Selections from the Journal of Peter Marshall Bell (July 12, 1959 — November 14, 1994)

The first journal entry is dated November 1, 1987

Beginning from an enormous desire to write—and then?  Thoughts escape me like so many days, and where is the journal then?

My ears are clogged up from swimming and it’s hard to think.

The ostensible reason for this journal is my current crisis—J’s diagnosis.  Was “La Plaie” a premonition?  How much more difficult it will be to live the scenario, not having any control over the denouement.  And how empty that story seems now.  And here am I on these pages now, trying to objectify the experience.  Since I wrote “I” in the short story, why not “he” here?  “He is very sad, very confused.  He sometimes looks at J when he is asleep and imagines him dead a second later.  When will that moment come, he wonders?  He is sometimes distraught in public places.  He is on edge at work.  But all in all he is holding himself together remarkably well.  But he is only going through the motions.  Going through them so well, that he doubts whether a single gesture of his is at all genuine.  ‘I am a cliché.’  His imperfect modesty sometimes reminds him that he is not alone in this mess.  But in his life he feels that he has had an immoderate share of the mess.  How many ghosts can one man support, especially on a teacher’s salary?  Well, we’ve seen repeating patterns before and we shall see yet some more.  The well-seasoned survivor always plods on and, as Samuel Beckett wrote, only grieves for himself.

Autumn is here, and the weather is appreciably colder. The sun hasn’t warmed the ground for a few days.

“He returns to the front line—will he tarry on the way?”

~ ~ ~

From February 1993

A few years after her death, I found an old picture of my mother as a young woman.  In that perfectly frozen moment in time, she is caught walking down a city street—probably in Manhattan for the weekend, on leave from the Nursing School in Manhattan.  The photo reveals much about her which marriage and children and time robbed—her youth, hopefulness and courage.  Feeling the burden of her memory was enough, I left the photograph behind, not knowing how much I might want it later.

Years went by after my abandoning the photo to a box of relics in my sister’s possession.  The house where I’d grown up, and where my mother died, was torn down and replaced by a garish condominium development.  Seeing the changes on that property reminded me of my abandonment of the photo—I had run away from an artifact, foolishly believing that memory was more than enough, only to find that those pieces of physical, tangible memories could wound me by their vanishing as much as any memory by its endurance.  All evidence of my mother’s existence was vanishing, and I would follow in its wake.

Although the women in that now demolished house did indeed die, the young woman in the photo remained alive; at first dormant in the recesses of my conscience for many years, she patiently waited for her encounter with her unsuspecting son.

We lived through an age of terrible sadness, but

slowly reopened our eyes one day to discover

a new age of grace.

We lived through a time of terrible sadness,

and yet, somehow, after the grieving and regret,

we were able to wake up one fine morning, knowing

that the worst was over and the best just beyond

the bedpost.

I cannot tell my story in fine and fancy language because I didn’t get that kind of education, but since my young days I’ve had the habit of sorting my ideas out on paper.  I’d write a letter to a friend who had moved away, and somehow just my describing one old thing or another would help me see it all more clearly.  When I first went to work I was too tired at night to write even a post card.

I cannot tell my story in fine and fancy language because I did not receive that kind of education.  The priest here told me that keeping a journal might help me put my thoughts in order and find the best way to pray for forgiveness.

~ ~ ~

And the last journal entry, dated August 15, 1994

“Hum a few bars and fake it.”


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For an Emissary to Israel and Egypt

You would be 55 today.

My first gift to you

on your birthday

— your one and only Broadway musical 

Kiss of the Spider Woman, with Chita Rivera;

my last, roses to your hotel room

in Jerusalem.

Planting a cedar today

might not be such a good idea.

Then again…

(With thanks to April Scholz for saving Peter’s itinerary.)


Do Not Try This at Home

A Fulbright Study Tour of Israel and Egypt

I am several hundred feet up on the face of the Avdat canyon in Israel’s Negev desert.  I am  hanging on for dear life to the metal rungs which are allowing myself and my fellow Fulbright participants to make a vertical course up toward the top of the canyon.  My heart is pumping with the exertion and fear created by the view below—and this is only the mid-point of the ascent.  Clearly I am not a seasoned mountaineer.  I am just a mild-mannered history teacher who accepted one of sixteen openings for a Fulbright Summer Study Tour for Teachers in Israel and Egypt.  The vertical hike continues, I reach the top, and feel that special pride in having tried something new and survived.  In my excited state the risky crawl up the canyon’s face became a logical and completely appropriate exercise in gaining an understanding of the Negev Desert.  “But,” my inner cynic reminded me, “do not push your luck—and do not try this at home.”

Although the Negev desert did not transform me into a permanent outdoor adventurer, my participation in the study tour of Israel and Egypt made a wonderful addition to my experiences in international education.  The Fulbright grant introduced me to an entirely new region of the world: the passionately controversial Middle East.  With this travel experience, I would be able to complement my teaching of history and world affairs with the unique perspective that is added by visiting the actual sites which my lessons so often targeted.

As the date of departure approached, the offices in Cairo and Jerusalem heightened my anticipation with descriptions of our program of study.  The sixteen teachers would spend three weeks in Jerusalem, followed by three weeks in Cairo.  Within these three weeks for each country, the study directors would schedule extensive road trips to balance the more traditional lectures which comprised our study.  By the time I boarded the plane for Tel Aviv, my mind was racing with the excitement of seeing a part of the world that I had not yet had the chance to explore.

Our arrival at Ben Gurion Airport provided a stark introduction to Israeli realities: Airport security was intense if not efficient, and illiteracy in spoken and written Hebrew made it difficult to distinguish political protests from “for sale” signs.  Our Israeli study director, Arie Shoval, was present from our arrival until departure to serve as translator, guide and resident head scholar.  Arie organized informative lectures in Jerusalem, concert outings, lunch at a falafel stand in the sweltering heat of Tel Aviv market at high noon, and, always at a safe distance, evidence of the unrest caused by the new Palestinian state.  Arie’s love for his country and his commitment to it impressed many of us who had never before witnessed such deeply felt patriotism.  For a people who have struggled to survive as a nation for thousands of years, such patriotism became a standard observation throughout our study tour.

Although over a third of our time was spent touring the whole of Israel, our home base was the Ariel Hotel, just South of the old city of Jerusalem.  Israeli realities converge and become explosive within the walled confines of the old city, with security forces always present.  The Arab Quarter has seen less violence due to the peace accords but an outsider still has to tread carefully as he passes Damascus Gate toward the Arab market.  The Grand mosque of the Old City is only a five-minute walk from the Western Wall, the holiest site of the Jewish faith.  Access to the Western Wall is heavily watched, and during the time of our stay rumors of Arafat demanding the Old City as Palestine’s capital added extra tensions, and extra security forces.

Jews and Arabs are not the only sources of violence in the Old City.  In the Christian sector, orthodox Armenian and Greek sects and Franciscans coexist with great difficulty.  Israeli police have had to break up fistfights among the clergy of those various denominations, and tensions run especially high during Easter services at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre.  Above all this fracas, the rooftop garden provides one source of peaceful coexistence.  On the roof, Coptic Christian and Ethiopian monks live in austerity in dome-shaped, individual cells.  Here these holy men pray, tend gardens, and thrive in a thoroughly ascetic existence.

Far away from the tensions of the Old City, The Yad Vashem Holocaust Museum stands on a hill in the new part of the city as testimony to the horrors of the Nazi death camps.  Through a variety of exhibits Yad Vashem takes the visitor back to the first attacks on Jews in the early 1930’s, the German government’s codification of anti-Semitism by the Nuremburg laws of 1935,  the hardships of the ghettos where Jews were forced to live without adequate food or sanitation.  The last exhibits focus on the “final solution” and the death camps in all their horror.  Such testimony gives a special context to the Israeli state.  The vow, “Never Again,” was clearly expressed throughout our travels in Israel, from the United Nations peace-keeping outpost in the Golan Heights to the heavily armed Israeli-Lebanese border.


Summer 1994

Peter Plants A Cedar


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Where does the time go?

Remembering Peter Marshall Bell, July 12, 1959 (Washington, D.C.) – November 14, 1994 (San Francisco) – and wondering, along with Peter, what became of all those who knew him:

What will become of these people?-Senegal 1981-83

[Peace Corps, Senegal 1981-1983]


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Another year, another birthday to celebrate

I offer a bouquet of Peter’s favorite rose (from Paris, of course), along with a few more of his words.

Cabbage Rose


His truest friends were collections of words.  However still and lonely the night, they comforted and sustained him.

—P. Bell, Unpublished

[From a letter to Douglas Kauffman, 30 August 1986]

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Remembering Peter

Early in the morning on this day, 18 years ago, a light dimmed.







Peter Marshall Bell 12 July 1959—14 November 1994


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Miss Trash takes back the night

Contributed by April, dear friend of Peter Bell and fellow Peace Corps volunteer:


… work on the memoir continues.

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In the Spring of 1991, Peter wrote in his journal:

Poor little me!  Can’t have sex with a man without thoughts of china patterns going through my head.  Truly I could become more realistic by now.  Men just don’t bond that easily.

They want a gorgeous man of independent means, I suppose.

For my own part, all I want is an attentive, modest and forthright soul.

In the Spring of 1992, Peter wrote:

Storms pass, the humidity evaporates, a breeze clears our brow.  A new day, a clean slate, a willing spirit and cooperative body.  On ne sait jamais ce qui vient avec le temps. 

In the Autumn of 1992, in the evening of this day twenty years ago, Peter and Raymond met.  I smile – to think that this would be our “china” anniversary.


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