Scenes From A Train

It was a week ago today that I traveled by train through the central part of Israel.

Young men, boys really, are asleep while white-winged snakes watch over them from shoulder lapels.

Their shock-proof watches are manufactured for durability in extreme conditions and synchronized with those of their peers, high-ranking officers and top military brass.IMG_3045

Olive green duffel bags with red ribbons tied on to ward off evil eyes. Berets are neatly tucked in, under buttoned lapels. Gargantuan backpacks that ought to be used for travel rather than a holding vessel for yet more clothes in a solid shade of olive green. Before leaving home, they were washed, crisply ironed, buttoned and folded. With love.

The dreaded phrase is Tzav shmoneh. Military call-up under emergency circumstances. Nothing to do but pack and leave. Perhaps throw in an appointment with the barber and a night out with the boys – just in case.

The rifle brigade is at it again.

I see a young woman, a teenager really, in rusty-red colored boots. We’re not in Oz. This is a man’s world, made up of elite paratroopers; females, an anomaly in their midst.

In the next row, the only word I hear in a phone conversation is raketot. Rockets. Are they still raining down from the other side? He says one fell in front of him. He hasn’t slept all night. Now he’s en route to the frontlines.

A young couple enters the carrIMG_3047iage, the cleanly-shaven guy decked out in full military regalia, his girlfriend dolled up in tank top, short shorts, brand-name purse, flip-flops and pedicure. She laughs and teases him, as if she’s sending him off to school instead of into a tank.

The businessman, long retired from military duty, ties up his spiffy electric bike to the railing, crosses one knee over the other and pulls a paper out of his buttery brown leather briefcase. He buries his nose into the stock market pages.

Before the train pulls out of the station, a young girl walks to the front of the carriage. She faces the wall, closes her eyes, opens the book and her whole body wobbles forward and backward in a post that exaggerates her prayer. When she returns to her seat, she remains standing, remains in prayer pose; but her shaking is so agitated, that perhaps her intention is to jiggle the region into peace andIMG_3076 quiet.

The doors close and the train heads towards the sea.

The little boy down the line turns to his father and asks, what happens if we hear a siren? His father is on the phone talking about raketot.

How does the grass still grow green, the fields grow wheat, the cows yield dairy, when a country is at war?

The name of this train station is Hagana. The Hebrew for defense. It’s a hub, a gateway to all points south. Today, it’s also a sea of olive green, khaki and beige. Especially on Platform #3.

As I read about my recent train journey, it suddenly feels so impossibly distant – not just because I’m now in another part of the world…

Stones on the Ground

When I first arrived at this house in northern Israel, I gasped at the view, so instantly smitten was I.IMG_2802

Then I spotted the garden below, a large patch of untended earth, covered mainly in dry straw and a handful of tall weeds; surrounded by fruit trees, a compost container and little else. An irrigation hose laid slightly into the ground in front. In the center, a solid metal trellis had been erected, through which grape vines would typically be woven; but in this case, other than a few glass baubles dangling, it was bare.

The day after the owners handed me the keys, temporarily entrusting their beautiful home to me, I stood and stared down at that patch of earth. It’s missing something, I thought.

Ahhh, yes, this space could really use a labyrinth. So I decided to install one, as a small gift to the owners. Meanwhile, I’d enjoy the creative process of making and using it for my own meditative walks – during much-needed breaks from writing.

IMG_2850I scoured design ideas on the internet, knowing that a circular path (such as the one I’d made in Bali) wouldn’t blend into this environment, finally settling on a rectangular form. I measured carefully, set markers and spent days collecting stones from a forest nearby.

I started to lay down stones. The ‘matzav’ (situation) down south progressively worsened. I’d lay more stones on the ground, and that evening I’d hear about sirens and more rounds of shelling, rockets and missiles.

I stopped gathering stones for a day. Maybe the sirens will end. Maybe those rockets will be grounded.

But nothing changed. Instability in the skies mirrored the obstacles and undulating terrain on the ground. So I resumed placing stones along the border lines, as if by forging a path in this garden I could change the course of…IMG_2857

While gazing down at the garden one evening from the hammock, a question crystallized in my mind: Could this swirling path in nature, above-ground, be my subconscious response to the nightmare network of tunnels that was being uncovered underground?

Above and below, I was sensing a growing fragility in the earth’s surface. Cracks were showing. I felt rushed to finish. I wanted to walk. I wanted to pray and hope that this country’s ground could be cleansed.

It was overwhelming. Nobody was using the word war yet, but that’s where we were heading.

Crows and swallows flew abovIMG_2848e. A cat crept by stealthily. Military jets and choppers flew over. I resisted the temptation to stop. I laid a handful of stones.

Then one soldier died. And another. The death count was rising, among Palestinians and Israelis alike.

I kept putting down stones.

I looked down at the garden for guidance. I didn’t know what I was looking for, but I finally found it elsewhere; on the news and the internet. The names of newly buried soldiers.

The labyrinth was done. Out of a sense of sadness and angst, touched with helplessness, I started writing down their names. Just yesterday they had lives and plans and dreams and friends. Now they were faces – and names.IMG_2854

Tomorrow, I leave behind this labyrinth, stones on the ground that I hope the owners will keep in place.

The name and age of each soldier who’s died until today (as well as Palestinian names) is inscribed inside a separate folded square of paper. Each square is tucked below a stone, touching the ground.

At best, it was illusory for me to imagine that this pastoral view, this garden sanctuary in the north, far from falling rockets and terrorists digging through tunnels, would insulate me from the worst. One of those fallen, a sweet-faced soldier with a boyish grin from this very village, was killed during a military operation in Gaza last Friday and buried here just yesterday.

Now Guy’s name is on paper, under a stone on the ground, in a garden overlooking a breathtaking view.

The vision was a labyrinth. A present. A meditation. Then it turned into a creative impulse, a catharsis. A tangible prayer for peace. That finally became, quite unintentionally but necessarily, a memorial.

Pueblo de las Rosas

IMG_2802Here I am, spending the month of July in the northern part of Israel. I’ve squirreled myself away in Kfar Vradim (Village of Roses), where I’ve been writing a book – about walking the Camino de Santiago in Spain last fall.

Most of the time, I write on a couch indoors. But once in awhile, I need a change of scenery. So I slide open the back doors and move onto the patio. For an hour or two, I lie back in a beach chair or swing in a hammock, breathing in the fresh air, tinged with a soft breeze, slightly scented with the mint and lavender growing in the garden nearby.IMG_2737

It feels strange to be writing in one country about my experiences of another, separated only by time zones and the shifting waters of the Mediterranean Sea. But slightly less strange, when I note the remarkable similarities. I might be in the western Galilee, but if I squint just a little bit, exchange one language for another, I might as well be in Las Alpujarras of Spain’s Andalucia region.

IMG_2724The view from the terra-cotta tiled terrace spans nearly 180° of mountains and valleys. It overlooks a pastoral landscape dotted with villages among the large swaths of untouched fields. To the west, well beyond the haze and mountain range, the Mediterranean glistens.

White-washed villas and cottages, topped with adobe tiles, spill down the mountainsides. The curbs of dead-end streets are edged with rose bushes of yellow and red. Instead of the Moorish architecture native to Andalucia, Arab villages nearby are characterized by mosques topped with minarets. Between here and there, and just like in sun-drenched Spain, olive groves and vineyards are scattered around.IMG_2787

In this garden, little bulbs of pomegranates hang like Christmas ornaments, while bougainvillea cascade out from layers of leaves and a solitary lemon hardens, perhaps eager to be plucked.

I wait with increasing impatience for plums and figs to ripen, certain that their impending juiciness will not disappoint. Shiny CDs, long untouched and re-purposed for their shimmering effect, hang from trees and swivel around their axis to fend off vultures and other creatures of the night. A spectacle that, in an instant, throws me back to my weeks on the Camino.

IMG_2725Not a bull or burro (donkey) in sight, but cats curl up in front of most homes as if guarding their territory; a solitary rooster crows before daybreak; and a sign on one gate scaring off intruders with, if it were to be believed, the danger of lurking snakes.

In the din of the night, a hum of passing cars, generators and street lamps meld together. A dog chain rattles. The wind chime clinks in time with a neighbor calling out, Limor! A muezzin’s call to prayer floats across the valley.

Far off in the distance, orange-hued lights flicker on the hillsides. For a moment, I imagine they might be homes nestled at the edge of a Spanish sky… or, coming back down to earth, stars touching this very precious, but embattled, land.

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The Soundtracks of a War Zone

IMG_2758On the large flat screen TV, I need a break from the news, finding refuge instead at the far end of the channel universe. That’s where the music plays. I alternate between the classical music station and the one that fills the airwaves every Sabbath with a lengthy playlist consisting of many of my favorite Israeli folksongs.

Here’s where I feel safe from news bulletins, images of people fleeing cars, cowering in shelters, carrying away the dead and injured from scenes of devastation. Here is where I believe that music can protect me from the conflict that appears to be escalating ever more towards a full-fledged military incursion, a heightening of assault from both sides. Here, where the voices are soothing, the music uplifting, is where I believe, that I can switch off – even temporarily – the screaming headlines, the fatalists and false prophets.

But clearly I’m mistaken: Every so often, a man’s voice enters the audio-sphere. In tones more monotone than mournful , he reads out one alert or more (in Hebrew): Siren in Yavne. The music continues unabated. Then, Siren in Oranim. Siren in Gush Dan. A new song plays. Siren in Ein Hashlosha. Siren in Beer Sheva. An hour or so passes. Siren in Segev Shalom. Siren in Nevatim. Siren in Ezor Meitar. Siren in Ezor Dimona and Yeruham. Tel Aviv. Ramat Gan. Herzliya. And on and on it goes.

Places I’ve never heard of, mere dots on a map, intermingle with towns and cities more heavily populated. Songs play without interruption. Siren warnings are a secondary soundtrack, merely superimposed onto the main songline. It’s an odd juxtaposition, beautiful tunes about joy, peace, hope, friendship, family and travel broken up with red-code alerts. Lyrics of one jarringly woven into and through those of the other.

Further south, Israelis, Arabs, Palestinians and tourists (on both sides) are bombarded by the wailing sounds of siren warning, by the sounds of explosions, falling rockets or Iron Dome missiles cutting them off at the pass. There is talk of cancelling the upcoming concert of a long-awaited legend, Neil Young. And then, amidst the threat of uncertainty and missiles, a long awaited but sudden burst of good news: my cousin L gives birth to her firstborn, a son. A baby’s birth in hospital is the right kind of wailing.

Meanwhile, up here, the only sounds under a blue or full-mooned sky, are those of birdsong, chimes, rustling leaves, and dogs barking. The only objects falling, leaves, acorns and pine cones blown off trees by a light breeze.

All Quiet on the Northern Front

If you’d characterize Israel’s land according to the same proportions of a human body, then this week its shins are being battered hardest of all. The knees have been getting a beating, and sores have been spreading ever higher, through the thighs, into the stomach and even the heart. The shockwaves have pummeled kidneys, lungs, the chest, and now are inching their way up to the shoulders and chin.

The majority of this body’s arteries and cells have taken a beating, if not actually then at least by virtue of near-hits and misses. The forehead has been spared thus far, except for a small migraine that hit one of the temples early this morning. And somewhere around the middle of the high forehead, verging on the hairline, I’m hoping that the pain will subside and that the body will quickly recover.

Speaking of hairlines, I’d decided to take a break from the news alerts by booking a hair appointment this morning. It possibly wasn’t the wisest idea because Fridays are the first day of Israelis’ weekend. And such a Friday, at the tail end of the first week of Operation Protective Edge will, of necessity, entail conversation exclusively centered on “ha-matzav” – THE situation.

IMG_2752When I enter the hairdressing ‘salon’ – and like most other services in this village, Nir’s is the only hairdresser in town – the place is swarming with middle aged women, wrapped in black gowns, large gobs of dark dye drying on their combed-back hair. They’re seated on benches and chairs, eyes glued to newspapers or the large flat screen TV. There’s no refuge from the sad reality of this region; this situation, aka ha-matzav. So there’s no point asking Nir to change the channel; it is always tuned to the news and the mere suggestion of changing channels would be tantamount to heresy.

Even if the TV blares with nothing but bad news only a few hours’ drive away, life here still goes on as usual. In fact, it’s surreally quiet up in this northern enclave, from where I can see the cedars and hills of Lebanon. Unlike the change of lifestyle in the center and south of the country, children here still go to camp and are today splashing about in the “country” (so-called village pool and club). Adults are shopping as usual, stocking up on freshly baked goods and cheeses from kiosks set up every Friday morning in the only commercial center in town.

They’re also engaged in their favorite pastime activity; groups gathering together each week to discuss the pros and cons of the current military operations, the statements of the prime minister, politicians, Barack Obama and the BBC. These so-called “parliaments” – largely comprised of friends, colleagues and political allies – are nothing short of heated, sometimes escalating into vocally aggressive and intractable arguments.IMG_2750

But the sticky-haired women inside the hair salon are a toned-down bunch, exchanging the occasional comment made by a pundit or psychologist. I watch a so-called expert on a news program explain that parents can minimize the fear factor in their children, by recording a siren sound, then repeatedly allow their children listen to the recordings, allowing them to adjust the volume. This, he seems to posit, is the way to buffer children from the anxiety of sirens and rockets. Normalizing war’s horrific reality.

After more than thirty minutes’ wait (most of which time I spend walking around outside), Nir calls me over. Dressed in cut-off shorts, t-shirt and flip-flops, this native is the anti-thesis of trend. He’s the sole hairdresser, color-mixer, dye- and tint-applier, cutter, stylist and cheerleader. His one assistant handles manicures and pedicures. She also has a funny habit of sticking a mug of wax into a microwave that has a full crate of eggs sitting on top; I wait for the eggs to explode from the heat, but surprisingly, they stay intact.

Nir applies color to my hair while I kneel and shift around on my pillow. A much-needed break on the news program happens when a comedian offers suggestions on how to cope with the matzav. But first he wants Hamas to give him the memo straight, because trying to avoid rockets by running from one town to the next, hiding out in one shelter after the other, really isn’t working for him. His shtick melts the panic, much like the entertainment and face painting that’s been delivered to kids stuck in shelters down south.

IMG_2755Turns out that Nir is something of a crooner too. I’m lying back as he washes the color out of my hair, when I hear what sounds like the first few bars of a familiar tune. He’s serenading me; Lonely, I’m Mister Lonely

Some of the absurd scenes that unfold one after the other inside the four walls of Nir’s shop are hard to miss; two women have their arms full with straw baskets full of freshly baked loaves of bread. They deposit the baskets on Nir’s front counter and chair. The scent of flour, herbs and sun-dried tomatoes so overpower the waiting patrons that they rise almost in unison, waddle over to the counter, pick and package nearly the entire contents of both baskets. One-stop shopping.IMG_2756

Then a disagreement arises over the respective times allotted for residents of each city – depending on that city’s relative distance from ground zero launching sites of Gaza’s missiles. They argue over how long it takes to get to the shelter, depending on various factors; and each one seems to have the last word about how many seconds the residents of this village are given to seek safety in shelters. One woman insists that every second counts; in some places, people have up to one minute to seek shelter, but we here don’t have ANY time, we have to get inside immediately. There’s a sudden uproar, expressions of doubt and concern volleying back and forth.

The ruckus dies down once the women, one by one, are dried, curled and complimented. On their way out, they cast a last glance up at the screen; with a sigh, they walk out. Just another day in the life of Israelis, on the edge.

Oh, and about my hair, well.. let’s just say that I wish I’d had Operation Protective Edge guarding the border around my hair this morning….

What if…you don’t look disabled and feel ok…

Yesterday, I received an email, which ended as follows: Of course if you don’t look disabled and feel ok then it is hard to maintain the argument you are disabled.

The email was from M, a corporate lawyer whom I first met more than thirty years ago at summer camp. I was best friends with his girlfriend-turned-wife, for many years, until we lost touch. Sporadically, over the years, we’d connect, usually over a family-related matter, good news or sad. Last summer, M and his wife also contributed to my crowd-sourcing Camino campaign, for which I was very grateful.

But this time I turned to M for legal advice, feeling increasingly out of my depth regarding a protracted issue that shows no signs of letting up. I knew that I could rely on his years of legal experience, his wisdom. M replied almost instantly – from the other side of the world. Some questions and comments volleyed back and forth until I stopped reading mid-sentence: “…if you don’t look disabled…”IMG_7525

My first reaction was sadness, which quickly turned to puzzlement, then to anger. I dashed off a quick reply, which included the refrain “yes, it’s complicated,” fearing that if I launched into a detailed response, it might have sparked a debate about what constitutes disability – and was I really disabled?

I thought it best to switch off my laptop and clear my head. I left the house and walked.

Solvitur ambulando. It is solved by walking.

What is it about disability that stipulates that people must “look disabled” and not “feel ok”? Indeed why do people who hear of my accident and sequelae, look at me in astonishment and exclaim: “but you look so normal and healthy”? The unspoken message seems to be: how could you possibly be disabled when you don’t look disabled?

IMG_1751In other words, if I feel ok, is it not possible for me to also be disabled? Or if I have a disability, is it at all possible that I might also look “normal and healthy”? Why are they mutually exclusive?

Would you say that Stevie Wonder and Ray Charles “look disabled”? Perhaps. Do they feel ok? Probably so, in fact I’d wager that they feel pretty darn good. What about Marlee Matlin, Itzhak Perlman or the late Terry Fox? Does Matlin look disabled? Does she feel ok? Well, she probably has her share of ups and downs; but yes, I’d say so.

Would you characterize them first as disabled – and then as the talented and skilled individuals that they are? Is Stevie Wonder the blind singer, or a world-renowned singer and songwriter that just happens to be blind?IMG_2286

What about Paralympians? Surely, qualifying athletes must meet strict criteria for physical impairment. Aside from their particular disability – wheelchair tennis players, volleyball players, swimmers – would you ever doubt that they might not feel ok enough to engage in such high-level competitive sports? Other than their handicap, even those of amputees, don’t many of them look normal and healthy? Would anyone dare ask South African Paralympic running legend Oscar Pistorius if he feels ok?

Which brings me to this: Isn’t it clear that disability is still and always defined in our society solely by the visual cues that we are accustomed to seeing; those that enable us to quickly differentiate those who are abled from the disabled (or differently abled)? When you think of a disabled person, don’t you immediately conjure up the image of a person who has a visible handicap – a wheelchair, seeing eye-dog, hearing aids, walker, cane, etc?

IMG_2661There are countless disabilities that are hidden from view: dyslexia, epilepsy, asthma, mental illness, hearing impairments. Would you think any less of Bruce Jenner’s success as a decathlete if you learned that he struggled with ADHD? Or the actor and game show host Howie Mandel, with ADHD and OCD? What about Frida Kahlo – who lived with constant pain while creating works of art?

Even though I juggle a handful of impairments – including a sitting disability (about which I’ve written before), a carrying disability and a limited ability to stand upright, in one place – I don’t consider myself disabled. Partly because I don’t identify myself as a victim or according to labels, and partly because I’ve simply learned to adapt. From the early days of my recovery, I had one choice: lie down all the time to avoid pain and stiffness; or get up, move, rest when necessary, ask for help – and figure out the rest one day at a time. So most of the time, I do look ok, not because I feel that way but rather because I don’t define myself by, nor do I dwell on, my disabilities.IMG_2637

But what if I told you that I do in fact possess a visual cue? It’s not an item that you would readily associate with disability; in fact, most people look at me quizzically when they see the large object I’ve tucked under my arm – while some dopey characters will see in it a joke: are you planning to take a nap? When I know that I’m getting into a car, bus, train or plane, I carry a pillow. Even though the pillow still doesn’t enable me to sit, it cushions my backside against hard surfaces when I recline. But who among us has ever seen a pictogram (prioritizing access for the disabled) with a pillow on it?

IMG_7716In the end, I decided to overlook M’s comment because (a) disability (and the other matters of law) isn’t even close to his area of expertise, and (b) I knew without a doubt that he was trying to be helpful. He couldn’t have known that ingrained in that comment was the kind of skepticism (or, worse, disbelief) that I’ve tried so hard to overcome.

He couldn’t have known that it mirrored the shadow of doubt that is cast each time that the subject comes up in regard to my life and challenges; nor could he have known that it speaks to a more widespread albeit unintentional ignorance, a byproduct of the fact that wIMG_5705e’re socially conditioned to equate physical disability only with that which is seen. It magnifies our misunderstanding of disability and perpetuates prejudice towards people who live with a variety of physical and functional challenges that are invisible.

Truth is that even my body carries visual cues. However, they are concealed, behind clothes and skin; a protrusion in my lower back resulting from a still-displaced sacrum, nerve damage and pain all the way down the back of my left leg; a foot that would look crushed and disfigured if only the layers of skin could be peeled away. I now walk with a subtle but measureable leg-length difference, due to blunt trauma to my leg – which, at the very least, would allow me to qualify for the Paralympics.

Pain is chronic, spiking without warning. Two parallel lines resembling sutures permanently etched into the bottom of my butt are a stark reminder of the railway tracks from which I tumbled onto the rocks below. As you might imagine, these tracks are well-hidden, even from myself.

And yet, I feel ok.

DO Date a Girl Who Travels

healingpilgrim:

Amen, this woman knows the language of my heart…

Originally posted on the thai chronicles:

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Recently a blog post went viral, translated into 16 different languages the post was called, Don’t Date a Girl who Travels. Wonderfully written and accurate in the description of an independent woman who can’t be tied down, a woman meant to explore, a woman who should not be held back.

I read this post and smiled, recognizing many of the values identified as ones that I have discovered in my own life of travels. It’s tone empowering, fierce, a life lived unconventionally, a women wisely choosing to follow her own will, not that of someone else’s.

Yet I couldn’t help questioning; Why not chase life right along with her? Why has an article celebrating a passionate woman ended with a proclamation to let her go? Why is confidence and daring curiosity in women so often paired with solitude?

So, here goes my response…

Do date a woman who travels.

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