Sunday, May 28, 2017

Anastasios Kodak Moment

Church of the Holy Sepulchre, Jerusalem, May 27, 2017

The Orthodox-Armenian priest, solemn in his black cassock, beard and thin spectacles takes a picture of the stone in the apse of the tomb "kiosk" chapel. I am not quite sure what is so important about a piece of rock encased in gold, a quick google search reveals it to be revered as a bit of the tomb that was rolled away from the entrance of the tomb, accordingly, it is named "the angel stone."

The be-spectacled, priest takes his photo with an old digital camera. It makes a horrendous clicking-shutter sound every time he snaps a pic. The flash is on and it goes off each time he takes a picture--a blinding, sharp, disruptive strike of lightning being fired into the warm dark womb of our tomb chapel. I am not amused. Not amused at all, and slightly blinded by the blue lightning flash interrupting the cozy dim lighting of the dozens of golden lanterns hung from heavy chains from the ceiling.

Seriously, solemnly, the priest circles the truly unremarkable piece of rock, takin a picture from every possible angle, fastidious and carefully studied in his movements, framing each new composition with equal Surat-like care. Each flash is foreign and intrusive. By the fifth flash, I realize: among all the paintings that surround the tomb: cheap, gaudy, cheesy--emaciated El Greco Christ's flying through the sky--chintzy, and flat, this invading light, unwelcome and unsought for, is by far the best image of resurrection here.

Friday, May 26, 2017

How's Israel?

I don't even know what to call this land. Is it Israel? Israel is the Jewish name for the Jewish nation here, mostly populated by Western Jews in a land that's not the West. The land is called Palestine, too. It's Palestine, a state that Israel calls the West Bank, and builds settlements in, in an attempt to bulldoze their way back into its history. But the land's been called Palestine for millennia, ever since, in fact the ROMANS, another Western colonial power took it over. Okay, well who had it before the Romans? The Israelites. This land was Israel and Judea for hundreds of years before it was ever Palestine, but the Israelites were not native to this land, they wrested it from the Canaanites. It's rightfully Canaan, right? (Who settled here first? Abraham? his children? We're back in the hazy ground of pre-history here—is that just a polite term for myth?—so who can say? The Egyptians. They were around before history even began it seemed.) To excavate her identity requires and exhaustive and exhausting peeling-away of all the layers of history that have literally built up on this land, an effort that exhausts human capability. When hasn't this land been named by someone not from its own soil? If a land's been colonized, recolonized, conquered and despoiled for thousands of years then who, in fact, does this land belong to? Who has the right to name this place?

So do I just call this place the "Holy Land"? It seems to sidestep the fraught Israel/Palestine labeling, which I have no right or ability to decide, but then I've just smacked a religious appellation to this piece of ground, and if there's one thing that's controversial here it's religion. Religion divides this holy city into quarters, it splits it almost literally down the middle. Or is religion just a convenient cover for something else? For clashes between race, ethnicity, and culture? What are the real dividing lines?

But I find myself in awe of the physical land itself, of the ground which bucks anyone's attempt to give it a name not its own; like Yahweh, perhaps, whose given name is "I am who am"— no name at all, really. No gender, no limits attached to the name, Yahweh's chosen designation as limitless and ineffable as being itself. The land's sacredness lies in her mystery, in her exposing of human nature. Humans — all of us, Christians, Muslims, Jews — attempt to grasp at the sacred for ourselves. We want it to be neat, homogenous, clean, and ours. We want it to be one single story, and we the possessor and sole inheritor of it. 

But, I think, this land will not allow anyone that simplicity. And I find that a mark of the sacred. Because sacred lies deeper than all attempts to profane it. Sacred is often met by our weak human nature with violence. Because we sense the mystery, but are not good enough to let it be larger than ourselves.

If any land is holy, surely this one must be. This land that holds so many stories in it, that ties together many faiths, that has space for each one of them, as countless as Abraham's stars in the sky (Gen 22: 17). If any land has held God in it, surely it must be this one. God's dwelling in this land has not made the mystery any easier. Its clarity lies beyond human comprehension. Its holiness has become more profound, untamable, most intimately us, and not ours.

Friday, May 5, 2017

the nuptial life of ducks

The duck couple are roosted (is that word right?) on the concrete embankment of the riverwalk, side-by-dappled-side: drake's green mallard feathers shining in the sun, hen's blue wing-decal glistening like a shadow in his wake.

They notice my approach with the anxiety of creatures who possess too lowly a station on the food chain to afford Disinterest (n.: an expensive luxury for prey).

Following my departing form with beady, suspiciously shifting eyes, they turn slowly back to pondering the rushing current of the canal water as it slows down from the hurdy-gurdy of the churning man-made rapids of the locks and dams back into the slow drag of the St. Joseph river, flowing, mysteriously North, some drab Midwestern Nile falling upwards to the delta of Lake Michigan.
They are rare ducks who can afford leisure hours of simply watching the water run from their public front-porch-perch.

I think they may be stuck in rut. They sit next to each other, a silence looming between them like partners whose bodies glue together two stranger souls. Perhaps their connection has lost its spark like over-used tinder strips on matchboxes from East Village bars. Perhaps the mating has lost its verve this spring. The hen is hesitant to mention it, doesn't want to hurt his feelings; but the drake knows it in his gut, feeling its clammy lump sticking in his gullet like a live minnow, flopping, squirming discomfort refusing to be choked down.

They've lost something -- the spark just isn't there-- she said this morning to her friends upstream; but they ignore it for now, and watch the river in heavy silence, pretending for a few running passers-by longer that nothing has changed. Not this spring.