Friday, April 29, 2011

A Narrow Bridge; A Petra Stroll


Petra’s ancient lanes of carved sandstone tombs and sculpted rose red gods were still alive with buzzing tourists, but in the changing light that hinted the day was almost over, I couldn’t find even one of the thirty-two church members who had crossed the border from Israel with me that morning. Sister Sarah, the guide from the Israeli side of our three week pilgrimage, was also absent without explanation. Gone, was Abdul Hadi, the Jordanian tour guide, a chubby man with a brimmed hat, who warned us before exiting the bus, “Drink and cover up ladies and gentlemen. Stay close.”

I had listened. Well, at least half listened, putting on my black fitted cotton sweater, a floppy white hat, dotted with tiny crystals, and a pair of very Hollywood, just bought on Ben Yehuda Street, big sunglasses. Sister Sarah clearly directed us to, “Meet at the souvenir tent.” But after much searching, let me assure you, not one of the ladies in floral Capri pants or one of the gentlemen, with bellies over belts, from the St. Mark’s Catholic Church to the Holy Land Trip of a Lifetime was anywhere in sight.

The importance of giving and following directions was not lost on me. After almost two decades of teaching I know that if you miss one word, a child can hear “run,” instead of “don't run.” That one word makes a big difference to a second grader trying to be the good student. I know, I’ve cleaned up the bloody knees. Seven year olds can navigate websites and text messages, can tell you which teenage idol is dating what blonde, half naked drugged-out star, but they are still innocents thinking they should do exactly what their teacher says. To be fully honest, every September brings a few Toms and Mikes who think they can break the rules, spit on the kid next to him, force a friend to eat erasers and glue, yet before you can say Happy Halloween, they too are doing exactly what their teacher tells them to do.

Swirling in the heat were Sister Sarah’s stories from the Old Testament, and the Gospel. An Israeli citizen, born in Sosa, South Korea she didn’t miss an ism. She gave us Catholicism, Judaism, and Islamism, with added “ical facts” including historical, geographical and archeological. Sister Sarah was a Google site after one too many drinks or said with some grace, she was a point of universal convergence—a global citizen fluent in the vocabulary of the world, moving in and out of different languages like they were slippers by a bedside. My vocabulary, on the other hand, was expanding exponentially on a first trip ever out of the country with phrases like “ay-fo sheru-teem?” meaning “Where are the bathrooms?” Learning how to ask the question, however, is definitely not the same as understanding the answer. The Big Book of Hebrew and Arabic Phrases was small enough to fit in my leather shoulder bag, but not large enough to have the answers I needed.

Speaking to a uniformed man with a gun slung over his shoulder didn’t seem like a good idea. On the two hour ride from Eilat, over Jordanian highway, and past miles of barren land, with occasional herds of sheep and houses crying a kind of poverty I had only seen on CNN, we were stopped twice by soldiers. Like the men who patrolled Petra, they had guns strapped to their legs and backs; male specimens with altered appendages. Reports of world events on Channel 34 disturbs the moment enough to say, “Oh, my, what a shame,” and return to the local political turmoil caused by the Board of Education unjustifiably ousting your principal, which in no way prepares you to be so close to a gun you could pull the trigger yourself, and be the cause of pools of warm red liquid collecting right at your feet. According to Sister Sarah, being stopped by soldiers was routine. Waking seven days a week at 6 a.m., lighting a Salem, waiting for the alarm to go off was routine. Spending Sunday to Saturday nights clicking a remote through countless channels that cost ninety-seven dollars a month, trying to find a show that wasn’t a rerun, was routine. Abdul Hadi flashing paper at the soldiers was his routine. What would I show a soldier, a brochure about mineral baths at the Dead Sea? Didn’t have my passport on me, safely tucked it in the seat cushion of the tour bus.

Not clear where the pilgrims had gone, or where Id’ been since the hours when Sister Sarah said, “Meet at the souvenir tent,” I refrained from making wisecracks to myself about Plymouth rock, the Mayflower and the pilgrims. Not appropriate or helpful. Drinking till my head spins and falls off, would have been settling. Being arrested for being a whack-a-doodle also didn’t seem like a good idea, so to steady myself, to stop the ground from moving without provocation by an earthquake, I recited out loud, yet softly, Sister Sarah’s teaching on the way to Petra.

“We leave Wadi Musa, the Valley of Moses, the very place where Moses struck the rock with great force instead of following God’s instruction to gently tap. In 1 John, 3:15, we learn the root cause of intentional murder is that kind of anger. Moses lost his temper with God, as it is written in the Old Testament, ‘Then Moses raised his arm and struck the rock twice with his staff. Water gushed.’ Moses died in the desert, never walking in the Holy Land, because God punished him. Moses should have taken a deep breath and shown a little more faith.”
Sometimes I heard Sister Sarah as she pressed her lips into the bus’s microphone. Other times while watching rocks and ruins go by through the wide glass window of the tour bus her voice was more like white noise. Frankly, that blur of sound, like an air conditioner unit drowning out the silence of a bedroom, was better than her song, “Kol ha-olam kulo, gesher tzar m’od, the whole earth is a narrow bridge.” With a swoosh of her hand, the Sister commanded the bus to sing in Latin, Arabic, Korean, Hebrew or some foreign language. “Vi-ha—ikar, the most important thing”…something or other was the ending to that song.

Marilyn and Judy, best friends traveling on their seventh pilgrimage, didn’t understand anymore than I did. “What’s the Sister mean by that kol-ha-olam song, and anger, water, murder and rock?” I asked. Nibbling on dates, apricots, and pistachios lifted from the Princess Hotel’s breakfast buffet, and stuffed into plastic baggies, the world travelers did a shoulder shrug, and continued sorting clumps of swiped dried fruit.
“You’ll see remnants of highly developed water channels built by the ancient Nabataeans. We’ll walk through the narrow entrance to the city of Petra, a sandstone formation, known as the Siq. The rocks are 91-182 meters, 600 feet, in height, and 3 meters, 10 feet, in width. Note that only one chariot at a time could enter the city.”
Turning the details of archeology into spiritual guidance Sister Sarah added, “The narrow corridor kept the city safe. But, if you stay in the narrow corridor, you miss the radiance.”

Nature or God made the entrance to Petra constricted like so many sites on Sister Sarah’s itinerary. A few days before she had guided us through the winding lanes of Jerusalem’s Arab Market where hanging scarves, bedazzled daggers, mother of pearl jewelry boxes and brass this and that’s pushed us up against Arab men calling from their stalls, “Come in. Come in.” Eventually, those crushing lanes opened to the bright light, to the grand Church of the Holy Sepulcher, and to Sister Sarah waiting with an “I told you so,” smirk. Where was her smirk when you needed it?

“Excuse me,” I approached an American looking couple, Bermuda shorts and all, thinking I could just say, “Do you know where Sister Sarah is, you now the little nun overflowing with minutia and magnitude, small facts and grand life messages—not always differentiating which was which. “No English,” the couple replied. At least they could say it in English.
Frantic! The phrase book was gibberish, but one word stood out that didn’t take much effort to pronounce—Afwan, Excuse me.

Afwan, do you remember where I last saw Jane and Fred who were renewing their vows at Cana where Christ performed his first miracle? You can’t miss Fred, he’s the guy dressed in a horrid, plaid, salesman short sleeve shirt with three pens in his pocket, and is probably toddling behind Jane like a duckling. Afwan, could you help me find Barbara, the one with Henry, the very thin lady with grey, quarter-inch long hair in search of a “water into wine” miracle? She’s holding a timed ticket to the Gates of Heaven, and he’s the one hanging on for dear life, because the only thing standing in the way of that trip is the “healing power of walking in the footsteps of Jesus.” Afwan, could you tell me where I left Marilyn and Judy, the pilgrimage thieves or better said with some grace, squirrels, carrying Vatican emblazoned totes? Those ladies are hunched over with a load of stolen food, hotel soaps and shampoos, restaurant ashtrays, and random rocks from Nazareth and Bethlehem. What were they going to say when passing through customs? There was a sale on hotel towels. Afwan, like the rest of them, Judy and Marilyn are paired as Noah’s ark instructs for survival. The teenager, with a credit card sized camera, responded to Afwan with, “Je parle seulement francais.” Ok, that I got.

I was the odd number, making us thirty-three, not thirty-two or thirty-four pilgrims. Father Michael, suited up for authority, had pressed a brochure into my hand that promised, “Pilgrims most often describe a trip to the Holy Land as life-changing. They find it difficult to express the absolute bliss they feel during their unique spiritual adventure.” Weekly, weakly, on Sunday mornings, I released myself from knowing better, and let in a spark of Father Michael’s promise that joy, as the psalm says, comes in the morning. With a little faith, Father Michael assured me that the pilgrimage would bring great reward. I mailed in my check for three thousand, two hundred and twenty-five dollars, but not to purchase Father’s quid pro quo happiness for faith. Really, I knew better. I simply sent my check to solve a math problem that had become excruciatingly perplexing. Eighty point four, the life expectancy of a woman in the USA, divided by two, equals forty point two. I was officially midway between point A, birth, and point B, death, and if I hadn’t mentioned it earlier, alone.

Kol ha-olam kulo, the whole world, gesher t’zar m’od is a narrow bridge the most important thing is...” Damn that song, what came next?

Aspirin please! Like a needle going round and round every threaded nerve in my forehead, the song Judy and Marilyn had belted out kept playing, but the words missed a beat. Finding Sister Sarah and the missing words I was sure could save me. “The whole earth is a narrow bridge, vi-ha-ikar, the most important thing.” Yes, I remembered the end of the song. Thank the Lord. They sang “be afraid.”

Idiocy, I already was afraid and didn’t need a song to tell me that. When I woke in the morning, when I walked on the way, and when I went to bed at night, Sister Sarah watched my every step. Where did the little woman go who was so practiced in the advanced teaching art: “I hear your thoughts before you say them?”

It hadn’t escaped her gaze that I was no longer punctual for mass or meals. Actually those items were crossed off my schedule. Shopping on Ben Yehuda Street was a self-directed side excursion while Jane, Fred, Marilyn and Judy were lectured at the Cave of Betrayal. Three things learned on my own: 1) how to hail a taxi; 2) taxi drivers speak English; and 3) the price in shekels divided by four, equals the amount in dollars.

While walking on the Via della Rosa, Sister Sarah had given me a private tutorial starting with a compliment on my haircut, a new bob that actually moved when I did, left leg, hair to the right, right leg, hair to the left, a natural rhythm.

“You look like you’ve aged backwards,” she said.

“I think it’s the time change. Never adjusted my watch,” I added, “I’m really seven hours younger, maybe even seven years.”

“Step carefully.” She wasn’t talking about the pebbles under foot. Maybe if Sister Sarah had felt more kindly toward me she would have taken the time to explain in detail. Enigmatic lesson plan continued on the Via della Rosa. “The climax of your journey is waiting for you.”

Had everyone else on the trip figured it out? Had Judy and Marilyn and Henry and Barbara and every last pair of them decipher Sister Sarah’s teachings to find their way out of this narrow place? “Think, pair, share,” I tell my students when teaching them to problem solve. I could think—like through gauze, and had no pair and no one to share.

Suddenly, a foreigner gripped my sun-burned arm. I pulled back hard. Confident he had me, he released me long enough to smooth the prickly hairs over his lip. I could have run, but, like a child fascinated by a science experiment, I watched sweat, his mingling with mine, run down the fingerprint trail left on my skin, just a map, without directions. He groomed his moustache quickly. Then that familiar, fig hued hand, returned grasping me, shortening my breath, and forcing me, to inhale heat. I wasn’t clear if the sour smell was him or me.
Most helpful would be Indiana Jones on a horse or swinging from a rope. Certainly, it was almost reasonable to expect Harrison Ford to leap out of The Last Crusade, filmed on this very spot. Dr. Jones could rush past the sculpted rose red goddess Athena to rescue me. He could stir the sand, lift me up and deliver me safely to the border crossing of Altoona, Pennsylvania where I belonged.

“You know I paid five camels for you,” said the man attached to my arm. He smiled, as if he had made a joke, and knew I’d like it too. Wrong. He leaned in close showing perfect teeth that contrasted oddly with his leathered skin, and kaffia. How can you live in the desert and look like you’ve used Crest White Strips? I was distracted.
“Let’s have a coke, Bette,” said the foreigner holding my arm. How did he know my name?

“Oh, yes, I recalled, in his souvenir tent, a Jordanian min-market with aisles for coca-cola, chips, jewelry, knives, and swords, we had smoked the hookah.

He motioned, sit, there, again, in the back, dark place of the tent, behind piled high crates and boxes. My fingers recognized the nubs of fabric. What else had I done? With my jeans squeezing my legs, and holding my hips to the bench, the rest of my skin began to remember. My head was not so sure. It would have been easy to say it was the hookah, just tobacco, I’m almost certain, but still a hot unexpected intrusion.

Possibly, tingly of toes and hands and the haze of thought resulted from my water bottle left to cool on the air conditioned tour bus. Plausible to say lack of water, hookah smoke, and the heated air, had ripped my long sleeved black cotton sweater from my shoulders, feet away from a multitude of accents asking the same questions over and over. “How much is the bracelet? Is it real silver? Where is the toilet?” Why do British people call it a toilet? They are supposed to be so proper.

When asked, in the booth, in confession, I could say that this man’s earthy hands had entered my crevices and caressed my contours, because here among the ancients, human alchemy is possible. In an unexplainable instant, a woman’s basic chemistry can be forced to change from dry to wet and from cold to hot. I could say to Father Michael I was at the mercy of the merchant’s desert power. I was ravished.

I could say it all began with the smoke, or dehydration, or a Nabataean mystical incantation.
He interrupted my efforts to get the story right.

“Hot tea, Bette? That’s much better for you. Hot tea keeps you cool.”

“Ibrahim,” I said connecting word and thought, “Yes, tea. I want to explain.”

“No need.” He insisted I take a sip. I had fed foreigners at the church’s soup kitchen. One had never fed me.

“The shortest distance between two points is a straight line.” This was a principle of basic math I had taught my second graders so early on in life they’d have a foundation for how to logically move from point A to point B. Trying to find the point where my experience with Ibrahim began, while seriously contemplating a return to the past hours with him did not making applying foundational logic any easier.

Pennsylvania Public School Curriculum Critical Thinking Standards and Benchmarks 41: 3b: Methods of problem solving. Identify possible solutions and weigh the evidence. Select from the following multiple choice answers.
This happened because:
a. To keep me quiet in church, my parents gave me a Barbie doll that was thin and unendingly loved by Ken—which is a very mean toy to give a plump middle child with six siblings.
b. My pipe fitter husband went to pick up a pizza fourteen years ago. Since then I’ve sat in the pews with a hymnal waiting for deliverance, and on my sofa with a bottle of gin getting my own pizza, still waiting for Chuck.
c. I just developed a new shape. Walking on the trip, constant bus sickness, no gin for 18 days, and an occasional bite of hummus and cucumber made me able to wear real blue jeans. No elastic waistband, just a real waist sloping in and curving out.
d. None of the above. I was a liar. There are no short distances or straight lines between two points. No logic offered by science or mathematics applied.
“Kol ha-olam kulo, the whole world is a narrow bridge,” I sang softly, “be afraid.”
“What are you singing?” Ibrahim asked, clarifying for me once and for all that Sister Sarah’s song was not Arabic.
“Not sure,” I replied. Then tried to reassure him I was not a crazy American lunatic like he may have seen on television.
A loud clopping noise, a sound of grounded presence, penetrated the canvas tent. Horses running on the stone, beasts of burden, as Sister Sarah would have called them, ferried tourists in red topped surreys. A ride on a surrey could bring me to Sister Sarah or to a taxi driver who spoke English. Did they take shekels in Jordan? The sound of the hooves and the cool breeze of the late afternoon was a hard welcomed slap across the face.
Correct Answer: I. Elizabeth Fitzgerald Whelihan, deliberately and without momentary fear of the Lord, ravished Ibrahim, the souvenir merchant, and it was time to leave.
Ibrahim stroked my hair. “You’re looking better now. You ran out. I thought I wouldn’t find you. I wanted to give you a piece of jewelry.”
Shredded time was now pieced together revealing the foundational logic of the day that bore no resemblance to a straight line or a short distance between two points.
Sister Sarah had clustered us near the souvenir tent. “It’s a one hour climb up the Steps of Repentance. We’ll rest, lunch, and meet back here at 3. Meet at the souvenir tent.”
Eight hundred sandy stone steps in ninety degree heat were of no interest to me. So when the seventeen pairs, including Abdul Hadi, and Sister Sarah, started their climb, I stayed at the tent to light a cigarette and breathe. Judy and Marilyn, and Jane and Fred didn’t even notice.
At first, I was content escaping another convoluted story of life’s greatest lessons. Then drawn to the bangles displayed on rows and rows of tables, I picked up a pin that went with my new haircut and emerging, not so dowdy, look. Silver and turquoise beads, lapis lazuli pendants and hanging wired earrings. If I wore them all at once, you’d never know I was from Altoona. I wouldn’t have to be me. I could be Athena, the goddess atop the Nabataean tomb surviving bullets and time. Abdul Hadi had said, “The locals used rifles to shoot Athena down. Myth had it that jewels were hidden within her, but to this day her jewels remain intact.”
With enough bangles and beads, I, too, could be that resilient woman, awash in crayola colors bittersweet, burnt sienna, dandelion and magenta, and paid tribute to with a love poem. Abdul Hadi had recited “Poem Petra, by John William Bourgon, ‘But from the rock as if by magic grown. Eternal, silent, beautiful…’” Athena was over a thousand years old and still stood beloved as the timeless sentinel watching over travelers from every corner of the earth.
A wooden camel pin from the rows of souvenirs had adorned my chest. That’s when Ibrahim had stepped close to me for the first time. He had tried to make the sale.
“Hello beautiful lady. Let me guess, Israeli? American? No, I say you are French. I can tell by your style. What would you like to buy today? You will look even more beautiful if you are wearing this.” He spoke with lovely accented English.
A silver beaded necklace long enough to hang across my breasts dangled from his fig colored hand. Fresh figs, not in a cookie, but from a tree, I learned while in the Holy Land, are soft fleshy fruits meant for quenching hunger and satisfying thirst. Ibrahim had said the same “beautiful lady” lines to every woman who handled his jewelry. Clearly a good business practice, but I chose to understand it like Athena might.
After stating clearly that I wasn’t buying today, just waiting for my church group to return from the Steps of Repentance, he had invited me in to the coolest part of the tent cut off from the sun and the bustle of the day by a sheer drape. He wasn’t like the Jordanians with guns on their shoulders or the Arab men in the market. “Come in, come in,” was without threat or judgment. We sat in two folding chairs, the same kind you’d see at the Jersey shore. But, unlike any conversation on the sands along the boardwalk, he spoke about his three wives, his many children, and his American girlfriend, an archeologist who lived in Chicago, who traveled to see him regularly and recently had lost a sixteen year old daughter, killed in a car accident, hit by a drunk. “So sad,” he reflected, “you can’t protect them.”
He had reached for the thin pipe of his hookah and began to smoke.
“You want some?” I had declined.
“You Israeli?” he had asked for the second time. I assured him I was an American.
“I like Israelis too,” he had said. Once he had even smoked hashish with one on the beaches of Tel Aviv. “Could you lift up your sunglasses?” he had asked. “I’d like to see your eyes.” I smiled, saw a chance, and pushed my glasses upward so they acted like a headband. My hair had fallen on my cheek. I didn’t bother putting it in its rightful place.
“All the women here have dark eyes. Yours are so blue, like the heavens.”
Again, he offered me the hookah and that time I accepted. Put it in between my lips for one, only one, deep warm breath, hotter than a Salem.
“You are young, you are very young.”
“Huh, forty is not young,” I had corrected him. Forty and two months means the chances of your life change. You could become a curriculum supervisor, or if you went back to school, you could be a principal, in time for thick ankles, but you couldn’t find love or passion. He stopped me.
“My name is Ibrahim. I’ve known many women. You can have love.”
That was as far as he was going with friendly flirting and making nice with the tourists. Ibrahim began to move the conversation back to his wives and children. It was as if the television remote was in my hand, and I had accidentally pressed the button at a pivotal moment in a movie that I had never seen. If I hadn’t done something quickly, I’d be stuck with Channel 34 forever.
What would Athena do? The spices carried by traders and merchants, that had passed before her for centuries, were in my mouth and throat. Abdul Hadi’s poem held Athena’s response. The completed verse: “Eternal, silent, beautiful, alone.” Each word makes a big difference. Athena chose to sit back from the edges of the mountain, watching the caravans go by, withstanding rain, wind, and age. She was preserved unhurt, and alone.
I chose instead to rest my hand on Ibrahim’s knee. Both of us were startled. We stood. I had motioned to the darkest part of the tent, deeper in, behind boxes and bags and piles of fabric, a mess and a perfect high wall, to a bench covered with brown and white fabric, softer only than burlap, leaving on the floor every ridiculous object that screamed you are a sad woman alone, thinking a man who probably never loved you would come back, and then the world would be full and alive, because you learned while safely sitting on your sofa how to love and live. My black fitted sweater, Hollywood sunglasses, crystal dotted hat and big book of useless Arabic and Hebrew phrases lay in the sand. Move. Experienced, he had known what was being offered—demanded.
Ravished: going after the radiance, passionately, embracing pleasure, joy, and light; for an hour or so, just long enough to instill the faith that you can seek another glimpse, another spark.
He had gone to look for me to offer a piece of jewelry.
Afwan, Do you have a cell phone, Ibrahim?” I’d like to call Sister Sarah to see where everyone is.” I had the number written on the brochure in my shoulder bag. “Do you suppose they left without me?” My watch said ten, still American time.
In one ring Sister Sarah answered. They had already turned around and were coming for me. Marilyn and Judy noticed I was missing. Did Sister Sarah know she had left me? Was she teaching me a lesson or was she hurried, and had lost count?
To accompany me until the bus returned Sister Sarah sang through the cell phone. “Kol ha-olam kulo gesher tzar m’od, the whole world is a narrow bridge, vi-ha-ikar, the most important thing is, lo li-fa-ched klal, don’t be afraid.” One word, as my second graders know, makes a very big difference.

Cyd Weissman, spiritual fiction (c)
“Kol ha-olam kulo gesher tzar m’od, the whole world is a narrow bridge, vi-ha-ikar, the most important thing is, lo li-fa-ched klal, don’t be afraid” Are the words of Rebbe Nachman of Breslov (1772-1810).