Pentagon City Mall: a draft

Mall anticsThe black ones were from the ‘Payless Shoes’ store near the Tenley Town Metro station, purchased just as August began. I threw my pair of white tennis shoes into the garbage, right there, and walked away in the same pair of black walking-shoes I wore into the Pentagon City Mall — now heavily scuffed and crusted with road salt. I looked at the mall map for a puzzled minute, then rode the escalator to a ‘Walking Company’ ~ some kind of shoe store I had never heard of before. I’m from the ‘stix’ of Michigan… via occupied Bethlehem. Pentagon City Mall might be more exotic to me than some of my contemporaries.

I might as well start with the shoes, if I am showing the passage of time. I am trying to write this with a minimum amount of second-guessing and I chose shoes as my metaphor — the cross-trainers from Ireland were the shoes that walked three continents. The white shoes from Plainwell represent the period of more crippling disarray between the bombardment of Gaza — while I was still in the West Bank — and the US Campaign to End the Occupation Conference that help start me on the road to greater peace-of-mind without completely losing a grip on justice. Lately, I’ve been making even more allowances for myself since I know that my most volatile outrage, however just or rooted in hard facts, cannot inhere lasting peace; the way of wi’am (and salaam, by extension) must be patient and creative — and kinder than I was a year ago, after steeling myself for the final flight from Tel Aviv. The mall can be too much like an airport, perhaps, but I felt more comfortable in my skin as I interacted with the shoe-clerk — as I noticed myself functioning normally. She was there to help: size my feet, make suggestions, bring me nice shoes. “Well, I like the brown ones — in brown, actually. Thank you so much…”

The brown shoes were all I needed: a fresh start. I could put them on and flee the strangeness of shopping malls. Yet there was something else I knew I needed from Pentagon City: therapeutic reconnaissance. I am emerging from an uncertain incubation period, of sorts, since I decided that my future lies more in libraries and classrooms than at the negotiating table — I wanted nothing less than to be a mediator like my ex-supervisor (Zoughbi Zoughbi). I wanted to feel about myself the way that I feel about him. Supportive friends are helping me see that I have gifts of my own. Of course, this journal needs to cease being an outlet for self-administered therapy. There was a story taking place: a missionary on a domestic assignment descended into a mall food-court to transcend his reverse culture-shock —and tinge of PTSD?— by immersion. He (I) unsheathed a lined-notebook and began journaling… in pen, on a table in the mall food-court. I dared myself to soak it all in without dilution, sans critiques about materialism or augmented reminiscences about open-air markets.

As the hard-drive in my skull de-fragments, day by day, the paradox becomes more clear: all of the pieces I need to succeed, except for the hours of practice soon to come, have always been with me. There is continuity. Simultaneously, there is an irreversible discontinuity: I’ll never walk through the mall like I did as a teenager. So many adept attributes have fled me forever and I’ll always be stitched together rather than fully integrated — always a little bit absent-minded, always unable to fully digest the absurdities. I have lived in fear of the day I learned I would never be normal again…

But this is good! I can sense the absurdity. Though I have struggled desperately with a confluence of disappointments, those mental fractures healed by the Grace of The Divine and became my antennae — like a broken foot that aches when storms approach. My tolerance is rising rather than the mall’s ludicrousness diminishing.

—after I had finished sketching some thoughts, I decided to take a walk around the entire building. I wish I had all night to talk about it: the whole experience was surreal. The Mall is the closest I may ever get to absinthe — it’s like my first time in a haunted house or like walking into the Garden of Gethsemane and whispering “Jesus cried & bled here”. It’s so much weirder than most of you can know simply because you are accustomed. All the wonders of the ocean are a mystery to fish.

Ciao, friends.


“Things Ain’t What They Used To Be”

A 2005 Sunfire named “Fiona”

…the CD player sucked the newly purchased album into its slot. That was the perfect moment to push the pedal completely to the floor, just as I cranked my wheel into a tight left turn. In a wave of synesthesia, the g-forces splashed me with the first exquisitely loud burst of rock music. It erupted through the sun-roof, spilling onto the hills that line Michigan’s wrist on US-20.

“This is my home now –my red Pontiac~ my Fiona.” I loved speeding through the Irish Hills on my way to work at camp, desperate to start fires and lose myself in the woods, again, and forget… forget… forget…

* * *

I dragged my tail from the blankets like a komodo dragon on codeine. I flicked my tongue through the air a few times, then brushed the bacteria off my fangs. I was bound for Jeru—check that—Al-Quds Sharqia in less than an hour. I fumbled for my keys but…

“Oh… my car ain’t here, on the continent. Just as well, I couldn’t ever find a place to park it…”

I hung my Sunday best over my carcass and smirked; “they can’t stay up all night any more? It’s two days later and I am more dragging than ‘dragon’…” My youthful energy was also at an ebb. Emma Clare and I caught the 21 bus at the cross-roads and I slipped into a trance. Just as we passed into area-B, I realized my passport was still next to my bed.

She helped me pull an idiot-couple routine, where she handed them her passport and I patted myself down, faux-distressed, and then looked up at the guard and entreated, “I left it in the safe at the hotel!” Of course, the other guard waved it off and we passed. My heart was throbbing anemically somewhere in my intestines. “You know, after going all the way to Haifa to get a legitimate visa, monkey-business like this doesn’t satisfy quite like it did nine months ago…”

Close to church of the sepulcher, a street with cafes.

After we visited the Jaffa-gate post-office, Clare and I went to a cafe for breakfast.  I had already started to ferment a journal entry called ‘Things Ain’t What They Used to Be’ in my mind but it was not enough: Clare and I had to talk about the passage of time in Palestine. She said that events from before she left the United States seemed ‘closer’ than her first day in Bethlehem. In a similar fashion, that day I climbed on a bus, full of conservative settlers and soldiers, bound for the bridge feels more distant than a less harrowing day when I walked from Bethany to the Holy Sepulcher with friends, which seems more distant than boarding a train in South Bend Indiana but not more distant than riding the back of a motorcycle across Geneva. Events happen in a particular order but they age differently, depending on the momentum and succession of experiences curing in our memory. I knew how to get to the post-office from Damascus Gate, by the way, but I had not done it since February.

I knew I had the day off on Friday, so I had stayed-up the entire night on Thursday having a video-chat with friends in the United States. They all quipped that I ‘must be young’ to stay-up all-night and it secretly rankled me. I want to be the prodigy but I also want to ‘belong’ – the reciprocal of what I wanted when I smoked the hookah with Tim and Clare, playing the sage but trying to regress. Yet my existential moment caught me completely off-guard because I felt my age precisely. I arrived at Dar Annadwa for a program I would never see, since it was running late. Going out into the court-yard to pray (and wait?), I noticed the ancient pine trees above, cuddling against walls and balconies, and labyrinthine passages below, lined with planter boxes. It struck me that I was “here”, in one of Bethlehem’s church-embedded intellectual oases. For the first time, it sank into my intuition that I would never have alternative attempts at life on Earth. A thousand times, I thought about replaying life due to regret but for the first time I wanted to replay life to have additional, alternative memories of bygone times. I wanted existence to be like reading a new book or starting a new file on a video-game just to see if… if – but I FELT I could not. I always ‘knew’ but this time I FELT it. Returning home immediately, I took an eight hour nap.

My story is becoming an essay, today, about time and aging: how one passes, how neither is repeatable, and how the latter feels. I reached my maximum age, so far, after twenty-four years but I reached maximum maturity yesterday. These qualities ebb and flow, since I felt oldest when my mother was suffering relentlessly, and I was trying to show everyone how responsible I could be, but I felt most mature when Zoughbi said “he is Palestinian now—he has suffered” and I said “no, you treat me too well – we have tea with sage, today.” Zoughbi had surprised me in the morning, while I was eating my thyme and oil (زيت و زتر, هذا شاتر!) and he looked me straight in the eye and said “you will meet someone and get married—you are a nice man; and, I tell you, nothing can replace having a family…” His comments were out of the blue, in the flow of my life, but made perfect sense when I took time to see where he was: his sons left for the United States to join their mother just a day before. He wished for me what he wanted most for himself. My own father took offense to the word “ditched” in my prologue. He has the self-aggravating problem of

trying to mitigate the wretchedness of his image, actually drawing more attention to the past that made him wretched to me.

More than memories, these photos remind me of how much I miss my friend from high school — just being close.

But things ain’t what they used to be. I deleted my reply to my father because I love him much better since I decided his decisions were no longer central to my life. A treasured friend chimed-in with her sympathies, in regards to disappointing fathers we love, and reminded me of how she was never quite a ‘memory’ during all those dark times, always just a few days delayed with a call-back or a message of encouragement. She will be married soon but I am invited to visit  when I return– a future so close I can smell the pizza, though I will probably be somewhere I cannot imagine first. Friends pass through our lives like comets but a few drop into orbit with us. As for family, I wonder if that is necessarily those friends who will not leave our orbits, since Western family structures seem unable to persist as strongly as those in Palestine.

We feasted in honor of Khader Zoughbi this weekend. Clare and I were the odd foreigners among three generations of Zoughbis. I am amazed to say that the entire flock of little ones were all grandchildren of Lorette and Nicola Zoughbi, the elder brother and respected clan-leader. It was refreshing to see Nicola pick-up his youngest grandson and go…

“lo-lo-lo-lo-lo-lo-lo-lo-lo-lo-lo!”, until the baby giggled.

The beautiful little grand-daughters raced up-and-down the stairs and ramps of Wi’am Center while I watched, with a glass of mango juice in my hand. One of the mothers started calling for hers and I noticed she was not with the group. The next thing I knew, I was hurrying toward the back of the property. When someone found her in a perfectly safe place, I had caught myself in the act of worrying.

Things ain’t what they are going to be, even when it comes to things that already were. I had dinner with Clare again  at Casa Nova and we somehow started talking about television shows. I was incredulous that “How I Met Your Mother” could be running for seven years. I thought it was three years old: one year before I watched it, one after, and the year I followed it with my friends at Michigan State University… three years ago. Noticing the problem with my math, I let the conversation drift elsewhere. For now, life continues to add material to my train of thought. She and I segued into a conversation about relationships… it came-out that I was a nice guy and I repeated what my boss had said.

Pizza on Tuesday, Wednesday and Saturday only?!

She said, “you are a nice guy as opposed to, you know, a ‘nice guy’.”

“…no, you might have to make that distinction for me… I don’t quite understand.”