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.

“Things Ain’t What They Used To Be”

A 2005 Sunfire named “Fiona”

…the CD player sucked the newly purchased album into its slot. That was the perfect moment to push the pedal completely to the floor, just as I cranked my wheel into a tight left turn. In a wave of synesthesia, the g-forces splashed me with the first exquisitely loud burst of rock music. It erupted through the sun-roof, spilling onto the hills that line Michigan’s wrist on US-20.

“This is my home now –my red Pontiac~ my Fiona.” I loved speeding through the Irish Hills on my way to work at camp, desperate to start fires and lose myself in the woods, again, and forget… forget… forget…

* * *

I dragged my tail from the blankets like a komodo dragon on codeine. I flicked my tongue through the air a few times, then brushed the bacteria off my fangs. I was bound for Jeru—check that—Al-Quds Sharqia in less than an hour. I fumbled for my keys but…

“Oh… my car ain’t here, on the continent. Just as well, I couldn’t ever find a place to park it…”

I hung my Sunday best over my carcass and smirked; “they can’t stay up all night any more? It’s two days later and I am more dragging than ‘dragon’…” My youthful energy was also at an ebb. Emma Clare and I caught the 21 bus at the cross-roads and I slipped into a trance. Just as we passed into area-B, I realized my passport was still next to my bed.

She helped me pull an idiot-couple routine, where she handed them her passport and I patted myself down, faux-distressed, and then looked up at the guard and entreated, “I left it in the safe at the hotel!” Of course, the other guard waved it off and we passed. My heart was throbbing anemically somewhere in my intestines. “You know, after going all the way to Haifa to get a legitimate visa, monkey-business like this doesn’t satisfy quite like it did nine months ago…”

Close to church of the sepulcher, a street with cafes.

After we visited the Jaffa-gate post-office, Clare and I went to a cafe for breakfast.  I had already started to ferment a journal entry called ‘Things Ain’t What They Used to Be’ in my mind but it was not enough: Clare and I had to talk about the passage of time in Palestine. She said that events from before she left the United States seemed ‘closer’ than her first day in Bethlehem. In a similar fashion, that day I climbed on a bus, full of conservative settlers and soldiers, bound for the bridge feels more distant than a less harrowing day when I walked from Bethany to the Holy Sepulcher with friends, which seems more distant than boarding a train in South Bend Indiana but not more distant than riding the back of a motorcycle across Geneva. Events happen in a particular order but they age differently, depending on the momentum and succession of experiences curing in our memory. I knew how to get to the post-office from Damascus Gate, by the way, but I had not done it since February.

I knew I had the day off on Friday, so I had stayed-up the entire night on Thursday having a video-chat with friends in the United States. They all quipped that I ‘must be young’ to stay-up all-night and it secretly rankled me. I want to be the prodigy but I also want to ‘belong’ – the reciprocal of what I wanted when I smoked the hookah with Tim and Clare, playing the sage but trying to regress. Yet my existential moment caught me completely off-guard because I felt my age precisely. I arrived at Dar Annadwa for a program I would never see, since it was running late. Going out into the court-yard to pray (and wait?), I noticed the ancient pine trees above, cuddling against walls and balconies, and labyrinthine passages below, lined with planter boxes. It struck me that I was “here”, in one of Bethlehem’s church-embedded intellectual oases. For the first time, it sank into my intuition that I would never have alternative attempts at life on Earth. A thousand times, I thought about replaying life due to regret but for the first time I wanted to replay life to have additional, alternative memories of bygone times. I wanted existence to be like reading a new book or starting a new file on a video-game just to see if… if – but I FELT I could not. I always ‘knew’ but this time I FELT it. Returning home immediately, I took an eight hour nap.

My story is becoming an essay, today, about time and aging: how one passes, how neither is repeatable, and how the latter feels. I reached my maximum age, so far, after twenty-four years but I reached maximum maturity yesterday. These qualities ebb and flow, since I felt oldest when my mother was suffering relentlessly, and I was trying to show everyone how responsible I could be, but I felt most mature when Zoughbi said “he is Palestinian now—he has suffered” and I said “no, you treat me too well – we have tea with sage, today.” Zoughbi had surprised me in the morning, while I was eating my thyme and oil (زيت و زتر, هذا شاتر!) and he looked me straight in the eye and said “you will meet someone and get married—you are a nice man; and, I tell you, nothing can replace having a family…” His comments were out of the blue, in the flow of my life, but made perfect sense when I took time to see where he was: his sons left for the United States to join their mother just a day before. He wished for me what he wanted most for himself. My own father took offense to the word “ditched” in my prologue. He has the self-aggravating problem of

trying to mitigate the wretchedness of his image, actually drawing more attention to the past that made him wretched to me.

More than memories, these photos remind me of how much I miss my friend from high school — just being close.

But things ain’t what they used to be. I deleted my reply to my father because I love him much better since I decided his decisions were no longer central to my life. A treasured friend chimed-in with her sympathies, in regards to disappointing fathers we love, and reminded me of how she was never quite a ‘memory’ during all those dark times, always just a few days delayed with a call-back or a message of encouragement. She will be married soon but I am invited to visit  when I return– a future so close I can smell the pizza, though I will probably be somewhere I cannot imagine first. Friends pass through our lives like comets but a few drop into orbit with us. As for family, I wonder if that is necessarily those friends who will not leave our orbits, since Western family structures seem unable to persist as strongly as those in Palestine.

We feasted in honor of Khader Zoughbi this weekend. Clare and I were the odd foreigners among three generations of Zoughbis. I am amazed to say that the entire flock of little ones were all grandchildren of Lorette and Nicola Zoughbi, the elder brother and respected clan-leader. It was refreshing to see Nicola pick-up his youngest grandson and go…

“lo-lo-lo-lo-lo-lo-lo-lo-lo-lo-lo!”, until the baby giggled.

The beautiful little grand-daughters raced up-and-down the stairs and ramps of Wi’am Center while I watched, with a glass of mango juice in my hand. One of the mothers started calling for hers and I noticed she was not with the group. The next thing I knew, I was hurrying toward the back of the property. When someone found her in a perfectly safe place, I had caught myself in the act of worrying.

Things ain’t what they are going to be, even when it comes to things that already were. I had dinner with Clare again  at Casa Nova and we somehow started talking about television shows. I was incredulous that “How I Met Your Mother” could be running for seven years. I thought it was three years old: one year before I watched it, one after, and the year I followed it with my friends at Michigan State University… three years ago. Noticing the problem with my math, I let the conversation drift elsewhere. For now, life continues to add material to my train of thought. She and I segued into a conversation about relationships… it came-out that I was a nice guy and I repeated what my boss had said.

Pizza on Tuesday, Wednesday and Saturday only?!

She said, “you are a nice guy as opposed to, you know, a ‘nice guy’.”

“…no, you might have to make that distinction for me… I don’t quite understand.”

What am I doing, again?

Double exposed picture

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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