Bog Flowers, Nut Armor, and the Paradox of Precocity

Cattail in swamp foregroundSeeds germinated. Burial makes life possible two-thousand years later: bogged-resurrection, the wait that moves life forward. Ending and beginning are impossible as opposites before they have fused together in one moment. Something is dissolving in me: let me set the scene…

My dearest is a botany teacher; I will call her Apricot from now on. She suggested we go to the Kennilworth Aquatic Gardens, here in Washington, DC. Look East of the Anacostia on a map to find them, nowhere near the National Mall nor the affluence of the Northwest quadrant. Tucked near marshes that bear a vague sheen of pollution is a series of submerged beds brimming with exotic plants. We have a quirky, sweet love — nerdy, too. She peers knowingly into the pores and gills of capsized mushrooms. We share a compulsive curiosity for the aboriginal world and the interwoven ribbon of human culture. She relishes books but her PhD is in Plant Pathology. I hungrily read pop-science articles but my BA is in English, my MA in International Education. Accidentally, we studied to be partners: the consummate biologist and the nascent intellectual — the writer to be.

Sacred Lotuses, dozens of themApricot and I prowled from the garden gate to the marsh boardwalks behind, among hundreds of ‘sacred lotuses’. They might have seemed common to me by morning’s end if not for their enormous, pale-green leaves and quinceañera-pink blossoms. Yet as we prepared to leave we noticed an ancient jewel in a murky bathtub. An unburied treasure resides in the concrete basin behind the green-house: lotuses cultivated from seeds that were 2000 years old. The revelation surprised me less than it impressed me but, that morning, I had not fathomed the depths of its significance.

An opening blossom next to a seasoned seed podShe read an autobiography by respected female scientist Hope Jahren, a fellow plant-lover. It is called “Lab Girl” and Apricot regaled me of a part from the middle, one long weekend. I considered the book ‘spoiled’ but more than a month later she insisted I should read it. I am simultaneously nibbling the posthumously published “Letters from the Earth (Mark Twain writing in the voice of Satan), taking regular doses of “Plain Living: A Quaker Path to Simplicity”, and big gulps from a book of Thomas Merton excerpts (”Echoing Silence”). Each is thought-provoking but, one long weekend, I started Jahren’s book in hungry need of a story to follow.

Lotus seed-podsWhen I told Apricot excitedly about the third chapter — the one about seeds — it was elementary to her. She is a plant scientist: she enjoyed connecting to the author in the discipline they both love. She knew seeds were alive all along… all along. I cried, of course, because I connected to the stories of seeds! The idea that an embryo was already alive, already waiting, waiting for just one chance to grow, still alive when the muck rises (the decades too), ready to split safety asunder and begin when the conditions are right — it all seemed an epiphany to me. The lotus pods sank into Chinese peat bogs and neither died nor flourished for millennia: they waited. It should not have been surprising yet I was deeply impressed. I thought about armor-clad black walnuts — and the jacket of bitter green material around their nuts, too. Miraculously, the walnut embryo can stay alive and suspend its arboreal ambitions until that thick, pungent ball of impossibility finally wears away. Apricot nodded and smiled over her tea, adding, “it can travel a long way, too.”

A large, glistening dew-drop on a leaf“This tiny seed had stubbornly kept up the hope of its own future while entire human civilizations rose and fell. …I wonder where it is right now,” Jahren muses. I saw its contemporaries well into their growth, their glorious residency in the concrete basin at the Kennilworth Gardens. “Each beginning is the end of a waiting. We are each given exactly one chance to be. Each of us is both impossible and inevitable. Every replete tree was first a seed that waited.”

Giant amazonian lily-padsI told Apricot, “whatever it is I’ve been desiring, I’m going to have to let it go,” in so many words, to favor germinating as myself — primarily a writer. My seed-coat could be made of precocity. As a child I was possessed with not only curiosity and originality but a pernicious precocity. I really thought my place at the front of the parade was assured and I would adapt and excel quickly at each juncture of my vocation. Instead of accepting short-falls as lessons from experiment and exercise, I felt them as holes missing from my self. Precocity’s opioid is the delusion of an instant opus, a redeeming work with no basis in trial. In lieu of excellence I dreamed of significance, a budding desire to play my role in global society. I attempted to cultivate bulbs of justice or else gild my own suffering, trying to hammer the shape of my own significance onto the surface of the pervading Internet. As I scrolled I became both partner and thrall to the addictive tapestries of “new media” and cocooned myself there, with the masses. I could not forge myself faster into something greater (precocious) but I ache to create meaning, still. Still, I am alive inside. The shells of my dissatisfied adolescence are not predictive of my deeper essence; the inner-child and the nascent elder are continuous (weirdly eternal!) and tend to muse rather than accomplish, to complicate as much as resolve — qualities that create existential drag but also eddies of provocative writing. I can accept the long processes of growth and discovery, if my protective coat of precocity dissolves in the promise of generative praxis.

'Impressionist' photo of a lily-pondMillions perish in a season, yet thousands of embryos retain viability, waiting for the right conditions to make one (only one) attempt to grow or perish. The paradox of the seed-coat holds me in suspense. Seeds get kicked to sunnier places, survive being eaten, float from coast to island — or wait on their parent tree until a raging fire melts the seal on their cone. The lotus’ coat entombed them in the bog — intact. Yet a seed might lose viability before its chance: split open on pavement, shat into a sewer, sunken in sediment to be fossilized, or imprisoned in cones on Mackinac Island where brush-fires are quenched by human authorities. So goes, also, my viability as an artist. Just over a year ago, a gardener about sixteen years older than me invited me to the U.S. Botanic Gardens to check-out an enormous corpse flower. To love and be loved mutually is a liberating condition. All of my gushing is distilled to one sentence: my ‘sweet apricot’ is the fire that opens my cone and, after this love, the cone cannot be resealed. Rather than patching the holes in myself, I sense they are necessary for my destiny to unfurl. My pungent, overwrought shell is cracking and the loam enveloping me is warm and wet. This soil is acceptable and my shoots and roots declare that emergence is NOW.

“Yes, we have to learn to write disciplined prose. We have to write poems that are “Poems”. But that is a relatively unprofitable and secondary concern compared with the duty of first writing nonsense. We have to learn the knack of free-association, to let loose what is hidden in our depths, to expand rather than to condense prematurely. Rather than making an intellectual point and then devising a form to express it, we need rather to release the face that is sweating under the mask and let it sweat out in the open for a change, even though nobody else gives it a prize for special beauty or significance.”

-Thomas Merton, “Why Alienation is for Everyone”, 1968
(emphasis mine)

'Apricot' stands on the boardwalk

Love wears a purple rain-jacket and walks with me on misty mornings.

Like all towering trees, I will begin in near insignificance and make sugars in the shadows. The canopy is far away. As Hope Jahren indicates later in her book, some lucky little trees have the benefit of being in symbiosis (with fungi). Someone established is nestled close to me, sharing in the journey upward.


Wrestling the Anchor: Nautical Impressions

I wear an anchor pendant. Unhoused neighbors, in uncanny encounters, recognize it as a sign of faith, at times, and indicate it when they ask for donations. There is a subtle lift to being recognized for what I am despite not being sure what composes me, or how to express it — the nebulous, shifting bounds of this spirituality. When a classmate inquired about the anchor’s meaning, I knew it was time to revisit reflections from the first two summers after I graduated from Michigan State…

Anchor pendant & grandpa's locker

My anchor pendant pictured atop my grandfather’s army/air-force foot-locker.

My father had decamped. In the wake of my grandfather’s death, I rushed into his space to become man-of-the-house. I literally filled grandpa’s shoes: laced their tiny riggings, sailed through fields and woods of (now) grandma’s farm. I never ‘filled his shoes’ in the idiomatic sense because my mother needed none other than her departed father; a son was not enough. I could never channel grandpa’s voice but the impetus to speak his words hung limp on those shoes, while they dangled from my feet, as I swayed on the wooden seat of an old swing and looked into the sky: empty but for the merest wisps.

Green fields in summerThat day was so sunny, so filled with light, that shapes lingered on my retinas, like watercolor paintings on my closed eyelids. Faithful, faith-filled meditations tinted those weeks. To describe myself as strictly ‘Christian’ (now) would mislead readers but many ‘spiritual soundings’ in my life emerge from fragments embedded during my nominally Christian past. I had counseled at church camp, that summer, and afterward I meditated on a Pauline list of virtues called “fruits of the spirit”: Love, Joy, Peace, Patience, Kindness, Goodness, Faithfulness, Gentleness, & Self-Control. Far from sea, and an hour from a Great Lake, I shut my eyes and submerged in the trough of scents between gentle swells of hill. Love became the ubiquitous fragrance of sun-warmed hay, Joy the whiff of fabric softener from between the buttons of my shirt, and then Peace… (swaying…)

…like a pencil rubbing of a sunken ship’s bell, the archetype of an anchor bloomed in diffuse shades. I rubbed gently against ‘Peace’. Its impression came into focus and resolved into the hooking flukes, long shank, and cross-like stock of a sea-anchor. Swinging (swaying) at the ends two rusted chains, I closed my eyes and imagined sinking, sinking (swaying) to the sandy bottom: Peace. I was dating a lady who graduated from an obscure, Christian school called “Hope College” and their logo is an anchor. My youthful brain twisted the apparition into a kind of endorsement for that relationship, for an idea of ‘Hope’ that included her. It was more endearing than foolish: I wanted to build a foundation in Michigan with her. I wanted to be a man like my grandfather was or like I imagined my father should have been; swimming (swaying) between their dual-departures, I seized an idea of myself as strong.

Sun setting over a light-house on Lake MichiganI think too seldom about our red-flag ‘invitation’ from the Muskegon park authorities. She and I went to the beach, there, besieged by high-winds and semi-dangerous waves flung against the shore by Lake Michigan. In the chaos, once feeble eddies surged. Undercurrents, feelings, all manner of things that are stifled under the scrutiny of the sun were uncoiled like giant pythons. Despite more ‘suitable’ and dapper attempts to be attractive, when last I succeeded at romance it was as a half-naked, half-bearded outdoorsman following a woman into The Seething Lake. She wanted to swim. We were up to our wastes in cold, sloshing, foamy water as we laughed and charged through the surf. The rocking of the lake bent our knees, made us falter and fall — laughing. As we went deeper, she held onto me as the waves pawed at us (swaying) and I dug my feet into the sand, hard, to keep her from being washed away. I was an anchor. She held me tight. So tight.

The Lake, A field, A swing-setBut she was a fair-weather companion. Her behavior and god changed as the surf rose. Her Faith foundations were made from perfect, yet impossible, blocks. I am made of glacial till, myself, like the almost-round (but-never-quite-so) fieldstones unearthed by grandpa’s disc-plow each spring. I could not be so hewn, could not have perfect edges, and it did not matter to her the strength of my material, only that my life had shaped me imperfectly. Wave after wave filled my mental shadow-box with shards of calamity: another dying grandfather, a breached apartment, more family afflicted with cancer, and the unsteady employment many faced in the recession. In the midst of such frustration, Western Christian culture’s heavenward rhetoric could not buoy me, nor salvage our romance. The god I was trying so hard to love and trust became a nasty side-effect from a drug that never worked. This god was made of sugar-pill, cheap-ass, self-help books that my ex-girlfriend read — where was the real god? Was there ever one? The universe should have issued a recall.

I often remember the day she left my neighborhood for the last time, the scene so sublime. Her green Jeep crested my hill in Grand Rapids Michigan engulfed by the setting sun, like a canoe disappearing into a golden mist just before the waterfall; I never saw her again. I sprayed those books with old mosquito repellent and lit them like a ritual sacrifice. In the ashes of depression, I found a stillness.

Deep, dark, almost still waters... The anchor I saw was Peace, not Hope. Peace is meant to nestle into my hull — my deepest self — and be ballast against the gales, a rocking mantra in heavy seas. Peace can plunge deep into the unknown of my self, into my darkest depths, and find a foundation. It needs no buoy. Peace has never been an absence of conflict any more than an anchor is a charm against storms. Importantly, Peace and anchors require some degree of learning. I would do well to tie a line from my anchor to the next fruit in the series: patience.

It would be a year before I saw an anchor again. In the intervening months, however, I was visited by The Mystery.

To Be Continued…

The Phoenix in the Olive Tree

The phoenix of popular imagination does not belong flat on his back, atop a broken couch and cuddled with his trumpet, in the cave beneath the(A dark phoenix -- Moltres) Zoughbi house. I was sore from the previous night’s stress-release workout. Still, by the time Rajaee found me in my hiding place, my brain was busy piecing apart the possibility of getting a PhD in Peace & Conflict Studies.

We went olive picking the very next day, strained calf-muscle or not. Last year’s olive harvest made an arboreal man of me. This year I felt just as lithe, though not as daring as the Swede since he had a way of getting into the highest branches. As usual, I was looking for things to write about: the teenage hired-helpers and their father, hanging our arms out the side of the car to carry long ladders, plump orbs of green and purple, or the cactus patch –bare of fruit but still menacing. Aloft in the oldest tree, I conceived of myself, as I had in a line from a poem I wrote long ago, as a phoenix alight in an olive tree. ‘I really am a phoenix on an olive branch– a fiery person reborn in the movement for peace.’ The olive tree is made of sleeping fire: when the fruit is squeezed it produces a flammable oil.

…as I was plucking olives from the tree, my mind went back to a discussion I had with a friend about altruism (useful concept?) and the nature of collective responsibility (more useful, I believe…). Writing and peace are where my inner nerd marries my inner geek.

I fell asleep early last night, in the drowse from a beer shared with the Swede, our colleague from Alabama, and Zoughbi (who preferred ginger-ale). I excused myself to bed and slept until six in the morning, rolled out of bed to turn the alarm off, and rolled in again under the weight of my aching body. The weight never quite left me when I rose, hopeful about drafting my vision for life but overwhelmed by the gravity of doing something like that. Tea is often my solution for moments of inertia but I didn’t expect that the next ‘big move’ would strike me as the tea was steeping.

“I need to be reconciled with my ex-girlfriend… I’ve become genuinely thankful that she left me.” I drafted an e-mail, thanking her for making that decision and for the way that she chose to do that. Understand, friends, I had once taken back my sense of pride by criticizing her. Today, I took back my honor by seeing the good in what she had done and appreciating her for it. I want to show respect to my colleagues, and my future, by choosing the restorative way.

My visionary break-through was not waiting for me in Microsoft Word. I dragged my heels and fussed with iTunes but only came-up with this meager skeleton:

Vision Statement:


My Biography (free-write)

-Starting in Mindanao, reminded of who I am. Go into flashbacks to tell the story

My Main Interests (free-write)

How Peace is Composed (free-write)

My Related Interests (free-write)

The social media vortex grabbed my attention, as I struggled to be articulate, and I had to thrust myself away from the computer. My hand-written journal was laying open on the couch, book-marked to an entry in July where I write about “recoil effects” from my solitary confinement in Jordan. I know too well that I have had too much solitary dwelling in my history. I fought hard to stay engaged with what I had written weeks ago, to keep from medicating my sense of emptiness with more browsing. I know too well I have too much self-medicating in my history. As I read yesterday’s entry, this passage came into sharp focus:

“Five minutes after I awoke the second time, I was laying flat on my back with my face buried under my hands. At the turning-point of my life, I’m still wondering about bread, vegetables, changing money… [spiritual-director] ‘kicked’ me hard last night, urging me to begin the process of applying to graduate programs and reminding me, again, that I think I don’t deserve it—don’t deserve to go by the seat of my pants, don’t deserve to be a talented writer after my squandered years online, don’t deserve… khalas. I have a number of ‘blocking’ feelings I can’t name and don’t understand…”

Putting aside the hard-back journal, I immediately fell into a fitful sleep on the couch. (Moltres outline) I woke in Palestine, realizing my laundry was dry and that I should probably remove the multiple shirts hanging in crucifix- position on my clothes-line. A little morbid humor was good medicine, just then. A suppressed memory of my dead grandmother emerged, as she seemed to pin my grandfather’s shirts against Michiganian, lake-effect winds and, concurrently, hand me the shirt I took from his closet after he died.

I descended to the cave to try to play away some of that tension but the Swede intercepted me with an offer to help at the office. A half-hour later I was shelling-out pomegranate kernels and listening to my co-worker talk to our Mennonite friend about an Israeli assassination conspiracy. I scooted my chair closer. It was my pleasure to join the dinner discussion about a culture of acceptance and the complex prospect of mosques in Germany. This is the essence of the life I found by accident—my greatest challenge and greatest gift—because my commitments in Michigan walked away from me. I gambled with the extra space in my life, hoping to fill it with stories worth telling, writing, or even melting into the fabric of my being. Not one step has been easy yet all have been fruitful, somehow. Now, I live in the bigger-version of our world.

My prayer under the stars, tonight, became a long journey into places I have not seen in months, years. I used to become a black-hole every time I prayed—collapsing inward, looking for my ‘flaw’. What is the opposite of a black-hole? A disco-ball—it’s reflective on all sides, yes, but it’s also a great deal more fun than having your atoms pulled apart. Disco-balls are for dances… for weddings… for hanging in miniature-form on my rear-view mirror. Living through the computer-screen, it’s easy to forget the breadth of visions contained in my brain– begging to be visited, ordered, and reinterpreted. My thoughts careened through the inner-space of night: church hay-rides, a snow-filled college-campus, boat-lights on lakes, camp-fires in the woods, holding my mother’s hand as we leave my aunt’s house on Thanksgiving… Palestinian barbeques. I miss all those places with a hurt that scares me. I want it back.

Inside again, I struggled to sketch what I wanted from my adventures:

I want to explore the way that narratives interface with collective identity

                the way the colonized critique the colonizers; the way traditions critique themselves and each other and the overall goals of culture.

I want to create enriched narratives from my encounters with peace-builders

I wonder how acts of creativity manifest resistance

                mediate the process of building trust or reimagining narratives

I would like to do an ethnographic study of grassroots peace-builders and their stories, perhaps passed through literary/artistic lenses.

                sociological lenses/mass media lenses/IPC lenses

                pertaining to particular biases, synthesized together in restorative ways

Concerned with building a safe-space for story-telling, toward creating common narratives.

                toward a ‘culture of acceptance’ where trust provides a foundation for dialogue

                with acknowledgement to the ‘metaphorical engineer’: friction is always there…

I would like to improve the art of story-telling in myself, using that as a way to create dialogue

                to dissolve the usual power-dynamics.

Ways of fragmentation versus ways of emulsification…

Nobody here but us trouble-makers...

Nobody here but us trouble-makers…


An e-mail quietly appeared. It was my ex, the one who turned her back on me in 2010. The precise contents of that message are private but she was appropriately gracious. She wished me luck during the next phase of my life, let me know she was happily married and tending the house, etc. I learned she had left church-work as a career– a beautiful irony that the ‘broken’ person became the missionary and the very religious person found tranquility at home. At the end, she said she had no intention of being friends nor of staying in-contact, which is what I expected since she tended to keep her circle small. Oddly, instead of thinking “Fine: she doesn’t appreciate my friendship—screw-it” I thought, “it would probably confuse her too deeply to try—I’ll let her know I’m removing her from my address book and that I appreciate her reply.” There’s nothing wrong with being happily married and tending house, nothing to hold in contempt. Every woman should have that right – in every place.

My heart ached for just a moment, just a flutter of leftover sadness, but I looked at the other pane on my screen:

The place of peace and conflict studies in my life is to provide foci and goals for diverse interests: writing & literature, history & sociology, consciousness & communication. Still, this field of study is inseparable from a personal commitment to mitigating social disharmony. Without this love, the labor is too difficult to sustain.

She said she knew in her heart I couldn’t be the partner she needed. God bless that guy, her husband. On the other hand, God bless me for being a Phoenix—for blazing brightly, sometimes volcanically. The love I know now was unintelligible then, living with so much hurt in a culture where anguish is taboo. I mistook my codependency for commitment, years ago, but now I can see what real commitment looks like—looking back at me while I shave. The tattoo over my heart reads “to seek justice and resist evil”: resisting it in the world and in myself. It would collapse her world to understand that; it’s better that she remembers me slumped on an old couch, with a potted plant on my lap (because I had to cuddle something to stay composed). Not everyone is willing to see me differently – but I do now. I also want to see myself be vulnerable like that again; I want to merge selves.

 * * *

Moltres, of Pokemon fame.

Moltres, of Pokemon fame.

Xavier Phoenix is barely aflame again, in the ashes of foiled wishes. What fire-bird

A Foil to Moltres: Articuno

Articuno, also of Pokemon fame.

would NOT want to find someone with whom he can dash into trouble—another fire-bird? I could not try hard enough to find her but I hope to cross her smoke-trail.

On the other hand, maybe precisely what I need is a woman who leaves flurries of snow in her wake – someone so cool that she tempers me.

Tonight, though, I feel like I am courting my fate in a different way. As my friend said, “graduate education is not a matter to consider lightly.”

“Of course. I was upset with myself for not taking the step forward earlier, until I realized that peace-studies and I have only been dating since I came to Palestine… relationships take time.”

A Wedding Reception (part 2)

All names are still changed, as in the last entry. Photographs by Ruben Vl.

There was a staggered set of concrete blocks to prevent anyone from rushing the check-point but, otherwise, the occupiers did not care about traffic going into Beit Sahour. We passed unheeded and Roger exhaled. Having just come from the wedding via the surreal streets of the Israeli settlement, our group of seven was eager to get to the reception and celebrate. Just as the sun began to set, A.T. remembered the time he had a job interview in East Jerusalem but brought his son’s passport by mistake. The soldiers held the passport and his wife had to come get it. This is how things really happen in the West Bank. The flow of their lives is interrupted by apartheid, wedding days and holidays included. It sends my thoughts in directions I do not want to explore.

I fiddled with my prayer beads again as we passed grazing herds of sheep. I bought the beads in Al-Khaleel, the day Belgium, Sweden, and I came there from Ramallah, then went to down-town Bethlehem and over to a restaurant in Beit Jala. We began the day talking to lawyers who defend juveniles in Israeli military courts (<occupation), accompanied some Cambridge students to the divided Ibrahami mosque1 (<occupation), then went to see Walid at “Pain Art Studios” (<tattoo guy). Belgium wanted to get a Handalla on his bicep and I was happy to accompany him to the second floor of the barbershop by the spice-store. I took my commission in peanuts and tequila that day, a rare treat.

Fun with ceiling mirrors.

The three of us arrived to the fourth floor of the reception-center together. Pencil sketches of the new couples were on display near the entrance.

Yulla! Yulla!

Rows of long tables striped the grand banquet halls. I found it hard to believe that every chair could be full by ten in the evening but, with all barriers behind us, there was nothing to stop anyone from celebrating. What really impressed me was that the three of us were more than welcome to celebrate; I mean to physically REJOICE. With apologies to my cousin’s great marriage, and respect to the beautiful ceremony of which I was a part, and acknowledgement of the food, I lament that her wedding-day became flaccid for lack of dancing. A wedding without dancing is a cold bath; a half-filled pie-crust.

Our pies were filled to overflowing, metaphorically speaking. Literally, we had chicken and rice. Though we ate and made small-talk, and had interesting encounters with new people (including a very small old man sitting next to me), I was consumed by the urge to dance. Dancing at Palestinian weddings has far exceeded my expectations. The music is ideal: rhythmic, intense, and exuberant. The enthusiasm of the entire room was a match for that energy. At first, it was a group of tiny little boys attempting to break-dance while we waited for the newlyweds (ending in a kung-fu match and a good cry). Once the couples were with us, though, people of all ages left their chairs – and by that time, the chairs were mostly full. Dozens of family and friends, barred from the ceremony, arrived to congratulate the brides, grooms, and parents.

Of course, my own dancing cannot be summarized in writing. It has to be witnessed. My highlight came when, shoved into the middle of an open circle, I had to dance by myself with everyone watching. Another great moment was when two young guys suspended a cane between their chests while the rest of us leaned back and danced along underneath. Overall, I think everyone who tried danced fantastically. My personal dance strategy is only to try my hardest to have fun and this, I gather, is culturally acceptable as long as I keep my clothes on and do not touch any women who are not my sister2.

If my wedding is not like this, I demand a re-try…

Grown men were thrown into the air. All the young men came together and threw Jack up and down several times, scary considering what a big guy he is. They almost chipped a ceiling tile throwing Jim and he’s closer to my size. Men were up on each other’s shoulders throughout the night, including both brothers, their elder brother, their father, and I am fairly sure a few brothers-in-law offered their shoulders, too. No one was hurt while the action took place, though I think there must have been some sore backs in the morning

Meanwhile, some certain people had quite a bit to drink and had a wonderful time. That is all I will say on the matter except to state, for the record, that I was a help to the staggering without joining their ranks. I owe a great deal of thanks to the rice I ate after I drank my arak3.

As we were leaving, I wanted to make sure to thank both grooms for letting me celebrate with them. Here I was, a person they barely knew a year ago from a country that supports their subjugation, and yet I am allowed to eat, laugh, and even hug these people. By small increments, I have dug a small spot for myself as a family friend. ‘Jim’ (whose real name is beautiful4) returned my well-wishes with interest. Without going into sentimental details, here, he hoped the best for me and my future marriage. It was probably the relational content of that – that my friend wants me to be happy – that really touched my heart.

Simultaneously, the literal content of that statement stirred deep feelings in me. Before I arrived in Palestine, I was coming out of a broken period of my life. My family split apart, in the midst of divorces and deaths, and made me into a broken person who could not keep his own relationship from shattering. Yet, I try not to think about that as often, anymore, since the people I see on a daily basis know me differently. I expected to weave a deep reflection about romance, fidelity, and ultimate love from this journal entry but instead I see an opportunity to be at rest for a moment. The harder I have tried to be the man I wished my father would have been for my mother, the more I have not been the person that was invited to the wedding last weekend. The same community that celebrated with the two brothers has, at least partly, restored me to what I might have been three years ago. There is really nothing I can do but trust to God and believe that I am, indeed, a member of a great extended family. It is a family that includes my friends in Palestine, of course, but also people around the world who fight depression not by drowning it in idle pleasure, nor by trying to destroy the people who hurt them, but by having a hope, a will, an energy that is buoyant enough to lift the weight of trials, light enough to rise to the surface in times of celebration. I have been impatient with myself and that has made the wait longer, though I still cannot regret any step I have taken because the latest period in my life has been so essential.

Though I feel like a fragment, there is hope for community and, with the support of that community, for Loving again.

With all the problems in the world, these are the moments that become our oasis.


1) The building was divided following a horrible attack where an extremist settler came into the mosque and opened fire and was consequently overwhelmed and killed. Apparently, the punishment for not lying down and being shot is to have your Holy place split in half. I often compare this building to the story of Solomon where the king must deduce to whom a baby belongs. The mother who agreed that the baby should be cut in half was NOT THE MOTHER. Real life does not work out as sensically, after all.

2) My sister was more than an ocean away and does not dance.

3) Arak is a fine liquor; find it on Wikipedia.

4) It literally translates as stated.

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 al-quds(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. 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 he’s 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.