Smashed Pear (entry fragment)

He left when he heard I was graduating. I wanted to follow him into the hallway and plead that I could drop my capstone class and hang around for another year but too many pieces of me were invested in matriculating. I wished him a good day and listened to the door shut behind him. A voice from the front of my brain, sitting on the tip of some pessimistic wrinkle, volunteered that he wanted eighteen months to get me into shape. Yet somewhere deeper inside the skull, buried between my hemispheres, I knew that he thought I was ready to play. Another musician — the director of jazz-bands — had affirmed that I was worthy of joining. But it all happened a year too late.

In my chest I felt something like a smashed pear. My heart felt cold, bathed in a cool ooze as if it had been dropped on the floor of that practice room. Everything seemed perfectly normal in the wake of his leaving, as if my life were wrapped in a plastic bag. A layer remained between me and the possibility of being recognized and developed as a jazz musician but the impact, the thrust of falling, could not be stopped. I wanted to lay on the floor, smashed. My heart was still beating but its skin was broken and it dripped cool sweetness into my chest, pumping it out into my extremities. I put my instrument to my mouth as if I were pressing it to the abrasion on my bruised heart, sealing the wound with a quick lip of my lips and the long buzzing kiss against cold metal. I played something familiar — “Love Gets Old” — but much bluer, with some new twists. The music and the motif met: a real musician with real blues.

Mega Man X Complex: Vile

Airplanes are the space-age cask for fermenting questions about memory and emotion. Jorge Luis Borges was a frequent ‘companion’ of mine on transcontinental flights but, as I returned from Iowa, I wanted only to gaze from the window. I was looking into the distance– imagining myself squeezing out the portal and running into the sun flooded expanses of grass—bypassing my reflection. I saw him  staring back at me, inviting me to recharge my aura, but I decided I wanted to write something ironic instead. ‘The Mega Man X obsession was a defense mechanism;’ I decided I ‘should disassemble my personal myths’. I sketched an outline, titled it “The Mega Man Complex”, and forgot about it.

vile_carrier

‘Vile’ in his armor

I had something more iconic in mind on February 15th, 2012 via “In Rainbow Colors”:

Playing from the beginning, I ran into that city over a hundred times, through the gauntlet, to challenge a foe in a reinforced metal-suit.

In the old SNES video game, one plays as a robot-turned-righteous. X obliterates a slew of unremarkable

‘maverick’ robots and stands before the bay door of an enormous air-ship. Vile emerges from a bomb-bay door. Like Sigma, Vile is a powerful and corrupt robot. There is something Jungian—shadowlike—in them because they were once ‘Maverick Hunters’: keepers of order. Vile is drunk on supremacy and nearly destroys X:

megaman_blue

X, without upgrades

The game is designed in such a way that X cannot possibly win without being rescued…”

Vile stuns the anemic hero, then holds him aloft and helpless. He gloats openly — calls X a “worthless piece of scrap metal”. Perched atop his armored hydraulic-carrier, Vile commands the fate of the battle. From my perch in the airplane, I saw some ‘Vile’ in myself. I had always seen vile things of a lesser nature in myself, like being intentionally abrasive, but this quality was quintessentially Vile (a capital ‘V’) because of my metaphorical armored-carrier. Sometimes it was manifest in surging anger but more often in a stun gun: every time a challenging memory surfaced, I paralyzed it. Maybe the Vile character sees his own vulnerability in ‘X’ –and is all the more merciless because of it.

Yet, he has no doubt about his mission, except for the doubts he has about himself. He is inadequate.

Vile flees the scene when Zero arrives but he’s waiting at Sigma’s fortress for a rematch; the Vile elements in our lives and selves return, still mounted on vehicles of control. The X in me has begun to doubt even Mission, in light of my self. Perhaps it is because I convinced myself I was a bad, ironic missionary: an ‘infiltrator’. When I was with coworkers at Wi’am I was nourished by our spirit de corps but alone in Amman (Jordan) I was fueled by challenging Israeli border control to one more contest of wills. The battle restored me to my post but the feeling of being impervious flowed into my veins like a warm drug.

Mega Man is neutral on issues of pride because his unprecedented power and skill is not for the sake of prowess or accolades but to respond to the increasing level of difficulty.

Really, Xavier? Stressors ferment into strength or else they desiccate us. I can hold back my shivers, under pressure, but it takes me far too long to weep again and release the poison. Stress can teach us both: abilities ajust_vilend disabilities. I wish only my ‘new’ struggle lingered with me—shades of preexisting darkness taint my ability to digest my ‘nobler’ flaws. A particular addiction comes to mind.  I’ve almost confessed the habit several times but backed-off because I couldn’t “explain” it sufficiently to make torching my reputation worth the confession. No one wants to read details of what I watched, how often, or how it’s “not as bad” as the things I refused to watch, and other qualifications, nor does anyone want to see me piously condemning myself (much less back-tracking).It is less a matter of filth than of weakness. The armored-carrier is a justice-missionary: why unshell the Vile character inside?  The only reason I hint at confession is…

Mega Man is emblematic of a new self-concept, for me, because of his dynamic growth and intrinsic goals. There is no princess or treasure waiting for him in Sigma’s fortress.

…the only reason I confess at all is because I already know there is no princess or treasure waiting for me. No max-tomato will restore my health in an instance, no dancing stars pop from the stonework and make me impervious—no magic mushrooms. Anyone who played this first game in the X series (the only Mega Man game I played, incidentally) knows that X’s strength comes piece by piece as he overcomes other bosses and finds upgrade pods. No equipment or even so much as a spare energy capsule comes to X without a fire-fight. I am in a campaign to reclaim my mind, from many things, yet Vile remains…

zero

Zero: an ally.

It is Zero that chases him away in the initial stage of the game—and X kneels in a state of utter exhaustion:

Yet, he has no doubt about his mission, except for the doubts he has about himself. He is inadequate. Zero leans over and says to him… well, I scoured the internet and could not find it…

I succeeded where I had failed before: I found Zero’s words of encouragement to X after their first encounter with Vile: “X, you should not expect to defeat him; he is designed to be a war machine. Remember, you have not reached full power yet. If you use all the abilities you were designed with, you should become stronger. You may even become as powerful as I am.” During his second encounter with Vile, X is nearly bested (again!) but Zero sacrifices himself to destroy the carrier.

It is not because our programming was fail-safe but because our paths have shaped our potential. Only the blue, self-doubting X from the first stage could have become the imposing X who eventually bests his opponent from earlier in the game.

Who is my Zero? The “right” answer would be to say Jesus, though I had not intended that. I am reluctant to assert that, not wanting to mock the idea. The deification of Jesus that so many Christians make central can distract from his example. I had a fruitful moment of meditation; I conceived of sin as real hurt circulating in our relationships, not as a supernatural stain. More than atoning, we have to remedy secondary-effects: the insidious interest on our debt of transgressions. Jesus is not a ‘sacrificial lamb’ who makes everything better instantly (a max tomato, a magic mushroom). If we understand him as a leader, through whose example we can stand on level ground with all that is Vile, then the crucifixion really did destroy the metaphorical armored-carrier. Unfortunately, that means we have to go beyond building strength to using it. We must fight to rectify accounts, even if we did not cause the imbalances. And I must unshell the Vile in myself so I can be salvaged, too.

Playing from the beginning, I ran into that city over a hundred times, through the gauntlet, to challenge a foe in a reinforced metal-suit.

Upgraded and looking dapper

Upgraded and looking dapper

Mission is continuing the struggle against the hurt already caused and the “sin” still compounding the damage. ‘X’ goes on the offensive and takes responsibility for crimes he is not perpetrating. His sense of collective responsibility is impressive, for a machine, and I think he aspired to be more humane as much as I did to be made of steel. Human or machine, our compassion and our selves are brought to full expression in adversity but not strictly from the trials themselves. There are specific pieces to be discovered and mastered together. As Zero said, “If you use all the abilities you were designed with, you should become stronger. You may even become as powerful as I am.” It is time to reclaim and charge my aura.

—with enhancements: put on the full armor.

As for Vile, he is defeated but never truly dead. The game’s overall storyline would lose X’s best foil if Vile were not reincarnated to be struggled with, on screen in every sequel, adding the thread of a long-term grudge to otherwise fresh casts of ‘mavericks’. In short, he makes the game more human by being SO stubborn.

On that note, part 2 ends.

Kirby things you deserve a max tomato for reading all 1400 words!

Kirby thinks you deserve a max tomato for reading all 1400 words!

 

*By tools I mean weapons. Its a video-game but I want to keep the violent metaphors muted.

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.

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 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.”

Torn to Pieces

I was walking up the street with my new colleague from Sweden (Dawwid) and I noticed all the little ones from the nearby girls’ elementary school scampering down the hill in their matching dresses. It bubbled to mind how I miss writing about the intimate details of peoples’ lives in Palestine. Last fall at this time, I wanted to use my stories to tackle big abstracts. I quickly became an essayist and analyst, less of a poet. The tiny girls slowed, by their presence, the chaos at the intersection half-way up the hill, as the young men who run the bakery there puffed their Saturday cigarettes and brought out bags of bread—four shekels each. Less than twelve hours earlier, the same intersection was ablaze –literally—with an ominous pile of trash, branches, and tires. Teenagers ran into dark alleys to grab more junk, greedily, laughing and saying “nahr! b’shoof, nahr!” Fire! Look, fire! I mumbled my disinterested recognition and hurried back down the same hill, now strewn with litter.

It is no small thing that these ‘demonstrations’ are happening. The water went off, undoubtedly because Bethlehem exceeded the unrealistic quota set by Israel, while fountains spewed the contents of the West Bank aquifer onto the lawns of illegal settlements. The municipality, the Palestinian Authority, and the water company (with its now smashed front windows) are targets of proximity. Yet,  truly microscopic details bother me, like when I was talking to a group visiting Wi’am from California and I made a comment about how it’s better to get visas at the border, bypassing Israeli bureaucracy and using an apathetic foot-soldier. Dawwid pulled me aside and warned me one of the people at the table said he studied in Jerusalem. The guy left shortly after that. No one we asked seemed to know who he was and a terrible feeling struck me. I felt stupid. At the same time, I wish someone had known him so I could say to them, “ask your friend why he left before Zoughbi told his story – ask him if he was afraid to even listen, like so many Israelis I hear about…”

Yesterday I had plenty of dishes to wash, first thing in the morning. Big dish-piles are my historical place to brew–to ferment; my ‘call to ministry’ precipitated out of soapy water one December night. Yesterday’s group left a prodigious gob of dishes in our tiny office kitchen. A friend of Wi’am from Belgium, Ruben, arrived just then and me with the dishes since Zoughbi was too tired from his morning commitments to socialize. Gradually, we built enough trust to swap secrets…
“I told them I would stay in Jerusalem…”
“Me?” chimed-in a Palestinian American, “I’m ‘in’ Yafa…”
We have a partner in Haifa; it is the same. You know,” I said with a faded playfulness, “soldiers have tried to warn me about how dangerous Bethlehem is.”
“Really?”
“Yes; I feel safer here than I do in Jerusalem.”
“Yes yes, me too” Ruben said, drying a dish vigorously, “so it is still safe to be out at night?”
“Very much,” I said confidently, but then appended, “…except for the burning demonstrations. It is better to walk around those.”

I am fond of Dawwid the Swede. Among his redeeming characteristics is the fact that he studied briefly in Syria, so his Arabic is good and he will not be easily shaken. I think we both are people more bold in our presence than our speech: it’s a quiet invincibility. A few times we have gone, calmly, to the fig tree behind the office and spoke sparsely about important things. If you have ever spoken lightly of heavy things, painted serious pictures with gentle brush-strokes, you know what I mean. He told me his hotmail had been hacked shortly after he started a picture blog about the Annexation Wall. I furrowed my brow and found a fig to offer him. We chatted about the possibilities; Zoughbi said to us, on the car-ride to Cremisan, it was undoubtedly Israeli intelligence. I don’t dare disagree; never, after we have fielded suspicious ‘Germans’ together – ‘Germans’ that seem to speak excellent English until a word like “Justice” or “Restitution“ enters conversation and they want Zoughbi to define it ~ to say something contentious? Usama, perceptively, directed one of them to an ‘actually-German’ partner of ours.
“You know,” said Zoughbi, “we like to be welcoming but also to be careful…”

I was walking across my grandparents’ front yard with my colleague – they both died before I met her. She pointed-up to the sky. There was a tornado coming directly at us, though there seemed to be no wind, rain, or even chill in the air. We ran to a low-spot near the lake and I threw myself over her and held her tight. I want to ruminate on that for a moment: she wanted to be held while the storm passed. I welcome your silent speculation regarding how I might feel about her because, as of right now, I am sensing some ambiguity*. When we looked up to the sky again, we saw the dark funnel curl like a pig’s tail and rise into outer space. Then she kissed me and started to reach for a button on her shirt. I said “wait a minute!” She asked me to quit drinking; I have not drank alcohol since my tattoo. Then the Palestinian American laughed from behind a nearby fence, offering us some chips. I realized I was dreaming and I needed to go to the post-office. A cell-phone alarm sounded.

I went to Jerusalem. The Jaffa-gate post-office is disconcerting to me because the workers speak Arabic but they are rushed and do not exchange pleasantries. I always feel like I am doing something wrong. My mother had sent me a massive package that contained, God bless her heart, a pair of shoes that I left behind intentionally. I walked from one jebel to the other, to the Scottish Presbyterian church to hear a friend preach on James 2 and Mark 7. Afterwards, I climbed on the bus with my package and the driver sped-away from the curb as soon as I boarded. A gentleman in the front held my package steady while I paid. By the time we arrived at the check-point, he rose quickly and left the bus before I could tell him “God be with you”. I carried the package all the way across Bethlehem under my arm. Along with the shoes, Mom sent a water-filter, a new watch, new socks that I desperately needed, other things, and old mail. Amongst the mail were the real treasures: pictures of my sister, my mother, and the farm but also an Easter card from a friend in the Ukraine. I mounted them on my refrigerator door with electric tape and now I cannot help smiling.

At Cremisan I transformed myself into a flag-pole. Not every demonstration is a march or protest. The young photographer, Nicola, smiled at me from across the crowd and snapped a shot. We’re facebook friends. Every Friday the priests hold a demonstration called “mass” where a group of Jesus followers will gather in the olive grove that is slated for violation by the apartheid regime and take communion. No burning tires or projectile stones ~ it must be so much more frightening, for Israel, to see EAPPI, CPT, MCC, and even little-old-me standing behind their so-called terrorists: a collection of Palestinian Catholics with their eyes closed and their palms turned up to heaven. Most people on the other side of the wall never see this beautiful demonstration. I wondered if I deserved to hold the Palestinian flag but then I realized I had some right to feel proud because it represents many things I believe in. I resisted writing an essay in my head about flags, knowing we are so close to “Patriot Day”: a piece of dystopian propaganda that belongs to my passport country—the United States. The Empire lends legitimacy to the rebels** but who says we want either of them running our world? I love the people eating the bread and wine.

I sat on the sofa yesterday night with an uncanny sense of emotional constriction, even asphyxiation. Smashed between my restlessness and a really eerie sense of inertia, I was paralyzed. I wanted to write but at the same time I wanted to do nothing. So many times, while I lived in Grand Rapids, I felt this depression, this pain I mislabeled intentionally, but I believed it was my responsibility to conquer it, lest I repel employers, potential mates, or even friends. I pickled myself in self-blame. My friend from college speculated via Skype that I could be beginning a battle with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, since stress can be absorbed vicariously. Living with a community conflict mediator, I wonder if there is some metaphysical diffusion of strife happening. I confess that I would rather admit to PTSD than just being lonely and broken-hearted. Would I rather be aborted by something real than just failing of my own volition, as I felt I did during my months of unemployment? Why?!? Of course, I think what my friend wants me to see is that it is not ‘all my fault’ and that is why she continues to be my friend. All of the spare-time and coffee in the world may not have ever been enough anyway: I had to be shaken to be stirred. Mercifully, I have a less stigmatized reason to turn and face the darkness. From here, my thoughts are diverging and I think my train of thought will skip away: to home, to my boss, to his family living in Northern Indiana, to mine in Southern Michigan, and the fact that at some point in time we were only a few counties away from each other on the other side of the world.

I was hanging my laundry, wringing each wet piece of clothing onto the rose-garden three stories below, and I drifted into a day-dream. My thoughts go many places, often in no particular order. This time, I wondered what it would be like to speak at a church, or bowl with friends… or go on a date. She might be a mistake just as easily as a nice person. It reminds me of the day that Zoughbi looked me in the eye and said “you will find someone; you are too good not to find someone. Let me tell you,” then he paused, “nothing replaces having a wife and family.” I nodded but my gut reaction was to think ‘you are wishing for me what you want for yourself – for your kids to have opportunities and your wife to have a visa so you can all live together, in the West Bank, for the rest of your lives.’ He is, among many things, my best example of the golden rule. Yet, I could  hardly stop myself from wondering what it would be like to make a lady smile again –the difference is that this time I must learn to smile alone, first.

 

* I welcome your vocal speculations about how I feel about myself; that is what dreams really tell us.

** Yes, I just said that the US worked to legitimate Al-Qaeda. They funded them versus the Soviets, then posed as their scapegoat in the middle-East. The Empire has strange bed-fellows in interesting positions. Picture that a moment.

Anchor, Pipe, and Needle: Bethlehem Ink

I remember the day I lost it. My mother would have disapproved. We squished together onto the back of a motorcycle and rode through the Philippine jungle to a series of small waterfalls. There, all the knots in my torso came undone in the fast, cool water. I relaxed and swam. Dante* was sitting in the cabana having a smoke when I asked him, “have you seen my anchor-cross?”

“I thought you were wearing it…”

“Me too,” I said, picking my finger-nails, “it must have slipped off when I went over the falls.”

“Oh man. That sucks. I guess you can ask for a new one.”

“I have an idea. I think I may never lose it again…”

“What are you suggesting?” replied Dante. I think he already knew.

And now, for a brief word from out sponsor…

* * *

Last month, I had my first upper-room experiences with the hookah; two expats invited me to smoke the juices out of some apples and tobacco (that is not a euphemism). Once, we congealed with a bottle of arak on the same third floor patio where I had played one-on-one soccer with Rafiq and prayed beneath the Autumn constellations. There, I bonded with the interim tenant and our lovely friend, the ex-roommate of my boss’s daughter. Tim and Clare had already gone to get tattoos from that guy in the old city. I teased that they should have waited so I could go with them; though I passed his sign [“Paint Art Studios”] on my way through the storefront for months, I assumed I would never go inside. Palestine is not on the block-list for blood donation. Giving blood was an experience like communion, to me, since I shared from my body to help others live. Perhaps it was an extension of the white-savior-industrial-complex but the point was rendered moot by the fever I brought with me from the Philippines—I doubt I can give soon. As one rite comes to an end, others emerge to fill the vacuum.

I mumbled my greetings to the barbers working on the first floor and shuffled up the narrow stairs to Walid’s office. The artist’s lair seemed like the perfect blend of doctor’s office and photo dark-room. Clare curled up like a cat on one of the leather couches while Walid inspected Tim’s tattoo, a depiction of Handala on his back. Meanwhile, I fished the internet for my anchor cross: not a navy anchor nor one of the endless procession of crosses but the anchor-cross: my vestment of service. I typed “Anchor Cross UMC” into the search box.

The tattoo-parlor images from television and movies are contrary to Walid’s sophisticated man-cave. He has a computer monitor so big it should be hanging from a mast. We spent a decade, it seemed, in graphic design. This was our intersection as artists, working together on the computer; Tim made a critical contribution, though, which will forever eclipse whatever I thought of him before and everything since. Walid and I agreed that the tattoo should look like a necklace, complete with a loop of cord, but Tim suggested there should be words on the inside.

“…to seek Justice and resist evil,” I said. The words fell easily from my mouth. All I can remember from my vows is those words; they may, in point of fact, be some inkling from God that I misremember as part of my commissioning. Every day for the rest of my life I am going to read those words and wonder “did I really? I know I sought Justice but…”. For many reasons, I decided I was ready to carry those words not just on the inside of my heart but the outside, too. EPIC.

What I was not ready for was the second-half. My friends were already having their whiskey and lighting coals for a good smoke. Suddenly, my tattoo was off the screen, printed onto special paper which Walid used to put it on my chest– like the fake-tattoos that come from vending machines. Just as Walid prepared the needle, I decided to avail myself of his hospitality.

“Do you want coke with that?”

*downs it* “No; pour me another.”

Scholars, feel free to debate if I took the whiskey for the tattoo or the tattoo for the whiskey. What I know for sure is that when they asked “what music do you want us to play while you get it?” I said, “Herbie Hancock’s ‘Butterfly’.” As that mellow and exquisitely trippy chart emerged from the speakers it dawned on me that I could not ask for a better first tattoo. The hurt itself was less of an obstacle than a cathartic process. As the alcohol slowly leached out of my system the pain swelled in intensity. It was vivid but shallow and I experienced it as if I were a guest, rather than a prisoner, in my body. Pain gave me a reason to enjoy the music and concentrate on my breathing, so that I did not flinch and carry an ‘oops-mark’ with me to the grave. I took just one puff from the water-pipe while Walid changed inks to do the shading. The psychological possibilities are fascinating; I like to think the tattoo would be empty without the pain. Numb experiences should never define us. On the other hand, the pain was not severe. It could only sting skin-deep. My mind was stirring, as it ever is, emulsifying many dark memories with the antiseptically bright quality of that pain and the meaning of the words burning into my chest: “…to seek Justice and resist evil”.

I am just pasting in unrelated photos from the Istanbul airport to make this entry more visually appealing, since my camera is still decommissioned.

* *

The next day, I returned with Tim so he could get the Unitarian Universalist Chalice on his arm; as interesting as the topic of Tim’s symbol and our conversations about spirituality might be in hindsight, I dozed-off while Walid was actually putting the tat on his arm. The next time, I came to have the tattoo examined. We sat together alone for a while, chatting, and it dawned on me that he was a social butterfly perched a little too high above the street. His hospitality, though easy and Palestinian, was not strictly policy but also an invitation to linger with him – to commune over a couple of orange sodas. We looked at some Wi’am Summer Camp photos together and then he showed me pictures of his son. When six days had passed, I returned again to the barbershop and found Walid on the ground floor, giving his friend a hair-cut.
“I fixed hair for fifteen years,” he said with a wink. His portrait was coming even more clearly into focus: he is a unique human being. As much as I enjoy my hair-cuts, I realized that I share a link with Walid that is much more permanent. It is a more salient link than I have with the various doctors who have done surgery on my body, since I was conscious and I chose the design. It is bound to attract more attention than any other procedure because it’s the kind of procedure intended to speak on its own. It speaks about the person who commissioned it as well as the one who made it —

Yesterday, I saw Walid for the fifth time. Once again, I sat next to the desk and had something to drink (apple juice). For the second time, I walked over to the chair by the mirror and took off my shirt. This time, it was just a matter of touch-ups. The sting was not any worse, which meant that I must have been more sober than I believed, the first time (mind over matter). Something special in common with getting a shave and getting a tattoo, at least here, is the final spray of fragrant disinfectant. I love that feeling.

The best feeling of the day, though, was when I shook his hand and he said, “stop by. Feel free, you’re always welcome.”

“Next time, I might need a hair-cut.”

This is a good thing.

*By Dante, I mean Clifford.