I had dinner recently with someone I had known from my neighborhood for several years. She wanted to get us away from our construction chaos, give us a very welcome break. I have known her only as kind and community-minded. She makes a point of greeting new neighbors, signing them up for the listserv, and inviting them to the picnic. She offers to help and she does. She is a few years older than I am. She carries memories.
She wanted to know about my trip to Vietnam and about the book I am writing. She was curious how I am handling all that and she was curious about veterans. Up to a point, I soon saw. She herself had been a part of a civilian, antiwar community and her stories had to do with all the measures that were being taken by friends of hers to avoid being drafted, these stories told without any accompanying information about why. There were good reasons, in my opinion, to resist that war by all appropriate, non-violent, deeply-considered means possible, but to me that’s the story – how any particular person thought these things through.
Then she asked me about veterans. I started to answer, as honestly as I could, but she wasn’t interested in what I was saying. How do they deal with it, she wanted to know. Again I tried to answer, saying every person’s experience was different, where they were stationed, their job, their personality … Still that wasn’t what she was driving at. How do they deal with what they have done, she insisted, with the children they killed?
Sometimes I think it is easier to isolate myself, to write this book, and just keep writing it and never come out of my little office. I can know that conversations like this will happen but I don’t have to face them. Then I get ambushed and I know that what needs healing is going to take a lot longer than we have at dinner in a nice restaurant but at dinner in a nice restaurant might be my only opportunity. She opened the door to something and I didn’t think quickly enough to be able to be able to walk through it. Today I feel a kind of desperate sadness. I need new skills. I need more compassion. I need wisdom. I might also need a sharper tongue.
I don’t remember what I said. I remember thinking that this was a ‘have you stopped beating your wife’ question and that nothing I had to offer would have satisfied her. We were interrupted by someone else arriving. She did not ask about my work again.