Saturday, September 30, 2017

Broken and Tender

I wake just before dawn, from another night of vivid dreams. Pulling aside the thick monastic curtain, I watch from my single bed as the sun slowly creeps away from the horizon. A few birds signal that morning has indeed broken. The 'silent day' stretches out ahead of me; open, daunting, and full of possibility. First I think I’ll do some meditation, followed by reading, writing, and then in the afternoon some watercolour painting or a short walk. All this will be punctuated by meal times, where fellow pilgrims either nod or smile in recognition before continuing contemplatively on their way.

Sunrise over Don Bosco Retreat Centre
I’m on a Quaker retreat, the second bookend to a year of spiritual learning. A year ago at the first retreat, when the year was just beginning, I read a book called To be broken and tender: A Quaker theology for today by Margery Post Abbott. I was drawn to this book because of the title, as I was feeling fairly broken and tender myself at the time. It had been a year of emotional challenges that I had mostly dealt with fairly well. I was also about to embark on a three month peacemaker program in Palestine, so was already beginning to think of ways to nurture and be tender with myself during that time.

But the author’s meaning was a little different. The phrase ‘broken and tender’ was used to describe a community (a Quaker community specifically, but it’s probably relevant more broadly) that is thriving, nourishing, open and connected. The broken part talks of breaking open our hearts enough to allow the light to shine in, or breaking the earth in order to allow a seed to grow. The tenderness is about tenderness to the spirit, or an openness to being led in unexpected directions. A broken and tender community contains people who have “broken apart the bounds of the ego”, and experienced pure love. It is ready and able to be tender in the care of its members and more passionate in its concern for the wellbeing of the world. It all sounded good to me.

Another Pilgrim, halfway up the mountain

Indeed, a lot of my personal journey this past year has been about self-care, and how to draw communities into that. I’ve gathered groups of friends around me, for fun and music as well as for nurture. I explored the types of support networks that I need for work, for activism, and for play, and how to seek out these things. Creativity and watercolour paints have played a big role in this practise of self care. I’ve also explored setting boundaries, and when and how to stand up for myself, and what happens differently when I do. And I've had a fair few surprises along the journey.

One session at this year's retreat encouraged us to think about "truth and love". It's taken from a Quaker advice about listening to the promptings of truth and love in your heart. Truth can mean 'my truth' or right path, or it can mean speaking an inconvenient or difficult truth to someone that you love. When we shower someone with love and avoid the truth, it is an empty, shallow love. When we speak the truth without an ounce of love, we are just being mean. Over the past year I've experimented with different balances of love and truth. There’ve been instances of truth spoken with love, truth spoken without enough love, and times when I realise that the other person is not in a safe enough place to hear the truth.

Painting as a meditative practice
Now, a year later, having been on this journey of self-discovery and contemplation and creativity, I find myself again at the retreat centre, and back to the spaciousness and scariness of 'silent day'. This time I’m reading another of Margery Post Abbott’s writings, a lecture given last year in Australia on Everyday Prophets, where she explores a number of common and quite contemporary issues that Quakers, and other pilgrims, face along their journey. She describes discerning the best way forward at a fork in the road, testing a leading, wrestling with whether our ego is getting in the way, and figuring out how to speak truth to power particularly when those with the power are other members of our faith community or family. She spoke a lot about the marriage equality debate as it was a hot topic in the USA at that time. The experiences of her fairly conservative Quaker community were extremely interesting to me as lately I’ve been wrestling with how and when and if to discuss the subject with family members and friends who sit on the other side of the fence to me. It's another example of discerning the right balance of love and truth.

Another book I’ve been reading is Rex Ambler’s Light to live by. This book describes the author’s challenges in settling down in meeting for worship, and delves into the wisdom of the early Friends. Without the distractions of mobile phones, facebook, and the crazy array of choice in our modern world, those seventeenth century Quakers seemed to find it much easier to centre down and listen to God, spirit, or what they often referred to simply as Light. Rex Ambler hears of a psychological technique called focussing, and discovers that it is incredibly similar to the technique described by the early Friends. He put a mix of the two into practise, and found he was receiving much clearer direction from the Light than ever before. 

I was keen to try this technique for myself. I’ve heard of many Australian Friends who are involved in “Light Groups”, and I felt ready to move from what has felt like a much more emotional journey to perhaps a more spiritual one. But, as I sat on the edge of my bed in the early hours of the morning, I couldn’t get past stage two, which was to let the real concerns of your life emerge. Instead of clarity on what was going on in my life, I felt a heaviness, a sortof tightness and discomfort in my chest. So, after what felt like hours of patiently awaiting guidance, I gave up. 

The rest of the day was spent reading, writing and doing chest-opening yoga poses. I just loved walking past the purple daisies in the retreat centre grounds and sat for a while painting them. For me, with their vibrant colours and fragile petals, they seemed representative of the heart broken wide open. I was particularly grateful for the silence at mealtimes. But despite these enriching experiences, there was a niggling feeling of discomfort hovering above me all day. Had I been doing this new meditative practice wrong somehow? Or is this how it feels to have one’s heart breaking open just enough to let the light shine in? Do you literally feel it in your chest? 

Open, a daisy from the retreat centre gardens
Towards the end of the day I spoke with my spiritual counsellor, and she assured me that I wasn’t doing anything wrong. Different techniques for centering down or discerning meaning work for different people. What seemed to work better for us was to explore some of the vivid dreams I’d been having lately. After thinking more carefully about a secret storeroom filled with encyclopedias, a kitchen bench that didn't used to exist and an overflowing washing machine I now have enough fodder for about a year of silent days.  So as darkness falls, and I crawl into bed, I feel settled, and calm. The sensation in my chest seems to have faded away. And, tomorrow is a new day. There will be new light.

Saturday, September 16, 2017

Checking the checkpoint

The alarm wakes me from a deep sleep. With my nose the only part of me not in the sleeping bag, I can almost smell how cold it is. I take a deep breath and reluctantly emerge from my cocoon. I can hear team-mates also stirring in the next room. It’s not long before we’re bundled into the car and hurtling down the highway towards the Israeli border at a roaring pace.

As an Ecumenical Accompanier in Palestine's South Hebron Hills, we rose at 3:30am once a month to monitor the treatment of Palestinians travelling into Israel through the Maitar checkpoint. Most of the people passing through this checkpoint between 4am and 7am are men on their way to work. Because work is difficult to come by in Palestine, people will go to great lengths to find work in Israel, even if it means waking at 3am, and staying most of the week away from their family.

By the time we arrive, the entry to the checkpoint is a bustling hive of activity. Stallholders litter the side street, offering warm coffee and tea, or food for the journey. We stake out a spot near the turnstile, where it’s possible to see the people lining up, and catch those rejected and on their way back home. Carrying sleeping gear, or food for the week, some hitch a ride with anyone else going the same way, and others park their car in what soon looks like a drive-in just ahead of the checkpoint.

As the morning wears on, and the sun’s first rays of light begin to appear, the numbers of people waiting to enter Israel increases, the line begins to spill out onto the road and those inside the caged maze find themselves at a complete standstill. Some, who become frustrated by the pace, climb the caged walls, in an attempt to cut in ahead of those who perhaps decide that they can afford to wait. Little tussles and arguments break out from time to time.

Credit: Peter Morgan, another EA
The process of lining up in a tin shed, presenting one’s work permit to an emotionless guard, and then travelling by foot in the harsh desert weather is dehumanising and would make anyone feel like cattle set for the slaughter. Yet there were so many ways that people quietly demonstrated their humanity, dignity and sense of humour. Many of the men wave at us as they pass through, and joke with friends as they wait their turn.

One man who was turned away was hanging around near us for a bit, assisting other rejectees in filling out our brief survey form. He told us his reason for refusal was “expired work permit”, which was the most common explanation. These workers are reliant on their boss going ahead with the necessary paperwork to extend the visa. After hanging around with us for half an hour or so and chatting in a good humoured way, he disappeared. About ten minutes later there he was in the queue again, smiling at us and sporting a different hat. He wasn’t rejected a second time.

Towards the end of our three hour shift, we start to see women and children appearing in the queue. We are told that they are usually headed to Israeli jails to visit sons and daughters doing time for minor crimes like “stone throwing” that they may or may not have committed. These travellers are laden with food and small gifts, a reminder of how important family and hospitality are to Palestinians. Eventually it’s time to wake up our driver, and begin the trip back to town. As we drift into a snoozy silence, I think of my own commute back in Sydney. It’s hard to believe that such a dehumanising commute is the norm on the other side of the world.