Wednesday, December 31, 2014

From "You" and "I" to "We"

Recently articles on marriage and committed relationships have been popping up more than usual in my Facebook Newsfeed. I'm not in a long-term relationship, at least not the kind the articles are referring to, but curious, I've read a few. I hoped that they'd have something to offer to my other committed relationships: to my family, to my friends, to my writing, to my work, to justice, to peacemaking. I was not disappointed.

The Huffington Post article lists as one of its "8 Surprising (And Scientifically Proven) Things That Lead to a Lasting Marriage" "using the word 'we' during arguments." Couples who use "we" and "us" more than "I," "me," and "you" tend to have more successful marriages. This felt very familiar to me.

During my first stint last year with Christian Peacemaker Teams (CPT) in Palestine, I wrote about my spiritual practice of looking people in the eye and, often silently, wishing them well. For a number of reasons I concentrated particularly on Israeli soldiers, who I saw on a daily basis:

1) I had made a commitment to nonviolence and, having done so, I tried to embody it. I cannot tell you how often I have wished I hadn't made that commitment.  But I did. I believe in the power of nonviolence, even though it's hard, and it stretches me very often beyond comfort, and I very often fail at living it. But I'm we (me and nonviolence) are in this for the long haul, so I may as well make the best of it.

2) Wishing for the well-being of soldiers did not come naturally, given that I often witnessed them in less than loving, less than common good-inspired (by my definition, though many of them would probably disagree with my definition of "common good") actions. Often my first reaction to seeing them disrespect, harass, or attack Palestinians was, and still is, anger. Try pulling "I wish you well" out of that feeling. Not easy. And so I practice. Practice. Practice. Practice makes perfect, so they say, but I doubt I'll get to perfection.

3) Wishing for anything but their well-being simply didn't seem useful. If I wish harm on them, how does that help Palestinians? The work of peacemaking? My soul? In all likelihood, harm to an Israeli soldier would only exacerbate already volatile circumstances. When I am in a bad mood, I don't always treat people well.  When someone with power and serious weaponry isn't at his or her best, imagine what might happen. You don't even need to imagine - just read the news. The well-being of one person ripples out to others. The reverse is also true.

4) When I was able to look into the eyes of those young men (young women never met my gaze), silently telling them I didn't hate them and that I wished them love, I could not deny their humanity. When I was able to look them in the eyes with compassion, not anger, I think they also, albeit briefly, recognized my humanity and our connection as children of God. My hope was always that our exchange might somehow lead them to a similar recognition towards Palestinians.

           -         -         -         -         -         -         -         -         -         -         -         -         -         -

During my second stint with CPT, my practice changed. It occurred to me that it was presumptuous to think that I had figured out the whole expansive love thing that I was wishing on others. That I had mastered mercy, forgiveness, understanding, compassion, and loving my neighbor was laughable. That I was simply imparting my wisdom to those unfortunate others who hadn't - Really? That could not be farther from the truth.

So I changed my pronouns,  from "you" to "we."

I can't say that I really wanted to change them. I'm more comfortable with the distance that "you" and "I" puts between me and the soldiers, even while my actions purport to close the distance. I appreciate the gulf between "us" and "them" that allows me to claim some sense of moral superiority. But how real is that superiority? I'd like to think that in similar circumstances to those of the soldiers, I would act differently than they do, that I would not shoot teargas at children, that I would not kick or beat people, or that I would not raid homes in the middle of the night, terrorizing and traumatizing families. I'd like to think I'd see all people, Israeli, Palestinian, international, as my brothers and sisters. But those are mere hypotheticals. To be honest, I suspect that I would be prone to the strong influences around me that encouraged "us vs them" black and white interpretations of the context in which I lived. Even the circumstances I live in now, I have a long way to go to move beyond binaries and simple interpretations.

I am deeply grateful for the strong influences that currently surround me: people pursuing expansive love, redemptive justice, creative transformation.  They inspire me to pursue those same ideals and to delve into complexities. They help me to think in terms of "we."

The separation of "you" and "I" is a human construct. My faith, and increasingly, scientific research, points to the fact that we are all interconnected.  We are all made from atoms that emerged into the universe 14 billion years ago. In all likelihood, my atoms have mingled with yours at some point over those billions of years. That's a pretty intimate connection. It's a good argument for "we."

Our actions ripple through the world, influencing people we know and in ways we're aware of, and people we don't know and will never know. Remembering that I am part of a much greater "we" helps me to consider how my acts might vibrate out. And so I try to think, to act, to feel, to embrace "we."

When I embrace "we," I know that I am not alone. When I embrace "we," I recognize my complicity in the problems that surround us. When I embrace "we," I seek to work with,  not for, not against, others in addressing those problems. I am part of a larger force. If I unite my power with that of others, what can we do? How can we be in the world? Who can we be together, bringing our gifts, our sorrows, and our joys? Who can we be together when we tenderly care for vulnerabilities in each other and accept the strength and healing offered to us, filling our gaps? Who can we be together? 

Each Soul Completes Me

Beloved said,

"My name is not complete without

I thought:
How could a human's worth ever be such?

And God, knowing all our thoughts - and all our
thoughts are innocent steps on the path -
then addressed my 

God revealed
a sublime truth to the world,
when He 

"I am made whole by your life. Each soul,
each soul completes

- Hafiz

May we find our completeness in the souls of each other. Blessings on this eve of a new year. 

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Celebrating an Endless Calling

Since I've been home, actually since I left Hebron, I've been searching for the right words.  I've found plenty of emotion, but words elude me. I am going to try anyway to put some together.

I am happy to be home, to sit by my Christmas tree lovingly assembled by friends and family before I came home. I am happy to see friends and family, to experience the warmth of their physical embrace. The reach of their prayers, love, and support extended to me across thousands of miles, but I would be lying if I said I didn't miss being with them. At church the day after I arrived home, I swam into a sea of welcome and care.

I am relieved that I no longer have to make sure I have alcohol pads in my pocket to counter the effects of teargas; I no longer have to be quite so aware of my inability to protect others from burning eyes, nose, throat. I am relieved that I do not have to watch up close Palestinian children shaking in fear, Palestinian adults shaking in anger, or both deflated by circumstances over which they have no control. I am relieved that I do not have to witness young Israeli soldiers puffed with power or shrinking in shame as they attempt to seize the dignity of Palestinians. I am relieved that these scenes do not fill my physical space, though they  enter my mind, my heart, my dreams with frequency.

Even as I am happy and relieved to be here, I want to go back to Hebron. I am afraid that I will too easily forget, that I will become complacent in the ease of life I live in the U.S. I want to be in Hebron with my Christian Peacemaker Teams teammates who understand this feeling, who care passionately, who speak eloquently and share widely the truth we have witnessed together. I want to be with my teammates who tire of the reality faced daily, yet remain committed to justice, to peace, to truth, to compassion in a way that inspires me to do the same.

I went back to work for just a few hours on Monday. During prayer we heard Joan Chittister's words about commitment and enthusiasm:

Commitment and enthusiasm are two concepts that are, unfortunately, often confused. Commitment is that quality of life that depends more on the ability to wait for something to come to fulfillment—through good days and bad—than it does on being able to sustain an emotional extreme for it over a long period of time. Enthusiasm is excitement fed by satisfaction. The tangle of the two ideas, however, is exactly what leads so many people to fall off in the middle of a project.
When the work ceases to feel good, when praying for peace gets nowhere, when the marriage counseling fails to reinvigorate the marriage, when the projects and the plans and the hopes worse than fail, they fizzle, that’s when the commitment really starts. . .
When we feel most discouraged, most fatigued, most alone is precisely the time we must not quit.

I want to live a committed life. Yesterday when I was out, I saw a simple yard decoration: two giant - maybe 2-feet tall - ornaments. In between the ornaments, just as tall as they were, the word PEACE. I wish the words were in the yard all year long. These words of Parker Palmer express my reaction to the yard decorations and the life I aspire to:

As I celebrate Christmas with my family, I think about the fact that the early Quakers—my 17th Century spiritual ancestors—refused to set aside Dec. 25 as a special day.
They feared that doing so would lead them to forget that every day is holy—that peace and justice are moral imperatives all year long—that hope is always ready to be born in our hearts—that we are never free to ignore the needs of the least among us.
Memo to self: Celebrate Christmas with a full heart on Dec. 25. But understand that you're celebrating an endless calling, and keep your heart open to the world's needs 365 days a year.

We must commit ourselves to peace, to love, to each other, to the rest of the glorious creation we live in all year long. This is what God asks of us, what God invites us to do. We must display our commitment like a yard sign and we must use our bodies to live it. God - Love - asks for our commitment, but will never force it. We make the choice to commit.

As we consider God's invitation, we may wonder how we could possibly change our world, what we possibly have to offer. The beautiful thing about being created in God's divine image is that each of us has something to offer the world. Each of us has gifts uniquely suited to bringing our world to the fulfillment of God's vision. God invites us to share those gifts. It is up to us to accept the ever-open invitation.

Mary was a poor teenage girl in Galilee and reminds us that transfiguration of our world comes from even the most unlikely places and people. You are the indispensable agent of change. You should not be daunted by the magnitude of the task before you. Your contribution can inspire others, embolden others who are timid, to stand up for the truth in the midst of a welter of distortion, propaganda, and deceit; stand up for human rights where these are being violated with impunity; stand up for justice, freedom, and love where they are trampled underfoot by injustice, oppression, hatred, and harsh cruelty; stand up for human dignity and decency at times when these are in desperately short supply. 

-Desmond Tutu, God Has a Dream

As those of us who are Christians welcome the birth of the Prince of Peace, the full embodiment of Love, may we openly accept the gift and example of his life. And may all of us, regardless of our beliefs, our backgrounds, or our present reality come to know the gift that we are, the ways we, too, may embody Love.  May we recognize ourselves as indispensable agents of change. May we embrace YES as Mary did. May we respond to the endless calling of our world - to bring it closer to one in which all are treated with dignity, where mercy, forgiveness, and love guide us. May we commit ourselves to keeping our hearts open. May we never quit.

Blessings to you, your friends, your family, your enemies, to strangers, to all this holiday season. 

Sunday, December 14, 2014

Common, Not Normal

I wanted to write this a few days ago, Thursday, December 11. I started. I realized quickly I didn't have the energy to write what was pulsing from my heart. Friday was also a hard day. Saturday was strangely quiet, so I began to write. Today I will try to finish.

After two days off I arrived back at the office on Wednesday morning to news about the day's school run, the hour during which CPTers stand at Israeli military checkpoints to monitor the passage of Palestinian children and teachers through them. Members of a visiting CPT delegation told me, "The teargas was really bad this morning." Delegation members had gone with us on all our school runs while visiting. Wednesday morning was not their first exposure to teargas. It was their fourth time in four days to witness school-run teargas.

After hearing that, I also heard that two CPTers were at the Ibrahimi School (the school closest to the main checkpoint we monitor), waiting with a 12 year-old boy who'd been so affected by the gas that he needed to be taken to the hospital. It took the ambulance about a 1/2 hour to arrive because it had to navigate the checkpoints and permanent road closures (closed to Palestinians only) that make up the landscape of Hebron. My teammate sat with her arm around the boy, trying to comfort him. She has said multiple times since Wednesday morning, "I just keep thinking of that little body leaning into me. It was so awful." The Ibrahimi School had to close that day because the wind carried teargas fumes into the school. The gas that stung the eyes, noses, and throats of students and teachers alike eliminated the possibility of conducting classes.

The next day two pairs of us went out to different checkpoints for the school run. Around 7:30, halfway through the monitoring, my partner and I heard teargas being fired nearby, though not at our checkpoint. That was the first of seven canisters that teammates at the other checkpoint witnessed. They had to leave after seven because the fumes were so strong.  One teammate's chest was tightening, making it difficult for her to breathe, and when we saw her, her eyes were still red and watery. It took a few hours for her to fully recover.

At our checkpoint the teargas started after two stones were thrown. When the gas started, two teachers from the Ibrahimi School came out to wait for students as they came through the gas and checkpoint. The teachers hoped their presence would help the kids get to school without further problems. After three canisters were fired at our checkpoint, we and the teachers felt such strong burning in our eyes, noses, and mouths that we had to leave our post.

Students at Ibrahimi School recover from
teargas exposure.
We all went into the Ibrahimi School where the office's couches were full of boys with onions or alcohol-soaked pads under their noses. The teachers with us and several others were also recovering from the gas. We stayed in the office for several minutes. The boy who'd been hospitalized the previous day appeared, suffering again from the effects of the gas. Thankfully, he did not have to be hospitalized that day.

A teacher took us to a room where he was conducting his first grade class. His classroom was on the first floor, but the fumes had entered it; teargas displaced the class for at least part of the day.

Thankfully, the Ibrahimi School didn't have to close for a second day, but two other schools did.

Al-Khalil School, an elementary boys school with 270 students dismissed students before 8:30 because four teargas canisters landed in the schoolyard.  We arrived just as an ambulance was pulling in to pick up a boy who'd been hit on the thigh by one of the canisters.  Three teachers were also treated for teargas exposure.

Students from Khadeayeh School try to both leave school
and avoid teargas exposure. 
Khadeayeh School, an elementary boys school with 400 students, closed at 8:30.  Three canisters of teargas landed near the school's entrance.  As we arrived, the boys were leaving.  Teachers shepherded them into the street, but some boys came running back since the Israeli border police were still lobbing gas. Let me be clear: these were little boys. Scared little boys without a safe haven.

At Tarek Ben Zyad School, a boys high school with 473 students, we learned that a student had been hit in the arm with a rubber-coated steel bullet. He was hospitalized. We didn't know before that point that the border police had been using rubber-coated steel bullets.

We visited four other schools in the area that day. The rest, thankfully, reported no other injuries requiring professional medical attention, though the principals at all schools reported that  many students had come to school with the tell-tale drippy noses and watery eyes of teargas exposure. In all, the student population of the schools we visited is about 2,500 students. Two thousand five hundred children who on a nearly daily basis may be exposed to teargas - most commonly - sound grenades, and rubber-coated steel bullets - less commonly.

Two boys watch at teargas explodes on the other side of the
checkpoint, while another boy runs through the checkpoint to
escape the gas. 
Even if they don't have to walk through teargas, many have to walk through at least one Israeli military checkpoint. They have to walk past heavily-armed soldiers. And none can escape the sounds of teargas and sound grenades being shot nearby.

And those are just the kids at those seven schools. Many other kids in Hebron and throughout Palestine have similar experiences.

Sunday begins the school week. This morning, there was again teargas as we monitored. A young boy stood near us, watching both stone-throwing older boys and Israeli border police firing teargas. Our boy was trying to get to school. He was already late. He was clearly scared. We stood next to him. We ran with him when the teargas landed within a few yards of us. When we got a safe distance away, I put my arm around him, expecting him to wriggle away. He didn't. Using our limited Arabic and gestures, my teammate and I offered to walk him to school. Together the three of us watched the clashes and waited for a time when we might be able to safely move beyond the checkpoint.

During that time we watched a father walking hand in hand with his little daughter through the checkpoint, as he does every day. Things were quiet right then. No teargas was visible on the other side. After passing the checkpoint, they walked about 100 meters and all of a sudden the father scooped up his little girl and ran. Clearly the gas still lingered in the air.

As we continued to wait and watch with the boy, the principal and several teachers of Ibrahimi School, as well as students pushing a grocery cart, approached the checkpoint. Without a word, our little friend started walking with them, away from us. He walked through the checkpoint and off he went, finally, to school.

Given the morning's circumstances, the appearance of the principal, teachers, and students surprised us. Then we saw that a car had pulled up to the other side of the checkpoint with reams of paper and boxes of other school supplies. Palestinians cannot drive on the road next to Ibrahimi School, so this is how they have to get their supplies.  Boys and teachers loaded the grocery cart, walked it to school, unloaded it, and came back for more. They were just finishing up when the lull in clashes ended.

Teargas and more teargas
In just over an hour this morning, the Israeli border police set off 23 teargas canisters. At children.

My heart breaks for the Palestinian children for whom this is so common. Common, but not normal. I refuse to call this normal.

My heart breaks for the parents, teachers, and administrators trying to protect their kids. I cannot imagine trying to teach under these conditions. Below is an excerpt of the CPT blogpost I wrote about the two school closures:

Education is a fundamental human right. The context of the Israeli military occupation threatens Palestinian children’s access to this right on a daily basis. Facing the threat and reality of teargas (and sometimes sound grenades and rubber-coated steel bullets) fired at their children on a nearly daily basis, Palestinian parents, teachers, and administrators have to make difficult decisions every day about how best to protect their children from these and other physical and emotional effects of living under military occupation: Should they send their children to school or keep them at home? What time should they send the children or walk with children to school to avoid these threats? How can schools address both the physical and emotional needs of students in this volatile context? On a given day, at what point do the physical and emotional effects make teaching impossible? How can students be kept safe if they need to be released from school due to untenable circumstances? Imagine having to answer these questions every day. Imagine trying to keep your children and students safe and not being able to do so because of the arbitrary nature of the Israeli military’s use of force.

What I have written here is only a small portion of the difficulty Palestinian children and adults living under military occupation face. I had intended to write about more than the school run, but unfortunately, there are too many stories to tell from that daily hour of work.

As in my last blogpost, I beg of you: Notice this. It is not OK. We must do something.

If these stories move you, I ask you to share them. Share them with parents and teachers. Share them with government representatives and people who can influence the fate of Palestinian children. Share them with anyone who will read this or listen to you.

These stories must be known because no child deserves to live in a world where fear is a part of daily life or where collective punishment is the response to the few who dare act out against an oppressive system under which all live.

I pray to God who created every single one of us to have mercy on us, on Palestinian children, on Israeli soldiers who carry out violence against them. May we together create a world in which  violence against children is neither common nor "normal."

Sunday, December 7, 2014

Why Do You Have Your Hand on Him?

Two days ago I witnessed a 10-year old child while he was under arrest by the Israeli military. When we arrived on the scene, he was sitting with his mother at Checkpoint 56 where he'd been brought after being forcibly removed from his home.

Why was a 10-year old child arrested? My quick answer would be because that's what happens here in Hebron. My longer answer would be because in Hebron children are arrested or detained or abused or harassed on a regular basis by Israeli soldiers, border police, or police. More accurately, throughout Palestine these are common childhood experiences. Common, but I refuse to say it is normal.

The H2 area of Hebron is governed by Israeli military law. Hebron is not the only place in Palestine where this is true, but Hebron is the place I know best so I'll limit my focus. According to the definitions in Israeli Military Order 1651, childhood ends at age 12; legally no child under the age of 12 can be arrested.  Kids aged 12-13 are considered "juveniles" and can be imprisoned for a maximum of 6 months. By age 14, the classification is young adult, subject to 12 months maximum imprisonment if convicted, unless the offense carries a maximum penalty of 5 years or more...

"Throwing an object, including a stone, at a person or property with the intent to harm the person or property carries a maximum penalty of 10 years' imprisonment." People who, by standards of international law, are considered children could be imprisoned for a maximum of 10 years for stone-throwing. And just yesterday the Knesset approved a law that increases the maximum sentence for stone-throwing to 20 years, depending on the circumstances.

The most common reason we hear given for the arrest of a child (when a reason is given): stone-throwing.

The reason given for the 10-year old Montaser Al- Zaatari's arrest: stone-throwing. Don't get me wrong, I am not a fan of stone-throwing.  I don't condone it or any other use of violence, for that matter. But a possible 10-20 years in prison?

The soldier who was holding Montaser helpfully offered this explanation for the arrest: the soldier saw Montaser throwing stones a week or so ago and asked him to stop. At the same time (the soldier said) he talked to the boy's father or uncle who promised him that Montaser would not throw stones again and that if he did, the soldier could arrest him. Of course, it is questionable whether Montaser was actually throwing stones. It is questionable whether the solider saw him doing it. It is questionable whether the soldier talked to Montaser's family member. And even assuming that everything that the soldier said was true, it was illegal, even under Israeli military law, for him to arrest a 10-year old.

But there was Montaser awaiting his fate at the checkpoint. Thankfully, at least his mother was there with him, which is often not the case, particularly for children arrested outside of their homes. They have no one with them to advocate for them, to hold their hand, to calm their fears.

While Montaser was being held at the checkpoint, small clashes were happening on the other side of it.  The Israeli military shot tear gas and the wind sent fumes to where Montaser and his mom were sitting. Mother and child started to move away from the sting of the gas, wiping their watering eyes, but the soldiers told them they weren't allowed to move away.  Montaser's mom was able to argue and stall long enough for the fumes to dissipate and they moved back down near the checkpoint.

CPT was one of numerous monitoring organizations present.  The soldiers seemed to think it would be cute to pose in front of Montaser and his mom. Maybe they were having fun?

Thankfully, Montaser was released while we were present. Nevertheless, two days later my mind returns and returns to that scene and the many parts of it that were troubling: the arrest itself, the teargas and response to it, the soldiers posing for cheesy pictures, the soldiers' rationale for the arrest. After the boy was released, the story continued, but I simply don't have the energy to write about it. However, I will at least say this: Montaser was not a character in that part of the story.  As far as I know, he and his mom got home safely and didn't have further problems that day.

And then there was today. I was with the CPT delegation on a tour of the Old City of Hebron. As the group was preparing to go into the Ibrahimi Mosque, I saw that two men were being detained at the mosque checkpoint. As the rest of the delegation entered the building, a delegate and I stayed outside to monitor what happened with the men. One was released shortly after our arrival; the other continued to wait to get his ID back, so he could leave. A couple of young boys whom I've seen around on numerous occasions were hanging around the area. As we were standing there, they were talking to us and to the man being detained. We exchanged some high fives and fist bumps, smiles and laughter. At some point the boys redirected their attention, the delegate and I did, too.

When I turned my head to check on the situation of the man being detained, I saw that a border policeman had the smaller of the two boys by the cuff of his sweatshirt. The man being detained was also part of the scene. As I was turning on my camera to document what was happening, the border policeman let the boy go, but they were still in a proximity that made me uncomfortable. I took a picture. Then the soldier grabbed the boy again.

I started filming, hoping that would be a deterrent for the border policeman. It wasn't. The boy was trying to get out of his grasp. Crap.

The border policeman looked up and noticed I was filming.  He said something to me that I didn't understand. I needed to do something more. I moved closer, considering my options.

"Why do you have your hand on him?"

"Because..." He let the boy go.

I will admit that I didn't and don't understand all the dynamics that were going on. What I do know is that a man with a gun and a lot of power had a young boy by the scruff of his shirt and was manhandling him, that the boy was trying to get away, that another man was trying to pull the boy out of his grasp. I know that the man with the gun and power let go of the boy when he was questioned about his behavior.

I don't want to think about what might have happened if there had been no one present with a camera or a voice that could wield power. I don't want to think about what might happen another time when there's no one around to intervene.

I don't want to think about how many times children in Palestine are arrested or manhandled or worse and the world misses that it's happening. It makes me want to scream, "NOTICE THIS! IT IS NOT OK! WE MUST DO SOMETHING!"

Instead I write, hoping that people, that you, will remember the story of Montaser and the boy whose name I need to learn. That you will share their stories, that you will shout with me, "NOTICE THIS! IT IS NOT OK! WE MUST DO SOMETHING!" until all children can have a childhood in which they get to be kids.

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Dangerous Ducks

We stepped out of our building and there surrounding the chicken man and his cart piled high with cages of pigeons were four Israeli soldiers in full military gear. We stood for a moment observing, too surprised to think to take a picture. I turned to my teammate, "Those must be some very dangerous birds!"  We laughed and kept watching from our doorway. Were the soldiers actually surrounding the birds?  We still couldn't tell, but we thought it couldn't possibly be true. Surely it was just coincidence that they happened to be standing around the birds. They must have stopped there while doing something else.

The bird man moved forward with the cart, headed towards his place around the corner where he sold the birds. The soldiers moved forward.  We thought there must be more going on than we had seen.  But as the cart moved, so did the soldiers. They looked at us.  We continued watching and following.  Finally, the bird man reached his spot in the market and the soldiers moved on.  We asked the bird man what had happened.

"They told me to move the birds!"

Our apartment is across from an Israeli military base. To the left of our door is a fence put up by the Israeli military, about 15 feet of ground, and a tall concrete barrier also courtesy of Israel.  The barrier blocks access to Shuhada Street, the street that was the main commercial area for Palestinians until 1994 when the Israeli military closed over 300 shops following a massacre in the Ibrahimi Mosque by Jewish extremist Baruch Goldstein.  The Palestinian shops along Shuhada Street were closed to protect Israeli settlers after 29 Palestinians were killed by a right-wing extremist settler. Despite numerous Israeli court cases rulings in favor of reopening Shuhada Street over the years, the shops have never been reopened. Palestinians cannot drive on Shuhada Street. Palestinians cannot even walk on most of Shuhada Street. As as international, I am allowed to walk on Shuhada Street. It makes my heart ache to see the metal bars that the Israeli military welded across shop doors; no shops, no way even to access the wares in them. The street is called a ghost town for good reason.

When Shuhada Street was closed down and later when the concrete walls were put up, many nearby Palestinian businesses were unable to survive  Our street used to be the main chicken market.  Now there's only one bird man left in the area, our neighbor.

Every day, he lets his ducks, quails, maybe a rooster or turkey, maybe some chickens or geese, and currently two bunnies out into the street. Since our street is blocked and mostly deserted, there is little to disturb the animals and little they can disturb.  They often waddle, walk, or hop to the area between the fence and the concrete wall, where they are even more sheltered from unwanted attention.  They forage, seemingly contentedly, through the weeds and trash.

Today, for not the first time, the soldiers told the chicken man his birds cannot enter the mini-No Man's Land; as far as I know, they said nothing about the bunnies. I guess that means it's supposed to be a No Man's/No Bird's Land (Bunnies OK).

Why the Israeli military would send four soldiers in full gear to issue orders restricting bird movement is beyond my comprehension. These kinds of actions point to the lighter side (if there is one) of the absurdity of the Israeli Occupation. Something we can laugh about.

The heavier side of absurdity happens most mornings when tear gas or sound bombs are launched at children. We don't laugh about that. Today, when a sound bomb exploded on the other side of the checkpoint we monitor, we watched both a mother with two young boys and a father with two young girls, stop.  Could they walk their children safely to school? The father waited a few moments and went forward.  The mother waited a few moments, turned around, then turned back again and finished walking her boys to school. These are not decisions parents, or unaccompanied children, should have to make on the way to school...or ever. Here in Hebron these are decision some parents, and unaccompanied children, have to make on an almost daily basis.

I wish I could say that the military attention given to the ducks meant that less attention was given to throwing tear gas or sound bombs at kids. But it's not the case. Thankfully, today during our hour-long school run, we witnessed only one sound bomb, though we heard 3 other bangs from somewhere else. I am not thankful that "only one sound bomb" is good news.

It is nice to be able to laugh sometimes at the craziness of what happens here.  Too often the situations here merit tears. Today I will continue to laugh about the subversive and dangerous ducks in the neighborhood.

May tomorrow bring reasons to laugh not out of cynicism, but out of sheer joy. 

Thursday, November 27, 2014

Hebroni Gratitude

If it ain't a pleasure, it ain't poetry. -William Carlos Williams

My director of novices, Leo rock used to say, "God created us - because He thought we'd enjoy it." We try to find a way, then, to hold our fingertips gently to the pulse of God. We watch as our hearts begin to beat as one with the One who delights in our being. Then what do we do? We exhale that same spirit of delight into the world and hope for poetry.  
- Gregory Boyle, Tattoos on the Heat

When I started writing this in mid-afternoon, it had been raining nearly nonstop since last night. Yesterday it rained on and off all day and the night before it rained heavily.  When we passed by shops yesterday morning, some shopkeepers were pushing out or mopping up water and mud from their floors. Thankfully, the rain has subsided and tomorrow is supposed to be sunny.

This morning we had a meeting with members of two other monitoring NGOs.  They arrived at our apartment very wet and very cold.  It seems our apartment is the best of the lot. Our space heater is an object of envy. After the meeting, in an effort to get things done before the Old City flooded (rain was forecast for the entire day), I accompanied a teammate to run errands. She's also American and wanted to make a Thanksgiving dinner.  All the Americans on team right now are vegetarian.  She needed supplies to make cornbread, mashed potatoes, green beans, and a sweet potato souffle for dessert.

As we left our house, it was raining, but the streets of the Old City were fine. We passed through and out to Bab i Zaweyya (a commercial area), where we bought phone cards and a few other things.  On our way back towards the Old City, we picked up what she needed for dinner. As I stood at a fruit stand, a boy came along, pinched my cheeks, and said something in Arabic that I didn't understand.  The young man selling the fruit, whose face was scratched and bruised from who-knows-what and who I'd bought fruit from yesterday, chastised the boy, who went on his way.

When we returned to the Old City, we saw that the flooding had begun.  From the drains water was spurting up and out. This is what happens in the Old City because 1) it is in a valley and 2) street closures where metal doors or large concrete walls have been places by the Israelis, mean the water doesn't have as many places to flow out of the Old City.  During winter (aka the rainy season) flooding is a common occurrence.

As my teammate in knee-high rain boots and I in my very wet jeans that covered my ankle-high hiking boots assessed the situation, Palestinian boys indicated to us that she was OK to walk through the water and I was not because of the depth of the water. However, I was determined to get home; walking through the water, whatever that might mean, was the only way to do so. We stepped into the flood.  The boys and a man walked ahead of us, showing us where to step, where the shallower water was. The stream through which we waded reached about ankle-high.  My jeans, ankles, and sock tops were wet, but my as-yet-untested hiking boots proved their waterproof-ness: my feet remained warm and dry. We reached the higher ground by our house, walked the staircase up to our apartment, and huddled around the space heater.

I soon went back out with my camera.  The water had receded a little. As I surveyed the flood, a Palestinian man said, "Go in and I'll take your picture." I declined the offer, pointing to my already wet clothes. An older man said, "Come to my shop. Have some tea." Pointing again to my wet clothes, I told him I wanted to go back to the house to change. "I have fire. You can sit and drink tea." I tried to decline again, but his insistence won me over.

I hadn't been to or seen his shop before and it isn't a place from which I'll ever buy anything. I'm not even sure what he sells, maybe coffee pots? He pointed me to a plastic chair and then aimed his small space heater, a sprig of sage attached, towards my legs. I leaned over to warm my hands as he put a teaspoon of sugar and then steaming hot tea into a paper cup. He stirred it and handed it to me. As the the heater and the tea warmed me, he told me in broken English about his 22 children, his 3 wives, and his 16 grandchildren. He handed me a paper which listed all his children's names (in Arabic) and birth dates (not in Arabic).  His oldest children (twins, it seems) were born in 1970, his youngest in 2005. He told me how he used to get lots of business, but that he lost it when the street was blocked on one end with tall concrete panels because of the Israeli settlement on the other side; now he rarely sells anything. He told me about the CPTers that he used to know and asked me about my family.  When he asked about my father, he told me his age, 5 years younger than my dad.  I was surprised, as I'd have guessed him older. He showed me a map of Palestine, written in English.  He can't read English. Another man came while we were talking, so my host switched from English to Arabic as he talked to both of us. When I finished my tea and bid farewell, he invited me to come again anytime and to bring friends.  This kind of hospitality is the norm here.

I came back to the house, put on dry pants, and have been basking in gratitude since then.  Actually I've been basking since I woke up.

Life is not meant to be a burden. Life is not a problem to be solved. It is a blessing to be celebrated. Every dimension of life, its gains and its losses, are reasons for celebration because each of them brings us closer to wisdom and fullness of understanding.        – Joan Chittister

Today I am thankful for my hiking boots, dry clothes, space heaters, and the boys who navigated the Old City river. I am grateful for the fruit seller with the scratched up face and the old man with the "fire." I am grateful that we did not get any calls about arrests or other common problems of the Israeli Occupation. I am grateful for a delicious Thanksgiving dinner. I am thankful for the walk I took once the rain had stopped.

Every day I am thankful for the myriad ways in which I am supported and loved while I am here: for the notes I open each day from my colleagues, who are really friends I happen to work with, at JustFaith; for Facebook messages, emails, and texts from friends and family. I am grateful for the folks who are taking care of my cats and my house while I'm away; for the many people who believe in me and in the work of CPT who were able to make a donation so that I could come work here; and for the people who pray for me, for our team, and most importantly for an abiding peace in this place.  I am grateful for my teammates who support me and challenge me in the very best sense of the word, who show me how to live compassionately and how to embody humility by recognizing that our work is not our own, but the result of our letting God work through us. I am grateful that I am beginning to recognize my privilege; I hope that I will continue to learn, to use my privilege for good when I can, and to work so that all people are treated with equal dignity and respect.

I am grateful for the Palestinians who show me what perseverance, courage, patience, and hospitality look like. I am grateful for short conversations in English with children, for their sometimes shy, sometimes bold, sometimes mischievous smiles and laughter. I am grateful for the times I can interact with Israeli soldiers in a way that feels human. I am grateful to be here, though I hope someday my presence will be unnecessary.

I am thankful for the days I see brilliant blue when I look up and I grateful for days like today that seem to cool not only the air, but tempers that might otherwise flare. 

I am grateful that communication with loved ones is easy and that I have the freedom of movement to return to them soon.  I am grateful that when I leave them, their loves travels with me.  

I am grateful that what I've written is only a short list that could be much longer.  

I pray that you, your friends and family, that those with whom you agree and disagree, that strangers, that all people everywhere have as much to be thankful for as I do.

I pray that we express our gratitude daily. 

Knowing that there is much suffering, much injustice, much work yet to be done, 
I pray that we may live in a way that gives other people reason to be thankful, 
that we exhale a spirit of delight into the world, 
that we live as poetry. 

Saturday, November 22, 2014

Where Are You Standing?

Being in Hebron, this question enters my brain all too often: Am I doing any good? I try not to entertain the question, because the answer that screams at me is a resounding NO!

Have soldiers stopped teargassing children on a regular basis? No.

Have random detentions and searches of men and boys stopped? No.

Have home demolitions stopped? No.

Has the Israeli Occupation ended? No.

People who have more years of experience here than I will tell you that nothing has changed here or that the situation is getting worse.  Certainly since the summer, tensions have been high, anger easily boiling into violence, and there seems to be a sentiment that things will get worse before they get better. In the absence of any evidence that the balance is tipping towards equality between Palestinians and Israelis, why am I here?

We are not called to be successful, but faithful.  - Mother Teresa

This distinction is helpful for me as I barricade myself against the daily dread of setback. You need protection from the ebb and flow of three steps forward and five steps backwards. For once you choose to hang out with folks who carry more burden than they can bear, all bets seem to be off. Salivating for success keeps you from being faithful...
                                                                                       - Gregory Boyle, Tattoos on the Heart

I am here because I am trying to be faithful. I am trying to be faithful to the gospel message I profess to believe. I am trying to be faithful to the call that led me here, even though I too often feel wildly inadequate for the work I am supposed to be doing.  So often we have to make on-the-spot judgment calls when we aren't fully aware of all the dynamics into which we've walked and don't know the language(s) well enough to get all the information we'd like. Thankfully, more often than not, the decisions are as simple as staying or going, and/or calling others to monitor with us. Too often, we cannot intervene in a way that helps in any immediate sense, but we can stand as witnesses.  We can offer words of support. We can tell the stories that we've seen unfold. My hope is that even with the dearth of skills I feel  I have to offer, God is somehow using me to do good, because I said, albeit reluctantly, "Yes."

Occasionally I can see how my presence makes a difference.  Last Saturday, as hundreds of Israeli settlers and Jewish tourists paraded through the Old City, with dozens of Israeli soldiers along the route, two of us turned a corner and saw soldiers in the faces of Palestinian boys, trying to back them away from the tourists, who were angrily yelling at the boys (who were also yelling). Without even thinking, we placed ourselves between the soldiers and the boys, causing both sides to back away from each other. It took no words. Only presence. The soldiers then turned their attention to calming the shouting tourists. (Later we learned that the escalation began when the tourists started yelling obscenities at the boys.) I don't know what would have happened if we hadn't arrived at that moment. I fear that the situation would have ended with boys either injured or arrested.

A few days ago, I got to be in "teacher mode" when three Palestinian girls whipped out an English book when they saw me on their way home from school. That mini-lesson did nothing to change the state of affairs here, but it brought joy to my heart and, I think, to theirs, too. This was the best I can do.

The next day, in a 2-hour period, we witnessed 29, twenty-nine, teargas canisters get shot towards school children.  The children were throwing rocks. I am not a big fan of the rock-throwing, I'll admit, but 29 canisters of teargas? At children? All we could do was observe. No way to stop it. At least we ran to escort one little girl who was running away from it. That was the best we could do that day.

All Jesus asks is, "Where are you standing?" And after chilling defeat and soul-numbing failure, He asks again, "Are you still standing there?"           -Gregory Boyle, Tattoos on the Heart

I am standing with Palestinians as best I can. This means "success" may remain elusive. This means I may never see "results" in any tangible sense from my presence here.

On her way to school, past soldiers, towards teargas.  She came
running back a few minutes later, shaking.  
If we choose to stand in the right place, God, through us, creates a community of resistance without our even realizing it. To embrace the strategy of Jesus is to be engaged in what Dean Brackley calls "downward mobility." Our locating ourselves with those who have been endlessly excluded becomes an act of visible protest...The powers bent on waging war against the poor and the young and the "other" will only be moved to kinship when they observe it. Only when we see a community where the outcast is valued and appreciated will we abandon the values that seek to exclude. 
                                                                                 - Gregory Boyle, Tattoos on the Heart  

If I am to be faithful, I must stand here. I must stand on the margins with the hope that my presence, that the presence of others, will expand the margins until there are no more margins left.


Friday, November 14, 2014

Being in the World Who God Is

On my flight to Israel, I had the pleasure of sitting in a row with an Orthodox Jewish man who was on his way home to Jerusalem. I had the window; he had the aisle; the seat between us was empty. I was intrigued when out of a bag, he pulled a hot pink Hello Kitty travel pillow and placed it on the empty seat. I don't remember if he started the conversation or I did, but I learned that he was originally from Texas and had a Mexican heritage; he'd been visiting his mom, and the Hello Kitty pillow belonged to one of his two daughters. He told me not to feel bad about asking him to get up so I could get out of the row; it would help him to make sure he moved. He even invited me to use the Hello Kitty pillow.

When he asked about my travel plans, I told him about the prayers I was carrying to the Western Wall for people and about the singing I'd planned to do in St. Anne's, my favorite church in Jerusalem. I didn't mention Christian Peacemaker Teams. Maybe I should have, but both my nervousness about getting into Israel and the genuine pleasure of our exchange kept me from doing so. I didn't want to risk changing the good energy between us.

 Women pray at the Western Wall in Jerusalem
We are all connected. In the 9 1/2-hour flight, I didn't want to do anything to jeopardize the connection we'd made. I wanted to enjoy the kindness extended to me and offer the same in return.

The next day I stood at the Western Wall, many prayers in hand.  I read each one, prayed, "God, hear our prayer," folded the paper, and reached deep into the hole in the wall before me to plant the prayers. To my left a Jewish woman, head bowed, was praying, quietly chanting and rocking forward and back. To my right various women came and went as I prayed, folded, and planted.

We are all connected.  I have no idea what the women around me were praying for, but I believe that they were placing their deepest desires in God's hands, just as I was doing for others.  As I read the prayers of gratitude and those for healing, strength, love, happiness, forgiveness, I noticed that very few people gave me prayers for themselves.  The prayers were for loved ones and for people in places of turmoil. In the few prayers where writers wrote about themselves, they were, without exception, appeals made with the utmost humility. And all of the prayers, without exception, were about relationships - with God, self, or others. Nothing about more wealth or power. Nothing about harming people who had harmed them. All of the prayers were written with the hope for greater goodness emerging in our world.

God is compassionate, loving kindness. All we're asked to do is to be in the world who God is. Certainly compassion was the wallpaper of Jesus' soul, the contour of his heart, it was who he was. I heard someone say once, "Just assume the answer to every question is compassion." 

- Gregory Boyle, Tattoos on the Heart

Praying the prayers of others, I knew I was living in the world who God is. Every piece of paper I placed in the wall was a love letter. What a privilege to be immersed in the godliness of others. What a gift to witness compassion spilling from the crevices of sacredness.

If we long to be in the world who God is, then, somehow our compassion has to find its way to vastness.

- Gregory Boyle, Tattoos on the Heart

The same day I went to the Western Wall, I visited St. Anne's...twice. The first time, as a courtesy, I stopped at the window in the courtyard where tourists pay to visit, simply to say I was there to pray and to listen. Having gone to St. Anne's many times, I no longer consider myself a tourist and have been told more than once that I don't have to pay. I told the sister at the window this; she replied that the people who had said it were wrong.  We went back and forth until she asked me where I was staying. I told her Ecce Homo Convent Guesthouse and she backed off.  "Oh, that's OK. You don't have to pay."

Our argument, combined with my still travel-weary spirit, had shrunk my sense of compassion. When I entered the church, a group was singing. The sound was beautiful and expansive, a stark contrast to the shriveling exchange I'd just experienced. I burst into tears. The tears streamed down my cheeks as I listened to groups release their souls into this cavernous church. As the tears poured (deep emotion of any variety comes out my eyes and this was not the first time I'd cried in this place), the only thing that kept me from a full-out sob was the knowledge of the church's acoustics.  Choking breaths was not a sound I wanted echoed throughout.

Upon later reflection, I realized why the sister's insistence that I paid upset me so much: you shouldn't have to pay to get into your own home.  St. Anne's is a home to me; it is a place where I feel the vastness of God through the beauty of song. Whether I am singing or listening, it is a place where my heart grows and I leave feeling more open to whatever is to come.

When I went to St. Anne's later in the day, the church was empty.  I didn't stop at the window and no one stopped me from walking into the church.  It was empty, except for a priest and one visitor. Then they left. I placed myself on the spot where the acoustics are best and sang.  Dona Nobis Pacem. God, grant us peace.

When I was finished, I saw that the priest had reappeared. "Keep singing," he urged me, "it is beautiful." I sang the Ave Maria, eyes closed. When I opened them, the priest was on his knees on the stairs to the altar. He invited me to sing more and I did.

With each note, my body relaxed. I sank into the release of beauty that somehow was coming from me, the relief of the priest's encouragement, and the sheer joy that singing brings me. I was living in the world who God is.

As I've been re-reading Tattoos on the Heart, I am ever more aware that my task here in Israel/Palestine is to assume that the answer to every question is compassion. Here in this place where hatred, mistrust, and violence are common, I am called to be in the world who God is.  It's easy at the Western Wall.  It's easy in St. Anne's Church.  Hebron is another matter.

This evening at sundown, the Jewish commemoration of the burial of Abraham's wife Sarah began.  According to Genesis 23, this happened in Hebron. What that means on the ground is that Israeli settlers and Jewish tourists descend upon Hebron. Today and tomorrow the mosque side of the building over the Cave of Machpelah (where Abraham, Sarah, Isaac and Rebecca, Jacob and Leah are said to be buired) is closed to Muslims, as are the checkpoints around it; the synagogue side is open and general revelry (read rowdiness) occurs - around the synagogue and along the roads where Palestinians are not even allowed to walk (even when it's not a holiday).  The closures mean that, for Palestinians, getting from one part of Hebron to another is much more difficult and time-consuming. In Hebron, Jewish holidays mean more restriction of Palestinian movement, more harassment of Palestinians, more detentions, more arrests, more violence.

One of our tasks on Friday nights is to monitor the roads that Israeli settlers and Jewish tourists walk to reach the synagogue.  As they walk through Palestinian neighborhoods, they've been know to throw things at Palestinian homes or harass or sometimes do physical harm to Palestinians. Israeli soldiers are stationed along the roads to deter such action, but if it happens, they rarely intervene. Tonight as we observed the crowds of settlers (who thankfully kept to themselves), I knew that this was a place and time that I must consciously make an effort to be in the world who God is, to recognize my connectedness to the people I observed.
Prayers left in the Western Wall

As each group passed, I'd choose a person or maybe two, and silently wish them the knowledge, deep in their heart, of the expansive love of God for all people, of a compassion that had found its way to vastness. At some point. recognizing my own need for that same knowledge, I changed the pronoun I was using from "you" to "we."

It was not an easy exercise.  It was not easy to pray for the young men who walked to synagogue with semiautomatic weapons slung over their shoulders, particularly after "you" turned to "we." It was not easy as we listened to what sounded more like a football game than prayer.

However, I know that this must be my practice and my prayer while I am here. In situations like tonight, where I can claim connectedness without much interaction, the practice, while not easy, was manageable.  I will admit that I have no idea how to live this exercise in closer proximity, where interactions may be provocative and people may be hurt. God, guide me with strength, wisdom, and courage to the answer that is compassion.

Meeting the world with a loving heart will determine what we find there. We mistakenly place our trust, too often, in the righteousness of our wind, though we rarely get evidence that this ever transforms anything...Sooner or later, we all discover that kindness is the only strength there is. 

- Gregory Boyle, Tattoos on the Heart

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

The Smiling Faces in the Boxes

I stood in a long line at Passport Control. I was sweating, partly because the hall was filled with many people standing in many lines waiting to enter Israel and partly because, despite my best efforts to control my rapidly beating heart, I was nervous. What if I was pulled out of line for questioning? What if I was asked questions I wasn't prepared for? What if I was denied entry and sent back to the U.S.? I wasn't so worried about being sent home. I was worried about being pulled out of line for questioning.

As I had prepared for this stint with Christian Peacemaker Teams (CPT), I generally diverted my thoughts when they headed towards Passport Control. Last year I'd worried a lot - in the month before my arrival, two CPTers had been denied entry. What if it happened to me? It would have been personally devastating and another hit to the team (later in the year two more CPTers, both full-timers, were denied entry; those absences took a toll on team morale). As my departure date approached and people told me they'd pray for me, I asked them to instead pray for the person who'd decide if I'd enter Israel (and then Palestine) or go home. The young blond woman I met last year only asked a few questions and sent me on my way. I was so relieved.

This year I made the same request - pray for the person I'd stand in front of at Passport Control. As I stood sweating, many persons deep in line, the people in the boxes ahead of me didn't look too chipper.  I breathed deeply.  I brought to mind what I'd just been reading from Fr. Gregory Boyle's Tattoos on the Heart: that God is vast, that God loves us, that it is up to us to accept that love and to share it. So I started channeling the love I'd received from God, via many many people in the form of hugs, reassuring words, and the prayers that people were sending in the very moments I stood waiting. I sent it to the people in the boxes.

Then a young man told us we could move to the "Israeli Passport" lines. I moved to a much shorter line and noticed that here the air was not so thick. In the boxes in front of me, I saw three young, olive-skinned, dark-haired women. The first to catch my attention belonged to the line to my left.  Round-faced with short curly hair, she smile as she spoke animatedly to the people she quickly processed. She looked like she was talking to her friends. When I turned my attention to the slender woman with long curly hair in my box, I noted that she looked not like a person intoxicated by the power of controlling someone's fate, but rather like someone genuinely interested in the people standing before her. She, too, smiled easily and often.  The straight-haired woman to her right also looked as though she enjoyed what she was doing. I couldn't help smiling as I watched all three. I'd never been in a Passport Control area (in Israel or anywhere else) where the workers seemed so happy. I felt at ease. I continued to channel love towards them, but it seemed clear that their hearts were already buoyant with all sorts of goodness.

When it was my turn, I walked up to the box, received a smile and three easy questions. With each question, the young woman looked me in the eyes, not with suspicion and readiness to condemn that I've seen and heard other times I've gone through this process, but with genuine interest. Then she handed me my 3-month visa.  Before I left her, I told her how nice it was to see her and women on each side of her smiling.  "I'm happy!" she exclaimed.

Reflecting on this later, I wondered: Was it all those prayers I'd requested, directed at the young woman, but so strong they spilled over to her colleagues? Was it those prayers that helped fill their hearts with joy, with a welcoming spirit, with love? My answer can only be yes. As a person who believes in the power of prayer, who believes that our energy, positive or negative, affects the energy of others, I must believe that all that positive energy traveled thousands of miles and found their way into Passport Control yesterday.

And I am grateful.  Knowing how many prayers continue to be sent this way, I look forward to seeing how they manifest themselves in other places, in places and people with much greater need than Passport Control and me.  Please keep praying. My prayer is that I may be not a container for your prayers, but a conduit, letting every bit of goodness I receive cleanse my soul and flow through me to do the same for others.


Sunday, October 26, 2014

Marathon: Lessons from 26.2

As of three weeks ago, I've completed four marathons. I started five, but one race (Chicago- my second) got canceled mid-race due to crazily hot and humid weather on race day. I'm a slow runner and I'm not so passionate about running that I lace up daily or even close to daily. But I like the challenge of the marathon. The lessons from the training process and the race itself go beyond running and exercise: they carry themselves into the broader picture.

I'd like to say I only needed to run one marathon to solidly learn what I needed to and that I ran the rest just for fun. I couldn't say that without my nose growing a few inches. I need the reminders that come with preparing for and running the race.  Let me share a bit of what I've gleened:

1) Know when it's time to slow down or even stop. 

Running many miles takes its toll on the body.  At various points during my training, my body didn't respond to running with the grace I'd hoped.  I had problems with my calves- a part of me that had never plagued me before- and my feet, and my shins. As a result of the persistent pain that worked it's way through me (or really mostly just through my left leg), during some of my progressively longer long runs, I did a lot of walking.  The heat (even in a milder-than-usual summer), which I regard as my exercise arch-nemesis, didn't help. A couple of weekends I skipped my long runs altogether, thanks to the sage advice of my coach and my chiropractor (more about them later). What my body needed those weekends was not to be pushed further, but to rest and heal.

It's not always easy to know when to push through pain and when to tend to it.  Striking that balance is not easy (for me) in training or in life. I am constantly pressing the outer edges of my limits, with the hope that the perimeter of my ability may continue to stretch.  Stepping away from the boundaries and back into the middle for rest is vital.  Doing so allows us to approach the limits again with renewed strength and energy to keep pushing.

2) Listen to people who know more than you; seek them out. 

I was fortunate enough to have a running coach and a chiropractor who played major roles in my making it first to the start line and ultimately to the finish. One day when I asked my coach about the persistent pain in my calf, she advised me to take a couple of weeks off of running.  I looked her in the eye and said, "I know you're probably right, but I'm standing here looking at you and trying to decide if I'm going to follow your advice."

She replied, "You can stop running and allow your body to heal or you can keep running, injure yourself worse, and never make it to the race or even risk more permanent damage. Your choice." When I went to my chiropractor hoping for a different response, he only reinforced what my coach had said. I heeded their advice. After a couple weeks of crosstraining, I started running again.

Later as another niggling pain made an appearance…and then stuck around, I was again advised to skip the weekend long run and instead cross train. I biked that weekend, working the muscles that I wanted to work, but relieving my body from the pavement pounding that was the source of my problem.

It is important to set aside ego and bravado when people who know more than we do and who have our best interest at heart speak to us.

3) This is not a solo gig.

I ran many of my long runs and the race by myself…but not really. Thinking that's the case is a denial of the people who deserve better than to be ignored or forgotten. A friend offered to run parts of my long runs with me.  She was with me for a few miles of my best training run and my worst. On the day of my worst run, I was demoralized almost from the get-go.  It was horribly hot and humid and I just didn't feel great. Without her I'm not sure I'd have had the heart to keep running that day. Without her on the day of my best run, I'm sure it would have been a little less grand as she helped me to set a good pace. On race day, she sent me a text saying she'd be running some "solidarity miles" with me.  It was great to think of that as I ran.

All through training, friends, family and people from my running group checked in with me: "How's training?" "How soon is the race?" "Are you excited?" "Are you ready?" They encouraged me: "I saw you running. You looked strong!" "You'll do great!" "You are ready!"

My parents travelled with me to the Twin Cities. As I ran, they spent the morning moving from spot to spot along the course, cheering for me as they shivered in the cold (while I ran in short pants and short sleeves). I also benefitted from the thousands of cheering strangers along the course, the amusing signs they'd made, the volunteers at the race expo and at water stations along the 26.2, the massage therapist students giving free 10-minute massages after the race (and my own massage therapist who took extra time to knead out the aches and pains still present a couple days after the race). When I finished the race I received so many congratulations and affirmations.  Without so many people rallying for me, or more plainly put, loving me in big and small ways, I cannnot imagine running a marathon or, for that matter, doing much of anything I've been able to do in my life.

4) Perspective is important. 

I had a time goal for this race, a time I'd narrowly missed when I ran my first marathon. When I started the race, I was right on pace.  I felt great. I ran the first half, not even walking through water stops. Mid-race as I felt myself getting tired, I decided to slow down for a mile or two, with the aim of speeding back up again to finish the race.

After a couple of slow miles, I took a reality check. I saw two options: 1) try to speed back up, be miserable for 2 1/2-ish hours (as I said, I'm pretty slow) and probably still not meet my goal or 2) keep running and walking, perhaps slower than I "could" while enjoying the sights and sounds around me. I opted for #2. My time was about 20 minutes slower than my goal, but I ran and walked the second half relaxed and very often with a smile on my face.  The smile grew as I neared and crossed the finish line.

I am no more or less compassionate because of my race time. I am not a better or worse writer or singer or sister or friend because of my race time. No one likes me any more or less because of my race time.  I think the same could be said if I didn't finish the race… or start it. There are goals I set for myself that do have potential to help me live more compassionately or to change the world for the better. The number of hours it takes me to run 26.2 miles isn't one of them.

It is important to assess what really matters and what really doesn't. If it doesn't matter, it's not worth stressing over.

Almost as soon as I finished the marathon, I started thinking about running the next one. Maybe that's me telling myself I have more lessons to learn. Maybe somewhere deep I know I still need to learn these lessons better.  Maybe I'm a glutton for punishment. I don't know. I'll let you know after I cross another line after 26.2.

Thursday, September 11, 2014

Thirteen and Three Years Ago

Thirteen years ago I was a teacher. We were in the middle of a fire drill when I heard about the first airplane crashing in the World Trade Centers. My first thought was, "Isn't it ironic that we are practicing a fire drill as others are doing this for real?"

It took a few moments more for the gravity of what had happened to sink in. And then it did. I was teaching elementary Spanish at the time. The school made the decision not to tell the lower school children (it was a K-12 school) because it was best left to parents to decide what and how much to say. This meant that we teachers couldn't talk around the lower school children. During our breaks we went to the upper school where the TVs were on. We watched with no words to express the horror, the grief, the disbelief. Then we went back to our students and tried to act like everything was OK.

Three years ago I was a traveler. I was in Calcutta, visiting the museum and grave of Mother Teresa. I read that on September 10, 1946 she heard the voice of Christ calling her to begin the Missionaries of Charity.
"That was almost exactly 65 years ago." I looked at my watch to check the date.  I saw that it was September 11, the tenth anniversary of the events that changed so much in our country and in our world.

Immediately I was immensely grateful to be in Calcutta, in the presence of a great soul who dedicated her life to loving others, and in particular, the poorest of the poor, the least of the least. I happened to be in the chapel next to her grave as a mass was starting. It was in Spanish and I stayed.  I knew the songs from my years of attending mass in Spanish. I was home.

I was 11 1/2  times zones away from my former life, I was by myself, and yet in that place at that time, I felt embraced. This was not a new feeling. I had felt the arms of friends and family around me many times already, though I had only been away a few weeks. I knew, in a way that I too often forget, that I was loved. Loved by God. 

Loved by God via my friends and family, via the Indian Sisters of Charity who received me at the airport when I arrived in India, via the new Couchsurfing friends who opened their homes to me, via kind strangers who guided me when I was lost. Gregory Boyle writes in Tattoos on the Heart:

Perhaps we should all marinate in the intimacy of God. Genesis, I suppose, got it right- "In the beginning, God." Ignatius of Loyola, the founder of the Jesuits, also spoke about the task of marinating in the "God who is always greater."

He writes, "Take care always to keep before your eyes, first God." The secret, of course, of the ministry of Jesus, was that God was at the center of it. Jesus chose to marinate in the God who is always greater than our tiny conception, the God who "loves without measure and without regret." To anchor yourself in this, to keep always before your eyes this God is to choose to be intoxicated, marinated in the fullness of God. 

9/11 is a day when we easily could choose to focus on the hatred and evil that exists in our world.

I choose instead to focus on love and good, on the fact that even, maybe especially, in times of great pain and suffering, we are marinating in the fullness of God. God's greatness always surpasses the evil in our world. We simply must choose to see it. On 9/11 and in the days following it, we saw God's greatness, God working through people in so many ways: through the love and good of those who risked their lives, or lost their lives, to save others. The love and good of friends, families, strangers, who dropped what they were doing to go to New York to help with rescue, then recovery, then clean-up, work.  The love and good of people who couldn't leave their homes, but sent money, supplies, prayers...from all around the world. The love and good that pain and suffering, that human empathy, can bring out in us. The love and good that comes with keeping before our eyes, first God, and acting in a way that leads us closer to God and to each other.

Let us remember these things on 9/11. Let us anchor ourselves in God who loves us without measure and without regret. Let us keep always before our eyes this God and choose to be intoxicated, marinating in the fullness of God. 

Monday, August 18, 2014

Of Snow Globes and Trust

For the last several weeks, words and ideas have been clamoring for my attention, jostling my mind and heart about. Palestine, Israel, my friends in both places, fear, danger, children, borders, innocence, death, risk, ebola, destruction, Ferguson, outrage, protests, violence, interconnectedness, responsibility, voice, silence...

These are a few of the words that have been tossing themselves about, struggling to find a place within my being so that they may someday come to a sort of order. It hasn't happened yet. A few weeks ago, a teacher friend likened her class to being in a snow globe - her job is to shake up the ideas in her students' minds knowing that eventually the upheaval would settle into a new sense of calm, albeit rearranged.

Like her students must feel at times, I am waiting for the thoughts to settle themselves into something that makes sense. In the meantime, I must share this poem, for it seems apropos:

Patient Trust
by Teilhard de Chardin

Above all, trust in the slow work of God.
We are quite naturally impatient in everything
to reach the end without delay.
We would like to skip the intermediate stages.
We are impatient of being on the way to something
unknown, something new.
And yet it is the law of all progress
that it is made by passing through
some stages of instability -
and that it may take a very long time.

And so I think it is with you;
your ideas mature gradually - let them grow,
let them shape themselves, without undue haste.
Don't try to force them on,
as though you could be today what time
(that is to say, grace and circumstances
acting on your own good will)
will make of you tomorrow.

Only God could say what this new spirit
gradually forming in you will be.
Give Our Lord the benefit of believing
that his hand is leading you,
and accept the anxiety of feeling yourself
in suspense and incomplete.