I came to the Chautauqua Institution six years ago and while I loved it, I had not been tempted to return. My own fault, really. I approached it, by habit, as a Learning Experience. I took classes. I listened to lectures. In the spirit of the Institution’s founding, I felt Improved. But nothing happened that stirred me.
This year, by chance, I came across the theme for the season, “What It Means To Be Human,” and saw the theme for Week 8, “War and Its Warriors: Contemporary Voices.” I scanned the speakers. Some were new to me but I had the books, in some cases multiple books, by four of them on my shelves. I tried to get members of my discussion group to come. We could rent a house, discuss the talks over glasses of wine on the porch in the afternoon. No one could. After some hemming and hawing I decided to come on my own, which is why I ended up in my little third-floor walk-up apartment, with its little-old-lady Victorian furniture, its floor that slopes alarmingly, and its truly formidable collection of plastic flower arrangements. And though several people have urged me to buy myself some fresh flowers, I have yielded to what is here. Giving up my need for fresh flowers over plastic became somehow a part of releasing some of the burden I had carried with me when I arrived.
I have been working on issues woven into Vietnam and the war we fought there for five years. The project we now call The One String Violin came to me three years ago. In that time I have opened myself to the stories of veterans, both in the United States and in Vietnam. I have read some history (though the particulars of battles still hold no interest), a lot of journalism, novels, short stories, and, more recently, the writings of younger veterans because in a way “my” war never ended. I am working in the mode in which I was trained, which is academic, and outside it, which is to follow my intuition and to feel with my heart.
I had hit a dry spot, though, even when it seemed I was coming to the end. I didn’t want anyone to know about the dry spot, though, stiff upper lip and all, and it was draining me of energy. I was missing my usual strength, forcing my usual optimism. This was leading to a general crankiness to which my family and friends might be able to attest.
So I came, by myself and yet a part of a community in which it is ok to be talking about war and veterans and pain. And healing and help and hope. No one is using euphemisms or platitudes or avoidance. The program on the first night (Chautauqua, Day One, Evening) made me cry. I realized that in all this time I have had little more than the occasional catch in the throat or melancholy day.
Yesterday I listened to Iraq veteran Phil Klay speak of the Constitution and responsibility and about finding that line between what is wrong and what is right. He dared the audience, “How many innocent people do you want to be killed because you are scared?” And he said that some wars are necessary and drones are not bad in themselves but in how they are used.
Rita Nakashima Brock spoke of moral injury and how such injury may be healed and she spoke what is becoming an underlying theme of the week – community. Always community. Healing can’t happen in solitude. We all have to play a part, even while we ourselves may be struggling with trauma or betrayal. My last note from her talk is, simply, “rituals of lamentation.”
I wrote again in the evening, which is what I do when I am not attending a talk, and began reading again from Jonathan Shay’s book Achilles in Vietnam. He is today’s speaker, so I wanted to refresh my memory. I read the book a year or so ago and marked it up but I understand it a lot more now.
Some time in the evening I checked the news and saw pictures from the flooding in Louisiana. When I woke I had snatches of a song running through my mind and I had to go chasing after it until I realized it was Eliza Gilkyson’s Requiem. She had written it after the Asian Tsunami and it gained attention again after Katrina, which is when I heard it. I played it on the NPR link and suddenly I was sobbing, the kind of ugly-crying that can’t happen if anyone is watching and maybe something about being in my usual life had kept it from happening for five years. I wasn’t crying for the flooding in Louisiana, or not only that. I was crying for loss, for comfort, for prayer. I was grieving the stories I had heard, the people I knew who had died, for the horror of war, the pain of disillusionment, the need to believe in the power of hope, my own deep belief in what it means to me to be a citizen of this country. I was crying because my own dry spell has come from the gradual encroachment of cynicism and the crying is ok. I want to grieve, in community, so I can move from where I was to where I will be.