Well, really, I’ve been packing for weeks. I know the guys are going to throw a few things in a bag the night before, but I’m a girl so I have to Plan. It will be hot during the day in Saigon and pleasant at night. The night time temperature in Saigon will be the daytime temp in Hanoi. We will walk, ride, fly, climb, work, swim, dine, visit … and it will probably rain. I will have one medium-sized bag and part of it will contain gifts.
So I comb websites. I order things. I send things back. I audition my wardrobe. (I don’t like to admit this but I talk to the closet: “OK, who wants to come? You have to be versatile, professional, light, washable, comfortable in multiple conditions. Anybody?”) Of course, all of this drama is only the outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual angst. What am I packing, really?
That stuck with me, though. I did have a sense of obligation, but that time it was to myself. I was laying to rest some shadowy memories that had acted on my life in unclear ways. I had no interest in making a display of the exotic things I was seeing. I wanted to eat street food and do errands. As I wrote in Preparing, Part One, my negotiation with Vietnam the first time took place in pondering what I would eat and on the basis of what I would decide. After two years, though, my sense of obligation has gotten both deeper and darker.
The generation that endured the war in Vietnam is now at the wisdom stage of life. It is an uncomfortable position in our culture, more generally associated with rocking chairs, golf courses, and various medical interventions, but Boomers are not put out to pasture easily – that’s the knock on us but it is also the blessing. This is the time both to reflect on our life experiences and to pass on what we can to the next generation. It is a time for looking back and asking each other, “What the hell happened??”
There is not a lot of enthusiasm for this kind of reflecton. It’s not that easy to look back. Not only were the 60s a painful time, we were all young in ways that perhaps are not all that uplifting to recall. No matter what our course of action, there are doubts. Did I do the right thing? Did I do enough? Just how many of my decisions were completely bone-headed? Plus, none of the issues we were raising then has been resolved so isn’t it better just to move on?
But then there is the dark side.
When my friend Fred Wilcox was interviewing veterans coping with the effects of Agent Orange he asked them why they weren’t getting more attention. Universally the answer was, “They are waiting for us to die.” So he titled his book, Waiting for an Army to Die. When there are no more witnesses there is no more story. Where there is no story there are no lessons learned. When those lessons are uncomfortable it is easier in many ways to watch history repeat itself than to admit that even if we know we were right, lots of things went wrong and we share responsibility.
When the war and the political action around it ended we gave up, or grew depressed, or walked away. I did. I did all of those things. So when my veteran friend John says, “Where have you been?” I am chagrined. I believe I can account for myself during that time, but his question reminds me of all the things I didn’t know because I chose not to. There is no way around it. And in the meantime, so many are gone and so much time lost.
This time I listen to those who don’t have the luxury of saying they have put those years behind them because their memories won’t allow it. Time is not enough to heal these wounds. In listening to them I see in myself, as I see in our nation, the wounds we all carry that time has not healed.
Time does not heal these wounds but community can and we have a community of eight, all born within a little over a year of each other. We have, as Annie Dillard says, “thrown in our lot with random people” and we are journeying to the Pole of Relative Inaccessibility. Eight people willing to take a chance, defy the expectations, and do things differently. After all, it’s what we used to do, in the 60s, when we wouldn’t shut up.
So we pack. We pack what we think we need to be ready for what happens and we carry with us our dashed hopes and disappointments, our maladaptive personal preferences, everything that has lodged in our bodies for decades. We will give up some of that, out of necessity or in a burst of goodwill, and the baggage we return with will be different, in some measure, from what we carried with us when we left.
The Pole of Relative Inaccessibility is “that imaginary point on the Arctic Ocean farthest from land in any direction.” It is a navigator’s paper point contrived to console Arctic explorers who, after Peary and Henson reached the North Pole in 1909, had nowhere special to go. There is a Pole of Relative Inaccessibility on the Antarctic continent; it is that point of land farthest from salt water in any direction.
The Absolute is the Pole of Relative Inaccessibility located in metaphysics. After all, one of the few things we know about the Absolute is that it is relatively inaccessible. It is that point of spirit farthest from every accessible point of spirit in all directions. Like the others, it is a Pole of the Most Trouble. It is also – I take this as given – the pole of great price.
Annie Dillard, “An Expedition to the Pole,” Teaching a Stone To Talk