Happiness is two weeks in the Southern US. Fried food. Biscuits and gravy. Bourbon. Snow. Long afternoons with friends. Leisurely evenings with family. Drives on rural roads. Hazy blue mountains. Country music.
Each time I travel and the plane makes its choppy descent over the Smoky Mountains into Knoxville airport, I feel my lungs expanding, the tension in my shoulders ease, my anxious heart soften. Home.
But home is complicated too. Guns. Trump supporters. Racism. Poverty. Conservative Christianity of the worst kind. Addiction. Closets hiding all manner of family skeletons.
I love to go to visit. But each time I’m back, I discover one more reason why I could never stay, why, as much as I love it, I no longer feel at home at home.
After two weeks, I’m usually ready to leave.
For the first time since moving to Israel, I landed at Ben Gurion in the daytime. Sitting in the middle of the plane, I craned my neck for a glimpse out the window. My heart soared. In my absence, spring had come.
The taxi driver wove in and out of the rush hour traffic at alarming speed, and in between the multiple near-death experiences, I stared out the window at the land which had been transformed from a barren gold into a lush green.
These first few days back have spanned the breadth of my work here.
I’ve joined a group from Scotland as they traveled around the Galilee. We visited Sindyanna, one of our partner organisations, a women-led non-profit producing fair-trade olive oil and promoting cooperation between the Arab and Jewish communities. I talked about the collaboration between Sindyanna and the Scots Hotel and excitedly showed our new gift boxes.
As we traveled from site to site, I fielded the questions I’ve become used to but still don’t seem to have answers to satisfy those who ask: ‘Why do we have a presence in Israel?’ ‘Why a five-star hotel?’ ‘Will the Church of Scotland in Tiberias ever have Arab members? Why is that unlikely?’ ‘How do we avoid an imperialist/colonialist approach to our ministry here?’
I welcomed into my guest apartment a last-minute visitor who has been working in East Jerusalem for the past few weeks. She told me about the demolitions of Palestinian homes she’s witnessed there, the clashes, the anxious soldiers, the frightened children, the grieving parents, the intensity of the situation. She left with a different perspective, feeling rested, cared for, and inspired by how the staff at the Scots Hotel respected one another and worked together regardless of race or religion.
I’ve chatted with staff at the hotel. During lunch in the staff dining room yesterday, I realised halfway through a conversation in Hebrew that I was understanding quite a lot of it. The screen which displays notices had been changed to show a bit about the history of the Church of Scotland’s presence in Israel-Palestine, and an animated conversation was happening around the table as people asked questions about the institutions. They were particularly impressed to learn how multicultural Tabeetha School is and that it teaches Arabic as well as Hebrew and English, and they were eager to know more about the connection between the hotel and the church.
Elsewhere, in a conversation with another member of staff, she highlighted all the reasons why working at the hotel is important to her, what it offers the town of Tiberias, and its impact on the wider community. From the higher-than-average wages, to the way it works alongside the Church of Scotland partners, to its accommodation of staff who are also students, to its model of co-existence and respect… ‘When you hear so much hate being spoken elsewhere, this is a place of hope and peace,’ she said. I wished she could have talked to the visiting group to address some of their concerns.
And, of course, it’s nearly Lent. So there are services to prepare, palms to burn, and Holy Week and Easter plans to consider.
I’ll be back in Scotland on deputation for six weeks in May and June and when I return, it will be straight into the start of the church renovation project (God willing), so somewhere in the next few weeks, I’d like to give some thought to how our worship might be impacted by meeting in another space for the better part of six months. Rather than feeling constrained by the change, I’d like to use it as an opportunity for us to be creative with our worship in ways which will suit our small community and those who visit better. (I’m aching for a projector and screen to try out some of the films from The Work of the People.)
Before I left for my holiday, everything felt like it took so much effort. I felt lonely and isolated and disconnected. I felt as tired and as dry as the cracked land around me. I had had friends out at the end of January and felt so at ease in their company; it was a week of laughter, gin, and even an incredibly moving renaming liturgy in my garden. When they left, I felt the loneliness even more acutely.
I spent so much of my time in the States thinking to myself, ‘Everyone here is so friendly. Everything is so easy. Why can’t I just stay here?’ But with the distance from my life in Israel-Palestine came a longing to return to it. I began to miss the complicated politics, the way I learn something new each day, the crazy driving, the sunshine and warmth, the confusion of cultures and religions and languages, the directness of the people, the deliciousness of the food. And each place I’ve entered as I’ve returned, I’ve been met with smiles and hugs and kindness.
Happiness is being back where I belong. Flourishing ideas. Blossoming friendships. Roots deepening in this place. Creativity everywhere I turn.
Yes. Spring has come.