Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Stories of Paradox

The door to our flat on the hill is open and the space serves as a funnel for occasional breaths of wind. A few branches from the tree on the concrete patio dip beneath the mantle and are nodding with the call to prayer that rises from the village of Beit Sahour, the House of Vigilance. The slow, undulating chant hits me like a surging wave against a shoreline and I can’t tell whether the call is adding to me or eroding me, or both happening together. I feel like maybe I should stand up in respect or lie down in assent, so instead I just sit and listen to the deep-voiced reverence and feel the breeze of Palestine that cools the room.

For the next six months I will be working with an organization called Musalaha (“reconciliation” in Arabic), which is committed to uniting Israelis and Palestinians, Jews and Muslims and Christians, as they dismantle barriers and deconstruct worldviews. I was given a list of forty Israelis and Palestinians to interview and then incarnate my skeletal notes as stories about encounters with the other and events of reconciliation. And I will help the Al Basma Center, a facility for developmentally disabled youth in Beit Sahour. Working in orphanages in India and Nepal during March and April waits in a possible future.

Patrick Covert and Paul Elliott, two of the closest friends I have ever had, are with me and I am so excited, because living alone in the midst of oppression and violence and hatred and poverty is not easy. I was nervous, almost hesitant, about putting my feet down again in this place for the fifth time (for seven stories about my most recent trip in March, please visit www.globalshift.org). But my nervousness made me want to come even more and I felt hesitant and anxious at the same time: hesitant to go and anxious to get there. I realized that I wasn’t coming to Israel and Palestine for comfort or safety or an easy chance to travel. I wanted to come because I want to do good work, with my words and with my hands. Here I am almost forced to live more deeply and more fully because I am completely emptied as I wonder and wander. Tolkien said “Not all those who wander are lost,” and few words contain so much meaning for me, both spiritually and geographically. This blog is a place where I hope to share some of my wonderings and wanderings.

The first blog I kept, called “The Wanderer,” was during a semester abroad in China, Australia, New Zealand, and a few South Pacific islands. I started the second one last summer while working as a journalist for the Palestine Monitor in Ramallah; I didn’t stress myself too much looking for a new name, because the title of the second one was “The Wanderer: Part Two.” So for the third round I wanted something a little different, but a name that still found itself within the recurring theme. I wrote an article for a website about a worldview of travel rooted in wondering and wandering. The word wonder can mean “to be filled with admiration, amazement, or awe,” but it can also mean “to doubt” or “to question.” To wander is “to travel about, on, or through,” and not only geographically. The W(a/o)nderer is my attempt to see the two as inseparably one.

Frederick Buechner wrote that “In Hebrew the term dabar means both ‘word’ and ‘deed.’ Thus to say something is to do something . . . Words are power, essentially the power of creation. By my words I both discover and create who I am. By my words I elicit a word from you. Through our converse we create each other.” Words and actions create stories and stories create meaning.

We are saved by stories. Truth is discovered, created, given room to happen in stories. But stories are only true if they inhabit the “paradoxical between,” wrestling in the tense coexistence between hope and despair, order and chaos, joy and sorrow, absence and presence. In stories we live out the questions. We become part of a transforming, resurrecting story that doesn’t necessarily seek to answer the questions, but instead presents a Way in which to live them. I am beginning to have eyes to see that truth, whatever that is, is a paradox, because if I want to be found I have to be lost, if I want to be filled I have to be emptied, and if I want to live I have to first die.

The stories I want to share are about life in the paradoxical struggle and tension. I hope they will be true. And maybe these stories can create an open space for the sacred event of what seems like the impossible to happen, because stories not only describe reality, they transform it. Stories say something and do something.


  1. Interestingly, I just read a quote this morning from Ong (Orality & Literacy) who also mentioned the Hebrew word 'dabar.' He, however, chose to interpret the word as word and 'event.' I'm guessing you will find 'event' even possibly more satisfying action after Caputo. 'Dabar' also coincides with the call to prayer. The words create an event, a moment. For a more dominant oral culture and oral religious sensibility like Islam, words are dynamic and full of power.

  2. That's beautiful. Ong has been on my list for awhile now. I wish I had known that before I wrote this!