Tuesday, December 30, 2014

I've Been to Armageddon

In 1982, right befor the shooting at the Dome of the Rock, and not long after I turned fourteen, my family went to Israel and Greece.  I’d grown up with Jewish friends, and one of them sat me down on the steps at his parents’ house, eyeballed me slowly, and pronounced that my nose was too small and I had freckles – but, because I had brown hair and brown eyes, I was allowed to precede him to the Holy Land.

Though that was the first eyeballing I got on that trip, it was far from the last, and one of the lasting legacies of my first and only foreign travel was the exposure to a cultural phenomenon which has shaped the way I approach (literally) life.  I learned to look people (men) in the face.  At age fourteen, that’s no small asset to come by, and this trip may have been the first fundamental step in creating the persona I’ve built now for nearly forty-seven years.  It may lie behind, too, my tendency to flat-out approach a guy, making my intentions clear.  I met my ex husband by conking him over the head with a club with a pointblank approach, and a number of my serious and less-so relationships began only because I crossed the space between me and someone else.  One I remember with fondness has always told me he NEVER would have spoken to me (regardless of an across-the-room smile and my making a point of standing a little away from the friends I was with) because he assumed I could not possibly be available.

Odd things, you can pick up in Israel.

I almost picked up a husband, to be sure.  When we went to tour Megiddo, our charming guide offered to betroth me to his son or nephew or some other relation; an opportunity my mother was most flattered to have to turn down due to geographical inconvenience.  (One thing I failed to pick up in Israel:  geographical undesirability as a deal-breaker …)

This was one of the interesting facets of our travel.  My family were Very Baptist, of course (are), and I was a little suburban kid of fourteen years of age.  But my experience of Israel in particular, but even somewhat of Greece (we were only in Athens for a very few days, compared to over a week in the Holy Land), was not much truncated by being with my protective family.

It may have helped that my brother, aged seventeen, was at the height of his Intimidating Guy years – but, the fact was, my mom and dad took care of us both, without taking tons away from the experience of travel.  Indeed, some of the freedom we got one night when they went to a schmanzy hotel and the mice played, I would happily have done without.

Fun fact:  we once figured out that Mr. X was living in Israel, pretty near indeed to the family we were visiting there, at this time.  However, it has also been determined (and thank Maud) that he almost certainly didn’t cross paths with us, mice or families or otherwise.

Second fun fact:  Mr. X also never developed the habit of staring openly at women.  Though he’s extremely skilled at covert glances.

Megiddo offered perhaps the most prominent matrimonial opportunities for me in Israel, but alas it was not time for my folks to hang out a white flag and marry me off, or so they felt.  I was heartily glad of it, though it must be said the options for betrothal (and Marlboro cigarettes, which actually originated in my own backyard, which amused me greatly) would have been rich indeed, if only we’d all considered it.  Child marriage and nicotene addiction, though, were not in store.

One of the more striking things about Megiddo in particular was this:  I had no idea until college, the name of the place is inextricably linked to Armageddon.  THERE is a fact I suspect would have not only blown my pre-pretentious little mind, but also quite influenced everything I ever believed in or would.  I mean, once you’ve been to Armageddon – before even actually living a life at all – everything else has to be a piece of cake, right?

As it stands (for millennia upon millennia), thirty-two years on and a lifetime away, my memory of that day comes to the high place atop the tel … the narrow tunnel descending into it (it was at this gateway to the underwold of Armageddon my mom helped me spurn matrimonial bliss) … and the madcap driving of the relation who took us to all the sites we went to.  Kinneret stands out, too, for its wide beauty and the food (“what kind of spice is that?” “BURN”) … glimpsing the Golan Heights.  Trips to the Old City.  I don’t think us kids really did anything in Tel Aviv, except perhaps land there.  Walking the walk that Jesus walked, on Good Friday.  Lazarus’ tomb.  And such churches …

This trip fed into my nascent interests in history and faith – or, more elementally, in The Past.  Where I probably never would have said I was much into “history” until at least my twenties, I’ve always had a sense of the presence of the past, if you will, and always preferred my stories well away in time.  My earliest conceptions of time were spatial and mystical, if only because so much IS mystical to the ignorant innocence of early childhood.  The Bible, too (and by this I refer to the Pentateuch, the “old” testament) has excited me from the earliest age, even if not generally in the way most people of faith would like to see.

One of the things many Americans tend to miss, or miss out on, is the physical manifestation of the past in our lives.  Few of the populations imported and immigrated in the past half-millennium consider those who were here before very often, and the conception of native life here is not abundantly accompanied by artifacts (though a click on the links above will provide a look at one of the most remarkable recent finds you can expect to see).  What architecture and sites we have rarely date back more than 200 years.

So, to be in the impossibly OLD word – of “armageddon” or Christ or the Patriarchs or Jebus or Canaan – to touch Roman glass and mosaic stones just lying on the ground, to walk stone steps so long in use their centers are worn away to nothing, to breathe the scented air in churches as old as *the* Church itself – is almost more than a kid like me can experience with no effect.  Not only is there incredible drama in the past, but there is such mystical power it is all but overwhelming.

I got over that; there’s only so long a boy-crazy girl can sustain interest in the ineffable when she’s impatient to get to high school and have crushes and hate her teachers and so on.  When there are no answers and her emotional obsessions lie elsewhere, early awe becomes fallow-shallow; gives way to more immediate moments.

But the interest never quite dies.  I still vastly prefer my history VERY much older than the American Civil War and my hometown have to offer.  Reworkings of the oldest stories, and reading Bronze Age fiction, history, and archaeology always captivate me.  Armageddon maybe less than Genesis – but the questions behind these oldest of human stories, and the ways they came to be and changed and are received, the worlds they rebuild (sometimes excitingly, sometimes with flaws, always with ambition) are places I will always visit, again and again.

I found a lifetime commitment in Israel, in my way.  Even if it wasn’t to the unseen, Marlboro-smoking sixteen-year-old promised to me at Armageddon.  Or even the unseen, cowlick-sporting, covert-gazing American boy of my dreams.

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