exile and reverse tack. Tomorrow, I talk with my new supervisor in Washington DC. It will be less than three months before we shake hands. As I brainstormed for our first meeting, I realized I have the potential to re-imagine myself. I wrote parameters and I deleted them: I can re-imagine. The persona I developed over the course of the past year will need to die.

A phoenix-effect—look at my url. I am Xavier Phoenix. My name was a prophesy even I could not fully intuit: X for variability and the phoenix for re-birth. My blog is reverse exiled: coming back and leaving and coming back and leaving. It was a re-imagining of “In Rainbow Colors”, which I want to retro-duce to you all someday. Then I can retro-duce “Quest in Cold Metal”. Maybe…

The trouble with being Phoenix is that I cannot burrow into my ashes until I have burned exhaustingly hot. Now I must cool. Today I managed to brush away my ideas about random and systemic violence and take a trip with a colleague into Jerusalem to the Scottish Memorial Church. I sang through a stuffy nose and drank too much coffee after the service. We walked into the old City to visit the jeweler who sold me my sister’s gift. He was thrilled to hear that she had graduated from college and would soon receive his special creation. We drank mint tea and he told us about a nun who was kind to him when he was a child, about the dinners she hosted and egg-hunts at Easter. He is Muslim. Everything was different before the first intifada… my colleague later commented that Muneer is someone who is very comfortable with who he is and, thus, able to relate to other people better because of it. He is also a smart businessman, an expert artisan, and a proud father. It seems as if Muneer started by being the best Muneer he could be. What did you all learn from your jeweler, today?

As I typed a vision of the best John Daniel, I saw that I was only mostly like him but that I could choose to be more like him. “I get the feeling, sometimes, that I am very forceful online…”

“Yes,” said my coworker, “but that is how you are working through these issues…”

On some level, I knew I was burning too hot. As my colleague and I walked away toward Damascus gate, she asked me what the peaks and valleys of my service in Palestine had been. My highlight day had been marching into Jerusalem with my boss on Palm Sunday. I finally experienced the city as alive with a soul. My most difficult time was not an event but the season of late winter in 2012, when I felt as if I could make more impact by standing in front of bulldozers at house demolitions, sacrificing myself to make bad press for Israel. My self seemed less important than my work rather than equal to it.

Eventually, I became comfortable with my small role at the Wi’am Center. I realized that I had co-workers who valued and nurtured me. My potential, even my skill-sets, have not grown much while I was in Palestine but I matured. After all, how do I profit from more knowledge and skill when I cannot get past hurting? Of self-centeredness? Or resentment? Now, I return with gifts and perspective, both. Perhaps I can start over as a writer.

At home this evening, I avoided social media faithfully for the first time this week. Dishes completely covered my counter but now they are stacked and drying. My cluttered desk remains for next weekend. Tired of cold showers, I learned I could pour a bucket of hot water for myself in the bathroom sink. I glanced at the mirror and noticed how happy this made me. It was the first time I have washed with warm water since I left Amman. Who could resist pouring a second bucket, just as a reward for being alive?

I think I will allow this entry to defy coherence because it is a breaking away, even if a small one. My essence has never been lost in twenty-six and a half years of being alive but there have been critical junctures. We always wish they were conversion events but most are periods that last more than a month but less than a year. Sometimes, they come stacked together. There was that time of uncertain solitude, then the zombie weeks between my return and olive season, and this latest period of intensity. Now, there is Advent and Epiphany beyond…

The Dome of the Rock, seen from a distance ~ as close as I could get.

The Dome of the Rock, seen from a distance ~ as close as I could get.

Genesis, Yonni

Wall graffiti

It appears Alice is also struggling with the visa process.

If this were a text on philosophy, or theology, or a very extensive science fiction or fantasy novel, then I could write a true beginning, with no antecedents. My story starts in the middle of history and, in fact, interrupts my own life narrative. I had not planned to be working with Wi’am in the first place, of course, but I so much less intended to see my life scattered into an Eastward wind. Now, I am cobbling together some passable starting point for this newest blog.

Two hours after my twenty-sixth birthday officially ended, I was napping in a pile of my luggage at the Metro Manila airport. I had been training in Davao City for two weeks, following two weeks of leaching from a colleague in Hong Kong where, in turn, I had come to escape paying a fine for over-staying my visa in Jordan which, incidentally, is where I had fled to avoid the same in Israel (in spite of the fact that Bethlehem is actually in the Palestinian territories). My missionary term became a Russian-doll adventure, one experience enveloping another, until I left Davao and began unshelling each visited place in turn. I peeled away more layers, still, in my imagination, tracing back to New York, Chicago, and Grand Rapids Michigan. There, on my twenty-fifth birthday, I took the fateful stand that set all these events in motion. Little Plainfield church elected me as their delegate to the annual church conference and I spoke-out for United Methodist divestment from companies profiting from the Israeli occupation. It was, I believed, what a friend and previous mission intern would want me to do. It did not occur to me that I would cement my own place in that ongoing saga.

I did not enjoy the Metro Manila Airport. After enduring all the hurtles and flaming hoops (so to speak) of Ben Gurion in Tel Aviv, I always assumed that no airport could get under my skin. I chalk-it-up to feeling like ‘the good guy’ when I pass through Israeli security; if the guards make my passage difficult I can get more mileage from the story later. In Manila, I just felt like a jerk for judging the Philippine airport so harshly. It is poorly designed, rife with hidden-fees, and the Cebu Pacific Airline counter is staffed by near-teenagers. Ironically, I flew into my favorite of all airports: Hong Kong international, where they use scan-card technology to monitor the speed of the visa line. I landed, exhausted from the constant cabin pressure changes that kept me awake during my Cebu flight. Joy came to the airport, thank goodness, to ensure I made it to the train and re-installed myself in her apartment.

“Men in Black III is in theaters, now. Maybe you should go see it.”

MIB movies are funny and action-packed. On the other hand, the secret agent vibrations are resonant with me. Before I left Jordan, I had to do a wipe of all articles I had written or had been written about me on the internet. I shut-down a blog called “In Rainbow Colors” that bridged my unemployed days in Grand Rapids with to my first seven months working in Bethlehem with Wi’am. I suppose, like Agent J in the first MIB movie, I brought all my personality and memories with me into a new role and story-line but had to leave many of the direct ties behind. Only a movie character could make such a clean break, of course. A Google search of my full name still conjures a film review I wrote in 2009 for World Association of Christian Communicators. Like agent J, I feel like a colorful, confident character in an unusual job who never quite gets to the pith of the universe’s secrets:

                K: “I promised you the secrets of the universe—nothing more.”

J: “Are you saying there are some secrets the universe doesn’t know?!”

K: “Don’t ask questions you don’t want the answers to…”

Unlike J, I cycled through dashing internet aliases like “Daniel Xavier” and “Fysh Phoenix” in my quest to reinvent myself just a little bit better than the time before. It was part of my efforts to generate something profound and renewing, a truly original start. Something Divine!

In hind sight, there is not much divine about an alias. Aliases are meant for people I do not intend to see again, and only when my passport is not with me. The Divine moment comes when an old name is given a new beginning, in the middle of events. A cab-driver found me, waiting by a cafe for a morning cup of coffee. When he asked for my name, I gave him the real one and then he showed me outside to some men making coffee in the traditional way and pouring it into small cups. Now, I must pause for a moment and emphasize the powerful sacramental nature of coffee in the middle-East, or perhaps the sacrament of powerful coffee in the middle-East, naturally. Coffee is both part of the ritual of Sulha, traditional Arabic conflict mediation, and the daily rituals of the Wi’am office where I worked. Wi’am means cordial relations, after all, and the cab driver paid for my coffee in such a gesture. Drank in the rising sun, hot and blackity-black opaque and with just one spoon of sugar, this first cup of coffee was inherently perfect. It tasted smoother but kicked harder than the instant coffee I drank for over a month in Asia. For all the baggage I have been carrying in my heart, reminders of my imperfect past, I still cannot help but feel like that cup of coffee was an important turning point. As we drove across the sparse East Bank landscape and into Amman, we shared some seeds – cracking them in our mouths and tossing the shells into a paper cup.

Of course, that beginning is just for the sake of narrative, too. Everywhere I turn, there are familiar pieces from earlier in my journey, though always illuminated a little differently. Imagine my delight when the juice vendor’s face lit with recognition and I said, in my meager Arabic:

“مرحبا, كف حالك؟”

“مبسوط, الحمد لله”

“عصير برتقال, من فضلك.”

“صغير؟”

“لا. كبير…و انا بدي إشربها هن”

I sat down and drank the large, fresh squeezed orange juice and lingered for quite a while, in reverie about my weeks in Amman. Virtually everything that happened during my thirty days in the valley took on the veil of secrecy, in internet exile, and I was careful to share only minimal details with the staff and guests at the Cliff Hotel and the wait-staff at the full-roster of cheap restaurants I worked from. I jested that I was in the purgatory of the Arab world, along with Iraqis, Syrians, Egyptians and so many Mediterranean Palestinians waiting for their own return. At their best those days were contemplative, especially when I walked half-way to Jebel Weibdeh to my favorite garden; I read several books, contemplated my future graduate career, and allowed my environs to diffuse into my veins, my stresses to pass from my pores. The worst days, I was covered with itching bed-bug welts and watching the divestment debate. The General Assembly of the Methodist Church meets only once every four years. I never felt so alone, watching the proceedings on an internet feed. My friend and predecessor rose and delivered such a stirring speech on behalf of our cause that I nearly cried. Meanwhile, some old badger from Georgia launched a Zionist diatribe. Then came all the equivocators, vacillators, and all-around injustice-normalizing cowards, afraid of sinking stocks and broken eggshells. They left the authority in the hands of The Board of Pensions and Health Benefits. I was angry. So angry that I needed a vacation. Would I like another glass of juice? “شكراَ، لا…”

There is a delightful symbolism to my current living arrangements. I know where everything is in the valley area where I lived for a month. Now, I am up on a hill in Jebel Weibdeh. The new purgatory is shorter and sweeter, at the Canary Hotel, but I can only reach the places I know with some effort. I spent my entire time down there without any clue when I would return to my life in Bethlehem. Now, I am 48 hours from a brand new start in a familiar place. Culturally, that life is almost identical to this one but interpersonally it could not be more different than what I am feeling right now. There, I have a community. There are no aliases, no illusions of espionage. To the contrary, I think they see me for who I am better than I see myself. And yet, they care for me anyway.

In the mean time, my new story is enriched with so many old memories. I hope that all of my readers, new and old, can appreciate why I am so excited to start a new blog. If nothing else, I can at least speak with a different perspective on what was once taken for granted. Until then, I hope I can be forgiven for such a long introductory entry.