Mega Man X Complex: The Shield

As Mega Man X enters Sigma’s fortress, Vile is still yet to be defeated. In game-play, I always assumed that Vile had no particular weakness and so spent time maneuvering, picking him apart with X-buster blasts when the solution was already with me: The Shield. Vile’s weakness, all along, was a weapon called ‘Rolling Shield’ that X acquires in battle with another maverick robot. It makes a florescent bolus that rolls along the floor and bounces off walls— very useful in vertical shafts.

X looks good in pink -- receiving 'Rolling-Shield'.

X looks good in pink — receiving ‘Rolling-Shield’.

The apostle Paul alluded to a ‘Shield of Faith’ in his letter to the Ephesians, though I lack the education to know which Greek word corresponds to ‘Faith’ in this instance. Faith’s multiplicity of shades and convergences with spiritual life are far too complex for blogging, more suitable to extended study. For the record, when ‘Rolling Shield’ is fully charged it envelopes X with an energy that makes him impervious to small opponents. My Faith must not be fully charged, yet…

Though Dr. Light hoped X could choose a more sedate path, he created* X with an operating system compatible with the upgrades X needs to pursue Justice. That resilient operating system endows him with the special ability to take a new weapon from each maverick he defeats. My original plan for this entry was to inventory the Fruits of the Spirit from Galatians 5:22/23 and draw metaphor to each of the eight maverick bosses and their corresponding weapon upgrades. I included a highlight reel at the bottom of this entry, just for laughs. What I really needed, from the beginning, was some self-bolstering. I need to identify my own maverick moments and claim the character enhancements that came to me at each juncture. Indeed, I might need to do it more than once.

One ‘shield of faith’ came to me at the Chinese Restaurant in Bethlehem (there is only one), on Land Day in 2012. That was also the morning when Palestine changed to “daylight savings time”, swinging an hour ahead for the summer. The planned, peaceful demonstration was delayed 90 minutes due to time-shift confusion. The ‘real’ demonstration came an hour after that, when shabaab arrived with kefias around their faces and pummeled the floodlights and security cameras on every guard turret with stones, concrete chunks, and more stones. Several internationals and I retreated to the Chinese restaurant for lunch, which was a foolish mistake. The excited teenagers in the guard tower shot their tear-gas and the excited teenagers on the ground, in turn, pummeled their windows with stones – some of which missed and smashed through the windows of the restaurant instead. I finished eating – no good could come of being shaken.

Something comes loose and it is difficult to know whether it is an ability or a disability. The moment I keep coming back to, during my quiet anxious moments, is the day at Sheikh Hussein bridge and looking an Israeli guard directly in her eyes while I lied about where my work was taking place—I told them Haifa, consistent with my letter of recommendation. She said “we know you’re lying – just tell us the truth,” which seemed, to me, to confirm that they did not have enough evidence to turn me away and wanted me to crack and vacillate. I held integrity with my mission, not the reverse, but I always return to heaviness I felt when I willfully distrusted someone and, instead of being edified, was uncomfortably vindicated by their obvious interrogatory ploys and my extended detention. I regret nothing but I lament all of it.

The entire exile into Jordan should count for some kind of special ability. It was in Jordan that I really knew what it meant to live as a foreigner in a large city and cemented my ‘transactional Arabic’. Far from being perfect, there were too many days where I laid in bed and waited for news about my return but, at my best, I was walking the bending lanes of ‘Al-Ballad’ and learning the dark fissures that formed alleys between its building encrusted hillsides. I befriended the juice-man, the bread vendors, and the Iraqi restaurant owner who served me the best chicken dinners of my life. In Amman, I negotiated with cab-drivers and embassy curriers. In that city, I survived bed-bugs, high-fever, long-waits at the Israeli embassy, and long hours in the Roman gardens watching cargo-planes doing maneuvers. I wondered, sometimes, if my life was beginning there in the shadow of those ancient pillars.

These are the instances I often talk about, separately, but friends are encouraging me to put them together. As I recite, I remember even more lessons; Drew from Alabama helped me face my callousness last fall when he joined us as a new volunteer. I felt irritated by his learning process. The disturbance was intrinsic to me: the exile and return from Asia had changed me in ways that I still do not understand, typing in a Washington DC Starbucks. Drew and I had an uncanny moment when, best I could, I apologized for being so curt with him. He said, “I think God is telling me to tell you that you have been counted faithful.” As he shared that with me, I could see him getting misty and I wanted to soften and cry but I felt calcified. I am indebted to Drew for that tender moment.

I could do myself a great favor by remembering some other pieces I brought home from the middle-East. I developed a greater sense of others’ needs, an ability I call the ‘bottomless tea-kettle of hospitality’. That sense of togetherness was necessarily beyond words because we do not all share the same words. Yet, I felt connected. That gift began to hurt, in time. Months later, I felt continents away from my counterparts in Geneva. At Wi’am in Bethlehem we all could take care of ourselves but we chose to take care of each other whereas my two American colleagues were both so… individual. Perhaps I was waiting for teleonomic cues that were not coming – the tea-kettle within me felt very heavy in Europe.

Since I write so seldom on these topics, then it is not really boasting to share – though if there are half a dozen examples then there might as well be two-dozen because every experience is a chance to learn or unlearn. After six months in Bethlehem, I learned that I was fairly savvy about the conflict. Then I visited Ni’ilin village and promptly unlearned that because, of course, the context was too fragmented for a foreigner to be so savvy. I reinforced the value of my solidarity on that trip, still. After I ‘did’ something –planting olive trees– I watched a video of farmers being mercilessly abused while sitting next to the very same farmers. Just an hour ago I told my friend over the phone “if I were planning a trip, it would be advocacy focused…”

If my enhancements were instant, videogame-quality upgrades, then I would not have to go through a dark period, filled with artistic blocks, self-deprecation, compulsive behavior, and feelings of isolation. This is real life. That is good news; I may have already done most of the work. Results are delayed. Vile is still alive in me but I’ve recovered significantly since February’s slide. There is a subtle relief to embracing the strength I actually find from difficult memories rather than trying to suddenly change the timbre of my script or, as happens too often, trying to deepen the suffering to profoundest woe. Mine is a story of being bent but not broken. I remember long ago, when I finally capitulated and spent eight consecutive weeks seeing a therapist, the doctor and I had a discussion about my efforts. I said I was not seeming to get anywhere and he observed that I had not relented. Again, I capitulated and saw a therapist. This time, I visited once and have not heard back from him. He asked me “what makes you think you can stand-up to the challenges in your life?”
“—because I’ve stood-up before. I’m going to keep standing-up until I’m too dead.”

Where is the Faith in that? I think there is Faith throughout that — the string-like roots of that Faith are something I could spend a life-time examining.

* * * Maverick-Fruits Gag-Reel * * *

“Plus, gleefully torching Maverick bosses on their last health-bar is delicious.”

“… if I were not agile enough, I might be swept into his vortex and have my energy sucked out of my body. Yeah—it’s a nasty long battle.”

“Arguably, kindness is like the Boomerangs won from Boomer Kawanger (I’m not making these names up), that comes back to the user.”

“…and has a chain-like tongue that he uses to whip X…”

“…the storm-blast was excellent for clearing stationary turrets; like self-control, storm-blast…”

“With a limited number of both weapons and fruits, that means Goodness is like ‘Shot-gun Ice’, courtesy of Chill Penguin.”

“I am having trouble equating Peace with ‘Electric Spark’ but I am sure you all can help me by using your imaginations…”

~ can you see why I abandoned that draft?


A Bridge and a Baptism

I was in the footsteps of Mary & Joseph, pacing along Star Street to my favorite barber. His shop is nestled into an alcove on that fateful street in the antique narrows of Bethlehem. I greeted him in simple Arabic (“مرحباً” ) and he welcomed me to his chair.

                Why do you not have more Israeli friends if you are here so long?


From that chair I admired his shop, as he brushed and oiled the electric clippers. There was a clock with an embroidery face, cacti growing in tiny pots, scissors bathing in fragrant alcohol, newspaper clippings taped to the mirrors, a faded pink towel by the sink,

                Do you have plans to visit the territories? Jenin? Hebron? Bethlehem?

and snapshots of his baby grandson scattered around a portrait of his father. He commented to another gentleman that I stayed with the Zoughbi family, cracking a warm smile. He gestured to the clippers and I nodded: (“قصير, من فضلك ”). Short, please.

                What do your parents do for jobs? What is their phone number?

Wavy, buckskin locks fell free to the floor in piles. They grew in Ireland, through Jordan, across Asia to Hong Kong, and washed in Filipino waterfalls before coming to rest in Palestine. I would not let anyone cut my hair or shave my beard. I was waiting for a special day:

                You want to get into Israel, so tell me the truth right now.


the day I crossed the Sheikh Hussein bridge.

* * *

Last Monday I sat outside of the Israeli embassy in Amman for four hours of pressure-cooker meditation. I prayed for every person I could imagine, and not myself, to detoxify the concoction of fear and impatience gushing through my arteries. My passport returned to me with a cloud of excuses but no visa stamp. Two days later I called Yousef the taxi-driver and breathed slowly for two hours as he drove me to the Northern Bridge. We drank coffee and he mused about each town we passed in his native Jordan. I took another deep breath, walked up to the counter at the Jordanian border station and presented my passport. They charged me an eight-dinar exit tax, asked three questions, and said “okay, bye-bye now.”

A pathetically short bus-ride separates one nation’s reception lobby from the other’s. Mere meters from Jordan, where they sent me through the X-ray machine with my belt still on (beeping all the way) is Israel, where security personnel circle a bulky piece of luggage like a pride of lions. I brandished my best idiotic smile as the security guard pulled me from the herd. In five minutes I was holding my pants up by hand while my jacket, shoes, every article in my pockets, and both bags were going through the machine. Then they reversed the conveyor and looked again. Then they rotated both bags in every conceivable direction to run additional scans.

Two guards informed me I was undergoing a security check. One asked me why I looked nervous and I laughed and said I was embarrassed he could see my underwear (for the second time). When guards say I look nervous it is not an observation but a wish: hoping for a defensive reaction. In December I took the bait and became flustered but these days I giggle and play coy. Once the peep-show was over, I went into the back room for the grand exhibition and story-telling festival. Every pocket was swabbed, every box opened, and sunscreen bottles uncapped as I watched my luggage be gutted. “Are you an actor?” said the  short one with thick glasses. Yes (kinda); I said it helped make English lessons fun for the children in Haifa (lie). I was a substitute teacher, that’s why I carry colored-pencils and dolphin stickers (truth). Those envelopes are addressed to Jerusalem because my friend has a P.O. box there but I don’t know why (lie).  I am learning Arabic, yes (truth). My parents helped me pay for this trip (lie). No, my local church did not send me (truth). The embassy staff told me I did not need the visa ahead of time (half of them); here is paperwork from the ministry of interior in Haifa (a copy). Fiction and non-fiction braided into one.

Repacking bags after a search is a time of quiet, personal privilege. One of the seven sleuths attending to me asked me where my passport was. “I don’t know,” I said coolly. To me, every second at the bridge undenied was a miniature triumph: I spend their time and resources improving my discipline. I parked my bags, sat down, and re-entered the prayer exercise developed at the embassy. I devoted most of my energy to keeping a disconnect between thoughts and physique, sitting in dull tranquility while my emotions seethed for six hours. I literally commanded my body not to shiver. Guards came from the office at intervals to question me and probe for contradictions in my story. By that time I was intentionally staring at a book of Mark Twain stories, watching them with my peripheral vision and looking upward (with a smile) only when they were within two meters. I caught glimpses of Israelis being human beings, drinking Coca-Cola and teasing each other. One with straight hair and narcotic, sapphire eyes almost broke me:

                “You want to get into Israel, so tell me the truth right now.”

My faith in humanity almost ignited. Over nine months of service, I had finally learned to see the guards as people, doing the best they can, worthy of respect and love. After 13 weeks of exile, though, I know that the system which employs them is fundamentally sick. I looked past the lady and saw her role: a guard slaying a maverick. “Jousting” at the bridge is a ‘shoot-the-moon’, ‘all-chips-in’ level of maneuver – epitomized when I pulled a Palestinian flag pin out of my pocket and said, nonchalantly, “oh, the kids gave me this…” Lying felt disgusting but relenting meant failure. I held my integrity in dissonant suspense. I was a beast wrapped in a machine, having the best day of its dystopian life.

The same guard who discovered my stickers invited me to come into the food court under her supervision. She had a name: Roz. She smiled sweetly at me and told me to put my money away when I tried to pay for my soda. I stopped myself from admiring her long curly hair and splashes of freckles; I needed to be perfectly in-character. I visualized myself as a blonde Sean Connery: stirred but not shaken, cool but not frigid. I ate my tuna sandwich with deliberate bites and well-timed sips of orange soda. I had my own sapphire eyes to flash in this masquerade, dressed cunningly as a hippie-seminarian who works with children. I did stroke my beard and throw a few glances toward Roz but my attention was on my primary interrogator, emerging through the double-doors and striding to the counter, then back again with a Red Bull in her hand. Our gaze did not meet. I knew exactly where I was: a short sprint from the Promised Land but several steel doors away from my passport. I was no fool. I followed Roz back into the lobby and resumed my stake-out.

“You have one week to renew at the ministry of interior; do you understand?” (I did: perfectly)

The Galilee palms were bathed in golden, evening sunshine. I overheard two men speaking to each other in Arabic. I asked where I might get a ride to Jerusalem and they offered me a ride, if I agreed to ride with them to Jericho while they visited a friend. The Arabic name for Jerico ( الأرحا) means “The Scent”. I smelled a sweet opportunity. I felt almost human again but I was slow to relax my guard. When I learned they were going to بيت زفافا I asked them to drop me at Tantur”
“Tantur? That is almost in Bethlehem – you said you wanted to go to Jerusalem–”
“Yonni,” said the other, understanding my dilemma, “it’s between Jerusalem and Bethlehem–halas…”

* * *

The barber misunderstood and lathered my face for a shave; I didn’t correct him. I love the feeling of his straight-razor sweeping across my chin. He is the only person who has ever done this, other than me, and his shaves are so expert — refreshing. We walked over to the sink to wash away the excess. Leaning before him, it felt like a baptismal ritual. As I toweled off, he held his index finger up and signaled for me to sit down: the after-shave cologne. It left a sweet, cleansing sting on my exposed features. To my surprise, I was not so baby-faced. With all the camouflage taken away, I saw a grown-man in the mirror and I hoped this one would have the chance to speak frankly, truthfully, and freely from that moment forward.

Just a picture from the barber's.

Way of the World

A little girl frisks a soldier

Its healthy to get a taste of one’s own medicine…

I decided to walk over to Rainbow Street and get an over-priced-anything, as a concession to myself. Rainbow Street is a sort of tourists’ outpost on the opposite hill, a long contemplative walk from the Canary Hotel. I found an ice-cream shop and ordered a scoop of  pistachio-filled “Arabic” ice-cream, since I can’t get that just anywhere. I wanted  a Strawberry chaser. But I gobbled my cone and slinked to the café for a sandwich. It was a good thing that my coworker texted me a warning, an hour earlier, to stay in Amman. The Israeli promise to deliver my visa from Haifa to the Sheikh Hussein bridge in 48 hours was, frankly, an archetypical Israeli promise. That was my prevailing thought but, seeing nothing to gain, I distracted myself by finding a shortcut to Rainbow Street and pretending that 2.50 dinar was not an abominable price for a lemonade. “I’m paying for the motif of this place,” I reassured myself.  I lingered at the ‘bar’ listening to the radio. “September” by Earth, Wind, & Fire was playing:

…As we danced in the night,
Remember: how the stars stole the night away
Ba de ya – say do you remember?
Ba de ya – dancing in September!
Ba de ya – never was a cloudy dayyy…”

I remember my first visa-dance. It was August 31st 2011, in the early hours of the morning. Global Ministries flew me to Tel Aviv on Turkish Airlines for economy’s sake. I was a young male, traveling alone in the wee hours, on a ‘suspicious’ airline. Worse, I was nervous. Like a true rookie, I picked the booth with a lady-guard. She was buying none of my story. How could I not know my driver’s name? How could I not know at what hotel I was staying? What kind of organization is the Methodist Church, anyway? She had a tenacity that made the Israeli character from NCIS look good-humored. She took me in the back to her supervisor, who was clearly tired and disinterested. They snapped in Hebrew to each other and continued to question me along the same lines she had at the booth. When they asked if I was going to the Palestine Territories, I told an outright lie: “No.” I pushed the dumb-tourist routine algorithmically until the supervisor mumbled something and waved passively. Her eyes went wide and she stood bolt upright, protesting. He waved again and then stamped my passport. I must have been quite the convincing idiot. She admonished me for being so directionless and I thanked her warmly for her concern.

“Nice touch,” said Janet as we drove away from the airport, “but try to avoid the women if you can: they have more to prove…”
“Well, I hate to be sexist…”
I also hate to be racist. A close friend studying psychology asked me how I would feel if she worked for a Jewish social services agency.
“The same as I would feel if they were Christian, Muslim, Buddhist or secular, as long as they help people instead of hurting them.”
While I am flattered people tread carefully for my sake, there are Jewish and Jewish-Israeli organizations working alongside our ilk. B’Tselem and ICAHD belong in the same sentence as Badil and Al-Haq. ‘Clash of cultures’ is a myth: we have a clash of ethics. The lines are not drawn according to race or religion but according to awareness and convictions. I asked a mentor of mine how he felt about fibbing his way through security and he replied that helping the oppressed took precedence over personal integrity. I can not think of any better answer! The US-supported infrastructure and bureaucratic hoops in Israel are so ubiquitous, entrenched, and patently insidious, it necessitates a bag-of-tricks.

When that visa expired Global Ministries found a conference on migration in Geneva for me to attend. My eyes were shut-tight in prayer for most of the return flight, working on my story. I relented, at last, and mumbled “oh God, please don’t make me lie this time.” When I landed, I went through two random scans where I said I was studying theology. Seminary is a powerful lubricant. I almost stopped to rest but hesitation is an enemy to confidence. I strode up to the guard who was laughing and joking with his neighbor. Without asking me a question, he flipped open my passport and applied the stamp. As I walked away, he was still joking with the other guard…

I learned to hide my nerves beneath layers of detachment. When I returned from Ireland after the second three month stint, I played my cards exactly as I had on the Geneva exit, right up until the guard I picked was relieved by another: a female guard. She was having none of my story, after I had been in ‘Israel’ for seven months. What guest-house in Nazareth? Why is seven months not enough? Do you have enough money? I was taken into the back where I met her supervisor, also female. I SO hate to be sexist. She grilled me. At one point, she asked me to write down my friends’ names in a list. Without hesitation, I took the lined paper and filled it with bogus, generic names. No one has time to check them, only to check my face for fear. I waited well over an hour in the lounge after my ‘interview’. She finally returned and gave me a three week visa. Apparently, my tracks were covered well enough that I could not be turned away at the airport. I caught the Neshur van to Tantour, brushing off sideways glances from people in yarmulkes. The sun was rising and the drive was fantastic. I felt alive.

Sing some Earth, Wind & Fire with me:
“That’s the way of the world
Plant your flowers and you grow a pearl
A child is born with a heart of gold
The way of the world makes his heart grow cold…”

This latest delay came exactly ten weeks after the Maunday Thursday exit: a Christian three days short of Easter in Jerusalem. My exit stories are more interesting, now that I think about it—I’ll be glad to share them another time. Even Israel will hardly stop me from leaving. The closest that ever came to happening was at the baggage counter in Hong Kong. I told them (truthfully!) that I was going to be volunteering in Israel and the baggage clerk placed an ominous phone call to make sure it was acceptable for me to travel over-land from Jordan. Now that I have experienced other nation’s checkpoints, I am curious to meet my worthy opponents, the Israelis, again. When I entered Jordan for the first time I had a surreal experience at the checkpoint. An old officer waved-off my inspection and declared “Welcome to Jordan!” for reasons The West could hardly fathom. This will be my first Israel-entry by land. Janet is coming to get me again. We will drive South and I will try to picture the fruit stands and coffee-vendors of this East Bank rather than the settlements and barbed-wire growing invasively along the Jordan valley to the West.