Thursday, April 26, 2012

The involved places

I did not come to the Middle East to maintain an attachment to privacy. I have worked in five countries in this region and each of them has stripped me bare. The invisible bubble between you and the world dissolves and you sit there, practically naked in all your layers of clothes, with your collarbones covered but your life exposed. Questions feel like pokes initially, like none-of-your-business jabs. This is the story of my making peace with the questions. It is a story of my love for "the involved places", the places that do not stop at "nice to meet you" and "check, please", the places that transcend what is appropriate or their business to form a human, intrusive life connection.
Living above Burgers Bar means I have woken up on more than one occasion wondering if there is, indeed, a portion of the population that craves a lamb burger at 8 AM. Some people wake up to the gurgling of the coffee machine or to a whiff of hazelnut coffee; Elijah and I wake up to the sizzling of ground meat.

I do not feel like I have truly unpacked my life at a place until I find a place to watch Champions League soccer games. My devoted following of the Barcelona soccer club is intertwined with my sense of home. Burgers Bar has housed my soccer fandom this year and, in the process, taught me a thing or two about the traits that recur in places I love.

Burgers Bar, Jerusalem, 9.46 PM on a Tuesday
We are one minute into the game and the guy sitting next to us is clearly rooting for the other team. Elijah and I stay mostly quiet, as though the world cannot handle our being foreigners, immigrants and Barcelona fans. I share a statistic with Elijah and the guy next to us pipes up "Oh, that just can't be true."

Having watched two years' worth of soccer games in the Middle East, I know not to be surprised by the intrusion or the indignation. A few months ago, I was the only woman in a restaurant of 48 men watching the Real Madrid-Barcelona game. (Yes, I counted, between successive bites of hummus consumed in the hope that eating would mitigate the awkwardness.) I have encountered the sheer shock that washes over people when they discover I can tell the difference between soccer and synchronized swimming.

The man sitting next to us asks me to look up the soccer statistic again and I oblige. I was right the first time. The conversation window is wide open now, even though I am staring at the screen hard enough to burn holes through the soccer players' jerseys.

"Are you two together?" he asks.
Elijah nods.
"Oh, for how long?"
Elijah answers him.
"Are you married?," the man follows up.
"No, we are not," I volunteer with some irritation.
"Wow, after so much time together, my mother would have some questions about that!"
"My mother has questions about that too," Elijah says humorously to diffuse the tension and to stop me from shoving feminist theory and a speech on making assumptions about strangers down this stranger's throat.

A conversation about Elijah's alma mater leads to the stranger making a bet with Elijah that the university's founder was not a Supreme Court Justice. More iPhone Googling ensues.

Our team scores.

"Did you know that all the streets in this neighborhood are named after non-Jews?"
I look at Elijah and he knows I'm practically telepathically beaming "What is this? Fun Fact Hour during the soccer game?"
We then, naturally, proceed to name the side streets of the neighborhood and Google the religious beliefs of the people who bequeathed their name to them.

80 more minutes of soccer, coupled with 80 minutes of questions. By the end of the game, we knew that Barcelona was the superior team, the stranger "hated Italians -- oof, Italians!", the stranger thought I looked Italian (draw your own conclusions). He was also convinced I must have had at least one Jewish grandparent given the name of my hometown. Though himself unmarried, he nonetheless offered marriage advice ("it is best to take care of these sorts of matters early in life") and inquired as to "how you got such a cheap apartment in this neighborhood!"

If you are reading this, dear stranger, you should come take a look at our kitchen and all your questions will be answered.
Same Burgers Bar, same Barcelona squad, different Tuesday night
I have returned from the Dead Sea with exactly one sunburned shoulder. The bartender and I are laughing about this and are exchanging information on the other aspects of my life she has become privy to after successive Barcelona-watching nights, ranging from the progress of my graduate school applications to our strategy for mold removal after the heavy rain. 

"Oh, my wife LOVED the Dead Sea!" - from a stool next to ours. 
Here we go again.
"It is a very unique experience," Elijah agrees kindly. I point to the screen to suggest, unkindly, that the game is about to start and I am not about to discuss my views on marriage again.
"Are you two married?" 
Too late.
"No, but let me guess -- you guys are!" 
"We are, we are, and we are just loving this trip to Israel, you know?"
"That is so good to hear," goes Elijah. The Champions League anthem plays in the background, I casually glare.
Pass, pass, Messi, pass, Iniesta, foul, corner, pass, offsides, pass, shot on goal. Next time I tune in, I hear this:
"There just aren't enough organic, fair trade places in California, you know?"
No, actually, I did not. As compared to... Portland? 
"No, really. It is just so hard to find that kind of thing there. I cannot imagine how you guys do it here!" 
Elijah resists the urge to tell this man that, in this country, when he is reassured that something is organic-fair trade-grown by loving angels who sprinkle pixie dust on it, the salesperson often has no clue if that is true.
Messi scores.

"You know, the conflict stuff.... that just seems so silly to me. You know what I think the solution to it all is?" 
Now I tune back in. This is common and I relish it every time: A foreigner, usually a newcomer, arrives in Jerusalem, bears witness and it all makes sense. He has it - the elusive solution to The Conflict. Never mind that Juanita Leon was right two years ago in her assessment of Colombia and every conflicted place: "You live there for a week, it all makes sense. You know everything. You live there for a month, and suddenly you know nothing at all." 

Elijah and I lean in, as the Dead Sea-loving wife and organic-loving husband are about to share the peace plan. The man utters "... well, I'd just build casinos!" 

That was earnestly one we had not heard before.

Barcelona won that night too. So did curiosity: from casinos to kosher Mexican food, and from organic certifications to wedding ceremonies by the Dead Sea.
There is a finite number of answers to "you're not married?!", but an infinite range of shocked, indignant reactions when people hear we are unwed. What is also finite is my irritation at the questions. There was a point in life when I measured home by where the anchors were - a point at which the anchors were physical: Home was where I lived long enough to own wine glasses, passable sheets, and specialized floor cleaner. Home was where I lived long enough to not worry about how to carry all the books to the next place. To some extent, it is still that point in life, the point that Thought Catalog describes in a piece titled How To Be Young:
Think you’re old and never realize how young you actually are. Fixate on the fact that you love The Container Store and Bed, Bath & Beyond and drinking tea and eating organic. This means something to you. It means you’re figuring out how to be an adult and you won’t be left behind. Show your receipt from Crate and Barrel to a 30-year-old and say, “See? I’m getting there. Let me through!”
Slowly, though, home has evolved into the place I have lived long enough for people to ask questions. In Israel, that is often not very long at all, but the more you put down roots, the more bottles of floor cleaner and mold removing spray that you buy, the more detailed, intricate and personal the questions get. I was initially frustrated at how difficult it is to 'belong' here if you were not naturally born into the two axes that can define the narrative: religion and the conflict. I am neither Jewish nor Muslim, neither Israeli nor Palestinian. It has been surprisingly difficult to carve out a place for myself given those parameters. 

That place, the involved, question-asking place, was born out of ceasing to resist intrusion. The owner of the laundromat is curious as to why we keep a couple's dirty laundry in a shared laundry bag. I clumsily attempt to answer, he laughs, waves around to suggest it's strange and inappropriate, laughs some more. Next time, he calls me "hamuda" - cutie. I do my laundry at a place where someone calls me cutie. On a regular basis.

I buy my muffins at a place where the women repeatedly tell me that "this food will make you fat."  The man at the corner store knows exactly how much nargileh is smoked in this house and does not hide his feelings about it.

On my walk home today, I noticed there was not a patch of grass in the park without a grill on top of it. It is Israeli Independence Day and it comes complete with F-16 fly-overs, fireworks, and all the grilled meat you can eat. In a clear 4th-of-July shout-out, I even saw a couple making smores. I waded through the park, careful not to step on toys or knock over the double strollers that look like tanks and exude more confidence on the streets of Jerusalem than I do. My walk was interrupted to: receive a kebab, explain that I neither have a barbecue nor - gasp - an oven at home, to receive another kebab, to hold a child while his brother's diaper was tended to, to pat a dog, to eat yet another kebab. 

There is a network of people whose knowledge of the rhythms of my life here, my tastes, my preferences when it comes to laundry, Barcelona or application essays creates a sense of home. These relationships may range from the superficial to the intimate, but they are bound by questions and by a sense of involvement. It is the involved places that I love, the places that are not afraid to ask, that do not care to mask their indignation at an answer, that shove kebabs and babies in your arms, even when you have no particular affection for either.

Friday, April 20, 2012

Lessons from Measuring Life in Photographs

In an interview last August, Beth Nicholls asked me: "How differently do you see the world through the lens of a camera?" I responded:
In The Art of Travel, Alain de Botton discusses the process of drawing while traveling. He remarks that drawing enables the traveler to see: to squint, to scrutinize, to look in a way that transcends the fleeting glimpse. Photography plays a similarly enabling role in my own life, even though it is more instantaneous than the process of drawing. I look through the viewfinder searching for beauty… or for surprise, incongruence, contradiction, conflict. The camera reminds me to look — to really look.
I embarked on a project to photograph life every day in 2012 as an attempt to do exactly that: to look closer, to squint, to be surprised. To find wonder. Inspired by T.S. Eliot's J. Alfred Prufrock,who "measured out his life with coffee spoons", Measuring Life in Photographs was born. 

I was hoping that the practice of taking a photograph every day would make me a better photographer. Or that it would infuse some mindful presence into every day, no matter how unremarkable or bleak it may have looked outside the camera lens. And while this has been true, these have not been the most surprising lessons of the project so far.

Measuring Life in Photographs has made me acutely aware of the passage of time. One photograph per day, at a total of 365+1 for 2012. By January 11, 2012, I had already taken 366 photographs, but flooding the universe with images was not my idea of curation. So I cropped and frowned at angles that were not quite sharp enough and squirmed at not-quite-there composition and selected one photo per day because, if there needs to be a point, this would be part of it: to sieve through the flood, to choose how to remember.

Initially, I captioned each photo with the day to which it corresponded. Day 25: fizzling Coca Cola on a flight. Day 49: "Whatever you do, I will love you". Day 68. And then an insightful commenter asked: "Why the numbered days?" and I decided that measuring life in photographs did not require a sequential naming of time. So on this day, do-not-ask-me-which-number-it-was, I stopped counting.

In another sense, though, the acute awareness does not fade. Because of this project, I now know things like "today is the 111th day of the year." I start thinking of the year in sections and portions, and measuring my life against them. I look back on the photographs and think: Is this what I wanted the year to look like? Are these the hues I expected?

I find a lot of hearts when I look back on these 111 days: 10 of them, to be exact. I see ballet flats on three continents: 6 instances of them. Mail, letters, envelopes: 7 photographs. Self-portraits, mostly foggy and obscured: 10. My collarbones make a surprising number of appearances too, particularly given how much time they spend  concealed under pashminas in my neck of the woods.

I notice a lot of what 111 days of Measuring Life in Photographs has not captured: the dark corners and muted hues. The more shadows that walk through my life, the brighter the photographs become. I have not deciphered which way the causation flows: Am I still trying to (self) select for the colorful, even when life is grey? Or am I using the high saturation to lift myself out of the shadowy pit?

On some days, I cheat. I may have taken 250 photographs on that given day and not a single one resonates with me enough to become part of the collection. And then the day before that, I happened to have taken just three photographs and I love all three... enough to include one of them in the photoessay the following day too. If you walked through the latest week of photographs with me, you'd think I wandered through Botanical Gardens all day every day, looking at swans. In reality, the swans and teardrop flowers and dream-inducing trees were all part of the same day, but I stretched them out. Sometimes, I want the magic to ignore the boundaries of the single image and flow through the whole week. And other times, I want to erase a day completely. The latter are the days void of images. The photographs that would have been.

As I told Beth Nicholls in August, looking through the viewfinder makes me slow down. For a whole month, I did not pick up the digital camera. Instagram does not come with a viewfinder. The iPhone may humor us with a shutter sound, but "it's not quite the same." I ran away from the mindful presence. I measured life in filtered photographs, in snapshots and split seconds. For weeks on end, Jerusalem looked like this: dreamy, rosy, romantic, movie-esque. As I navigated turmoil and heartbreak and anxiety, I had no patience for high resolution or the sharp clarity of real yellows. Just this week, I decided it's time to put the filters down for a bit and put myself back in the picture.

The camera feels heavier than I remembered and the bright colors and high resolutions are almost causing me light sensitivity. I would like to say that the project has taught me to be less of a perfectionist. I would like to say that I'm making my peace with the not-quite-magical days and the not-quite-photographs and more-like-snapshots and I'm letting those see the light of day too. And while this was the case, say, on this visually imperfect day, it is not the whole truth. I am still hunting for the images that shake me to the core. I still marvel at the days that cause Elijah to mock me for saying "ohmygoshwouldyoulookatthislight!" in one breath, over and over again. I am still hoping that the hues and brightness and shadows will line up and make magic. And if there needs to have been a point for the past 111 days of Measuring Life in Photographs, it is to let the story tell itself sometimes. To go back and look at the patterns that emerged when I was not the puppet master pulling the strings. To keep showing up.
Today. Showing up. Embracing the yellow yellows and vivid blues. Attaching the heavy camera to my wrist again. Celebrating the clarity, cherishing the reflection.

Wednesday, April 11, 2012


When a city is built entirely out of white stone, it is meant to be loved at night, in the glow of orange street lamps.

Passover and the Sabbath coincided, thus taking cars, humans and bread crumbs off the streets. We wandered for two hours with no purpose other than to make memories in an empty city, to claim the playground for ourselves, to interrupt the silence and cast shadows on the orange-hued streets of Jerusalem.

Overnight, Jerusalem had blossomed, if only to signal to me that spring had not forgotten after all. I sneezed under the petals and took deep breaths regardless. Outside his favorite building in Jerusalem, he spotted it. This was the one flower that would not make me sniffle. Made of blue tissue paper and tied to a street barrier, it was waiting for someone like him to notice.

I, ever the wary one, could not retire my conflict training, not even for an empty Jerusalem, not even in the orange glow. "Are you sure you should be picking up something you found in the street here?"

"I knew you'd say that. I knew it! My paranoid love... What, you think this is a bomb?"

I laugh at myself to stop him from doing the same and he fastens the flower to my wrist like a corsage. On its wire stem, we find a note. It reads: Peace.

We walk home like prom dates who left the dance before everyone else, breathing in blossoms, exhaling peace.
Peace, at home on our windowsill

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

The poetry of silence

In a feature titled Poets I Didn't Study in School, PeacexPeace sheds light on the unsung poetry of conflict. And in a confluence of literary minds this National Poetry Month, Akhila Kolisetty prompted a reflection on the poets of our lives. In a notebook with a yellow straw chair on the cover, I capture the stanzas that caused a small gasp when I first read them. They range from words out of a newspaper article, to half a line from Mary Oliver, to dozens of verses out of Elytis' The Monogram.

My childhood was a collage of setting out on the road to Ithaca and "να εύχεσαi να 'ναι μακρύς ο δρόμος..." and "nobody, not even the rain has such small hands." Tucked onto a fridge in Washington D.C., I found Mary Oliver: "let the soft animal of your body love what it loves." In the remainders basement of the Harvard Bookstore, Neruda came into my life. And at an outdoor bookstore in the Plaza de Armas of Havana, I met Benedetti: "te quiero porque tus manos trabajan por la justicia."

Without Elytis, I wouldn't know to look for the kind of love that poems are made of. "Tο γερτό παντζούρι εσύ, ο αέρας που το ανοίγει εγώ" -- "you the curved shutter, I the air that opens it." No man I have ever loved can read these words in their original and no translation I have ever found can carry their potent affection. And so, in dark rooms in Cairo and Boston and Jerusalem after midnight, I have often found myself mumbling about shutters and winds and "the waves have heard of you... how you caress, how you kiss, how you whisper the 'what' and the 'eh'". Sometimes I imagine a world in which I do not speak Greek and, instead, can merely imagine the kinds of words that define my companion's literary ideal of a life well-shared.

It is appropriate that the first glimpse into my Jerusalem neighborhood last fall revealed that Yehuda Amichai park marks its border. I look for the poetic winks of the universe. I look for the poetry in life. I hunt for the days that rhyme and the extra syllable out of place that creates the spark.

J. Alfred Prufrock measured out his life in coffee spoons. I measure mine in photographs. I count the leaves in fields of shamrocks, the ballet flats that go two-by-two from dust to flowers. 

I find poetry in trailing smoke, in the kebab smell in his hair. In the first bite, in the crumbs wedged in my chest.
In the empty nest by the window seat our books call home, and the egg that later fills it.
There is poetry to the mud that stings my face, the open palm of it on my back, the pruned toes after the first swim. The feet that slide out from under me to poke the Dead Sea surface. The red shoulder that protrudes out of a shirt sleeve.

I find poetry in the spring that has forgotten us and the tree that defies its absence.
In the turning of the pages, the sharpening of pencils, the dreaming of classrooms ahead and books to be read and - dare I? - to be written.

There is poetry - tragic poetry - to a dream crushed and the hope of restoration rising out of its ashes. There is poetry to silent dreaming; the stanza today cannot handle the whispering of wish outloud.

I find poetry to stringing words together and letting them carry you. Letting them float you when little else will.