Thursday, March 26, 2009

A Woman's Skin

An excerpt from Meg Wolitzer's article, "My Identity, Lost and Found." Published in Real Simple, April 2008.

"I know now that all identities shed and gain cells continually--that it's a constant process of sloughing and collecting, not unlike the life cycle of skin. If I were the mother of a young child today, knowing what I know now, I would be confident that all identities--awe-filled teenage girl; independent woman in her 20s; anxious, love-besotted new mother--are astonishingly, mournfully brief."

Saturday, March 21, 2009

One year later

It has been one year since I blogged last. I would like to say that I had been waiting for this day particularly, but that is not true. I have been avoiding it for one year, but tonight, inextricably, I find myself back.

One year later, and one daughter later, and I find myself here again.

I have thought many times of writing in this blog, but I have turned away every time, excuse in hand. I don't have time. I don't have energy. I'm tired. Make that really, really tired. My brain doesn't seem to work as well. I'm not as philosophical anymore. I spend my time feeding my daughter one tiny piece of zucchini at a time for hours on end, or stacking up blocks so that she can knock them down. How can I possibly have time to write?

I can't make any promises. I have limited ambition, limited energy, limited time. To write that is, not to think. I have all of the time in the world to think, as I wash the dishes, fold the laundry, tuck one more piece of zucchini into that open mouth. Is it possible that I, Anne Bradstreet like, can sneak in a few lines despite all of the mouths to feed?

My heart is not proud, O LORD,
my eyes are not haughty;
I do not concern myself with great matters
or things too wonderful for me.
But I have stilled and quieted my soul;
like a weaned child with its mother,
like a weaned child is my soul within me.
O Israel, put your hope in the LORD
both now and forevermore.

Psalm 131

Friday, March 21, 2008

Luke 22 - 23

I almost cannot bear to read it too closely, to linger over the words, for they will break my heart. I resist the urge to "flip to the back of the book" to see if it all turns out all right. I know how it ends, but that isn't the part that matters today. Any lover of story knows that the ending does not erase the pain of the journey.

It's hard, still to watch this story unfold. Jesus' pain is made the more stark by the contrast of his disciples: over and over, they got it wrong, so wrong.

The night begins with the ultimate betrayal: Judas, one of his own, hand-selected men, who had spent the last three years side by side with him, decides to sell Jesus out. Jesus indeed felt that bitter betrayal when someone who is close deals you a fatal blow. Then, after symbolically giving over his body and blood to these men, the disciples respond by squabbling over their power positions, each wanting the most prestigious position. Jesus has to set them right. Peter, in a more subtle power play, boasts that he will be loyal to Jesus to the end, but Jesus warns him that this too will not happen. When Jesus then tries to prepare his men for the tests and trials they are about to face, they take his suggestion literally and brandish their weapons. You can hear the weariness in Jesus's voice when he says, "That is enough."

This is Jesus's hour of reckoning, the most intense hours of his life, when he surrenders himself to God's will on the Mount of Olives. Battling in prayer, he asks his disciples to pray too - and they fall asleep in exhaustion and sorrow. I see it now: they are bewildered by it all. They knew that coming to Jerusalem for Passover was a bold and dangerous move. They put this together with Jesus's strange remarks at dinner, and the tension in the temple courts earlier that week. They are poised to do battle - but with what? Jesus keeps sending them mixed messages about using their swords. Anxious, frightened and tired, they fall asleep. Jesus comes to them, only to find that he has been alone.

Then, Judas betrays him with the kiss of a brother.

His men leap forward, swords in hand, and strike one servant.

Jesus heals the servant.

Then Jesus tells his disciples: "No more of this." This is the last instruction that Jesus gives them before being led to the cross. And then they scatter.

While Jesus is questioned by the high pries, Peter denies him three times, and Jesus turns to look at him. I can't imagine bearing Jesus's eyes then. The other disciples are not lurking in the shadows, denying that they knew Jesus. They have simply vanished. They are are not there while Jesus is transferred to Pilate, to Herod, then back to Pilate. They are not there when he is mocked, beaten and scorned. When the crowds call out, "Crucify him! Crucify him!" where are they? Are they mingled in with the crowd, faces shadowed? Do they mouth the words, so that no one identifies them as his followers? And when Jesus stumbles under the weight of the cross, his disciples are no where to be seen. Instead, they pull a stranger off of the street to help him carry his cross up to Golgotha.

And so, the Son of God, the King of the Jews, the Messiah is brutally executed. "But all those who knew him, including the women who had followed him from Galillee, stood at a distance, watching these things" (Luke 24:49).

Stood at a distance. Watching these things.

I do not condemn his followers. I am one of them, a follower of Christ. I, like them, am wretchedly unworthy to be counted as one of his own. I've heard many pastors preach on the fickleness of the crowds of Jerusalem - those who welcomed him as king on Sunday called for his death on Friday. But I am more like one of his disciples. I love him and serve him, but then, somehow, I always get it wrong.

Thursday, March 20, 2008

Luke 19 - 21

I've just read Luke 19-21 and I am struck afresh by Jesus Christ - the juxtaposition of his Majesty, power and divinity with his compassion and humanity.

His battle of wits with the Pharisees portrays all of his strength: he replies to challenges with questions, parables and quotations from Scripture and he simply can't be refuted. They are silenced, angry, but silenced. He is able to cut to the heart of the Sadducee's questions and answer the questions that they didn't actually ask, able to see through all of the spies' attempts to butter him up. He is divine argument.

At the same time, he is fully human. We see a range of emotions - weeping for Jerusalem, angrily casting out the corrupters of the temple court. He notes the widow and her meager offering - does not attempt to change her situation, but shows her purity in the sight of God. He calls society's outcast, Zacchaeus, short and hated, and names his true identity as a child of Abraham. And even in the midst of his apocalyptic teachings on the end times, he notes how dreadful it will be for the vulnerable, the pregnant women and nursing mothers.

Jesus is King - he is what we long for in a a king and have never truly found elsewhere. Royal, powerful, majestic, able to predict future troubles, able to vanquish our foes. But he is also a king of the people, able to see each of us and know each of us - the most beautiful and terrifying prospect of all.

Sunday, March 16, 2008


For the past six months, people have been pestering me about names. As soon as they knew that we were having a girl, they wanted to know who she would be, I think. Somehow, this name would tell them.

I am not a "name" person. Just as I had no ideas about dream weddings when I got engaged, so I have no picked names, no reserved names that I have been secretly stroking since childhood. Rats.

So, here I am five weeks away (insha'allah) from delivering this sweet little girl and I still have no idea who she will be! Every once in a while, my husband and I sigh at each other and tell each other, guiltily, that we really have to pick out a name, and then we narrow down our long list of unsatisfactory names to a shorter list of unsatisfactory names, and then we give up and go to bed.

It's an impossible task. How do we pick a name that would work in both an American and an Arab context? How do I pick a name that is both Arab and Christian, or that is biblical without sounding like she belongs on a kibbutz? What about family traditions? What about our penchant for elegant Victorian names? One favorite snappy name might be to masculine, the other fave might sound too antique . . . And we all name that antique is great for furniture, but what about for a squirmy baby girl? And if it fits her, will it fit a mature woman? We finally find a handful of good names, and then realize much to our dismay, everyone else found them too and they are shooting up on the baby name charts. So, it's back to the drawing board.

I wish I could have a few practice babies to try all of this out on. Name her, let her grow up, see how it works out, then revise. I am haunted by the haughty lectures my sister and I gave my parents in which we showed them how dreadfully wrong they got it when they named us.

In college, I fantasized about the significance of naming. I mused on the sacramental act of naming, that God named us, that the act of naming is a holy act, an act of sub-creation. As I wrote, naming characters and placing, I was enthralled by this powerful gift of word. Now, I am tongue-tied, tied by my desire to not just name, but to name aright. I think of all of the people who will tell me that they hate the name that I have chosen, without saying a single word, but with a flicker of distaste across their eyes and then damning her name with mild praise. Like an eighth grade girl with a new outfit, I have pinned everything upon my grand entrance.

I run through all of the names and I ask myself, "Am I the type of person to have a little girl named -------------?" Am I trendy? Traditional? Classic? Cultural? Spiritual? Who am I? Will this name reflect me? Will I be embarressed by it later? Will it be like that dress that looks amazing on the rack, but after you bring it home and put it on, you realize that it was really meant for the tall blonde you wished you were? Will I be jealous of the friend who found the perfect name that I wasn't bright enough or creative enough to find?

Ah. Soft and gentle, late at night, I finally hear my own voice: "Who am I? Can I have a baby named . . . . " and realize why I am so tongue-tied. The question is about me: what name do I like? What name represents me? Ah, my baby is not a brand name, not an accessory. And then I realize something else: I am anointing her with my own mixed chalice of identity. My name failed to summarize me; I am trying to do that for her.

I stare at this smudged sonogram picture, and ask her, over and over, who are you? Are you delicate like the cyclamen? Misheveous like the majnooni? Will you blaze fire like the poppy? I trace the button nose that looks like my husband's, the little pointy chin that looks like my sister's. In the picture, you are curled up and asleep, but I know you to be fiesty and restless in my belly.

The word I assign you will fail to summarize you. My name does not summarize me, nor can I think of of one that would work better. All I can do is humbly wrap you up in my arms and whisper a name in your ear. And then you will grow and squirm and stretch until the name stretches enough to hold you and even then, I think, you will still be bigger than it.

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

I Talk Too Much

I talk too much about the slightest nuance between women and trees,
about the earth's enchantment, about a country with no passport stamp.
I ask: Is it true, good ladies and gentlemen, that the earth of Man is for all human beings
as you say? In that case, where is my little cottage and where am I?
The conference audiences applaud me for another three minutes,
three minutes of freedom and recognition.
The conference approves our right of return,
like all chickens and horses, to a dream made of stone.
I shake hands with them, one by one. I bow to them. Then I continue my journey to another country and talk about the difference between a mirage and the rain.
I ask: Is it true, good ladies and gentlement, that the earth of Man is for all human beings?

Mahmoud Darwish, Palestinian poet
From, Unfortunately, It Was Paradise
This is probably my favorite poem by Darwish. I particularly love the line, "The conference approves our right of return." This has rarely happened to me, but I have been in settings where everyone agrees with me, that yes, the Palestinians have received a bum deal and that yes, we deserve to live in our land in peace. Those words are so powerful and so healing, the very words that I have been longing to hear, like a child who has waited his whole life to hear his father say, "I love you."
I take that back. It is not his father speaking. It is more like his brother speaking, assuring him that his father loves him. The words are comforting, affirming, assuring; they speak the truth and there is release in that. But the reality is that the words stay in that conference room and what is so clear and true in the four walls of that room will never be given credit on the outside of those walls. On the outside, things go on much as they ever did, leaving us wonder--why is everything so clear in the conference and then so muddied outside of these walls?

Wednesday, October 17, 2007


Our high school is all abuzz because we are going to have a renown guest speaker who will be addressing our student body, along with parents, alumni and other guests. We want to model academic debate to our students, so we have picked a topic and a panel and hope to have a lively and stimulating debate.

The topic: Israel. Palestine. Questions related to democracy. And should we, Christians, support Israel?

The panel: The guest speaker, another teacher and me.

Most people would think, what's the problem? You have something to say, a perspective to offer. Certainly reasonable, articulate and mature adults can have a discussion about these political topics. But the reality is that I will not have a level playing field.

First, I am the only woman on the panel. This means that I will have to meet the (much older) men on the panel on their ground, not on my own. I will not be able to use the persuasive techniques that I am best at because they are "feminine" in nature and therefore discredited. I am good at ethos, proofs based upon my experience and personal credibility and pathos, proofs based upon emotional appeals. No matter how legitimate these appeals, I will have to avoid them. Instead, I will have to use logos, logical appeals based upon cold facts and evidence.

Second, I will certainly be the only Palestinian, and the only Arab, and possibly the only person who has travelled in the Arab world (with the exception of my other panelists) in the room.

Third, even though I am a Palestinian, no one there will see me as one. Instead, they will see me as Mrs. M, their teacher for the past five years. Their coworker who graduated from a college in Chicago. If I were a guest speaker, there would be at least a little deference for being the "other" in their midst. There would be a little trepidation that would prevent them from asking the really offensive question. Instead, I am too safe. Would you ask the same questions to a minority person as you would in a room without a single minority? But when I am offended, I am seen as just overly touchy.

Fourth, for everyone else in the room, this will be an intellectual exercise. This is neutral territory. For me, this is my life. This is my identity. This is my family tree, my home, my history, my people. So, while everyone else will be cooly arranging the pieces on the chess board, I will probably be bleeding inside and still need to remain cool and factual on the outside.

Fifth, in order to be persuasive, I have to leave behind my Arabness. Arabs are not persuasive to Americans. Americans are persuasive to Americans.

My first thought when I was asked to be on this panel was: not me! Allow me to suggest someone else. But then, as I ran down the list of all of the people who would be better at advocating for my people than I would be, I realized that every single one of the people that I thought of were white American men. Passionate, intelligent, articulate white American men. They would all be SO much better at this than me.

Why in the world am I doing this? I am still not sure. I said yes, I know, but my heart really sank when I was asked. Then again, how can I turn this down? Isn't my calling to educated American Christians about this topic? Isn't this precisely the call that God has given me?

So, I say yes. But I know that this is going to take so much out of me. I know that I am going to stand up there and say what I need to say, but that the personal emotional cost is going to be very high to me. While everyone else in the room will walk out intrigued or bewildered, persuaded or annoyed, satisfied or thoughtful, I will be the only one who has to limp.