Practicing Care In A Broken World

Practicing Care In A Broken World

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I was upstairs in the bedroom/office having just begun a writing coaching session with my last online student of the day when I heard the doorbell ring. My son’s feet met the floor with a thud and pounded their way from the living room couch to the front door; voices cried out as the cat momentarily escaped and was shepherded back inside; Ghassan’s booming laughter climbed the stairs to our living room ahead of him.

He’d texted earlier that afternoon to say he’d just read my wife Nora’s latest article, knew that she was into some dark shit and that he was coming over to feed us. I’d thanked him, perhaps too profusely. Ghassan wasn’t looking for gratitude.

He started doing this a few weeks after October 7th—coming over on weekday evenings to cook, bringing not only food, but his own pots and pans, so that when he left, he took all the dirty dishes with him.

He has his own child to provide for—a sweet, hilarious daughter who shares my son Dashiell’s passion for Mario Kart and can transition from dance party to deep, open-mouthed sleep in less time than it takes Dash to transition from picking up the toothbrush to putting it in his mouth. But, on nights when she’s staying at her mom’s place, Ghassan gets restless. As a daily reader of the publication Nora works for, he knows exactly how swamped she is, and, knowing how late I often work, his restlessness lands him in our kitchen.

On days like this one, when I’m teaching until too late in the evening to cook, Ghassan’s dinners are manna from heaven.

As my wife, son and Ghassan unloaded Ghassan’s haul, I put in my earbuds, focused on my student, and, for the better part of an hour, kitchen sounds and laughter wafted beneath my bedroom/office door and floated around the periphery of my consciousness.

The “dark shit” Ghassan had been referring to was an article Nora had published about the Israel Occupation Force’s (IOF) abandonment of Palestinian infants in the NICU of the besieged al-Nasr Hospital. After promising the infants’ parents and doctors that the Red Cross would be allowed access to the facility so they could care for the infants, the IOF sealed off the hospital. Left alone for 17 days, the infants starved to death. By the time they were discovered, they’d begun to decompose. Nora attended a virtual conference of pediatric physicians to get firsthand accounts.

In the months since the siege of al-Nasr, attacks on hospitals—the facilities themselves as well as the sick, the wounded, the medical professionals and those taking shelter after fleeing their bombed out homes—have been a feature, not a bug, of Israel’s U.S.-backed genocidal campaign. While those of us who consume independent media have since learned to anticipate the unimaginable, at the time, such brazen violation of international law, such unspeakable depravity, still had the power to shock.

Nora is a journalist who’s been covering Palestinian human rights issues for more than 20 years on the radio, in print, and now as an editor, contributor and podcast host for the Electronic Intifada. She’s also a mother of two who loves her cats, sugar cereals, trashy TV and puzzles. Ghassan is an activist who works in Human Resources; he always sticks up for the little guy. He’s also a Palestinian father from Ohio with relatives in the West Bank who loves Cleveland sports teams, Nina Simone, video games and leftist literature.

Before meeting at an event at Cal Berkeley about ten years back, he and Nora knew of each other through their work with and connections to Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP). In the last four or five years, we’ve all grown close.

Nora is an anti-Zionist Jew. She embraces her Jewish heritage and identity and stands in opposition to Zionism—a white supremacist settler-colonial ideology that claims historic Palestine as a Jewish homeland and, since Israel’s inception in 1948, has been the animating force behind Palestine’s ethnic cleansing.

Her dedication to exposing Israel’s crimes against Palestinians, as well as her efforts to document the creativity and brilliance of students and professors involved in the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement on college campuses across the United States and Canada, has made her an inspiration to some and a traitor to others. Death and rape threats have been arriving daily in her inbox for many years now. Some of these threats, like the one that mentioned my stepdaughter by name, are more upsetting than others.

Jewish anti-Zionists represent a sticky problem for Israel and its institutional American support because their very existence puts the lie to Zionism’s and Judaism’s conflation. They expose the latent antisemitism in this conflation—it treats Jewish people as a monolith—as well as the irony—anyone remotely connected to Jewish culture is familiar with the maxim: two Jews, three opinions. Israel’s champions still lay claim to this culture of disagreement and nonconformity out of one side of their mouths, while using the other side to say that anti-Zionists like my wife have forfeited their heritage and are no longer “real” Jews.

For Palestinians like Ghassan, Jewish anti-Zionists are a source of real hope. Or, at the very least, a welcome relief from a seemingly endless string of opposite days in which the victimizers, who routinely align with actual antisemites, play the victim. Anti-Zionism nurtures the belief that a return to a free Palestine—a place where Palestinian Muslims, Palestinian Christians and Palestinian Jews once lived next door to each other, broke bread together, babysat each other’s children—is inevitable. Practicing this tradition of care for friends who have committed themselves to telling the truth about Israel and its American enablers is one way for Ghassan to nurture this hope.

When my session ended, I shut down the computer, put away my earbuds, and the voices and laughter they’d kept at bay induced a smile. I leaned back in my desk chair and allowed myself a moment to breathe. No need to check my phone—I’d be lying if I said that I hadn’t been furtively monitoring my social media feeds in Gaza throughout the day. And, given the company I was about to join, I knew I’d quickly get caught up on any big happenings.

I don’t think I’ve lived through a time where it’s been more important to be consistently in the presence of our people. Coming on the heels of an era in which we had a moral obligation to remain physically apart, this consistency has been challenging to practice, but Ghassan makes being in community easy because he knows its essential components: food and friendly shouting.

I came downstairs to find Nora and Dashiell at the table, clutching their bellies and reclining in the shadow of a glistening mountain of spring rolls, which I immediately recognized as more food than we’d be capable of eating in two to three days. Nora’s plate was clean—an unusual sign of appreciation as she ordinarily leaves behind a healthy offering to Elijah. Meanwhile, spring roll components—chicken, lettuce, basil, rice noodles—spread out across Dashiell’s plate like viscera. I shook off the flash of guilt. Ghassan’s daughter is a picky eater, too.

Hunched over the kitchen counter, Ghassan smiled. “I may have cooked a little too much,” he said, nodding at an overflowing bowl of yet-to-be-wrapped chicken.

I laughed. “You already ate, I hope?”

“I’m good,” he said, patting his belly. “Eat! I can talk while I do this.”

Dash begged for some screen time. I had just enough energy left to insist that he read, practice piano or draw.

Steam erupted from the tea kettle and Ghassan plucked it from the stove. He carefully drizzled boiling water onto an empty baking sheet. “So, the rice paper will stick,” he said.

Ghassan has very large hands. Once, at a Cleveland Cavaliers game, he waited in line to put his palms against a cutout photograph of LeBron James’ hands. When he placed his palm against LeBron’s and they were roughly the same size, some random fan behind him yelled “Get the fuck outta here!” He grins sheepishly in the retelling of the anecdote. In any case, his giant LeBron hands proved quite nimble as, one by one, he laid sheets of rice paper in the boiling water before wrapping them around the spring roll contents. Maybe it owed to his experience working in a burrito shop, but not a single shred of lettuce spilled.

While I ate, Ghassan regaled us with tales from his dating life. (In addition to mountains of food, he knows that gossip is an effective driver-away of despair.) The girl he was pursuing was younger than him by a little more than ten years, so he’d had to play it extremely cool—a tall order for a divorced dad who’s decided it’s time to find a new partner. Apparently, during none of their hangs (he wouldn't quite call them dates yet) had the question of age been raised.

Then, as he was stacking another spring roll tower, he received a text from the girl. He was thrilled—by the serendipity of the thing, sure, but specifically to be in Nora’s presence while it was happening, i.e., to be able to run his texts by a woman before sending.

Ghassan provided the play-by-play and analysis as he and the girl bantered. At some point in the back and forth, he texted something along the lines of, when you get to be my age...

She took the bait, replying: I’ve been meaning to ask, how old are you anyway? Is it okay to ask that?

He didn’t flinch. He told her he had no problem answering that question. He was 40—an age that, while it seems young to me now, I remember, well into my late-twenties, sounding entire lifetimes away.

“Tell her your rage keeps you young,” I offered. He laughed and did.

There followed more banter. More spring rolls. It felt so good to be absorbed in something so human. Something serious enough to elicit an emotional investment, a genuine rooting interest, and yet frivolous enough to remain in the realm of the light and airy.

At some point, I relented and told Dashiell that it was okay, if the grown-up talk was too loud to concentrate on his book, he could play 20 minutes of FIFA ‘23.

And then, out of nowhere, my absorption was interrupted by dizziness and a heat flash. I kept smiling while their laughter took place on the other side of a sliding glass door that had abruptly shut. I can’t say that I’d been suddenly transported to a besieged Palestinian hospital full of starving infants, but I hadn’t not.

I wonder if this has been happening to you, too—the sudden sense that you’ve violated your obligation to be permanently in a state of mourning. By now you've likely come across the acronym: WCNSF (Wounded Child No Surviving Family). As long as we live in a world where this condition is sufficiently commonplace to warrant an acronym, how can we permit ourselves to feel anything other than grief?

I know, I know. I, we, need to commune. To eat, breathe, laugh, together. We need to do this for ourselves and for the people of Gaza—so we’ll have the energy and strength to continue to raise hell for them. But there’s this thing that pounces in the middle of laughing too freely, and I don’t know if we’re meant to resist or to welcome it.

Maybe this thing doesn't come from without but from within. Sometimes it feels more like we’re going through our lives—waking up, brushing our teeth, drinking our coffee—with collapsed lungs. We take them to work with us. We wheeze our way through morning meetings, tasteless lunches, the lurching afternoon. Then we stand from our desks to go refill our hydro flasks and collapse in a heap on the industrial carpeting.

I shifted my focus to my breath, took a few deep, cleansing ones, and the sliding glass door retracted; I was reunited with my family and our good friend. Were it not for my long history with anxiety and panic attacks, I might’ve had to excuse myself, or at least share with Nora and Ghassan what I’d just experienced, but cognitive behavioral therapy and SSRIs have reconfigured my neural pathways. Even if I’m not meant to, I recover from these episodes pretty quickly.

However, on this occasion, as I was returned to the moment, it wasn’t relief pumping through my veins, but regret. I was angry with myself for having made that stupid joke about Ghassan’s rage keeping him young.

I spent much of my life getting quieter, apologetic even, as I approached the heart of the matter. Maybe that’s why I started writing in the first place—to force myself to stop being sorry for my life, for the way I live it, and for the ideas I develop along the way. That said, I will be forever contending with the quiet person living within, forever hauling his words up out of my throat and dragging them across the threshold of tongue and lips.

Maybe it was his involvement in BDS organizing on college campuses, where simply asserting the Palestinian people’s, his people’s, right to exist got him in hot water with the university administration, but insufficient volume is not a Ghassan shortcoming. However, unlike most loud American males, Ghassan’s volume isn’t bluster. It doesn’t spring from a need to dominate. It’s neither a cloak for ignorance nor a challenge to anyone in earshot who knows better to speak up. When we get to a good part of a song, we turn it up because we want to feel the music. Ghassan has simply learned to manipulate his volume so we might feel his best thoughts. And it’s a mistake to attribute his passion to rage.

Our rage is relentless. And that’s as it should be. Because watching a place—schools, businesses, universities, museums, holy sites, hospitals, homes—be razed, and watching a people—mothers, fathers, grandparents, doctors, ambulance drivers, teachers, journalists, academics, artists, children, children, children—be terrorized, tortured, starved and exterminated on our phones is not a new normal to which we adjust.

But while our rage animates us, gives us a fleeting power, once it’s spent, we’re little more than a husk of a human. We’re not single dads who, when our work day ends, find time to help organize direct actions and speak at protests, or drive to our friends’ houses to cook them dinner; rage doesn’t prompt us to give away our time and our energy and our humor and our damaged, open, honest selves.

For all that she’s witnessed firsthand and all that she’s reported on, Nora’s piece about the abandoned infants rattled her in an unfamiliar way. Since October 7th, the succession of horrors, including the targeted assassination of her friend—professor and poet Refaat Alareer—haven’t given her time to process her grief, the space to cry. But something about the virtual conference manifested in her a kind of stunned stillness. It was as if the experience of listening to the doctors’ testimony turned her to ash. I worried that if I opened the front door to our home, a gust of air might snatch her from within and scatter her across the street.

Enter Ghassan with his love and spring rolls.

Long since finished eating, Nora sat on a bar stool across the counter from where Ghassan continued his meticulous wrapping. He’d handed her his cell phone to review parts of his text exchange with the girl and, as he bemoaned how delicate a situation this was and how, amongst other things, he had to hurry up and get a gym membership because the girl was a dancer after all, my wife laughed freely, and the self that had seemed so precariously assembled just hours before regained its bearing.

Many years ago at a Shabbat dinner, I learned the origin of the expression “breaking bread,” that it was old testament and that its provenance was in the Jewish tradition of refraining from work—and hence, from using knives—on the sabbath. I realized that the texture of Challah bread, and the ease with which it can be torn, was connected to its ritualized sharing with company. By the time the bread makes its way around the table, we’ve practiced intimacy and, in a concrete way, we’re in it together.

I’m not saying that breaking bread with friends is the answer, that anything could possibly insulate us from despair, or that the unspeakable horrors we’re witnessing aren’t altering us in some significant, indelible way. But I will say that, if it doesn’t keep us young, our love and the connections it manifests keeps us vital. And, in such a state, we’re not so distanced from the capacity to reflect, interrogate, imagine and act that we become smaller.

Isn’t that the most pernicious aspect of aging? That we become too small to engage with the unfamiliar, for fear that the world has left us behind? That the fear of losing our handle on the story we’ve told ourselves—about who we are and what we’re a part of—might prompt us to align ourselves with forces antithetical to life and love and beauty and everything that might attract a twenty-something dancer/activist/organizer to a working-class, 40-year-old single dad?

When it was time to put Dash to bed, Ghassan beelined from the living room couch to the kitchen to grab his pots and pans. Knowing firsthand how delicate transitions can be, he is generally out the door within moments of me even thinking the word bedtime.

He hugged Nora, then me, then Dash. Dash hugged back, forcefully, squeezing his arms around Ghassan’s waist like he was about to embark on a long voyage as opposed to a five-minute drive down the hill. In moments like this, this habit of his feels like my and Nora’s greatest achievement, fruit of a well-tended tree.

Ghassan hefted his bags of pots and pans and, as he walked out into the night, Dashiell stood in the doorway, waving.

“Bye, Ghassan!” his high-pitched voice called. “Thanks for coming over!”

Nora turned to me and frowned in that specific way that conveys the good pain evoked by bearing witness to an open heart.

And there it was again. The contradiction—joy tinged with grief. While the olive trees that the colonizer uproots sever the Palestinian people’s connection to the land, and the mosques, universities, schools and homes they destroy sever their connection to their history, the murder of their children severs their connection to beauty, joy, love, and dreams of the future.

Love travels at light speed. It collapses distance. It makes us infinitely powerful. The monsters know it. And there’s nothing they won't do, including starve and murder children, to extinguish it.

Nora and Ghassan know it, too. But they also know that love is measured by what we give away, by what this giving elicits from others. They know this because they are connected to the Palestinian people who, even amidst the destruction of their land and loved ones, refuse to stop giving.

One night in December, Ghassan wrapped spring rolls for my family and fretted about a girl while my wife and I laughed and rooted for him to pull it off, to make a connection, to shed some light on all this dark. And, with time and space to reflect, I can say two things about it that somehow both feel true: it couldn’t have mattered less, and it couldn’t have mattered more.

We wake up every day and relearn the unlearnable—lessons for which we have no language, which our nature and our biology compel us to reject, but which the steady stream of images force us to retain. Every day Gaza holds up its mirror, revealing answers to questions like: Am I loved? Am I capable of loving? And every day we carry our answers out into the spiraling world.

In Light In Gaza Refaat Alareer writes, “It shall pass, I keep hoping. It shall pass, I keep saying. Sometimes I mean it. Sometimes I don’t. And as Gaza keeps gasping for life, we struggle for it to pass, we have no choice but to fight back and to tell her stories. For Palestine.”

It can feel wrong to admit it—our being inspired by their bravery and devotion and love. Because, to acknowledge that they give us hope, to write it down or say it out loud, is, in a way, to further burden them. To say, Your resistance inspires us is to say, your survival isn’t only for you. But they are aware of this reality. And this awareness is part of what gives the resistance such dignity.

The people of Palestine, in life and in death, are demonstrating to the rest of us how to save ourselves. Our task is to observe and to listen, and, connected by the grief and rage and awe and love it provokes, to act accordingly—to speak loudly and boldly; to take up space; to be in this together, unceasingly, for them and for each other.

About the Author

Zach Wyner

Zach Wyner is a writer and educator who facilitates writing workshops with incarcerated youth and adults in the San Francisco Bay Area for The Beat Within. His novel, What We Never Had, was published by Los Angeles-based Rare Bird Books. He is a contributor to The Write Launch, Tikkun, BarBar, The Good Men Project, You Might Need To Hear This, Your Impossible Voice and Atticus Review, among others. Zach received an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of San Francisco and lives in El Cerrito with his wife and children.

Read more work by Zach Wyner.