Dead Sea Bound

In the desert there is space, there is expanse and infinity that stretches beyond the present into whatever past we connect ourselves to or future we push towards. It is a feeling of expanding and contracting at the same time that I release a deep sigh of relief while staring out the passenger car window. We are heading south through occupied territory with some stretches where you see the “walls” that separate West Bank from Israel. “There isn’t one wall,” Aviva reminds me. “There are many walls.” And I’m not allowed to take pictures.

We are driving down via Dimona, southeast of Tel Aviv, still a bit of distance from the Dead Sea but we’re in the desert without a doubt. Aviva is driving and she tells me there are two deserts, the Negev and the Arava. We drive through the Negev and the toll road, the 6, starts almost immediately where we get on as cars and trailers whirl by us. The Kibbutz we are staying at is on the northern tip of the Judaean Desert, in the hills which we leave behind quicker than I imagined. It’s not Texas, it’s not California, it’s not like anything I’ve experienced in my life.

It’s getting hotter and dryer and the the hills get flatter and more barren. When there are road signs they are in Hebrew and English. I recognize some names, but not much, so I am grateful for my tour guide who shows me the hidden layer as she expertly navigates using Waze. She tells me of horrible accidents along the road and slows down when a voice from Waze comes out of nowhere in Hebrew from her Iphone. “There is something up ahead,” she tells me some 100 feet before we reach these incidents. It’s accurate, surprisingly so. For most of the drive it is desolate and the light from the sun keeps getting more direct as we go into a valley. I nod off, the jetlag knocking me out around one in the afternoon (5 AM back home) just as we make a pit stop for espresso. It’s necessary, I tell Aviva, it’s human fuel on these treks. She smiles as she talks on the phone the entire time and I negotiate paying for a cappuccino. I clean the windshields of dead insects. Back in the car, we keep pushing south.

Out her window, Aviva points to the makeshift villages the Bedouins, indigenous inhabitants of the Negev desert in the south of the country, have set up. There are anywhere between 180,000-190,000 of the Bedouins living in some of the poorest parts in the country, with the National Insurance Institute (NII) citing rates as high as 79 percent of the population in some of the unrecognized villages, and 61 percent in recognized villages. Water, I think, how do they get their water out here? The Sea of Galilee, Aviva tells me, “We all get it from there, that’s why the Dead Sea is dying.” It’s receding and, ultimately, it too will die an untimely death. It doesn’t register until I’m on top of Masada, later on in the journey, overlooking the sea from Herod’s once lavish temple.

We pass through small towns with trash piled up outside buildings and dilapidated houses. At times there are mounds of trash right next to empty trash cans. As we make our way through these small town’s traffic circles, Aviva suddenly stops in front of a white and green building with the most immaculately maintained entrance. I look at her, interrupted once again from my jet-lagged car siesta. I don’t want to get out, but the waves of heat have already entered the car now that she’s turned off the AC. I think of the door closing on an oven.

“We’re making a pit stop,” she tell me. “At this Bedouin women’s cooperative.”

I drag myself out and snap a picture of the storefront sign, Lakiya Negev Weaving. Lakiya ia a nonprofit organization established in 1998 to improve the socio-economic conditions of Bedouin women in Negev through education, jobs and media awareness. Inside, it is quiet and clean, with colorful textiles and rugs carefully placed throughout the front open rooms. In the back the women weave quietly at various stages of the process, while one woman crunches numbers in front of a computer. There is only the most peaceful silence of familiarity. A young woman approaches us with a warm and welcoming smile to offer us a tour of the cooperative. She shows us the various woven textiles, the colorful balls of wool in their drawers, the dangling thick threads of wool where bits of hay still cling, the vats for the dying process, the open sitting area where the looms rest on the ground, the room where the media classes are taught. I am speechless. The only thing I can think of is my grandmother and how she’s always asking me to bring back wool and beads. For once I can be a good granddaughter. I buy three balls of pink and turquoise-colored wool. I thank the young woman and ask her if she minds me taking pictures of her while she tells the story of the organization. No, she tells me, it’s fine, she tells me sweetly, “This is why we do these tours, so you tell others.”

Back in the car, we continue the descent, into a deep valley. “We’re going below sea level,” Aviva tells me. She sees me desperately trying to take pictures as we descend, so she pulls over to a lookout. In front of us the Dead Sea stretches before us, unmoving, with an penetrable blue. Surrounding it is a thick crust of white.

Snow, I whisper to myself, but it’s hardened salt, centuries old.

The Return from Tel Aviv

September 1, 2013


I do not like to watch Tel Aviv disappear from above – the Mediterranean Sea coastline a small strip of white that barely holds us from the immensity of blue that continues as we head west on the plane. I raise the window to watch it disappear until my eyes cannot take the sunlight anymore. Still this is better than closing my eyes and not being able to witness every moment of this vanishing, of the physical separation. Not knowing if it will be for the rest of my life that I have left her, this region, which each time pulls me closer and closer. I lose myself staring down until there is no white speck of Tel Aviv left. I feel sadness.

“Ladies and gentlemen, we remind you to please close your windows, so that other passengers can sleep during the flight.”

I lower my window shade, but it’s too late, the image is burned on the back of my eyelids and like other images that arise as I hear the loud thuds of my heart pounding against my ears: the fields of olive trees stretching into the Kibbutz, the receding Dead Sea, the remnants of Harod’s centuries crumbled, once lavish temple rising high above the valley of the desert, the winding outer wall of the Old City in Jerusalem, the cool evening waters of the Mediterranean, and the countless hours of storytelling by friends over large spreads of food like nothing I’d ever taste in my own Guatemala. It is a different, more ancient world here where history has become habit, breath, embodiment and intertwining with the present.

journeyMany worlds exist in a physical area that if it were in the U.S. could be driven in a day. What you see  is not what you get here, and so to know the layers beneath which meaning can be understood is to also experience the pain that goes with it.

“What is Ramallah like now? Tell me what it looks like,” my eighty-three-year-old host Rivka asks me one morning while we’re sitting at her breakfast table. “I only saw it once many years ago when we could go cross.” I tell her it’s beautiful, that when you drive the hills, you feel you are in labyrinth and when the sun sets a golden reddish light falls on all the buildlings, on Arafat’s tomb, on the trash even that lies next to empty trashcans. It is modern, it has bars and five-star-hotels, art spaces, cafes for the foreigners who live there. In the evening, the cool fresh mountain wind that blows will catch in the women’s hijabs and the trees will sway with it.

The Israelis cannot legally experience the curving hills of Ramallah and the Palestinians cannot see the sea.  No one mentions it until a foreigner stumbles upon it and then these facts of their lives are shared with the same resentment and underlying hurt of neighbors having wronged one another. There cannot be forgiveness nor forgetting.

The moments of stillness can sometimes be felt as peace, but the peace has an unease about it in Tel Aviv, I notice it while sitting with my friend Eitan on Saturday evening around midnight when people are still drinking, eating, talking on the night before a workday. I ask him why people are not home getting ready for work tomorrow. He laughs. Here again the foreigners has no idea of the hidden minefield.

“In Tel Aviv, people party like there will be no tomorrow, precisely because we don’t know if there will be a tomorrow,” Eitan tells me.  Michael Jackson’s “Billy Jean” and then Van Morrison’s “Brown-Eyed Girl” play again for the second time over the speakers. We are sitting outsides among a cluser of tables where half-eaten pizza, salads and empty mugs of beer sit on young people’s tables. I notice the tension in people’s movements more readily now.

The last few days have been more unsettling than usual in this region because we are all waiting on the world to do something about Syria, the nearly 100,000 that have been killed there in the past two years, and most recently the biological warheads launched against civilians and children which violates every human rights treaty and agreement on how to behave during wartime.  Specifically the world is waiting on the United States.

“Your President refuses to drop the bombs on Syria,” Eitan says, half in jest when referring to President Obama’s decision to wait on the reconvening of Congress  the second week of September to get a decisive vote on whether or not to act against Assad. “You are the only ones that have enough of a moral backbone right now to drop a bomb on Syria and punish them for doing this unethical thing.”

As if killing thousands wasn’t unethical enough for the world, including the U.S., to respond a year and a half ago. I tell him, a bomb on Assad will not stop him. He will not stop until there is nothing left. So a war will need to be waged against Assad and it cannot be the U.S. alone in this because the whole region will become an abyss we won’t be able to extricate ourselves from. We all feel this restlessness and unease about the next couple of weeks in Syria.

The world is paralyzed, the way people I have seen people in Guatemala freeze like shadows, observing as lynchings, mass murders, violence against protestors, accidents, acts of violence happen in front of them. In Guatemala it is a type of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder where after thirty-six years of war, the violence has been normalized and at the same time there is fear to act and a sense of helplessness in action. Even if I help, what could I do? What difference would it make? There is too much risk for me to help. Someone else must help.

But Syria is different, it is something none of us could ever be prepared for or could recognize from the outside as part of a larger pattern of how war is waged in the most horrific of ways. It is a challenge for us to create a global ethical brain that can respond faster and in more skillful manner to the new bully or murderer in this case. The new evil will inevitably come from humanity, until the whole thing explodes.

Age and the dying of the ties

I’ve been thinking about growing old in America and what it means to have an entire generation of people my age who did not have much experiences with inter-generational households. In particular I’ve been thinking about what it means as far as emotional ties to our elders, their process of aging, our own process of aging and our emotional ties to the people attached to those processes. I say this in the context of having undergone a few revelations lately.

First, my grandmother, mi abuelita, who I spent the earlier part of my life with, became a vital part of our household when Brad and I were preparing for our wedding in December. In a week I saw her step out of her depression and her isolation by being part of our small random community of international artists, musicians, journalists, nonprofit workers and random yoga teachers and people that loved and respected her. I wanted her to stay and to not go home once her two weeks ended and I realized that what I was desperately missing in my own life was that emotional tie to an elder I shared so much of my life with. In speaking to my uncle, Brad and also my grandmother the idea has now been rolling around that she should come live with us. And it makes sense for us to share our lives this way.

Second, Brad’s grandfather has cancer. It has spread to his lungs and he was in a coma a week ago. Brad’s reaction to his grandfather’s illness is vastly different to what my reaction would be if my grandmother were sick. He doesn’t know what to do, what to say and is a bit confused about his role in this process of his grandfather, now in his early 90s, potentially dying soon, though within an uncertain time frame which makes it harder. I tell Brad that if my grandmother had lost 30 pounds and had been in a coma, I would take leave of absence from my job or I would call her everyday. Nonetheless, my sleep would also be a much less comfortable sleep from my 7 hours flight from California to her if I did not somehow make time to go see her. I start to think about his response and know that my husband is not a heartless person. He is kind and I know he loves his grandfather, so why this response? What connection was lost?

The line that connected all these dots today came when I landed in North Carolina and had dinner with my two gay moms, Ellen and Rosemary, both mentors, elders and spiritual leaders. I watched their magical dance all evening as they nurtured, nagged, laughed, and ended each other’s sentences or shared obscure medical knowledge (both of them having doctorate’s). Both are in their 70s, both are extremely well-educated, independent and caring. Ellen’s cancer has recurred and Rosemary has had Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever in the past year and here they were both typing away on their laptops, dog and cat at their side, living their aging with respect and love for each other. I looked and looked and could not put my finger on it, so I started to articulate it not knowing exactly what I was trying to get at. I started slowly. “You are both exceptional people, but how many people, same sex or not, are doing what you’re doing with growing old? How is your cohort dealing with aging?

Ellen looked at me confused and then answered that everyone has to deal with again, all couples or single people have to go through it. Rosemary recommended this Web site. Yes, I said, but I have not real models, neither from television, nor from real life. I mean the last thing I can think of is “Cacoon” and “Pond’s Way,” and it was sad to fathom that amid all the reality tv crappiness out there, there was nothing that put us into the lives of people aging now in America. It was obvious to me, they needed to a documentary made about them. They laughed and said other people had said that. I tell them they are my models for aging and for doing it with style and integrity.

Whatever will come it I don’t know, but these realizations make me more mindful and give me a better framework to work from.

Life after the dead blog

After I somehow managed to delete my old blog, which I had had for years and throughout college, I have finally decided to start blogging again and have that beginner’s mind to my new one. Since I am a furious notetaker, I will also be posting my unedited notes (except for spelling) here and have a a medley of journalism discussion and whatever ensues from the sheer need to write. So here goes:

February 6, 2008
11 pm
I’ve turned off the email, the radio, and the random response reaction to calls and online communication. I have done it, I am taking rule of this island, I have stopped being the immigrant and gone native. I am differentiating signal from noise and stopped this madness of overabundance in information. What better time to do it than now. Every instinct inside me has been telling me that it’s time to reflect (dare I say it) to write it down and later decide on the sharing aspect of it all. The world will always be there waiting to listen and to respond in whatever way it will.
I have avoided this reflection because I have sought to avoid distinguishing between information that I would share (and with whom of course), information I would keep to myself and information that I would send off that special friend (the details of which I will keep to myself). But avoidance is not really taking responsibility for the act, it is taking no responsibility for choosing not to act. Even worse is realizing that overabundance may in fact come from the same fear of deprivation and that by having too many choices, too many options I am equally stunted in action with only a sense of having acted by creating these options for myself. But focus and filtration, now there are my two words.
The world has conspired tonight in some way to put me here. I have listened to Henry Jenkins speak about online media literacy and resiliency and the crafting of identity, but even now as I write it’s difficult because as a journalist I’m used to writing for an audience.