Most of my memoir, Tree Lines, is going to be published. This is an excerpt from a deleted chapter called "War Diaries."
On the first day of 1944, my Great Aunt Zoe, who would be 62 that November, started a five-year diary. The United States had been an official participant in World War II for nearly 25 months. I was 28 months old. My brother Bill, 8 months.
I was 62 when I found the diary as I was unpacking boxes after moving to Loveland, Colorado. I read it at meals before my newspaper subscriptions started.
In 1944, the world was at war. Two of her nephews were in the armed services. Everything was rationed. She went to the Newsreel Theater and bought bonds.
The diary had room for only a few lines each day. Mostly it is just a record but sometimes, quite powerful.
In March her father died: “Paul and I went to the hospital about 10:30 a.m. Paul went home at 1:30. Father was delirious and could not talk. Seemed to know I was there. He died easily at 10:30 p.m. I drove home alone about 11 p.m.”
On Memorial Day: “Radios off air from 7:30 to 7:45 p.m. Unidentified aircraft coming in from the Pacific. Later found friendly.”
In June, the invasion of Europe and bombing in Japan. A Los Angeles Times correspondent was killed in France. On Sunday, September 17: “Blackout lifted in England. June Duncan Haint’s mother died. Funeral will be Tuesday.”
It was fascinating to see how the war drifted in and out of the diary. One day, the headlines; another, only personal news. Many days both.
In 1945 Roosevelt died, the United Nations was formed, Germany surrendered, and I had my tonsils out. That was the year she sold the Los Angeles house and moved to Laguna. Japan surrendered in August. Gasoline rationing ended. On November 20: “Washed & ironed. German war criminals go on trial Nuremberg, Germany.”
The diary went on after the war and so did I, growing up in, and eventually out of, a suburban stereotype. But always, it seemed, haunted by war and violence.
The Korean War lasted from 1950-1953, while I aged from nine to twelve. I remember watching the McCarthy hearings on Aunt Zoe’s television and being vaguely aware of “Heartbreak Ridge” and the Rosenbergs’ trial.
But my own world was in turmoil. Grandfather Paul died. Our family moved to eastern Ohio, away from the web of extended family that had supported us. Then, in 1953, Grandmother Edna died. That was the year my father decided it was okay for us to get a television. I remember bomb shelters, the coronation of Queen Elizabeth and being an outsider at school.
Between the wars directly involving the United States, violence swirled within our borders during the long civil rights struggle, and in Eastern Europe where the “iron curtain” had descended, and in Cuba, and a hundred other places. And I, like all pubescent idealists, felt surrounded by evil. I determined to become a journalist and, by sheer eloquence, save the world.
The United States officially entered the Vietnam War the year my first child was born and we did not withdraw until he was eight and my second son was in kindergarten. It was a time of assassinations and massacres and scandal. A time when it was easy to believe that there was no hope at all for the human race.
Reluctantly, I abandoned long-held beliefs in my country’s infallibility. I found ways (however suburban) to protest the war and foster peace work.
The odds seemed (as I think they always seem) overwhelming. But we were strengthened (as I think we always are) by the daily miracles of life. The wonder of children. The laughter of friends. The beauty of sunsets that, however cliché, are never the same.
Now, thirty years later, war was again part of my life. Even as I settled into my new home, the United States began talking of preemptive wars.
By March 2003, I had found a Unitarian Universalist congregation in Loveland. During one Sunday’s “joys and concerns,” a young woman said she was terrified because her four-year-old son was terrified that he would have to fight other four-year-olds if there was a war.
And there was a war. And the little boy, I am sure, has been as wounded by it as the rest of us. Even though most of us went on about our business as if people were not being exploded, we all bear the scars.
Yet even amid the gore and debris and degradation of Afghanistan, Iraq, the Middle East, Guantanamo Bay, and the Patriot Act, there were glimpses of a greater vision.
That spring, as the United States wielded its power without benefit of international consensus, I went to Boulder for a day in the presence of Thich Nhat Hanh, the exiled Vietnamese priest and poet and great promoter of compassionate listening. His message was the same, just as powerful, perhaps more lustrous with time. And, in light of seemingly unending violence, a little more urgent.
Toward the end of the day, he invited questions and someone asked what I wanted to know: "My personal world is fine but I despair over the U.S. government decisions and actions and feel helpless to change them. What can I do?"
Thich Nhat Hanh replied: "It is possible to do many things. You have a good base for action. You can facilitate awakening. You can initiate peace education. Advocate art and music that reflects peace. Refuse to consume violence (on television, etc.). Avoid unmindful consumption. You can help shift the cultural foundation. You can help create awakening and an awakened community.
"Every day we do things, we are things, that have to do with peace. If we are aware of our life... our way of looking at things, we will know how to make peace every moment we are alive."
Why does this teacher – and so many others—seek American audiences? What draws them to this land of consumption and decadence and violence?
I think spiritual teachers seek American audiences because, with all of its faults, this country has the greatest potential for a radical renaissance of the holy.
Nowhere else on earth have so many cultures and races and traditions and religions tangled together.
In the past 300 years, what culture, what race, what religion has not migrated to these shores? Virtually every concept of the universe has wandered here, on blistered, ill-shod feet or wearing satin slippers. In practices once (and perhaps still) hidden from skeptical, suspicious neighbors, every form of prayer has been uttered.
Ponder the significance of this spiritual Babel, seeping into the soil and concrete of this nation.
I believe there are clusters of people seeking Spirit – often grasping at straws and charlatans but perhaps just as often learning enough of Buddhism to meditate, enough of Catholicism to burn candles, enough of Judaism to honor heritage, enough of Islam to pray often, and enough of Native American to move in greater sync with the rhythms of the universe. Or whatever combination of Confucianism, Southern Baptist, Taoism and New Age reaches into our shallow lives with some form of illumination.
It is possible that we are beginning to learn how to learn from one another. To view each other with the kind of respect that acknowledges that we are all stranded on this minute component of one small galaxy, drowning in the confusion of our cultures, reaching for authenticity. And there is no one who cannot teach us.
There is no other place on this planet where this is happening to the degree that it is happening here.
I believe there are clusters of people with integrity and openness, people who make no assumptions but instead rely on common sense and uncommon spirit, can create a viable future. They strive to clean the air, protect the waters and plants, and reinstate Spirit in our hearts and lives.
Wherever they are, they dart between resource and disaster countering despair drop by drop, the merest flashes of iridescence against a looming sky.
There is a chance that Thich Nhat Hanh and others who urge us on, are right. That these flashes of iridescence can shift our cultural foundation, propel us toward the surface of this translucent bubble of existence and disintegrate the patterns of violence. Perhaps then we will be bathed, washed clean, revived and able at last to begin to atone for our own complicity.
Monday, June 18, 2012
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