That’s right – SoulPaths.wordpress.com now has a new address:
There’ll be a bit of a transitional period, but I’m planning to offer more features, more content, more….more….
Please come with me!
That’s right – SoulPaths.wordpress.com now has a new address:
There’ll be a bit of a transitional period, but I’m planning to offer more features, more content, more….more….
Please come with me!
Decompressing after a long day of passionate work, promoting a client’s upcoming seminar series, I stumble on an article and video and step through a window in time…
Twenty-eight years ago I was singing these songs in a living-room folk band with the man I would later marry. Today, seven years and a few weeks after his death, I listen to these songs as I have so many times before, and remember exactly the feel and taste and smell of those days…the feeling of being young, newly on my own, intoxicated with freedom and love and music and art and a liberated, bohemian lifestyle after a so-conservative childhood.
A new friend, another widow, said to me recently that when her husband died, “the technicolor went out of her life.” I know what she means, as I work now to regain my zest, confidence, intentionality, sense of living from my heart.
Unused memberships in singles networks still occasionally beckon – do I want to go out on nervous, hesitant coffee dates, hoping I will recognize a kindred spirit across a crowded room as I did once, 29 years ago? Not really. I’m still looking for someone whose powdered bones I and a group of family and friends sprinkled into a river seven years ago.
Work is the best medicine now, as spirit and serendipity guide my copy writing business into new directions and new clientele… changemakers serving Spirit and creation. Still emerging from a deep dark period, I simply follow the energy, discovering tools for growth and transformation, finding new confidence in my inner resources, witnessing miracles taking place in magical connections and undreamed-of developments. We’re a week past Imbolc, ancient turning-point from winter toward spring. The daffodils’ greenery has emerged and buds are forming; some enterprising forsythia are already blooming.
Awhile back I posted an invitation to a support circle for widows who are transitioning from deep loss into finding their voice and purpose for living…that invitation hasn’t been forgotten. In keeping with a circle of empowerment to honor our inner knowing and the wisdom gained from our scars, I’m looking toward the week of spring equinox, March 16 – 22. Bring flowers to hold the intention of your blossoming, eggs for the promise of new beginnings.
If the plight of the Earth speaks to you – if the action of Idle No More speaks to you – if you walk the Red Road or care for those who do – please take the time to read this and add your prayers on January 19. This is an action that anyone can take, of any race, creed, or persuasion.
Many people have no understanding of how strong a spiritual person you are. When the UN Special Rapporteur came to your community, he had tears rolling down his cheeks as he listened to the children of Onion Lake singing in Cree. At another time, I also witnessed the Onion Lake students singing and for me even though I have Sundanced and am Midewiwin it was still one of the most powerful spiritual ceremonies I have ever witnessed. I was told that the Special Rapporteur explained his tears. He said, that at the United Nations many indigenous people come there and cry about the problems they face. He felt overwhelmed by the pain of indigenous people. Hearing the children of Onion Lake singing as loud as their little voices could in their own language lifted his spirit so much, that here finally was a powerful sign that our people will not only survive but they will excel beyond expectations. It made him cry with joy.
For over a year now, Dakota Elder Albert Taylor has been asking me to use our power. He has been telling me that we need to lift the pipe. He kept saying, we need to ask for help. He says, “we still have power”. On Saturday January 19th 2013 at the RCMP Station on Portage Ave in Winnipeg, at noon Winnipeg time, the Elders will ask for spiritual help. Albert Taylor asked that my older brother Charles lift the pipe while Elder Taylor will sing.
The ethics of immanence are based on the recognition that all is interconnected. When the earth lives in us, as we in her, our sense of self expands until we can no longer believe in our isolation. When we practice magic – the art of seeing the connections that run deeper than the visible surface – we know that no act is out of context. If we participate in a native American sweat lodge, we are obligated to aid their struggles for land and treaty rights and their battles against forced relocation. We have sunk a spirit root into the living soil of their community. They have fed us. But to be fed without feeding, to take without contributing, is not a road to power-from-within. We cannot grow in strength through being parasites. If we adopt ritual trappings without concern for the daily realities of those we learn from, we become spiritual fungi. But power-from-within derives from integrity, from our recognition of the context of every act, from a consistency between what we say, believe, and do.
It was not a new idea – my husband had been a Pipe-carrier and Sundancer, and supporting his Lakota spiritual family had been an accepted part of our life. But since his death, as I have been seeking my own path as a non-Native woman living in modern-day suburbia, incorporating the teachings that he and I had practiced, the implications have rippled outward…
At the last Sundance we attended, there was a strong presence of the American Indian Movement, reclaiming the ritual for the Lakota people and winnowing out the non-Native Dancers….as they reached the completion of their four-year commitment, it was understood that they would participate in other, mixed Dances. As a clearly non-Native supporter, I was in a minority. I remember one AIM Dancer asking me, not as a challenge but very seriously, “Who are your grandmothers and grandfathers? Where are your sacred sites?”
I could only respond hesitantly – while my known genealogy was Italian and Lithuanian Catholic, digging back into our cultural history revealed Baltic paganism and the ritual healing Graeco-Roman trance-dance tradition of tarantelle. While both traditions had gone underground, pressured first by Catholicism and then (in Lithuania) by Communism, I knew that my ancestors most certainly knew how to relate to the Earth as a sentient being, knew how to connect with the conscious energy in each living being. I could still feel that knowledge in my bones…but how could I honor that knowledge and both sides of my cultural heritage?
This bone-level instinct was what drew me to the Native traditions of this land…the cellular awareness of a time when all the peoples of the world danced in relationship with the living Earth. And today I continue to teeter at the lip of the divide between Then and Now as a family dissident, an outlier seeking a place of balance between the Earth-centered practices of my husband’s spiritual family, my ancestors and the current-day Teachers who inspire me, and the modern, materialist, commercialized, mainstream practices of this culture.
As I watch friends on similar paths, I am realizing that this chasm is one that each of us face at some point if we embark on any sort of journey toward consciousness…there is the attraction to cosmic oneness, to a sacred physical world, to “magic” perhaps, or to altered consciousness and mystical or shamanic practices.
But in this culture of smorgasbord spirituality, there’s no moral imperative to connect with the actual present-day cultures at the source of those mind-altering practices….at least, not until one connects with a teacher of integrity.
Then the awareness comes – that the knowledge in which we’ve been dabbling arose through centuries of arduous tradition…and that the people who still practice those traditions have been decimated by massacre, poverty and disease, bereft of their land and natural wealth, and very nearly bereft of their culture and spiritual traditions. And that to honor those traditions requires that, in some way, we give back.
The divide between the cultures in which all was (is) sacred, and those in which nothing is sacred, has never been described so heart-wrenchingly as in the words of Oglala Lakota holy man Black Elk following the massacre at Wounded Knee, 122 years ago yesterday:
My people’s dream died there. It was a beautiful dream… the nation’s hoop is broken and scattered. There is no center any longer, and the sacred tree is dead.
In a global sense, not only the hoop of the Lakota nation has been scattered, but the sacred hoop joining all nations in conscious Earth connection. The human and cultural genocide we have seen in North and South America, Africa, Asia and Australia through recent centuries is a modern replay of the genocide that wiped out European indigenous traditions.
And the oppression continues……and with it the resistance.
Most immediate, of course, is the struggle of Idle No More, led by Chief Theresa Spence and supported by Indigenous and non-Indigenous people around the world as she hunger-strikes for a meeting with Prime Minister Stephen Harper to honor Canadian treaties with its Indigenous nations against the expropriation of the land and waterways for resource extraction. Now in the 20th day of her fast, she has received no response from Harper.
Ultimately this is more than a Canadian struggle. It is a global struggle to protect the Earth against the cannibalizing “extraction” of oil, gas and minerals by mega-corporations. The Elder peoples, the Indigenous nations of the world who have held the sacredness of the Earth at the heart of their culture for millennia, are leading the way, but ultimately the survival of life on this planet depends on all peoples of all nations and races following their lead.
All of us, waking up out of our separation from creation and cosmos and rejoining the family of consciously connected beings.
All of us, helping to mend the Hoop of all Nations.
I have been posting news of Idle No More on this blog and on Facebook…and I would like to offer an open invitation here:
Do you feel called to participate in an energy circle supporting the work of Idle No More – the protection of the land, the water, the People and all beings, and the preservation of sacred sites – not only in Canada but also around the world?
If this speaks to you, whatever your spiritual tradition, and you would like to join your intention with others through prayer, meditation, energy work, drumming, or ceremony at a set time every week, please add your voice in the Comments below:
There are many prophecies that address this time in human history…but the one that speaks to me most just now is this, from the Anishnabe tradition:
Powerful, powerful essay on the ongoing oppression of Native peoples by North American governments, as shown most recently by the Harper administration’s non-response to Chief Theresa Spence’s ongoing hunger strike for her people.
Over the past few decades, I have witnessed several kinds of activist’ movements that inspired me to become the advocate I am today. As a child I watched in awe Martin Luther King, the Civil Rights movement in the US and then as a youth, the American Indian Movement. When I came to understand what these meant, I took an interest in educating myself of the many efforts of our Onkwehón:we ancestors whose strength and perseverance, inspires our resistance today.
Why do we have to continue to resist? Why do we have to continue to endure the institutionalized racism that plagued our ancestors? The issue is complex but at the heart of the issues are the archaic Papal Bulls and Doctrine of Discovery that gave European explorers the “rights” to claim lands that were not occupied by Christians: it meant that no one lived there because non-Christians were not human…
View original post 1,087 more words
I do not want to write this blog post.
I do not want to do the research or open my mind to the soul-sickening horror of the issue. But I have been signing and posting petition after petition, Tweeting and sharing on Facebook, and it just isn’t enough.
Thinking of this, I am physically nauseated.
American fundamentalists – both Catholic and Protestant – have not found it sufficient to preach hellfire and damnation – implicitly if not explicitly inciting physical and verbal violence and intimidation – against gay, lesbian, bi, and transsexual persons in the U.S., but they have also felt it necessary – by silence and/or speech – to incite the homophobia driving the infamous Ugandan legislation stripping LGBT persons of virtually every human right, including the right to life.
Among the provisions of the bill, which comes up for a vote this week:
“Any person alleged to be homosexual would be at risk of life imprisonment or in some circumstances the death penalty”paragraph“Any parent who does not denounce their lesbian daughter or gay son to the authorities would face fines of $2,650 or three years in prison”paragraph“Any teacher who does not report a lesbian or gay pupil to the authorities within 24 hours would face the same penalties”paragraph“And any landlord or landlady who happens to give housing to a suspected homosexual would risk 7 years of imprisonment”paragraphSimilarly, the Bill threatens to punish or ruin the reputation of anyone who works with the gay or lesbian population, such as medical doctors working on HIV/AIDS, Civil Society leaders active in the fields of sexual and reproductive health; or even religious leaders providing guidance and counseling to people who are unsure of their sexuality or any other consultations….(Read more here…)
The Speaker of the Ugandan Parliament is pressing for a fast passage of the bill, calling it “a Christmas gift” to the nation. The bill’s author has said he believes the government of Uganda should “kill every last gay person.”
We are talking about a holocaust here. As a Christmas gift.
A holocaust. As a Christmas gift.
What barbaric century are we living in???
And the “good Christians” who are responsible for instigating this horrific piece of bloodthirsty mob-thinking disguised as legislation are distancing themselves – claiming that they are shocked and surprised at the results of their instigation, but not taking any action against those results.
I hear that the gay community is accused of being responsible for the terrible issue of pedophilia in Uganda as in other African nations. It’s the same absurd projection that has been used to excuse gay-bashing in the States, despite all the documented evidence that pedophilia and homosexuality are unrelated.
The mob-thinking, the legislation are bad enough. That a population could be so deceived as to demand the physical or social destruction of 20% of its people is unimaginable in its horror. But that supposedly Christian religious leaders are doing nothing in response – that the Vatican is doing nothing to condemn the Catholic bishops who had once opposed, but who are now supporting this legislation – that the Vatican,in fact, sought to remove references to sexual orientation and gender identity from a recent U.N. resolution condemning executions motivated by anti-LGBT bias – that a conservative evangelical preacher, Scott Lively, has been identified as directly contributing to the 2009 “Kill the Gays” bill and conspiring to create an environment friendly to the new legislation – and that an expose by the Political Research Associates has revealed the purposeful involvement of U.S. evangelicals in fostering homophobia in Uganda —
Does nobody see that this is the same, hate-projecting, shadow-casting, reasonless, genocidal madness that has destroyed untold millions of lives in target populations around the world since ideologies began?
I suppose I should not be surprised or shocked: how long have I been aware of human bigotry, and particularly gay-bashing, being a proud ally and PFLAG mom and “mother of the brooms” for my stepson and son-in-law?
I suppose that my dismay over this situation shows an appalling level of naivete or numbing-out…that I’m just now, finally, allowing myself to process this horror beyond the intellectual disgust and intellectual care that drive petition-signing. That I’m moving, in Ivan Illich’s words, toward a point of no return –
“I live with the refusal not only to say certain things but also to use certain words or to permit certain feelings to creep into my heart…Reflection on certain things we take for granted is, in my opinion, acceptance of self-destruction, of burning out your heart…*
I do not want to escape my sense of helplessness and fall into a pretence that I care and that I do or have done all that is possible of me. I want to live with the inescapable horror…[suffered by] these persons, in my heart, and know that I cannot, actively, really, love them. Because to love them – at least the way I am built, after having read the story of the Samaritan – means to leave aside everything which I’m doing at this moment and pick up that person….
Thinking that I care, first, impedes me from remembering what love would be; second, trains me not to be in that sense loving with the person who is waiting outside this door, and third, stops me from taking the next week off and going and chaining myself to the door of some industry in New York which has a part in the …disaster….**
I have been “caring” for a long time, signing my name to the impassioned words of others….and it’s no longer enough.
Returning to the horror in Uganda: What is the real crime committed by the men and women being targeted by this legislation?
They belong to a group historically identified as scapegoats at a time when Western “civilization” is evolving to realize it is no longer acceptable to target any scapegoat group.
The anti-gay campaign that is not limited to Uganda, but is also being pursued in Rwanda and Nigeria by Lively, bases its power on a broader fear, says the Reverend Kapya Kaoma, who was part of the Political Research Associates team investigating the role of US right-wing groups and evangelical groups in Uganda. Quoted in a Democracy Now! interview, the Rev. Kaoma said:
…I was in Uganda the time when Scott Lively of Abiding Truth Ministries was holding this conference, which was then a seminar exposing their anti-homosexual seminar agenda. And what it did is that it told Ugandans that this international gay movement will take over the world, it has managed to take over the United States government, it has taken over the UN, it has taken over the country of Brazil. And now, in Brazil for instance, people who are not — who are opposed to gays and lesbians, they are being forced out of their country. And if Uganda does not stop them, then they will do the same thing, because they are now —- their new target is Uganda. So Lively preached a lot of hatred against the LGBT persons.
That’s it. In a twisted bait-and-switch, Lively et al interpreted humanity’s evolution in accepting diversity as an LGBT takeover. They planned a duplicitous legislative backlash against the growing global realization that yes, LGBT persons are, indeed, human, and entitled to all the rights associated with being human. That same-sex love is not an evil human perversion but can be found in hundreds – some say thousands – of species, from bugs to birds, from mice to whales.
It’s a backlash against the growing global awareness that one more of the groups historically targeted as “Others,” in fact, can no longer be acceptably hated. Against the dawn of the possibility that there may in fact be no “Them” who can targeted as a scapegoat, loaded up with the projected sins of the population, and cast out into the wilderness. That we may in fact all be fully human beings, responsible for respecting and caring for one another, regardless of our perceived differences.
And – sickeningly – this backlash is led by religious leaders, despite the example of a loving Savior who reached out to prostitutes, tax-collectors and assorted other perceived “dregs of society,” who harshly criticized the ruling religious hierarchy, and who said nothing – zero, zip, zilch, nada – on the topic of men loving men or women loving women, let alone the modern medical miracle of transgender transitions – and despite the same Savior’s very harsh words on the topic of judging others.
And those in positions of the highest religious power, who should speak out if only to take responsibility and attempt to avert the murderous outcome of their implicit or explicit actions, are not doing so.
I wish I could say with confidence that Gandhi’s words, ‘When the people lead, the leaders will follow”applied equally to such religious leaders. The president of Uganda, however, has said that he will veto the legislation – but pressure is mounting on him to withdraw that promise.
So it’s up to the people of the world to hold him to his word. Please, if this looming holocaust touches you at any level of caring or love, add your voice on any or all of these petitions…
Let me close with this wrenching recollection of the last all-out Gay Holocaust, in WWII – and adapt the great Jewish teacher Maimonides’ questions: “And if (we are) only for (ourselves), then what (are we)? And if not now, when?”
* David Cayley, Ivan Illich in Conversation (Toronto: House of Anansi Press, 1992)., 126
** Ibid., 217
I wrote this article after staffing a veterans’ healing weekend called The Bamboo Bridge, just after the attacks of 9/11/2001, when we knew that the world would never be the same, but didn’t yet know the depth of the change.
I’m posting it today as new evidence continues to emerge regarding the truth of what happened that day…to honor the sacrifice of those who shipped out to serve in the Middle East on the strength of the information our government presented.
To all who have served, whether as combatant or noncombatant in a combat zone, and who are still struggling to heal –
The veterans were approaching.
This was not a Fourth of July or Memorial Day parade, though with the electricity in the air it might have been. We waved no flags, heard no drums. There were only 20 of us on the Bamboo Bridge staff to welcome these veterans home. They, in turn, were coming to tell their experiences and be heard and honored for their service, perhaps for the first time since their return to the U.S.
This was my first time staffing the Bamboo Bridge weekend: eleven days after the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon, with the specter of war in the air, it was the most poignant timing possible.
The Bamboo Bridge is a homecoming and healing weekend for any veteran of any conflict, whether a combatant or not: it is enough simply that he or she served.
Among the graduates – some of them the staff members that stood waiting with me that day – were artillery soldiers and special operations officers; decorated veterans of many tours of duty and noncombatant medics; stateside supply officers and front-line triage nurses. Each of them had experienced the inability to describe their wartime experience in normal society, except in the most banal terms. Each had seen friends’ and family’s faces go blank with incomprehension if they attempted to share what they had seen and done.
Two men, four women and I were the civilians of the staff: some spouses of vets, some conscientious objectors, some war protestors. I was one of the latter: as a post-Boomer, I was a child during Vietnam; as a Quaker, I had protested Desert Storm. My two strongest memories of encounters with veterans dated from 20 years ago: one had been high on pot and whisky, having a post-traumatic stress flashback as he sat next to me on the bus. He’d been shaking, crying uncontrollably, babbling incoherently that he hadn’t wanted to machine-gun women and children. Other passengers on the bus had looked away, shielding themselves from his grief; I was paralyzed by his outpouring. For years I could not speak of it without tears of horror and empathy.
The other was a Green Beret who told of his bloodletting in Vietnam with vicious delight. I had never believed in monsters until I met him: though I purposefully wiped his stories from my mind, his glee was unforgettable. For years afterward, simply seeing a veteran in similar headgear triggered reflexive terror.
I’d known other veterans since then, kind, sane, moderate men, successful in their work and leaders in their communities. These memories, however – stereotypes, other vets complained – were the images that returned as I watched the four men approaching us. Was that why I was here – because my experiences tapped into a cultural stereotype that I felt compelled to overcome?
No. From those two encounters I’d learned rage against the inner devastation that war leaves in its veterans, and grief at the sacrifice of their hearts and souls in the combat. One thing I knew was certain: with the aftermath of the September 11 attack, there would soon be many more veterans, from rescue workers to combatants. To understand their experience and support their healing was essential.
The four veterans entered the sunny conference room, dressed casually, normally, no fatigues or camouflage or combat boots…or berets. Their wars…Korea, perhaps, or early Vietnam? Another, younger-looking…possibly the Gulf War? We introduced ourselves: I looked carefully into each man’s eyes as we met. A monster? Surely no addicts here. A phrase returned to my mind from one of the veterans on staff, describing himself before he experienced the Bridge weekend: “dead behind the eyes.” In each of these men’s eyes there was an…emptiness, a wariness.
Christan Kramer, founder of the Bamboo Bridge, had warned me: For many of the participants, the toughest moment is simply coming through the door to be welcomed by both veterans and civilians. Some respond with hostility: “What are these damned civilians doing here?” one once demanded of Christan, and spat on him. It was not the first time, nor the last, Christan said. Another vet was incredulous at the presence of civilians on the staff: “I can’t believe so many people care,” he exclaimed. This was the reaction I saw in the vets coming to this weekend: wonderment at the sheer number of staff supporters and civilians, particularly women.
And that, Christan told me, is part of the idea. “When a veteran says to another veteran, ‘Welcome home,’ there is a multitude of things going on,” he said, speaking from experience. “I’m aware that it’s valid, as one vet to another. I’d also expect that of course he’d say it, he’s a vet. When a civilian says it, though, there’s skepticism, cynicism, because of that first homecoming. There’s a wry smile — oh yeah, well, screw you! If you as a civilian say, ‘No, I mean it seriously,’ and let the vet see that you mean it — if the vet is willing to take it in as genuine, let down the barriers and admit the welcoming — your welcome as a civilian carries more impact than that of a veteran. It speaks for the 235 million civilians who didn’t say it.”
This effect is compounded when a woman welcomes a veteran home, he added. “When you add the nurturing aspect of women’s energy, when a woman says ‘Welcome home,’ even to a cynical, skeptical vet, that veteran has a greater likelihood of hearing it,” he said. “There’s a mixed response still — often the first person to scoff at a returning veteran was a woman. At the same time, women as nurses had a tremendous impact in the war zone. When a nurse says she was in Vietnam, I’ve seen vets choke up. That nursing energy is part of the package.”
Out of that nursing energy, the Bridge was born. In 1984, Patricia Clason was the owner and director of the Center for Creative Learning in Milwaukee, presenting a weekend of personal growth and healing called Taking It Lightly. The daughter of a high-ranking non-commissioned Army officer, she had seen her boyfriend go to Vietnam and return profoundly changed; another friend had committed suicide during his service in Vietnam. “These men (Vietnam veterans) were showing up in my course room, ” she said. “It was hard to present the viewpoint of hating what they’d done and loving who they were. They had been children in an insane situation, doing what they had to do to stay alive.”
The veterans’ weight of guilt from those actions, along with their inability to communicate them, was compounded by civilians’ inability to understand. “The pain of war is the most horrific any human can experience,” said Patricia. “The only thing close to it is emergency room or paramilitary work; no one else understands it. The combat zone veteran is doubly isolated by the experience and the inability to communicate it.” As a facilitator, she struggled with these issues each time they arose.
In the fall of 1987, her perceptions crystallized when Christan participated in Taking It Lightly. The program directly touched his issues from the war, and he left with a mission: to help other veterans as he had been helped, by developing a workshop geared directly to their needs. When he shared this with Patricia after the weekend, their mutual concerns forged the foundation of The Bamboo Bridge.
To create a safe space for veterans to voice their experience, be heard nonjudgmentally, and receive the homecoming that had been lost the first time around: this was the vision. A safe space that no veteran should pay money to enter: they had already paid the price.
Step by step, Christan built this vision, presenting the first Bamboo Bridge weekend in Milwaukee in 1993. As the program grew, it was funded by the nonprofit Bridge Foundation, and the donations of grateful veterans and their families and friends.
Al Fletcher, now National Coordinator of the Bamboo Bridge, was one of the first to go through the training. As a company commander in Vietnam, he had been severely wounded and still dealt with disabilities stemming from his service. Emotional healing, also, had been long and difficult. When he heard of the new Bridge weekend shortly after participating in the New Warrior Training Adventure (a men’s initiatory training), he contacted Christan.
When they met in 1993 at a New Warrior conference in Chicago, Christan approached Al with his hands over his heart. Looking deep into Al’s eyes, he said, “I want to apologize to you, on behalf of myself and every other soldier who was a young punk kid angry at his father.” He spoke briefly and with grief about the guilt that he’d carried from being a “little bastard” to his commanding officer in Vietnam. Tears rose to Al’s eyes.
Now, Al brought that intensity to this Bridge. Meeting him for the first time in camouflage, with a beret cocked over one eye, I suppressed a reflexive shudder…until he emotionally thanked me for stepping up in service to the veterans. His sincerity rang in every word, his voice shook with conviction; I found my own eyes misting in response.
The student-vets were in the conference room now, with Al welcoming them. We staffers filed up to introduce ourselves. And the weekend began.
I worried: what if I couldn’t give the support they needed? Suppose I told my story and it sounded petty? How could my secondhand grief and horror mean anything to these men who’d been through hell? What right did I have to be there, anyway, a war protestor who knew nothing of the front lines? A veteran acquaintance had told me that I should stay in the background, that my issues would make me, at best, ineffectual, at worst, a hazard. I shared these worries with Pat Fletcher, Co-National Coordinator, who mentored women staffers through the weekend: she shook her head, no.
“With your issues, honey, you need to be right up in front,” she said. “You know everything you need to know. You will find that on this weekend your issues and your feelings will be your greatest strength: you can show these vets how to open their hearts. And you’ll be surprised at their response.”
So here I was, one of a closely choreographed team, each of us responsible for empathetic support to the student-vets and other staff members.
We sat in a circle on Saturday morning, and the stories began. First the staff told their experiences: tales of stateside service and survivor guilt; anti-war marches; singlehandedly maintaining a home and welcoming a returning spouse who was no longer the same person who’d left. Tales of lost connection, lost years, divorce. And war stories: inflicting death; holding dying friends; going AWOL; returning to an uncomprehending family and unrecognizable homeland. Our instructions had been to let the feelings flow, not provide pat answers, let the questions stand. Tears flowed; Kleenex boxes were passed from hand to hand.
Suddenly it was my turn, and I started: the memories were as fresh as the day they’d been imprinted, and the feelings equally strong. As I spoke of the grief, fear, and outrage this time, though, there came a fierce protective anger for these men. No one should have to live the way I’d seen those two vets living. There had to be a better way.
And then the student-veterans’ stories began: ambushes, hand-to-hand killings, terrorist bombings, uncountable triage deaths. It was painful to witness them as they worked through their old traumas: grief, guilt and shame over losing men in impossible situations. Shame at throwing up over the stench of an enemy’s innards. Shame at wanting to die when surrounded by horrors.
So much shame at the natural responses of their own hearts.
As I listened and supported the veterans in voicing their traumatic memories, I realized the truth of Pat’s words: by opening my heart to stand with these men in their healing, I was making use of my own feelings, allowing my wounds to become my strength. And I saw the same thing happening in them: by hearing one another’s pain, opening our hearts to support one another, we could connect in empathy, shared humanity, acceptance and caring.
How strange, I thought as the weekend went on: here I was, a war protestor, getting misty-eyed as the flag was unfurled and then folded again to the sound of Taps. Feeling heartache again as I played taped songs of veterans’ experiences and remembered the vet on the bus. “There’s not a veteran here,” Tom Porpiglia, one of the facilitators, told me during a break, “who isn’t against war. They know it’s hell.” And here they were, struggling to reclaim their pride in their sacrifices for their country.
Just before the graduation ceremony, as families and friends milled about, I was standing outside, watching the sunset. One of the student-vets approached me…one who had struggled hardest with his feelings of shame as he told his story. A military plane flew overhead, audible but barely visible, reminding us of the war clouds darkening in the world outside. He identified it for me without a second thought: he’d flown in one, seen what it could do.
He rambled on for a few minutes, then turned to me. “Do you still fear veterans?” he asked. I was startled: I had not said this, somehow he’d picked it up. I looked in his eyes: still wary, but they looked frankly into mine, questioning. Waiting for judgment. I felt a pang. “No,” I said gently. “I don’t think I was ever afraid of veterans, really. I was afraid of their wounds.”
He looked at me: that had touched him. Sadness in his eyes now. “Yeah, well,” he said after a moment, shrugging, “we’re afraid of our wounds, too.”