Thursday, September 4, 2014

The Ultimate Cheer

My friend Seth has this cheer for before an ultimate frisbee game. He’ll come running into the huddle and start a story. The story escalates in absurdity and so does the team’s response with alternating “YAAAY”s and “BOOO”s. Something along the lines of:

“Guys – I’m so sorry I’m late – it’s because we had SUCH a great tournament party last night!”


“But now I’m really hung over.”


“But I’m ready to play defense anyway!” 


“But I can’t play because I threw my cleat in the ocean with a message for the people of Indonesia last night…”


And so on and so forth until either our team gets fired up to play, or the story becomes so outrageous that the other team gets engrossed and comes over to join us.

We also bring a couch to the fields...and bacon

This cheer is analogous to my experiences since returning to the Middle East from a few weeks in the States. Take any aspect of it. The war, for example: a real ceasefire (yay!) to the following land grab by Israel in the West Bank, thus continuing to ostracize international alliances or even compassion for the Jewish State and its cause (boo!). Or moving into a wonderful new apartment (yay!); and having the faucets and the stove immediately fall apart (boo!); but getting them fixed with the kind support of our landlady (yay!); who then proceeded to scold us like little children for getting overcharged (boo!). (I swear, dealing with Israelis is like eating Sourpatch Kids or Warheads – you just gotta pucker up and hang on for the ride ‘til the outer layer dissolves.)

Or how about going to play in a frisbee tournament on Saturday: I found out on Thursday that my toe had only been dislocated instead of broken, so I would actually be able to play (yay?); I woke up at 5am to catch a sherut (mini-bus) at the central station, only to remember after my 40-minute walk that they don’t run from that side of town on Shabbat (boo!). Huffing it back to the East side, I found many sheruts waiting to leave for Tel Aviv (yay!) and got juggled by six shouting Arab men into four different sheruts over the span of 30 minutes. Each time, I was the first passenger in a bus that must be full before it departs (boo). I returned to the shouting men and kindly declined one offer to drive me to Tel Aviv directly for 300 shekels (boo!), but then got in a cab to the secret sheruts  (and by secret I mean the ones I just didn’t know about) – a ride for which the kind old man, Rami, did not charge me at all (yay!) (I may leave the part out where he kept patting my knee…grandfatherly or creepy ? The ride was short enough that I did not need to make a clear distinction or assess the speed at which I could leap from the car, which was great because he seemed nice and it was still too early in the morning for a dive-and-role). I was the second-to-last person on the bus and was immediately whisked away to the big city very, very quickly (yay!)…on a speeding bus ride of death (blarf).

The latest in this proverbial roller coaster (were there roller coasters in Proverbs? If not, what would they have said instead? A Judean hill chariot race? Fishing boat on a stormy Galilee?) – anyway, the latest escapade of this sort was navigating the medical system. I’ve recently diagnosed myself with a deadly, flesh-eating bacteria (boo!) but had a not-so-painful appointment yesterday during which the doctor actually answered my questions and even drew me a map of where to go to the pharmacy. I found a receptionist who told me where to go to drop off my packet and then encountered a super friendly pharmacist (all yay!)

And by comparison, I’d much rather be at the doctor than the bank. My roommate and I returned from our respective life errands at the same time, but her simple chore to remedy a wrongly dated check spawned treks to two separate branches, a series of blank stares accompanied by completely fabricated fees with multi-step transactions, and hostile rebukes for messing up the check in the first place…none of which resulted in any clear way to solve the issue because that task is just too tricky to tackle. My tough-as-nails Brit cried in public. She has never cried in public, at least not since England lost a war (oh, wait – yeah, she’s never cried in public.) They gave her a glass of water and asked her why she was crying over a silly piece of paper. …boo.

New roommate Lucy and I bonding over Proverbs, roller coasters, and cactus fruits

Lately my life has felt like playing he-loves-me-he-loves-me-not with the flower petals of my sanity (which is, ironically, a not-so-far-off analogy to be frank). It’s a gentle roulette that turns me to meditation and chocolate. But I am not so blind or narcissistic as to not understand that this is all a hyperbolic anecdote of what every other creature is going through: that is, simply life itself – a cosmically balanced cycle of ups and downs to which we are intended to respond with grace and an open mind and perhaps someday even influence through positive intention. And like the freezer door that falls out every time we open the fridge, it’s actually quite funny when it doesn’t make you cry. But when you are in a foreign land and everything is just a smidge more complicated and those cycles come in large waves that coincide with a particularly emotional other cycles in the month (which is not an excuse but simply a reality), then this life roller-coaster-ancient-fishing-boat-on-the-stormy-seas makes me want to curl up in the fetal position or barf - depending on how much chocolate I’ve eaten already. 

Frankly, I usually enjoy these free-falls - the moment of seeing that huge drop in front and reaching the realization that it’s coming whether I want it to or not - so I might as well commit and enjoy it. (Let’s define “commitment” at a surface level for now, though. We’re talking small decisions - not life choices - for the time being. Yesterday I spent quite literally 10 minutes in the baking aisle trying to figure out which chocolate to use in the brownies I was baking for my friend in the hospital. Didn’t matter I guess – I burned the SHIT out of them anyway (boo). But my point is that decisions are not my strong suit (yet), so I’m taking one small commitment at a time). I acknowledge this about myself and so I think that leaning into these drops is actually a healthy thing. I can’t change the banking system or predetermine which sherut driver doesn’t have a death wish, so maybe the best thing to do is to get out on the field and tell the story with vigor; to sob when it feels right and to cheer when the heroine conquers the flesh eating bacteria and gets new faucets in the bathroom. 

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Here and There

It's been awhile since I've written, so before I dive into this blog, I might offer a bit of context: I wound up taking a whirlwind trip home to the States for three weeks at the end of July. The trip started off with a bang when a rocket hit near the airport and the American airlines shut down their Tel Aviv circuit. I spent two days on hold with the airlines to see if I'd actually be able to get out. I finally made it via Spain (Olé!) and went immediately from the desert and a war to a week at the lake with weenie roasts, Bingo (where I won big: $4.75), water skiing, and family that I hadn't seen for over five years.

From there, it was two weeks at home with more family time, doctors' appointments, feasting on Asheville's plethora of organic meats and ice cream flavors, wonderful friends, a frisbee tournament, and oh, working part-time from home with the dogs and the doorbells during that whole period.

When I returned home to Jerusalem, I immediately started work again and finished moving apartments - a process that had been turned into a tight-quartered circus of frustration and solidarity. I'd technically moved in before-hand, but joined forces (and space) with the departing roommate as we were both trying to figure out how to escape the country during the airport shutdown.  I'm now living with a delightful British friend in the same neighborhood as before, with so many trees, functional internet from anywhere in the apartment, AND A PATIO! (The only downside is that I can no longer randomly take on a British accent without wondering if I might be offensive instead of just strange.)

I took on all of these life adventures with full force, and then spent last weekend kind of laying on the couch, alternating between a book and staring off into space (...and yet, couldn't seem to figure out what was wrong with me). So, that's what's new with me, and this blog is about the parallels that I've encountered as I bounced between my two homes.


There, a far off rumbling is a thunderstorm trying to gauge its ambition. You can set your watch by its timing, but it doesn't often telegraph its might. 
Here, perhaps a truck shifting into second gear; perhaps a rocket being intercepted and falling in defeated shrapnel on a neighboring village. The magnitude is a point of boastful pride, but its the timing that will catch you off guard. 

There, ISIS is my friend’s bar – I watched his family turn the dilapidated movie theater into an elegant restaurant and festive music venue. I’d often walk over from my house for the best habanero cocktail I’ve ever had, or important civic causes like bluegrass shows to raise money for bike lanes and the esteem of self-impoverished hipsters.
Here, ISIS is also my neighbor (but they’re not so big on the cocktails): the increasingly powerful Islamic state garnering support and beheading babies in Syria and northern Iraq. Are they the ones taking advantage of the volatile times to launch a few friendly reminders of their presence across the northern border?

There, everything feels exactly the same as as how I left it - like a dollhouse discovered in the attic. 
Here, there is a mild breeze whispering of change, and everyone is holding his breath to see which way it will shift.

There, I dodge street performers and vagabonds in a bustling downtown, waving to the occasional familiar face.
Here, I dodge between tall, pointy hats of bishops, swiveling tourist cameras, and high-speed pita carts. I make my daily greetings to vendors, beggars, and taxi drivers stationed along my route to work.

There, I wait in line to be handed a menu, but I already know what I want: the chocolate mousse stout cake and a liquid truffle – smoked sea salt and maple of course. 
Here, I stand in a gaggle at the sneeze glass (if I’ve chosen carefully). There is no menu, but I already know that I want tabouleh, a carton of hummus, and some baba ganoush if they've got it.

There, the world around me seems certain, and I feel restless. 
Here, I feel a sense of calm despite the world’s uncertainty. I wish I could understand why this paradox guides my course.

There, I worry if my brother will be safe walking down the street in broad daylight. Will the police turn on him? Would strangers turn on him? 
Here, I worry if my neighbors will be safe walking down the street in broad daylight. Will the police turn on them? Will strangers turn on them? I sit in the comfort of my home, nestled down with a cup of coffee mixed with guilt, compassion, and a spoonful of sugar; never doubting my own safety, I watch the borders of my worlds blur. A protestor asks despondently of those holding the power and pointing the guns: “Why won’t they walk with us? Why don’t they want better?” Is there any difference between Ferguson, Missouri and Damascus Gate? And I can’t remember if I’m here or there. 

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

How do I Eat This?

Excuse me, but how do I eat this?
 “The land of milk and honey” is somewhat misleading as a description of the Holy Land. More like the land of processed white bread. The pita is like Mexico’s tortilla or China’s white rice…or Asheville’s whole grain, organic, free range and spiritually harvested quinoa. And after five months of a steady diet built precariously on a foundation of empty carbs, I noticed one morning in April that my body was beginning to say “Halas!” (enough in Arabic).

No one likes to admit they have a bizarre rash – just the very word itself induces collective jitters in travelers around the world. But that’s what I got – a fierce Lichtenstein complex on the upper half of my body (thank the Lord for small graces) from my shoulders down to my fingertips, culminating in a hulk-like swelling and bubbling in the palms of my hands. And oh does it itch? Like hell.

But even when my instincts about the correlation between gluten and my “manky” hands  - as my British friend calls them - were confirmed by a local doctor, I still continued to explore alternative factors like cleaning solutions and laundry detergent while trying to scrape away the truth with my fingernails. Since reality set in, I’ve gone through a number of series of committed anti-gluten regimens and cookie-driven denial, cycling me through varying degrees of maddening itchiness.

At the moment I’m back into a semi-committed relationship with rice cakes and exploring how the hell I can also enjoy what I love most about the region’s food culture: falafel and hummus and all of the other delectable dips, goos, spices, and tapenades the Middle East is famous for. I’ve come to realize that bread is simply the vehicle for the awesomeness, but I’m having to adapt my digestion patterns to accommodate my new reality. I can spoon the falafel and its toppings out of the pita; the makings of a bagel are just as good on a salad; and croissants…well, sometimes I still shed a tear or two over the loss of chocolate croissants (or steal a bite of the Belgian chocolate cake that has melted onto my side of the ice cream bowl. It’s a process…)

But I was recently considering this question of having to consistently ask “how do I eat this?” as I deal with a completely other form of digesting the Middle East. I have no idea what international news is focusing on outside of the World Cup, but around here and splattered all over Facebook are outcries, speculations, and escalating emotions about three young settlers who were recently abducted in the West Bank. At the most basic level, this is a tragic and terrifying story of families experiencing their worst nightmares. It’s one we are unfortunately not unfamiliar with in the US in terms of wayward hikers and the nauseating rise in school shootings. But this kidnapping is also part of a greater political narrative here – that of the occupation. These kids and their families are living on contentious land – land that by international law does not belong to them. They are intentionally residing in harm’s way as an expression of their political and religious values, and their absence is naturally causing a ruckus on both sides of the wall.

Feeling overall saddened and confused about the situation, I’ve turned to a social compass for support, but my community seems just as perplexed as I am. Some of my friends are in a complete dishevelment about this kidnapping, demanding the return of our boys, cursing the evil of the Palestinian leadership and spending hours praying at the Western Wall. Others are focused on the politics of the situation –they are asking why no terrorist organization has yet claimed responsibility for the assault as it traditionally would; why the Palestinian Authority is being held accountable publicly but behind closed doors the Israeli government is rejecting their help; pointing out the hypocrisy in the scores of arrests have been made at random throughout the West Bank. Nearly one hundred young Palestinian men are being held for questioning – simply not coming home to their parents at night. Still others have no idea what to think about where they stand politically, but are just aching for the individuals caught in the conflict as they watch tensions rise in their back yard (and holding their breaths as we welcome over three hundred Ultimate Peace campers and staff to camp).

I’m wondering how to eat this. I think that in a previous chapter of my life, I would have swallowed this frenetic energy and carried it deep in my belly - digesting it like the Eucharist to somehow feel connected. But this time I feel disconnected from this crisis, almost like I’m floating above it. I’m choosing not to read the articles and pay attention to the news - to instead focus on what I want and what I can control. I remember someone asking me once how I could possibly help a beaten man simply by letting myself get beaten.  Does understanding someone else’s inner turmoil make me better serve the world? If the answer is no, which is a relatively new theory I’m entertaining, then what I seem to be doing with my life experience now is taking a lick or two off the top and then leaving the rest – acknowledging that if I chew it up and swallow, it will make me too raw to function. But isn’t that cheating? Is it okay to dig all the good stuff out of the middle and leave behind the stuff that hurts? Are we allowed to suck the falafels and meat out of the sandwich and leave the pita behind?