I often accompany my husband to his doctor’s appointments at the VA. I used to detest going because I was forced to witness the overcrowding and the pain and sorrow of the aftermath of war. Ghosts and memories are invoked in the waiting room. The ghosts walk openly among the living. The vivid stories exchanged between the vets are a conjuring of traumas past.
After listening and witnessing last weeks stories I am convinced one of the spirits wrapped itself around my spine and hitched a ride to my house. The haunting first showed itself as sadness. Then came anger. I am unable to shake the stories the veterans brought to life.
I reminded myself that the vets were living their pain on a daily basis. They did not have the option of averting their eyes.
Recently over heard in the VA waiting room:
“When I came home from Vietnam I stayed drunk for three years. I had no idea what the war was about. All these years later, I still don’t know.”
“Thank God when I came home I was able to get a job as a land surveyor. I never could have worked inside. I needed wide open spaces.”
“After all these years I’m finally getting my pay for being exposed to Agent Orange. What good is it going to do me now? Got Parkinson’s disease.”
A tall skinny man with brown hair walked up to the check-in counter clutching a fist-full of tee shirts. They matched the one he was wearing. The bold letting stated: Another Vietnam Vet Fucked by Washington. The man’s voice rose as he spoke to the man behind the counter, “Ya wanna buy one?”
Last Monday I dropped my husband off at the front of the building. I couldn’t find a parking space except in a remote area. As I was walking a VA shuttle pulled up. A white haired man opened the doors and said, “Jesus Christ they are going to have to do something. We have absorbed three clinics from the surrounding area. No parking spots. Not enough room or time. You want dropped off out front?”
In response to the long afternoons spent at the VA hospital I pulled Veterans of War, Veterans of Peace, an anthology by Maxine Hong Kingston from my bookshelf. One of the reasons I choose this book is because I had the privilege of taking a workshop with Maxine during my time at Goddard. I wanted someone familiar—someone I trusted to hold up the flashlight while I examined what it was I was after. I wasn’t sure what I was looking for. A way to make sense out of the senseless? More insight into my husband’s pain? After asking myself these questions I realized what I was looking for was a way to contain horrific realities without being swallowed whole.
My father was a medic in World War Two. He refused to speak about what he experienced. He would press his lips together, seal them and shake his head. It was a pact he made with himself. The only time the war was mentioned was around food. “I can’t eat that. I ate it every day in the military.” Oatmeal was one of the forbidden foods. I remember him throwing the steaming bowl onto the tiled kitchen floor and running out of the kitchen. I still think of that every time I poor raw oats in scalding water.
Veterans of War, Veterans of Peace is helping me understand the politics of war and the depths of suffering. Between the covers is a multitude of perspectives. Reading the stories reminds me of being at the VA listening to the Veteran’s talk while sitting in the waiting room. I admire authors that can sit with intense pain, internalize it, and turn into something else on the page—something beautiful in spite of the agony. Not backing a way from this alchemical process takes courage.
I have not read many books on war. I distanced myself as best I could. This realization disturbs me considering my husband is a Vietnam War Vet and my father has an extensive military history.
The piece I am reading and rereading in Veterans of War, Veterans of Peace is by George Evans, A Walk in the Garden of Heaven. The beauty of the language is staggering. There are lines in this piece that made me want to roll around on the floor. The writing pierced something in my chest. Opened me up. “This is it,” I said out loud. “This is how I want to write.”
The author possesses the ability to articulate what he experienced without rage or anger. Yet the writing was not whitewashed. His level of “seeing” brought me to my knees.
The following are a few of the lines that spoke to me:
“The moment I saw your face,” he said, “was like walking into the Hall of a Thousand and One Bodhisattvas.”
“She had no idea what he meant, how it is to enter Sanjusangendo in Koyoto for even the fiftieth time and see row upon row of a thousand standing figures, carved, painted, and gold-leafed with a calm but stunned look of enlightenment, five-hundred on each side of a larger, seated figure of their kind, miniature heads knotted to their scalps representing the fragments of a time when their heads exploded in dismay at the evil in the world, the way our heads exploded in the war, though we don’t wear our histories where they can be seen.”
“It is said, and its true, that if you search the thousand faces, you will find the face of someone lost from your life.”
I read the entire piece to my husband and I said, “I want to write like this. I want to express on this level without raging or whining or sounding desperate.” He said, “No you don’t want to write like this. He has seen things we can’t imagine.”
I want to walk into my writing with my eyes wide open, turning over every stone, thinking, reflecting and then thinking some more until the language fills me and the story arrives on the page raw and honest. I want to do this fully conscience and with my nervous system intact.
I am carrying “Veterans of War, Veterans of Peace” in my purse. Today it is my Holy book.