Friday, June 1, 2018

How long did it take to write Catch a Dream?

How long did it take you to finish writing Catch a Dream? someone in the audience asked.

I began to write it as memoir as soon as I returned to the United States after three years of living in Israel. It was my way of holding onto the country I had come to love. I wanted to get everything down while it was fresh in my mind. I felt an urgency to articulate what it had like to be on this journey of self-discovery in a country embroiled in conflict. I never felt afraid but the tension was palpable and the shock of coming to the sacred Temple Mount and encountering a ring of soldiers was one I will never forget. There are many specific moments when the reader realizes this is a place where a bomb can go off at any moment, where tear gas permeates the streets, where rocks are thrown and piles of tires are burnt and helicopters fly overhead. And yet, those are not the images that stick in my mind. I remember the moonlight silvering the Mediterranean Sea and the smiles of the vendors in the shuk and the way the stones of Jerusalem turn golden in sunlight and the sounds of the shofar blown on Yom Kippur following me through the streets from many small shuls as I walked home. Mostly I remember the kindness of the Israelis I met, from the friends who took me in, without a thought as to why I was penniless, but with many questions as to what I was doing in ha'eretz, why was I single, and how could I pay for health insurance? to the elderly neighbor downstairs who spent hours at the propane company insisting they deliver propane right away so I could cook dinner.

People are invariably kind when you are hitch-hiking, but Israelis were incredibly helpful and generous through some tough moments. This is what I want to hold onto, as the news tells us that the situation in Gaza is dire and inhumane. How can a nation of people who are kind, intelligent, and sensitive become a nation of people who allow the conditions that are in Gaza to continue? It makes me think that there is more to the story than I know.

But to answer the question: that was 30 years ago. I didn't go back and although I pitched the book several times, it mostly sat in a drawer while I moved on to other projects.

I attended the Independent Author's Conference in Philadelphia last fall and left knowing I was going to publish something. My spiritual home of Unity Minneapolis is planning a trip to Israel this fall. Suddenly I thought, What if I changed it into a novel? The names of Lily Ambrosia and Rainbow Dove popped into my head and everything fell into place. I could visualize these women and it was no longer my personal story but a story about Lily. This felt just right and so freeing because I was grappling with the overly complicated back story. From there, it took me three months to revise what I had, have beta readers give me feedback, revise some more (and more and more) and have the manuscript ready for Bookbaby.

How long did it take to write Catch a Dream? Thirty years. My whole life. Because I wasn't ready until now to really be able to have it out in the world. Now I know why it is important to me to share this story, not only Lily's journey of self-discovery, but the reminder that in troubled times, ordinary people can be judged harshly for what their government is doing. Not only Lily's love affairs but the love that is possible if we stop protecting and defending ourselves and open my hearts to the reality of others who are within our borders.

Monday, May 7, 2018

A Jerusalem memory and a question: is forgiveness possible?

An icy wind blew as we struggled out of the warmth of the café into the warren of streets that meandered through the Arabic section of Jerusalem. I looked over at my traveling companions and realized that Sara was shivering inside her short jean jacket. “We have to buy her a scarf,” I mumbled to Carol, my mouth tucked inside the brilliantly striped Mexican rebozo around my neck. We huddled closer together to retain the warmth, Sara in-between like a protected nestling. Because she was a teen-ager, she normally would resent the inhibiting closeness but with this biting cold, did not protest.
Fortunately it was one of the days that the shops were open. The intifada had succeeded in shutting the city down for three days before the cold hit. We were sight-seeing, taking in the garden tomb, the Church of the Sepulcher, the pools of Bethesda, and Solomon’s stables. We only had a little money to duck into the warmth of a café for scalding hot, sweetened mint tea. It felt like pure luxury.
When we found a vendor who sold scarves, we let Sara choose, carefully pooling our shekels together from our pockets, leaving us with twenty argarot and one shekel, about sixty cents USD. But it was worth it to see the look of gratitude on her face, chapped pink by cold. Just as we exited the shop, drifts of snowflakes started to fall. Snow in Jerusalem! Where would we spend the night? I hadn’t told Carol that when I had gotten up to use the restroom, a man had approached our table and offered to buy me for an afternoon. Or was it Sara he wanted? This chubby, shy, tag-a-long was terrified of this strange adventure and fortunately she hadn’t been paying attention to the man’s broken English or hand gestures.  
 Although my feet were numb and hands shoved deep into jean pockets were icy, I was thrilled to be in the holy city of Jerusalem. I remembered that on their way into the city, a man we met on the bus had given me his card. A Christian Arab, Ali repeatedly invited us to stop at his home and meet his family. Impressed that we traveled in the name of Jesus, penniless, adhering to the original Gospel lifestyle, he was respectful. He shook our hands warmly when we parted.
 “Let’s call Ali,” I suggested over the top of Sara’s blond curls.

 “Tomorrow I think we should go north, to the Galilee. We’re not dressed for this weather.”  

“Yeah, you’re right.” I was disappointed to be leaving Jerusalem after waiting years to be here. But I would come back. To add my prayer to the Wall. To wander the streets in a mystical trance. To find my soul crying out for a way to find home.

To be in Jerusalem, to be in Israel, is to be in a place that yearns for peace, but weeps from war after war, on the border and within her borders. Frozen teardrops on this day. How is peace possible without forgiveness? is the question I asked myself.

In 1989, I attended synagogue on Yom Kippur, the day of atonement. I was invited by an American family to babysit, to take their child home when she became too restless to stay. They belonged to one of the only conservative synagogues in Israel. As we walked to the synagogue, the profound silence was cathartic to me. The cessation of traffic was highlighted by the serious, yet joyful mood.  The women dressed in white fluttered in the women’s balcony like doves, the children were free to wander among the men praying downstairs, the sounds of plaintive Kol Nidrei wafted up like smoke from a celestial fire drenching us in holiness. Although I couldn’t understand all of the Hebrew, I could follow along in the prayer book as we enumerated our sins and asked to be covered by God’s merciful forgiveness.

The High Holy Days are a time of repentance in the sense of self-reflection, to consider harm you may have done to others and ask their forgiveness before God opens to your page in the book of life. I loved the fact that we asked for forgiveness as a congregation, that we were part of a ritual cleansing as well as personal evaluation. The community supported us as we declared those sins, those choices and decisions where we missed the mark, aloud.

Recently I taught a writing workshop at Stillwater prison for the purpose of holding a reading during Victim Awareness week. They wanted to hold a reading to express their remorse and I would do whatever I could to help them make that possible. I told them, “You can’t just write a letter of apology and expect to be forgiven. Your victim may never be able to forgive—but if I were a victim, I would want to know how you have changed. How you are different now and would never commit that crime again. I want to know about the work you have done on yourself.” The word I used is metanoia, literally with-mind, to find mindfulness which is translated in the RSV New Testament as repentance. To me, the concept of metanoia goes beyond repentance, it means that you have changed.

As a victim, it can be a long hard road to healing. It can take years. It can take forever. I was lucky to have a therapist who was able to guide me through the trauma and tell a new story of survival. After years of silence about my rape, I was finally able to speak about it, write about it, read my writings aloud.  And yet, my impulse was to forgive the man who perpetrated the rape immediately after it happened because during the four hours he held me captive, I listened to his story. I knew he was a victim as well and that the violation on my body were the results of his own abuse, humiliation and anger. It is not an excuse. I don’t believe forgiveness needs to include forgetting. 

A few years ago I attended a Radical Forgiveness workshop led by Rev. Sher McNeal. We formed a circle and she read questions such as “Have you ever been hurt, ever been unkind to someone?”  “Have you ever been bullied,  have you ever bullied someone?” The acts of unkindness, abuse, violence mentioned became more and more specific. We were instructed that if we were either victim or perpetrator, to step into the middle of the circle. Then she asked us to look each other in the eyes and say, “I am sorry that happened to you.” No one knew who was victim or perpetrator. Rather we witnessed that with each question, some of us stood in the middle of that circle together. Sorrow and forgiveness included all of us. Remorse included all of us. Forgiveness included all of us. Kinda like Yom Kippur. A covering over us of Divine Mercy.

If my perpetrator had entered the Radical Forgiveness circle with me, would I have been able to look him in the eyes and say I am sorry that happened to you? Would we be able to weep together over his life wasted in prison and my years of PDST and distancing myself from relationships? Would we be covered by the mercy of God? I like to think it could be so.

Wednesday, March 14, 2018

Catch a Dream: why pre-sales are helpful and why I wrote the book

Catch a Dream is in pre-sales on Amazon!

This is what I learned: that if people pre-order a book, once it is released, it is stocked and can be mailed out immediately. (How often have I ordered a book as a gift for my mom and she got it the next day?) If there are not enough pre-sales to indicate that the book will sell well, it has to be ordered as a pod. I guess we no longer want to wait for things and sooner is better ..also, this will impact whether my book shows up on suggested books to read. 

Pre-orders for the ebook will be downloaded on your Kindle device on March 24 and pre-ordered paperbooks will be mailed out April 9.

To tell you the truth, I am scared to death to read my reviews. I didn't write Catch a Dream in a traditional way. It doesn't have a plot with cliff hangers unless you really are invested in Lily's desire to stay in Israel. There is a lot of description because it is a love story with the land as well as the people who live within its borders. It is a critique of the constant violence without exploring the complicated political history. It is told from the perspective of a woman who suffers from PDST and longs to be set free to love, to belong, and for all to live in peace. An idealistic dream honed by heart-break and healing as she learns to stand up for herself at last. 

I am happy to discuss my writing process with you during a personal visit to your book club or writer's group or via Skype but I am not an expert on Israel or Israeli-Palestinian political affairs. I am an expert on the beauty of the Mediterranean Sea and how it changed my menstrual cycle, the night I spent in a Jerusalem jail, and the birthday cake that caught on fire using re-ignitable candles. On fruits and vegetables so fresh and ripe, that when I returned to the states I could hardly bear to eat a tomato or peach due to the lack of flavor. Or the way the stores stopped selling bread, cakes and cookies, and cordoned off any products considered treif, that is containing yeast or having the potential for rising, (including some imports that surprised me) during Passover. My downstairs neighbor scolded me for throwing out a crust during Passover (obviously digging in my garbage to check on me) but someone finally told me the secret was to stock up on pita and put it in your freezer: "Everyone does it," she explained. 

I miss the way the Israeli families hung out together to enjoy a concert or the beach. I miss the beach. I miss the quiet during Shabbat and the sounds of the Muezzin at dawn. 

If you have ever dreamed of going to Israel, my book will give you a glimpse of a complex society and whet your appetite to see it for yourself. 

Here's the link to my author page if you are inclined to help me with a pre-order:

A woman’s healing journey begins in a country embroiled in relentless turmoil.
In Israel, Palestinian frustration for a homeland erupts in strikes, demonstrations and suicide bombings and Israel responds with tear gas, arrests, and house demolitions. Lily Ambrosia and Rainbow Dove arrive in Haifa with their children on a pilgrimage. Lily falls in love with the land , with its people, and with Levi, dangerous but irresistible. Eventually she is fully immersed in Israeli life. Her son rebels against the lifestyle she has chosen and war with Syria looms on the horizon. Will she be able to stay? What does she have to give up and what will she be able to keep?

Wednesday, March 7, 2018

Catching a Dream excerpt

And so, the rabbis say, God saw this, the great devotion of the two brothers…and He chose this spot as the place for His Holy City, a place where brothers honored each other.
            But I say it is the clarity of the air that reveals the souls of men to their Maker, the sun washing the stones in subtle shades of gold so you feel the presence of celestial beings, the undulating hills that surround a natural fortress whose duty is to protect and comfort. It is a searing clarity reflected in the eyes of her people, brown, blue, green, grey, from all over the world, brown-skinned or pale, with crosses, magen davids, crescents, chains, sighs, screams, whispers, prayers. She is a mystery: she wipes your weary brow with a kiss, she throws you to the ground with a knife at your throat.
            Our driver speaks not a word of English but unerringly escorts us straight to the Kotel, known as the Wailing Wall historically and now called the Western Wall. My heart is wrenched by the sight of a string of jeeps, bus-loads of soldiers, the air thick with tension, the wariness on the guards’ faces as they inspect our bags before we may cross the large plaza in front of the wall.
            Wailing Wall. Symbol of Israel’s past glory. The temple once stood here, where God hovered close to man, where the sweet smell of incense and burnt flesh mingled with the ointments of a million men and women who came thrice yearly to celebrate the festivals dictated by the Torah given to Moses. The niches and cracks in her stony façade are filled with miniscule scraps of paper, folded and refolded so they can be inserted into the narrow slits between the stones, prayers said to reach the ears of the Almighty more quickly.
            Four women stand somberly in front of the wall, wrapped in layers against the evening chill, one with her forehead pressed against the stones, wrapped in private prayer. The smaller woman’s side is divided from the men’s by a man-made metal wall. The men’s side is full of activity as men and boys approach the stones to pray, some in the long coats and fur hats of the Hasidim, others obviously tourists. The golden dome above glistens, ready to erupt with hate for the enemy below, the soldiers pace back and forth uneasily with their guns slung over their shoulders. We can feel the tension as palpable as the chill descending as the sun sinks. The wind whips across the square and we spend only a few minutes by the wall before we are ready to find shelter for the night.
            We walk through the Old City, our nerves on fire, and yet, awed, amazed at her narrow, twisting streets, the bustle, the smell of cardamom and cinnamon, the gleam of gates leading to ancient sites. Our feet are walking within her gates! The same stones, here a series of huge and ancient stone blocks dating from the time of the Romans, where the feet of the holy ones, the prophets and saints walked. The pilgrims down through the centuries. The kings of the earth rattled through these arches in their chariots, where now horns blare as modern machines try to navigate between pedestrians and donkeys.  
(c) Wendy Brown-Baez Catch a Dream 2018

Monday, January 22, 2018

Visit to Jerusalem

This excerpt is from the memoir Flowers in the Wind which describes the ten years I lived communally. The group broke up while we were in Israel. The experience of living there was so extraordinary that it deserves its own separate telling. Orginally written as memoir, revising it into a novel gave it wings. The novel Catch a Dream is slated for spring publication.

Ben Oren was convinced that a nuclear war was about to start, with Jerusalem as a target. He interpreted the Scripture in Matthew: “When you see standing in the holy place ‘the abomination that makes desolate’, spoken of through the prophet Daniel…then let those who are in Judea flee to the mountains…” to mean that we should go see the Dome of the Rock and then flee to Egypt as soon as possible. I am not sure why he thought the fall-out wouldn't land there. I suppose he thought Africa was our “safe” Third World country.

The Intifada, the Uprising of the Palestinian people, did not sputter out but flared up over and over and gained momentum, with strikes and demonstrations in the West Bank, Gaza, and  Jerusalem. Jerusalem was particularly dependent on tourism and even though it meant Palestinian families suffered from the decision of the community organizers to enforce closure of their businesses, it became apparent that many felt they had nothing left to lose. Daily incidents of violence became common. Demonstrations were followed by tear gas, rubber bullets fired by Israeli soldiers and massive arrests. I had visited Jerusalem three times at this point. Jerusalem the Golden was an accurate description—at certain times under a pure sky the very stones were golden and luminescent. The modern culture overlaying ancient history was intoxicating and intriguing. In one afternoon you could walk the Roman pavings where Jesus walked and have espresso in a gleaming modern café. You could bargain for sandals or ceramic mementoes and pray at the garden tomb where Jesus had resurrected. And the fantastic mix of  people:  shopkeepers, scholars, Hasids in their tall black hats, Arab vendors, falafel stand owners, young Israeli women in tight skirts, Palestinian women in scarves, pilgrims from all over the world, Coptic monks carrying books,  Catholic priests leading processions, tour guides with clusters of tourists  marching by. But the vibrancy of this ancient contemporary city was crushed by the tension in the air, the Wall surrounded by jeeps, the presence of soldiers in every street, the shuttered shops when a strike was called, the possibility of a suicide bomb a very real threat. But dutifully I made my last pilgrimage, to see the Dome of the Rock and to say good-bye. This trip was a culmination in a series of steps that barely made sense but I lived in a state of altered reality. Apocalyptic prophesies coming true; landing in the country of my dreams only to be engaged in the constant struggle to provide the basic necessities—all this kept me from articulating my questions. What are we doing here? We always provided for others, now we seem to be nomads drifting from place to place. Are we facing the Apocalypse? Is this the End? Didn’t Ben Oren say we should be far away from the epicenter of nuclear war, which seems to be under our feet? 

Had I just given up? Had group-think strangled my rational mind? Unbelievably, I still trusted Ben Oren at this point, even though it was becoming more and more obvious that he had not a clue of how to truly bring about healing and harmony. 

In Jerusalem frozen rain turned into snow flurries. The longing for brotherhood and peace that shone from our eyes connected us with the hearts of those who took us in. Conversations were emphatic, volatile, bold, and political. They led to conclude that Jew, Arab, Christian, each envisioned a different peace. The Israelis wanted peace so that they could continue forward in their imitation of a materialistic America. The Palestinians wanted the recovery of the land taken from them. It was not permitted for lands previously Moslem to be usurped by the infidel. At least, this was how I interpreted the PLO Covenant, a text that made it clear that all Jews were to be cast into the sea. The Bedouins wanted the freedom to continue their nomadic lifestyle. The Christians wanted the freedom to control the holy places, which they had divided and fought over. But I believed these were simply political foibles that would fall away if individuals listened to each other's hearts, the heart that cries out for true peace. We brought a message of the Messiah's return, of Divine Justice. We reflected the desire to act as brothers rather than seek vengeance as enemies.
I had bought a journal to record my impressions, to write down my thoughts for the first time in ten years. The experience of being in Israel was too intense, too complicated, too powerful, not to try to make sense of what I was witnessing.

The Dome of the Rock, gorgeous in its structure and calligraphic décor, was supposedly where Abraham almost slew Isaac in his utter devotion to God’s command and where human sacrifice came to an end as a form of worship. I wrote in my journal: Held to a Fire eternally sacrificing children, promised to a freedom never found and always sought for, seared by memory, loss, and grief too deep to understand, chosen to a destiny of knowing the separation and in love and pain mending the irreconcilable: God and man's contest of wills--these children of an inheritance forged in a blaze that consumes the world.   I walked through a cauldron of seething emotions and aspirations, alert to possible danger from Arab boys throwing rocks and Israelis soldiers responding with tear gas, bullets, and arrests.    

I traveled to “witness” the “abomination”, the Dome of the Rock, with Ricardo, of Spanish-English descent. He had started to live with us in Isleta. A gentle, sweet, serious brother. The sun and wind browned his skin and made wrinkles around his blue eyes. I liked his eyes and his British lilt. At some point, Ben Oren had simply said, “How can you guys stand being celibate?” and we had stopped. Ricardo was easy to talk to and snuggle against. When Carin and I traveled together in Israel, we were usually flirted with or propositioned. Harmless Israeli attempts that could be responded to with directness. Traveling with Ricardo was liberating. A fresh start with someone who didn't know me from years of mistakes pointed out, whispered gossip, witnessed frustrations. To do the work I believed in—spreading the “Good News.” Sometimes we cooked a meal for people who were busy, we cleaned the bathrooms of the hostel where we stayed, we performed simple tasks to make things nicer. Extending ourselves as guests and as servants. We worked flawlessly as a team, always mindful of our mission: to practice peace and then to leave. Jerusalem was poised for yet another war and wept frozen tear-drops. We fled, touching the place she had marked in our hearts one last time.

Tuesday, December 26, 2017

Catch a Dream: A woman’s healing journey begins in a country embroiled in relentless turmoil

My novel Catch a Dream: 

In Israel, the first Intifada has just begun, when Palestinian frustration for a homeland erupts in strikes, demonstrations and suicide bombings and the Israelis respond with tear gas, helicopters, arrests, and house demolitions. Lily Ambrosia and Rainbow Dove arrive in Haifa with their children on a pilgrimage to sow seeds of peace.  Lily’s fascination with Jewish culture inspires her to dream she can plant roots in the Holy Land. She falls in love with the land itself, with its people, and with Levi, a charming enigma, dangerous but irresistible. Eventually she is fully immersed in Israeli life, earning her way as a nanny, hanging out in cafes with friends, and attending Yom Kippur in the synagogue. Her son rebels against the lifestyle she has chosen and war with Syria looms on the horizon. Will she be able to stay? What does she have to give up and what will she be able to keep?

Israel has once again stirred controversy with the President's decision to recognize Jerusalem as the capital. The city, indeed golden in strong sunlight or ethereal in silver moonlight, exerts an influence on its inhabitants and pilgrims in ways both joyous and jealous, celebratory and violent, spiritually uplifting and religiously restrictive. Here you can place a prayer in the Wall, said to reach God's ears more quickly, or be awed by beauty in Al-Aqsa Mosque, the site of Mohammed's ascension and the rock where Abraham almost sacrificed Isaac. You can flirt with a soldier or have your bags inspected, dance with strangers who invite you to celebrate a Bar Mitzvah even if you have no language in common or be wary of a rock thrown from a roof-top. 

There is an intense contradiction within the City of Peace.
During its long history, Jerusalem has been attacked 52 times, captured and recaptured 44 times, 
besieged 23 times, and destroyed twice. 
The oldest part of the city was settled in the 4th millennium BCE, making Jerusalem one of the oldest cities in the world.

After the 1967 Six Day War, East Jerusalem was captured. Homes in the Moroccan Quarter were demolished and inhabitants expelled. However, the Waqf (Islamic trust) was granted administration of the Temple Mount and thereafter Jewish prayer on the site is prohibited by both Israeli and Waqf authorities. 

Most Jews celebrated the liberation of the city as the ability to once again worship at a beloved ancient holy site. Many large state gatherings of the State of Israel take place at the Western Wall today, including the swearing-in of Israel army officers units, memorial services for fallen Israeli soldiers, celebrations on Yom Ha'atzmaut (Israel Independence Day), gatherings on Jewish religious holidays, and ongoing daily prayers. The Western Wall has become a major tourist destination spot.

The international community does not recognize the annexation of the eastern part of the city, and most countries, including the US, maintain their embassies in Tel Aviv. 

"Next year in Jerusalem" has been a longing and cherished hope for a Jewish state ever since the days of Babylonian captivity and the diaspora. But in truth the city has been fought over since King David took it in 1000 BCE. 

I spent years longing to see Jerusalem with my own eyes, teaching myself some Hebrew and and reading modern histories. Landing on Israeli soil was a jubilant feeling of coming home, even though I am not Jewish and was not raised Jewish. (Apparently there may be the possibility of Jewish ancestors, we don't know for sure.) I landed in Haifa with an exulted sense of anticipation and joy.

Nothing prepared me for the fact that rusted out tanks and trucks, left-over from wars, lined parts of the highway that climbed up the mountain. They are a reminder that Israel became a state after the War of Independence. The nations of the world agreed to the creation of a Jewish homeland but the Arabic countries declared war in protest.

I do know that Zionists did not take into consideration the thousands of Palestinian people within the borders of the emerging state and perhaps were racist, determined to take back a place where they had always had a presence and which they believed was promised to them by God through Abraham. 

Let's not forget the Holocaust. The offering of a Jewish state was an attempt to assuage the guilt of the world after millions of Jews died, including boats being returned to Europe loaded with people who had fled and were subsequently killed. 

It's a complex story but touching her ancient stones is worth doing. I guarantee you that you will not walk away unmoved or unchanged. 

I only ask that before you jump into this discussion that you read, read, read, from many sources, that you go there yourself if you can, that you bring with you a willing heart that may be broken by the on-going dispute.
Here's some recent articles: 

Google  the first Intifada for more information.