Always Burning: 2

Prayer Vigil

Watch for the Smoke…

Always watching...

Always watching…

The evacuation began when the crack of the first stone hitting concrete sent shock-waves through our coffee cups. We were all sitting

down-stairs, together. Wa’el ran up the stairs to street-level in a flash, to check, and burst into the foyer again within seconds saying  “yulla, yulla… let’s go before the gas…”. We re-stuffed our bags and scrambled up the stairs and through the gate, showing our kefiahs to the protestors but hiding our faces from the tower guards. Wa’el, Drew, and I stopped

several times to glance over our shoulders—I felt like Lot’s wife: a pillar of

salt, transfixed. Any moment, noxious projectiles would rain down on the masked youths. Wa’el offered to give us something to drink, which in the spirit of Palestinian hospitality meant we were going to his house to hang-out indefinitely. He asked if we wanted to light the hookah, too…

* * *

I do not look for physical signs from God often. Some read extra amounts of Divine intention into happenings, especially around Jerusalem. I went to القدس الشرقي to show my solidarity with Gaza at the Dominican Church by the Garden Tomb. We lit candles and held vigil on International Children’s Day. The service was attended by Christian leaders from across the city, faces to match the names on the Kairos Palestine document. The atmosphere carried the unmistakable essence of reverence and urgency comingling, for God and humanity respectively. When the Lutheran minister prayed in English for the children in Gaza, my swelling emotions cascaded in droplets down my face tears. How had the world over-looked the source of this suffering? Hot droplets began to fall on my hand, jolting my eyes open. I tried to remain stoic but I could not resist glancing around the room at all the melting candles, to see if anyone else had flinched. Who can resist a funny moment in such difficult times? I searched nervously for another fast melting candle. Each person’s candle produced a neat trail of excess, except for one: mine. My candle was no brighter but it seemed to burn hotter, erupting with blobs of molten wax that stung my shaking hand.

* * *

We smoked. Every time I passed the hose away to Wa’el, laying sideways on an easy-chair, or Drew, looking pensively into space next to me, the heaviness slowly rose and engulfed me. The viscous sense of resignation stuck to my joints, immobilizing my body.  So, I breathed in the fire again. My rage quenched, I consecrated my lungs with every breath until the hollow spaces hummed with the sense of swimming, running, lifting, and punching but I never moved – fire never moves, it only spreads…

* * *

This summer, a new friend was staying in the second-floor apartment across the court-yard, above a capable young woman who has worked here for over two years. My friend commented that her downstairs neighbor seemed to be consistently annoyed with her. Why? I told her we are cruel to ourselves, sometimes, in our self-centeredness: it was not her fault nor about her. Our neighbor’s job in the difficult West Bank context, staying present with people, puts a heavy weight on one’s chest. Four months later, I know that I was right in ways I did not understand. I had never stayed for more than three months at a time, myself. When our new Wi’am volunteer arrived, I noticed myself becoming irritable with him, employing smoldering passive-aggressive tactics to put distance between us. I believe I am much more moody and much less capable than my experienced neighbor, too, yet when I finally became close enough with my ‘victim’ to confess he asked me:

“what makes you believe you are bad at your job?”

“I do everything I am asked; you’re right,” I replied, “Of course, the occupation remains…” Two possibilities dawned on me. One, that I finally feel part of what keeps my neighbor burning and, two, that people could see me like I see her: intense and dedicated.

* * *

The anxiety floated out of me on clouds, in jets of fragrant smoke cascading in reverse. The nicotine built upon the foundation we had poured in cups of pitch-tint Arabic coffee. This colloid of stimulants buoyed me; it retrieved my sense of reality from the tar-toned depths of my affected reservoirs. We also drank tea. Substances carry a shock as powerful as moving a thousand miles or can keep us moving at a snail’s pace for so long that we forget we are moving, can hardly sleep when their medicine is removed…

* * *

More than a week before, at Dar Eneidwa, the Swede and I saw a film about the Hungarian Revolution. It had a Hollywood-quality storyline and love-story that made me miss romance in my life, yet so many resonant snapshots of Soviet occupation. In one scene, Hungarians take the streets in Budapest and light torches when the authorities cut the electricity; I felt the upwelling of a burgeoning nation, just as I had in Manger Square a year before. I felt the surge of excitement when the students revolt and cut the hammer and sickle from the middle of their flag, just as I felt in March during Land Day when a young man scaled  the apartheid wall and planted the Palestinian on top. Yet I know I was oblivious to the shelling of Budapest, when the Soviets retaliate unexpectedly and place their iron fist of occupation back on the Hungarian people. I didn’t feel, deeply enough, what that meant. Gazans do – doubly. At the end of the film, the Olympic water polo player is separated from his lover by the conflict, he going to Australia to win Gold and she to a prison interrogation room. I drank too much at the reception and indulged in loneliness the rest of the night.

* * *

Addictions threaten to ensnare me as surely as they promise to free me, like a net that saves me from falling but tangles around my limbs. I have not had my moment of final triumph against them, neither substance nor behavior nor, worst of all, the attitudes of my heart. Following Gaza coverage late into the night, riding high on a magic carpet of outrage, I felt as if I had finally lost myself completely, by the next morning, until that burst of stimulants reanimated me on Wa’el’s back patio. A dozen pieces of quick-light coal later, my co-worker offered to reload the pipe.

“No; I really want to but ‘no’ because I will stay here all day and smoke.”
We have to leave and continue with our lives, after a while, nursing our fading buzz as the smoke clears…

A message at the tower's bottom.

Last week’s coat of paint is this week’s canvas for resistance.


9-11: Remembrance

Pundits, journalists, and lay-people across the United States will put their fingers to the keyboard today to commemorate the events in New York eleven years ago, with some mention of a flight over Pennsylvania and another around the US government’s Pentagon building. I commend everyone who offers something thoughtful or even sentimental today, understanding that I cannot do so because it has never been my story. I was not there.

I cannot bring myself to even speak about this day since someone in a public relations department somewhere decided to start calling it “Patriot Day”. This distasteful misnomer taps into all my bitter feelings toward the United States and everything that has transpired since September 11th, 2001. My heart goes out to the misguided men who hijacked the planes, mostly because I know too little will be said about the sacredness of their lives. Someone will lament their ruin and speculate how they became so ‘twisted’ and ‘violent’ but fewer will wonder what state our soldiers are in and, for God’s sake, why. ‘Twisted’ is what other people’s heroes are called. It seems to me that we put soldiers on pedestals but cannot be bothered to leave our delusions of “patriotism” when they become (killers?) veterans, unemployed and misunderstood. I might be a pacifist but I know pretty well that people at ‘home’ do not always “get it”. It’s one thing soldiers and missionaries can count on having in common.

At the same time, none of us get it. I will be lucky if people who grew up in countries like Afghanistan read this entry and comment ~ even to criticize. These men were not outright twisted by hatred or religious doctrine but had to be primed first. It amazes me how so-called Americans can assume it’s something in Islam or the culture of a place that brings people to become suicide bombers. It’s actually most of the same things that brought me to be a missionary: unemployment, misery, lack of marriage prospects and, the missing factor in my case, lack of perspective. In short, isolation with no prospects or certainty. Foreign powers are happy to fund extremists carrying out their agendas and, when those mangy dogs bite the hand that fed them (like Al-Qaeda did in 2001) its a perfect opportunity for colonialist governments to meddle. This is the part where I could rant about the nonsustainability of these policies, the futility of violence, and all of my usual fodder. Israel especially (naturally). If I rant about governments, it means I have fallen into the same trap.

The lives of these men were over before they began thanks to dictators and oligarchs who mushroomed in post-colonial power vacuums. Who will wonder, with me, how these men might have been farmers or business-people on a revived silk road? Who will mourn the families they never had or, heaven forbid, left because they believed in their cause? Who will lament with me that Osama Bin Laden’s stance on the West was VINDICATED by US military responses, even if his methods were vile? Remember… the counter attack and initial attack are effectively the same because someone else always ‘did it first’. “Patriot Day” is a white-wash over that reality.

But what is really disgusting about “Patriot Day” is the way that it nationalized 9-11 as if it did not belong to New York City. Oklahoma City still mourns their bombing, though they did not provide such a tasty PR-op for Uncle Sam. The bombing has become part of the city’s collective consciousness, as 9-11 should be for New Yorkers. I am from Michigan and that day does not belong to me; the suffering in Detroit only vaguely belongs to me. It was Al-Qeada’s design to make their attack an international issue and the US was happy to oblige. People across the United States took 9-11 too personally, snatching it from the arms of those who were closest. Conflated with a sense of ‘patriotism’, the day has lost its ability to be a genuine remembrance. The US has painted over the subtle redemptive beauty of mourning with bright colors, as if the damage caused in the middle-East could redeem the damage done that day. It would be a very different story had the US been more dedicated to healing those hurt than avenging the dead. Only the people who lost loved ones should be free to take it personally; the rest of us need to find a more humble way to be in solidarity with them, one where we do not steal their pain to start competing for victimhood ourselves.

I say that we make it our “Remembrance Day” and hold it in honor of all civilian casualties, everywhere. I pray that we leave “patriotism” off our lips for the entire day. Nationalism, not just religion, is an opiate of the masses. When religion is divorced from racial and national moors, it can take us across borders. Spirituality can lend perspective. As for all the flag-waving, I do believe there are times and places but I think that 9-11 is not the right context to do anything with a flag except hang it at half-mast.

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.


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.”