Monday, July 16, 2012

To Love

Well after almost 24 hours of travel, 18 of which were on a plane, I have safely arrived in Chautauqua, New York where I will spend the next week hanging out and attempting to slowly adjust to being back here. 
Over the past several days as I have packed my bags, said my goodbyes, boarded planes and said hello to one of the places I call home, I have often been asked how my year was.  My generic response tends to be “I loved it” or something about loving the people, the culture or the place.
As I have constantly offered this response, I have begun to wonder a bit about what it actually means when I say that I “loved it.”  While reflecting on this, I recalled a devotion that a dear friend had offered during my time at Luther.  It was a passage from a book called Pine Island Paradox,   In the passage that was read, author Kathleen Dean Moore contemplates this same thing: what does it mean to love? 
I think that the answer she comes up with is poignant, accurate and much more articulate than I can be at this point.   Rather than try to summarize or paraphrase, I will just share Moore’s words directly with you and tell you that this is what I mean when I say I loved the people, the culture and the place.

I stretched my back and started two lists.  What does it mean to love a person?  What does it mean to love a place?  Before long, I discovered I had made two copies of the same list.   To love---a person and a place---means at least this:

One.  To want to be near it, physically
Number two.  To want to know everything about it--- its story, its mood, what it looks like by moonlight
Number three.  To rejoice in the fact of it.
Number four. To fear its loss, and grieve for its injuries. 
Five.  To protect it---fiercely, mindlessly, futilely and maybe tragically; but to be helpless to do otherwise.
Six.  To be transformed in its presence---lifted, lighter, on your feet, transparent, open to everything beautiful and new. 
Number seven.  To want to be joined with it, taken it by it, lost in it.
Number eight.  To want the best for it.
Number nine.  Desperately.

Love is an anchor line, a rope on a pulley, a taut fly line, a spruce root, a route on a map, a father teaching his daughter to tie a bowline know, eelgrass bent to the tide, and all of these---a complicated, changing web of relationships, taken together.  It’s not a choice, or a dream, or a romantic novel.  It’s a fact: an empirical fact about our biological existence.  We are born into relationships with people and places.  We are born with the ability to create new relationships and tend to them.  And we are born with a powerful longing for these relations.  That complex connectedness----nourishes and shapes us and gives us joy and purpose. 

I knew there was something important missing from my list but I was struggling to put it into words.  Loving isn’t just a state of being, it’s a way of acting in the world.  Love isn’t a sort of bliss, it’s a kind of work, sometimes hard, spirit-testing works.  To love a person is to accept the responsibility to act lovingly toward him, to make his needs my own needs.  To  love a place is to care for it, to keep it healthy, to attend to its needs as if they were my own, because they are my own.  Responsibility grows from love.  It is the natural shape of caring. 

Number ten, I wrote in my notebook.  To love a person or a place is to accept moral responsibility for its well-being.  

Sunday, July 1, 2012

Story Struggle

While yesterday was incredibly frustrating, I will continue to listen to stories, read stories, collect stories and share stories. For now, I will continue to struggle with these stories, and figure out how they work together.  I will continue to use the stories that I hear as tools for good and tools for change.  Because at the end of the day, it is our stories, combined with the stories around us, that make us who we are and give us our human-ness.”

In January, I shared the above paragraph as the conclusion of a blog that I wrote reflecting on a particularly challenging encounter we had with Jewish settlers.  In this blog, I shared how this experience had shattered my faith in the healing power of stories  and my attempts to pick up those pieces and restore something that had once been beautiful. 
However, the reality is that what I am calling my “story struggle” has been a defining part of my time as a YAGM.   I have always been a huge believer in the power of stories, and despite that faith being shattered, I still am.  This year I have seen the healing that comes from sharing a story, the comfort from sharing pain and the delight from sharing joy.  I have seen the desperation to share a story, the relief that comes when that story is hurt and the hope when there is a promise to continue sharing the story.   Yet, at the same time, I have also witnessed the incredible pain that can be caused when a story is distorted, hijacked or ignored.  I have seen the distress that comes when somebody is told that their story is wrong or invalid. 

I have been struggling to make sense of the stories I have heard and things I have seen all year, but now as I look to return to the States I am also struggling with how to best share these things with you all. 
I know that this is a land of multiple narratives and that what you see and hear when you come here depends your reasons for being here or the news you follow back home.  I also know that the stories and experiences, I will bring home to share will be different from much of the popular narrative, and maybe even your own experiences if you have visited Israel/Palestine. While we can agree to disagree, I ask that you don’t tell that my stories and experiences are wrong. 

I am still struggling to make sense of a lot of this, and I don’t expect you to understand it all, but I ask that you please respect my stories.  I am willing to answer any questions you may have and engage in a conversation with you.  I encourage you to push me to explain things that don’t make sense or that you want to know more about. 

However, please know that I am still struggling to figure out what I believe that I do not have all the answers.  As I continue to make sense of this year, I will be fragile and it may be challenging for me to articulate all that I need to say.  So as we discuss, I ask for your patience if I end up getting overwhelmed, emotional or simply needing to walk away. 

As I come home to share these stories, I look forward to engaging in a deeper conversation with you.  I look forward to answering any questions you may have and also to hearing your thoughts and stories. I hope that you will be willing to listen to my stories with an open mind, and I promise to do the same because I do still believe in the power of stories to change the world.   

Sunday, June 24, 2012

Things to know

In 20 short days, I will be boarding a plane that will be taking me toward Buffalo, NY so I can spend a week at Chautauqua Institution before heading back to the Midwest.   As this realization has started to sink in I have had to come to terms with the fact that this part of my YAGM journey is coming to an end faster than I would like to admit. Over the past several days I have spent a lot of time reflecting on the fact that returning to the states means being semi-prepared to talk about this experience, share my stories and answer questions. 
As I have been thinking about what I will share with you when I return, I have also spent a lot of time thinking about the things that I need people to know as I return home to provide a basic starting point for sharing the stories of the past 11 months.  At this point I have identified the top 10 things that you should know:

1.     Please don’t ask me how my trip was.  This year was more than a “trip” and I was not just “visiting” the Holy Land.   I have spent the past 11 months working here, building a community, becoming a part of a family, developing routines and creating a sense of normal.  This was my life for a year and this place will forever be a place I will call home, so please do not minimize this experience by referring to it as “trip”, “vacation” or “holiday.”
2.     I spent a majority of my time living and working with Palestinians and in Palestine.  I know that there is a fair amount of debate about what to call this area.  Is it the West Bank?  Occupied Palestinian Territories?  The Holy Land?   I will refer to it as Palestine, and the people I lived and worked with are Palestinians. 
3.     Just because I am an advocate for Palestine, doesn’t mean I deny Israel or am anti-Israel.   One of the downfalls in our language is the assumption that when we are “pro” something we must “anti” something else.  In this case, if I say I am pro-Palestine, there is often an assumption that I must be anti-Israeli.  I may not always agree with all of the Israeli’s governments policies, I am not denying their right to exist and live in peace, so long as it is just peace for all in this area.  So I guess if we need to put it in “pro” and “anti” terms- I am pro-Human rights and anti-oppression; I am pro-love and anti-hate; I am pro-dignity and anti-humiliation. 
4.     There are Christians here. They may be in the minority, but they are present and they are present in a HUGE way.   In fact, this is the land where Christianity was born, it was not brought here by Western missionaries.   Nor was this part of my mission here. I was here to walk with the people here-Jewish, Christian and Muslim-to hear the stories and learn from them.  For more information about Christians in the Holy Land, check out this recent 60 Minutessegment. 
5.     I have spent the past year attempting to function in Arabic and English.  As I attempted to learn Arabic and teach English, I have developed my own language somewhere in the middle, Arablish if you will, so some Arabic words have worked there way into my daily vocabulary.  If they happen to come up in a conversation I am having with you please stop me and ask me what they mean.  For a brief pre-lesson, you can check out this blog by my fellow YAGM Courtney.  The other thing that this means, is I am not used to being surrounded by English conversations, so I am easily distracted when I surrounded by people who are speaking English if they are not talking to me-I can only imagine how overwhelming this will be when I return to a place where everybody speaks English.
6.     There are things that have become normal this year, that weren’t before.  Aside from it becoming normal for me to try to bounce between Arabic and English, there are parts of daily life that have become normal here and as I return home, I am going to have to adjust to a different sense of normal.  These things are some everyday things like the fact that toilet paper does not get flushed but goes in a small wastebasket, double cheek kisses are the proper greeting and the currency is shekel (or I measure things in how many falafel sandwiches I could buy…).  Along with these things, things like having to cross checkpoints, encountering soldiers with guns and witnessing segregation having become a normal part of my life and my stories from here.  While these things have become normal for me, they weren’t at the beginning of the year, so I don’t expect it to always make sense to everybody.  If I make a comment or some part of a story doesn’t make sense, please ask questions and I will do my best to answer them.
7.     I have a lot of stories to share.  As I mentioned before, this place was home for a year and I have fallen in love with the location, the people and the culture and I want to share that love with you.  However, if you just ask me “How was your year?”  I will most likely be so overwhelmed with trying to figure out where to start, that I will give you a mono-syllabic answer or a blank stare. Ask me about the people, the food, the culture, my students, my work and I will be able to talk for hours. So ask me about it, but specific questions are going to be more conducive to talking about it and if you do that, I promise to do my best to not talk too much. 
8.     There will be questions I can’t answer.  In many ways, this year has been a year with more questions than answers.  I promise to do my best to answer any questions you have, but if I can’t answer a question, I ask that you respect that I am probably still struggling to find the answers to those questions.
9.     I am looking forward to returning “home” but I am not excited to be leaving this “home”. So the answer to the question “Are you excited to be going back to the States?” is more complicated than a “yes” or “no” answer.  These next few weeks are going to be a giant emotional roller-coaster ride as I come to terms with saying “see you later” to my family here and return to my family back home.  As I navigate this, I ask for some patience and understanding.  I will have highs and lows, but eventually I will balance out. 
10.  This year has changed me.  I have been pushed and challenged and grown a lot over the past year. I been witness to great pain and suffering, but in the midst of that I have experienced amazing hospitality, love and welcome. However, at the end of the day I am still a girl from small town Iowa but I have just spent a year of my life living here, having my eyes opened and changed.

Sunday, June 17, 2012

New Eyes

As I look back on 10 months of joys and challenges, laughter and tears, I have been thinking a lot about what it means to be returning to my homes in the states, both for me and for the people I am returning home to.  Over the course of the next few weeks, I will be posting a few blogs that reflect on the ways I have changed, what I need you to know about my experience and what will be helpful to me as I go through some reverse culture shock and the grieving process for the end of the part of my YAGM experience.

It is no secret that I love the Decorah based artists StoryPeople.  They are my Facebook status updates, one of the calendars hanging in my room.  As mentioned in a previous blog, I love receiving my daily StoryPeople and even used StoryPeople as the basis for my senior chapel at Luther.   I also love being able to share StoryPeople and converting them to StoryPeople lovers.   This year I have managed to convert my fellow Beit Sahour Lutheran School YAGM Courtney to the way of StoryPeople so much that she decided to write her own which reads: 
Top of Form

"I want to take one of your eyes & give you one of mine,
 she said, because then when I look at the world
I can see what you see
 & when I look in the mirror
 I can see you."

This “CourtneyPeople” was a result of several conversations we have had, with each other and with other people, about the fact that we will soon be leaving this place that over the past year we have learned to call home.   As the school year came to an end last week, we had to start the hard process of saying good-bye and reflecting on the ways we have changed over the past year.

As I think about returning to the states, I know I am returning with new eyes.   This year has taught me to look with new eyes and has challenged me to see what others see when they look at the world.  I have spent the year living in a place with a variety of narratives, some which get told more often than other, and as hard has this has been, it has taught me to always wonder if there is a side of the story that I am not hearing and to look for this story.

These new eyes impact not only the way I see the external world but also the way that I see myself.  YAGM will always be one of the experiences that when I look in the mirror I will see as a part of who I am and the person I am becoming.  When I look in the mirror I will see not only my face but all the faces that have become a part of my story and I will wonder how my life and my story is honoring the hospitality and grace they have shown me this year. 

Just like when coming inside from a sunny day or turning on a light in the middle of the night, it takes some time for your eyes to adjust to the new light, I know that these eyes will take some time to re-adjust to being in a new place.  I ask for your patience as my eyes adjust and as my eyes continue to adapt to this new way of being.  At the same time I ask for your patience, I also hope that you will ask me questions, push me to explain, challenge me to continue to see more and I will do the same in an attempt to share some of what these new eyes have seen this year.    

Saturday, June 2, 2012

Pulling weeds, Planting Flowers

The Shack by WM. Paul Young

Many of you have read it.  Most of you have probably heard me talk about it.  It is the story of a man, Mack, whose young daughter is abducted and murdered.   Several years later, Mack finds himself at an abandoned shack where he meets with God, in each of the three persons - Papa, Jesus and the embodiment of the Holy Spirit Sarayu.  Throughout the book, Mack get the opportunity to ask God all of the hard questions that most of us dream of being able to ask.  God, in one of the three personas, is patient with Mack, answering all of his questions in a variety of ways, helping Mack to understand and learn.

I read it for the first time while I was working at Camp EWALU during the summer of 2008.  Since that time, I have read it twice more.  Every time I read it, I find something I hadn’t before.  The way I understand it, respond to it and learn from it changes every time depending on what I need to understand, hear and learn. 

While my copy of the book didn’t make it to Palestine with me, I have recently been thinking about it a lot. In particular I have been thinking about one chapter in the book, in which Mack is working in a garden with Sarayu.  When they enter the garden, Mack notes that the garden is a mess but together, over the next several hours, they work to clear out a part of the garden.  They do the hard work of pulling weeds, cutting branches digging up roots and turning soil, all in preparation for something new to be planted. While they worked Mack questions Sarayu about good/evil, independence and God’s role in the world.

...and After
I have been thinking a lot about this passage over the past few weeks as I have been spending a fair amount of time working with my secondary placement, Paidia International Development as they work to get their leadership center ready for the ESL Adventure Camp that will start in a few short days.  To get it ready, we have been pulling weeds, putting a rock wall together, painting new offices, and doing general maintenance work.  It has meant a fair amount of hot hours in the sun, and some days of slow progress but with each day we are moving forward, getting closer to being ready for the summer program.

As Mack and Sarayu finish their time together in the garden the following conversation takes place:

“Mackenzie, you are such a delight”
“I didn’t do that much, really,” he apologized.  “I mean, look at this mess.” His gaze moved over the garden that surrounded them. “But it really is beautiful, and fully of you, Sarayu.  Even though it seems like lots of work still needs to be done, I feel strangely at home and comfortable here.”
The two looked at each other.
Sarayu stepped toward him until she had invaded his personal space.  “And well you should, Mackenzie, because this garden is your soul.  This mess is you! Together, you and I, we have been working with a purpose in your heart.  To you it seems like a mess, but to me, I see a perfect pattern emerging and growing and alive—a living fractal.”
The impact of her words almost crumbled all of Mack’s reserve.  He looked again at their garden---his garden---and it really was a mess, but incredible and wonderful at the same time.  
 (pg 138)

Pulling weeds that tend to bite back when you try to pull them
As I have been pulling weeds at Paidia’s leadership center, I have been thinking a lot about Mack’s time in the garden with Sarayu.  Together, they were working on clearing the weeds out of his soul, so that new things could be planted.

In many ways, my year here in Palestine has been much like Mack’s time in the garden with Sarayu.  I have spent the year pulling weeds and planting new flowers all while asking a lot of questions about life, justice and faith.  It has meant a lot of hours of wrestling and hard work and some days of slow progress, but each day I am moving forward.   As I look at the garden of my soul, I notice the mess that it is, but throughout this year I have been constantly reminded that even if I can’t see it, Papa, Jesus and Sarayu are “working with a purpose” to create beauty and growth.   

Friday, April 6, 2012

Holy Now

Holy:  Dedicated or consecrated to God or religious purpose

The Holy Land:  A region on the eastern shore of the Mediteranean Sea, in what is now Israel and Palestine

Holy Week: The week leading up to and including Easter, starting with Palm Sunday

It is the name often used when talking about the area that I call home this year.  “The Holy Land.” Every year millions of pilgrims here from all over the world to visit the holy sites.  They visit the churches that commemorate the Bible stories that many of us grew up hearing.  They visit the place where Jesus was born, where Jesus grew up, where Jesus performed his miracles, where Jesus was crucified and where Jesus rose again.  After their time here, many walk away feeling recharged, closer to God and having encountered a new sense of holy.

Yet, after 7 months of living in the so-called “Holy Land,”  I still have yet to feel connected to the holy in the ways that many of these pilgrims seem to connect after only a few days.  I have visited many of the same holy sites, and run past some of them on a daily basis, but I have also seen the things that most of the pilgrims never see. Many of these pilgrims will come in on tour buses, visit the sites and return to their hotels without encountering the people who call this place home or hearing their stories.  On their tour bus, they are allowed to pass through checkpoints as if they were nothing more than a toll booth, not even aware that they are now in Palestine, remaining blissfully unaware of the occupation. 

Seven months of living with, and hearing the stories of,  the daily realities of the occupation, of being surrounded by a “security wall”, going through checkpoints and witnessing the daily effects of prejudice and hatred, have left me wondering where the holy exists in the pain and brokenness of this land. 
As I joined several thousand of these pilgrims on Sunday for the Palm Sunday procession into Jerusalem to mark the beginning of Holy Week, I found myself wondering about what it is that makes things “holy.” 

I have spent a fair amount of time this year struggling with this. Is this the only holy land on the planet? What is it that makes this land more holy than the cornfields I grew up in? Is this the only holy week during the year?  What makes this week before Easter any more holy than the other 51 weeks of the year? 

Then on Sunday my cousin posted this song by Peter Mayer titled Holy Now

As I listened to the lyrics, I was reminded that “holy” is not containable.  It is not something that is only present in the sites deemed “holy” by religious traditions, or in weeks that have religious significance.   If we take the time to look, we will notice that we are surrounded by Holy. 

Even though I don’t  encounter with the holy that most pilgrims do when they visit the Holy Sites, through my encounters with the pain and the brokenness, I get to encounter the holy in this land that most pilgrims never will.  I meet the holy in the Christians who are “living stones,” the keepers of a rich history and traditions for who the holy sites are more than markers of history but are their current places of worship. I encounter the holy when I here the stories of families who remain here and remain hopeful despite the challenges they have encountered.  I see the continuing work of the holy as part of the  “original” Christian community that has been around since Christ. I get a glimpse of the holy each day in the faces of my Kindergarten students.  I am surrounded by the holy each time I am remind of the family I have become a part of here.    I feel the holy as I bask in the sunshine and beautiful flowers of the spring.  In the words of Carrie Newcomer in her song I Believe, “All I know is I can’t help but see all of this as so very holy”

During this Holy Week, may we each be reminded that we are surrounded by the holy, every day of every week in every land, if we open our eyes to it we may just find ourselves overwhelmed by it. 

Saturday, March 31, 2012

My Favorite Things

When the dog bites
When the bee stings
When I'm feeling sad
I simply remember my favorite things
And then I don't feel so bad
~Sound of Music

Here is the deal. I love Sound of Music.  It is probably one of my favorite movies of all times.  It the movie I watch when I am bored, need some cheering up or just need some general background noise.  One of the things I love about the movie is the music and one of my favorite songs is “Favorite Things.”

Now, so far there have been no dog bites or bee stings, but there have definitely been some challenging moments of being a YAGM.  I have shared some of those challenges, and some of them I am still working on processing.  Sometimes it all seems incredibly overwhelming.

As cliché as it may seem, in those moments, sometimes it really does help to take some time to reflect on the things that I love about being here.   While Maria’s favorite things maybe raindrops on roses and whiskers on kittens, are a good place to start, there are a lot more things that I love about being a YAGM, specifically a YAGM in Jerusalem and the West Bank.

Here are a few of my favorite things:

Seeing rainbows every time it rains    

Sitting on these stairs in the sun with my Nook and reading
Watching shepherd’s herd sheep on the streets of town

The things that I have gotten to do and see this year that I never ever dreamed I would do-
like snorkeling in the Red Sea
The adorable kindergartners who I get to hang out with everyday
Three words: Exploding birthday candles
The amazing food and learning how to cook some of it with cooking lessons from our host mom  

The joy and laughter that fill the teacher’s lounger every morning and through out the day. 
Getting to celebrate Christmas in the place where Christmas started

Saying that I live halfway between “Away in the Manager”...    
...and “Shepherd’s quaking at the sight”

Getting to call a place home that most people will only visit for a day or two. 

Having created a family here and
having several people who have adopted me as a sister or daughter.

Walking passed this donkey grazing in the field every day on my way home from school    

Being a part of a community that includes both
YAGM alums and current YAGMs and soon will include the new YAGMs

Sights that despite continuing to amaze me,
are a “normal” part of my “normal” life here
Having an olive tree, lemon tree...
...almond tree in my backyard.
(by the way did you know that almonds are green and fuzzy…)

In the rocky and hard places there is a beautiful growth