Saturday, December 21, 2013

Whatcha making, Charlie??
It's raining and dark this solstice day.  Can it already be a few days from Christmas?  I could probably just direct you to this post from Australia, and say "yeah, what wise, thoughtful Helena says": less is more, and enough of the push to buy and do this time of year. More of the quiet.  But it is ingrained in us, in many of us, and so we do our best to be true to our animal selves, hibernating, cherishing the dark, loving the feel of our loved ones nestled next to us, and to make the best of our human culture which says Rejoice! Sing! Be Merry! because joy doesn't seem like an impulse to shy away from. Who doesn't need more joy?

And so, our days look like a mix.  The troubadors in the family are wrapping up Appalachian Christmas Carol this week, performed in the setting of a coal-mining company town, and literally in an old beautiful opera house from the 1870's.  Storytelling and song in the darkness, I can get behind that.

Dan, on the left
Eliza, "Miner's Refrain"


My dad and his wife came this week  - 11 hours each way! - to see the play and share some early Christmas with us.  Our visits together are often wedged into a couple of days bookended by visits with many other family members when we visit Wisconsin, and it was so great to have them here for a couple of quiet days together.  


This morning as I'm writing, and occasionally chatting with the chickadees eating suet outside my window (they have a lot to say about how warm it is suddenly, and how wet they are today!), I am also listening to a service of lessons and carols on a webcast between the National Cathedral in Washington D.C. and the Christmas Lutheran church in Bethlehem, where my mom and I visited last April.  Anika is sharing the table with me, and as half of the service is in Arabic, she is pretty content to keep reading her Nancy Drew and tune in for the music when it comes.   

I am moved, beyond the celebration itself, but I tell Ani it's the yogurt caught in my throat.  I don't quite know how to talk to her today about spirituality and religion, about how those things don't always exist in the same space for me, how what is moving to me today is the human struggle and not the Christmas story.

In a rare quiet minute, I wonder what am I looking for in our Christmas that feels real?  Time to spend with people we love.  The trip we will make this week to make that happen.  When I ask the girls what is important to them this season, without fail they talk about cousins, grandparents, aunts and uncles. No one has mentioned the tree we don't have (instead it's a branch hung with painted galls!), and while they love the ritual of the advent calendar, even that has not been as important this season.  When they remembered to make wish lists last week they mostly included things like socks and kittens (Yes socks. No kittens.)  We've told Solstice stories about the rebirth of the sun, and fell asleep to candles lit in tin lanterns last night.  A bit of sun in the darkness. Even in the understated state of our celebration season we are busy and a little harried, but I think most of that will melt once we're in that car, heading for the thing we are craving - togetherness.

Happy darkness to you, quiet or full of song!

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Connecting at the Checkpoints: meeting with Machsom Watch

I came across a story from the New York Times  last month that was published a couple of years ago but was still a shot of light in the continuing struggle that is Israel.  This story of civil disobedience - Israeli and Palestinian women risking criminal charges to travel together outside of the West Bank to swim in the Mediterranean - put in my mind two women I haven't yet talked about from the trip I took in April to Palestine and Israel.  Here is a story about the first.


We met Yael, a member of Machsom Watch, at a checkpoint between Bethlehem and Jersusalem in the wall that cuts through an ancient olive grove.  Machsom Watch is a volunteer organization made up of Israeli women who are moved to oppose the occupation by being a regular presence at checkpoints around the West Bank, bearing witness to the way Palestinians who are attempting entry into Israel are treated, and making an effort to advocate for a smoother passage. 


Some of the Palestinians in line to enter were merchants, traveling from home to market to sell their wares as they have done for decades.  Now this simple journey requires hours of waiting and no guarantee of entrance. 



Others were in line because they were hoping to attend the morning service at the Al-Aqsa Mosque in the old city of Jerusalem.  It was difficult to see what the hold-ups were, but I think mainly the soldiers on duty were taking their time without regard to the approaching prayer time.  When a door behind us opened and an officer who appeared to be in charge of the checkpoint emerged, Yael greeted him warmly and in a familiar but respectful way, with smiles and a gesture towards us, her American friends.  Then she asked if possibly a third turnstile might be opened so these people could get to their services?  With a glance in our direction, he smiled and opened the turnstile and personally waved through a line of people without looking at their papers, which indicated to me that so much of this inconvenience is a form of intimidation of the Palestinians who are trying to go about their day.




It was uncomfortable to be there, with the abundant soldiers and their machine guns and surveillance cameras.  It reminded me of the feeling I get when I'm driving and spot a police car; even if I've done nothing wrong, a shot of adrenaline rushes through me and for a second I am certain I must be guilty of something.  If I was feeling this, as a privileged American tourist, I imagined what an old muslim Palestinian, in his kaffiyeh, might be feeling as he waited for the whim of the soldier to pass him through. It amazes me that people submit to this experience daily in order to sell their goods, or attend services, to visit family or to seek medical care.

Yael and merchant, showing the identification papers and permit for entry
We spoke with a woman who had successfully come through the checkpoint.  She was a merchant and had a permit, good for several months, that allowed her access to Jerusalem where she would sell her goods.  Even with the permit she is not guaranteed passage.  An elderly man made a point of walking by our small group once he had passed through and gave us a heavily-accented "thank you" before going on his way.  I have no doubt our presence made a difference that morning, but I wondered about other mornings when there are no witnesses.  I have also heard the opinion that maybe these efforts offer less of a protest against the occupation than they make the checkpoints and therefore the occupation "easier".  In an article from the online journal AlMonitor, one member of Machsom Watch is quoted as saying, "I often feel that what I am doing is bettering this occupation, which in reality I came here to finish, and to demonstrate against it. And I think we are treading on a very, very thin line there, between bettering the occupation and fighting it."

The road we took to Tantur. Old stones, and barbed wire.

After a half an hour of this, and finally watching the bulk of the line file through with the opening of the third turnstile we walked over to Tantur Ecumenical Institute to continue talking with Yael.  Father Tim, the current Rector of Tantur,  joined the conversation over the ubiquitous cookies, coffee and tea.




I have so many notes from this conversation that I am not sure what to share or how to phrase it;  I regret that I left this so long, but life has a way of moving you along.   We began with a long dialogue between Yael and Fr. Tim, who clearly enjoy a friendship though they diverge in their approaches to living in Israel.  Yael, the Israeli-born grand-daughter of a woman who married an Arab, says she was born an activist.  Much of her family have reacted to the situation by leaving Israel, believing that the only way to not be a part of the occupation is to leave the country, but she clearly believes that being present makes a difference.  Fr. Tim diplomatically talks about the political situation but stays just outside of the passion emanating from Yael.  In his job as Rector, he warns visitors to Tantur that the political reality could dominate their experience if allowed.

What stuck with me most about what he said was that the extremist element - the Zionists - would not survive without a patron, which in this case is the United States.  He shook his head over the systematic demonizing of the non-Jew in Israel, saying that occupation deeply corrupts everything and everyone and questioning how our democratic country could support the continuous violation of human rights.



Israeli and American - sisters at heart

Yael talked about the history of Machsom Watch, and stressed that their mission is human rights: to be a calming influence at the checkpoints.  In a place where power is so out of control that  Israeli officers can throw up a blockade and create a checkpoint whenever they want to, these women attempt to engage the soldiers on a human level.  Power corrupts a person's sense of right, and these women attempt respectful relationships with the officers, connecting them with their humanity.  In Yael's words, "It connects them to their consciousness. No one wants to be evil, not the officers, not the soldiers, not Israel."  


It was moving to once again hear someone talk about humanity and connecting - there was no talk of enemy or hatred or getting even.  And how could we help? How can we not feel like helpless bystanders to all that we were learning?

Yael's answer was "Some are called to be radical activists.  Some are called to listen.  BE LISTENERS.  It is a gift."

for more stories from this trip, please click here.

Monday, December 2, 2013

two thanksgivings

Kentucky stone wall - no mortar, just stone, and a couple hundred years old
Today is so dark, it would be easy to fall prey to the winter - yes, winter - doldrums after a week of activity, so what better time to count the goodness of life than to relate the tales of two Thanksgivings? Last weekend Ani and I traveled to converge with Wisconsin family at the home of Kentucky family! We couldn't pass up the chance to see my grampa and my mom and my great aunt and two sets of aunts and uncles when they were only 3 1/2 hours away.  It was so worth it.

Big Papa Marzo, thinking hard about dominoes
This is a mellow crowd. With the exception of one walk along the neighboring ridge, we hung out inside and played Mexican Train dominoes and Skip-bo, read, knit, and of course ATE. There was also much loving-on of Rio, a big beautiful lurcher, but no photos, as cameras scare him.




Sookie (yes, as in Stackhouse)

Monica and Ani harvesting baby greens for the salad
 This was a first meeting for Ani with some of my family, and everyone enjoyed each other immensely, I gotta say.  (I'm not sure what was happening in the photo below, but clearly they are in agreement about something!)  I just stewed in the midst of family, fed inside and out.



More dominoes, with the aunties (Nice handknit socks there, Mom)
Our lovely hosts, Monica and David, and my cousin Jake
Four generations of the Bliss line.
 The week in-between turned cold, with snow and ice and then crystal blue skies.





Thanksgiving day we got some family time in - no play rehearsal for Dan and Eliza - cooking and preparing to receive our Richmond, VA family.  Do you have people in your life who don't give up on you even when correspondence gaps? Who don't mind if you stay in your pj's for most of the day, through coffee and breakfast and cards and dishes and talking?  These are those people.  In the five years since we've lived in Richmond, we've visited back and forth with them I think eight times, and this is the fourth Thanksgiving we've shared together.  I have no photos of our meal, of course, but it ended in watching a kid dance party while eating on two pies. 


It wouldn't be Thanksgiving weekend without hiking, so out we went into the cold.









We are so grateful to you, dear friends, for making your way to us with such joy and love! For huge hugs and card game after card game and snowball fights and for having such generous and kind spirits, all of you.  



Happy Thanksgiving!