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.

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.