A Tale of Two Tables

Friday was hard for me. Actually, it all began much earlier than that. I have been away from home for almost a month now. The homesick that had been nipping at my heels for weeks finally caught up. A friend in Israel I had been so looking forward to connecting with was unable to meet with me. It was the first time in 27 years I missed my daughter’s birthday. It was a trifecta of circumstances, the perfect storm for a pity party. Thursday night I cried myself to sleep, silent sobs of deep despair.

This trip has been so good, yet nothing – absolutely NOTHING – has gone as expected. I have seen some absolutely amazing places and God has opened my eyes to things in Scripture that I never noticed before. Yet the things I most wanted to happen, the conversations and stories I most wanted to hear, didn’t. I began to question why I was even here. What was the purpose? I only know that God said, “GO!” The how and why of what He will do with these experiences remains to be seen. In all fairness, I did pray for God to wreck my plans with His. On the one hand, it is exciting that He most certainly has, but perhaps I will be a little more selective with my choice of verbs the next time I pray something that bold. 😛

Friday morning as my friend and I joined our hosts at the breakfast table, I was a basket case. At first I tried to hide my feelings, but I simply could not stop crying. Five good minutes would pass then the tears would start up. Again. The three people sharing this incredibly awkward meal did all they could to point me in a positive direction. They acknowledged my sadness but did not allow me to wallow. Sometimes the best thing to do is just keep moving. We went to Nazareth Village that day. The more the day progressed, the more my focus shifted. I learned so much in this humble place, and my emotional energy was transferred from myself to the wonder of all that Christ has done. Seeing this site, perhaps more than any other during this trip, made me hungry to revisit Scripture now that I have walked where they took place: the vineyard, the olive press, among the almond blossoms, the grazing sheep, the flowers of the field, the dust of the paths. What an honor that is!

Friday evening, just after sundown, we sat again at that very same kitchen table. What a stark contrast this meal was from the one mere hours before. I celebrated my first Israeli Shabbat. Our hosts invited us to join them and a couple friends for this weekly feast. We lit the candles and sang songs of praise and worship. We spoke traditional prayers and blessings over each other. We toasted the fruit of the vine. We ate challah and roasted chicken and apple pie. It was a time to reflect on the goodness of God, to be still, to rest in His Presence.

My bent heart is mending. Although the book I envisioned writing simply is not going to happen right now, I choose to trust. I believe there are still stories for me to tell. I have mourned the perceived loss of a dream, but in my quiet times, God has been taking me beyond that kind of thinking. In some crazy way this time in Israel feels more like an introduction than a conclusion.

Galilee Birds

I’ve been thinking today about birds. Birds and rocks. We’ll get around to that subject later. I’m staying in this apartment for the next week or so and the balcony faces the Sea of Galilee. With the exception of a couple apartment buildings, it’s a pretty wide open vista. Ravines in the mountains of the Jordan Valley just across the lake are clearly visible, as are clusters of homes along those mountains. This may a real stretch here, but I have all ideas that people live in those houses, people who are, at their core, not all that different from you and me.

At any given time, no matter where you might look, there are birds. Birds, birds, and more birds. Sea gulls flocking around tour boats, black birds flying in a straight line, one orange-faced Syrian woodpecker who seemed rather distraught. Birds eating and flying and resting on the water, or on top of a boat, or on top of any structure that their feet find to light upon. Pigeons of every imaginable size and color variation. Tiny, iridescent Palestinian sunbirds. Sparrows and ravens and cranes. Everywhere. Always on the move.

Luke 12:22-25 (NIV) says, “Consider the ravens: They do not sow or reap, they have no storeroom or barn; yet God feeds them. And how much more valuable are you than birds! Who of you by worrying can add a single hour to your life?” Jesus reminds us that His Father, who provides for the tiniest…or even most annoying…birds will provide for us as well. We don’t have to fight and demand our rights. We don’t have to “better ourselves” at the expense of someone else. We need not worry. Yet we do. All the time.

Somewhere near the Jericho area, we passed through a military checkpoint. I had to show my passport. The guard asked our driver a few questions in Hebrew. I sat there wide-eyed as the officer slowly went through my passport, one page at a time. I feared she would quiz me on where I’d been and where I was going. Even though I’m just a tourist, seeing the sights and stimulating the Israeli economy, it’s hard to be completely relaxed when facing someone toting a machine gun. There is a great deal of tension in this area. There has been for thousands of years. Security is not a thing anyone can become totally lax about. I understood the reasons for her inspection of my documents, but it still made my internal butterflies start doing a few acrobatics.

But today, I considered the birds. They recognize no such borders. They are unencumbered by political boundaries or affiliations. Syrian fish taste just as good to them as those from Israel, or USA, or China. What do birds care who is in the White House, or the Bedouin settlement, or the apartment in Tiberius? They have fish to eat, naps to take, nests to build, babies to raise. They come and go as they please, doing what they need to do and not bothering themselves that a flock of geese has moved into the neighborhood. There’s food enough for everyone if everyone takes only what they need. Seasons pass; storms come and they go. Political borders and environments change, and the birds adapt without a lot of fanfare. The birds keep being birds. It’s what they do.

I wonder what lessons we might learn from them.

Via Dolorosa

One of the must-sees for any pilgrimage to Jerusalem is the Via Dolorosa. Before arriving here, I had a vague idea of what that would mean, what it would be like, how it would impact me. Like most everything else in Israel, my preconceived notions and reality have very seldom lined up. Not that that’s a bad thing.

Just getting there is slightly intimidating. A short walk from where we are staying, there is a free shuttle that will drop you off at the Dung Gate. (((See below))) To enter the Old City here, you must pass through security – a metal detector and bag check. This puts you in the plaza just left of the Western Wall. The Jewish, Muslim, Armenian, and Christian sections of the Old City converge near this point, so there is all manner of people, attire, and languages to be observed. A tunnel leads to the Muslim section, where a beautiful cacophony of sights, sounds, and aromas mingle. Even during the off-season, the streets and alleyways are full of people: shop owners eager to show you their exotic wares, families with small children, the occasional beggar, religious people, tourists on holiday, large tour groups wearing matching t-shirts and headphones to hear a guide in their own language, couples strolling hand-in-hand; demeanors are relaxed and frantic and all points in between. It is both an assault and a feast for the senses.

One of the things I noticed right away is that the British, who laid out my beloved home city of Savannah in perfect squares, left no such mark on the ancient streets of Jerusalem. For each major thoroughfare in the Old City, there are a number of crooked alleys leading from it. Every path seems to lead to another. I seriously wonder if anyone could know all of the possible passageways branching off from just one of the main streets. Traveling along El-Wad, the primary road in this section, will eventually land you at the Damascus Gate; about halfway, however, a right turn on the street Via Dolorosa carries you at the Lion’s Gate.

My travel buddy, Karen, and I joined a couple hundred of our closest friends from many nations to walk the Via Dolorosa. Since the 13th century, Franciscan monks have been the Custodians of the Holy Places. Each Friday at 3:00 pm they lead a procession beginning near the Lion’s Gate and ending at the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, tracing the route of important events as Jesus was condemned then crucified. These are also called the Stations of the Cross.

As we reached each point, the Franciscans would give a brief description of the station (in three languages), often accompanied by a liturgical recitation or song. Since I am not Catholic, much of this was lost on me. Still, I found it a hauntingly beautiful backdrop for our journey through the city.  The crowd was large and the streets were narrow. After being nudged out several times by incredibly devout Chinese Catholics (honestly, still trying to wrap my head around that), I found a more comfortable spot farther back in the crowd. Here, I heard less of what was being said, but was still able to actively participate in the processional.

Walking the Via Dolorosa was certainly a powerful experience, but not in the way I expected. This was not a calm, reflective stroll where I could quietly ponder the implications of each stop along the way as Jesus carried a heavy, shameful instrument of death out of His great love for me and His total obedience to the Father. Instead, it was a semi-chaotic up then down then up again, winding path through a bustling market area crowded with people who had no time or interest in this processional. They had wares to sell or buy, places to be, things yet to be done.

I can’t help but wonder if things were remarkably similar on another Friday 2000 years ago.

~~~~~~~~~~~

Please be aware that this is personal reflection, not an academic presentation. However, since some might be interested in a bit of historical backdrop, I have included below an appendix of sorts, with a short description of the Gates mentioned above.

Information taken from The Jerusalem Post, “Sites And Insights: Gates Of Jerusalem,” by Wayne Stiles at jpost.com.

The Dung Gate

The unusual name stems from a gate that stood along the city’s south wall in the time of Nehemiah (Nehemiah 2:13). The Targum identifies the Dung Gate as the “Potsherd Gate” of Jeremiah 19:2. In antiquity, the city dump lay in the nearby Hinnom Valley, and the Potsherd Gate served as the exit by which the citizens took out the garbage.

The Damascus Gate

A fine example of Ottoman architecture, this is the most beautiful of the gates of Jerusalem. Excavations below the gate reveal a triple-arched gateway that Hadrian built—the northern extent of the Cardo street from the second century. Outside the gate, an Arab market offers fresh fruit and vegetables.  The Jews call it the “Shechem Gate,” and the Arabs refer to it as the “Gate of the Column.”

The Lion’s Gate

Christians have identified this gate with Stephen’s name in honor of his martyrdom outside the city (Acts 7:58-60). However, Byzantines placed his death outside a northern gate.  Another name, “Lion’s Gate,” comes from the stone reliefs of two lions (or panthers or jaguars) that flank the gate.

Map of the Old City:

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http://www.itsglia.com/images/tipsgatesmap.gif

Driving in Israel – Part Two

A week before I left home, it was decided that I would get an international driver’s license to save a significant amount of money on excursions. This offered us great flexibility and really did save a ton of money. After paying $150 to take an hour-long drive by taxi, $200 to rent a car for four full days was a very logical choice.

Only, that meant I had to do all the driving. When it comes to long road trips, I’m a great passenger. I love to press my nose to the window and see all the amazing sights, or curl up and fall asleep. Now I was going to have to pay attention to the road. Having never driven in Israel, there were some unfamiliar signs, and the traffic signals operate slightly differently than the ones in the US. I accidentally ran a red light or two before I clued in to the difference, but at least we were on the same side of the road as at home. There was some comfort in that.

The friends we were staying with wanted to show us the city of Be’er Sheva. I appreciate their thoughtfulness, but I am a country girl and would have been nervous driving in a large American city. I saw nothing but the asphalt. My eyes were glued to the road, the traffic signs and signals, and other drivers (who, are considerably more aggressive than American drivers but not as much as those in Europe.) My only aim was to neither kill nor be killed. I am sure that Be’er Sheva is a lovely city, but all I can say with any degree of certainty is that they do seem to have a nice system of roads. There are few standard crossroads, but the plethora of roundabouts keep things moving and people are generally considerate of other drivers – unless you pause long enough to inspire honking.

Though he no longer drives, Sasha is far better than any GPS. When he says turn, you need not question him. Sasha knows. The one time we got really turned around, Sasha hesitated, I missed the turn-off from the highway, three people all started talking at once in two languages. An hour-long quest to get back on track began. As it turns out, Sasha was right all along, the GPS was wrong (it was a brand new road), and we ended up seeing a different part of the countryside, which would have been quite pleasant had I not been so anxious about having led us so far astray.

The most treacherous driving experience was reaching the Dead Sea. Periodically the side of the mountain was marked with your elevation in regard to sea level, +1000m, +500m, etc. The distance may have been 25 km as the crow flies, but it was, I assure you, considerably longer when you are the one behind the wheel making the hairpin turns on the side of a mountain, descending further and further down to the lowest elevation on planet earth. Leaving the highway and reaching the Dead Sea took over an hour. By the time we arrived, I was one stressed Georgia girl, longing for the flat lands of home. I think the other three passengers all expected me to blow a gasket at any moment, but some cappuccino and exploration of the Dead Sea smoothed out my wrinkled nerves.

One of the coolest things we saw along the descent was a group of young Bedouin shepherds. They had a flock of sheep – perhaps 20-30 – and camels – around 10 – mothers and babies, grazing on the side of the mountain. We passed by far too quickly for anyone to snap a photo, but I am sure that this is a rustic imagine that will live in my mind for many years.

On the way back to Ofaqim, we decided to fill up the car with gas. Sounds simple enough, right? Not even. Since they live in a metropolitan area, neither Fira nor Sasha drive. They counted on me to make this happen. I was not a bit concerned as we pulled into the dark station after regular hours since I do know how to pump gas and do self-pay at the pump.  The only problem here is that the directions are in Hebrew. Sasha reads and speaks Hebrew but he doesn’t know the procedure for using the card scanner at the pump. We developed a chain of translation. Sasha read the Hebrew directions, then translated them into Russian to Fira, who then translated them into English. I could not help but recall the I Love Lucy episode where Lucy is arrested in Paris for using counterfeit money and it takes a five-language chain to plead her case and set things straight. Meanwhile in Ofaqim, much confusion ensued. There was vigorous reasoning together in Russian, my head snapping back and forth like I was watching the championship match at Wimbledon, trying to catch a recognizable phrase so I’d know how to proceed. After some time, Fira called her grandson to talk us through the proper procedure, her eyes wide with concern as she explained our predicament to him. I had to bite my lip and turn away as I heard him laughing on the other end so I wouldn’t do the same. After more emphatic discussion, it was decided that we would wait until the next day and go to a different station so an attendant could help us. Storm over, we all climbed back into the car and headed home.

 

Photo credit: http://reachingutopia.com/save-money-at-the-gas-pump/

Driving in Israel – Part One

Coming to Israel has been the trip of a lifetime. There is so much to see, so much to do, so much biblical and historical importance all around you. Every experience is new and weighty with importance. Culture shock is too small a term. Not all of my observations, however, are deeply philosophical.

Two stereotypical notations from my first week in Israel:

  1. If you are a man in Israel, you are required to smoke.
  2. All drivers must honk their horns as soon as the traffic signal changes.

This is a deceptively simple game. Drivers in front are in competition with all those behind them. The aim is to be in motion immediately after the signal turns green. Time is not allowed for the transfer of the foot from brake to gas. All drivers from the second position back are poised for honking. The first one to do so is the winner, though there may be consolation prizes for a close second.

Occasionally several drivers combine the tones of their horns into some sort of native melody of varying tone and frequency. There is the short, high-pitched DINK of tiny sedans, series of staccato beeps from the truly impatient, and elephant-like blasts from city and tour buses, all of which combine into a symphony of sorts.  I believe there may be some sort of code embedded in the honks, like

  • “I’m about to pull in front of you”
  • “Hey! Who do you think you are for pulling in front of me??”
  • “Pedestrian, you better move!”
  • “And just WHY do you think it is OK to stop here? Unload your passengers elsewhere.”
  • “I have places to be and you are driving far too slow”

There may be others that, as a foreigner, I am not yet privy to.

My most extreme honking encounter came when we returned the rental car. The rabbit warren that passed as the lot was full of cars with only a narrow passageway for entering. Think of any Bass Pro parking lot on Black Friday, minus clearly painted spaces. Now stick some additional cars in every available nook and cranny.

There was only one path leading in and out. This T’ed left and right to more lines of bumper-to-bumper cars. I pulled up to the branch of the T. Another driver hemmed me in from behind, just as drivers also emerged from the left and the right. I was literally boxed in. All three of these drivers began honking in turn and there was quite a bit of yelling. To try and appease one raised the ire of the another. No matter what I did, someone was yelling and honking. Finally, I pulled forward, and that was decidedly the wrong thing to do, because when I moved, each of the others did as well, leaving me even less room to maneuver. I backed slowly (NOT my best direction) and almost scraped the full length of a parked car before I got straightened up enough not to cause damage. Seeing the tiniest bit of daylight, I was able to stick my car on a patch of dirt so that the other three drivers could then go wherever they wanted.

As my passengers and I emerged from the car, suddenly three other men standing nearby began yelling at me. Now, I’ve never been cussed out in Hebrew before, but I have all ideas that this is precisely what was happening. Somehow their tone and gestures did not imply a celebration of my superior driving skills. Sasha said to leave the car where it was and we went inside to finish up the lengthy return process. After a heated discussion with the man behind the counter, Sasha then burst into his hearty laugh, and the incident ended as quickly as began. People finally quit yelling at me and everyone was friends again.

Fortunately, I’ve had just enough exposure to these cultural interactions to be amused rather than rattled. In this particular instance, I’m rather glad NOT to know what anyone was saying. Ignorance can indeed be bliss.

Photo credit: MyParkingSpace.com

Hiking Practice: A Deux

As the date of our Appalachian Trail day hike draws ever closer, Jeff and I decided to schedule another hiking practice. The original plan was to spend an evening eating and sleeping in our own little woods. Hurricane Matthew, however, disrupted our idea. With 85*+ temperatures, swarms of quarter-sized mosquitoes (I only wish I was exaggerating) and snakes on the move, we decided to pass on the sleeping-under-the-stars portion of the proposal.

Plan B wasn’t nearly as rustic, but we made do.

Our first order of business was to obtain water. Jeff and I walked through a small copse of trees to reach the tiny creek on the front corner of our property. Then we filled our bottles with the tea-colored water that bubbled along over the rocks and decaying limbs. The water we collected was certainly suspiciously-colored, but lacked any visible sediment. We could only hope that filtration would prove successful and there would be no violent cases of intestinal distress.

With all necessary supplies collected, it was time to start a fire. We have in our possession matches and fire sticks and cigarette lighters, but I wanted to create fire with a magnesium bar. Even if I never have to do so again for the rest of my life, I needed to know that I could.

We gathered sticks of all sizes, pine cones and straw, and dry leaves for a tinder ball. Jeff demonstrated the proper technique once, then let me have at it. I put down a paper towel with crushed dead leaves. After scraping a pile of tiny silver flecks from the magnesium bar, I struck the other side, hoping to create a flame. Nothing doing. I tried again. And again. Then one more time. After a couple more failures, I eventually figured out how to produce a weak flicker. Even that, however, is no guarantee that fire will ignite. This procedure is not nearly as easy as the survival guys on TV make it look. Remembering a tip from some such show, I ran inside (Oops! Cheated a little there!) and returned with a cotton ball. I used this to make a nest for the metallic flakes, and vigorously pulled the striker against the magnesium bar. The first real burst of sparks startled me and I dropped everything. Recognizing an opportunity for success, I reconfigured the cotton ball and struck again. Flames! Big yellow flames! Suddenly I was Tom Hanks dancing in front of the bonfire in “Castaway”. I had created FIRE!

It was a moment.

We stoked our fire with limbs, graciously provided by Hurricane Matthew, and had a substantial campfire rolling in no time. Once that was underway, we turned our attention to food prep.

Recently Jeff had returned from a gun show with a gift for me (let that sink in) and I have been eager to try it out. Today was the day. We took the bottles of our freshly-collected but undeniably brown water and attached my brand new Life Straw filter. Timidly I took a sip. It tasted like – nothing really – but when your water starts out that discolored, nothing is a good thing.

We measured out filtered water and put it on the miniature camp stove to boil, which took about 90 seconds…sweet! We measured out the water and added it to our pouches of freeze-dried beef stew. After waiting the allotted ten minutes, we enjoyed a tasty meal, accompanied by a pretty decent cup of coffee, in our blue ceramic lumberjack mugs. Jeff and I sat in front of the crackling fire, which kept the mosquitoes at bay. Had we not been “camping” on the back patio, it would have made a picture-perfect commercial for an outdoor-sy magazine.

I wish the conditions outside had been more conducive for this newbie camping diva to sleep under the stars (comfortably snuggled up in a sleeping bag inside a three-season tent). We will try that when the weather cools off a bit and the first hard freeze wipes out a significant portion of the mosquito population. The extended AT camping event is scheduled for early spring, so we’ve got time.

Jeff and I are about two weeks away from our day hike. I am ready. I think. There is an elevation factor to consider, but I am comfortable carrying a loaded pack and walking a reasonable distance, say, about ten miles. I now know how to make fire and filter water. I have my hiking shoes and several layers of clothing available, as the conditions may require. Best of all, I have my favorite person on the planet right here by my side to plan and prepare, then to enjoy the journey.

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It Was the Best of Times, It Was the Worst of Times

Quite often these days I am asked how I am enjoying retirement. Technically, I resigned my teaching job. Retiring would have brought with it a pension and perhaps an AARP card. I have neither enough years of age nor service for retirement. Right now, I’m fine with that.

But to get back to the matter at hand, people often ask this question with a slightly envious gleam in their eyes. They want to hear how utterly fantastic it is to do nothing all day, how I’ve already written that book, and how I spend my days rescuing starving orphans all around the globe. Okay. Perhaps that’s me projecting just a little. I have found myself tossing off the chit-chat reply, “Man, it’s great!” and leaving it there. Thing is, this is a tough question to answer authentically in the time that whirlwind greetings typically allow. As we have learned from every telling of Aladin, when you get what you wish for, you also get what comes along with that wish. Many times these are challenging consequences, or at least by-products, you had not considered.

With this in mind, I have compiled a list of the pros (+) and cons (-) of leaving the incredibly lucrative career (HA!) of teaching to become a professional writer.

(+) Each day presents me with 24 hours. I can invest or squander them however I wish.

(-) The majority of my friends have regular jobs during the day, so I have no one to hang out with. Some days I tire of my own jokes.

 

(+) No one tells me how I should spend my day.

(-) I miss the camaraderie of a team in a work setting. Occasionally I feel isolated and alone. I enjoy collaborating with others and bouncing ideas off them.

(+) Thankfully, there are people I can email or text or IM on Facebook. They help me talk my way through the fog and come up with a workable premise. They also help me gain perspective during those times when throwing my body under a bus starts to sound like a fantastic idea. These conversations are not as quick or as personal as walking across the hall, but technology certainly makes this a viable option.

 

(-) I have started sleeping later. Some days, embarrassingly late. Two or three hours of productivity can easily be lost.

(+) The last two years of my life have been exceptionally stressful. It is nice to Be Still and REST! Restoring my soul now will help me to be more productive in the days to come.

 

(+) I have time to exercise and run. This challenges me. This makes me stronger. When I am physically fit, my mind works better.

(-) This can quickly turn into an excuse to procrastinate in other areas: “Oh, hey, It’s already 11:00. I’ll start on that project/laundry/article after lunch.”

 

(-) I have no money. I know this will improve in time, but as of today, this is a grim reality.

(+) Since I don’t have a regular job, I am able to participate in ministries that I love and believe in, such as teaching English to refugee women. Their individual stories and cultures are varied, but their needs – language, help understanding life in a new land, and friendship – are universal. And there is a whole melanin rainbow of babies who need my kisses!

 

(+) I have time to write!

(-) It is time to get serious. That whole “I am going to write a book” thing has passed from One Day to NOW. I have done enough talking; it is time for action. And one thing I’ve learned – this is pretty profound; you may want to jot this down – is that words do not write themselves. They require your time and attention and effort. And effort. And effort.

 

(-) Writing requires a great deal of discipline and self-motivation.

(+) I have given myself the luxury of flying by the seat of my pants for several weeks. That’s new territory, but I have enjoyed it. However, now my OCD nature longs for structure. I get more done when I have a definite plan. I feel better when I get more done. That’s a nice loop. This week I am working on establishing “office hours” to bring some order to my day. I love to set goals then cross them off the list once they are accomplished. Even if they are baby steps, each one taken is forward momentum.

So, the honest answer to how I am enjoying this new season of life is that, while it is not perfect, it truly is good. Very, very good. I am struggling with redefining Normal and with choosing the best use of my time on a daily basis. Still, I know that God has entrusted me with Words. This amazing gift is not just for myself, but to strengthen and inform and encourage others. There is much to learn as I hone my skills, and I have no idea where this writer girl journey will lead, but I am excited to find out.