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…

Advertisements

Mega Man X Complex: The Shield

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

~ can you see why I abandoned that draft?

Mega Man X Complex: Armor

zeroRemember, 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.

 ‘Zero’

X_piecesTherefore, take up the whole armor of God, so that you may be able to withstand on that evil day, and having done everything, to stand firm. Stand, therefore, and fasten the belt of truth around your waist, and put on the breast-plate of righteousness. As shoes for your feet put on whatever will make you ready to proclaim the gospel of peace. With all these, take the shield of faith with which you will be able to quench all the flaming arrows of the evil one. Take the helmet of salvation and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God.

 The Apostle Paul’s Letter to the Ephesians, 6:13-17

Zero alludes to the upgrade capsules left to [Mega Man] X by Dr. Light, his creator, which together form the armor that equips X for his quest. I am not certain what that means to me. I read Paul, contextually, as speaking to a community with an unpopular ideology and bolstering their resolve with reinforced images, stripping the essence from Roman Imperial gear to equip the Ephesians with powerful abstracts. When I approached security at Tel Aviv airport, especially when I was hiding literature, the sound of electricity rushing from my core into my extremities filled my ears, as if they could see filaments of charged particles dancing all over my body.  If I were armed (literally) with a plasma-canon, I could wash the machines from the airport — from existence! — in a torrent of light and rush … rush onward instead of submitting to strip-searches…

I distilled X’s weapon as Determination but there is no satisfying release for the charge I carry, still.

Mega-Man X symbolizes my impossible wish to materialize and dematerialize in zaps of energy, without any history, constituted for a specific purpose. Behind my aliases, there was always a real person with a record of missteps – career and interpersonal. For over a decade I’ve been looking for the crucial piece that would launch me from my seeming stasis and satisfy my impatience to reclaim my identity as—valid? “Excellent” rings tinny. “Worthy”: if not superior, then loved. I wove a narrative for myself, fittingly, of being salvaged from the proverbial scrap-heap. Fussing with this piece over a week, it dawned on me that it was Vile (not Zero or Dr. Light) who called X a worthless piece of scrap.

helmet_salvNow, I will retrieve a treasure from Christian cliché: the Helmet of Salvation. X’s helmet is a less than perfect example; its only use seems to breaking walls to find other components: its a necessity for the sake of what it obtains. The blurred generalities of Salvation inhere in us as “church-speak” before we know the uncanny fibers within. Only yesterday, I realized Salvation was bigger than theology, that it has a power in secular life that exists mostly unnoted. Whenever the worth of a person seems irretrievable but resurfaces, astoundingly, then Salvation has been at work. The Gospel was decidedly about works of Salvation – unmistakably in the story of the ‘Good Samaritan’, who stops to help an injured man when priests (fearing the touch of a dead-body) bypassed him. It was no accident that Jesus’ example character came from a different background (Samaritan) – we should not skate lightly over that. We are salvaged because whatever shapes us should not mitigate our worth in one-anothers’ eyes (let alone in our Deity’s); it’s necessary for what could be obtained, together.

My writers’ block would not break until I had accepted that Salvation mattered and that I deserved it. It can never be earned but it is always deserved, for everyone rendered ‘untouchable’ and for me, too. This is no sermon on Salvation but I can appreciate that the cycle of doubt and self-deprecation cannot end without saying “I’m worthy”, putting on the helmet,boots_peace and head-busting some blocks on my way to the rest of my armor. The ‘dash boots’ were always my favorite, as X jumped and skidded through virtual dangers on the television screen. As shoes for my feet, I put on whatever will make me ready to proclaim the gospel of peace. Not of perfection. Everything, in the service of peace. This peace cannot be the passive tranquility we associate with ‘pax’. This abstract is the extract of those boots, the essence of a nimbler but braver pursuit of nonviolent struggle. Early in the game, X clings to walls for safety but later he slides past heavily encumbered foes. That forward-leaning confidence in justice makes the shoes of peace. I laced my boots long ago…

breast_rightThe breast-place gives me pause. X’s armor makes him 50% less vulnerable but this capsule is not merely hidden: he must have a long, tedious battle with a heavily armored robot before Dr Light’s hologram message appears. Whatever righteousness is, it takes practice— but the word itself reveals even less than ‘Salvation’. On my chest I have a tattoo of an anchor, next to which is inscribed “…to seek justice and resist evil.” Those words bubbled to my lips that day, maybe from the vague memory of my commissioning. I rediscovered them in a baptismal liturgy… the words etched on my chest, lodged in my heart, came from somewhere and I admit that  I cannot find a better definition of righteousness than “to seek justice and resist evil,” consistent with a well-known passage from Micah…

God has told you, O mortal, what is good: and what does God require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?

Micah 6:8

The context of that passage has little to do with personal holiness; Micah is calling his society to rid itself of corruption. When I look at the mirror, I see a farce of a missionary and an insult to self-control but when I look back at my body of work, I submit to you, Micah’s words have fueled me from August 15th, 2011 up until the present day. Cross-my-heart: I have fastened the Belt of Truth around my waist, to the best of my understanding.

The Sword of the Spirit, or Plasma Cannon of Determination, is something more elusive than problematic. If I were a literalist, the answer would be staring me in the face: Paul said it was ‘the Word of God’. Texts can inspire but translations are problematic and eisegesis is inevitable. This time, I am departing from the common interpretation: I think we are talking about a quality of the Divine, the ‘Logos’*. Unfortunately, my inability to tap it precisely in writing is a reflection of my inability to tap that purposeful energy, that truly inspired and creative energy, in an instant or at will. Right now, I am still shedding the tiredness of changing homes so often. I am not a machine. What I said on February 15th, 2012, is worth repeating:

plasma_blaster_determinationThe key to X’s weapon-enhancer is that it must charge to full power – it is a waiting weapon. Speaking to groups [at Wi’am], I closed my eyes and remembered the sound of [him] powering-up that weapon. I used to charge it before I faced a boss, whether I needed it or not, to put myself at ease. “I’ve got this—thanks for the power-up, Spirit.” Discharged at the right time, it is super effective.

When I worry whether or not I will ever reach full power, I remind myself that I am still in a disorganized phase. It feels like I will never master that blend of waiting and pushing forward but that is an illusion. The seed of Fear is inconsistent with my experiences of rare, but real, Spirit-charged moments in my life. At just the right time, that uncanny, reinvigorating power sublimates upon me.  With time and determination, I will wash away all obstacles in torrents of energy and acquire a battery of tools with which to use that enhanced capacity.

—and now let us talk about The Shield, among other devices—

Part 4 is in the making.

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]

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.”

A Large, Black, House-Fly

This train of thought began building when I heard a reference to “the Bible” as ‘the Word of God’, putting its contents on the pedestal of privilege. The Word of our Creator, the breath of the Divine, is necessarily ‘The Universe’. All else is a secondary text, even this invented collection of books called ‘the Bible’. ‘The Evolution of Life’ is even more precious because of its intricate dialogue between vulnerability and possibility.

Culture could be our avenue to new heights in that remarkable dance. It could hold us together as a species, making us more than disparate individuals, if we could see past the details to focus on the goal: living on this Earth until its end. When I work backwards from that point, I know violent “solutions” are nev

er sustainable because they infect our global culture. Thousands of people insist that force is the only realistic way to achieve the ultimate peace but I disagree wholly. To suppose that engendering violence for any reason can lead to peace is to misunderstand violence’s self-fulfilling prophesy effects and lack the patience and perspective to be a true peace-maker. True peace-building does not orient to such short-term outcomes, understanding that raw, eye-for-eye justice has had thousands of years to bring peace but never accomplished it.

My thoughts run on for pages on the topic. I am puzzled by the violence in Myanmar; I usually at least understand the misguided goal but in this case I am at a loss for why Buddhists are slaughtering Muslims. I heard that some Buddhist monks will allow a mosquito to drink from their hand rather than offend the sacredness of life by killing even a parasite. Obviously, these Rakhine militants are not adherents to any such code. I used to boast of my own “code” for killing small things; it is interesting how we can find rationalizations between the lines of our codes and texts. Sparing the mosquito is less of a code than an attitude of respect for life.

At last, there was a large black fly in my apartment. I believe this is a universal experience of humanity: an insect so large you can hear its annoying wing-beat from any room. This one was completely harmless and not especially agile. I started entertaining thoughts ts of hunting it down and killing it, to restore silence and for the gleeful sport of the challenge.

A black fly landing on a white flower.

Awww

Unbidden, my justifications floated to the surface:

-I will never be able to get it outside otherwise.

-I cannot possibly endanger flies as a species.

-Maybe its dirty and I surely do not want it walking on my food.

Then I remembered the Buddhists monks. My mind turned to the human conflicts in this region, raging in Syria or quietly simmering to my West. We always begin by supposing freedom, or justice, or whatever abstract, will never be achieved otherwise. From there, it is a short leap to the pathetic. We think we’re going to cleanse the world. We think its alright if its not genocide –or we are preventing our OWN genocide. This attitude is woefully short-sighted because we bleach away the soul of  love, generosity, and stewardship that sustains life for generations.

I felt a swell of compassion for the fly as she crashed into window screes, trying to get out into the sunshine again. How sad, how silly, I was to suppose I should kill something for something so trivial as whether the apartment is perfectly silent or if the fly might, maybe, kinda be dirty (possibly?). It would be better to weather the annoyance and live together for a while.  Yet, she was doomed to die without access to the outdoors. It was not enough to have my hands clean of blood.

Then a miracle happened. Believe me, I took a cheesy spiritual gifts assessment once and it told me I was a miracles person. The fly landed on my pant leg. Instead of smashing the fly, I cupped my hand and slowly moved it beneath her. There are passages in the Gospel that advise me to be ever gentle, ever kind, and ever loving. So, that ‘secondary’ text is more than supplementary; it has the capacity to be luminary. Sometimes it would seem as if moving a mountain is more feasible than catching a house-fly. I had a little faith, then.

She made a quick jump into my open hand and we walked, together, to the door. My hand never closed. Just as I opened the door, she took flight and went straight outdoors.

I said to myself, “I never know when I will entertain an angel.”