Stories of War

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.

Waving The White Flag

I have been stuck in writing hell for months. I was a breath a way from ditching a manuscript I have been working on for two years.

I have no idea what shifted but thankfully it did. And this time I vow to hold on to what I discovered. My writing does not fit into a traditional genre. How the writing wants to come out is always a surprise. I spent months trying to coerce and control. It was like trying to groom a feral animal.

I remember my advisors at Goddard saying things like,

“I wanted to write about that but I didn’t have the language. It’s all about finding the language.”

“There is a story underneath the story.”

“Sometimes the writing has its own voice.”

I found these statements frustrating.

I have since learned my writing does have a voice of its own—and it picks and chooses how it wants to come out. Most of the time I am not in agreement with how it presents. This time I will remember that my attempts at controlling are never successful. Time passes. The writing comes to a stand still and I end up angry. This insane cycle plagued me at Goddard.

Enough.

“Waking Up Cherokee” wants to come out similar to “Remedies.” The following are three examples from my novel that was published by Blue Hand Books. The writing is in little squares with a running commentary at the bottom of the page that tells its own story. I cannot recreate it here as the formatting on Word Press will not allow me to make little squares but this should provide an idea of how it was crafted.

Incantations

On top of Helena’s vanity, a makeshift bar. Helena wore a white silk gown and a matching robe that resembled a cape. It had a hood trimmed in white marabou. Her satin slippers had open toes exposing red manicured toenails. Her white garments, cherry lipstick, and blue-black hair made her look like a sorceress. She shook her Manhattans in a silver container held high above her head. Helena stirred her concoctions with elegant hand-blown glass stirrers that she had made. Inside were thin strips of paper, like the kind found inside fortune cookies, except these had worrisome messages—Beware. You never know who might be plotting against you.

Manhattans 1 1/2 oz. Bourbon, 1/4 oz. Sweet Vermouth or Dry Vermouth dash Angostura Bitters (optional) Garnish – Maraschino Cherry. Combine all ingredients in cocktail shaker filled with ice. Shake well and strain into a Cocktail glass.

Bald

Helena’s wig blew off. She tried to catch it but her stilettos sank into the ground. She watched it blow across the yard and under the neighbor’s car. “Hurry Sylvie, grab it.” The neighbor looked out the window. “What’s going on?” “Our Pekinese escaped. She’s under your car.” The neighbor watched while Sylvie struggled to crawl under the vehicle and retrieve the wig. Helena distracted by prophesying future events.

Don’t shave your head on a Saturday or you will be in perpetual debt.

Collective Guilt

Helena’s place of worship, the First Presbyterian Church, was located on the upscale south end of town. Sylvie remembered Edmond saying that all Helena had to do was plant her backside on a plush white leather pew on Sunday morning and make sure she had a generous offering for the shiny collection plate. Helena said the collection plate was polished so brightly that she could see everyone’s guilt reflected in it.

 Babies should never be allowed to look in a mirror before they turn a year old or they will die.

~~~

I really wanted to try and write, “Waking Up Cherokee” as a traditional book. Why? I no longer remember. Nothing about me is mainstream or normal so why did I think my writing would be?

It’s the same with blogging. I get frustrated and bored. I write posts that do not reflect my work. My blogging voice never pleases me. Instead of deleting my blog like I usually do I am going to do something different. I am going to respect my work. If the writing wants to come out in one long sentence—so be it. If “Waking Up Cherokee” wants to be written as a serious of prose poems, fine. I accept this.

I celebrate and encourage unique writing voices in other people. I am going to do the same for myself.

The Power of Story

I worked in pastoral care at an AIDS hospice in Seattle. My role was deep listening, witnessing and validating the resident’s stories. The residents spent a lot of time processing their lives and coming to terms with the fact that their time on the earth plane might be shorter than expected. Often loved ones could not hear or contain what they had to say.

One story in particular still haunts me. I was sent to visit a young man on the second floor. I walked into his room and discovered a lovely weaving on the table by his bed. It had shades of purple, maroons and peach. He used all sorts of fabrics—mainly silks. I commented on the colors and textures. He nodded at me and said, “I won’t be alive to finish it.” I tried to contain the fact that his openness startled me. He invited me to sit down. He told me the story of his weaving which was really the story of his life. The weaving became an integral part of the story—a visual validation. Sitting with him was a holy experience, holier than any church service I have attended.

A group of women came to the hospital where I was receiving my pastoral care training. They came to visit the breast cancer patients. They retold the cancer patient’s stories after intently listening to what the women needed and wanted to say. The women’s stories were told thru dance, performance art and poetry. The message that came thru was that these women were more than their illness—their stories were much bigger than cancer.

During this time I attended a writer’s workshop. The last event of the day was women telling their stories thru dance. One woman’s sister had committed suicide. She danced her sister’s story and in doing so she also told her own story of grief and loss. The energy was tangible.

I was exposed to many wonderful people and their unique stories during this year of my life. This experience continues to remind me of the healing power of story and the resiliency of the human spirit in the harshest of situations—even when going thru the process of dying.

I was exposed to writing and the importance of stories very early on. My adoptive mother, Helen, was a storyteller extraordinaire. She was also a poet. I enjoyed listening to her but I was often left with a sense of sorrow that I was too young to articulate. As an adult I can look back and understand what she triggered in me. Her stories highlighted my lack of connection to her world. I had a sense that I was not linked or connected to the places, people or events that she spoke of. Helen may have had some understanding of this. This might be why she invented stories about my ancestry and where I came from. She told several creation stories about how I came into her life. Each version became more elaborate. The stories were myths but they were told to me as truths. Unfortunately these stories created a false reality that took years to untangle.

These “stories” might have been for her benefit as well as mine. Maybe as she imagined what my biological mother was like, what my ancestry was like, a story would take shape. It’s quite possible that she wanted to fill in the missing pieces. I believe there was some sort of need to define where I came from and how I came to be in her life beyond the signing of adoption papers and picking me up at a hospital.

Both my adoptive parents were avid readers, writers and storytellers. I am sure this played a role in my pursing a degree in writing which has turned out to be more of a degree in recognizing the importance of stories.

When I graduated from Goddard with an MFA in creative writing I was in the thick of integrating my adoption story. I learned of my ancestry days before I graduated. My entire time at Goddard was about writing stories, listening to other’s stories and doing my best to figure out, write and integrate my own story. There is where my novel “Remedies” was birthed. It is thinly disguised as fiction. I felt too vulnerable at the time to not cloak it in some way. Now I don’t need for it to be shrouded. I can speak openly about it. And I finally feel compelled to promote it. I was shocked that I wanted nothing to do with it once it was written. Thankfully the aversion to my own story has passed. I think there was more healing and integration to do on my part before I put it out in the world.

Immediately upon my graduation Trace-Laura Demeyer gave me the gift of editing other adoptee’s stories. She was in the process of birthing her vision, “Two Worlds: Lost Children of the Indian Adoption Projects.” Reading the adoptee’s stories was validating and healing for me. I am deeply grateful for this life-experience. I learned tender editing—not something that is taught in college. The stories needed to be told in the adoptee’s voice and they needed to be heard and read in this way. These are sacred stories—written from the soul. I also had the honor of assisting with book two, “Called Home.” This experience continues to help me integrate my own story. I am healing.

Another way that I have been involved with the power of story is thru Tarot reading. I have been a Tarot reader for over twenty-five years. What I do is not fortune telling. I became a Keeper of Stories. Most of the work is about listening and witnessing—truly hearing what the client has to say. Together we look at the imagery. Patterns are identified. We discuss what we notice, what are eyes and thoughts are drawn to and slowly the core story unfolds. This work assists the client with reconnecting to their story.

I think many people become disconnected from their stories. Society doesn’t allow for us to take the time required to heal or process after a divorce, an illness or after the loss of a loved one. We have little time with our children after they are born before we have to return to work. Our stories, thoughts and feelings surrounding life-changing events are pushed to the background. We are told to hurry up and move on. I believe this creates a soul sickness—a disconnection. Sometimes healing takes months or years—and our thoughts and ideas about what healing actually is may shift during this process. We shouldn’t be forced to adhere to someone else’s time frame. I have heard, “Get over it, move on, be thankful you were adopted,” by people that had no idea what I was experiencing.

When I began to research my ancestry I learned that Native American stories are also told through ceremonial dance, the singing of songs, and prayers that are offered.  Even day-to-day living, things considered as mundane as preparing meals are taught in Native American stories. I have been thinking about this—new ways of telling the stories that are housed in my body—possibly thru ritual—dance, poetry, or a combination. I also want to explore and find ways to best express the stories that reside within.

Once stories are read, spoken, performed or danced they continue to live on. They now have a life outside of the storyteller. Their insights, messages or knowledge can be revisited.

Writing this blog helped me to create a map—a timeline of the stories that I carry inside myself. I’m not exactly sure what is taking shape but I am aware of its presence. I will continue to engage until I figure it out. One thing I do know, my life work is all about the story.

The Mistress’s Daughter

I recently had an insightful conversation with an adult adoptee. Like me, she has Cherokee ancestry. We talked about the healing process of adoption, the years of peeling off layers of shrouds and how adoption issues continue to impact our lives in small and not so small ways. We discussed being assigned a specific lineage and ancestry when in reality what we were told was false. We talked about the discovery of truth and the challenge of reclaiming and re-learning our true history and how to move forward with a new understanding. We talked about the process of integration.

We are both curious as to how to move from external integration such as reading our adoption documents and hearing the information to internal integration, which seems to be a much longer process with many stops and restarts.

My friend stated that she felt like her biological family’s mistress. She was a part of the family but not a full member. She hovered around the outskirts of her own ancestry.

I do not see myself as the mistress. My experience is more like being the daughter of the mistress–though my mother was not an actual mistress. She was a child–seventeen. Maybe a better name would be The Child’s Daughter. My father had children my mother’s age when I was conceived.When I arrived excited to meet everyone, things did not go as I imagined. I found myself making excuses for my presence.

As a deeply spiritual woman my desire is to learn, practice and understand the rituals of my ancestors. How did they live their lives? There is a longing to integrate Cherokee-Shawnee beliefs and practices into my practice. I want to walk the path of my ancestors. Attempting to peer into the past thru a spiritual lens seems to create some sort of link between past and present, biological and adoptive families and where I came from, though the glass is often clouded by my own projections.

This longing to belong seems to perpetuate the outsider archetype that entered this world with me—attached. It is my Siamese twin with a hidden umbilical cord of its own.

To date I have adopted Eastern practices because they reflect my values and how I see and experience the world. I had no idea I already had a spiritual practice that was a part of a culture that I was raised outside of. Thankfully, Eastern practices offered a vast storehouse of wisdom to draw from. I have walked this path for many years. The Goddess/Divine Feminine has always been central to my practices. She has been the gateway—my connection to the Mystery. She is/was the Mystery.

There is a Corn Mother in the Cherokee practices but we have yet to be introduced. I’m not sure how central she is to the spiritual practices. Can I envision her as an integral part? There is also an Earth Mother but I experience her as vast—not personal.

I do not want to get caught in the world of duality—adoptive family verses biological family—Eastern practices verses Native American spirituality. One isn’t right and the other wrong. Shifting from this dualistic perspective has not been easy. Will what I practice become a hybrid? How do I keep the veins of both clear—not murky? Do I embrace one and wave goodbye to the other? I feel like there is some sort of ritual I should do—a reclaiming as I move into uncharted territory. I wonder if there is a Cherokee Elder to bless this next segment of my spiritual journey.

I am working on internal and external integration to the best of my ability, though in reality, it often feels like three steps forward and five back. I feel like I have been in the role of observer for a very long time. I can see it all—even talk about it logically but there is still some disconnect between head and heart. Feeling only happens on occasion—like a bleed through.

What I know to be true: Stories, story-telling and deep listening are very healing. Speaking my story and listening to other adoptees speak their truths seems to assist with integration. It also provides validation, acceptance and the strength to stop living as an outsider in my own life. I believe that when our stories are spoken their energy is released thru the breath. I think they are carried to the Creator like the smoke from a smudge stick.

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