And other stories from seven weeks in Beit Jala and Haifa
It is morning time in Beit Jala. Outside the almond trees are blossoming pink against a landscape of white stone buildings in various states of construction. My landlord has just left in his little car up the uneven gravel path. Joann is awake in the next room. I have just turned on what I think is the boiler in order to take a hot shower. Today is my first lazy day since last I wrote, and I can finally exhale and write.
In this haze of morning, I touch gratitude for all that has transpired over these past few weeks.
Problem-solving as a discipline
My coding academy of twenty aspiring software engineers has begun. We’ve gathered students from two high schools (Jerusalem School Bethlehem and St. Joseph’s School for Girls) and two universities (Palestine Ahliya and Bethlehem University) together for learning. Ahliya’s Continuing Education department has offered to provide us with a certificate in web development upon completion.
This class has truly felt like a coming together of serendipitous events: meeting Mr. Josh, the principal of JSB, through Mr. Francis on my second day in Jerusalem; finding Dr. Asma, the director of Ahliya’s Continuing Education department, at a coding day sponsored by Gaza Sky Geeks; hiring my TA Mahd one day after school at JSB.
I am tickled to teach problem-solving as a discipline in the context of computer science. Last class, I lectured on how to approach new problems and what to do when you’re stuck. We walked line-by-line through a code exercise, writing pseudo-code, discussing options, using log statements to check our work, the students calling out questions and ideas as we went.
Then, we taught the students about debugging code. Step one: check in with your body. Are you frustrated or angry? If so, take a break! Go for a short walk, take a breath, have a sip of water. I loved pairing the resiliency trainings with code debugging: the mind doesn’t solve problems when it’s stuck outside of the resilient zone… and this is as true in coding as it is in life. We discussed the steps to take once the body is calm: read error messages, devise a hypothesis, check for simple fixes first, ask for help.
I was struck by how similar problem-solving in coding is to any situation in life. Is my headache because I’m tired, dehydrated, or hungry? Am I uncomfortable in my body because I’m sick, cold, or need more layers? Each little situation in life reflects this problem-solving approach.
Speaking of tickling…
On the last day of the resiliency training in Haifa, I was literally tickled by Khawla, the aunt of Reham (our friend and Arabic-English translator). When giving me a hug, she discovered that I was very very ticklish, so she started to chase me around the room with arms and fingers extended. I couldn’t stop laughing at the sight: typically reserved Khawla, arms extended, laughing, chasing. Khawla has the most warm and welcoming energy and over our weeks together, I fell in love with her strength and grace. During the last week of training, she invited us to her home, served us tea and date pastries (which I couldn’t eat), and shared her life story. Her story is complex and includes big difficulties and hurts alongside the joys of a growing family and supportive husband. Her family is now spread around the world: one of her sons lives in South Korea with his South Korean wife; another is in Australia.
The trainings in Haifa, held over one month in the mostly Arab neighborhood of Halisa, were transformative for me and for the women. I saw that every woman has a spark inside of her — whether it’s determination to stop yelling at her children or joy in belly dancing — and the process of discovering each woman’s gift is a slow and precious dance. It is the art of observing and asking the right questions, catching the moment, pursuing threads. We spent weeks building joy and community, teaching body awareness in body scans and chocolate meditation. I saw how play and movement were necessary for community building, creating an energy of light and togetherness that could hold the darker, deeper emotional work.
Learning to trust others and to take refuge in community
In the third week in Halisa, we ventured into new territory: the sharing of big difficulties with others in the community. We had built up to this point for some time; Joann had fielded several requests from women to talk privately about their difficulties. But this time was different: the women would be sharing with each other. In weeks past, we noticed the isolation of each woman from her community. Something blocked each of them from sharing and taking refuge in each other: shame, fear of gossip or judgment, not knowing how to share or how to listen.
That day, we started with a game. The instructions: What are the reasons you don’t share your stories with others? Offer your ideas. If you resonate with the idea shared, change places in the circle.
I’m afraid others will talk about me. Women shuffled.
Fear of judgment. Women moved again.
We took a few more examples and discussed agreements, very similar to the guidelines presented in dharma sharing. Confidentiality. Don’t give advice. No need to say anything as the listener. As the rules were discussed, the women put their hands on their hearts as a pledge, and then everyone stacked their thumbs as a seal of agreement. The woman next to me took in the scene and said one word: “beautiful”.
This group of beautiful women headed back to their seats and we invited them to share their stories with each other: starting with a resource, ending with a difficulty. The scene was mixed: two women stepped away from participating. Another began crying and rushed out of the room. The other pairs were deeply engaged in the sharing, touching each others’ arms, their bodies formed towards each other in the universal language of listening. Afterwards, women shared their experiences. One pair shared that they had similar traumas and found deep kinship in the sharing; another woman was the picture of peace, placing her hand on her heart and speaking from a place of freedom.
I will never forget that scene: sixteen brave souls offering their stories to each other in willingness and trust, finding in their bravery that they are not alone.
Recognizing impermanence in the face of saying goodbye
In walking meditation in Beit Jala yesterday, I dwelled on the impermanence of my physical body. Today, I may walk with the fluidity and ease of youth. My joints are not yet swollen or painful with age, my metabolism allows me to eat whatever I like and stay thin, my back can carry heavy packs with a computer and books. But all of this is temporary. In a few tomorrows, who knows how walking will feel in my body? Will I still enjoy the sun upon my face and the cement beneath my feet? The knowledge that tomorrow is uncertain creates a preciousness of the today that exists. What joy it is to be walking outside in the sun with my teacher beside me!
And in that recognition, more impermanence arises. Joann will continue onto Nablus in eleven days, and I will remain here in Bethlehem to teach my coding class and to focus on new work in the Dheisheh refugee camp. When I think of the two of us parting ways, I touch deep sorrow. I am attached to having Joann with me: despite all of the difficulties, I have grown into a stronger and more resilient person because of her. Every day, Joann challenges me to think big, to question my own narrative, to be more honest and free. To look deeply at my own roots.
With Joann beside me, I have learned to embrace my Japanese and Chinese roots, and to notice all of the tiny ways in which those roots manifest in my tendencies and actions. I have confronted two very big fears: one of elevators (which is a stand-in for being trapped and for avoiding commitments) and one that I’m still working my way through. I have blossomed from just learning the resiliency tools to having genuine desire and ability to train others in the tools. Joann and I have looked together at individual and collective narrative, and how these narratives affect our ability to see each other clearly, without judgment or story. I am learning to ask: Am I sure?
Today is our lazy day, and I am already mourning the loss of Joann’s presence in my life. She is still alive for the time being, and I am still alive for the time being, but our relationship will shift and our individual rivers will flow onwards in different paths soon. Who knows if our paths will cross again?
I know that Joann will never be truly gone from me, for the things we’ve learned together will stay with me as long as I nourish them. If I continue to teach resiliency and CRM, if I continue to question narrative, her presence will live on in my body. Such is the absolute truth we speak of in Buddhism. And yet the relative truth — the idea that her physical body will be in another city and then on another continent — makes me very sad. Can I hold both the understanding of the absolute truth and the sorrow of the relative one?
Even the shower says something about the political situation
I’m not exactly sure what.
Both in Jerusalem (Israel) and Beit Jala (Palestine), I must turn on the water boiler and wait thirty minutes before jumping into the shower; otherwise the water is freezing cold. In Palestine, there is a water shortage and the water pressure of the shower is very low. You’ll often see huge black water tanks on the tops of rooftops here; these tanks supply all household needs. If you rely on a water tank and run out of water before the month (or before ten days or one week… it varies village to village), there is no replacement and you may have to buy water on the secondary market. (I’m told that Palestinian villages near Israeli towns or camps can sometimes utilize their water lines.)
In Israel, there is also a water shortage, but there doesn’t appear to be an impact on the quality or pressure of the morning shower. I’m also fortunate in Jerusalem to have central heating and high-quality room heaters, amenities that are more difficult to find here in Beit Jala. My apartment here has no central heating, and electricity is so expensive that Joann and I have taken to sleeping in our jackets and using hot water bottles rather than run inefficient and expensive room heaters. Brr it is cold.
A few days later…breakfast as a peace offering
It is Wednesday, two days after our lazy Monday in Beit Jala.
Joann and I had a difficult interaction last night. After heading to sleep with conflict unresolved, I woke up with a familiar sense of dread and a heaviness in my heart. I was afraid to enter the kitchen and to see Joann, so I laid in bed watering my own flowers and reminding myself of happy memories Joann and I had shared. I thought about kind words Joann had spoken in days past and of the commitment we have to nourishing our relationship. The flower watering eased my anxiety and dread and I stepped out of bed, a little out of sorts but not completely hungover about the ensuing interactions. When I got out of bed, my nose was hit with another familiar scent: breakfast cooking on the stove.
Wisps of garlic and spices enveloped me in their very own hug. I sat down to continue flower watering, this time on paper, and felt Joann’s cooking as an offering touching my heart. I summoned the courage and energy to walk over and say good morning, and tiptoed over to the stove to see what was cooking. I peered with curiosity into the pan. Joann had cooked all of our eggplant in a tomato base, with onions and garlic sauteed alongside. The steam fogged my glasses and I inhaled the love and tenderness offered in the food.
On the table, two place settings were set with a fruit salad of strawberries, granola, and pomegranate seeds as the centerpiece. Olives, plain yogurt, and spicy sauce sat beside. On the counter, a pot of fresh cinnamon and ginger tea brewed. I sat down in my seat, overwhelmed by the generosity of the offering. Here was this beautiful person sitting in front of me, offering forgiveness and love in the face of any unskillness in my words or actions yesterday. Breakfast as a peace offering, who’d have thought?
Before we began eating, Joann asks if I’ve checked my email this morning. The answer is no, and she suggests that I do so as an appetizer course. I do. Joann has written me an email titled “a song of praises”: a veritable bouquet of flowers and appreciation for my efforts and my life.
My soul is healing. Any fear of being ignored or trivialized for wanting clear resolution is washing away. Joann has met me fully, with food, writing, and her full self. Her gift is a path forward from conflict that is spacious and loving, and in its own way, a rewriting of past conflicts between parent and child.
Joann joined her hands in prayer. This food is a gift, just as our two lives are gifts. May we eat this food to offer our gifts and healing in the world.