Day 2 of self-imposed quarantine in Jerusalem
There is nowhere to go, nothing to do. Today is a lazy day in Jerusalem and I am on day 2 of a self-imposed quarantine. My body is tired after wanderings across three continents, always walking towards something: a friend’s wedding, Thay’s root temple, holidays with family, work, a social entrepreneurship conference, my coach Leo.
This quarantine is for me to stop running.
Outside there is news of a global epidemic. The virus has spread to my home of California, Leo’s home of Austria, even to four Palestinians in Beit Jala. There is fear and paranoia causing physical separation. I am in Jerusalem, for the Palestinian Authority has closed its borders to foreigners in the West Bank, including my adopted home in Bethlehem. Some of my favorite things are still at my house across the border: my tablet and pencil, my chiropractic tools, my singing bowls. I must do without them for now.
I do not know when I will be allowed back into Palestine, or how I will be received when I return. In my Asian-looking body, I am now perceived as an object of fear, met with exclusion or outright racism. I was not allowed onto the bus from Bethlehem to Jerusalem this Monday, forced to cross by foot at Checkpoint 300 through a maze of gates, screenings, and walls. The Israeli soldier only let me in when he saw my blue American passport. Israel has since denied entry to visitors from 5-10 more hotspot countries across Europe and Asia. Fear and the desire to protect one’s own people has manifested in collective constriction, supporting hyper-local, nationalist tendencies to be with others that feel safe.
I am in Israel after flying from Vienna to New York with a two-hour layover in Rome on February 19. Italy is a country affected by virus, and Israel considered my presence upon entry a health risk to its citizens.
On my arrival day of February 27, Israel passed a law requiring all travelers visiting from affected countries in the past 14 days to enter home quarantine, including those with connecting flights in Italy. Including me. Nobody told me at the border, where security held my passport and asked me to wait in a special area. Nobody told me in the news or at the supermarket. Nobody told me, so how was I supposed to know?
Over five days, instead of quarantine, I reunited with old friends, played across borders, and committed to a new house in Bethlehem. I moved with the freedom of a child at home. Now, the quarantine period mandated by Israel has passed, but I am in hiding in Jerusalem, not wanting to leave my house out of guilt and shame, longing for the certainty that I will cause no harm.
What if not knowing caused harm to people I love?
When does not knowing become negligence?
I’m sorry for the possibility of causing harm, I’m sorry for existing, for playing when I should have taken responsibility. You’re right, I’m sorry.
I cower on the ground, covering my head. The sound of the sudden rain outside flows over my body, first soothing, cleansing, then hardening into ice around me. In my imagination I am becoming trapped by the rain falling in torrents. My surroundings become clear.
I am in a cave standing on rocky, icy earth. There is a churning body of water a few feet away. Light streams in from above. I am encased in ice, and a body above me scoops and pours water over my frozen form. Each accusation and fear is a pour of water that crystallizes instantly, trapping me further.
Why didn’t you check the news more frequently?
Why didn’t you stay home from sangha last Wednesday with even a hint of cold?
Why didn’t you say no to holding hands?
Why are you not more vigilant?
How can you play at a time like this?
Why can’t you take responsibility?
What is wrong with you?
The questions fall like daggers from my own self, layers of ice forming around me. I am the body pouring the water. I am the body in ice paralyzed by guilt, self-hatred, fear of my own desire to be alive.
I don’t want to carry the weight of a global pandemic in my body. I am not responsible for knowing everything. Fuck this. I start fighting, summoning force within me, propelling my arms outwards with as much energy as I can muster.
NO, THIS IS NOT MINE.
I am a child wanting to play, to wander from art project to garden to quiet space, in my own time. No hurry, nowhere else to go...suddenly interrupted with the force of someone else’s worry, anger, fear. NO, I don’t want to go anywhere. Fuck letting the needs of others carry me from my play. I break through a layer of ice.
I don’t want to follow someone else’s rules. Another layer.
I do not want to accept the burden of guilt and anger that says I am not enough, my play is not enough. I do not want to take on the responsibility for the needs of others. Other people can take responsibility for their own needs.
Fuck should, fuck why didn’t you, fuck you should have known. I didn’t know, I didn’t do it, I cannot be vigilant, cause no harm, and be fully alive all the time.
I want to be fully alive. My responsibility is to take care of myself, to meet my own needs with compassion and love. And to trust that this is enough, that taking care of myself will take care of others in the way I am most able.
I want to be free of these layers of ice, this pour of guilt and shame whenever I choose to follow my heart to aliveness. LET ME GO. As I punch through layers, I take back what is mine: my joy, my curiosity, my wandering.
I guide this shivering body of mine, once trapped in the ice of shoulds, to a cozy rocking chair. There is a fire lit with dry wood and a huge blanket that I wrap snugly around my body. You are free, Melanie. Go off to wander, to play, to be in your aliveness. I release you from the obligation of shoulds.
The other body, the one pouring the water, is waiting in the cold, wondering if she should run away out of shame. She too I guide to the fire, holding her hands that scooped and splashed, numb, afraid of being unloved. I place her in a second rocking chair, cuddling her. She doesn’t want to be alone.
Both bodies are within me, the pourer and the frozen. I will not turn away from the pourer, she reminds me of my yearning for love, for taking good care, for community and connection. She does not want to cause harm to others because she is afraid, maybe they will stop loving her. Maybe she will be absolutely alone.
And I will not turn away from the frozen, now warming by the fire. She is the spark of alive in me, the joy that beckons me forth into the world, the tiny voice calling me into the unknown, again and again. She is wonder and faith and possibility and happiness all tied up in one.
Can I trust her in her beauty to do no harm?
Is it even possible to ask myself to cause no harm?
The answer has been waiting in my body to be recognized for years.
It is not possible to do no harm. To hold myself to that standard is an impossible burden.
What about a lesser extreme: is it possible to limit the harm I cause?
Yes, and limiting harm to others can spring forth out of a natural spring of your human beauty, Melanie. My responsibility is to taking care of my own needs, and trusting that this will take care of others too.
Leo brings up the metaphor of a sports team. You can play to not lose, setting up all of your players in a defensive position, preparing for the other team’s attack. Or you can play to win: you can touch into your creativity, optimize for the gifts of your team members, step fully into who you are and call forth whatever will arise.
I am often playing to not lose, to not damage friendships, client relationships, the possibility of my belonging in community. Sometimes I say yes when my whole body is constricting into no, agree to work for free when I would rather ask for payment, turn away from my need to rest in order to show up for others. In trying so hard not to cause harm, I often ignore the truth of my own body – and cause harm to myself in the process.
Playing not to lose is based in the belief that there is something to protect. That if I don’t mess up I will find perpetual belonging with others and will never be alone. I want to question this belief, for human relationships are always changing. Each day I say goodbye to people I love, meet new people, reunite with old friends. This life is an interweaving of people over time and space. Nothing is certain, there is nothing static to protect.
Playing to win is stepping into the groundless nature of this reality with an adventurer’s curiosity and sense of play. What is singing the song of joy? What ideas spark the largest flame? How can I follow these with an open and fearless heart? I want to have faith in my own calling: that this path of aliveness will hold an abundance of people and togetherness.
I want to expand into a body of joy.
I return to my two bodies, still huddling by the warmth of the fire in the icy cave. What would you like, dear ones?
To be enough as I am.
To play everyday.
To give a hug to the body of the pourer, she is not alone.
To be hugged, to be loved.
In my imagination, the two bodies, once icy cold, step into the warmth of open arms.
Koans with Leo
I am your coach, Melanie
because it serves my need.
I have a need to serve others.
In honoring your needs,
do you ever cause harm to others?
Yes, of course.
But if we’re constantly denying our own needs to prevent harm to others,
We are harming ourselves.
What of people that cause violence, that hurt children?
Would you say they are meeting their own needs?
They are acting out of pain,
and this twists their need for healing
Into a manifestation that can more pain.
This can cause generational trauma.
So their need for healing is being met, but the strategy is not correct?
People in pain often are constricted
They can only see one possibility
If they could truly be with their need for healing,
Perhaps the outcome would be different.
Dinner in quarantine
Shakshuka on the stove, each ingredient chopped and carried to the waiting vessel with gratitude and care. These vegetables have been selected for me by friends in the outside world, lovingly offered after a morning run to the grocery outlet. There are two heads of cauliflower, two eggplants, a carton of eggs, coriander, celery, parsley. Yogurt, tomato sauce, rice, peanut butter, pita, and bread too. In this cardboard box of food, I see love. I cook with tenderness, knowing I am worthy of this offering.