by: John Daniel Gore
Preparing to be center-stage is overwhelming. Lives are punctuated with spotlight moments of different hues, like giving a career-making presentation or, contrarily, eulogizing a beloved relative. The moment may emerge in a matter of months or hours. Many of these are natural times to feel nervous and our cultures contain assorted scripts, taken from ritual and anecdotes, that foreshadow how to cope. Still, many of us have had our cores shaken ‘backstage’ during moments that should have been mundane, twisted junctures that others might call ‘normal’ or ‘right’.
I want to speak to the topic of transcending dread, though mine is as particular as anyone’s. Nervousness wanes as we grow experienced but dread ferments from bad memories. I live in a country possessed by an unfriendly military and I have to pass through the occupiers’ ports-of-entry. My job has been to help an office of brave, kind people promote nonviolence and civic education but my presence is unwelcome by their reactive neighbors. During my farewell barbeque, a cloud of tear-gas blew onto us from a nearby refugee camp: foreboding.
Someone else will decide how stressful my exit is. There is no measure I can take to know their thoughts. I have watched my possessions spread across a table and listened as each object became a probing question. A cute guard bought me lunch, once. My white, male privilege melts like butter when I am under suspicion: I waited for seven hours once but in another instance I fibbed that I study religion and was waved to baggage claims with a marked disinterest. Every trip is a game played on dice with changing faces according to rules with secret caveats.
I was strip-searched twice in an hour and accused of being ‘nervous’, still standing in my underwear1. Undressing (twice) is not what unsettled me; security was never required to explain why, so seven months later there is no way I can know how to prevent a relapse. A dysfunctional international relationship manifests in these vile, interpersonal dramas. Guards merely play the role assigned to them by a culture built both on being ‘other’ and controlling ‘others’. I should be pouring my heart into saying goodbye to the people who hosted me for over a year and added love and meaning to my stay, not speculating about the border soldiers. They cannot fathom the ways their security undermines safety… but they are not the first to privilege control over our shared humanity, are they?
Denial has its advantages as a preparation strategy: it reduces premature agitation. My final week became a list of indulgences and tasks, a concoction of work addiction and vice. Packing transformed from busy-work to a symbolic embalming, though, as each small organ of my life here found a place in the mushy sarcophagus of my suit-case, awaiting the New World. The gifts my co-workers and friends lovingly lavished upon me blast a wide hole in my alibis. Loaded with Arab stuff, I accept I will be ‘screened’ once more. Another showdown before the next adventure dawns.
My first-year English class will finally come to fruition today; I am going to use ‘the performative’. Because I have not fully prepared until I write this but cannot write of a preparation that never happened, I hereby prepare by writing these words. Preparing means I remember who I am and I have a vision, however bleary, of what will define my future journeys. The only variables I control are inside of myself but I declare that I am rightly constituted – that I have the right stuff – to embrace whatever happens.
I am someone that knows about personal difficulties and, because of that, I felt compassion for the people suffering here and I can even reach, deep inside, and find compassion for the first person who accuses me of being suspicious. I have never drawn a weapon against anyone, nor do I accept them as a solution because of the ways they bind us with violence. I am disarmingly courageous. Though imperfect, I am ‘good enough’ and I know it is true because my colleagues told me so (repeatedly) and now, of all times, I need to concede that they are right. It will make each and every one of them happy to know I found my way home safely. I am beloved.
Because I am a person of character, I overcome the paralysis of dread and of the inertia it causes. People like myself learned how to metabolize our sadness into outrage long ago but I can dissolve this rigid facade and be vulnerable again – not because I will not be shaken but because I will recover. I remember that I was once funny, musical, sometimes sweet, always unique, and even clever at times and, yes, all of those parts remain with me. Best of all, I remember that I am someone’s cousin, another’s friend, yet another’s grandson: I am somebody special because of them.
This nerve-wracking event is just another molting, another instar in my life as a caterpillar. When I shed the skin I am in, it will all become part of a story. I control my stories. I will use my stories and the tales of people I met and use them to fight against injustices of all kinds. In fact, my dream career is to study how people use art to make social change and learn that craft myself. Problems were inherent to a path like that. I did as well as anyone expected and I will continue to take strides forward, no matter what happens in the next twelve hours. I declare, the deed is as good as done.
Most of my physical preparations are haphazard. I filled the pockets of my grandfather’s old jacket with things I need, practically or emotionally: passport, paper-work, purple heart from a friend, bouncing ball from when I was ten. Important stuff like that. My clothes are laid out, next to a pair of avocados to eat for breakfast. Water is in the tea-pot, the lighter adjacent. All day, I have fiddled with my personal soundtrack. It has gone from sentimental, to head-bashing rock, to singing along with Steely Dan, and finally to the right piece: “Maiden Voyage” by Herbie Hancock. In the classic Jazz I find a resonant feeling of anticipation in the improvised melodies as they braid with a cozy tapestry of chords. There is something in it that feels like falling into a dream-filled sleep.
That reminds me: I should sleep now.