Reverse Exiled: Bill the Cowboy & Beyond

The Aukstronaut considers prickly-pear...It is 4 AM. This night is a metaphor. Sometime around 8 pm I felt tired and decided I would take an evening nap and awake at midnight to begin my career as a writer. What I never mention to myself is that this has happened before: I sleep until midnight and then reset the alarm for 2:30, then for 3:30 — eventually for 6:45 (NOCTURNAL WRITER WAITS UNTIL DAYLIGHT?!). It is 4 AM, the night is not yet gone, and I am contemplating a cowboy named ‘Bill’. Bill was the main character of my submission to young authors’ day in 3rd grade and my first protagonist other than myself. Bill leaves the ranch to visit Africa, India, Australia and Southeast Asia. Even if rife with stereotypes plucked from television, “Bill the Cowboy Travels the World” set the stage for my vocational crisis. Bill circumnavigates the planet but decides to return to the work he began — a ranch-hand can do anything he/she wants but the ranch is still home. At the end of his journey, Bill returns to the ranch to share his stories. I drifted from a writing-life, without great success, and now I am returning — for better or worse. If nothing else, I need to finish this (THIS) journal entry (THIS ONE).

I want to wrestle this octopus; I described the feeling as “The Beige Ninja” when I was in college: something lethal (TERMINAL), lurking in our unremarkable surroundings. Not even a ninja can match an octopus for elastic strength and baffling stealth, nor its many arms. Its epoxy tentacles dragged the greater part of me into the abyss when I jammed it into the recesses of my psyche. The apartment on 1336 North Capitol Street was terrifyingly appropriate for my mental state after coming through so many consecutive challenges — newly refurbished, liberally cluttered, and noxiously cramped. It just dawned on me, as the faintest light percolates through the mini-blinds of my new apartment, that this is the largest space I have ever furnished for myself. I escaped alive (FREEDOM!).

As my oldest living dream, the authorial impulse is entangled with more shame, self-thwarting, and peculiar fits of denial than any of my other vocational affairs. I spent the greater part of childhood pacing around our yard imagining things (MOSTLY DINOSAURS), slowly accepting I could not will myself to become a cartoon character. At twelve, I decided I was too heart-broken from a girl to begin my novel about a cyborg pre-teen — he struggles to comprehend falling in love, despite the large processor mounted on his skull. At sixteen, my dog

walked me in endless circles through the woods while I imagined characters like I saw in action cartoons, eating irradiated fruit and struggling with new-found powers (THEM; I ONLY WISHED I HAD POWERS). I dreaded the moment anyone would see me pecking on the family computer and ask me about my ideas. Ridicule would have destroyed me so I simply imagined. At university, I discovered the Internet on my laptop… and blogging via LiveJournal. I wrote long pieces of nonfiction (LIKE THIS ONE), became a university writing consultant, enrolled in creative writing courses, and started my first novel as a senior thesis. I got credit for that project… and there it lies, petrified. I practice a concoction of procrastination and avoidance, with promises to salvage lost progress. My subscription to writers’ digest lapsed before I read a single issue. I threw them away, too; those issues of Writers’ Digest are like e-mails sitting in rarely opened files or the myriad of webpages ‘bookmarked’ because I was “too tired to focus properly on this right now,” — then deleted quietly at a later date: forgotten.

Palestinian 'X'My innate creativity dessicated in post-university life. I never wanted to end my life but I would lunge for a ‘reset’, a ‘do-over’. Understand: the hunger for significance predated even my desire to be an author: I led the class academically and trailed socially. Sometime after “Bill the Cowboy Travels the Globe” I became fixated with being the best. Doubts floated to the surface and left a ring of scum around my professional life that I could never quite scrub away, even with some modest accolades from writing professors and talented friends. I fell behind my own internal clock, that precocious force which drove me to be “advanced” or “a prodigy”. I ran myself into a psychological debt with myself — one that I could not repay in the wake of family tragedies, much less in the Levant.

The feelings of sadness surface like sweat — I am learning to notice and describe the messages my body is trying to convey. Imagine a briny acid forcing its way through the pores, as if secreting lemon-pulp, and a dull burning sensation like habaneros on the lips. Until last week, I thought it was enough to say I felt depressed; I invented physical reasons to feel as if I were being pickled like last Autumn’s olives rather than make the connection to unmet expectations. That ‘pickling feeling’ is unassigned regret. It is the bodily manifestation of an inkling that the past decade could and should have happened differently. As aging professionals, we lament the loss of our most precious aspirations — to be an ecologist or a jazz musician, perhaps start a family (DO NOT UNPACK THAT BAGGAGE). My relationship failures represent the loss of my most humble aspirations: (I SAID ‘DO NOT UNPACK’ IT) — okay, fine. The one aspiration that will not expire is the very first aspiration, the one that began at age eight — to be an author of books. I deliberated on the possible irony of that for twenty minutes but this reality festers and itches so much because it does not defy anyone’s expectations for me — including mine. I know what it takes and I have not done it for fear of failure.

I was the child for whom things came easily or else they were not worth doing; to dedicate myself to something at which I might never be the best was frightening. Looking at an issue of Writer’s Digest, I knew there were so many things I did not know about the craft and so many reasons that the publishing industry might never notice me. I hate a potential waste. I constructed a reality where I was supposed to pursue another vocation but ‘fell back’ on technical writing or where my mind needed to be fertilized with painful or exotic real experiences before, spontaneously, I would emerge from my chrysalis (MADE OF CALLOUSES) as a virtuoso and never have a manuscript rejected. Something supernatural — an epiphany or miracle — would emerge and be my salvation.

Never seen a pale-face in a kefia? Get used to it.

Never seen a pale-face in a kefia? Get used to it.

I wrought a work of ingrown fictionalization, a powerful character that overwhelmed all self-doubt without having to be written. He is me — activist me. I am not quite sure from where I draw the energy to write, which might explain why this obstacle is so hard to overcome, but ‘Daniel Xavier’ (LEGIT ALIAS, BABY) uses outrage to fuel his endeavors, and the more he endeavors the more he finds to be outraged about, so that I became engrossed in a figurative fire-nado of social justice indulgences. I welded him into a social justice machine in my imagination, though in every day life I was preparing grants and reports (WRITING), not wrapping a kefia over my face and defying Israeli oppression. Yet the activist in me is not just an escape, though because what is constructed is still real. When I opened a Writers’ Digest e-newsletter last week (BEFORE THEY STARTED TRYING TO SELL THINGS) I gleaned a piece of advice that almost scared me back into denial. “Most successful writers don’t score until their fifth manuscript…” Not counting those who never find their ‘muse’, authors average four failed book pitches.

“Something still needs to happen,” said the fool in me, “and then…”

“It’s too late,” said the octopus, “you’ve already had ideas but you didn’t—”

“THIS IS DANIEL XAVIER: YOU NEED TO FAIL FOUR TIMES, THEN COME SEE ME.”

Octopus says, “That’s ridiculous — let’s check Facebo—”

“BE SILENT — QUICK JD: IF YOU HAD TO PICK ONE STORY IDEA TO FAIL WITH, WHAT WOULD IT BE?”

“He doesn’t actually know—” (HOW IS AN OCTOPUS TALKING?)

“I actually do — I know the right story to learn with…”

“MAY IT BE SO; BETTER TEN YEARS AGO THAN NOW BUT BETTER NOW THAN TEN YEARS HENCE!”

I have to be honest: the octopus is still with me, still affecting me. My first night working on character development with Scrivener went well; the second night I caved and searched for thrift stores online. The third night, I started developing ‘Jem’: an antagonist who will become my hero because the protagonist of the novel needs to be challenged (THEY ARE BOTH PART OF ME). Sunday night, I did nothing more than pick backgrounds for the Tumblr I want to begin. It will be called “Interpolar Ice Field”, a pun on interpolations and the ‘principle of the iceberg’. My new handle is ‘Aukstronaut’ — invoking the extinct arctic bird, the sounds of awkwardness, and voyages into yet unexplored frontiers. This morning, I will finish this definitive piece of ‘Reverse Exiled’, though I have not fully defined what it means to be “reverse exiled”. At last, I might raise more questions than I answer. This week may keep me too busy to write.

Tray of Arabic coffee *drool*

Or maybe my writing will keep me too busy for this week; no one knows the future but I do know that Hope is a more powerful force than even Faith because an audacious Hope is a more redeeming Faith than just Believing in something unseen; that Hope moves us to action. Only my fascination with Creative Hope could draw me away from the writing life but I believe such a Hope is simultaneously my reason for writing, the one thing that will keep me writing, and a main thread in the pieces I will write. I can work with Muslims, Jews, and whoever may share my Hope but I struggle to stay engaged with resigned Christians. I need to get past this pet-peeve because they will be my target audience: when everyone has Hope (THAT HOPE), they can join together to beat Fear and help ‘reverse exile’ us all.

 

Correction: it is now 9 AM on August 27th of 2013 and I am a writer.

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July & August: 48 Hours

Rise and Shine…

Morning dawned on the last day of July and the breeze still carried the refreshment of evening. I could work-out the next day; my late night writing session earned me an extra hour of rest. Content to snuff my alarm, I nestled back into the cool sheets. Time has been kind to my soul this month. My perspective has grown deeper, though not always wider – which is fine. Below, Zoughbi was already frying a pan of vegetables – onions, tomatoes, peppers of both kinds, garlic – I told him he could drop two eggs into the skillet for me. He loves to extoll the virtues of such breakfasts, when he remembers to make them.

“People really are crazy right now,” he noted, “a woman’s husband killed her.”

Morning dawned on the first day of August and my back felt like a gang of mountain goats had stomped on it. The first pangs struck so hard, the night before, that I went to bed early. It felt even stiffer by morning. Time has been unkind to my body this year. I could not possibly work-out; an hour later I phoned my boss to apologize for running late.

I awakened him with my phone call: he had mediated a late-night case.

Ten minutes later, we ate an odd collection of fruit with bread dipped in olive oil and powdered thyme. I went into the living room and sat perfectly still in the softest chair.

“Perhaps we should get you some bengay…”

Well Begun is Half-Done…

My friend in the USA asked me, just hours before, what I typically did at work. When my boss and I arrived at Dar Sansour (our office), I descended to the patio for coffee with Saliba and Adnan– two cups. Excusing  myself inside,  I climbed into my alcove and started the computer. I edited a report for Zoughbi, started my July newsletter, and skimmed an ICHAD update. My main task was to talk with Usama about a grant-proposal to upgrade our software and equipment for a fresh campaign aimed at financing garden renovations. In the process, it was decided that I should have logins for all Wi’am social media platforms. All my pistons were pumping. Still, I reminded myself that this was just one kind of ‘typical’. I heard voices through the open window and, spying a familiar face, I left all my activities in order to reconnect…

I knew ‘five minutes in the municipality building’ with my boss would be at least fifteen but it became more like fifty. I accepted my fate and an offer for tea, using the hot sting of the tiny glass to keep awake while the older men mumbled in Arabic to each other. My eyes drifted around the deputy mayor’s office to the spoils of overseeing Bethlehem – the glint of gifts from pilgrims. I also noticed the really expert carpentry of the moldings and doors, only outdone by the relief carving of the coffee table. Everything was done in such a way that it need never be done again – the first chance may be the only opportunity.

One man wagged his finger forebodingly as he told a story, then drew it across his throat. The others shook their heads and whispered inscrutable admonishments into space.

“هذ  عنف—مجنون –مجنون” It suddenly made sense to me.

Expect the Unexpected

I sat for five Palestinian minutes, alone with a crock of lamb and rice in Saliba’s car. I decided to tag-along with my co-workers “just in case” they needed help picking-up food from the community oven. These two speak minimal English, slightly better than my Arabic. Of course Adnan has a face and personality that transcend the language barrier. I adore watching Adnan be himself. He can be so gentle as he carries out the pleasantries of pouring the tea or reading the newspaper but then his cell will ring. Accustomed to the enthusiasm of Arab telephone conversations,  I opened the car window to release excess shouts. Saliba took it in stride. He is our elder statesman with the heart of gold. He pulled the car to a stop.

“Sit sit, rest,” insisted Adan, waving both hands. “Five minutes, no problem.  Stay.”

I tried not to fall into a bottomless pit of thoughts. Just then, a woman in a white cotton dress started walking up the stairs toward Star Str. She was obviously foreign. I watched the breeze caress her flowing brunette hair and exposed calves. I wondered where she was from—

she smiled at me. The warmth of her glance was wholly unexpected.

Just as I came to the water-cooler, Zoughbi announced we were going to a demonstration. Adnan, Saliba, Imad, and I piled into his battle-worn Volkswagen and shuttled to an old city area where a plug of people had formed in the narrow street. Our co-worker, Lucy, stood resolute in the middle as people pressed around the clot with bags of groceries. Imad whispered quietly that they were protesting the fatal case of domestic violence from a few days before. They marched from the site of the crime to the nearest traffic circle and chanted about an end to violence in the home. Some of them wore hijabs, some seemed to be Christian women, but a few were men. I stood with my other co-workers. Zoughbi became interested in forty shekels worth of faqoos; before long, I was carrying them into the pharmacy, where I bought locally-made muscle cream. When I emerged, Zoughbi took the heavy bags from me. It was then that I noticed Lucy: did she have a post-demonstration glow? She is another person who can be gentle or quite passionate.

We picked-up Adnan at the top of the hill, pacing deliberately with a phone clutched to his ear.

So Typical…

While I was eating with our Mennonite visitors, a familiar face began to say, “remember when I mentioned having dinner with Daryl and Cindy in Amman and met a guy who lived in a hotel across from Hashems Restaurant?”

He pointed at me.

“Thirteen weeks gone?” another one said, “that is a long time, isn’t it?”

“Yes, I think it is…”

‘This is another type of typical day,’ I whispered to myself as I foraged the office refrigerator for broken cookies. An aching back, several unannounced interruptions, but nothing had fallen behind schedule yet. ‘And the day is young; good things can still happen—or more bad. Oh! Here’s some salad…’

Hanging-Out After Work

A narrow staircase leads from the barber shop to Walid’s second-floor den. We greeted one another warmly and I sat in the black leather chair next to his desk. His workspace is several shades darker than the desert sun but it projects a cool, clean motif: like a photographer’s dark-room melded with a doctor’s office.

                “Do you want to drink anything?” he said.

                “Whatever you are drinking, if you please.”

                He called for two Schweppes orange sodas. He browsed photographs on a large, wall-mounted monitor, tapping the occasional note on a netbook. He shook his head and whispered something, then turned the netbook around and said, “look at this.”

                “Oh damn.” There was a woman lying on the ground in a nest of hair and spilled blood, eyes stark open, with a gash on her neck.

                “Crazy. Her husband or boyfriend or someone was so angry that he just killed her.” Walid waved his cigarette in the general direction of the traffic circle.  “Right over there. Crazy…”

                “Crazy…” I said, popping open my soda. I could tell Walid was feeling some acedia and it was nice to sit in the air-conditioner and keep him company for a few minutes.

                “Well, okay, let’s see how it’s doing.”

                “Yeah; just let me take my shirt off, in a minute…”

                 He looked intently at my chest and said, “come back in four or five days…”

“شو سويت اليوم؟” asked Imad, knowing very well what I had done that day.

“انا كتبت رسالين و …شغل ثني…” I replied.

“شغل ثني؟ شو سويت بعد؟” ‘And other things’ was not specific enough, for him.

“رحت معهم (معك) إلى…”,  I hesitated.

“You went with us to the demonstration. We call it [مسيرة], like a ‘march’ in English” he said, scribbling on the whiteboard. I scrawled Arabic characters onto my lined notebook.

“Why did they demonstrate? Tell me in English…”

“A woman was murdered.”

“’Murder is [قتل ] and murderer is [القاتب]. Crime is [جريمة]. Who killed the woman – tell me in Arabic.”

“رجل– الجوز الأمرأة”

“جوزها”

“جوزها—” –“her husband.  Did [الشرطي ] come?”

“Yes, they arrested him [ هم أعتقلوا الرجل… ]”

There was a pregnant pause as we each shook our head.

“It is a shame,” said Imad, “enough about that – what will you do later tonight…”

After the Arabic lesson, we sat on Imad’s porch with his mother and ate grapes. The sky seemed clear but there was actually an even scattering of fine dust that gave it an antique quality, as if someone had painted the dome over our heads years ago and it had faded just a little.

“After it rains, you can see to Jordan from here.”

All’s Well That Ends Well? 

When I arrived home, I ate chocolate-spread on pita and paced around the apartment. Walid’s acedia had passed into my system and I fell asleep on the couch with a Bible on my chest. I tried to continue in devotion when I awoke but the previous night’s activities were taking their toll.  Hoping my quick nap would fuel my impetus for the evening, I brewed some tea and studied Arabic for the next day’s lesson. The deterioration continued at a steady pace in spite of my ambitions for a new blog entry titled “Bethlehem Ink”*. Past ten in the evening, it felt like an iron baboon crawled onto my back and grabbed my flesh with twenty fingers. I went outdoors with my tea and a lit candle to try praying under the full moon. All I could think about was the pain in my back and anti-Semitism. I wrestled with questions about the Occupation and ethnic conflict for several minutes. I could not get to the kernel of my prayers. Relenting, I went to bed.

When I arrived home, I ate chocolate-spread on pita and paced around the apartment. With nothing to lose, I decided to take a shower. I even allowed the water to get hot, though I was nearly done by then. Afterwards, I rubbed on my new medicine. It worked just as much as I expected, not more or less. Nothing could replace having a special loved-one rub my back for me but I was grateful for my consolation prize:

“Made in Beit Jala – suck my toe, Israeli pharmaceutical companies!”

I studied my Arabic in the same fashion as the night before, at the same slow pace, with the same frequent tea-breaks. At intervals, I chatted with friends from Michigan State University on Skype. It comforted me to know they had initiated conversation, this time, which was so unlike my days in Grand Rapids when I was too desperate for any kind of contact.

“Perspective is my counter-attack; I did a little less than I did yesterday but I’m satisfied with myself because everything I did today was in spite of pain. I refused despair.”

When I went outside to pray, I butted against the same problems. God answers under the surface of our consciousness, sometimes, and I noticed

Life is a blessed gift… even with back pain.

that I was deeper into my thoughts than my surroundings. Whoever said that prayer disconnects us from our environment? Maybe prayer is becoming aware of what God is doing in our environment. The moon was bright, subtly haloed by the fine scattering of dust and illuminating rooftops, minarets, steeples, and cars.

                “Thank you for the Moon, God – hey! That’s what I forgot last night: I have quite a few things to thank you for from the past 48 hours…”

                And I did. I still do.

*Come back in four or five days…