I wrote this poem last fall in the lobby of the lodge we were staying in. I have been tinkering with it and am now ready to share it with you all. I would love comments and constructive feedback, positive or negative! Thanks.


by Valerie E. Hess copyright 2017


Sitting in the lobby

With my fancy coffee and netbook,

Watching elderly tourists–

Soft bodies, canes—

Waiting to be called.

A delay is announced; the train will be late.

They settle in, getting to know fellow pilgrims better.

Comparing, contrasting lives, bragging a bit.

Like sheep,

They wait to be herded through beauty,

Eating the mouthfuls placed before them,

Sleeping where assigned.

Soon, some will do this in a care facility

But for now, their world can expand a bit more,

Like nearly worn-out elastic that still has a bit of hold in it.

New pictures to share! New stories to tell the folks back home

While they wait for the train

To glory.


It has been exactly one month and one day since we returned from our three-month stay in Jerusalem. We have been settling in, reconnecting with life here in this old house, and having visits from family and friends. There are some things I miss about Jerusalem, particularly the Redeemer Lutheran Church community and vibrancy of the Old City. There are things I don’t miss, such as the institutionalized violence, an underlying cantus firmus to life there right now.

One of the things that has continued to stay with me and is pertinent to this season of life we are in as we ask, seek and knock regarding next steps, is the doors in the Old City. The streets are dark and narrow in some parts and can be very crowded at times. When night falls, the shops are closed up behind metal doors, giving a feeling of gloom and desertion as the trash is very evident and only the cats are roaming the dark alleys. One of the things I learned, though, is that behind doors that seem very non-descript and unpromising, there may lie rich treasures. Whole worlds of beauty and vastness can open up behind some of these very small doors that are easy to miss in the hub-bub of lights and pilgrims and shopkeepers hawking their wares.

One example was the Hashimi Hotel, a door I had never even noticed until our friend, Susan, pointed it out to us. Almost hidden between two shops, its sign hung high amidst a confusing array of lights and goods for sale, she opened the narrow door and led us up a flight of stairs. Image result for hashimi hotelThere, a lovely hotel lobby appeared. Up the elevator another three flights and we were on a covered rooftop patio looking out over the Old City at night. It took my breath away! Who would have known that such an unremarkable doorway led to such beauty and delight?! (See http://hashimihotel.com/hotel-overview)http://www.hashimihotel.com/media/hashimi-hotel-imageLink15-img_53021.jpg

It really is a metaphor for my life right now, for anyone, really. What non-descript door have I been walking by that I may need to open? What treasures are waiting for me behind some out-of-the-way entrance I may miss amidst all the distractions of life back in this old house? What doors unpromising looking doors might lead to unexpected delights? I plan to check a few of them out in the days ahead.

Eighty-four nights. That is what we paid for at the Armenian Guest House at 36 Via Dolorosa, Jerusalem. For that money, we received a good room in a wonderful location from which to spend twelve weeks making memories, having experiences, and meeting new friends. And how does one put a price tag on those things?

Our final week has been spent saying good-bye to people, attending lectures, visiting favorite spots and discovering new ones, sometimes by accident! Last week, on a final trip over to the Israeli museum, we went right when we should have walked left. We ended up cutting through the rose garden at the Knesset. Minutes after John had just said we hadn’t seen any of the protests that happen regularly at the Knesset, we came to five foot wall above a protest. Soldiers and police were standing calmly by. The mostly woman soldiers were surprised to see us appear above them in the bushes. After ascertaining that we were not A problem and that we were indeed now going in the right direction to the museum, two soldiers helped me lower me down from the wall (John was fine on his own) and off we went.

This was in marked contrast to the afternoon sung Vespers at St. James Armenian Orthodox Church. Calm, cool, colorful, ethereal, it was a far cry from politics in Israel.












When we first arrived, it was cold, the last throes of winter. We are leaving in high heat, the beginning of summer. We experienced the first of the strawberries as well as apricots and now cherries in the markets. Tulips were starting to bloom when we arrived; roses and bougenvilla abound now.  

We experienced Ash Wednesday, Purim, Holy Week, Passover, Eastern and Western Easter, and the Night Ride of Mohammad. In between seasons, harvests and holidays, we experienced great beauty, breathtaking wonders, broad history, culture and art, good food, and fun times. We have also seen  firsthand the institutionalized violence in action and an occupational system that is “painting itself into a corner” of failure.












Tomorrow, after we leave the Guest House that has been home for so many weeks, we will sight-see our way to the airport near Tel Aviv. There is still much to see in this Holy Land including a village that may have been Biblical Emmaus, a monastery famous for its wine, Herod’s ancient seaport, and a small town that has often been our “first night off the plane” resting place.

Eighty-four nights plus two spent in planes: a rich, rewarding time. Landing at home, God willing, on the Feast of St. Brendan the Navigator, the Irish saint who got into a “coracle without oars” to discover where God was leading, we will leave this place deeply satisfied and thankful. We, too, will look forward to seeing where our “coracle” ultimately lands.

Shalom and good night!

Songs From the Places In Between
(after Rory Stewart)

by Valerie E. Hess c. 2017

Part V

Waking to church on a Sunday morning,
the Old City seems older.
Dark from shuttered store fronts,
the ancient stones seem to sag even more.
The garbage is more visible
against the green metal doors
silently protecting their treasures and trinkets.
A mourning dove drinks from a fetid puddle.
Sun and blue sky appear briefly
through an opening in the covered passageway.
A nun talks to a suitcase merchant,
open like an early bird waiting
for the sinuous line of pilgrims
who will soon wind their way
through the path of suffering,
adding their prayers to the appointed stations
whose stones have been made holy
by the prayers of many languages
who desperately need them to be authentic.
I climb upward,
slowly, silently,
and round the corner into the open plaza.
Blue sky, sun, white stones swept clean
welcome me
as the bells high above start ringing.
The valley of the shadow
has again been safely navigated. 

After Easter, we had wondered a bit what our focus might be after the intensity of Lent and Holy Week. We need not have been concerned. We find ourselves in a form of meditative prayer, soaking in the rich density of life here. Last week was again wonderfully full, so much so we never once made it to the library at the Rockefeller Museum for reading time!

Wednesday found us enjoying a long and leisurely lunch at the American Colony Hotel. The American Colony is my favorite luxury hotel here. It is elegant in an understated way. The gardens on the compound are a riot of color and variety. The service is attentive but not obtrusive. The decor is Middle Eastern beauty. I even love the “old bazaar” style gift shop next door to a wonderful book store with many titles in English. We go there at least once a week to read the New York Times, Middle East version, as well as The Jerusalem Post, and Ha’aretz. The news is discouraging everywhere but the comfortable chairs and view of the courtyard garden helps me keep perspective. Being in a city that has been destroyed and rebuilt countless times is also helpful in understanding that there are larger forces at work in the world than current history and politics seem to indicate.

On Thursday, after our morning time in the organ loft at Redeemer Lutheran Church, we went grocery shopping. We discovered an amazing Russian grocery store near our regular loop of shops and markets. We will be checking it out again before we leave!

Next, we decided to check out the Print Workshop, a building we had walked by numerous times but had never actually made it into. What a delightful surprise! The owner of the building told us the history, everything from the printing press they had that had published the first ever newspaper in Hebrew to being a home with a synagogue in it to housing Italian prisoners of war (as it is just down from what used to be an Italian church, now the Israeli Ministry of Education). It turns out the man was a student of Jacob Pins, whose prints we had just seen at the Ticho House museum (now part of the Israel Musuem).

Study for a chicken

We will be going back, as they were closing and we were on our way to the weekly lecture at the Albright Archeological Institute.

On our way, we finally located where the Mandelbaum Gate had been, a crossing between east and west Jerusalem. John had read the book by Kai Bird on his childhood in Jerusalem and his daily crossing of that checkpoint to go to school. The Gate was eventually torn down and a tall stone sundial now stands where it was but with no plaque indicating the history of the spot. Also, the marker is between the light rail tracks in the middle of a highway! Not easy to find.

View from former Mandelbaum Gate















After the lecture, I suggested we go home via the Damascus Gate vs. the Herod Gate. That nudging meant we stumbled into the three-day Nablus Road street fair unexpectedly. Most of the institutions on the road opened their gates and housed face painting, craft booths, and food vendors. The British Council was passing out British scones and the American Colony Hotel had its heritage room open, a space we didn’t know existed. (The American Colony Hotel was started by the Spaffords of the hymn “It is Well With My Soul” fame. It morphed into a bizarre cult. Descendants still own it but it is now managed by a Swiss hotel chain.) We ran into people we have met here who told us about a book signing at the Palestinian Cultural Center. Of course, we headed in to hear Stephanie Saldana, an American, speak about living on the Nablus Road for seven years. Her book, “A Country Between,” is the Nablus Road equivalent to “Married to a Bedouin.” Both books are recommended reading along with Elinor Burckett’s insightful book, “Golda.” Consider these for your summer reading list.

Last night, we went to a Reformed synagogue service near the German colony.

Kehilat Kol HaNeshama synagogue

Sr. Rita of Ecce homo takes each round of volunteers here and she invited us to join this group. It was my first Shabbat service ever. Sr. Maureena, who is 91 and still runs Ecce homo’s Biblical studies from a Jewish perspective programs, met us there and gave us a useful tutorial through the service book ahead of time. The book, of course read right to left, was in English and Hebrew with the Hebrew also in transliteration. I love that the Friday night service is mostly singing and welcoming in the Sabbath. It begins with passages from the Song of Solomon, reminding us that our faith is first and foremost a love relationship with God. Thanks to Sr. Maureena and the rabbi’s occasional page number call-out in English, we kept up pretty well. Sr. Maureena believes that is the keeping of the Sabbath, as laid out by God in Genesis 2, that has allowed the Jewish people to outlive all other cultures and people groups. Considering that a volunteer pointed out in the post-service dinner discussion that all dynasties (familial, cultural, industrial) seem to last only 200 years, I found Sr. Maureena ‘s assessment compelling. Sr. Maureena emphasized that Sunday is “the Lord’s day,” not the seventh day of the week Sabbath. Also, the Sabbath, as outlined in Genesis and confirmed by several rabbis she consulted with is meant to bless all people, not just the Jews. Lessons from this unique place to ponder.

One other touching moment was when Sr. Maureena pointed out that the words of the Shema (Hear, O Israel, the Lord your God is one…) are words Jesus would have said in worship when he lived on earth. Saying them in a suburb of Jerusalem was very powerful, indeed.

Shalom and good night!


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