Seeing the North Star through the trees
Seven weeks of exploring individual and collective narrative with Joann, through our discussions on tree planting in Israel/Palestine
My dear friend Joann and I have written a collaborative essay about narrative and tree planting here in Israel/Palestine. You’ll find her perspective first and mine second, and a section we’ve written together at the very end.
In our seven weeks together, we’ve gotten stuck in the forest of our individual narratives many times. This collective piece documents our efforts to reconcile our narratives and to arrive at a shared understanding of the external world. As you’ll read below, it hasn’t been an easy journey.
We’re not searching for one definition of the truth anymore. We’ve found a North Star more sparkly than the Truth: our deep aspiration to arrive at peace and understanding, for ourselves and for each other.
The third thread is my blue Jewish one. This one has been on the loom for almost one month. Melanie and I have undertaken to write about collaboratively and the writing has had to wait patiently for the weaving in of this thread to be more complete. It has been hard not to conflate Jews and Israeli government. It is hard to separate the religion from the culture. They are not the same and they are not different.
We are on the bus, Melanie and I, approaching Jerusalem, the roadsides are blanketed here and there with a strange kind of forest, a helter skelter assortment of trees that look both contrived and disorderly. I flash back to my childhood dresser top in our shared bedroom, my grandma and me, to the blue and white tin box, accumulating its coins to send to Israel to plant a tree. At that time, I didn’t have any explanation as to what that box meant. Israel then was just a bit younger than me, still is for that matter. But planting a tree in Israel, whether I understood or not, was a part of the air I breathed, or at least part of my grandma’s air. She was my sibling and a great comfort to me.
So I tell Melanie this memory and my body jolts as if hit by a loose electric line from Melanie’s body. Am I picking up some tension in her? Fear courses through my veins, it’s subtle and it is unaccompanied by conscious thought. In her customary gentle way she chooses her words carefully, reminding me about the rationale here of the Israeli government. Planting trees in the rubble of bulldozed Arab villages, the government claims the land to be protected forest, thereby preventing even a thought that people would be able to reclaim their land. Even though the words are skillful she cannot hide her visceral response.
Inside I am churning and I stew, tears and screams wanting to make their way to the surface. I don’t want to hear another negative thing about Jews, devious, self absorbed, unfair, cruel. My head is stuffed with the frightening current rise of Nazis in the US and Europe, the Arab ethos of ridding the world of Israel, the sleazy coterie of Jews surrounding Trump, and the evil alliance between Trump and BB. Through this fearful lens my mind becomes trapped in a narrative, a collective narrative I am not able in that moment to see beyond. In a flash, I begin telling myself that I am traveling, living, and spending every moment with someone who is here just to empower Palestinians, who is not Jewish and I fear in this very moment, lopsided in her ability to grasp a whole, or at least more balanced picture.
This narrative overcomes my rational self. But what IS a more balanced picture??? In conversation a few days later I am to realize that In my upset I unconsciously brushed aside any awareness to the contrary, the fact that Melanie seeks out Shabbat experiences and Jewish wake up group she wants to join, collaborating with Jews, and being genuinely interested in the perspectives of Israeli Jews she encounters. What overcomes me to see this person in such narrowness? Could this be something akin to what happens on a larger scale, these emotionalized stories that become more real than life.
That evening I spend with Shoshannah who adds some to about the tree planting. Having been an Israeli tour guide for 17 years before becoming a rabbi she has tidbits I’ve always appreciated. And even though she is obviously bound to Israel, I’ve come to trust she fills her mind with a broad view through progressive reporting of the news, and a wide cross section of the Jewish community. She says that in the beginning many Eastern European Jews longed for the forests that were so important to them, and began this tree planting campaign. True or not, my Jewish self wants to drink up that image as if to quench a desert thirst. I want to hear the balancing stories of Jewish victimization by Arabs! And with that, I can perhaps get a glimpse of what it is like to be a Jewish Israeli citizen, not wanting to wallow in guilt and shame.
This long weekend is the first break Melanie and I have from each other, each of us packed with stories to relate. So when we get back together to return to Haifa, we spend a couple of hours first sitting in a small outdoor park café catching up before jumping on the train back “home”. The sharing is joyous, relaxed and connecting.
On our brief walk back to the train station, we rejoice and marvel in the partnership we have established. We also marvel at the seemingly minor encounters that turn the course of our lives, a chance request for directions, resting in a spot long enough to notice something of significance we’d have missed were we hurrying or more rested, needing help with storing luggage that opens into a whole social change project.
On the train, I am reminded of the tree incident and all it brought up for me so I ask to share some about it. What ensues is both tension filled and challenging. I have to fight my habits of defensiveness and self absorption, wanting to be seen as good and also right. We navigate through the bumps slowly, and come out of a short tunnel into a field of softer grass. We are both products of not fitting in, Melanie being of Asian roots, knows all too well what it is like to be perceived as other. So here too in Israel she stands out, all too clear she “doesn’t belong”. In this moment, I suffer from a belonging that I have longed all my life to experience, and she from the opposite.
Over the next couple of weeks Melanie and I have many hours of emotional conversations. This is the first time in my life I’ve had this intensive of an opportunity to be practicing walking my talk, combining my Buddhist path of looking deeply, listening openly in the face of conflict, grappling with deep seeded identities. At first it was exciting, feeling met with a similar philosophy, appetite and skill for processing. Then I got worn out, finding that too many hours in the day were being consumed by unexpected bumps in our common road. It was surprising to me to find I didn’t have the stamina to keep up the processing pace. I feared it would become a full time job and besides it wasn’t part of the picture I had painted for myself. Well as it turns out I’d been painting by the numbers and the twists and turns in the road had flung me into a landscape painting course that I hadn’t intended.
A turning point for me came with Melanie’s suggestion that we consider writing about the issue in collaboration, perhaps being able to find a shared narrative. While it took me some time for the idea to sink in and even longer to work up an appetite to delve in whole heartedly, I am now on board. In the process I have had to modify my narrative. While I still hold out the hope that there were some wholesome elements in the tree planting inception and certainly a few eco benefits, I have yet to find anything that redeems the way those notions were and are being used that perpetuate the situation here.
We have named the enemy and it is not each other. It is the habit for me of always trying to grab a fixed understanding, that understanding skewed by yearning for stable ground, stories that validate other notions I’ve been constructing all my life: what it means to be Jewish, a woman, having a purpose in life, making a difference, what is intimacy, friendship, need for boundaries, being a teacher, walking my talk.
My Dharma name is Chan Tue Ha, True River of Understanding, big shoes to fill. They say that no matter how old you get, your ears and nose keep growing. Yet by walking this path with Melanie right now my feet are having a miraculous growth spurt.
The CRM project, while going better than I would ever have dreamed, is turning out to be an enormous carrot. You know the kind of carrot hung on a string in front of a donkey that keeps it walking. I am walking the road of dropping the story, or rather, seeing everything as story with its own story without the urge to make it the truth. Daily we have areas of tension, and daily we get through them to another level of intimacy and acceptance. Along with the workout, we are developing an ease that rests in our history of getting through such tensions. Perhaps it is a fluid choreography of micro missteps.
Melanie has many characteristics like Jenny, and I am getting to travel that road again with more skill. I am curious to see where it takes Melanie. I wonder if I will be able to transfer this more skillful me to Ukiah, to Sage, the family, my sangha sibs and children. The thread is blue, and is becoming iridescent.
We’re on our way to Jerusalem via bus 960 departing from Haifa. I’m feeling quite sleep-deprived and have napped our whole journey, waking occasionally to jolts in the road and Joann trying to access our snack bag, which is below my feet. I am enjoying the hazy quiet that comes when waking from a satisfying nap. We are passing through rolling hills now covered in scattered groups of pine trees, the kind that stand out as non-native to the land.
Joann is fully awake, having eaten her snack of what I’m guessing are raw vegetables, and begins to tell me a story from her childhood. She says that growing up, her grandmother had a tin for collecting coins, coins that would later be sent to Israel for planting trees. I look around at the changing landscape, the clusters of trees that I imagine have been planted by a government looking to prevent Arab Palestinians from returning to their lands pre-1948. My body immediately tightens: my heart beats more quickly, heat rushes to my face, and I am aware of my rising anger. I take a deep breath, wanting to be mindful of Joann’s loving connection with her grandmother and to be true to my own bodily experience.
I say: “I have mixed feelings about seeing these trees. What I’ve heard about forestation is that the Israeli government often plants trees to prevent Palestinians from having access to their lands.”
I am neither Israeli or Palestinian, and in the moment, I am careful to structure my response as an observation from others. I identify as an outsider in this territory, and fear that my opinions are not often welcome in political dialogue. So I say what I do: that my visceral reaction is due to what I have heard from someone else, that this is not necessarily my opinion at all.
Looking back, I see that sharing a Palestinian narrative in response to Joann’s share is taking a side in the moment: that my opinion is conveyed by which stories I choose to give voice to. And I see that even though I said the words “mixed response”, the statement that followed conveyed a clear perspective supporting one side. I see now that the mixed nature of my response was in holding Joann’s tender sharing of her grandmother (and my desire to touch the beauty of this memory with her) with the tension and anger in my body over the political situation. I did not say as much in the original interaction.
Instead, my visceral reaction and words politicized Joann’s family memory. At the time, I thought little of the experience: simply that it was unpleasant and I was glad it was over. Looking back, I can see how painful that could be: in the tender, vulnerable space of family memory, there was now intertwined, a layer of politics.
A few days later, we are on the way back to Haifa from a meeting in Tel Aviv, and Joann mentions that she has something she wants to discuss. We are one minute from jumping onto an incoming train and are carrying heavy bags, and so I wait in anxious anticipation for what is to come.
On the train, Joann brings up our conversation about planting trees. My body is tense, and I am responding with the measured “okay” and slow breathing typical for me in moments of conflict.
In this second encounter, I experience my own painful narrative: Joann is the Jewish insider sharing with me her pain, and I am the foreigner who will never truly understand. No matter how many people I speak with, how many questions I ask or how many years I spend here, I will always be an outsider.
It is not just here in Israel-Palestine that I experience this narrative: growing up Asian-American in a mostly white community in California, I experienced the lack of belonging that comes with being the “other”. Studying abroad in London, backpacking in Europe and Asia, hiking the Camino de Santiago in Spain: in each of these places, California is not accepted as my “true” place of origin; the follow-up question is always, “But where are you from?” often accompanied by some pointing to my face or my eyes. What I take from these encounters is that others want me to explain what I look like rather than anything about my life; they remind me that to them I do not belong to the United States any more than I belong to the place I am in.
Here, this place is Israel-Palestine. I am often asked why I am here by Jewish Israelis, as if to imply that I am not entirely welcome as an international in a conflict area. Palestinians rarely ask why I am here: they are simply delighted that I am with them and invite me to have a meal with their families. As I write, I am realizing that I do feel a lack of belonging to the Israeli community, and a commonality with Palestinian people as a non-Jew. As a non-Jew in Israel, I cannot stay here longer than two years, I cannot rent certain pieces of land or live in certain homes.
Looking back, I see how this narrative of always being an outsider is a story I have constructed: there were other times on the Camino, and across Asia and Europe, that people were curious about my roots as a starting place for knowing who I am. I imagine that others may not identify with the place that they live, or even grew up in, but rather where their ancestors are from, and this understanding may drive their line of questioning. By deconstructing my narrative, I can let go of my attachment to the way things must be and can see more clearly the way things are.
When Joann brings up the tree conversation on our train from Tel Aviv to Haifa, I am not able to see beyond my pre-existing narrative.
In that moment, I am frustrated that I cannot seem to get it right, “it” being knowing what to say in response to Joann’s family memory. At first, I blame myself for not being more skillful during the bus conversation. I examine what I could have said instead: perhaps I could have commented on the tenderness of her memory and the feelings in my body. Perhaps I could have asked for permission in bringing up politics.
Joann tells me that it is not my words that caused pain for her, but rather, the tension in my body. I see that my body’s visceral response in that moment — the clenching in my chest and the heat that arose in my face — was not a conscious attempt to be unskillful but rather a subconscious outcome of my hearing and identifying with Palestinian stories. In the moment, there was no way to prevent this response. And with that, I let go of self-blame.
Joann shares her pain with me and advises me to take in a broader range of perspectives, advice that I find difficult to accept. I am taking intentional steps to understand the Jewish narrative: attending Kabbalat Shabbat and dinner on Friday evenings, studying Judaism, joining Israeli community groups. I want those actions to be acknowledged and valued, rather than to be demonized as a person that perpetuates the narrative that Israel is evil, or worse yet, that Jews are evil.
I am realizing that both of us have deeply rooted narratives that color our ability to perceive the reality of the present moment. In Joann’s narrative, I am an outsider that is not Jewish, is here only for Palestinian communities, and sees the Israeli government as evil. In my narrative, she is yet another Jew pointing out my inability to understand and who cannot see clearly the harm the Israeli state is perpetuating in Palestinian communities.
She points out that she identifies as an American Jew, not as an Israeli Jew, and that my bringing up the Israeli government conflates a Jewish identity with an Israeli one. The question arises in my mind: If Joann’s grandmother is sending money to the Israeli state to plant trees, does any separation between the two identities exist?
A few days later, Joann shared with me her writings on our bus conversation, in preparation for emailing them out to her newsletter list. Upon reading her writing, I am afraid: I perceive her words as perpetrating the narrative of me as an outsider that only cares about the Palestinian cause.
I suggest that instead of sending out separate narratives, we co-create a single written piece including both of our individual stories. This is a way for both of us to feel heard. I do not know what will arise as a result of this collaboration, but I am sure that it will be a rich exploration. After some hesitation, Joann agrees.
In the evening before sleep, we draft the first version of the piece you’re reading now. The individual writing — Joann on her bed, me on a carefully arranged futon — occurs over the span of hours, each of us laboring to write our individual perspective. In breaks, we share discoveries from our writing and review each other’s work.
And then something beautiful happens: we begin to examine what we know together. Where did Joann’s grandmother get the blue-and-white tin that sat in her childhood room? Joann is pretty certain that it is the Jewish National Fund, and sure enough, there’s an American branch based in New York that promotes tree planting in Israel and was founded in 1901. Over the next few weeks, we gather our learnings together.
For now, I rest in gratitude for our collective willingness to touch discomfort and to stay with it and with each other. In looking deeply, I see how my narrative of not belonging has served me in the past. If I don’t belong here, I can reconcile feelings too difficult to hold: not feeling loved, feeling outside of my body, not having a shared sense of humor or cultural reference. A narrative of not belonging gives way to a constant search for where I do belong. Yet belonging is not found in the search but rather the choice to commit: to a place, a person or people, a community.
In my friendship with Joann, I am slowly beginning to see that commitment does not need to be restrictive or to result in boredom or loneliness. Instead, commitment made willingly and out of love can offer belonging and stability: knowing that I am loved as I am and that mistakes I make will not sever the relationship allows me to be more fully myself.
In challenging my narrative, I can let go of conceptions of my identity. Instead, my form takes on the fluidity of the river, always changing and merging with new streams of insight. Nothing is certain without narrative. And in this river of understanding, there is true freedom.
Over weeks, we have compiled our current understanding of the planting of trees on Israel/Palestine lands. Our initial intention was to share this understanding with you in all of its incompleteness, but we have now chosen to refrain from gathering or posting any “facts” at all. To capture the story of tree planting is the task of a lifetime, and not one we are capable of doing now.
We recognize that our shared understandings will always be incomplete, blossoming, expanding as new stories come in and old ones lose ground. We aspire to practice opening our minds and hearts to what is, knowing that the deconstruction of narrative is a good place to start.
Ultimately, the issue is not so much coming to peace with different narratives, but coming to peace and understanding with each other.
We’d like to leave you with the second of the 14 Mindfulness Trainings.
The Second Mindfulness Training: Non-Attachment to Views
Aware of the suffering created by attachment to views and wrong perceptions, we are determined to avoid being narrow-minded and bound to present views. We are committed to learning and practicing non-attachment to views and being open to others’ experiences and insights in order to to benefit from the collective wisdom. We are aware that the knowledge we presently possess is not changeless, absolute truth. Insight is revealed through the practice of compassionate listening, deep looking, and letting go of notions rather than through the accumulation of intellectual knowledge. Truth is found in life, and we will observe life within and around us in every moment, ready to learn throughout our lives.