February 18, 2013 § 5 Comments

IMG_0202Well, 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?

When I was in Vietnam last time my host got kind of freaked out because I wasn’t out there Seeing Things. I wouldn’t take off by myself for Borobudur or Angkor Wat.  I wouldn’t walk for hours alone in the Hanoi streets, getting deliberately lost as he had done. I spent an inordinate amount of time writing. Finally, in frustration, he said that I was fortunate to be able to come to that part of the world (true) and so many people could not (also true) so I had an obligation to see as much as I could. (Hmm…)

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

§ 5 Responses to Packing

  • Nancy Rheingold says:

    Let’s face it, we women have more to pack with more challenges than the men. I’ve been buying up a storm myself, also returning some things so as not to go completely crazy. Compression sox, check. Especially since I just sprained my foot today. Inflatable travel pillow, check. You’d think that with the amount of shoes I have I wouldn’t need any more. You’d be wrong. Walking sandals due to arrive in about a week
    For me this journey is all about education, to completely remove myself from my typical environment. I’m reading War and the Soul and am shocked at what I didn’t know. What do I expect I will learn on this trip? I’m not totally sure. I do bring myself and automatically go into looking for commonalities between myself and those I meet. I always find something.

  • Lindsley says:

    Susan thank you for your thoughtful sharings here…it is my first opportunity to read your blog and I’ve been enjoying taking in your previous postings, including your pictures….something special going on as you focus and press the shutter. At every turn Vietnam is a feast for the eyes, but I appreciate your particular capturing and what it is that draws your attention. I look forward to meeting and knowing you, as I do the others, and your heartfelt blogging is a lovely introduction! And yes! we ladies definitely have ‘special needs’ to tend to…where menfolk don’t. Nancy, if you’re reading this, please know I too have to try everything on that I’m considering taking on a trip. John finds it kind of crazy and certainly unnecessary, considering he doesn’t have this need or way of choosing what gets into his bag. So…I smile at our mutual packing processes, alongside of acknowledging the tender, real metaphors that are intertwined in everything. We are already journeying to ‘our cure’…as Rumi said. What a joy it will be to tenderly journey together ladies…great blessings and deep breaths. Mindfully, LIndsley xo

  • halfgemini says:


    I do remember this well from preparing for my trip with John and Lindsley several years ago. I too was concerned about what to bring. I remember the lessons – be flexible, wash and dry-able in a sink or shower, breathable, some layers, rain gear, hat, sun glasses, bathing suit, and all of the vitamins and medicines. Some snacks worked on long bus rides.

    I too had spent those years in the protest and anti-war movement. So i went with trepidation and curiosity, and a deep need. So many wonderful experiences with echoes rippling through my life as the years go by.

    The sites, tastes, aromas and sounds of the diversity of Vietnam and its people. I am remembering with a certain longing and regret that I cannot join you all this year.

    So glad that you will be blogging and posting both writing and pictures. I do look forward to reading and seeing, remembering, and imagining. As my friend Roy says often…”tell me the stories…”

    Stephen Joffe

  • Susan Dixon says:

    Those are magic words, Stephen, “tell me the stories…” I will do my best. Thank you for being a part of this and I, too, wish you could be with us.

  • Nancy Rheingold says:

    I was against the Vietnam war way back but was in dental hygiene school. I didn’t quite fit the mold of hygienist at that time but was surrounded by students who weren’t going to be taking any action as far as protest. I myself wasn’t interested. The years have passed and what thoughts I had then have become vague or forgotten. I noted through out the years the effects of Agent Orange and vets’ efforts to get acknowledgement and help. My heart went out to them, but on a personal level I remained largely untouched by the war and its aftermath. Now a whole generation plus has passed and because of a simple post on Facebook that I just “happened” to see, I find myself exploring this and going on a trip that I didn’t expect to ever make. Last night I shared with my women’s small group about the trip and what I am learning. they definitely had things to say and more connectedness to the war through having loved ones who were there. I now have a greater understanding of my father’s statements the year before he died. We went to a Memorial Day ceremony in NC which was really touching and connected the past with the present. He began to cry, remembering the young men he grew up with in that small upstate New York town and all of their carefree times. He was filled with sorrow that they lost their lives and never had a life while he was sent to dental school by the Army and went on to have a life and children. I wondered then why he didn’t just get that his path was to live and there was no answering of the question why am I here and they are not? Maybe now I understand a little.
    Nancy R

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