Hope is a Feathered Thing
The Peace Camp 2016 in Israel-Palestine has come to an end. I am full to the brim with impressions, feelings and learnings that will take some time to integrate and understand more deeply. And yet, I would like to put words to some of the experiences from out there in the Judean Desert, to share them with you, and let the world know what happened.
I therefore invite you on a guided memory tour of the Ecome centre and its close surroundings, where we spent six days and nights with local Palestinians, Israelis, and international participants, being with loss, grief, anger, and life together, during the Peace Camp 2016.
The following four activities were offered at the Peace Camp to support the participants: interfaith ceremonies, non-violent communication, constellation work and group process. (More information about each of these activities is available at www.healingishere.com/events/peacecamp2016)
As we pull off the desert highway in a minibus, there is the hand-painted sign that says “Ecome” and an arrow pointing to a small gravel road. This eco-initiative has been here for half a dozen years, in Zone C of the Palestinian Territories – a place for locals to meet, learn languages, try out yoga, and be welcomed regardless of background or beliefs.
The first thing that hits us as we step off the bus is the heat. The initial blast is quite pleasant after the cold air conditioning of the bus, but then it is only a matter of minutes before the sweltering heat makes us seek shade. This heat persists for most of our stay, and rises up to 38 degrees at times. Our bodies learn about heat shock and have to figure out how to survive it — during daytimes where the wind has died and our blood seems too thick for our minds to think, and night times where even the thinnest layer of covering over our bodies is unbearable, as we sweat and sweat on the thin foam mattresses on the ground…
We approach Ecome’s perimeter fence made of dried palm fronds. There is a thick white line sprayed on the stony ground about a step’s length from the fence. We learn that this is to deter scorpions and snakes from trying to enter. A snake was still found in one of the sleeping quarters recently though. Gulp!
As we enter through the gate that is open to visitors all day, ahead of us is the outside hangout area with sails stretched over it to shield volunteers and visitors from the sun. It is mainly the smokers who congregate here on old donated sofas, but it is also where the Palestinians take refuge when the emotional intensity from the work we do inside gets too much for them. In fact, less than half their original number manage to stay with us for the whole Camp. The depth of trauma in their histories and lives means they have to take small steps at a time to open up to feelings… and new possibilities. I learn, after some disappointment around their popping in and out, and their disappearance, that it was not a “failure” of the Peace Camp, but an accurate depiction of very real lives out here in the occupied territories that they could only be present to this extent. And that is enough, for now.
To the right, behind a rickety fence, a small vegetable patch is not yielding many crops, except a curious scarecrow assembled from bits and pieces that volunteers have left here over the years. He is the first scarecrow I have ever seen with a heart.
Further back, the separate men’s and women’s toilet and shower areas are hidden behind dried palm fronds bound together with wire. That is where I head sometime between 11pm and midnight every evening to let the cold water wash the day’s physical and emotional exertions off me. Moths swoop around me, attracted by the single naked bulb attached to a tree that also serves as a hook for the shower curtain made of an old duvet cover. The water runs off me onto large concrete slabs under which it is collected to irrigate the agricultural lands around here. We are all asked to use only organic soaps to care for the land in this way. In the daytime, the sun heats the shower water to a wide variety of temperatures. The concept of a thermostat that you can set to your ideal temperature is not part of this reality.
The toilets are of the dry compost kind which the succinct instructions displayed in there will help you understand:
1. Make deposit
2. Cover with saw dust or leaves.
The next guest then does the same, and it is surprisingly un-smelly. The daily emptying of the “deposits” by volunteers is a significant help with keeping them pleasant enough to use though.
These toilet contraptions have actual toilet seats and lids, placed on top of large wooden boxes that the guest perches on top of, hopefully having remembered to turn the little wooden sign hanging from a branch outside to the red “Busy” side, since there is no door to keep visitors out. Ecome is consistent in its open door policy!
Let us back up a bit towards the outside hang-out area where a guitar or flute musician may now have joined the smokers (and Palestinians who have had enough of large emotional displays for now). If you look to the left just after entering through Ecome’s gate, you will spot large tubs where organic material from the kitchen and toilets is collected to make compost. And just behind those, a new chicken coop is partly shaded by the fence. There is an overly enthusiastic rooster in the flock who I will admit to fantasising about as an oven roast, after he confuses the full moon for daytime for the first three nights…
Let’s go inside the main building now and take a look around the scenes playing out there.
First of all, there is shade, which is very welcome. As my eyes adjust to the relative darkness after the brilliant eyeball-singeing sunshine outside, my sense of humour is tickled by a couple of upholstered pews from a synagogue that have been arranged as a cosy corner with some plastic garden furniture interspersed. Everything in Ecome is donated, and it makes for some fabulously eclectic assemblages, not to mention the rainbow spectrum of people who pass through these spaces.
Nava, one of the Peace Camp’s group process facilitators, tells us over and over, as she perches delicately on one of the pew seats (if you lean too far forward, the whole row will topple!), that she LOVES having fresh healthy food prepared for her by the vegan chef here at Ecome. There is a lot of gratitude and appreciation being expressed.
None of the walls reach the ceiling of this basic agricultural building. Most of the walls are in fact less than waist high, and above them there are large multicoloured sheets hanging to give the illusion of privacy between rooms. On the days where the winds blow over this desert, the sheets billow like sails and we have to keep tucking them back in place or tie them up into huge knots so they do not cover the faces of people leaning back against the walls.
The kitchen is to the left in this large central space, covered on all sides by mosquito nets, which also serve to keep out flies and other critters that might wish to get into the food stores. The cuisine is fully vegetarian and tries towards vegan as well — which makes the presence of the chickens (and rooster!!) curious, except perhaps if the plan is to sell the eggs to raise funds. Here is a memory of standing in the kitchen looking through the meagre first aid supplies with one of the Ecome volunteers: we write a list of what else would be useful to have to take care of the Peace Camp participants in case of need. Thankfully we all managed to leave intact, although the conditions took their toll.
One of the youngest participants, Gus, arrives with a finger freshly stitched back together after a circular saw accident. A metal pin stabilises the bone and pokes out through the end of his finger with a little white plastic ball on it for protection. He and I sit on long mats atop the central space’s gravel floor, with a smaller or larger circle of fascinated spectators who cannot quite decide how much detail they want to see, changing dressings every two days. I wish it were a metaphor for the healing taking place here in Ecome, in the occupied territories, in the human hearts and minds, but Gus has youth and vitality on his side, instead of millennia of conflict and struggle to burden him. I delight in tending to his wound though, feeling my old affinity for the body and its physical healing, honed as a surgical trainee in Argentina and a medical volunteer in Kenya. At least something here is showing day-by-day visible and positive signs of healing. This makes it easier to bear the slow-moving non-resolution of the political situation in this land.
Anne, the Peace Camp’s group process lead facilitator, says it is all about bearing the tension of opposites in our system, without demanding a resolution. Being with the unbearable, until we let go of how we would want for it to be, and allow it to be how it is. Until that point, when we have an agenda, we are contributing to the split in the situation. Accepting it all, instead, allows for love to flow, and that is the best we can do. That love is not a weak thing that can be walked all over and kicked around — it is fierce, clear and brave. Anne talks about this in the group work space which is to the right of the central social space, behind billowing colourful sheets, as the participants lean against the walls on every size, shade and pattern of pillow one could imagine.
We have microphones and two large speakers to make sure everyone can hear in our motley crew of around 50, including Ecome volunteers who pop in between their various chores. We also start out with two translators who echo our words sentence by sentence in Hebrew and Arabic, but we soon establish that most of the Hebrew-speakers have enough command of English to follow without continuous translation, so participants just help one another with the odd unknown word or expression instead in Hebrew. This saves the whole group time in communications, and allows Dana, our local Peace Camp facilitator, to focus on the subtleties of what is happening instead of translating the stream of words. The Arabic translator, Amal, hails from Palestine. She stays with us for the whole six days, and although she says she only came to translate for us, she becomes an essential voice for the Palestinians’ experience of the work we are doing in the group.
Outside of the group work space again, there is a rack of shelves next to the entrance. They are not really visible when we first walk in, but when we come out of the group work space, they are fully in sight. On them is a very random assortment of books that volunteers and visitors have left here over the years, and there is also a telephone. One late evening, I stand with the telephone handset pressed against my ear for around half an hour, trying to pick out Rachelli’s words that only just make it down the thinnest and threadiest of phone lines. Rachelli is the main Ecome organiser, and it was due to a chance meeting with her the previous summer at a Non-Violent Communication training in Germany that the idea for the Peace Camp in the Holy Land came to me. Rachelli is now heavily pregnant and cannot be with us at the camp every day due to the intense desert heart and its effect on her blood pressure and her baby. So we talk on the phone, trying to make out one another’s words.
She conveys to me that the local participants are somewhere between scared and overwhelmed by the group process and constellation work we are offering in the group work room. Most of them have experience of Non-Violent Communication work, but constellation work and group process are both totally new to them. And both of those approaches invite for deep emotional work both within individuals and the group. Rachelli requests that we invite the group to have an open mind and give these approaches a chance, even if they are new and perhaps a bit scary for them. She also would like more time for Non-Violent Communication sessions in the packed schedule to give the participants tools she feels would be useful for them to proceed.
As I try to breathe and receive this feedback without inferring a catastrophe from it (“What were we thinking? Have we damaged them? Have we lost their trust?”), my hand rests subconsciously on the fridge that has been placed out in the common area for participants to cool down their water bottles. I feel the metal under my fingertips and the soft rumbling of the engine that is fighting against the temperature odds out here. We are all doing our best under extreme circumstances. It is all right. We will explain what we can, so at least the locals do not worry that there is witchcraft going on when someone screams with old pain in a process session, or starts to make wild gestures in a constellation. I do that the next day by offering a session called “The Neuroscience of Strange Experiences” which goes down very well. I use a metaphor of an island in the Dead Sea to depict the levels of the conscious, subconscious and superconscious mind, complete with brain wave names and functional left / right hemisphere descriptions! An island of logic and safety in a sea of intense experience.
Back in the group work room, the memory pops up of Lia standing in a vividly multicoloured dress that covers all the required body parts (shoulders and knees, for women and men alike) to make Ecome a safe space for the different religious sensitivities in the local area. In this moment, she looks like an African medicine woman, except she is a white lady from Belgium. There is an otherworldly glow in her eyes, which I recognise as being in contact with a stream of consciousness from the transpersonal domain. Around her, representatives of the major world faiths, as well as Rastafarianism, and their shadow parts, are acting out their tensions, demands and connections with one another. Dana represents The Mother and is banging a huge drum rhythmically while the faiths–all Her children– and Atheism, dressed in a panda hat, play out their drama. I understand why the locals might worry about the presence of witchcraft and spirit possession.
Anne steps in as Love, to bid the representatives of Devotion—who actually appear more like Fanaticism and Lucifer to me—to stop destroying the altar, tenderly created that morning in honour of grief by the band of interfaith ministers here to support the Peace Camp. A moment of peace and connection follows, where almost the whole group ends up standing in a circle holding hands.
Outside of the social space where we eat together, there is a washing-up stand for the Ecome guests to use. First, you scrape anything solid off your plate into a compost bin. Next, you dunk your plate and cutlery into a big bowl of rather murky water with ecological washing detergent and various floating things in it, and give it a good scrub. Then you move to the next bowl, which is for cleaning off the detergent, and the water is a bit clearer there. The final bowl is for a final rinse, and the water there is almost crystal clear. You then let your plate and cutlery dry on a rack in the sun, and it only takes moments in this heat. The cutlery gets so hot from the sun rays that the metal parts can burn your fingers!
Behind this washing-up area, there is an open space that is fenced in and covered with concrete on the ground. A project for school children got creative here and painted the concrete with a rainbow. This is the spot where the interfaith ministers make a labyrinth out of stones collected by participants during a mindful walk around Ecome, and then illuminate the spiralling path with a flood of tea light candles at night. After a teaching on labyrinths by Rev. Sarah, the ministers and participants all walk the labyrinth together under the moonlight, inviting the energies of releasing, receiving and renewing as they walk towards the centre, rest in the heart of the labyrinth and return towards the outside world again, respectively.
I stand in the centre of the labyrinth for a long while, aligning my intention with the Divine Purpose of the Peace Camp. The energy starts to flow so strongly through me that I see the whole central circle of the labyrinth become a tube, where every person who steps in is supported in aligning with their own highest purpose. Time stops for me as I stand in this alignment, and I only notice later on that almost everyone has left — the labyrinth has emptied out, and the participants have moved on to the Creative Space time, which is open for anyone to teach and share anything they wish with the group.
Andrew is the storyteller for this evening, and he weaves his magic in the large group space, where the temperature is now much more bearable. As a collective story takes shape with delight, the mosquitoes are flocking in, too, and the smell of insect repellent stings my nostrils as I walk around, conspicuous in my ceremonial whites in the darkness. Other evenings, Laurence leads the group through a wondrous jungle noise soundscape, created by all the participants together, and Antonia Wibke shares her channelled drawing techniques, making for an amazing collection of visual expressions of the participants’ journeys at the Peace Camp. I peek in through the big colourful sheet-walls and feel content to see how art allows the local people to participate in less challenging ways than through the process work. We all find our ways.
After the Creative Spaces with Laurence and Antonia Wibke, we gather for meditations, broadcast globally from a mobile phone via Zoom technology. With just this basic 3G data connection to share audio and video, we invited friends and family from around the world to connect with us. In the first meditation, we breathe beyond grief together, in a half-hour session led by Rev. Nicole. I pan the mobile phone’s camera around to capture the peaceful faces, the lanterns swinging in the night breeze, and the central altar with a black cloth, tea light candles and a set of wooden angel wings. A silver tray stands in its centre with paper strips containing six-word expressions of personal grief stories written by the participants in a ceremony that morning. We breathe and breathe, letting it all be present and flow through us.
On the second meditation night, the central altar for the meditation is now a large heart made of colourful tangled wool. We made the heart together that morning, in a light-hearted ceremony where we tossed balls of wool to one another as we stood in a circle, making visible, strand by strand, the connections between us. We gathered all the wool together, and shaped it into a heart, and placed the grief writings into its centre for safe-keeping. Around this woollen heart are the channelled drawings that Antonia Wibke coaxed out of the participants.
Throughout this meditation, we hum and sing together a short mantra that found musical form during the gathering of extra labyrinth stones by the interfaith ministers:
The meditative space gently echoing with the mantra soothes us towards sleep.
Down the corridor leading away from the social space are the dormitories, separate for men and women, and the Creation room. The facilitation team meets in the Creation room, sitting on old tyres stuffed with straw and pillows, to decide what activities would best serve the group the following day. We often sit in there with our dinner perched on our knees, talking and planning, being mindful of the ants who share the space. Sometimes there are local people in there too, offering language lessons to one another. Arabic vocabulary and harvesting in English from the group constellation and process work mixes under the sparse electric lights.
There is also a corridor leading out from the social space to the rear yard of Ecome, and this corridor is flanked by a “free shop”, where previous guests and volunteers have left behind what they no longer need. One person’s rubbish is another’s treasure… When Gus accidentally leaves his clothes behind at an excursion to a cool spring, where Muslims, Jews, Christians and everybody else is free to flock together in the waters to cool down in the high temperatures, this free shop is where he heads to find something more suitable than jeans to wear in the heat. I also find him there one morning folding and sorting the piles neatly, repaying what he received with service in kind.
Out in the back yard, there is a small sacred space made out of pebbles on the ground arranged in circles and spirals, surrounded by a few bushes and low trees. This is where an offering, a “spirit ball”, from each lunch and dinner served at Ecome is taken, for the local animals and insects to also enjoy after it is blessed by a member of the group. I suspect the semi-feral cat who lives here takes the lion’s share of whatever she wishes, and the scraps are shared between her two black and white sons… I see her out there in the bushes at night pouncing on large spiders, crunchy insects, and I ever hear tales of her tackling black desert scorpions. She is nothing but fierce, and well-deserving of the spirit balls, as far as I am concerned!
Even further out in the back yard, there is a fire pit, and this is the centre piece of our Fire Ritual on the final night of the Peace Camp. Gosia tends to the fire with care and certainly, seeming to have an embodied sense of the fire’s needs. As the flames build, us ministers welcome the participants to the circle through a purification gateway with smouldering sage leaves that we use to clear stagnant energies around them. Rev. Monica offers the participants herbs and oils in their hands to offer to the fire, with a “Swa-ha” chant. We all step close to the fire, one by one, to name out loud, or silently, what we wish to now release. As the herbs fly into the fire, exotic scents arise with the heat and blend in the desert night skies.
Fresh from this liberation, we play a game called “My Gesture of Joy” where each participant enacts a movement that expresses their joy. As arms are flung open, hands are clapped, sounds escape from lips, feet are hopped on, bottoms are wriggled and so forth, the whole circle echoes back to each one the same gesture. We are the mirror for one another: your joy is my joy, and it grows so much more when shared. Further into the night, Andrew shares a story about where the wind comes from, and local musicians play the flute and drums. Smoke stings our nostrils sporadically as the wind jumps around the bonfire, changing direction, but it all feels right and good. We made it this far together, and celebration is exactly what we need.
Let us return to the group space now, to wind up this guided memory tour through the Peace Camp 2016 at Ecome…
As we walk in this time, we see the beginnings of a mandala on a low one-by-one metre platform. There is a plaited cord of rough string around the outside, and brown earth with small pebbles inside it. Standing on coloured paper in each corner of the square floor covering around it are pots, tubs and bags with all sorts of wondrous mandala ingredients: yellow, red and green spices, white rice, small multicoloured heart-shaped candles, sunflower seeds, pulses, dried rose petals, and much more. The interfaith ministers introduce these beginnings of a mandala to the participants, and over the next 24 hours, a richly textured and delicately beautiful artwork is created by the group together on the mandala base. I find Amal sitting with other local people around the mandala by candlelight at night, talking in peaceful hushed tones, and adding small pieces of nature to the mandala’s earthly glory. It is almost irresistible to add just one more bit — one person’s creation being evolved by another, becoming ever more intricate and expressive of our group spirit.
On the morning where the Peace Camp ends, three important things happen in the group space.
The first is over in the far right corner. Amal takes the microphone to share her experience of the week. She expresses how she lost hope many years ago, after everything that has happened to her and her people out here in the occupied territories. And yet, although she only came to the Peace Camp to do some translation, and did not expect it to be anything other than “nonsense”, something has stirred in her. She expresses it as a tiny little hope that has rekindled inside her. We are all deeply moved by this. To hear her say those words, I would have done everything we did to make the Peace Camp happen ten times over. It is worth every bead of sweat that ran down me, and every moment of doubt and fear. Amal then tells us her name, in Arabic, means hope.
Nava has a moment of illumination: she brought a shawl with her that she did not pack to take home again that morning as she sensed that it would be a gift for someone. As she pulls it out, we see that it is a gorgeous white and blue fabric, patterned with feathers. It is stunning. Nava walks over to Amal to drape it round her, and it is a perfect match.
Melissa, an Ecome representative, grabs the microphone in the front left corner. She has a poem to share that was sent to her, which she describes as “just ridiculously appropriate” for this moment. Here it is (in its first two verses):
Hope is the Thing with Feathers
Hope is the thing with feathers
That perches in the soul,
And sings the tune without the words,
And never stops at all,
And sweetest in the gale is heard;
And sore must be the storm
That could abash the little bird
That kept so many warm.
— Emily Dickinson (1830 – 1886)
The second thing that happens is the slicing of the mandala into quarters and its subsequent dissolution and offering to the corners of Ecome’s sacred space in the yard. We gather round in a circle to look at this group creation one final time, and as Rev. Monica invites us to walk round to take it in and speak out words of what we see, the group walks ever so slowly, perhaps subconsciously wishing to delay this moment of scattering our creation. Representatives for each of the four compass directions are called forth, and each gathers the organic contents of their mandala corner into a bucket. The colours of the mandala merge together as we sweep them with love and care from the table into the receptacles. We then take them outside and offer them to the four directions around Ecome’s sacred space, giving gratitude and closing our connection with the powerful elements that helped to carry us on our journey together.
The third thing is the gifting of little glass pots that the interfaith ministers have lovingly put together with souvenirs of the ceremonies and events that took place during our time together. Sand from an outing to the Dead Sea, at the lowest point of our grief, to the lowest point on the landmass of Earth. A wooden dove carving from nearby Jericho to represent inner peace. A braided band of multicoloured yarn, from the wool heart we created through interconnection. And the pots themselves, having shown the way round the labyrinth, each with a tea light echoing the stars and the moonlight at night.
With this, the Peace Camp of 2016 in Israel-Palestine comes to completion—with minds dazed, bodied exhausted, connections strengthened, and hope rekindled. I know that more learnings from this adventure together will become clear over time. For now, I consign these memories to the ground of Ecome and its spaces, so that I may visit them again in my daydreams and wonderings, and you are now also able to join us there through time and space.
May peace be upon us all.