Summoning the courage to open our hearts to each other

Ceramic tiles in a junkyard in Bethlehem

Today, I went out into the world looking for twenty pieces of ceramic tile. I had no clue whether any Palestinian in Bethlehem would know what I was talking about, much less have any plain square pieces to sell me. I wandered from my house with one hypothesis, that I would speak to three shopkeepers I know on the main street to get their advice. Maybe they could point me in the right direction.

The first man was the orange juice vendor right next to the famous hummus restaurant Afteem. I ordered an orange juice and hovered next to him. I have a question for you, I said, and although he was very nice, I realized then that he spoke very little English.

The second man was not at his shop when I passed by. The final man was my friend Sami, who once invited my mother to his shop should she ever come to Palestine. She was stunned into silence and I had to tell him that my mother was probably not going to make it to Bethlehem in this life. Sami makes tea. His is the shop where locals and tourists both stop for a giant smile, welcome (Ahlan wa sahlan), and delicious cup of tea. The tea is black, with every ingredient under the sun carefully selected, smelled, and celebrated by Sami. Mint, sage (maramiya), rosemary, cardamom pods, cinnamon, lemon slices… nothing is left out. The tea is delivered by Sami himself across the village. I come regularly to sit in his alley and to socialize with whoever shows up.

Today, his shop is frequented by two old men. One I’ve met before, William Saed, and he shows me pictures of his art on Facebook and reminds me to friend him. The other is new to me. His name is Jack, and he starts by telling me a joke about Trump that apparently got him fired from his job as security at UNRWA (his boss didn’t appreciate the humor). This gets my attention and he spends the next thirty minutes regaling me with jokes, magic tricks, and photos of his engineering projects. Jack is a carpenter, handyman, electrician, and magician all in one: now, his work is to transform literal trash into incredible pieces of art. A sofa on wheels, dog and cat houses, heaters, a shawarma maker… he is a real craftsman and it shows.

I realize it is getting late and stores will start closing, so I must be going if I am to find ceramic tiles before dark. I tell Jack and ask on a whim if he knows anywhere that sells ceramic tile. He decides that he’s going to be generous, and lets me know that his studio has many pieces of ceramic that I am very welcome to. I am hesitant inside. Should I go with an old man to his studio, given that I’m by myself with my passport in hand? I decide yes, this man is at Sami’s, he loves his daughter, has already derided crime and prostitution. Probably safe. We head to his studio. It’s just down the street from Sami’s and in a perfect location, overlooking the main bus station and the Terra Sancta School for Girls. This man must be from a pretty prominent family to own this land. We walked into the outdoor part of his studio. Huge wooden crates, stacks of ceramics, large metal pillars, and glass lined the area. Everything was neatly organized and kept.

Here are the ceramics, he said. Take whatever you want.

It was good quality ceramic, and I took fifteen pieces for my birthday party mural. Can I pay you? I asked.

It comes from the trash, he said. I don’t want to be a miser. He showed me the rest of his studio, an inner room where he had crafted a real workspace, with large metal tools for working with iron and wood. He had made almost everything from old parts he had found in the trash.

Jack’s outdoor studio neatly organized with trash finds

As I left, I marveled at his open heart. What allowed this man to invite me to his home, to offer me the ceramic tile he had, to regale me with stories of building something from nothing? And what allowed me to receive him with an open heart, recognizing his good intention, allowing this experience to happen? How do we meet each other fully, with this openness to receiving and giving?

Mulukhiyah in an Islamic kitchen

I wrote this gatha yesterday after attending a joint Israeli-Palestinian memorial service grieving those lost in the conflict:

tender and sacred,
your open heart
I bow to you in all your beauty

I feel as if my heart is breaking open here. I witness and am the recipient of so many acts of generosity and kindness, and I can’t help but strive for the same whole-hearted giving and receiving.

A few days ago Lisa and I went to Al-Quds University to celebrate a friend graduating from college, and on the way there a man hitch-hiked with us up to the university (it’s on a big hill). He turned out to be the head of an Islamic dormitory for orphans on campus, guided us to a special parking space, and walked us straight to our friend’s graduation.

Each bite was an encounter with god

Later, when we turned up to thank him, he served us tea and a full-blown home-cooked meal on the spot. The meal was roasted chicken, rice with vermicelli noodles, pita, soup (mulukhiyah), and one pear each for dessert.

I couldn’t believe it. This man was giving us everything he had, and I could see that his generosity was out of an open heart. He wasn’t afraid of not having enough, and that freed him to give openly of himself and his resources. I have been thinking a lot about him. How to act in his footsteps, more generously, without letting my instincts to hoard and to defend stop me from giving more fully, being more present to being of service.

His name was Abdel Fattah. He is a Muslim man. The day he served us with such joy was the day before Ramadan.

And now, the experience of being with Jack at Sami’s tea shop, taking a leap of faith to visit his studio. In the acts of looking for ceramics and celebrating a friend’s graduation, I was met with unexpected offerings of generosity — beyond which my thinking mind could imagine.

Lisa says that in giving, she often does not want a thank you: she wants to bear witness to full enjoyment and reception of the gift itself. To receive fully, patience is required. I could feel my heart tightening in the dormitory, wondering if I would have enough time to get to Tel Aviv. I could feel my heart closing as I entered Jack’s studio, wondering if I would be safe. I had to be fully present with my own needs, checking in: was it absolutely necessary to leave for Tel Aviv right then, or was it my own expectations from before driving the tension? Was Jack’s studio really a dangerous place for me to be, or was it my conditioning to never enter a stranger’s house that was setting off my alarms? My habit energies often arise as a desire to turn away and to close my heart from an experience, and I must consciously recognize and turn towards the experience, asking if my habit energy can soften and allow space for another outcome to exist. To receive fully is its own gift.

What allows us to meet the other with an open and receptive heart? How do we practice giving of ourselves in the same openness, without fear for our own sufficiency?

I can start by feeling in my body my own sufficiency and wholeness. There is no need to acquire more resources in order to be safe, or to find a partner in order to let go of loneliness. I do not need to be younger, prettier, more competent, or more accomplished. None of these things matter, and in fact striving to reach one of these “goals” only creates more attachment and suffering. Instead, I can see how I can touch happiness in this moment, just as I am, without needing to do anything. I am capable of being loved and valued right now, and I am part of a larger community of people who care for and look after each other.

When I recognize this, I can let go of my attachments to getting enough for myself to survive: this mindset is only useful in a society where each individual looks out for their own best interests and nobody cooperates. I can instead choose to be generous with what I have, trusting in the community around me to do the same. And this generosity breeds more generosity, every ceramic tile and meal I have given only inspires me to turn around and to offer more of what I can. A free coding course, a trip to France, a job, an introduction, my time, my deep listening, my energy and care. If we can all operate in this mode of generosity, imagine what is possible.

The world begins to blossom in abundance. The dinner table has two soups, the flowers in the garden multiply, strangers on the street offer you a cup of tea and a warm place to sit. And you start to open too, your gifts and offerings become more known, your smile is common, the streets of your town are known to you and you to them. You are recognized as a contributing member of your community and this is the most beautiful gift, to contribute and to be seen as such. Nothing is counted, no smile can be weighed against the gift of another.

Can we operate in this open and free way? Can we let go of counting our limited resources and creating separation between “mine” and “theirs”?

When we were at the memorial service, one of Lisa’s Israeli friends commented that we were doing holy work in Bethlehem. He was wrestling with his own role as an Israeli bearing witness to Palestinian stories for the first time, and it was very painful for him. I encouraged him, saying that his work too was the work of God: he was in the process of opening his heart to dark and difficult places. Seeing Abdul Fatteh and Jack from the tea shop showed me that so many people are doing the holy work.

We are not alone on this path we walk. Each person is summoning courage to meet their own darkness and to emerge fully into the light, bearing the open heart of one that has done their holy work. How do we walk with an open heart? What is our work to do it more fully?