Creating family wherever we go

Seven weeks of adventures in London, Paris, Bordeaux, Plum Village, Beziers, Tel Aviv, and Jerusalem

Dear friends,

A few nights ago, celebrating the fifth night of Hanukkah, I experienced the kind of joy that gives rise to belief in magic: in skeletons emerging from the garden, in secret portals leading to spaces of refuge, in God granting prayers asked in his name.

The night began with the song of a rainstorm and plates of homemade shakshuka. After dinner, Lisa and I built a makeshift menorah and lit the shamash (the lighting candle). We offered the flame of the shamash to each unlit candle, and each lighting felt like a birth, each candle a human being with temporary body and bright flame.

After the five candles were lit, Lisa sang an ancient Hanukkah prayer (the Hanerot Halalu).

We do not have permission to use these candles, only to observe them. And in this observation, we honor and praise God’s name, giving voice to his great miracles, wonders, and salvations.

As six candles burned down from sticks of wax and string into embers and darkness, we sang, marveled at the sky, and continued our prayers. God, Buddha, mysterious universe: we ask you to move us away from separation and fear and towards love and connection with all beings.

When our prayers ended and the candles died, Lisa and I watched the cinema of the forest outside. A thunderstorm raged, lightning struck three times, four, shaking our treehouse and delighting our souls. In the first strike, it was as if God was answering our prayers. Each subsequent flash of lightning was an exclamation point, a commitment from God to see our prayers through.

The sky turned hazy red, trees swayed, rain penetrated our roof and dripped onto the kitchen floor. We were swimming in joy, observing the beauty of nature outside, celebrating the mystery and work of God.

My friends, I want to share with you this great adventure of my life: three surprise weeks in London, three weeks exploring France with Lisa and fourteen Palestinians, and two weeks in Jerusalem building home and the foundation for my projects. For now, here’s a summary of my travels by location and date. My adventures in London are included in a separate post (linked here and below); all other stories are included. Feel free to jump in as you like!

Paris (November 5–9)

I spent my first day in France chasing Lisa and our fourteen Palestinian kids around Paris. They were on day 1 of a bus tour to the Louvre and Eiffel Tower; I was on foot, never quite catching up or figuring out their location.

I finally found them outside of a Jewish day school in the Parisian suburbs. When I saw Lisa and fourteen Palestinians manifest on the sidewalk before me, I thought I was in a dream. I shook Thea’s hand and put my head on Lisa’s shoulder, and the physicality of our being together settled in my body as relief and joy. After four hours chasing them around the city, eighteen days praying in London, and countless days and nights working with Lisa, here we were, together at last.

The next days passed by in blurs of beauty, exclusive French buildings, and incredible chaos.

We visited Noisy-le-Sec, a town of welcome and peace. We toured the President’s House, an honor granted to French citizens only once per year. We cruised down the Seine, watching the Louvre and the Eiffel Tour pass by, laughing, dancing, celebrating the magic of this group being together in a new place.

So much joy (and so many selfies) on a boat ride down the Seine

Our students loved the Moroccan kids, for they both spoke Arabic and shared cultural understanding. And the French kids were so generous: each day they served tuna sandwiches to the whole group, and at night, they welcomed us to their school for cafeteria food.

Against this beautiful backdrop, we experienced difficulty and chaos. We’d arrive at the bus early each morning and race from one place to the next, without much time to wander or explore (we heard lots of vite, vite, vite — French for “faster, faster, faster”).

We butted heads with cultural expectations: the program organizers filmed and photographed our students without consent, which left our students feeling afraid and unable to be fully themselves. They didn’t provide Arabic translation at many events, which excluded some students immediately.

One night at the hostel, a fight broke out at the bar downstairs and security covered the first floor in pepper spray. One of our boys got involved in breaking up the fight, and the pepper spray triggered an asthma attack; we spent the next hours calming him down, breathing together.

One of our girls experienced severe mental health issues, exacerbated by the drinking, fashion, and eating habits of a foreign Western culture. We had to send her home to Palestine after a week of behavior too terrifying and difficult to explain here.

Lisa and I learned that our work in community building and peace activism must be moderated by discipline and discernment: in who we work with, who we trust, and who we look to serve. We can choose to collaborate with friends that share our values of communication, deep compassion, and flexibility and ease in the midst of changing conditions.

The kids we bring must be stable: financially, mentally, physically. They must believe in their own capacity to change their lives, and to have the desire in their own body and mind for growth. As organizers, we cannot give kids an experience for free: this perpetuates a mentality of victimhood. Instead, the kids must commit fully to our program, demonstrating through word and action their desire for self-awareness, growth, and empowerment.

On our last day in Paris, we dragged three trash bags of wet laundry (and heavy suitcases) across the Parisian metro from our hostel to the train station — and missed our train into Bordeaux by five minutes. We changed course: moving kids and luggage to the bus station to catch an all-nighter bus, finally arriving in Bordeaux at 5am.

At the Bordeaux train station, Lisa and I committed to croissants and tea for breakfast; Thea and I were sent on the croissant errand just before our train was to depart. As the train arrived and the delegation boarded, Thea and I ran with bags of croissants, donuts, and boiling hot water. The train departed as one of Thea’s cups dropped, spilling hot water everywhere. We had missed our second train in a row because of croissants!

After hours of uncertainty, we all made it safely to Sainte-Foy-la-Grande, where two nuns awaited our arrival and welcomed us into the safety and peace of Plum Village.

Plum Village (November 10–16)

It was raining on our first day in Plum Village, and before doing anything, Lisa and I sat on the deck of our cabin and listened to the rain fall. After a week of doing everything, and months of planning, we had arrived to the place we had first met, a place of peace and compassion. We could finally rest.

The students marveled at the expansive fields and hills, the towering birch trees, the foliage that sprung up along the roads and in the forests. They took videos as we walked, laughing, thanking Lisa for bringing them to such a beautiful place. It was a joy to be there.

Orientation was beautiful: monks had prepared a special gathering in the Red Candle Hall for us, and were waiting with open arms and the basic practices to receive us. We practiced walking meditation, and the kids were laughing and playing, running across the hall in socks.

Another day, the monks invited us to tea on Thay’s deck in Upper Hamlet. We joined Brother Phap Yeung and three other monks for sharing about our families, drinking tea, and eating cookies on yellow oak leaves.

left: Boys at the Happy Farm in Lower Hamlet | center: holding pinecones in the Buddha Garden at Upper Hamlet | right: hiking meditation

By the middle of the week, revolution was brewing. Some of the students were upset about the routine and discipline of Plum Village: they didn’t like being separated into boys and girls, they missed Palestinian cooking and spices, they wanted to smoke cigarettes and eat candy.

Some were triggered by monastery life: one man said the experience felt like an Israeli prison because of the silence, the lines at mealtimes, the strict discipline. One student tried to incite rebellion, asking in a group meeting how many others wanted to leave the next day. We quickly put an end to that question, but the dissatisfaction in some remained.

On Wednesday, Sister Mai generously opened the Lower Hamlet kitchen to our kids: and for hours, the girls and boys were harmoniously cooking maqlouba (upside-down rice dish), lentil soup, and salad for 130 monastics and retreatants. I can barely capture the pride in the boys flipping the pot of maqlouba onto a table of banana leaves, serving each person rice and carrots, cauliflower and eggplant. The dining hall was lively and folks were talking as one family (no eating meditation in silence for this meal!). Things shifted for our kids that night: they felt included in the community and saw the value of their delicious contribution.

left: Sister Mai and Sajida deep-frying potatoes for maqlouba | center: Shaima, Rami, and Thea prepare salad | right: the completed maqlouba!

On Friday, the nuns organized a bonfire for us. We sang, danced, and roasted marshmallows over the fire as the sun set over the lotus pond. Brother Phap Yeung brought his telescope for the kids to observe the moon, Ahmad drummed, Ahlam called for a three-minute meditation. The scene that night was perfect: the warm embrace of a loving community, song and dance into the darkness, gifting Sister Luc Nghiem with a keffiyeh she wore with such incredible joy.

From Plum Village, and from Lisa, I am learning to trust in the wisdom of my elders on the path. I see that there is much I do not know, and my habit energy is to distrust and question what I do not know. Sometimes, this is good and enables me to make wise decisions; sometimes, it is simply a coping mechanism for discomfort in the unknown future.

This summer, Lisa told me that she’s committed to exploring the unknown better; to experience that unknown, elders on the path of wisdom show the way. Humility and submission are thus important pieces for growth. I will try my best to invite into my body this humility, for it does not often come naturally to me. I am a work in progress.

We left Plum Village for Beziers early in the morning with bags full of croissants from the monastics, full hearts, and offers to return with twenty additional Palestinian kids in the summer.

Beziers / Bedarieux / Combe (November 16–20)

Our final stop before heading back to Palestine was a tiny town near Beziers called Combe. Lisa’s friends Michele and Pascale, and their friends Dominique and Hervi, hosted all fourteen of us in their homes. After a small rebellion, in which some folks refused to leave the train station, we piled into four vehicles and made the winding drive to Michele’s house in the mountains. There, a beautiful potato and cheese casserole was waiting for us. We sat down to our first dinner at this new house, thanking God and the chef Emmanuel for the food and for being together.

Lisa and me along the river bank near Combe

The next day, we headed into the mountains for hiking in the mist. There, huge stones gave way to a powerful river. Lisa and I decided to go for a quick swim: it ended up being a few minutes of screaming without pause or care, letting everything go, diving into the freezing water as a practice of meeting fear with fortitude and daring, and finding joy on the other side. Thea and I threw some rocks for good measure, and we headed back down the mountain.

The day of my departure, I stayed home from the group shopping trip to rest and pack. Lisa and Michele also stayed behind. It was a special day, waking up slowly, showering in hot water, cooking fried eggs and portioning salad of fresh cucumber, tomato, onion, and cilantro from the fridge. My body and mind were clear, energy calm, and I was suddenly able to be present with Michel, discovering his gifts of osteopathy, divining rods, pendulums. Lisa, Michel, and I sat around the living room table, then the kitchen, then the living room, talking, reading books, healing our friends and each other.

In Combe, I practiced cultivating patience for myself and my place on the path. I am not yet a dharma teacher and have much to learn about Palestine, and the slow pace of learning can arise as frustration and anger in my body. I can remind myself that there is nowhere to be but right here, that unknowing is a beautiful place to be.

In this state of unknowing, I can celebrate and trust the wisdom of others, without dwelling in insufficiency and comparison. I know that my work here in Palestine begins with planting seeds; only when conditions are sufficient will they bloom into beautiful flowers. To plant good seeds and to have the patience and faith to continue in unknowing: this is the beauty and challenge of life.

I left Combe on Sunday night to catch my Monday flight to Tel Aviv. The yellow coat protests in France delayed one of my trains by three hours, causing me to miss my third train of the trip! I crashed overnight at the house of a social activist in Beziers, and caught a train for Paris at 4:30am. That train was delayed as well and I missed my flight to Tel Aviv by thirty minutes. Three missed trains and one missed flight in three weeks!

I rebooked my flight and arrived to Tel Aviv on Tuesday morning.

Jerusalem (November 21 — today)

In this present moment, I am in Jerusalem, joyfully exhausted in body and light in spirit. Lisa departed for Canada this afternoon, and Thea, Lisa, and I spent the early morning hours packing, doing laundry and a fashion show, discussing, laughing, and celebrating our journey together.

I am learning how to create family where I am, and to take good care of those around me. To offer my love in whatever medium necessary: packing skills, technology help, deep listening, quiet presence, patience, energy, being a human alarm clock. To be humble in offering my love, to offer what the other person needs when I’m able without becoming attached to a specific way or outcome.

To love each other is to cultivate the energy of God: this energy heals and soothes each of us as individuals and as one collective human family.

My work here in Jerusalem is flourishing in so many unexpected directions. I am learning to follow the energy of the community and to hold many threads of possibility at once. In the past few weeks, I have invested time and joy into the following projects:

  • Starting the Aida Women’s Collective: We held our first monthly women’s outing to Nablus, nourishing our bodies and minds at a Turkish bath, having delicious lunch of lamb and chicken skewers, and attending a meditation event together. We also had our first gathering of families at the monastery in Ein Karem.
  • Exploring collaboration with Gaza Sky Geeks in Hebron (Khaleel in Arabic) to increase access to their incredible program, with a particular focus on young adults from the Aida and Dheisheh refugee camps in Bethlehem
  • Meeting with the Jerusalem School Bethlehem to discuss setting up an after-school computer literacy and basic Javascript program, which will help me bridge the gap in computer skills for the Bethlehem camp residents
  • Talks scheduled about my biography and the value of software engineering education to Computer Science students at the Jerusalem School (where Lisa works and through which I received my work visa)
  • Working with Lisa to plan Peace Days for the Jerusalem School
  • Collaborating with Joann, a wonderful dharma teacher from the SF Bay Area, on Community Resiliency Model trainings in Haifa, Bethlehem, and Jerusalem
  • Exploring the structures that keep Bethlehem refugee camps in place and make it difficult to break free from poverty

Dear friends, if you’ve made it this far (even if you’ve skimmed ahead!), thank you for your presence in my life. May you touch joy and love in community wherever you are. Please know that I am here for you and love you very much.

Love,

Melanie

left: home in Ein Karem | center: Bethlehem Christmas | right: lighting candles for Hanukkah
left: gratitude dinner at the monastery | right: our dear friend Yossi with donkeys

Social entrepreneur, creative, engineer. I like to make things and tell stories.

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