Saturday, February 4, 2012

Wet French Fries in My Falafel

We are a very well documented generation. I do not mean we are always documented very well. Case in point—about seventy-five percent of the pictures taken of me thus far in the Holy Land document me in one of fashion’s greatest atrocities: the fanny pack. (Upon seeing this questionable documentation, my loving sister-in-law asked, “How does he expect to get married like that?”) And another five percent of the pictures document me in a floppy-brimmed hat that stamps me American tourist all the way. I won’t even mention the ’90s headlamp with the orange-and-purple elastic head strap or the lime-green water bottle carrier. I certainly could have been documented in a little bit better of a light.

Rather I say we are a well-documented generation because we document our lives to the minutest degree. Really, though—it is insane the number of photos I see taken everyday here. I feel like I’m taking too many pictures, and I don’t take even a third as many as the average Jerusalem Center student. There are jumping pics, engagement pics. silhouette pics, band pics, Facebook pics, Gossip Girls pics. And they’re never “pictures”—always “pics.” Countless numbers of gigs dedicated to an even more innumerable number of pics. Everyone’s SD chips, Macs, and hard drives loaded down with visual documentation of everything.

I remember that when I visited my Grandpa Jernigan down in Tennessee I pored over his photos, absolutely eating up every picture I could find of my dad when he was younger—or even better, my dad with my mom when they were dating (I love and honor my father completely, but it’s hard to look at pictures of him and my mom without thinking, wow, he did really well for himself). The number of photos I found of Dad’s infancy, adolescence, or early adulthood totaled in the dozens maybe. Contrast that with my nephew Ben—within the first week of his life, I’m sure the photos were up in the hundreds.

My children will never have to wonder what I looked like at any point in my life. When I tell a story about my freshman year of college, they will be able to pull up a photo and see exactly how my hair was cut, exactly how prominent my gnome-nose and eyebrows were (and learn the great lesson that some things just don’t change), and exactly how I dressed.

At times I’m a little bothered by all this documentation. That’s probably because I’m a little neurotic about stuff. I don’t like to have a lot of it. And I’m not talking only about physical, tangible possessions; digital stuff is included. It stresses me out to have a lot of stuff that’s unaccounted for. I don’t like to think about all the photos I’ve got on my computer that have never been organized, some of which I’ve never even looked at. Once a file is on my computer, I feel responsible for it, and I don’t like to neglect it. So when I look at those who snap photos of everything I wonder why they’re so eager to take all these pictures, why they’re in such a mad dash to visually preserve their comings and goings.

But this isn’t an unusual thing to wonder, not for me at least. I spend a great deal of my time wondering what’s going on in other people’s heads, trying to figure out what it is that people really want. People are all the time doing things that I don’t understand. (Side note: a close friend of mine recently reprimanded me a little for saying that "I don’t understand why people do this or that" when what I really meant was that other people were stupid for not doing things like me. She was absolutely right about what I was doing, but right now as I am writing this blog, I’m actually wondering, not trying to insult.) My brother Zack once asked me and my sister, “Do you guys ever feel like you’re talking to an alien?” I think what he meant by that was that sometimes people’s motivations are so different from our own that they might as well be from a different planet. These people with all their pictures: aliens.

Sometimes I think that way.

But in my more honest moments, I realize that I’m no different from everyone else. It takes no real mental effort for me to figure out my friends’ motives for taking pictures—because I share them. I happen to act on those motives in different ways than some people, but they are there all the same.

For example: A couple weeks ago a group of us went out to the Old City of Jerusalem in the morning and walked on the rampart walls. The morning was beautiful, and everyone in the group was taking pictures, me included. I’m a social photographer—when I see every person’s camera out, I feel like maybe I’d be silly not to have mine out too. So out it comes, and I snap photos. But I’m thinking: am I ever going to look at this? And the stress begins.

But the morning rampart walk is not the important point of this story. We soon descended from the wall and walked to West Jerusalem, where we witnessed the playing of the carillon bells—Israel’s largest instrument—up in the YMCA tower. Fun times but still not the salient point of the story. It’s when we were on our way back from all this that it started to rain. And then it started to rain harder. Some of us had raincoats, and some of us didn’t, but it didn’t make a whole lot of difference in the end. We were all cold, we were all wet, and some of us were miserable.

I sort of liked it. Yes, it was cold and wet and I wanted to be inside a building very badly and I wasn’t at all happy with the huge buses that drove by and soaked us with rainwater streams running down the hill as we trudged up Mount Scopus to the Center. But it was memorable. I won’t likely forget that trip back, and

I love that. In fact, as we were leaving the city, I bought a falafel from a street vendor—not because I was particularly hungry but because I knew that eating a hot falafel with close friends in the Old City in the rain would be something I would never forget. It was silly, I know—rushing along watching the falling rain hit the French fries stuffed in my falafel and soak the paper wrapper I held it in. Taking a bite, I saw a splash of white chickpea sauce fall onto my black raincoat and get rinsed down my front by the rain. I, like my camera-happy friends, just wanted to not forget.

Sometimes I would do anything to relive—to stand with my friends in the hallway of Mingus Union High School and not say anything at all, just look at my torn up Vans and stuff my hands in my pockets; to open the door to that apartment in Florencia Varela, Argentina, the one with the black spiral stair case to the second floor; to pull into the driveway of the Gunnarsson home in River Vale, New Jersey, step out of my Toyota Matrix work car, and join my boss and his family for dinner, maybe Swedish meatballs and fresh bakery bread. Let me go back and smell and feel and taste the air of any one of those places—so I know that it was real, that all of it happened, that my life doesn’t actually disappear like I know it does.

I know I can’t go back, so I hold on—with pictures and journal entries and late night reminiscing with friends I’ve known for years. I hold on and watch my life turn into images of Disney World in the rain and dead cows swinging in carnicerĂ­a windows, into names like Chase Barnes and dates like December 16, 2004—and maybe even into wet French fries in a falafel on a rainy day in Jerusalem.

These aliens snapping pictures all around me—they’re all just holding on. We’re all just holding on.

Sunday, January 22, 2012

My Blog: A Selfish Endeavor

So the goal was to write a mini essay once or twice a week for this blog—but I definitely didn't write one this last week. It's tempting to make up excuses—like how silly it would be for me to coop myself up writing when I've got Jerusalem right outside my apartment window. However, I can't say that every time I should have been writing I was out in the city exploring.

More often than not when I don't write it's because I can't see any particular reason to write. I'll be honest here—my motives for creating and updating a blog are purely selfish. I wanted to write this semester because I know I learn new things when I try to piece together the various things I'm reading or thinking about, listening to, and living from day to day—if I try my best to piece them together into something polished enough for others to read, I will surprise myself by writing things I didn't know when I began.

I really want to learn those new things, and if I don't write, I know that many lessons pass me by. So, yes, this blog is selfish. And if I set out to write a post already knowing exactly where it's going to end up—well, then it's of no use to me. If I'm not going to be surprised by it at some point, I don't much care to write it.

Now, there is a part of me that hopes (and believes) that those pieces which do surprise me, do inspire and teach me will be also be more likely to surprise and inspire and teach those of you who read them. I do hope and pray that something I write will be beneficial, will be a blessing, to someone—maybe even to you.

Of course, it's unfair of me to say that I didn't write this week because there was nothing worth writing about, nothing that would have challenged and taught me. That's blatantly false. If I'm not excited about what I'm writing, I'm the only one to blame. I've got to ask better questions, to find better purposes—and then the motivation will come.

Tomorrow I leave for Jordan for four days, and I plan to approach my travels differently than I have up until now. I don't yet know how it will be. But when I step foot on the east side of the Jordan River, I will do so with questions in mind, things that I want to know—and when I return, I'll do my best to make something worth reading out of what I find. Then we'll see where we end up together.

All this philosophizing aside, I'll be visiting Petra—the place I've recognized for as long as I've watched Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, which is a long time. So certainly there will be something I'd like to write about when I return.

So—until next time, I am

Respectfully yours,

Brennan Jernigan

Sunday, January 15, 2012

Cemeteries and Stereotypes

There’s a Jewish cemetery on the Mount of Olives. If you look out east from the Old City, across the Kidron Valley, you’ll see it. You can’t miss it. Hundreds and hundreds of tombs covering the hillside, stone boxes packed together densely like a city with nowhere else to spread. Jewish tradition holds that the first resurrection will take place on this mount, so what better place to be buried.

Today I walked south along the Mount of Olives, straddling the eastern side of the cemetery, looking down upon the graves whenever I got the chance. I first saw the cemetery about a week ago, and ever since I have wanted to spend some time with it. Most of my travel companions don’t share my enthusiasm for the cemetery, however. Fortunately for me, our route today to the Dominus Flevit took us right past it, and I got the closer look I’ve been wanting—or at least a little of it.

All the tombs are inscribed in Hebrew, which I can’t read, so I couldn’t satisfy my standard cemetery curiosity. I couldn’t contemplate the cause of this child’s early death or the love that must have existed between the husband and wife buried side by side. I could only look on row after row of nearly identical tombs with their ten-commandment-tablet-like covers lying in various stages of ruin. Each one is an individual. But to me they are all the same, the individual lost in the collective mass.

Our Islam and Palestine professor, Dr. Bashir Bashir, spent the full of two, two-hour lecture periods trying to get us all to understand that the Orient is not an ontological reality, that our conceptions of the Orient—or of Islam, “the West,” or Judaism for that matter—are nothing more than constructions, and that variations—anomalies—always exist within the categories we create in our efforts to simplify and order our world. Whenever we categorize we run the risk of overlooking the exception, alienating the anomaly. Case in point: we had students in class nearly up in arms, concerned out of their minds that Dr. Bashir was accusing them all of being narrow-minded Americans with superiority complexes. He wasn’t, of course, but they were on the defensive the moment they felt shoved into a category in which they didn’t fit.

And so yesterday when I went on and on to a group of friends about how sophomore girls—who constitute the majority of our Jerusalem Center student body—were evidently younger to me, hard for me to relate to, and not necessarily my ideal dating material, my friend Tucker’s observation that so many stereotypes are reinforced simply by our holding them, it struck home. In my categorizing, have I blinded myself to the variation?

Looking at those graves at the cemetery, all I can really make out is a bunch of Jews who believe they’ve got prime real estate for the resurrection. What I don’t see is the Jew who maybe doubted he’d ever live again after taking that last breath but thought he’d play it safe, or the Jew who couldn’t bear the thought of being buried anywhere other than alongside her husband of 34 years, or the Jew who in his dying moments kissed the hands of his now middle-aged daughter. Or the Jew who never quite thought it was right to hate her Palestinian neighbors and loved them as her own people.

I’ve recently made a friend in a Coloradoan named Megan; however, she tells me it takes her a while to trust people, to really be herself. She doesn’t like to reveal too much of herself too quickly because she’s afraid that she won’t be accepted for who she is. I want her to trust me, to feel comfortable being who she wants to be, and yet at times I am all too aware of how very shortsighted I am, of how easily I can judge, of how easy it is for me to confine friends or family to just one thing I see in them and then feel betrayed—disappointed—when they turn out to be something else.

I want her to feel safe, and I like what I see in her, so I invited her to think of opinions or beliefs she holds that she would be pretty sure I would disagree with—and then we could talk about them. I wanted her to know that it is okay for her not to be what I expect her to be. But even after extending that invitation, I fear—what if I am not capable of accepting who she is? What if I betray her trust, lash out in critical judgment?

I’m reminded of the biblical patriarch Jacob, who, when returning to the land of Canaan after a long journey away, prayed to the God of his fathers for deliverance from the wrath of his twin brother, Esau. The humility of his prayer astounds me: “I am not worthy of the least of all the mercies, and of all the truth, which thou hast shewed unto thy servant” (Genesis 32:10, emphasis mine). I showed this scripture to Megan and shared a little gospel insight I had—that we sometimes get impatient wanting to know all the answers, never once stopping to consider whether or not we are living worthy to receive further knowledge. But Megan said that it’s the same with people—sometimes we want to know everything about them right from the get-go without taking the time to earn their trust, to get to know them through the natural course of things.

I got the hint. I need to give our friendship time. Maybe neither of us is ready for that full disclosure of self, not yet. We have to take it step by step.

But maybe that’s why we cast stereotypes, why we resort to generalities and reductions, in the first place—we just cannot comprehend or embrace the many diversities that are to be found in every group and in every individual. So we simplify, categorize, stereotype—because we are not ready to see more or simply because we have not yet taken the time or exerted the effort to find something more.

And I think that’s okay—as long as we are aware of it, as long as we know that the homogeneity, the simplified view, is not a reality but a construction, a sort of fill-in-the-blanks for all that we still can’t comprehend. As we humbly approach knowledge—understanding that we are not worthy nor capable of knowing it all—then we will begin to look past our pragmatic but ultimately temporary and incomplete visions of others and we will begin to witness those idiosyncrasies that make each of us human, each of us a work of art, an individualized story to be told. And because we’ve given it time, done the work to see, we won’t run screaming in fear of the new and unexpected; rather, we’ll raise our eyebrows in pleasant surprise, smile, and search for more—because we’ve discovered an affinity for that which shatters our expectations.