Occupied Graceland

Gates of GracelandImagine for a moment that you live at Graceland. You and Elvis had been close back in the day, and though you didn’t like to think of yourself as “one of His groupies”, you did spend a lot of time at His place. At some point He invited you and your family to come live there. It was a comfortable place to live and you made it home, appreciating Elvis as a singularly unique guy with an awesome pad. There were others there who made a big deal of it: fawning over Elvis, marveling at the hot brownies cooked fresh every night by his special order, growling like tigers in the Jungle Room for a laugh. They acted like they owned the place, but you just tried to ignore them and figured their 15 minutes would pass.

Years went by and Elvis’ career slowly declined. The house got more chaotic. Those of you who’d been there the longest stuck together, but the comings and goings of others started to wear thin on the collective patience. Everybody suddenly had an idea of how Graceland ought to be.

When He died, folks who’d never lived there and knew nothing about the place moved in and started bossing people around. It was like they’d been waiting for the opportunity. With the excuse that “Elvis would have wanted it this way”, they started to move things around, put the Lisa Maire under 24-hour guard “just in case”, and patrolled the area like they owned it. They started to favor some people living in the house over others (especially the fawning brownie-types), all the time invoking Elvis and “extenuating circumstances” as justifications for new rule after petty new rule. Limits on the number and type of house guests, a complex composting system, and a “chore wheel” all became daily realities. None of these things ever seemed to restrict the outsiders or their Favored residents. Some folks pushed back, longing for the good old days. The occasional fistfight broke out as tensions ran high. For some reason the outsiders, with the support of the favored residents, always won out.

Things took a drastic turn for the worse when one day the whole house was informed the favored residents, along with their powerful outsider backers, would be running everything but the pool room and the garden shed from here on out. The neighbors would clean the pool but you were on your own to pull together a fridge and bathe in the pool. You couldn’t be in the other rooms except with special permission, and anyone that was caught lingering in an unauthorized area would suffer consequences. You, your family and others not on the VIP list balked. What the hell? Hadn’t Elvis invited you just like all the others? Suddenly you started to recognize those Outsiders for who they really were: They were the same guys who’d ruined Elvis. The favored residents were just their newest objects of affection. The Outsiders were the ones who’d hooked Elvis on coke, who’d sold keychains with His likeness without giving Him a dime, who’d spread rumors about His life and death.

Once you saw the Outsiders for who they were, you were enraged. These guys were dragging Elvis’ good name through the mud and wrecking Graceland. You rejected their sovereignty and some of your family started getting a little out of hand. The Outsiders used the Favored residents as their eyes and ears in the house which made them the easiest targets. To spite this new conspiracy, your people burned up the precious “Lisa Marie”, all the mirrors leading up the main staircase were smashed, and someone pushed the white baby grand off the deck. This only made the favored residents more upset. They started to occupy more and more of the rooms, pushing more people into the pool room or out of the house entirely. They always had the support of the outsiders. They said things like “if you can’t use the house respectfully, you don’t deserve to live in it” or “did Elvis even invite you here in the first place?” or “A Hundred Years from Now, we’ll have A World of Our Own” You started to hate the Favoreds for being just like the Outsiders, only closer and smugger. Pretty soon, you and the others who’d lost favor resigned yourself to the hopelessness of the situation. You were outnumbered but especially outgunned. Your friends and neighbors that came to help out at first eventually drifted away, only to send you encouraging texts occasionally or Tweet on your behalf. You listened to Paul Simon sing about the good old days at Graceland and bided your time.

Years later, the neighborhood started to get fed up with all the trouble Graceland was causing and everyone decided you were going to do something about this bullshit. You were fed up with this tyranny and suddenly it seemed like the neighbors woke up and were ready to help out. (You knew some of the neighbors had skeletons in their closets, but who didn’t really?) In honor of Elvis’ memory, the sanctity of Graceland, and especially your lost freedom and bedrooms you plotted revenge. The neighbors started planning an attack from the outside and you did what you could to fill water balloons in the swimming pool. On the night before your big coordinated raid, the rest of the house preempted the attack and rained down savage brutality on you. The pool ran red.

The neighbors were routed, and when the dust settled 2 things had changed completely: First, the favored residents posted 24 hour lifeguards in the pool room. These guys watched everyone, bullied folks who ran or carried glass containers, and created “closed pool times” when only favored residents could swim. Reports were the garden shed was worse, but if anyone so much has put a foot outside the pool room they were kicked out, never to return. Those of you that had jobs were forced to leave them or scrape by running odd jobs for the lifeguard and cleaning bathrooms in the rest of the house. The second big change was that suddenly the number of Outsiders around the house taking an interest in Graceland increased tenfold. Now that the favored residents had shown they could kick ass, everyone took notice. Suddenly the sympathetic neighbors (such as they were) started to be replaced by others who talked like the old neighbors but clearly had other designs on Graceland. They were all shills on the take. Things looked especially bleak, and then it got worse.

Shortly after all this went down, the lifegaurd invited some of the Favoreds to occupy the pool. Many of these folks where some of the biggest jerks from before, the ones who’d acted like they were Elvis’ bosom buddies. They set up inflatable houses in the pool and would belt out horrible renditions of Elvis’ songs all night long. You and your family living in the pool room barely got any sleep anymore, which made it hard to keep your pitiful jobs and stay sane day to day. You shuffled around the pool edge, trying to hold onto whatever pieces of dignity and pride you had left. You had a hell of a time explaining this to your kids, but with no money left and the neighborhood going South, where we you gonna go?

One day when the pool occupiers got particularly belligerent, they started trying to convince you and your remaining family that Elvis’ lyrics justified all the misery you were being put through.
“Love me Tender?,” they said, “that’s about us. Hound dog? That’s about you.”
This pushed one of your kids over the edge, and during the night when the Floaters weren’t paying attention he poked a hole in an inflatable house and it sank. This really sent the Floaters, the whole rest of the house and the neighborhood into hysterics. Your kid was disappeared, never to return, and suddenly things got worse than you ever imagined. The lifegaurd started requiring IDs they could check at any time, the Favoreds put hoses into the pool to draw water out for a butterfly annex in the Jungle Room (with an environmentally friendly misting machine, you heard) and you all lost your measly jobs. More Favored Floaters came, some of whom were completely new to the house, and suddenly they had more rights than you did. A TV was installed in the pool room and it began to run stories day in and day out about the righteousness of the Saviors of Graceland (the Favoreds), pitted against the savage malcontents (you) who were backward and violent. Pundits discussed your inherent hatred of inflatable homes and medieval interpretations of Elvis’ music like you were somehow unable to speak for yourselves. Your preferred name for yourselves was largely ignored and you were just lumped in with “the Neighbors” on the news. You saw programs broadcast in languages you couldn’t even understand that were clearly spewing this same twisted propaganda. Had the whole world gone mad?

At various points as the years dragged on you had what you thought were small breakthroughs in the situation, a Pool Committee that could negotiate for towel drying contracts with the lifeguards or the Unilateral Garden Shed Withdrawl, but the cumulative effect of these “benevolent allowances” never lived up to the huge hope you placed in them. They inevitably were corrupted. Seasons changed, your kids grew up and they had kids, occasionally unwashed activist types who knew nothing about Elvis would show up to support your cause. You always welcomed them, hoping they’d tell the world you weren’t the animals the Favoreds made you out to be. You struggled to see how this impasse could ever be resolved, but you believed in the goodness of Graceland and your right to be there.

One day, this ad ran on the TV, talking about an amazing new project in Floaterville:

Imagine for a moment that you live in occupied Graceland. Would you take that job? Please share your thoughts #OccupiedGraceland

No Wake Zone

I tried to take Federica out for a sail yesterday in a last ditch effort to get the boat out and impressing women as it is intended.  No go.  As the starter ground and my newly ripped shorts flapped in the ample breeze, I would not be defeated.  I decided we would try to sail off the dock…..into the wind.  Desperate measures only succeeded in rousing all the neighbors from their vessels to anxiously ask if “they could help” [me return to my slip like a sane person, I gathered]  I was defeated.


Having Federica see my life for the last three weeks, including the delightfully exotic (hiking through tropical rainforest munching on strawberry guavas) and the painfully mundane (fretting over whether the Y will grant a FOURTH guest pass in its limited unlimited “special offer” plan,  just wanting a damn shower)  I have felt honored to have her see everything  and apparently accept it all with a remarkable calm I couldn’t imagine mustering.  How is it that some people are so collected, grasping the tiller firmly and staring down their future with a genuine smile?  It may be that we’re all still just tied to the dock anyway, or that the mussels are slowly sinking us from the bottom up, but I just can’t help FRETTING all the time, whigging out over the tiniest things.


Last weekend she and I did two events about Israel and Palestine on Whidbey Island.  People listened politely and asked good questions but I realized at the end of it all I feel so tired getting righteous about injustice these days.  As I’ve bucked and tossed and rolled myself at the helm of some kind of vessel plodding through Israel and Palestine, I’ve burnt myself out.  My starter’s gonna fail if I don’t watch it.  I know very well why I don’t have the tireless energy of some or the uncanny good cheer of others.  I’m just not yet running with everything full ahead yet.  It’ll happen though, and man I’m hoping it’ll be impressive when it does.

I’m home

And perhaps you all noticed, due to the steep drop in viewership. (I’m also allowing for the possibility the dead sheep might have had something to do with it.)

Anyway, returning has brought me a reminder of the good and beauty that is friendship, the challenge of little nagging beefs that just won’t resolve themselves and the sharp relief of these things against a “world away”.

It’s good to be home, I am immensely thankful to all of you for your thoughts and prayers, and you should not expect to see much new content here soon.

a Prickly Pear for the road

I’ve had the last few days entirely to myself here. I’ve been at a bit of a loss about how to spend my time, unquestioningly thankful today wraps everything up.

I was very kindly hosted last night by two Italian women who work in peacebuilding here. At least one of them is part of a intentional Catholic community in Italy (sounding pretty similar to the Catholic Worker) with an emphasis on poverty and social justice. This community sponsors Fede and Alé’s work here where they collaborate with CPT as their own team called ‘Operation Dove.’ I mention them mainly because I am so impressed by the thought of an intentional community that not only focuses on intra-community dynamics and Utopian ideals but also that risks so much for the wider world outside. Anyway, good Italian food and restful sleep was excellent too.

A final thought after spending more time in West Jersusalem (the modern Jewish side) is how much it reflects on my own experience at home in the US. As I walked along one of the main roads yesterday my eye caught a banner hanging from an apartment window, in English, that said: ‘Ask me about Land for Peace’ next to a picture of a Native American Chief and a map of Israel with an arrow struck in its heart. I’m not sure I totally get it but I appreciate both that ambiguity and the resonance with my own homeland. I wonder as I walk through these tense and suspicious streets, full of modern buildings, landscape architecture and a Western feel, what it takes to make my lifestyle possible.

Perhaps I’m just paranoid after my less-than-awesome entry into the country, but it seems that folks here are constantly at least subconsciously aware of the contentiousness of every part of their lives. Someone said Israelis refer to themselves as the Hebrew word for ‘Prickly pear’ with a tough outside and softer interior. I wonder if we in the US have exported our own occupation so far away we don’t even prickle with conscience.

I’ll spend the night tonight with a Guilford classmate I ran into randomly in the old city (!) before heading on back to Istanbul tomorrow morning.

More while I’m still here

I’m realizing that in my final days here in Israel and Palestine my words now have a certain weight they will lose later. Me, a random guy trying to learn and see in a totally foreign situation, doesn’t really have much of a place in this mess beyond being a caring human being. I know from experience that especially when I get home, people will qualify my perspective of this place based on my “perceived sympathies.” Though I am more hurt and broken now than before I came in many ways, I feel a certain calm and resolve about my answers to their challenge.dheishieh

The questions I might ask to questions are these: What does a 60 year old refugee camp mean to you? When you walk down the winding streets of a place that really looks quite nice by many standards of the city here, clean streets, pleasant balconies and folks milling through the streets, what difference does it make that signs painted all over the walls still bear the names of the villages these people came from 60 years ago? What do you think about a child who can diligently describe the feel of village life but has never actually been outside the city his parent’s were forced to live in?dscn1272

What do you make of a the son of survivors of Auschwitz whose daughter was killed in a suicide bombing in Jerusalem? What if he shares his story to promote peace beside his “brother in grief,” a Palestinian man whose son was killed by a Israeli settler? I certainly didn’t have much to say to them besides thanking them for their courage.

Am I too optimistic to think these people would just like to see peace? The people I have spoken with here are cynical and sad, to be sure. However, the imagination to look past tragic circumstances to keep working for justice is amazingly inspiring. Everyone has assured my that sympathies and sides are clearly part of the “facts on the ground” but a remarkably large number of them seem basically fed up. May we all reach that tipping point where we become so fed up with violence we decide to lower our weapons. Inshallah

Snapshots on a Bittersweet anniversary

I apologize to all of you who may have expected more regular updates of my travels. It has been all I could do to keep my head up, eyes awake, and heart semi-intact on this journey. This Shabbat evening is the 61st anniversary of the UN mandate that cleared the way for the foundation of the state of Israel. I closed this special Shabbat this evening with a young Israeli family who helped to humanize and recenter the wild mix of experiences I’ve been living.

So short of being able to actually make any kind of narrative conclusion of what I’ve seen so far, let me in instead offer some snapshots from the last few days.

"pheonix"Our group shuffles into a beautiful home in a neighborhood much like a suburb of Pheonix. The roof is made of imported pine and bookshelves full of beautifully bound religious texts line the walls. Our group sits and speaks with two Israeli settlers who live within the occupied territory of Palestine in the South Hebron hills. The men tell us about how they want to follow God’s will in the land, practice civil disobedience if necessary in order to follow His command, and are seeking to keep “their feet on the ground and their heart to heaven” in order to live in their settlement with the protection of a secular military in a land not quite ligitmately theirs… yet.

Just a few miles away we walk across the desert to another settlement. A lush herb garden wafts sweet smellsAid and an aromatic tranquility through the steel fence and across a small collection of tents just meters away. These tents are the site of the village of Uum Khader, demolished just weeks ago by the military. The villagers, their homes freshly piled in twisted bundles of steel and masonry, invite us into a tent that doesn’t even stand up to the small breeze that picks up as we trundle inside. They offer us bread and tea, these people with absolutely nothing but bread and tea, and tell us about their college degrees, how they tell their children this is all a game, and of their faith and hope in God. I weep as they arrange a ride for us home down a road it is illegal for them to travel on.

That’s all I can manage for now, I love you all.


After arriving in Tel Aviv we took a dolmush (my name not theirs) to Jerusalem with several folks from New York and England. I struck up a conversation with the English fellow about what Israel means to him, which is quite a lot. He spoke of the mystic quality of finding his place here in the “countless” times he’s been back, as well as what he calls the the opposite pull within Israeli society to “earthly excess.” I didn’t really probe the meaning of that a whole lot but was very interested to learn he would be headed to Kiryat Arba, the oldest and one of the largest Israeli settlements near Hebron. The man from New York was headed to one of the settlements right inside the city. We ourselves were headed toward Hebron but to see a very different side of it.Hebronfrombelow

The office here is right inside the Old City of Hebron. The old city here, like the old city in Jerusalem, is a tight warren of multi-family living complexes set on very narrow, intentionally twisted streets. On our tour of the city by a rehabilitation committee representative, he spoke of how these houses, all built with a continuous outside facade with little more than differing windows to set them apart, were originally designed to defend again marauding nomads. Defense is an interesting concept now as settlers and Palestinian families occupy building literally walls apart from each other. Soldiers strut above, through and around it all. The tension is palpable as one house that is accessible from one street by one type of person is only accessible on the other side by another type of person. My chances of seeing the fellow I sat next to on the taxi just days before were rendered almost impossible except through razor wire and steel gates.

And this was a big weekend for settlers. A large building complex just outside the old city that has been inhabited by the settlers for a little while was just given eviction orders last weekend that expired on Wednesday. Reports were coming in that some 20,000 folks sympathetic with the settlers came in this weekend to show solidarity. I heard their celebration and saw some parties from the roof of the office, but mostly experienced the affect the long-term presence of the several hundred of them that stay year round has on the Palestinian folks here.

I am not sure how to accurately portray the anguish of the Palestinian residents of Hebron we’ve been meeting with so far. Representatives from various organizations have come to us and we’ve gone to them and all ofbarebone them tell a very similar story of the hardships of occupation. When one man’s house was occupied, he very luckily won the rights to return to it in an Israeli court but was never given the key to open its military-installed gate. One woman took us on a tour of the mosque where Abraham and Sarah are buried. She showed us spackled bullet holes in the walls of the inner sanctum where Baruch Goldstein gunned down worshippers during prayers in 1994 while she was in a back room. As a result of this action the once complete mosque is now one half mosque and one half temple seperated right in the middle by a steel door.

On an even more basic and tourtously slow level, as you walk through the market every other shop is closed voluntary from lack of business and spotty fencing overhead keeps trash and filth thrown by settlers from hitting passers by.

The pace is very fast and I’m taking a lot in. I’ll have to give you all more details as I can find the words to process them. Tomorrow we leave for Al-Tuwani, the village outside the city in the South Hebron Hills.

This is what i’m here for


I’m here.

I arrived in Israel yesterday and began very quickly learning how things work here. After requesting that my passport not be stamped to limit my travels later on, I was red flagged for questioning. I tried to answer as truthfully and as briefly as possible, but suddenly I realized as the answers came out of my mouth that I must sound horribly suspicious to a governement official. My unemployed freewheelin’ life leading to a trip that I genuinely didn’t know the itinerary for raised eyebrows and prompted lots of cell phone calls to various people standing in other parts of the same room. “Did I know anyone in Israel?” Not really. “Did I know where exactly I was going?” Nope. So much for being an unattached golden boy.

And so it began. I detained for about 3 hours. They patted me down to underwear, went through and ex-rayed everything in my bags, flipped through and caressed every page of my journal and wrote endless reams of paper in Hebrew about the experience. Lots of cell phone calls, lots of waiting, lots of lots of the same questions about my life, why I was in Turkey anyway, etc. I felt totally violated and if I ever thought I would slide in here unnoticed, I was totally wrong. I did not matter that I didn’t consent to searches and when they were finished with me I felt totally numb. I never even really told them what I was doing here.

And now I’m here. I am now intimately aware what mentioning any little detail about any aspect of myself might mean and at any time.

So I will keep everyone in touch about my travels for sure to let you know I am safe and sound, but for some reason right now I don’t feel really inspired to offer a whole lot of myself or what’s happened since then up to the maw of the internet. While I know they probably couldn’t care less what I hapless fool like myself is doing in Israel once they turned him loose, they’ve succeeded in making talking about myself seem dirty.

To be a little boy again….

I arrived in Istanbul and have settled in with my host family once again. Sitting by the truck on our way back from the mountain cabin today, my host brother actually complimented my Turkish (“Well it’s not THAT good, but it’s enough”) We’d been talking about how dolphins catch fish and the various attributes of his favorite soccer players and I realized those topics aren’t as basic as they appear in one’s own language.

It feels almost like coming back to a second home when I’m here, albeit a home filled with a language I only 80% understand. I’ve almost let go of that concern though, trusting that eventually I’ll become more fluent and in the mean time feeling remarkably peaceful. I’ve completely let go of the sad and difficult memories of this place now, especially the challenging high school sojourn, which frees me up immensely.

I had a dream of standing beside a house fire last weekend while I was staying in Philadelphia. Just a few days before my aunt and I had discussed the scripture passage where we are promised that God offers beauty for ashes. In meeting the day after my dream, ministry focused on how we can burn away our hangups to be as children again, open and full of wonder. Perhaps our choice to burn away our personal hurts in order to build deeper spiritual connection and recapture child-like wonder is part of God’s gift of beauty.

Staying with my little host brothers, who I’ve watched grow from toddlers to preadolescents, I connect again with the beauty I remember finding everywhere as a child. I’m also eternally grateful I’m not a willful little brat anymore.

Setting up Shop

I’m several days into setting up this blog and still learning how it all works. Not yet fully satisfied with much of what you see here, but that will improve with time.

I would like to give proper credit to the influences and supporters I have to thank for this journey I am taking. My delegation with the Christian Peacemaker Teams (CPT) is supported largely through a grant from the Lyman Fund. (More about them through Philadelphia Yearly Meeting’s website http://www.pym.org/pm/more.php?id=1710_0_196_30_M ) The Fund supports individuals pursuing their spiritual leading and I am very grateful to them for helping make this trip possible.

For those readers who are unfamiliar and curious about Quakers online presence, I must give Martin Kelley (http://www.quakerranter.org/quaker/) credit for planting the blogger’s seed in me when I met him years ago on my motorcycle pilgrimage (made possible by the Pickett Fund for Quaker Leadership). It’s taken a while for me to pull together one of my own but I really appreciate the space and encouragement he and others have given me. (whether they were aware of it or not)

I just wanted to share these couple other links to people and resources related to aspects of this trip:

Joy Ellison is the daughter of Friends of Friends on my support committee for this trip. Her “I saw it in Palestine” blog (http://inpalestine.blogspot.com/) talks about her experience as a full time Christian Peacemaker Teams member in the South Hebron Hills. I’ve recently learned that CPT is
closing its Hebron office so I speculate wildly that our delegation will focus more closely on the work Joy and others are doing in the villages surrounding Hebron.

QuakerQuaker.org gives lots of links to Friend’s online contributions.