Reverse Exile: Declaration of Intent

The Aukstronaut considers prickly-pear...Today marked my unceremonious social-media announcement to pursue an MFA in Creative Writing (and/or Poetics) and to do “whatever it takes” to get into a program. I would be lying if I said this was a pivotal turning point of any kind. No movement in my actual existence, the life I have lived for twenty-seven years and dragged to three continents, was heavy or momentous enough to crack walls that are psychological. Seeing a therapist every week and being forced to remember and re-experience my past is creating more of the energy and direction needed to reverse my stray trajectory. Instead of a pivot, I feel like I am paddling across a lake, turning the boat in small increments.

Looking at old blog entries is another way I am prying open lock-boxes in my mind and getting past feeling ‘scattered’. I wish I had more space and time to explain the feelings of disjointedness that accompany my uncertainty. Instead of reaching the point of certainty through great accomplishments or signs of “destiny” I had to abandon the dreams of being ‘significant’ (via activism or otherwise) and start asking myself which field(s) I was most suited to explore deeply. I wanted a big plot-twist, like becoming a conflict mediator or an interfaith peace-builder, but even my plotting is emblematic of my desire to be a writer. My favorite professor, and one-time Writing Center supervisor, commented that I kept “circling back” to the idea of an MFA and that it was “in [my blood”. If I still felt the need to be superlative — you know, to be the best at everything — I might re-enter the cycle of hope and self-abuse. A few faithful friends remain in my corner: telling me I can do whatever I set my mind to and gently rebuking my self-deprecations.

Another writing center colleague has made sharper rebukes, such “quit saying you can’t” and “stop judging … you could be writing something to be edited later” and “no one said it was easy; that’s what makes it worth it.” Childish as it is, I respond better to the tarter variety of criticism because it impresses me as more genuinely concerned, not a platitude given by a well-intentioned acquaintances but the admonishment of a committed friend. Naturally, that’s trash: the others are no less sincere. Still, the bitterness of one spice often brings the others into relief — a more shrill voice of love and encouragement is really helpful. I’ve never been so touched by someone accusing me of bitching at myself too much. I felt like I was being defended from my harshest critic (myself). Simultaneously, I feel a nice sting of shame for being self-absorbed, even when I am tearing myself down.

Maria's (Mattson) Adams' photograph.

Maria’s (Mattson) Adams’ photograph.

As went my music, so must my writing go. There was a time, when I was twenty-four, when I grappled with the reality that I would never, ever play professionally but that I could still develop my musicality in small ways that made life richer. The catch was that I could not berate myself for having a bad day anymore — I had to reward myself for picking-up a horn/bass and practicing. My relationship with these ideas are changing over time in order to embrace practice as an act of creativity rather than preparation for an event to come later. In my writing, that means abandoning a myth I stitched together at fifteen or sixteen. In those days, I believed that I needed to make every piece of fiction or poetry count toward my final goal or else I would not be able to distinguish myself from other aspiring authors. Now I see that all I did was make creative writing into a game of higher stakes than my non-fiction practice — something I did automatically. It was one psyche-out after another, unless there was external pressure. As I sheltered my anemic creative-writing practice, I robbed myself of precious opportunities to feel some pressure from my peers. Maybe I was embarrassed or not sure if I would not rather do something else with my life, knowing the difficulty of the road ahead. The only thing which has changed is that I now believe that I can lead a happy life with many difficulties whereas, before, I always believed that difficulties needed to be overcome before happiness possible. If I’ve fallen out of love with end-outcomes, I can fall in-love with the process. As Mercer Ellington said of his father (the Duke, himself), “his favorite piece was always whichever piece he was working on at the time — never something already finished…” Challenge is always with us.

And this ain’t the best written post — but ya’all should have heard me honk’n the first day I decided to start playing trumpet again. Wow — but now my sound is smoother than it’s ever been (for what that’s worth…)

The nastiest nay-saying ‘voice’ in my head is the one that reminds me of how much ‘practice’ I missed by procrastinating my decision to commit fully to the idea, noting what seems to be diminishing returns. An accompanying voice is one that tries to justify & otherwise redeem all of the other ‘practices’ I use to procrastinate. I am tempted to say “bad habits” but I want to dissolve that paradigm. It’s a problem of proportions, strictly, not necessarily of choices. Getting past these two diametrically opposed but mutually reinforcing voices is a matter of practice.

Palestinian 'X'

A redesign in solidarity with Palestine, with apologies to Capcom.

When I say that I intend to work on my MFA, it’s almost an admission that I am going to quit trying to work on myself all the time. I can shape myself concurrently. Whether I make applications this winter or next winter, I am stating for the record that I am going to privilege

my aspirations over my uncertainties. Yet, I can say that all I want and never have these paragraphs become ‘performative’ — like a promise or an oath. What I really need to do is be vulnerable to the process of writing creatively, hoping everything and expecting nothing but more trouble and missteps.

Let’s do it. I have themes I want to explore, characters to develop, subjects to teach, and ideas to air. Activism will always be with me, shaping the ways I shape the world — and music, too, keeping me from imploding. Let’s do it.

Trumpet & Accordion

‘The Cave’ has joined the constellation of favorite jamming places tracing back to my visits to Bogue

Maria’s (Mattson) Adams’ photograph.

Street bridge, freshman and sophomore

years of college. I felt drawn, in an almost mystic way, to that alcove under the bridge crossing the Red Cedar River. By chance, a young artist named Maria found me and took an iconic photograph of my silhouette, with the river in the background and the outline of a trumpet protruding from my shadow. In starkest contrast, I became the daemon of a sunny park bench by the Grand River after the collapse of my last romance. I am nostalgic for the bath of unbridled sound and reddening sunlight that I took every day for a year, finally finding the fortitude of heart to improvise without worry. That was the last place I called home before I moved to Bethlehem. I wept openly, last fall, mumbling “I just want to be by the river again.” Since then, I have managed to dry my eyes –and my heart.

 

A piece of my heaven in the midst of strife.

Friday blustered as if every gust of wind wanted to bring the first surge of winter rain. Wa’el, Drew, and I were out in the drizzle for half the work-day, trying to unhook the tarp that covers the picnic area before it takes any more damage. It was weighed down and holey with a mixture of stones and expended tear-gas canisters, since the nearby gate became the locus of all Bethlehem’s coiled frustrations with occupation, released courtesy of Gaza’s suffering. My own angst started to leak out of me when I got an e-mail to the effect that “It Came Upon a Midnight Clear” was ‘more of a Christmas Eve song than an Advent song’. I had to scrap my rendition of the former for the first Sunday in Advent for what I understood to be a nit-pick. Consequently, we had a discussion in our staff meeting about anger and Sara suggested that I fill some of the empty spaces inside myself with music or sports.

 

Friends make the difference in life. I practiced moodily for a few minutes before the heavy iron door creaked open. There was Rajaee: carrying a square instrument case. He had brought his accordion into the blackening cave to play music with me!  We have a history together, by now. He used to play the piano while Lucas strummed his guitar and Rafiq played the drums – we would all play together, getting gradually more chaotic until we either faded into awkward chord progressions or else ended abruptly in laughter. With only Rajaee and I, we were able to play long improvisations on minor keys or renditions of “Time to Say Goodbye” that decayed into original melodies. There is a point, in encounter like this, that I used to become embarrassed and excuse myself. My need to be ‘perfect’ and ‘excellent’ holds me under curfew during those times but this time I was with my friend. I knew I could play however I felt and we would make it work, together.

 

Eventually, we played something more upbeat and polka-like (this is an accordion and a trumpet: how could we stay drear?). My lips were already beginning to give-out but I continued to pop joyful, staccato notes to match the swells of Rajaee’s harmonious accordion. When we tired, we stepped out into the court-yard area and enjoyed the falling rain. Without introduction, I started to play “Singing in the Rain”.

A Wedding Ceremony (part 1)

“I love smuggling – you should write about smuggling like you wrote about the cactus…”

‘Roger’ also said I should change each person’s name. He and ‘A.T.’ became our forbidden goods, spirited into Al-Quds for ‘Jack & Jim’s’ double-wedding. “Canada” was driving, carrying us through Al-Khader1 village in a purple van (that wasn’t purple). We emerged through a tunnel under the apartheid barrier onto a road that, after I found my bearings, I recognized as leading to the drive-through check-point. We were in the settler lane. Our Palestinian friends sat snug in the back, nephew and uncle, as the van crept toward a lady soldier in over-sized sunglasses.

My two European friends looked to me for cues, so I said, “this is a smile-and-wave check-point: we have a Canadian driving, a Swede in the passenger seat, a Belgian and an American—the soldiers won’t look long enough to notice the two in the back.”

I fiddled with my prayer beads. Belgium glanced at me:

“Did you get those in Al-Khaleel?—oh…” A stoic calm bleached all our faces as the soldier waved Canada through, a moment that will play in slow motion in our dreams for weeks. The blush rushed back into our faces and everyone started clapping and laughing. We emerged from the next tunnel and caught a fleeting glance of Beit Jala from the Israeli side of the barrier.

This beautiful church was disgraced when radical-Jewish settlers scorched its doors and wrote “Jesus is a Monkey” on an exterior wall.

“My heart! My heart dropped below my stomach and now it is beating!—look, there is Cremisan!”

“Do you think it helps that we are wearing formal clothes?”

A knot of Israeli bureaucracy made it impossible for most of the guys’ family to attend the wedding in ‘Jerusalem’ but, to maintain their ID cards, the ceremony could be nowhere else. Around the Scottish Church, we started following the grooms’ mother and family in their giant white van.

“—your sister-in-law drives less like she’s being followed and more like she’s being chased.”

“She is a very good driver” assured A.T. “–she can lose whomever she likes…”. The city is never quite alive, for me, unless A.T. is painting it with memories, like when he had his Easter week permit. If there is anything worth breaching Israeli ‘security’ for, it is a family wedding. Along the way, we passed a church that was scorched and defaced by Jewish Settlers, which televised news finds less interesting than an offensive youtube video about Mohammad. We arrived at a bride’s house to perform a visit. The groom(s) wait at the church while family and friends pour into the bride’(s) living-room to sit. And eat cookies. And drink coffee or juice. And talk. We ‘paid congratulations’, a counter-point to all of the condolences I have paid with A.T. in the wake of death. I like this tradition of sitting, present, with each other in both times of sorrow and joy.

Our Belgian friend, who took all these pictures, snapped this one of everyone sitting together: guys by the door and ladies in the room beyond.

We followed the wrong car and arrived at the Melkite church instead of the other bride’s house. The grooms’ younger brother (Jake, we’ll say) stood guard by the door, welcoming people. He would be intimidating if he were not so sweet. We asked him where we should park but he shook his head innocently. I gave him a hug: I haven’t seen as much of him since the boys left for Indiana. Sweden and I found a pew by a pillar in the upstairs sanctuary. More guests trickled in, many of them familiar– brother of the bride, aunts & uncles, new faces that resonated with features from relatives I already knew. My sense of alienation sloughed away: bad Arabic aside, I am a family friend.

The second of the two couples arriving down the aisle.

Before I write about what is different, I must say that it always felt like a wedding to me. The essence of a wedding goes across cultures and, on this day, many of the details too. The brides in their white dresses and grooms in their tuxedos marched together down the aisle to the priest. Their wedding party was composed of brothers and sisters—three families of them. I knew I would not understand the words as the priest began but what I did understand is that there was not going to be any idle-talk: he chanted the whole service. From the moment he began, I was captivated by the beauty of Eastern churches and their rites. Having been to the Apostle Peter’s ruined house and various archaic churches, I am sure that the Holiness of the Holy Land is watching people you know joined together, in the presence of their community, with a promise made to God. Stones are not holier than love, though only the stones and the olive trees are more continuous in this land than ceremonies like these.

Crowns are an element completely missing from the Western tradition of marriage. The priest placed them on their heads in matching

The newlyweds and their posse, moving in a circle together.

sets and chanted a blessing and bond between each pair. Before the marriage was finished, they all joined hands and stepped slowly in a circle with the priest as he continued singing. It all made intuitive sense, to me, in a way that a double-wedding would not in the West where we trifle with “I do” and spectacles like photo-slide-shows or instrumental solos. Here I felt less like an audience member and more like a community member, bearing witness to a living ritual. We watched them enter a new phase of their lives. For these men, it was an instant change-of-state –and long-anticipated. When the chanting was finished, all four were all part of the same family.

Just like every wedding I have ever seen, there was a receiving line. I felt so happy for all of them, especially for the parents. This was not just a “win” for love but for politics and the future: Jerusalem ID-cards. Aces, baby! We all took pictures together after the ceremony, inserting Sweden and Belgium in with myself and the newlyweds. I ate candy with Roger, Jake, and little sister ‘Mary’, dressed absolutely gorgeously. Later, when she caught the bouquet I said, “You’re sixteen – does catching that mean the same thing here as it does in the US?”

“Yes, but it’s just for fun… don’t be silly…”

Our journey took an uncanny twist when we decided to pass through the Beit Sahour checkpoint via Har Homa settlement. This hilltop “suburb” is like an extraterrestrial installment: a megalithic, uniform wart of regular housing we can see from Manger Street, as if Martians whacked all the trees away and lowered it to the Earth in one piece. Settlements are where daydreams and nightmares meet. Each street of perfectly matching condos dead-ends into a playground so that every street looks virtually the same, except stocked with a different cast of settlement-issue Israelis walking their dogs2. We passed around some cinnamon gum while our Canadian friend navigated the dystopian labyrinth. Our curiosity was on fire but we felt a discomfort that nearly overwhelmed it, riding around, now, with Mary in the front seat and two more Arabs, still. Canada reminded us that we could all be carrying kilos and kilos of explosives. We knew it. We know that security is just another word for the loss of freedoms for unwanted people and their allies. There isn’t any barrier that cannot be crossed just once. The point is to prevent the unwanted people from carrying on with their lives over generations. Security has always been a tarp thrown over displacement practices – as if the US reservation system was about saving white settlers from “savages”. Palestinians sneak into Jerusalem to see family, to find work, and to remember times passed.

[To be continued: the wedding reception]

                “Oh! My heart dropped again!”

“It’s okay – it’s always easier coming into Bethlehem than going out…”

1) Al-Khader village is named for Saint Khader, a soldier and Christian in the Roman army who was martyred when he refused to burn other Christians. That’s what I think, anyway… when I hear Al-Khader I think of that story even if it actually isn’t true. I also think he is the patron saint of England, where is called George.

2) Our Belgian friend made a comment about this. He said it was strange to see Jews walking dogs. In North America, its not uncommon to see any given person walking a dog but in Europe the collective trauma must run deep: Holocaust. A.T. talked about his dislike of dogs and the traumatic experience he had at a tender age when Israeli forces took him captive and threatened him with attack dogs. They might have done it under the umbrella excuse of security, another reason why I never suppose that the ends justify the means. There are consequences for our means beyond our ends and those ends to which we strive are rarely ever our salvation, or else we would know that humane means ought to be our primary end.

July & August: 48 Hours

Rise and Shine…

Morning dawned on the last day of July and the breeze still carried the refreshment of evening. I could work-out the next day; my late night writing session earned me an extra hour of rest. Content to snuff my alarm, I nestled back into the cool sheets. Time has been kind to my soul this month. My perspective has grown deeper, though not always wider – which is fine. Below, Zoughbi was already frying a pan of vegetables – onions, tomatoes, peppers of both kinds, garlic – I told him he could drop two eggs into the skillet for me. He loves to extoll the virtues of such breakfasts, when he remembers to make them.

“People really are crazy right now,” he noted, “a woman’s husband killed her.”

Morning dawned on the first day of August and my back felt like a gang of mountain goats had stomped on it. The first pangs struck so hard, the night before, that I went to bed early. It felt even stiffer by morning. Time has been unkind to my body this year. I could not possibly work-out; an hour later I phoned my boss to apologize for running late.

I awakened him with my phone call: he had mediated a late-night case.

Ten minutes later, we ate an odd collection of fruit with bread dipped in olive oil and powdered thyme. I went into the living room and sat perfectly still in the softest chair.

“Perhaps we should get you some bengay…”

Well Begun is Half-Done…

My friend in the USA asked me, just hours before, what I typically did at work. When my boss and I arrived at Dar Sansour (our office), I descended to the patio for coffee with Saliba and Adnan– two cups. Excusing  myself inside,  I climbed into my alcove and started the computer. I edited a report for Zoughbi, started my July newsletter, and skimmed an ICHAD update. My main task was to talk with Usama about a grant-proposal to upgrade our software and equipment for a fresh campaign aimed at financing garden renovations. In the process, it was decided that I should have logins for all Wi’am social media platforms. All my pistons were pumping. Still, I reminded myself that this was just one kind of ‘typical’. I heard voices through the open window and, spying a familiar face, I left all my activities in order to reconnect…

I knew ‘five minutes in the municipality building’ with my boss would be at least fifteen but it became more like fifty. I accepted my fate and an offer for tea, using the hot sting of the tiny glass to keep awake while the older men mumbled in Arabic to each other. My eyes drifted around the deputy mayor’s office to the spoils of overseeing Bethlehem – the glint of gifts from pilgrims. I also noticed the really expert carpentry of the moldings and doors, only outdone by the relief carving of the coffee table. Everything was done in such a way that it need never be done again – the first chance may be the only opportunity.

One man wagged his finger forebodingly as he told a story, then drew it across his throat. The others shook their heads and whispered inscrutable admonishments into space.

“هذ  عنف—مجنون –مجنون” It suddenly made sense to me.

Expect the Unexpected

I sat for five Palestinian minutes, alone with a crock of lamb and rice in Saliba’s car. I decided to tag-along with my co-workers “just in case” they needed help picking-up food from the community oven. These two speak minimal English, slightly better than my Arabic. Of course Adnan has a face and personality that transcend the language barrier. I adore watching Adnan be himself. He can be so gentle as he carries out the pleasantries of pouring the tea or reading the newspaper but then his cell will ring. Accustomed to the enthusiasm of Arab telephone conversations,  I opened the car window to release excess shouts. Saliba took it in stride. He is our elder statesman with the heart of gold. He pulled the car to a stop.

“Sit sit, rest,” insisted Adan, waving both hands. “Five minutes, no problem.  Stay.”

I tried not to fall into a bottomless pit of thoughts. Just then, a woman in a white cotton dress started walking up the stairs toward Star Str. She was obviously foreign. I watched the breeze caress her flowing brunette hair and exposed calves. I wondered where she was from—

she smiled at me. The warmth of her glance was wholly unexpected.

Just as I came to the water-cooler, Zoughbi announced we were going to a demonstration. Adnan, Saliba, Imad, and I piled into his battle-worn Volkswagen and shuttled to an old city area where a plug of people had formed in the narrow street. Our co-worker, Lucy, stood resolute in the middle as people pressed around the clot with bags of groceries. Imad whispered quietly that they were protesting the fatal case of domestic violence from a few days before. They marched from the site of the crime to the nearest traffic circle and chanted about an end to violence in the home. Some of them wore hijabs, some seemed to be Christian women, but a few were men. I stood with my other co-workers. Zoughbi became interested in forty shekels worth of faqoos; before long, I was carrying them into the pharmacy, where I bought locally-made muscle cream. When I emerged, Zoughbi took the heavy bags from me. It was then that I noticed Lucy: did she have a post-demonstration glow? She is another person who can be gentle or quite passionate.

We picked-up Adnan at the top of the hill, pacing deliberately with a phone clutched to his ear.

So Typical…

While I was eating with our Mennonite visitors, a familiar face began to say, “remember when I mentioned having dinner with Daryl and Cindy in Amman and met a guy who lived in a hotel across from Hashems Restaurant?”

He pointed at me.

“Thirteen weeks gone?” another one said, “that is a long time, isn’t it?”

“Yes, I think it is…”

‘This is another type of typical day,’ I whispered to myself as I foraged the office refrigerator for broken cookies. An aching back, several unannounced interruptions, but nothing had fallen behind schedule yet. ‘And the day is young; good things can still happen—or more bad. Oh! Here’s some salad…’

Hanging-Out After Work

A narrow staircase leads from the barber shop to Walid’s second-floor den. We greeted one another warmly and I sat in the black leather chair next to his desk. His workspace is several shades darker than the desert sun but it projects a cool, clean motif: like a photographer’s dark-room melded with a doctor’s office.

                “Do you want to drink anything?” he said.

                “Whatever you are drinking, if you please.”

                He called for two Schweppes orange sodas. He browsed photographs on a large, wall-mounted monitor, tapping the occasional note on a netbook. He shook his head and whispered something, then turned the netbook around and said, “look at this.”

                “Oh damn.” There was a woman lying on the ground in a nest of hair and spilled blood, eyes stark open, with a gash on her neck.

                “Crazy. Her husband or boyfriend or someone was so angry that he just killed her.” Walid waved his cigarette in the general direction of the traffic circle.  “Right over there. Crazy…”

                “Crazy…” I said, popping open my soda. I could tell Walid was feeling some acedia and it was nice to sit in the air-conditioner and keep him company for a few minutes.

                “Well, okay, let’s see how it’s doing.”

                “Yeah; just let me take my shirt off, in a minute…”

                 He looked intently at my chest and said, “come back in four or five days…”

“شو سويت اليوم؟” asked Imad, knowing very well what I had done that day.

“انا كتبت رسالين و …شغل ثني…” I replied.

“شغل ثني؟ شو سويت بعد؟” ‘And other things’ was not specific enough, for him.

“رحت معهم (معك) إلى…”,  I hesitated.

“You went with us to the demonstration. We call it [مسيرة], like a ‘march’ in English” he said, scribbling on the whiteboard. I scrawled Arabic characters onto my lined notebook.

“Why did they demonstrate? Tell me in English…”

“A woman was murdered.”

“’Murder is [قتل ] and murderer is [القاتب]. Crime is [جريمة]. Who killed the woman – tell me in Arabic.”

“رجل– الجوز الأمرأة”

“جوزها”

“جوزها—” –“her husband.  Did [الشرطي ] come?”

“Yes, they arrested him [ هم أعتقلوا الرجل… ]”

There was a pregnant pause as we each shook our head.

“It is a shame,” said Imad, “enough about that – what will you do later tonight…”

After the Arabic lesson, we sat on Imad’s porch with his mother and ate grapes. The sky seemed clear but there was actually an even scattering of fine dust that gave it an antique quality, as if someone had painted the dome over our heads years ago and it had faded just a little.

“After it rains, you can see to Jordan from here.”

All’s Well That Ends Well? 

When I arrived home, I ate chocolate-spread on pita and paced around the apartment. Walid’s acedia had passed into my system and I fell asleep on the couch with a Bible on my chest. I tried to continue in devotion when I awoke but the previous night’s activities were taking their toll.  Hoping my quick nap would fuel my impetus for the evening, I brewed some tea and studied Arabic for the next day’s lesson. The deterioration continued at a steady pace in spite of my ambitions for a new blog entry titled “Bethlehem Ink”*. Past ten in the evening, it felt like an iron baboon crawled onto my back and grabbed my flesh with twenty fingers. I went outdoors with my tea and a lit candle to try praying under the full moon. All I could think about was the pain in my back and anti-Semitism. I wrestled with questions about the Occupation and ethnic conflict for several minutes. I could not get to the kernel of my prayers. Relenting, I went to bed.

When I arrived home, I ate chocolate-spread on pita and paced around the apartment. With nothing to lose, I decided to take a shower. I even allowed the water to get hot, though I was nearly done by then. Afterwards, I rubbed on my new medicine. It worked just as much as I expected, not more or less. Nothing could replace having a special loved-one rub my back for me but I was grateful for my consolation prize:

“Made in Beit Jala – suck my toe, Israeli pharmaceutical companies!”

I studied my Arabic in the same fashion as the night before, at the same slow pace, with the same frequent tea-breaks. At intervals, I chatted with friends from Michigan State University on Skype. It comforted me to know they had initiated conversation, this time, which was so unlike my days in Grand Rapids when I was too desperate for any kind of contact.

“Perspective is my counter-attack; I did a little less than I did yesterday but I’m satisfied with myself because everything I did today was in spite of pain. I refused despair.”

When I went outside to pray, I butted against the same problems. God answers under the surface of our consciousness, sometimes, and I noticed

Life is a blessed gift… even with back pain.

that I was deeper into my thoughts than my surroundings. Whoever said that prayer disconnects us from our environment? Maybe prayer is becoming aware of what God is doing in our environment. The moon was bright, subtly haloed by the fine scattering of dust and illuminating rooftops, minarets, steeples, and cars.

                “Thank you for the Moon, God – hey! That’s what I forgot last night: I have quite a few things to thank you for from the past 48 hours…”

                And I did. I still do.

*Come back in four or five days…