Sunday, December 31, 2017

What the Year 2017 Taught Me

Somehow, growing up, I came to believe that there was a day when all my life lessons would be learned. I think I finally realized that wasn’t going to happen about a decade ago. And what I do know now is that life teaches me things that I never knew I needed learning. Here are few from 2017:

  1. Escapism is sometimes a good form of self-care.  Most times it’s not.  Learning the difference will bring you more intimate relationships with everyone who matters in your life.
  2. Know who matters in your life.  It’s never too late to rid yourself of those who no longer matter.  Just send them along with compassion.
  3. Everybody needs your compassion.  Repeat:  EVERYBODY needs YOUR compassion.   If you can’t figure out why you’re incapable of feeling compassion for a person, than dig deep, because it’s more about you than the other person. Compassion is not the same as forgiveness.
  4. Forgive your family, again and again and again.  And especially when they can’t seem to forgive you. Love your family.
  5. Life is fleeting, love remains.
  6. The topic of death and one’s more mortality becomes more prevalent as one ages.  Grieve, but never let loss sink you or harden your heart.
  7. A wise heart is a gift. Don’t use it to throw judgment or, as my son’s generation would say, don’t “throw shade” on another person who doesn’t seem to “get it.” We all have our unique path in life.   Stay in your lane, and let your wisdom shine the way forward.
  8. If you don’t know what your lane is, find your purpose.  And don’t let the overwhelming life events take you away from it.  If you do, you’ll find yourself in a deep rabbit hole.  Living your purpose is the only thing that will get you out.  (*Note: If you think your "purpose” is just some self-help, hubabuloo, it’s not!  Google it, find out more.)
  9. Reach out to anybody when you’re in need of an ear, or a hug, or a shoulder to cry on.  About 99.9% of the human population is actually capable of providing one of those things when you ask for it.
  10. No matter how much you think you’ve got this thing called life, each of us is always capable of digging deeper to learn more about ourselves, our blinders, how to love and what will make us happy.  It’s OK to feel that you don’t “got this thing called life” and there’s no need to give those feelings a fancy label. Just feel and see lesson #8.
Wishing you a happy, wise, purposeful and prosperous 2018!

Monday, December 4, 2017

Sibling Rivalry through the eyes of Alzheimer's

My mother came to see me yesterday after a visit with my father.  She says he asked about one of my brothers and said that she as sitting in “his” seat.  My mother thought this was some logical thought, based on perhaps the last time my brother visited and that being the place where he sat in the room when he was there. I thought about it briefly, since I was there with that brother the last time he visited and remembered he sat on my father’s bed, and not in a chair.  In my mind, this is another sign my father, to be crass, is “losing it.”  My mother has an uncanny ability to make logical every random thought which my father verbalizes. It frustrates me. Even when my father is in the full mid to late stages of Alzheimer’s, she has the ability to explain it all away as an attempt to make herself feel better.  Sometimes I have compassion for this, sometimes I have none.

There’s an illogical reason why this incident makes me particularly bitter.  I become jealous when my father makes mention of one of my brothers but not me.  In my family, my 3 older brothers are lumped together as one.  And then there’s me, the youngest and only daughter.  About a decade ago, at my grandfather’s funeral, I was standing with my three brothers and an old family friend came up to us to express their condolences.  They hugged me first and said, “Oh Donna, so great to see you!”  This person then pointed to the ensemble of my brothers and said, “And nice to see the S. brothers, although I can never tell you apart, so hello to all of you.”  I’m not sure if this bothers them, it’s just how it’s always been.

But as my father’s mind begins to deteriorate, this isn’t his view and probably never was.  As a parent, I can understand how each of his children are a very different entity. But how that manifests in his demented state leaves me puzzled.  During one of the most difficult moments in the past 9 months. My brother was visiting from Boston. We showed up at my father’s hospital bedside and as soon as he saw my brother, he started in on a demented rant.  My brother tried to calm him down, which only made matters worse, so I signaled my brother to get out of the room, out of site.  The nurses swung into action to find a sedative drug as my brother and I stood in the sterile hallway, looking at each other as we strained to make sense of the continuing rant.  My father was carrying on like a true mad man.  He yelled, “My son ruined my life when he moved to Boston!”  My brother and I straightened up in surprise, looking at each other with mirrored glances of confusion.  My brother moved to Boston nearly 40 years ago.  My brother covered his mouth to suppress a laugh.  I stood paralyzed in utter confusion.  How would my brother’s move to Boston so long ago have possibly ruined my father’s life?  He was the one who encouraged it, enabling my brother to pursue his passion for music, a move which most parents of that era would have certainly discouraged.  I mouthed the words to my brother, “What does he mean?”  My brother shrugged his shoulders and continued trying not to laugh. 

I knew if my father had said something similar about me in a rant, I would have been wracked by guilt.  Instead, he apparently said to my mother around the same time about me, “I don’t understand why she came back to live in Rochester, she has no reason to be here.” I wasn’t present when the comment was made so I don’t know objectively if there’s a right way to interpret it, simultaneously knowing full well that much of the verbalization of a person with Alzheimer’s disease should never be logically interpreted.  Yet, I preferred to take the negative interpretation, ie, that I shouldn’t be around.  So that my brother somehow ruined my father’s life by moving away but I ruined it by coming back make my felt less important in my father’s ranking of sibling relationships.  The only other time I know of that my father has spoken about me in a demented rant came before he was hospitalized, again, when I was not present.  My mother says he was insulting me terribly but she refuses to tell me what words were said.

Its an odd thing for me.  I’ve never had a troubled relationship with my father, compared to the one I have with my mother.  I always thought I was the apple in his eye as his only daughter.  And while I berate my mother for trying to come up with a logical explanation for my father’s mid-stage Alzheimer’s dialogue, I assume I can attribute some judgement on my own importance to my father’s life by how he speaks about his children at this point.  It lacks all sense and yet it is truly understandable. 

Wednesday, October 4, 2017

We are all victims

Last Friday evening, I was sitting in the car with my son in the parking lot of a local fast food restaurant.  It was raining outside and there was a catchy tune on the radio, Pumped up Kicks.  We were waiting to meet some friends for a Friday-night fish fry.  In no hurry to get wet, I decided to keep the radio on and annoy my son by trying to sing along to a song whose lyrics I didn’t know. This usually elicits an eye roll by him, to which I spontaneously burst out in laughter and then try to botch up the lyrics in a more hilarious way, launching us into a cycle of increasingly exaggerated eye rolls which lead to expansive peals of laughter from me.

But this time my son stopped me in mid-singing.  “Mom, do you know this song is about Columbine?”

“Huh? No….????”

He picked up the lyrics at just the right place to sing along, “Listen, ‘better run better run, faster than my bullets...’”

I immediately reached for the off button, silencing the music, “That is sick, I don’t want to listen to it.”

“I thought you liked it, you were singing along to it!”

“It was a catchy tune. You just took it away from me.  I never want to hear it again.” I opened the door, and turned to lock the car.  “Come on, let’s go.”

“Well they say it’s about Columbine, I don’t know if that’s true.”

“Whatever, It makes me sick to think about.  Do you know how awful this is?  Don’t you ever…” I’m not sure where my thoughts are going.  No, I lie.  I know exactly where my thoughts are going, to an image of my son running in terror down the long corridors of the idyllic American high school, the place that I was overwhelmed by when I visited it for the first time a few weeks earlier.  I see all those white faces of hundreds of kids streaming through the halls, past the army-green lockers, not knowing what to do with the bundled mix of feelings that come with their budding self-awareness.

“Mom, don’t worry, I’m not going to go out, get some guns and shoot up a school of kids!”

I halt, mid-track and spin around to meet his eyes. I no longer care that it’s raining.  “It is not YOU I am worried about.  You go to school with a bunch of white kids who have grown up under I-don’t-know-what-kind-of-crazy-home-circumstances. Not everybody has it as good as you do.  I worry about you being a victim!”

“Oh.” He looks down toward his shoes, silenced.

“Yeah, just be careful who you hang around with and what you hear.  If somebody sounds like they’re going off the deep end, its not funny.  You need to tell somebody.  Its worrisome.”

“Mom, its just a song!”  I know this is his standard diversion tactic to get me to stop talking.  It means the message has gotten through, and he is dealing with it by making light of it.

Later that night when I’m lying in bed listening to the sound of a nearby train break the nighttime autumn air, I replay the conversation in my head.  I think about the silence of the many months that have passed since the last mass shooting event. I don’t know if Pulse was 6 months ago, 12 months ago or 18 months ago.  I just remember that after it happened somebody telling me, “It was the largest, and there will be a next one that will become the largest, and nothing will have changed.”  I think about that for a minute.  I pray that it won’t be too close to home when it happens.  I pray for my son’s safety and I drift off to sleep.  Thirty-six hours later, a new record has been set for number of deaths in a  mass shooting in the United States.   

Thursday, July 12, 2012

Finding God in the holyland

Jerusalem-  Disneyland for the religious!  I’m sure those men in larges hats would consider that comment sacrilege, but humor is the only coping mechanism I seem to have left. Journal entry, April 8, 2011

It’s 8:45 on a Sunday morning.  I’m holding my son’s hand firmly against my flowered-skirt as I make my way through the quiet alleyways of Jerusalem’s old city.   The emptiness disorientates me.  I’m used to bodies pressing me up against the cheap tourist wares that lean like lopsided turrets into my path.  This morning I am accompanied only by the sound of my heels clicking against the granite cobblestones and the soles of my son’s sneakers squeaking rapidly to keep up with me.

I’m lost and I’m late.  Nothing annoys me more.  Especially on a day when I have set out to find the answer to a very pressing question, “Who is God?”

I see a sign perched high on a corner building that reads, “Holy Sepulcher” with an arrow pointing to the left.  Under my breath I mutter, “Ok, if I can make it there, I can make it anywhere.”   I mean this in the physical sense.  I already know that the strange edifice, where men dressed in robes of varied styles, fighting over lighting a candle, feels oddly void of God.  I would not succeed in finding my answer there.

My son is panting, “What did you say, Mom?” 

If I admit to him that I’m lost, endless questions will ensue.  “Nothing!  Just stay with me.  I don’t want to be late.”

The spring air is still cool, but I am beginning to sweat.  I come around a narrow, 90 degree corner and stop suddenly in my tracks.  In front of me is a black metal-gated entrance with a white oval sign on top that reads, “The Mosque of Omar.”  I consciously take a breath and a slow smile spreads across my face.  My son’s feet are still moving past me, but he stumbles as his hand trails behind, still pressed into my skirt.  He looks at my face, “What Mom?  Are you lost?”

“No, honey, look, the sign!  What does it say?”

I gaze at his eyes as he first reads the English lettering and then the Arabic script.  

He swings his face around, his black olive eyes sparkling, “Coooool.  My own mosque, the mosque of Omar!”  He does this funny 8 year old dance with his hips and arms moving in opposite directions.

He stops moving for a second.  He’s confused.  He tries to remain polite as he asks, “Wait a minute.  Is this the church you’re taking me to?”  

I laugh, “No, silly, it’s a mosque!  I’d let you go in and pray, even though we’re late, but its closed.  Let’s get a quick picture of you in front of it!” I snap the picture, grab his hand and rush him on in our winding journey.
I don’t think many come to Jerusalem to find their faith.  I guess all those religious pilgrims are much more confident than I am in their beliefs and they come simply seeking confirmation of them.  I wonder if they find it here.

Jerusalem, the city of peace also known as Al Quds, the Holy place, has already taught me all I needed to know about religion. I learned that religion is something that people use as a divisive force to grab lands and build walls and make frightening threats.  I learned that religion is simply a belief system that people use to justify inhumane acts against others.  I learned that religion is a set of rituals that people became dependent on so that they never have to look into their own hearts to find forgiveness.   I learned that religion is a required box on the Israeli visa application form and, for it to be approved, I had to lie and write “Christian” next to my son’s name.  Israeli authorities do not allow a mother and her child to be of different religious affiliations.  

We pass into the courtyard of the Holy Sepulcher where a group of Philippine women in white hats hold identical prayer books in their hands.  I don’t stop, and rush to the exit passage opposite from where we’ve entered.    We stumble into the square of my chosen destination.  Churches of varied colors, sizes and contours crowd the square.  Confusion returns. 

I am searching for the church which holds the English Congregation of the Lutheran Church.  Friends of all religious persuasions recommended this church to me when I’d tell them, “I’ve decided not to worry about my spiritual life until after the age of 40.  Then, maybe I’ll go and find a religious community.”   I knew I’d have a lot to be grateful for when I made it past 40.   And, based on my own Catholic upbringing, I had too many questions which lead to a general skepticism of anybody who clung fiercely to a religion.   

I set out for the most formidable structure in the square with a towering, dark wood door.  I smell incense and hear Russian.  I chuckle.   This daybreak expedition is truly beginning to resemble a religious pilgrimage.  I proceed to the church on the opposite corner with an equally large door, this one colored a golden oak.  The sign says it is the Lutheran congregation, but I hear Arabic.  A man hidden in the shadows of the door appears, and points a thumb in the direction of a glass door.  I trust that he knows what I am searching for.

Friends reassured me that this Lutheran church in the old city feed would feed my spiritual need to understand the world and my place it.   An added bonus is that it was so welcoming and accepting of all backgrounds that it would allow me to introduce my son to Christianity; not to convert him, but ironically to help him understand why I found my own religious roots just as confusing as Islam and Judaism.

Through the glass door, we enter an inner courtyard filled with palm trees.  My son’s hand now sweating in mine, I lead him towards the sound of a piano into a small, simple chapel with high, stained-glass windows.  The eastern sun is pouring through, casting a spectrum of blues and reds onto the white linen covering the stone altar.  As we take our seat on a wooden bench mid-way from the altar, a cascade of church bells rises up from the outside. I am a few months shy of my 40th birthday that morning.  

I participate in the initial rituals of the service with slight hesitation.  Some of the rituals seem so different than Catholic ones.  I take my seat for the sermon, knowing that this is the moment of the service where I might expect my question to be answered.

The American Pastor of the English Lutheran congregation, Pastor Fred, delivers simple but enthralling sermons.   He mixes the street scenes of biblical and modern Jerusalem to help his audience understand the timelessness of human experience, often interspersing it with historical facts that help convey the larger context in which the bible’s authors lived. 

Sitting in my seat, I am instantly engaged, imagining the apostles on the Mount of Olives hillside outside the door.   I’m still skeptical, however, if I’ve found what I’m searching for.   And then, quite suddenly near the end of the sermon, standing tall near the baptismal font in front of the altar, Pastor Fred delivers the answer to my question.  

“Our life is filled with experiences that turn our beliefs on their heads and that make us search.  And we become confused.  Who is God?  The simple answer, God is the one who allows us to be confused, who says, ‘It’s ok not to understand me,’  who says, ‘You don’t have to understand me  to believe’ who says, ‘look in your heart and there you will find my voice.’”  

My jaw gapes opens. My question has been answered as if on cue.  I glance upward, smirking.  I mumble, “Thanks.”  My son squeezes my hand and I look down at him. I give him a kiss on the crown of his head and mumble another “Thanks.”  

Friday, June 15, 2012

The Designer

I met the Designer near the beginning of my third year working in Palestine.  The Designer is a loose translation of his Arabic name.

I walked into a glass-enclosed conference room and handed him my business card over the width of the table.  He stood to greet me, dressed in a well-tailored suit and a bright red tie.  He seemed young for an accomplished lawyer.  His blue eyes sparkled behind  metal framed glasses.   I had no intentions of ever becoming romantically involved with an Arab man again in my life.  So this is the story of a romance without the romance.
When a colleague introduced me to him as the one in charge,  he turned to me with a smile, “So you’re the one I need to keep happy?”  The outside corners of his eyes crinkled up to show deep lines.  I have a soft spot for well-dressed, intelligent men.
Most of the facts surrounding the Designer’s biography came to me from third parties after this story ended as very well-known public information, although he never revealed them to me during our lengthy, intimate conversations.
The Designer was born to his father’s second wife in the mid-1970s in Jerusalem before walls and checkpoints were used to define birthrights.   Shortly after, the Designer was handed to his father’s first wife to raise.  His father refused to divorce his first wife when they learned she suffered from infertility, even though it was his right under Islamic law.  He loved her too much.  In my overly romantic vision of life, I imagine his father  handed the Designer over to his first wife as a gesture of generosity.   Even though the second wife bore 4 daughters, the son in Arab culture is the pride possession.  My ability to imagine romantic scenarios ends there.   Knowing what I know now of the Designer’s inherited conduct of his own personal relationships, I imagine him being raised inside a house whose walls held a silenced confusion of relationships that was never spoken out loud.  Who exactly was the matriarch of the house and what feelings hung between the two wives and their offspring?    My anger for taking on the relationship with the Designer only melted into sympathy for him when I learned this important framework of his biography.

Six months after our initial meeting,  the Designer and I agreed, over a slightly more-than-friendly handshake,  to meet on a rainy evening at a restaurant with a large fireplace.   It took a lot of courage for me to show up that evening.   I had taken myself off the dating scene since moving to Ramallah.  But I knew  I needed to remember how to share myself with another person and to re-learn how to be in relationship.  So  I approached it more as an experiment than anything else, or at least that is what I told myself in hopes of protecting  my heart from any emotions that might find their way out. 

The Designer reflected my nervousness when, arriving his habitual 20 minutes late, he rubbed his hands over his khakis as he sat down.  I asked him about his family.  He never mentioned his two maternal figures and never shared the names of his sisters.   Cutting off any opportunity for me to provide a typical reaction to learning that he was the youngest and only boy, he protested,  “But I am not spoiled!”  I asked him, “Do you cook?”  He gazed at me, puzzled and responded, “I can cook eggs.”  I gave a polite nod, trying to disguise my disappointment.  I later learned that his mothers took turns cooking his evening meal which they delivered to his house after he returned each day from his law office.

The Designer’s father pioneered the psychological medical profession in Palestine.  His first wife speaks unaccented English from having accompanied her husband abroad in England during his medical internships.  She has long, blonde hair that she wears loose down her back.  The second wife speaks no foreign language, comes from a “good” Jerusalem family and wears the Hijab.  I imagine the Designer growing up in a family home with twinned living wings and a single wall separating the sides that belonged to each wife.  I wonder how, if at all, that was explained to him as a child?
The Designer’s father passed away in the late 1980s after battling a cancer which medical procedures at the time were too unsophisticated to treat.  The Designer doesn’t like to talk about how his 16 year-old self handled this traumatic loss, hesitating to speak only about the role he was required to take on as the new family head during the mourning period.  “I had to wash the body.  I had to deliver the eulogy.  I had to greet the hundreds of guests and remember their names.  My purpose was to serve the mourning of others.  That was too much for a 16 year old boy, don’t you think?”   The story made me sad and I wondered how men in this culture are taught to process grief, if at all.  A child stood in a man’s shoes.
He described with quiet reflection the one gift his father’s untimely death gave him:  the freedom to choose a non-medical vocation.   I had passed up several men in my life because of their lack of courage to follow their dreams and who instead chose to follow in the dusty footsteps of the family business. So that choice alone endeared me to him.
The Designer started his own law firm a few years ago and it has grown rapidly, with a reputation for high-quality work that caters to local and international clients alike.  He describes the decision to start his own firm as, “one which gave me much more control over my life. “  His work is meticulous and thorough, although he misses most  deadlines.
The Designer revealed a significant detail about his life later that evening in the restaurant whose revelation to me solidified our status as more than just professional, as it is a subject rarely talked about in public for the shame that is inherit in Arab culture.  He approached it in the most indirect manner, describing to me his decision to buy a unique sports car.  His ex-wife loved to go to the beach, but was not a Jerusalem ID holder, making it impossible for them to go to the Mediterranean together.  He bought the car to fool the Israeli checkpoint soldiers into thinking that they were Israeli.  Together, in the convertible-top sports car, they were waved through checkpoints without ever showing  an ID.   Like me, the Designer was divorced. 

I’d sit in the passenger seat of that sports car next to the Designer’s tall, trim figure navigating our way on long, evening road trips in the year to come.   Because I felt such a sense of safety with him, I pursued conversations aimed at building a greater sense of intimacy between us.   Logically, I told myself again, I was just experimenting.  We’d contemplate what  our personal stories were teaching us about life and faith.

The Designer liked to recount periods of his life to me by describing his relationship history.   During University, his first serious girlfriend was from Nablus and published poetry about him.  He lived with an American activist during the second intifada, explaining, “I used my life quota of romantic gestures on her, and as a result I have none left.”   I cracked a joke in response to cover my hurt when I realized that I might not get any of the romance I was hoping for from this relationship.  The Designer married an unveiled woman for love.  After 5 months of married life, the relationship began to unravel.  He couldn’t explain why.  With a far-away look and an imperceptible shift in the conversation, he signaled that the subject was closed.   I became suspect of the part of the story that remained hidden, and instinctively continued to withhold the best parts of myself.   When I revealed my own marriage story, he responded gently, “Never believe your ex-husband that he cheated on you because of who you are.  That is the cowardly excuse that a man uses to hide behind the shame of his own behavior.”  Even though I was blindly reading only what I wanted to take away from these conversations, I hung onto that response as one of the few indications that he cared for me.

The Designer has an impulsive side.  Citing the need for companionship after the divorce, he bought a house cat, a highly unconventional decision for a Palestinian man.   After a veterinarian warned him against the multitude of illnesses suffered by purebreds,  he ignored the advice and chose a white, long-haired, Persian.  The veterinarian examined the kitten and diagnosed it with a viral herpes eye infection typical of purebreds.  Seeing the look of horror on the Designer’s normally stoic face, she tried to reassure him, “Don’t worry, it is not infectious to humans.”
I asked myself what I was expecting from my deepening friendship with the Designer.  I was happy to indulge in the connection that I felt with him, so I heartlessly ignored his response when I asked him that same question.  His reply was clear and firm, “I admire you. I think you are an incredible woman. But I don’t do romance and relationships.  I want you as a friend.”
A few weeks later, the Designer stopped taking my phone calls but then suggested we meet up for coffee.  He had news to share.  “Believe it or not, I am getting engaged in a few days!”  I suspected that he had taken on a relationship, but with effort I maintained my composure and asked, “Am I to assume this is a traditional marriage?”  In a tone that made it sound like he had decided to order a shwarma sandwich for lunch, he replied with a half grin, “Yeah, I thought I’d give it a try! I've never done that type of marriage before.”   His new wife is a second cousin and comes from a “good” Jerusalem family.  She donned the Hijab after the engagement.  She speaks English, has traveled extensively and loves to cook.  She was selected as the bride-to-be by the Designer’s birth mother.  

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

An early memory

I am standing in the large entrance foyer, looking down towards the baby doll clutched in my hands and past the hem of my purple cotton dress (much too light for winter, don’t you think?), to my bare feet which still cling precariously to the baby years recently left behind and press unevenly against the red woven rug.  Like any child at the age of three, it’s difficult to tell if I am coming or going.  Maybe I am on my way to join my mother in the kitchen.  The raucous shouts of the boys playing on the street accompany our afternoon routine.

Suddenly there is a scream.   My mother’s aproned figure turns dramatically away from the sink to face the foyer.  She pauses, her gaze staring acutely past me.  That brief moment of instinctual curiosity is broken by the clashing of the heavy lead-glass front door.  In runs the boy they call Fishman, dressed in his habitual mustard-colored jersey.   I thought Fishman was a nickname.  I remember seeing an aquarium filled with goldfish at his house once.  Many years later I learned that Fishman was his last name and that’s what boys did - they addressed each other by their last names.  I never understood how that worked with my 3 brothers, so close in age.  When somebody called, “Stefano!”, who would answer?

My mother whizzes past Fishman in a blur.  The cries from the street of my eldest brother come to a crescendo.   The game of ice hockey has gone bad.  At that age I had not yet realized that accidents could happen when playing a game.

My feet patter slowly after my mother’s.  She reaches the street in the time that I make it to the front door.  She stands next to a makeshift wooden goal box, bent over my brother who I cannot see.  Curiosity overtakes me as, unaware, I let go of my grasp around the baby doll and walk unsteadily out the front door.  
It’s an unusually warm February day.  My naked feet step onto the street, sinking into the soft slush that coats the under layer of solid ice.  At the opposite goal stands my youngest brother, alone, holding his hockey stick, frozen in place.  Near center-ice, my other brother stands with a couple of friends.  They are laughing, impatiently shifting their weight between their feet, ready to slap the hockey puck back into play at any moment.

My feet stop just short of my mother’s.  I look down and see circles of bright red blood melting into the ice.  I unquestionably understand that there is an injury.  My mother’s calm voice asks my brother, “Where are they?”  A pause, an inaudible answer.  “OK, hang on to them.”

I step around my mother’s legs to see my brother sitting on the ground. He meets my stare.  Teasingly, he shoots me a toothless grin and then holds out the palm of his hand to reveal his two front teeth.

Saturday, June 2, 2012

Interpreting Trauma

Digesting news sources in this part of the world is a work of art, as I guess it is all over the world. But in Israel and Palestine, there are the facts and there are the ways that each party to the conflict decides how to interpret the facts. I am skeptical of all interpretations, regardless of the source. Ideally, I’ve wished I could read fluently in both Arabic and Hebrew to get an even more indepth understanding of the interpretations, but I am left to do the best I can with English resources – on the Israeli side its mainly Haaretz, on the Palestinian side, its Maan News Agency both of which leave key facts out of most of their stories. Then there is the Jerusalem Post.

When I first picked up the Jerusalem Post I was surprised by the news I saw and instantly compared it to what I would consider what USA Today newspaper reports as news, not the serious hard-hitting stuff. So I quickly dismissed it as a resource. A few months ago I was over a friend’s house and he pulled out the Friday edition of the Jerusalem post to show me an English magazine pullout that covers all entertainment events in English in Israel. This was like a goldmine. I now pick up a copy of the Friday Post when I can. The first few times I do so, I would toss the paper aside and just focus on the entertainment pull-out. A few times I read a story or two that caught my eye.

Yesterday, however, I found myself settling in for a long wait at a doctor’s office with a copy of the paper on my lap and I began to read the front page stories. One was about Iran and its nuclear capacity – without fail this is a daily story with some twist or new analysis in every single Israeli newspaper daily. The remaining stories had to do with past or current events with Palestinians, all filled with the words of terrorism and terrorist. Oh, and there was a photo of Madonna with a caption reading how she had decided to kick off her new tour with the goal of creating peace and she thought it was important to do it in Israel where she could send her message of peace to both Israelis and Palestinians. Nobody seemed to inform her that Palestinians would have had to apply for a special permit and cross a 7 meter high wall miraculously to reach that concert.

In any case, what I have learned about the Israeli narrative is that they have a historical narrative that involves the trauma associated with their belief that the entire world is out to annihilate every single Jewish person. While I understand that this was the clear intent of Hitler’s Nazism, I cannot fully understand the mental leap to using this interpretation in the Israeli media as the lens through which it covers stories in the region.

Over the years, quite a few Israeli and Jewish people have talked to me about the trauma of the bombings of the second intifada; how they or their friends or relatives were killed and the traumatic responses to those. I’ve never asked for or invited these stories, but they were always told spontaneously to me. What I’ve come to wonder about is the perception that trauma is an exclusive right to the Jewish people, as if there is no recognition of the fact that trauma is an unfortunate human experience. Nor is the recognition that a response to their trauma may be to inflict trauma on others who experience it just as humanly and deeply as they ever have.

When an Israeli friend recounted to me how she could not go into cafes in the States after her time in Jerusalem during the second intifada without having intrusive thoughts that a person with a bomb might walk into a random cafĂ© in New Jersey, I wanted to tell her about how difficult it was for me to walk into near-empty buildings in day light hours after I had been assaulted in one in Yemen. I had also escaped unhurt, as she did the second intifada, but even though I suffered severe PTSD for several months, it did not leave me with a long term scar of believing that every Yemeni man and every empty building held an assault waiting to happen because I was what…a white woman?

Yet almost every news story in the Jerusalem Post this week was clearly painted in the frame of mind that every single event was about the desire by the Palestinians to annihilate Israel. The front page has one story each on Lebanon, Syria and Iran. Only Egypt and Jordan are missing from the front page, but well covered inside. The celebration of the return of the remains of Palestinians “martyrs” is a statement of the support of terrorism for Israel. A story about 30 year old Israeli military tactics used in the “first” Lebanon war is written as if it all happened just yesterday as “news”, but seems to point as a reminder to its readers – “don’t forget Lebanon!”

What deeply worries me is the seemingly inability of Israelis to understand the trauma that their occupation policy is causing to Palestinians. Everything is covered in a way to bring up again, instead of heal, the trauma of the past. It is in fact when I’ve tried to explain to Jewish and Israeli friends how the occupation is hurting their attempts toward peace, that there response is to defend it by recounting the trauma they’ve experienced. Who will decide to be the evolved species in this debate and decide to end the trauma?