Saturday, May 31, 2014

Body Work

I'm tired. My body aches. It's so good.

One of the blessings of Cloud is that there's always work to do - outdoors, under the sun, and in the dirt. And getting dirty and sweaty and tired in the work is a good feeling that has something to do with being connected to the earth.

Today, it's mostly cutting grass, with the gas and muscle powered mower. The machine slashes into the tall grass that has overgrown Cloud since we were last here six weeks ago. I tug and shove the machine into the dense tangle. Every now and then, the motor sputters trying to digest a dense clot of green stems. I pull at the starter cord to get it going again, then strike into another row, watching the lawn slowly emerge underfoot.

I've always tended to like overgrown lawns, but here I'm relating to the desire to "tame" nature. And it's closely related to that other, once foreign notion, of "owning" these cherished few acres of land. There's so much that's anti-progressive in all this, from the ozone-eating emissions of the mower to the ego-centered illusion about possessing a piece of the Earth, but I don't feel apologetic about any of it. Not even about my active consideration of chemically bombing a hive of hornets that's formed in a roof joist of our shed.

It is curious though, to find myself in this "conquering" mind, with these fantasies of "lordship" over my domain. I've seen how territorial Rufus, our male cat is - how he mercilessly terrorizes any interlopers of his own species into his backyard. Now I'm feeling that surge of possessiveness over one's surroundings in myself - and it doesn't feel half bad.

"Belonging to the Earth."

Yeah, I can get that. The sense of emotional attachment to a land (though we've only had Cloud for two years); a sense of entitlement to experience the seasons of a place, as you experience your own moods and seasons; the knowledge your body gives you that not the soil, not the water, not the rays of the sun beating down are other than your element and your substance and the all of your being, in a deeper way than you will ever grasp.

When I get tired of trying to shape the lawn (I know this isn't something I do on my own, or that I even lead. I have the smallest part in this. It's like the spider weaving it's web, or the birds nesting in the trees and rafters, the mice that come into our cupboard and move the peanuts from the basket into the corners of the cutlery rack) I take a break. I slowly plod my way to our little pond, stripping off my sweat-soaked shirt, my shorts, my underwear. I stand on the edge of the deck for moments before I bend, then plunge headfirst into the slightly murky water. Its cold embrace washes away my tiredness in an instant. Can anything feel better than this? The water cradles me and I feel flushed clean and free. I go limp and float on the pond's rippling surface; I'm as much in my element as the hundreds of tadpoles that stir the sandy bottom.

When I've dried in the sun and the breeze, I walk back to the cabin, get myself dry, fresh clothes, then have something cool to drink. Then I go back to work. My body shapes itself to the task at hand, without me having to think about it. My muscles slowly creak into action. My body isn't as flexible as it once was; it hardly ever flows anymore. But I'm amazed and pleased at how strong and sturdy it still is. After all the days and all the years, it has learned to work, and to be engaged and at ease with the movement, with the toil, the slow ache. It feels good.

Friday, May 16, 2014

Old Jerusalem

We climb the highway from the Dead Sea, into the steep and dusty crags leading to the ancient city. We pass a sign carved into the rock that marks sea level and we keep climbing. The terrain is dry and sandy, an almost uniform beige, with hardly a sprig of green. We pass two arabs, herding a flock of goats just off the highway. Just beyond them, tucked between the slopes and ridges of rock and sand is a collection of roughly assembled shanties.
We continue to ascend into the hills and begin to see housing developments clustered on the sides and tops of the peaks. Some are perched above long banks of stone wall that is all that prevents them from tumbling into the valleys below. Others seemed to be carved out of the very rock.

Jerusalem rises out of the dessert mountains as we wind our way into its heart. We are seeking the old, walled city, but it is wrapped in another, modern version. We pass massive hotels, a university, the Knesset – centre of government. Even the YMCA is housed in a structure that might pass for some ancient temple.
We reach the walled city and see towers and domes rising from within. Signs point to the Damascus Gate in one direction, the Jaffa gate in the other. We are entering a realm of both history and myth, and soon we are walking narrow winding paths of smooth but uneven, cobbled stone. In North America, we marvel at places that are four hundred years old, but here we’re talking four thousand and some. And it feels that ancient, despite the long streets of vendors selling cheap tourist goods, with all the same, stupid t-shirts, mugs and keychains as any other tourist destination.
We walk past the Tower of King David and, referencing a map, head for the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. It’s obviously the centre of attention, so we enter and meander through it, but none of us has done enough research to realize its full significance until we’ve left and browsed through the pamphlets we’ve collected. We saw and touched the stone slab that Yeshua’s body was reputedly laid out on, and we saw the crowd waiting to see his tomb, but the literature tells us that the church is erected over the very spot where he was raised and died on the cross. “The actual spot?” I wonder. “Do they know, or was it an educated guess?”  I imagine that, at the time, and for decades after, it wasn’t a spot of particular note.
But what really strikes me is how open and accessible the church is. We meander freely, in and out of chambers and halls, witnessing various devotional rituals as we pass them. The walls are covered in classic paintings of Christ, but there isn’t a rope, a pane of bullet-proof glass or a “Do not Touch” sign to be seen, anywhere. Amazing.
Another huge surprise comes when we enter the Muslim Quarter of the Old City (the others are Christian, Jewish and...Armenian?) and find that it’s populated. Families are living in these houses that must be many hundreds (or thousands?) of years old. But unlike in the ancient port of Jaffa that we visited while touring Tel Aviv, there are no luxury condos here. These are poor families; the kids running over the cobblestones are in well-worn clothing, and the old men sitting together in front of a tiny coffee shop wear faces as much carved by time and wear as the arched doorways.
It’s in the Jewish quarter where we encounter our only substantial security presence. The Wailing Wall is barricaded, we pass through metal detectors and there are soldiers everywhere. It is the eve of the Israeli national holiday, and ceremonies are to take place, but it all accents the striking differences among the zones.
Exiting the Old City, then the modern, thriving metropolis, amounts to a descent back into the desert. You fall out of Jerusalem into the forbidding wasteland. It’s a realm of stunning contrast. A city of the desert rising up to the Heavens; a place that figures as much in the daily headlines as in the texts of antiquity. And resting virtually on the border of the long-contested West Bank.
I like this place more than I ever thought I would. It is beautiful and haunted. I recall that the most poignant scene of one of my favorite novels, The Master & Margarita, takes place here – that curious reconstruction of Pilate’s interview with Yeshua, that almost convinces you that a previously unknown witness was in the room.
I can’t imagine having the name Jerusalem in my mailing address. But wouldn’t I love to spend a season here, tasting all of these flavors more deeply! The desert is so silent and dark as we drive north toward Tiberias. There’s a full moon rising over the Jordan River. Doesn’t that name bring back memories – those voices rising up in song in my grandfather’s Baptist church in Detroit, almost half a world away and a lifetime ago. “Roll, Jordan, Roll!” Image that!

Monday, May 5, 2014

A Time Away

I've spent the last three hours or so in Tel Aviv's Ben Gurion airport. I drove here in a rental car to send Ponczka off to spend the last two weeks of our month long vacation with her mother and various friends in Poland. Having a chance to hang out on the internet for awhile, to make some necessary connections and handle some business, was the ostensible reason for hanging around. But the motivation that emerges is that some time in solitary anonymity feels good after two plus weeks of constant visiting with friends and relatives.

It's been absolutely wonderful - don't get me wrong on that! The reconnections made have been long awaited. And they have been richer and sweeter than I ever imagined. The world feels warmer and cozier than it did two weeks ago, because of this wondrous experience of travelling from country to country to continent to share love, memories and embraces. The knowledge of how long it's been, and the mystery of not knowing when, if ever again, suffuses and enlivens these meetings. Again and again, I find myself trying to fully take in a moment, so that I'll be able to recall if not relive it, days or weeks or years from now. Not really possible, of course - better to just be here.

But, truth be known, it's too much to take in at once. Every moment deserves more than just its moment. How to take in and savor the laugh of a friend you've reconnected with after decades of not knowing if you ever would? How to ask all the questions that need asking in a mere evening or two, when you also want to simply enjoy that evening for the simple, blessed thing it is? How to express the love and gratitude and the levels of still-evolving understanding, of a ninety-year old father, slowly losing his grip on now, and who fights that with a humor and crustiness that keeps you always a slight bit off balance?

I haven't even begun to digest it all: my own father coming around towards completion of his grand circle; my brother and I, walking streets together that we last walked half a century ago; Ponczka and I, continuing our beautiful epic of journeys together; the meetings with her family and mine, and with the loving friends, that only miracle and modern technology together can explain.

All of that is why I've been sitting with my computer in this airport terminal for three plus hours. Makes no sense, does it? But I'm grateful for this too. A kind of pause and regroup button.  A breather. I think I'm ready now to pick my ass up and get to the rental car for the 2-3 hour drive back to Tiberias.

Blessed, blessed, blessed.