Epiphany & Beyond

firespell-red-candleI must be still, if I am to enter the chrysalis. In order to slough the thick skin that has retained my guts, along with all my potential, I have to allow my eyes to glaze over and the chill hunger of winter engulf me…

Fireworks pierced the air above manger square, buzzing a passing recon drone. The lights of the new Manger Square Christmas tree glowed like thousands of festive lightning beetles in heat. Light spread across wires above our heads, coiled around palm trees, and exploded from fireworks exploding. All of that joyful exploding cracked my stern expression. I saw something new was happening in Palestine, with a female mayor in Bethlehem and a statehood bid. I put aside the hot issue, and my contentious views, for another day. “No one cares what I think – I should take advantage rather than being resentful! I should disappear and find contentment in deficit—maybe find God there.”

If I knew what that actually looked like, I would in essence not be doing it. I always try to imagine but this time I could really embrace nothing: deficits.

I started a blog called Reverse Exiled when I was stranded in Jordan, sweating through a high-fever I brought with me from regions Eastward, waiting for a visa. Now, I want to choose my own exile and reverse tack. Tomorrow, I talk with my new supervisor in Washington DC. It will be less than three months before we shake hands. As I brainstormed for our first meeting, I realized I have the potential to re-imagine myself. I wrote parameters and I deleted them: I can re-imagine. The persona I developed over the course of the past year will need to die.

A phoenix-effect—look at my url. I am Xavier Phoenix. My name was a prophesy even I could not fully intuit: X for variability and the phoenix for re-birth. My blog is reverse exiled: coming back and leaving and coming back and leaving. It was a re-imagining of “In Rainbow Colors”, which I want to retro-duce to you all someday. Then I can retro-duce “Quest in Cold Metal”. Maybe…

The trouble with being Phoenix is that I cannot burrow into my ashes until I have burned exhaustingly hot. Now I must cool. Today I managed to brush away my ideas about random and systemic violence and take a trip with a colleague into Jerusalem to the Scottish Memorial Church. I sang through a stuffy nose and drank too much coffee after the service. We walked into the old City to visit the jeweler who sold me my sister’s gift. He was thrilled to hear that she had graduated from college and would soon receive his special creation. We drank mint tea and he told us about a nun who was kind to him when he was a child, about the dinners she hosted and egg-hunts at Easter. He is Muslim. Everything was different before the first intifada… my colleague later commented that Muneer is someone who is very comfortable with who he is and, thus, able to relate to other people better because of it. He is also a smart businessman, an expert artisan, and a proud father. It seems as if Muneer started by being the best Muneer he could be. What did you all learn from your jeweler, today?

As I typed a vision of the best John Daniel, I saw that I was only mostly like him but that I could choose to be more like him. “I get the feeling, sometimes, that I am very forceful online…”

“Yes,” said my coworker, “but that is how you are working through these issues…”

On some level, I knew I was burning too hot. As my colleague and I walked away toward Damascus gate, she asked me what the peaks and valleys of my service in Palestine had been. My highlight day had been marching into Jerusalem with my boss on Palm Sunday. I finally experienced the city as alive with a soul. My most difficult time was not an event but the season of late winter in 2012, when I felt as if I could make more impact by standing in front of bulldozers at house demolitions, sacrificing myself to make bad press for Israel. My self seemed less important than my work rather than equal to it.

Eventually, I became comfortable with my small role at the Wi’am Center. I realized that I had co-workers who valued and nurtured me. My potential, even my skill-sets, have not grown much while I was in Palestine but I matured. After all, how do I profit from more knowledge and skill when I cannot get past hurting? Of self-centeredness? Or resentment? Now, I return with gifts and perspective, both. Perhaps I can start over as a writer.

At home this evening, I avoided social media faithfully for the first time this week. Dishes completely covered my counter but now they are stacked and drying. My cluttered desk remains for next weekend. Tired of cold showers, I learned I could pour a bucket of hot water for myself in the bathroom sink. I glanced at the mirror and noticed how happy this made me. It was the first time I have washed with warm water since I left Amman. Who could resist pouring a second bucket, just as a reward for being alive?

I think I will allow this entry to defy coherence because it is a breaking away, even if a small one. My essence has never been lost in twenty-six and a half years of being alive but there have been critical junctures. We always wish they were conversion events but most are periods that last more than a month but less than a year. Sometimes, they come stacked together. There was that time of uncertain solitude, then the zombie weeks between my return and olive season, and this latest period of intensity. Now, there is Advent and Epiphany beyond…

The Dome of the Rock, seen from a distance ~ as close as I could get.

The Dome of the Rock, seen from a distance ~ as close as I could get.

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An Open Letter to an American

[Dear Respectable Church-Person],

Thank you so much for your comments. It seems, to me, that we are on a journey with the same issue but from different angles, in different amounts, and at different points in our lives. The fact that you engage me in a conversation about the situation in the Holy Land is more encouraging than hearing only things I ‘want to hear’. You actually touched on some important issues to think about.

Beyond the propaganda tools that might be in force I feel like there is another force at work in all of us: the golden mean. In most situations, taking a middle position is just plain smart. It’s much rarer that a situation gets enough out of control that we find ourselves over-riding that guideline to match the disproportion of the situation. It creates a challenge of proportions — how much do we pressure one side or the other? Activists can drift entirely and devotedly to one side and we know that is not wise. I lived out of my outrage and am focusing, this Advent, on living from my compassion instead. I confess it with my lips: I was so upset, it was hard to gain clarity the past two weeks.

The temptation is to look at the death-toll: there were at least thirty Palestinian deaths for every one Israeli … but what if that one were from our family? We also know, through Jesus, that it is in God’s shepherding character to leave 99 sheep to look for one. If there are disproportionate portrayals of the conflict it is, indeed, because the conflict is so disproportional. However, your compassion for Israelis in fear and desiring a peaceful solution is not at all misplaced. It’s exactly the perspective I need or I might be tempted to blindness.

We are not completely blind about Hamas. Actually, we met a physician who just left Gaza two days ago and she compared Hamas to the Congolese government: receiving massive aide (from Qatar, in Hamas’s case) but not distributing it well to the poorest people. Hamas is under constraints but it is a legitimate criticism. As Islamists, they are not ideal for women’s participation, nor adept at working in pluralist or secular settings. In short, I wish they were not the prevailing force in Gaza and I believe under different circumstances they would be out-competed by other parties. At the same time, the “terrorist” brand from the US government seems misleading because it associates them with international terror-groups like Al-Qaeda rather than placing them in a category with small, inept governments which they resemble more closely. They have their tactics and rhetoric to blame, of course. The IRA was similarly branded, though they now have an uneasy truce in Northern Ireland. As a pacifist, I am philosophically opposed to pipe-bombs and rockets.

Yet if Hamas set the proverbial fire-in-the-theater then it was the Israeli & Western media who yelled “FIRE!” instead of reaching for an extinguisher. We were sitting in the West Bank smirking at the coverage of the Tel Aviv bus-bombing. No one died but it floated to the top of the headlines — yet people were and still are dying in Palestine from Israel’s excessive military force. The Western media pushed the non-fatal bombing unusually hard — that creates fear in Israel and creates a problem of proportion for the rest of the world: people in the US and Canada begin to ‘feel’ that Israel is in greater peril. The Hamas arsenal is notoriously inaccurate, ineffective, and statistically unlikely to hurt anyone. So, I was left feeling ambivalent about the numerous public service announcement on Israeli television — do they promote safety or increase the perception of danger? When people live so constantly in fear, it can put viciousness in their hearts. It it heart-breaking.

My final conclusion on rockets is that they have nothing to do with a solution: neither their presence nor their absence seems to make a difference to bringing dignity back into the region. Hamas cannot be the heroes their people need. Israel will only strengthen them by continuing in violence.

The problem of proportion is second only to the problem of responsibility. Of course I can denounce Hamas, for good reasons, but I want to take the moral high-ground with a purpose. We, as a United States citizens, have no stake in Hamas. Nothing Hamas does has come in contact with our tax dollars and both the UM church and the government do not endorse them. For me, as someone who believes they would be defeated in a free-democracy, I feel sometimes like my denouncements of Hamas could distract from the conditions under which they hold power. Those conditions are Israel’s responsibility: they came from the occupation and now from the blockade. Since military aide comes for the United States to Israel, I feel responsible for raising awareness and changing our culture so that the blockade and occupation can end and peace can be achieved. The dream was closest when Prime Minister Rabin made the Oslo accords in 1994 but subsequent Israeli governments have taken the region further from a solution and now the middle-East is changing rapidly. This is why I have felt like I needed to weight my criticism of Israel more heavily. Again, how heavily is right?

So, we have a problem of proportion and a problem of responsibility when we talk about this conflict. I thought Hamas’s best tactical move (disappointly) was to continue firing rockets to get more global attention (I hoped nobody would be hit) but since they did not end the blockade with their rockets it’s fair to say the tactic failed for them and I am edified. It succeeded for the Fatah government as the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) made a push for Observer State Status at the United Nations and won by a land-slide; we think that the world saw the PLO’s legal push as a middle-road. Only 9 countries voted against them. Some of the 45 abstaining countries said they would vote “yes” if Palestine promised not to pursue a case against Israel in the international criminal court. I think pursuing that case is the best thing possible, in spite of the short-term careers of politicians in Britain and elsewhere. There really have been many war crimes committed here since 1948 and I fear that by failing to lower the gavel we leave space for others to raise the gun. The over-do case is akin to cleaning a closet — there will be a bigger mess before things get better. Yet I believe the needed peace is locked in that closet. They needed to establish a truth-telling commission in South Africa, whose work is not yet over.

I do my best and try to keep learning. Thank you for your message of peace and your prayers.

Sincerely,

[Daniel Xavier]

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.