No Escape - Conscious Awareness As Liberation
Claude AnShin Thomas needed many years in order to come to terms with his terrible experiences in the Vietnam War – a process that continues today. Encountering Buddhism allowed him a different understanding of our human suffering and the path to libearation.
evolve: Suffering and pain seem to be very personal, because we feel in our inside all those emotions that are related to suffering and pain. As a Vietnam veteran you deeply experienced the heart of darkness and it doesn’t seem to be something one can cope with on a personal basis. How do you experience this?
Claude AnShin Thomas: I think, we can only work with pain and suffering on a personal basis, because the experience is personal. I don’t know if you are aware of the work with the trans-generational effects of war? As a Zen Buddhist monk my thinking is influenced by Zen practices, but this understanding of the world and of my life existed long before I came in contact with Zen practice. Zen practice just gave me a language to more clearly articulate the reality of karma. Karma means that for every cause there is an effect. But we can’t know when that effect will manifest itself and to what degree. Karma isn’t just a personal reality; it is also a collective reality.
In my case, my great-grandfather was a soldier, my grandfather was a soldier, my father was a soldier, and I became a soldier. I believed that I wanted to be a soldier but I was unaware of the truth of inherited karma. I didn’t understand that the thoughts that I had, the decisions that I made, were already shaped for me.
Some people who do not understand the laws of Karma would say that karma is fatalism. This is a misunderstanding. Fatalism means that you cannot change your life-course. Karma is not this. Karma can be changed, if I am willing to wake up to how the past generations and how the collective conscious live in me. To wake up to the behaviors, the ideas that I have inherited can only happen if I commit to this process (of waking up). What to do with this awareness is not complicated. I simply live differently. I stop acting in ways that are harmful to myself and others. I not only cultivate thinking differently, I learn how to live differently because the dilemmas presented by inherited Karma cannot be resolved intellectually. We can come up with all sorts of theories and ideas, but we can not think ourselves into a new way of living; we must life ourselves into a new way of thinking. The way contemporary society deals with pain and suffering is to make every effort to get rid of them. But this is impossible. Therefore I concentrate not only on the people who are engaged in war and violence, who directly experienced trauma, but also with the subsequent generations.
Let’s say your grandfather was a soldier in the 2nd World War. He was affected and how that manifested itself within the family dynamic is then passed on to your parents and then on to you. It is imperative for us to be willing to accept the reality that these realities exist. The consequences of these inherited patterns though are not the responsibility of others. They are not external therefore the solutions are not external. The solutions to coming to terms with our inherited suffering rest with the individual. So, when we want the world to be different, then we must be willing to live differently.
e: In a way you described, how the personal is embedded in the larger context of family and culture. You didn’t talk about yourself alone, but about your relation to your family, to war, to the culture. So, it’s not only a psychological process to engage with the effects of war and trauma, but it means to find a new relation to the world.
CT: Before engaging with the world, or while I am engaging with the world, I have to first establish a relation with myself. I need some sort of process to identify that for my life I am responsible. The suffering and the pain in my life are my responsibility. It is important for me to accept, that the problems are not external and the solutions are not external, even though there are problems that show themselves externally and promise external solutions. You can buy hundreds of books that can give you the 10 or 15 steps to take in order to free yourself from suffering. In the end these are merely band aids.
One year I was visiting Salzburg, Austria. I was walking on the streets of Salzburg and passed a bookshop. There was a book in the window. My assistant translated the title: “Positive thinking makes you sick!” I know the truth of this, but if I am only negative or only dwell in the suffering, then there is no possibility to see that I can be different. It is important to reach a point where we understand that all experiences contain all things, both positive and negative, good and bad. To reach this understanding, first we need to want to reach this understanding. Then we need a disciplined spiritual practice that is rooted in self-reflection. Then it would be important for us to do this with a group of like-minded people who are supported by an authentic someone who has walked this path before them.
Buddhist practice provided this to me. It supported me to understand the interconnected reality of all of this. While I am concentrating on myself and beginning to do things different I don’t do that in isolation from the entire world that I am an integrated part of. So, as I have mentioned earlier in this interview, “if I want the world to be different, I need to live differently”: What and how do I eat? How do I care for myself and other people? How do I care for the things in my life that support me, for instance the house, the space that I live in? How do I care for the dishes that hold the food that nourishes me? How do I care for the relations with the people in the grocery store? How do I care for my relations to the people I encounter on the streets? This is an important piece to this process of waking up to the point of a disciplined spiritual practice. It is important to know that spiritual practice and daily life are not two things. My life is full of relations that reflect back to me the nature of the Karma that I have inherited.
e: In 1968 you returned from the Vietnam war and struggled with the experiences you had during that time. A big change for you occurred when you met the Buddhist teacher Thich Nhat Hanh and his community in the 1990ies. What opened up for you in this encounter with a Buddhist teacher and community?
CT: Before I respond to this question it is important to let you know that I didn’t have the chance to become aware of my suffering until I stopped taking intoxicants, which means drinking alcohol, smoking cigarettes, taking other drugs either prescribed or illegal. I had to stop all of that, because as long as I was altering my mind or my physicality, I was trapped in the idea that my solution was external . In the process of stopping, I began to be able to understand how my thinking, my views of myself and the world around me were shaped by the unhealthy dynamics in my family. It was through this process that I began to be able to establish a different relation with the patterns that were passed on to me and how they were manifesting in my life. At this point I could begin to do something different with those patterns.
While all of this work was important, I had not yet come to terms with how I was affected by my service in the war. This didn’t open up to me until 6 to 7 years after I had stopped taking intoxicants and done a lot of psychological work. In this process of wanting to wake up to the pain and suffering in my life – to live differently, it was suggested that I go to a meditation retreat being facilitated for other soldiers. I went. This retreat happened to be facilitated by the Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh. The retreat was from a Wednesday through to a Sunday. It was a very challenging experience for me. It was a retreat in silence, and in silence I could not escape my suffering. At the end of this retreat I was invited to come to their community in France, where I lived day to day in social settings with Vietnamese people. There were not only monks, but because of the social and cultural role that Buddhism plays in some parts of Asia, a lot of Vietnamese immigrants who were living in France and Europe used this monastic community as social gathering place. So, I was in the middle of a Vietnamese community, which gave me an even deeper awareness of how I was affected by my service in the war and the kind of suffering I have inflicted on others, all of this growing out of my lack of awareness, out of the Karma that I inherited.
Before going to this retreat and then to the monastery it is important for me to let you know that I always had a grounding, I had a meditation practice of sorts, but it wasn’t a meditation practice with the intention of awakening. Rather it was a meditation practice with the intention to control my mind. It was in this retreat that I was introduced to the meditation practice of awareness, rooted in Buddhist teachings that put me in a position to open my mind by not controlling it, but simply getting to know it more intimately.
It was in this monastery that I was being introduced to a disciplined spiritual practice rooted in self reflection, and I realized meditation is a way of living. It’s rooted in the process of being willing to see what keeps me from being aware. I was introduced into the breath by being still. Through just concentrating on my breath I could become aware of how my intellect functions and how the intellect is influenced by the Karma I have inherited and that I have created.
e: What impact did these interactions with the Vietnamese people have on you? What changed?
CT: I became more aware of how much suffering I had inflicted on not only the Vietnamese people but on the earth itself. I wouldn’t have had the chance to become aware, if I wouldn’t have been introduced to and committed to a disciplined meditation practice.
The process of awakening can feel at times excruciatingly painful and disorienting as I am conditioned to see myself in a certain way. Living in this monastery, committed to a daily disciplined practice, I was becoming conscious of the fact, that how I saw myself wasn’t exactly the truth. Through this process, I just became more vulnerable.
Meditation and Life
e: Can you say more about the way you understand the role of meditation as a life practice?
CT: Meditation isn’t just sitting on a cushion. It isn’t just sitting in quiet and solitude. Meditation practice and daily life aren’t two things. So, walking is meditation, eating is meditation, working is meditation and brushing teeth is meditation. Everything is an opportunity to practice. What I pass along to people is that if you come to a meditation retreat looking for what you call peace or escape from your suffering, then you will be disappointed, because sitting on a cushion is like sitting on a bomb. The more silence this practice will bring to your life the more suffering has a chance to show itself.
Many people come to meditation with a lot of expectations. I don’t mind the expectations, as long as people are willing to work with those expectations when they are not met. Often when people come with expectations and they are not met, they leave and go to another thing because they are attempting to get the world to conform to all of their ideas of how their life ought to be. They want meditation practice to meet their expectations. So when an authentic practice does not meet those expectations then they are disappointed and simply go shopping until they find someone who will give them the illusion that their expectations are being met.
e: How do you work with trauma and suffering in meditation?
CT: What I do pass on to people is that the truth of our suffering never goes away. When people are looking for escape then coming to a meditation retreat is the wrong place. What can happen when committing to a disciplined spiritual practice is that we have the possibility to establish a more conscious relation with our suffering. In establishing this more conscious relation with our suffering, not rejecting it or allowing it to control us, our relation to that suffering changes. For example, I haven’t slept more than 2 hours consecutively in any night since 1966. This reality used to be a terrible experience for me, because I was locked into the idea that I have to sleep in a certain way. When I was at a point of awareness that came as a result of not using intoxicants and having a disciplined spiritual practice rooted in self reflection, I suddenly became conscious of the simple fact that I can’t sleep; or rather it is not that I can’t sleep but the more simple reflection of this is now how I sleep.
Once there was acceptance that my sleep patterns are like they are, then there was the opportunity for another relation to that suffering to show itself. As long as I cling to the idea that I want my suffering, whatever it is, to go away, I make myself a prisoner to that suffering. It will continue to pull me down into the pit of despair. It is important to learn to be sad. It is equally important to learn not to swim in a pool of sadness, but to learn how to be sad. It is important to learn how to be happy. We have too many ideas about what happiness is, what peace is. However, we can come to a place where we just can let go of these ideas. Once we have loosened our grip on our ideas, at this point, we then have the opportunity to experience happiness and peace.
No fixed ideas
e: Do you want to bring people into a deeper contact with the truth of their life through this disciplined practice?
CT: I have no agenda. I do not attempt to bring people to any particular place. I just pass on to people what was passed on to me. I allow the tools of practice to be the example.
I have a very disciplined approach to the reality of Buddhist practice. I don’t care what a persons ideas are, I don’t care what they think, I don’t care what they say. I am most interested in what they do. That’s how I teach. I just pass on to people the tools of a disciplined meditation practice, how to sit etc. I give people instructions on recitations consciously keeping the experience very simple.
It is important to take note that I am not selling Buddhism, and I am not trying to convert people. I pass on to them the truth that meditation or spiritual practice is not a special thing. It’s not other than daily life. Every moment is an opportunity to practice no matter what we are doing, because we have to breathe anyway. Through practice we can discover what prevents us from breathing with conscious awareness.
e: Do you see that people are changing themselves through doing this practice?
CT: Some do, especially the longer they do it. At longer retreats you can see that people slow down, they become more vulnerable and less argumentative. But to really change peoples’ lives, they need to continue the practice. It’s not like taking a pill. It’s something that we have to continue to nourish. It is something hat requires a sustained effort. We have to continue to do it all the time regardless of the circumstances we are in. There are no excuses not to practice. We have to see how the practice shows itself to us in different circumstances. We don’t do everything rigidly in the same way. If you want to wake up, there can’t be anything that is more important. If you want the world to be different you can’t put other things in front of your own awakening. Anything that I put in front of my awakening is keeping me trapped in suffering.
e: You also do work with war veterans, organize street retreats or do pilgrimages, for instance from Auschwitz to Vietnam? What are your intentions with these kinds of actions?
CT: No intention. I just do this. For me it is about not turning away.
I lived homeless for a couple of years. On the street retreats I share this experience with people. We go on the street with no money and only the clothes that we wear. We sit in the morning and in the evening. Along with this we also do recitations. The rest of the day we are outside, no bathing or showering, no teeth brushing. This practice actually begins long before we actually go on the street. Five days before the retreat participants are instructed to not shower, change clothes, wash their hair or brush their teeth. This then continues through the retreat itself.
While on the street, we have to beg for everything. We do not stay in the places designed for homeless people, because we don’t want to take space away from those who are living on the street. These retreats are about experiencing this more direct way of living.
It is quite confrontational for the people who come, because to come you have to raise a certain amount of money. For example, if you do a homeless retreat in Germany or in Europe you have to beg for 1080 €. If you don’t raise this money, then you can’t come. You can’t pay it out of your account. You can’t get your parents to pay for you. You have to really beg for this money. So, this process is putting people into a particular set of situations and giving them the opportunity to discover their suffering which will show itself in their resistance. This is also the point of meditation practice. It gives you the opportunity to see what prevents you from waking up, what prevents you.
e: Many people in our days are not peaceful in their minds. Why is that so, even if they didn’t have certain traumatic experiences?
CT: It has always been that way. Suffering is a natural condition of life. This dynamic is then defined through the process of seeing problems and solutions as external and that the world is somehow supposed to meet our expectations. We are constantly investigating, attempting to get the world to adjust to our expectations – but it barely ever does. So we are always in a state of dis-ease, looking for something to cushion this dis-ease: medication, drugs, alcohol, cigarettes, making a lot of money, love, the perfect, one and only relationship, children, no children. We are looking for all these things to take away the dis-ease. But there is no need to get rid of this dis-ease. The need is to really look at this dis-ease, to see the many facets of it, so that we can learn to live in a more peaceful relation with this dis-ease rather than attempting to get rid of it or allowing it to control us. A disciplined spiritual practice is the way to get to know our dis-ease more intimately.
e: It means from your perspective to develop the capacity to be simply with what is?
CT: Yes, because what is, is what is.
e: No escape.
e: What does peace and healing mean for you today?
CT: It changes and I don’t have a fixed idea about it. It means different things at different points in time. I can generally say peace is not the absence of conflict. Peace is the absence of war, but not the absence of conflict. I need to learn how to be in conflict with myself and the world around me without that conflict degenerating into war. Healing is not the absence of suffering. It’s learning to live in a more conscious relation with that suffering – neither rejecting it nor allowing it to control me – and learning how to be present with that suffering.
Here is an example: I arrived here in Germany in April. I was picked up at the airport and brought here to the Meditation Center in Leverkusen-Opladen. When I got out of the car, I walked around the car into the house, and I unexpectedly experienced a quite severe lung embolism. I nearly died. There was one time that I lost consciousness that I am aware of but I was later informed that there were a couple of other times. When I first started to loose consciousness, I was convinced that I was going to die. I wasn’t a moment afraid. I was disappointed that I really had to go now. I also felt a bit ashamed, because of the people who were left in this existence who would have to take care for all that would exist after my death. Fortunately the hospital was quite close to the Meditation Center in Leverkusen-Opladen. The ambulance came and I responded to the treatment. However, I learned later that I was just a very short time away from death.
We cling too much to this existence without the awareness that the moment we come into existence we are already dying. We avoid this topic of dying because of our fear. The fear about what is next. We cling to some idea that life is an infinite experience that we have some control over when the reality is, that we never know what is next.
So, I just keep doing what I do. Sometimes my suffering nags on me and is telling me: “What are you doing this for?” or “What a waste of time!” Those stories are endless sometimes. But the disciplined spiritual practice enables me to have a conscious relation with these processes. I don’t have to reject them. I don’t have to allow them to define me. I have done a lot of things in my life, and they never presented me with the opportunities that I have now. So, I just keep doing this, whatever this is. I keep sitting, I keep walking, I just keep living the life that I live as consciously as I can. This awareness gives me the opportunity to become aware of my unconsciousness. And then I let these unconscious processes show me how to work with them. That’s spiritual practice for me.
Original interview for publication in the German online magazine evolve (https://www.evolve-magazin.de/)
I was interested to read that your interactions with people are sometimes based in the notion that in the end people cannot be trusted. While I don’t necessarily disagree with your position, I will offer you the notion that this deep-rooted sense of distrust can be reframed. If I have the deep-seated belief that no one can be trusted, I will construct situations that support my belief. However, over time, I have come to a different approach to trusting others. Instead of seeking to confirm what I already believe to be true, that people cannot be trusted, I start from the position of trusting everyone. I begin with these boundaries of trust held quite tight, though. I will trust within certain limits. Then as my interactions with people continue over time, bit by bit I let the boundaries of trust loosen and expand. In this way my trust is not so black-and-white, but rather it grows organically. The question becomes not if I can trust someone or not but to what extent can I trust them. Today I understand that relationships that are important to me require investment, and that trust will be broken in small ways from time to time--and trust can be rebuilt if I am of the mind to work in the direction of rebuilding.
I had been there again, in the mouth of the beast, that place where conditioning, training and propaganda transcend reason - a place war.
I was still quite within myself hoping that the stuff of my experience would begin to cohere into realization, expression. Now I was just quiet with it like an empty blackboard then suddenly it would be filled with the sounds of fingernails being dragged across its surface.
Tears would well up in my eyes, burning my nose and I could no longer sit with the anxiety - pushing at me from the inside, throwing my feet, my legs into motion, jumbling my thoughts, stretching my nerves bungee cord tight at the end of a bridge jump.
I rose from my seat on the floor and started to put on my jacket and boots. Francois asked of me: "Are you alright? Where are you going?"
"I have to walk, I can't sit any longer, I have to get outside and walk or it feels like I'll just explode!!"
"Would you like me to come with you?"
And although that familiar voice, that post Vietnam voice that was absorbed into every fiber of my consciousness, was saying "Fuck her man, she doesn't really give a shit. She's just patronizing you. She'll be just like all these back in the world mother-fuckers. She'll bail out man, she don't care you know, nobody cares. They don't know man, and they don't really want to know. She'll bail out like all the rest - can't handle it !!"
But in spite of this voice what came out of my mouth was: "Yes, please, I'm not much, not much company, can't seem to talk just now, but I don't want to be without companionship because I feel so dead inside just now, so alone. I don't want to be without companionship, not this time."
She put on her boots, coat, hat and we left her flat and began walking. A light rain was falling and there were people bustling all about - here, there, across the street. Smoking their cigarettes, wrapped up tight in their winter coats, filling the cold night air with there warm breath, visible. Yet to me they were just shadows highlighted in silver.
As we walked the crowds began to thin and I emerged from deep within my isolation gasping for breath asking if we could stop someplace for a coffee. We found a small cafe and walked in. The heat felt good and there was a quiet corner available that offered me a clear vision of the room and an exit near through which I could leave quickly. We ordered, the coffee was delivered to the table and I drank it through my silence screaming and my tears. All of this so familiar to me.
The scars of war that for so many, many years I attempted to hide under layers of denial, illusion, shame, and fear. Looking at myself in the mirror, so ugly, wanting only to Rip Van Winkle, or disappear. And now the waking up. You know, when the suns so bright it hurts your eyes!! Touching the scars with a kind of friction massage that makes you want to scream - exposing them to light and fresh air that they may stop festering. Learning to make peace with my unpeacefulness. That I may never again have to find myself.
Here I am, look at me, I am not a wound, I am wounded and healing.
In June I visited another War Zone. Sandbag bunkers, hooches, barbed wire perimeters, guards, dogs, guns. These were people like me, my peers in our unholy war, the Vietnamese Civil War, and this was Hawaii, the Big Island. I met with them, these discarded souls, in their place and at chow, "C" Rations, green cans, O.D. , P-38's, cold food, and I talked of us being the "Light at the Tip of the Candled"!! And asked how they talked about the War. There statement was: "The wars over man, there's no point in talking about it you know what I mean? We're just about getting on with our lives here, you know what I mean?
I finished my "C's" in silence, like out in the bush you know, there were no words, no more words even though I was screaming in silence: "What do you mean the wars over? What the fuck are you talking about, getting on with your lives, what are you fucking blind or what? Look around you, look at this place, its a fucking Fire Base, Fire Base Paper!! But there were no more words. So I just left and cried for 2 days.
Because I can't remember exactly I say fuck to remembering. But I can hear the radios. I can hear the grunts talking back and forth. All the different units we were covering. I can hear the flight units and all their chatter. Most crews turned off the radios. They didn't want to know what was going on, what we were going to be flying into. But not me, I wanted to know what was happening, what we were going to be heading into, the shit.
Close fire support that's what we did - tree top stuff, 60 knots. I don't know what that translates into when talking in MPH (miles per hour). What I do know is that you could hit us with rocks.
The radios were quiet. The usual conversation, chatter, chatter, chatter and then combat. That abrupt and sudden change, so profound as to suck the peace our of the wind. A platoon had made contact, heavy contact, and the radio gave me this information. They sounded like they had just got off on an Amphetamine Rush.
"6 this is tiger over."
"This is 6 go ahead."
"We're fucked man, you gotta help us, we must-uv found all the fuckin dinks in South Vietnam. We got guys down all over the fuckin place, we need fuckin help now. Where's 3d platoon, where the fuck are they? There supposed to be on our flank. They're supposed to be our cover our support, where are they? Where are the gunships? Where are the fuckin gunships? Get 'em here now, fuckin now!! We need a Medvac now , where's the fuckin Medvacs, where's anybody?"
Listening to all this I was just there, immediately in Oz. Transported into that etheral space of combat time where spacial notions disappear and you are no longer where you were or thought you might be, you're just where you are, in combat land.
We got the co-ordinates and headed out not waiting for a formal invitation -- we were the gunships -- Have Guns Will Travel!!
"Tiger this is Stinger 6 we're on you, pop smoke and we'll light 'em up for ya - over!"
"Stinger 6 this is Tiger over - it's the Ville man it's the whole fuckin Ville."
"Tiger this is Stinger 6 - Roger that!"
We broke down on the ville, the lead ship, my ship took one side of the Ville. M-60's, rockets, 40 Mike Mikes (40 milimeter); the Hog took the other side; Rockets and Door Guns. The flex ship took it right down the middle; Rockets, Door Guns, and 4 M-60 machine guns smokin.
One pass and then another pass - break left, tracers, plexiglass, taking rounds. Sharp break left, tight, tight, so tight I thought that I was gonna fall outta the fuckin door.
"Stinger 6 this is Tiger over. Take it out, take it out, take out the whole fuckin Ville man -- take it out!!"
Another run - fire, dust, hooches burning, chickens running - hogs, pigs, kids, women running, V.C. - V.C., where are the fuckin V.C., where are they, where are they? Another run - more fire.
"6 this is 2 we're hit man, we're hit, we're going down man. Fuck, fuck man were going down!" (Silence, radio silence, no more 2. Explosion, smoke.).
Take that fuckin ville - take it!! At that moment we could see the guys crawling from the Hog and we had to cover - protect our own - we shot our way into the ville sitting on top of one hooch then another. The rotor wash blowing them over like clothes being blown off the line in the moment of strong wind before the rain and we sat there hovering killing everything that moved. Dogs, cows, children, women, men, boys - everything!
I walk around the room that I'm staying in, sometimes all night long. I lay my cheek against a wall hoping for some sort of intervention that will pick me up and transport me to the place where all things are possible and answers are clear, evident and at my access.
There was so much clarity the other day. My thoughts, as if I can really claim them as mine, moved easily one to the next, connected, and made sense. But over time the ideas, the roots of thought, seem to have withdrawn themselves, gone into hiding, become vague and untouchable.
I wish there were someway that I could manufacture or control my access to this process but I have not been able to manage it so I will have to settle.
The topic of trauma and the topic of war trauma in particular is so very important when looking at the decisions that I've made and the effect of those decision on my life and the lives of everyone around me. The topic is so important to me because of the lengths that I witnessed myself willing to go, to avoid these precious realities.
This topic is important to me because I can see how the terminal, cancerous nature of avoidance keeps alive the tragic and terrible lie that there can be any rectitude what-so-ever drawn from acts of violence.
In many ways I feel so inadequate in writing about this because there is much that I hold in my understanding that seems trapped there.
The thoughts run clear enough. I can easily follow the connections from one to the next as pragmatically as I can follow the flow from Lake LeBoeuf into LeBoeuf Creek into the Gulf of Mexico. The details of the connection can be easily seen - Lake LeBoeuf, LeBoeuf Creek, French Creek, the Allegheny River, the Ohio, the Mississippi, the Gulf, but when I go to articulate these connections, especially the personal ones, my brain gets thick and my thoughts don't easily link - or, for a period of time my thoughts actually seem to disappear.
Over time I have come to experience that these connections are not really lost, as there are moments when I am able to see, to speak clearly about the link between my war experience and how almost every time I hear someone lay on their car horn I want to pick up the hardest object that I can find, walk over to their car and smash out the drivers side window, pull the driver, regardless of gender, out through that broken window by their hair over the jagged bits of broken glass, and then drag their face along the surface of the highway.
I understand the anesthetic, the narcotic of these thoughts that weren't always. I understand the disease of it. I understand that in the end the relief or the power that I feel in these moments is only temporary. I understand the press for extinction that lies to me of righteousness and fulfillment and still it is here that I can so easily become trapped.
Once tasted, once experienced (the anesthetic of escape) then the chase is on - again and again - to keep the suffocating feelings that are invisible to me wrapped up and at a distance.
The feelings that always follow these binges, even when with the most shameless bravado that I can muster, are merely random passing thoughts rooted in some cowardly, sissified piece of me that simply needed to be cut out by talking louder or whatever, would poke at me and push me until I found myself once again looking for escape.
My relation with violence is not, however, always overt, nor is it always directed externally. That I had to work so hard to keep me secret from myself was bloodletting and I grew weaker and weaker. Engage with me in any way other than superficial and I would change the subject and never answer the pointed question. I discovered the art of not spending time with people who understood my desperation and soon I was not spending time with anyone even when we interacted because I had become a persona, invisible to everyone including myself.
Yes, I have all of this information but information is just that, head noise, until it becomes action. Without the nurturing of action, then nothing about my life will sustain itself and I will crumble just like another stale cookie.
Oregon Veterans Retreat, November 2007
I have been traveling for some months now with no place to settle. I was for a period of this time in Germany. While there, in my efforts to keep up with current events, I was reading the news in an English language version of the Frankfurter Allgemeine. I came across an article concerning the current and 44th President of the United States, Barack Obama.
It was an article about his visit to the Gedenkstaette (Memorial Site) Buchenwald with Eli Weisel, a receipent of the Nobel Prize for Peace and the current German Chancelor Angela Merkl.
It was reported in the article that President Obama was the first sitting U.S. President to visit such a site, especially this one. I am only sorry that he did not get to really experience this place, Buchenwald, as it ought to be experienced - alone, without the cameras, and in the company of all the Dead.
This article was of particular interest to me because I also knew the place intimately. I had been there in 1999 as part of my efforts at discovery. I wanted to learn all that I could about this time and these places, because Buchenwald and the ideas that made it possible are never very far away. I wanted to learn all that I could about this time, the subtle truths of it that are not commonly known, truths that I surely have inherited and that have made decisions for me.
I walked to Buchenwald on Pilgrimage, it was not my end point. This Pilgrimage had begun about a month and a half earlier in another Camp just north of Berlin. A place named Sachenhausen. In this camp there was a special group of prisoners that were forced to make counterfeit money in the service of their captors. Make the money or be tortured, brutalized or watch other inmates killed in their place by the dozens! This, however, is something different and I will not write more about this just now. Let the simple fact stand that Sachensausen was a place of institutionalized brutality, torture and death!
My route to Buchenwald took me through Weimar. I entered the city from the East and walked directly to its Center. I walked past the statues of Goethe and Schiller. I walked to the main train station, actually into the plaza that is just in front of its main doors.
Located all over this plaza are memorials dedicated to the people who passed through here as prisoners on their way to the camp. I stopped and looked at these memorials, read each and every word on them and wondered how many people now-a-days, walk by these memorials like they do not even exist.
When I finished reading all of the information on these memorials, I continued to walk, following a clearly marked path that some of these prisoners had been forced to march, a path that paraded them through the city making them targets for a cultivated hatred.
As the prisoners were pressed through the city, people would come out of their houses to shout at them, sometimes throw things at them – rotten things and feces. Sometimes, if the prisoners were lucky, they would only be stared at by eyes that communicated fear, hatred and disdain. Here though I do feel an obligation to write that not all of the people who saw these prisoners acted with cruel intent. Some people just lowered their heads or turned away, some simply rushed into their houses and closed the door behind them. Some I have heard even made efforts to give food, at risk to their own personal safety. However, none of them spoke up or attempted to intervene.
As a prisoner (in these circumstances) violence makes sense, it is even understandable. The ambivalence and neglect, however, are another thing. So, it becomes especially important for me to note that the actions of those who did not speak up out of fear or out of ambivalence or for whatever reason, their in actions cut into the flesh of the prisoners more deeply then the sharpest of bayonets, deflated the will to survive and scarred them more profoundly than the harshest of words.
The path of these prisoners, the path that I followed, took me out of the city to the West. It then turned a bit to the North and started to climb. This path, although well marked, was not the usual route that people took to get to Buchenwald. But, because of my desire for discovery, I could not go to this camp any other way.
Buchenwald was up from the city, isolated and removed. It seemed to be located in it's place so that the sounds and smells of the dying would never reach down into Weimar but pass over it and just disappear among the clouds like the smoke from Buchenwalds crematoriums.
In the beginning, as I walked along main streets, the path followed sidewalks, paved and easy to manage. As I left the city the sidewalks gave way to a tight, stoney place along the highway. As the path turned to the North it then became narrow and dirt.
When this path turned North, the flat land of the valley where Weimar is located disappeared and the walk became steep. I walked up and up, the ideas and smells of the city evaporated behind me.
The sun was bright and hot. Sweat ran off my shaved head, down over my face and into my eyes. They burned and I could hardly keep them open.
It was late summer and the air had a thickness that can be seen. The deep, crisp blue skies of summer had begun to lose their brightness. They had started to become more pale. It is a way that the seasons let you know that they are dying, just like the green grasses which had begun to turn brown.
As I continued to climb, my breathing labored. The signs marking the path seemed to vanish and for a moment I thought that I might be lost.
My mind began to wonder and move more quickly, searching as it does sometimes for a safe direction. I came over a sharp rise, the brown grasses gave way to a broad expanse of pavement stones and there in the middle of this space stood an enormous monument. It was made of bronze and granite. It must have been 25 feet tall and 20 feet in circumference. It was of a soldier holding a child in one arm and a rifle, extended a bit up and away from the body with bayonet fixed pointing forward, in the other. The soldier, strong and determined looking, was leading a group of people, laborers and women all cast in heroic postures, looking very determined, but just a bit smaller than the soldier and behind. I have come to know this particular kind of statement as such a usual Soviet view of things. You see, Buchenwald had been for the longest time after the war, under the control of the Soviet Union and it's history, known by a different name then, had been kept silent!
I continued to walk, past this monument. I followed a paved road through a parking lot. I walked in-between 2 tour buses with Italian number plates. I walked up over a curb and onto an asphalt path that led me to a stand of trees. There the asphalt gave way to gravel. I walked by picnic tables and fire pits, trashcans and signs I could not read. I passed by statues of bears and a large fountain, it's blue paint old and pealing off, until I came to the main entrance of the camp.
The entrance reminded me of the many other camps that I had walked to on Pilgrimage – Sachsenhausen (where I had begun a month and a half earlier), Niederhagen, Auschwitz, Flossenburg, Treblinka, Dachau, Brezenheim, the Rizeria, and SS Sonderlager Hinzert.
The main gates to the camp were made of wrought iron bars that were hinged to a wrought iron metal fence. The fence itself was set in a waist high stone wall but only for the shortest of distances. The stone wall abruptly gave way to a 12 foot high chain-linked fence that was charged with electricity. Enough to kill those who did not have the conviction to go on or who thought that they were smarter than the fence.
Over the top of these gates there was always some sort of saying, written in letters that were also made of wrought iron and in some cases the surface of these letters were painted gold.
The sayings were not always the same from camp to camp. They were however all presented with a similar intention - to mislead and mis-state the truth. Here over the gates of Buchenwald, where 250,000 had been imprisoned from 1937 – 1945, imprisoned from all over the Europe of this time – where 56,000 had been murdered in the most horrible of ways, it was written – Jedem Das Siene (To Everyone Their Own). Standing there, in front of this gate I took a breath, as deep as I could possibly breath, and I entered into The Camp (Buchenwald).
I spent 3 days within the confines of Buchenwald. I spent them in silence - I was also not alone. I slept here, ate here and listened. With my whole being I listened and then on the 3rd day I offered incense, helped a bell to sing and we, myself and all those who sat with me, chanted the names of the dead, all of them, all together and out loud.
I learned about the 8,000 Russian soldiers who were executed by SS guards. How they were brought into a certain building, some sort of first aid station I think, and told that they were there to receive a physical, to be checked. I was also brought into this same building and I imagined that I had been one of these soldiers. I stood in front of a brown wooden table where they stood so many years before and for the last time. It was a simple brown wooden table with a ledger laid on top, open to read. I looked at this book, I looked at the names, written in ink and faded, and I attempted to read them. I was then shown where these Russian soldiers were weighed. I stood where they stood, closed my eyes and just listened.
I was taken to the place where they were to be measured. It was another room, a bit off to the side from the center of activity. This building, this aid station, was not much different than my High School nurses office. It had also been a place to be weighed and measured.
I was told that the soldiers were instructed to stand with their backs against a wall that was actually a device for measuring. It had an adjustable piece of wood about 20 centimeters (8 inches) long and 5 centimeters (2 inches) wide. This piece was hinged to another longer piece that could slide up and down between thick and thin painted lines. It actually just looked like a large ruler, whose lines, the thick and thin painted ones, were identified by metric numbers just slightly off to their side.
The hinged piece, which was flat, would be placed on top of a soldiers head, and the other piece, the one that could move up and down depending on the size of the person, would always identify a precise metric point. There were two guards standing on either side of the soldier being measured. They stood there with ledger books and pens to record the data - nothing terribly unusual.
I could imagine stepping into this place to be measured just like I did in the nurses office of my High School, innocent enough. But here in Buchenwald there was a difference. There was a peculiarity to this measuring device. There was a small hole that would not be noticed if you were already a prisoner of war and so very frightened. A small hole that would end up just at the base of your skull. A small hole that would guide the handgun of an SS guard just on the other side of the wall who would simply sit there all day and kill people. I was informed that this system was designed, set up like this. It was decided somewhere and by someone to be the most humane system for those being killed and for those doing the killing.
Knowing this I could not help but wonder that they would continue to come, these soldiers, one after the other. But, I cannot help but be curious about this point. They must have known, yet there was no revolt, no resistance that is documented.
So then, while walking around the camp, as well as now, in the middle of the night, when I am alone with my war, I wonder what would I have done in their place?
Then there was the zoo that was built at the demand of the Camp commanders' wife. It was set up just outside of the main entry gate. If you lived in Weimar during this time, this zoo was a place to come for a Sunday outing. You could come for a stroll in the park, bring the family, have a picnic. You could look at and feed the animals, while the whole time and in plain sight, not more than 10 meters to the back of those families oogling those cute and interesting animals, men whose bones were now just wrapped in skin, skeletons of their previous selves, stared through the fences of Buchenwald watching all of this through eyes that were so bewildered that they could not even be angry.
Then there was the forest of tears, a place of mass graves where 7,113 Germans are buried - Germans who also died in Buchenwald more or less anonymously, people who were murdered behind the efforts of Justice that took place after the liberation. They died much like those who had been imprisoned here before them. They died of starvation, sickness, torture, abuse or just neglect. These people died, however, at the hands of the Soviets who occupied this zone after the capitulation.
You see Buchenwald was not shut down with the liberation. The Soviets took it and continued to use it up until 1950, because it was well built and ready. It was renamed Special Camp #2. It was the place where, if you did not like your neighbor, or your husband, your wife or the Post Man, if you did not like the farmer or the new police officer you could simply denounce them as Nazis, anti Stalinist or in the very least denounce them as sympathetic to these causes. They would be immediately arrested and then disappear without trial almost certainly to die.
As part of his speech at Buchenwald, President Obama stated:
"I will not forget what I've seen here today. I've known about this place since I was a boy, hearing stories about my great uncle, who was a very young man serving in World War II. He was part of the 89th Infantry Division, the first Americans to reach a concentration camp. They liberated Ohrdruf, one of Buchenwald's sub-camps. And I told this story: he returned from his service in a state of shock saying little and isolating himself for months on end from family and friends, alone with the painful memories that would not leave his head. And as we see -- as we saw some of the images here, it's understandable that someone who witnessed what had taken place here would be in a state of shock."
I have also been a soldier and I know this shock. I, however, cannot be silent. I cannot hide in seclusion, seduced there by the idea that I am not permitted to talk about these things. I will not be seduced into isolation by notions of patriotism and of heroic. I will not hide in the myths of manhood and courage that kept my father and President Obama's great uncle isolated and alone with the painful memories that would not leave their heads!
I continued to walk, day after day, year after year because it is necessary to know the inside parts of me and I want to. I want to discover more about this time beyond my time! I want to feel the places where all of the ideas of justice and freedom became something mysterious even to themselves. Places where there is something so very difficult to touch and so very valuable to learn.
I did not stop searching here in Buchenwald. The place and all the places before kept calling me to know more. So, in 2002 I undertook another pilgrimage. I began walking in Budapest, Hungary with a route pointing toward Bergen/Belzen, the last of the concentration camps to be liberated as this system collapsed under the weight of itself. I had chosen this path, because I had learned, some years before, about Hungarian Jews who had been forced marched, near the end of the war, to this point and I wanted to walk in their steps all 2,000 kilometers of them.
I learned about this forced march from an older woman who, when we met, was living in a small apartment in Tel Aviv, her name was Edith. She was the childhood friend of a woman who's daughter I had met some years before in California. Edith told me about Bergen/Belzen, she knew it intimately. As a 12 year old, nearly the age of the current presidents eldest daughter, she had survived this forced March and the final days of Bergen/Belzen leading up to it's liberation.
After 2½ months of walking, I found myself standing at a small railroad station. The final piece of this Pilgrimage would start from here. It is the piece that all of the prisoners going to Bergen/Belzen had to walk. It is the piece that would also take me to the camp. I could not enter any other way.
It was later on in October. It was the time when Autumn is beginning to give way to Winter and does not quite know which way to turn. The skies still reflected a special kind of grey that is consistent with autumn but the air had that distinct smell of snow wanting to fall.
It had taken 70 days of walking to reach this point. Every day 15 – 20 kilometers, so I was physically in quite good condition. So, I didn't bother much about this last piece.
This last piece was, however, a bit different as it was announced to the general public and was opened up to anyone who wanted to join. As I waited to begin walking, for the announced time, several people began to arrive at the station. People who I did not know and who were certainly not very fit. We all gathered in a circle, introduced ourselves. I gave some simple instructions and then began to walk. I set a much slower pace than I was accustomed to in consideration of those who had joined us fresh. It was at once difficult and even a bit painful to walk so slow. Also, because of these new comers, we walked this last piece without backpacks.
As we walked the weather collapsed into one of those confused, change of season rains that would not let up. In the beginning the rain fell only as a drizzle, which, as we continued gathered some sort of momentum that converted it into rain. The rain then took on an identity of itself, running faster and faster spinning into a full-scale downpour. But then with a typical ambivalent change of the season pattern, the downpour just as quickly gave way to sunshine, which just as quickly gave way to blue skies, which just as quickly turned back again into clouds that huffed and puffed and filled up the sky until there was no room for anything else but the wind - it never let up, it grabbed at our clothes, pulled us and pushed us here and there making the hours of walking seem so much longer.
My robes, the robes of a Buddhist Monk, hung limp around my body, clinging as if they were frightened by the rapid pace of change. They were also full of water and sat heavy on my ribs. I noticed that while my back, which felt safe and protected, did not escape. It too sat wet, but from sweat.
As we continued with this walk the ground became softer and the grey sky turned the color of charcoal, dark as night. You could feel the weight of the clouds growing heavier and heavier, they seemed to sit on us in an effort to squeeze every once of air from our bodies.
Click, click, clickclick, clickclickclik, clickclickclickclikclick – hail began to fall, pounding on us, ice cutting at our exposed faces, knuckles and any skin not protected. We looked for cover, attempted to hide under trees but nothing worked, there was no protection so we just walked.
Because there were so many new people we stopped to rest more than usual, the pauses however were more difficult than the walking. It was cold you see and we were wet. Without the heat from our own movement it was difficult to stand still so in the end we just continued to walk.
At each pause I invited all of those who were walking to remain in silence because if you listened, really listened you could hear them - the soldiers who guarded the prisoners in route. You could here them shouting, cursing and complaining.
You could also hear the prisoners even though they were forbidden to talk. If caught talking they would be executed on the spot. Yet you could hear them, you could hear the sound of their shoes, all those shoes. Shoes that related to the ground in the particular way that only prisoners' shoes can. A shuffling and scuffing sort of sound. If you listened, really listened, you could also hear their hunger, fear, defiance and exhaustion.
In those brief pauses and also as we walked you could, if your vision was sharp enough and you wanted to, see, out of the corner of your eye, the sight of dead bodies along the road because this 16 kilometers was the last 16 km that many of the prisoners would ever walk.
In order to walk this last piece it was required that we have a military escort. Our escort was a Master Sergeant in the German Infantry. Having him accompany us was necessary (and somehow quite fitting) if we wanted to walk this last piece. This agreement was not too difficult to make knowing that we were walking through an active military training area, a place where war is practiced. A place where there is still shooting and where mines are laid off the sides of the roads, roads that seemed at points to disappear. Without our guide it would have been too easy to become lost with this lost possessing all the possibilities of tragic.
After 5 hours we arrived in the place. There is not much left of Bergen/Belzen except earthen mounds, the mass graves where thousands of bodies are buried because at the end, there were just too many dead to do it any different.
It is recorded that more than 70,000 died here and still, to this day, there are so many who remain unaccounted for. The dead were Jews, political prisoners, lesbians, communists, soldiers of someone else's army, homosexuals, sinti and roma, intellectuals, the list is endless, and in the end they all died here together, the superficial distinctions of this and that meant nothing to death.
They were young, old, male and female and in the skin of their starvation they were neutralized one to the next, not always so easy to tell apart and yes, they all died here.
When this last of the concentration camps was liberated, there was something like 38,000 people imprisoned in a space constructed to hold 2,200. Overwhelmed, the place itself killed people, no one in particular had to do anything. Also, the dying did not end with liberation, many died later. Destroyed by the consequences of their starvation from the inside out, even the soup that they were given by their liberators became a poison.
I spent the rest of the day here with others. Together we held a ceremony to remember them, all those who had died here. I offered incense and we chanted. While chanting the group read out loud and together all of the names of the dead, every one of them that has been recorded.
When we finished we walked back to a building that served as a museum and information center. It had a large room where we could all be together. We dried ourselves, sat for a time in silence, then ate some soup. When the soup was finished we all said goodbye and left to return to somewhere else.
I did not go immediately. I stayed on for a time with those who had walked together with me on this Pilgrimage, the entire distance of it. I stayed to remember all that we had witnessed – today and all the days.
As the place became more still, we gathered our things and left for a train station in one of those small villages nearby, Bergen or Belzen I still don't remember which. We traveled together back to Hanover and in the center of the main train station we bowed to one another and said good-bye.
Some weeks later I received a letter from one of the young women who had walked with me through the whole experience. She is Vietnamese and this was not our first time together. In a piece of her letter she wrote:
"And so, I wanted to tell you about violence, about greed, about picking and choosing and making confusion, but I'm still somehow wandering, a bit at a loss to say what I'm going through. I'm now at The Hague. Coming from Germany, I kept thinking that the Dutch don't know how to spell. The words are so similar to German, yet they don't look quite right, too many vowels.
I arrived successfully at Di De's. She had been a good friend of my father and his wife, my mother, when they were all living in Viet Nam. Di De had also been my mother's close friend and co-worker at the Tourist Embassy during the war. Di De has been living in the Netherlands now for some time. She is no longer working for a tourist agency. She became a social worker and teaches yoga. Imagine that.
I spent my time sleeping in, studying up on Viet Nam via Lonely Planet in preparation for the trip that I wanted to take back there. I took my time to also read Vietnamese books, in Vietnamese, but could not do this without a dictionary in hand.
When walking on Pilgrimage I could eat most everything that I wanted without consequence and now that I was not walking I was having a hard time keeping away from food -- muesli and yogurt, chocolate, and croissants soaked in butter - 2½ months of conditioning is hard to tear away from!
I met Be An, she's 12 years old and loves cats. She reminds me much of my little sister Frances because they are both bright, thin and leggy youngsters. While looking at them in light of the past 2½ months, I could not help but think about my war, the Viet Nam war, a war that took the lives of 5 million people, 4 million of who were civilians.
I could not help but think about the chemicals that were used by the soldiers of the country that I now called home - Agent Orange, Agent White, Agent Blue, all of them just fancy names for dioxin. A compound that was used to defoliate and destroy more than 25% of the forests in Viet Nam that had not been burned or bombed, a compound that continues to destroy everyone who came in contact with it from the inside out. Now this dioxin reaches into the strands of DNA to defoliate the not already born. Now, not the forests but the children of those who came in contact with this stuff are destroyed, born without arms or legs or a spine left uncovered or unattached.
I could not help but think about the millions of land mines that still lie buried in the ground, shifting and moving with each monsoon season.
I couldn't help but think about the consequences that reach beyond the population. I could not help but think about the animals that are disappearing everyday. I could not help but think about the fact that Viet Nam is one of the countries in which the most desperately poor are a majority of its population.
I know that it is a rich and privileged time for me just now because I have the chance to visit some people who knew me and the land where I was born, a place that I don't really know and only vaguely remember. I know that it is a privilege to visit people like Anh Thu, who is also 26 years old, like me, but who left Viet Nam nearly 6 years after my mother, with me under her arm, escaped by boat to Indonesia. Anh Thu did not leave until she was nearly 10.
We talked together Anh Thu and I. She shared with me what she remembered about those 6 years. One of the things that she remembered and shared with me was a technique that was used to teach her equations in school.
Equation: there are 5 cowardly American soldiers standing with 1 Vietnamese hero. If the Vietnamese hero shoots 3, (it's a victory! and a cause to celebrate) how many cowardly American soldiers will be left, and I could only imagine the impact of doing such equations on the rest of her life."
Initialy titled Nestucca 11-'02 rev copy.doc. This story was first written at a Veterans Retreat Held at the Nestucca Sanctuary on the Coast of Oregon in November of 2002.
Here it is 3:45 in the morning and I'm wide awake. Well sort of. This wide-awake that I am experiencing is particular. Just moments ago I felt sleepy, I felt absolutely ready to go into the bedroom, take off my clothes, crawl under the covers and just drift off too sleep. What happens though when I begin to walk into the bedroom is a shift, a certain kind of uncomfortable, that begins to chew on the insides of my thoughts, taunting me.
I turn my face to the side and look off into the darkness of the hallway as I begin to slide on the rough edges of anxiety. My thoughts tumble and a voice, soft enough, whispers to me as if it is afraid somehow to be caught, to be found out, or to wake somebody up. The voice whispers "not now buddy, you don't want to go in there now. It's not safe. You know what's waiting for you. The demon dreams!"
My thoughts pick up speed. The faster they go the more confident they become. They flash here and there, they grab onto random ideas and spin them around like all of those plates that a juggler places on the ends of those very long and spindly poles.
I try it anyway. I walk into the bedroom. I take off my clothes, crawl under the covers and close my eyes. In this state, on the rough edges of anxiety, even with my eyes closed, the room seems to glow with a rusty colored light. My breath is shallow, my leg muscles, neck muscles and my shoulder muscles are tighter than the space between the top row and the bottom row of my clinched teeth.
I notice first that my feet are freezing. I can't seem to get them warm. My ears, damaged by all of those thousands of rounds of machine gun fire, begin to ring louder and louder, so loud I am afraid I might wake up the other people who are in the house. My joints begin to buz, I can feel them, 10,000 bees, swarming there in my knees, shoulders, elbows, ankles, fingers.
At first I lay on my right side. My left arm and left leg wrapped around one pillow, cradling it with tenderness. I slide my right arm under another pillow, the one that I lay the side of my face on. I extend my right hand up and over my head, the palm turned outward so that it can touch the head- board. You see, it has been very important in recent years and maybe forever (forever being the measurement of time since my helicopter days), yes it has become necessary for me to be able to touch something when I lay down, a headboard, a wall, a cupboard, something solid. I have no idea why, I just know that this gives me some form of comfort and in the dark, alone with only my thoughts (that appear and reappear in random rhythms and forms), alone with the constant ringing in my ears and with my memories, this simple act gives me some comfort.
I would like to sleep, I really would. There have been times you know, when it happened – sleep that is – I know because I lay there in the dark, rolled over, opened my eyes and it was suddenly light and I didn't remember a thing. My bed sheets were not soaked from night sweats, the kind where in the first moments of transition (from where ever I was to where ever I find myself) I am unstable, not sure about anything, especially what is happening.
Sometimes I dream about Werewolves, sometimes about Vampires. Sometimes I dream about war and sometimes I just dream about the chase. However, no matter the subject, the theme is always the same. I am alone, I am being pursued, I am injured and there is no escape. I am discovered, then just before I am killed, I am transported back into the bedroom and I am full of fear.
In these first unstable moments, I sometimes smell blood. This sensation sets off a series of conditioned responses, the conditioned responses of the already once shot. The first response is a visual check to see if all of my parts are still in the place where they belong. Yes it is true that I am in the dark and it is difficult to see, however, it seems that in these first moments my whole body glows and shimmers like liquid mercury reflecting sunlight. I check to see that my arms are attached at the shoulder, legs attached to the hip, feet attached at the ankle. Then I move them - deliberately.
Once I have finished this routine I then frisk myself. I check my body all over, my face, my head, my neck, by buttox, my genitals. This checking is always with a particular kind of anxiety. The anxiety that I will discover that some parts were now gone and forever, or I will discover that I now carry war's fateful stigmata's, the kind that will not allow me to stop the bleeding because they are not holy!
After this checking, while still laying in bed, I recognize a restless kind of peace. I attempt to settle with this but eventually surrender to the historical reality that this is not going to happen. So, I crawl out from under the covers. Stagger to the bathroom and fill my cupped hands with water. I place my face gently and quietly into my hands and I cry. I repeat this process once, then once again. I leave the water run because it gets colder and as I place my face in it there is something comforting about this.
At a point I shut off the water and begin to turn slowly to my right. I reach out into the darkness and find the towel that hangs over the rod that holds up a shower curtain. Taking the towel in both hands I lay my face into it, soft and with a special kind of clean smell that tells me this towel is fresh, not new, but fresh. I pat the water from my face and then run my hands all through the twists and turns that are so necessary to erase the water from between the fingers. When I am finished I turn back to the bathroom sink, turn the cold water again on and drink directly from the spigot.
When I am finished I back away from the sink. Moving slowly and in place I pivot on my left foot, my back pushing against the darkness. From instinct I begin to squat down, deliberately, until my bottom finds the toilet seat and my legs can relax. With my left hand resting on the sink I just sit there, sometimes for hours, relieved and afraid to move, afraid to go out into the hallway.
I do realize that these fears are largley fictional, or at least in this moment, even though it does not feel this way. However, running around in the same space as my best rational thinking, is the glimmer of uncertainty and the truth of it! You see in combat, whenever uncertainty was not taken seriously, people disappeared, were dismembered, or they died. In combat any uncertainty, regardless of how small or how slight was simply not to be ignored and now, wether I like it or not, I just know too much and this knowing will not be undone! So, what to do?
The practical response to this question is unknown. I can tell you that in my efforts to chase uncertainty away, to erase it, I have been unsuccessful. I have attempted to dull it with drugs, to drown it with alcohol. I have attempted to escape it with sex, through position and power, through the denial of it. I have attempted to escape uncertainty with endless activity, I have even bristled, taken a deep breath and decided to end my own life. Thinking that if I could not get this uncertainty to go back to where ever it came from then I would just hurt it. However, none of my efforts worked. My bond to this uncertainty was just too strong.
So now, all these years later, there is nothing left to do except to settle, to not pretend, to not crawl up into myself hoping that if I get small enough this uncertainty will not be able to find me and eventually and quickly die of starvation. So now all these years later there is nothing left to do except to settle, to reach out into the darkness and just let this uncertainty know that it is not alone and unwanted. With this new and unsteady friendship I will be curious to see what comes next. Curious because I have heard that not knowing is most intimate!