Fragmentation: Recoil-Effects…

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

It did.

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

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

 * * *

 * * *

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

“How was Hong Kong?”

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

“Too good for you?”

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

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

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

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

“I know.”

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

* * *

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

* * *

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

* * *

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

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

* * *

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

* * *

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

* * *

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

* * *

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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.