Trumpet & Accordion

‘The Cave’ has joined the constellation of favorite jamming places tracing back to my visits to Bogue

Maria’s (Mattson) Adams’ photograph.

Street bridge, freshman and sophomore

years of college. I felt drawn, in an almost mystic way, to that alcove under the bridge crossing the Red Cedar River. By chance, a young artist named Maria found me and took an iconic photograph of my silhouette, with the river in the background and the outline of a trumpet protruding from my shadow. In starkest contrast, I became the daemon of a sunny park bench by the Grand River after the collapse of my last romance. I am nostalgic for the bath of unbridled sound and reddening sunlight that I took every day for a year, finally finding the fortitude of heart to improvise without worry. That was the last place I called home before I moved to Bethlehem. I wept openly, last fall, mumbling “I just want to be by the river again.” Since then, I have managed to dry my eyes –and my heart.

 

A piece of my heaven in the midst of strife.

Friday blustered as if every gust of wind wanted to bring the first surge of winter rain. Wa’el, Drew, and I were out in the drizzle for half the work-day, trying to unhook the tarp that covers the picnic area before it takes any more damage. It was weighed down and holey with a mixture of stones and expended tear-gas canisters, since the nearby gate became the locus of all Bethlehem’s coiled frustrations with occupation, released courtesy of Gaza’s suffering. My own angst started to leak out of me when I got an e-mail to the effect that “It Came Upon a Midnight Clear” was ‘more of a Christmas Eve song than an Advent song’. I had to scrap my rendition of the former for the first Sunday in Advent for what I understood to be a nit-pick. Consequently, we had a discussion in our staff meeting about anger and Sara suggested that I fill some of the empty spaces inside myself with music or sports.

 

Friends make the difference in life. I practiced moodily for a few minutes before the heavy iron door creaked open. There was Rajaee: carrying a square instrument case. He had brought his accordion into the blackening cave to play music with me!  We have a history together, by now. He used to play the piano while Lucas strummed his guitar and Rafiq played the drums – we would all play together, getting gradually more chaotic until we either faded into awkward chord progressions or else ended abruptly in laughter. With only Rajaee and I, we were able to play long improvisations on minor keys or renditions of “Time to Say Goodbye” that decayed into original melodies. There is a point, in encounter like this, that I used to become embarrassed and excuse myself. My need to be ‘perfect’ and ‘excellent’ holds me under curfew during those times but this time I was with my friend. I knew I could play however I felt and we would make it work, together.

 

Eventually, we played something more upbeat and polka-like (this is an accordion and a trumpet: how could we stay drear?). My lips were already beginning to give-out but I continued to pop joyful, staccato notes to match the swells of Rajaee’s harmonious accordion. When we tired, we stepped out into the court-yard area and enjoyed the falling rain. Without introduction, I started to play “Singing in the Rain”.

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Playing John Cena: Taybeh & Ramallah

My first encounter with the Cenation phenomena was at the Steil Boys & Girls Club in Grand Rapids, Michigan. At that time I was their half-competent volunteer coordinator, loitering in the games-room.  One of the other staff introduced me as “Mr. John” and some junior high geniuses quipped “John Cena?” An nine-year-old’s war cry rang out as he rose from the bean-bags and knocked my knees from under me. Not wanting to spoil my blessed ignorance of professional wrestling, I never researched John Cena.

Wrestling is popular across Arab nations, including Jordan and Egypt. I could not trip over my shoelaces in Amman without either meeting an Egyptian waiter or seeing a John Cena T-shirt. Perhaps the handsome wait-staff are key vectors of this acquired taste. Some of them are not much older than Wi’am Center kids. I emerged from exile just in time for Wi’am’s yearly summer camp. Drafted as a photographer, I had the privilege of making funny faces at the small children while they did their crafts and, thanks to ocular technology, taking sniper snap-shots of self-conscious teenagers. The middle-school boys learned my name was John and henceforth greeted me with seismic slaps on the back and exuberant exultations of “John Cena! John Cena, حبيبي*!” If I had a pro-wrestler’s body it would all be cool but three ‘shabaab’ at a time was too much. The staff finally intervened when boys started grabbing me by my shirt and yelling “you can’t see me!” in my ear.

The camera’s memory went bad the day before the field-trip to Taybeh and Ramallah. Zoughbi knew I was digesting a funk so he coaxed me into simply going anyway. Taybe is famous for being all-Christian and home to Palestine’s most excellent brewery. I boarded the bus to crows of “John Cena!” and “صورنا!, bicture!” Bristling a little, I wormed into a seat in the middle of the bus near one of the chaperones and her young son. The little boy peered several times from behind his mother and whispered in her ear. She looked at me and smiled, then winked and said, “He thinks you are really John Cena. He says ‘he has changed a lot!’” I hesitated five seconds to let her clarify for him that I was another John but she just patted him on the shoulder and smiled at me again. I felt like an unbearded mall Santa Clause doing his first Christmas.

Camp is for the camper. I can deepen my misery or transcend self-centeredness and let the kids give me some of their energy. The juxtapositions I saw working with these kids were more than enough reason to disregard my ineptitudes and just stay present with them for a day. It is a special treat. For example, the image of a sugar-charged mob, dressed in all kinds of graphic t-shirts, swarming heedlessly into Taybeh’s historic Roman Catholic Church for an art lecture from a sweating nun (the portrait of St. Khader slaying the dragon came to life through several grotesque-sounding reenactments– thanks boys). The kids seemed even more out of place at the Taybeh home for the elderly, where I saw nothing resembling a program to hold their attention. They are so funny. I did not dream we would visit the brewery but, indeed, there we were: guiding them between vats and trying to keep them hushed during the beer-making video which was, interestingly, in English. The good folks at Taybeh Brewery sold the kids some of their nonalcoholic brew. One of the mothers was putting driblets on her finger and feeding it to her infant; he relished it, testifying the excellent character of Taybeh beer.

The crusader chapel on the hill was the highlight of the morning. We scrambled up the ancient stone steps to look upon…
…a huge blood-spot. Someone had hung a carcass from the hook in the disembuildinged doorway and slaughtered it right there, I concluded; alternatively, there was a blood sacrifice in an all-Christian village. Kids filtered into every nook of the ruins, scaling the remains of walls. Feeling spry and game, I jumped to a perch of my own in the sun. For a minute I gazed over the valley below I pondered being faux-John Cena and tried to come fully to grips with the fact that, whether by lies or faith, I was in the West Bank again. Being alone so much had made such reveries second-nature, which is why it was for the best that a familiar word jarred my attention Earthward:

“Motherfucker!”

The boy clasped his hands to his mouth, shocked, when he realized I spoke English. He knew what he had done. I met his eyes and said “”شو حكيَت, حبيبي؟ (what did you say, my lovey?)
He shook his head. I laughed and told him, basically, not to worry. I stopped worrying, too.**

The summer camp field trips have several goals. Exposing the kids to their heritage and building a sense of collective responsibility is certainly a priority. Yet under no circumstances should the value of cutting-loose and having fun be under-estimated. That kid’s day should not be ruined because he said ‘fuck’ once, considering the glance I threw at him was enough edification. The Wi’am camp stresses fun, which is as it should be for youth who live in a tense political situation. We want to give them a piece of their childhood before it is all blown-away. There was no question: I needed to swallow my pride and get onboard with the John Cena gimic.

The final stop in the day was the amusement park in Ramallah. The staff held that over their heads to keep them to a low boil until the afternoon, when they could explode all over that park. The rides were mostly carnival cast-offs (except for the 4-D theater, which was amazin

Me, looking crazy happy!

Sometimes, it takes a voluntary attitude adjustment!

g!) but these kids were undeterred. I’ll keep details to a minimum; what matters is that I learned John Cena’s hook-line. He does some thing where he waves four fingers in front of his face and says “you can’t see me!” That explained the ringing in my ears; it was only a matter of putting it to good use when my ‘friendly backslappers’ boarded the roller-coaster. Just as they came around the first bend I popped-out from behind a concession stand, waving my four-fingers in front of my face and yelling “YOU CAN’T SEE ME!”

*boys & girls alike waved  back in kind* “JOHN CENA! YOU CAN’T SEE ME!  YOU CAN’T SEE ME!”

*An Arabic term of endearment meaning “my lovey”, often used between same-sex friends.

** On a previous day, I heard two young ladies chatting openly with each other in English. I forget what one of them said but I looked in their direction and wrinkled my nose. The other girl’s eyes went wide as she said, “Oh my God, that guy speaks English…”. Apparently, they were using English as their private language to critique the camp in front of less fluent staff-members. I hated to rain on their parade…

What am I doing, again?

Double exposed picture

Remember the good old days when we could still accidentally double-expose a picture?

“What am I doing here?”: A question often framed in the most existential terms, as asking about the origin and purpose of one’s life.

In my case, I posed it to myself when I laid down to sleep on a cane bench in rural Mindanao, Philippines. Why is the Mission Intern in Palestine eating fish breakfasts and touring barangays? Why does coconut wine taste like vinegar? Do the backward curving horns on the karibaw make it easier to ride? Is there Mexican food on this island?

“What am I doing here?!” I asked my colleague the following weekend. He lit a cigarette as we climbed on the back of a motorcycle and rode to a remote series of waterfalls, sharing private thoughts with one another. I could not have imagined that, in 2010, anymore than drinking tea beside a guard tower – every work day for six months.

Almost two years ago I took a spiritual gifts assessment. I wanted to answer the question “what am I doing here?”  A minister-friend concluded that I was not going into ordained ministry, that my gifts were too creative, not pastoral or administrative. I knew that but there was no thunderclap of clarity. There is no how-to-heuristic for creative people who want to do ministry.  Instead, I did the Christian-Pacifist equivalent of joining the marines: short-term mission work.

I took another step forward during the second week of workshops. The course was titled “Arts Approaches to Community Conflict”. Our facilitators were an art professor from Japan, Kyoko, and an animated Kenyan named Babu—a good story-teller. My classmates hailed from East Timor to Afghanistan, all points in Asia between, plus a Swissman, a Canadian, and three George Mason University students (other ‘Americans’—spooky).

The very first day we were sent back to kindergarten. We made three-dimensional maps of pretend communities which our facilitators decided to wreck so we could address catastrophes in our community settings — made of paper, clay, and bits of stuff we found outside. The antics did not stop for the entire week: singing, dancing, role-playing. Speaking of playing, we seemed to be doing a lot of playing around. The faux-professional element in me became restless—I needed some scholarship to send to the New York office so they would pat themselves on the back for funding my training. Luckily, I was too tired from the previous week to fake seriousness. It was time to have fun rather than take pages of notes that I would never look at ever again. I threw all of my heart and energy into each ‘game’

It was through play that we became comfortable enough to really share our thoughts. Each activity built upon the foundations of the one before it and each had a purpose without needing all the hollow signs of being ‘serious’. Being ‘serious’ is an anemic excuse to be emotionally detached from the work of community building. If I had not been at play with my classmates, I could not have shared with them my feelings about spending Palm Sunday with my boss in Jerusalem and the significance, both, of his being allowed into the city for just a few weeks and of my being exiled from the country for much longer. I was ready to share because we had been like children together while respecting each other as adults

Bearing all that in mind, I still needed to make an artistic class presentation. My trumpet was useless, safely stowed with a colleague in Hong Kong. I had arrived in Davao with only some clothes and my propensity to make every dilemma into a story. That self-fulfilling prophesy is manifest in these very words but I digress. Determined not to simply stand-up and start telling stories I decided I needed a musical element to make my presentation, yonniΘ, “legit”. Fred taught me how to make ‘lemme sticks’ when I worked for him at Camp Kinawind and I decided that make-shift percussion would be my salvation. I used a lunch-break to wander into the jungle looking for suitable materials. Things rot faster there. I briefly considered a coconut and a shard of broken tile. I had almost given-up when, as if by destiny (epic?), I found a flawless stick. Next to it was a long, unfamiliar roll of organic matter. Palm leaves, apparently, curl like scrolls when they dry out. It reminded me of something I would find in Michigan: birch bark.

My existential crisis dawned once I had my materials. What was I doing, really? That night I sat down with a pad of paper and began to sketch a story about building a fire with birch bark. The setting was an over-night excursion with teenage kids. The premise was that it had rained and the boys had to make breakfast for the girls after losing a s’more eating contest. I promised myself that I would have everything plotted before I went to bed that night; this was going to be my turning-point, I decided. It was time to get ‘serious’. Concurrent with becoming ‘serious’,  I developed unbreakable writer’s block. The cycle never fails: apprehension, seriousness, inertia, despair, vice –

–The vice for the night was beer. It was an excellent choice of vice because I enjoyed it in the best of company, by the hotel pool, and in moderation. “With my propensity to turn every dilemma into a story, I can partially redeem this…”

The next stage in the cycle of hopelessness is supposed to be shame as a precursor to apathy and quitting. Instead, I chose to be weird. The next morning I took my palm-leaf scroll and my mysteriously-perfect walking-stick out to the gardens and began pacing around, telling the story in my head and using the props for sound effects. I even shook a candy tin filled with broken pencils to simulate a box of matches. In less than an hour of pacing and creeping people out I was satisfied with my story and decided that life was too short to miss breakfast. I volunteered to make my presentation first.

“Everything was there,” said Babu. The whole class seemed satisfied. It puzzled me for a few minutes because I knew I had not hammered on that presentation more than three hours total. Then I remembered my spiritual gifts assessment and understood: I might not be The Superlative Artist of All of Society but, yonniΘ, I am an artist. I may be under-practiced and screw-up; I may strive for other goals most days; yet, I still have these gifts. I know that too often I have believed I have to be excellent to have a purpose when my willingness is what matters most.

One of the American students made an interesting comment about English professors. He said they tended to think and write from inside their heads and not from “out there” in reality. I stifled my misgivings: I’ve known some better English professors than his. Instead I said, “I know what you mean – I never wanted to be that guy.” So, to answer the question “what am I doing in an Amman hotel running a high fever?” I can reply with confidence that I am “writing from out there”.

Θ: “Yonni” is an Arabic equivocator. It means “kinda-sorta” but functions, shwaya, differently grammatically.