We are tempted to reduce life to a simple search for happiness. Happiness, however, withers if there is no meaning. The other temptation is to disavow the search for happiness in order to be faithful to that which provides meaning. But to live only for meaning—indifferent to all happiness—makes us fanatic, self-righteous, and cold. It leaves us cut off from our own humanity and the humanity of others. We must hope for grace, for our lives to be sustained by moments of meaning and happiness, both equally worthy of human communion.
No American novel makes me think of Israel/Palestine like John Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath. The smoldering anger of the Joads as they are displaced from their land and forced into exile captures the emotions of many Palestinians I've met. Ma Joad, for example, struggling to keep the family together always makes me think of a woman named Om Rajah in Jenin Refugee Camp, and her son Tom reminds me of so many young Palestinian men, not least when he says things like, "Why, Jesus Christ, Ma, they comes a time when the on'y way a fella can keep his decency is by takin' a sock at a cop. They're workin' on our decency."
But much of the book, like much of life in Israel/Palestine and every other place, is full of family wisdom and brokenness and love that isn't necessarily all that connected to the politics and history of one's setting. Some things are just universally shared among us. And so when the mother and daughter in this photograph passed me in Jerusalem's Old City and stopped for a moment to reply to my sabah il-xher (good morning) and to ask where I was from, I then listened as they continued on up the steps and talked with each other about the ordinary things in life. They -- through their physical movement, their voices, their relating to each other -- gave life to these aging alley walls. It was they, not the stones and arches and steps, which comprised the heart of this city.
I don't know what kind of wisdom Jerusalem's mothers pass on to daughters, but I bet that sometimes it isn't too unlike the following passage, in which Ma Joad is talking to her daughter Rose of Sharon:
When you’re young, Rosasharn, ever’thing that happens is a thing all by itself. It’s a lonely thing. I know, I ‘member, Rosasharn.” … And Ma went on, “They’s a time of change, an’ when that comes, dyin is a piece of all dyin’, and bearin’ is a piece of all bearin’, an’ bearin’ and dyin’ is two pieces of the same thing. An’ then things ain’t lonely any more. An’ then a hurt don’t hurt so bad, ‘cause it ain’t a lonely hurt no more, Rosasharn. I wisht I could tell you so you’d know, but I can’t.” And her voice was so soft, so full of love, that tears crowded into Rose of Sharon’s eyes, and flowed over her eyes and blinded her.
If interested in another short vignette from Jerusalem, this one about two Palestinian men dancing to a Whitney Houston song hours after a suicide bombing, click on "A Dance in Jerusalem."
With George Bush now back in Texas, bathroom stalls in backpacker hangouts in cities such as Bangkok and San Jose will never be the same. The political graffiti his eight years in office produced was immense. Scribbled across many a door and wall, the one-liners and paragraphs were seldom insightful. But never did I tire of reading what anonymous folks, while using the toilet, had to say about my President.
Other times—though almost never in a bathroom stall—I would stumble across more provocative messages such as the one seen here. Written on the seawall in Singapore's Esplanade Park, in the shadow of the city's financial district, I wondered who wrote it and why. Unlike political graffiti, its motive and meaning were a mystery.
Odds are, I suppose, that someone young did the writing. But it reminded me of something old, namely the idea of commitment, of the knowledge that there would be an end, of the work involved in shaping one's life with that fact in mind. I'd later remember this splotch of graffiti while reading Wendell Berry's book Hannah Coulter. In it Hannah, narrating from the twilight of her life, says, "Death is a sort of lens, though I used to think of it as a wall or a shut door. It changes things and makes them clear. Maybe it is the truest way of knowing this dream, this brief and timeless life." Reflecting on her husband's passing, she later goes on to say:
I was changed by Nathan’s death, because I had to be. Our life together here was over. It was my life alone that had to go on. The strand had slackened. I had begun the half-a-life you have when you have a whole life that you can only remember. I began this practice of sitting sometimes long hours into the nights, telling over his story, this life, that even when it was only mine was wholly Nathan’s and mine because for the term of this world we were wholly each other’s. We were each other’s chance to live in the room of love where we could be known well enough to be spared. We were each other’s gift.
Perhaps it is because I so often travel alone. Actually, I’m certain it is because I so often travel alone: as I wander around a city my eye turns toward couples in love, and they are everywhere. I find myself wondering how they met. What word was said or look exchanged that brought them together? I wonder what lust or need, what mutual respect, keeps them together still. I wonder where they will be five or fifty years from now. And often I wonder why on earth I’m traveling alone, watching others love while having no one beside me with whom I can love and be loved.
This photograph was taken along the Saigon River, where two things stood out to me. First was the ship’s port of registration, Haiphong, which brought to mind the bombings of the Vietnam War. Second was the couple. The woman is cleaning out the man’s ear—a most mundane yet intimate act of love if ever there was one.
One of my favorite writer’s on love—and many other topics—is Fyodor Dostoevsky. While not directly related to ear cleaning, here’s a quote from one of his characters in The Brothers Karamazov:
A true act of love, unlike imaginary love, is hard and forbidding. Imaginary love yearns for an immediate heroic act that is achieved quickly and seen by everyone. People may even reach a point where they are willing to sacrifice their lives, as long as the ordeal doesn’t last too long, is quickly over—just like on the stage, with the public watching and admiring.