Calmly Speaking the Truth

 By Lee Swenson

When Maxine Hong Kingston asked me to join the Vietnam War Veterans Writing Group, I hesitated for a few months. The group was a real mix—Vietnam combat vets, stateside draftees, nurses, widows, medics. All wanted to write out their stories. It was hard to imagine reliving those intense days and walking back into those battlefields, terrain laden with buried mines, ready to explode in heart and mind. I also feel tender about my old moralizing voice coming back, a voice with an edge I wanted to keep at rest. I was not sure I could keep calm while speaking my truth about nonviolent anarchism, and I was not sure I wanted to go back into the endless debate between those who went to war and those who chose not to. Yet, how could I resist?

As I went to the monthly meetings, I began to know individuals—a medic, a pilot, a widow, a river patrol point man, a vet coming in from 20 years of living on the streets. Each of us had a separate reality, and now we were all tied together. I saw how hard it was, and is, for the vets to see differences within the antiwar movement, to see individuals making a choice, willing to suffer, to do prison time, to be written out of their families for refusing to kill.

Every month for three years, the Veterans Writing Workshop met for a Day of Mindfulness facilitated by Maxine Hong Kingston and members of the Community of Mindful Living. We began with a bell, heard again and again throughout the day, to calm, to still, to breathe. When we read our day’s writing to the group, we found that by remembering to breathe we could do and say nearly anything. After the opening bell and meditation, we went around the circle and added a voice to the community. We were breaking the ice of twenty-five-year-old thoughts and feelings.

mb16-Calmly2

At the center of the day, we wrote in community. Maxine suggested an idea, and after discussion, we went to different parts of the room or outside. We wrote for the next few hours, side by side, separate, yet together. Like meeting a grizzly bear on the trail, the electricity of producing together got our undivided attention. After lunch, we read aloud what we had written.

At moments, hardly anyone could breathe as the stories spilled out: buddies killed, body bags zipped up, sheer fear in battle still deep in the bone, coming Stateside, survivor’s guilt, rehab drudgery, going to the Wall and finding the name of a platoon mate or husband, leaving a widow’s letter and a daughter’s baptism gown, never to see her father. There have been few stories from draft resisters and nonviolent activists, and we had many to tell. I wrote about the virtues of nonviolence and why “we” resisted the war. I wrote about a small boy milking the family cow in an Indian village, who meets Gandhi on his way to the sea to commit civil disobedience by gathering his own salt during the Great Salt March. The boy dreams of joining the Freedom Movement. I wrote and read aloud about being in Santa Rita Jail over Christmas 1967, and how Martin Luther King, Jr. came to visit Joan Baez and the rest of us the day after we “offenders” were released. King was assassinated just three months later. In January 1968, we heard on the jail radio that Dr. Spock and six others were arrested for aiding and abetting draft resistance. It was a conspiracy not to kill.

mb16-Calmly1

Great veteran writers and National Book Award winners Tim O’Brien and Larry Heineman spent a day with us. One of America’s truly great short story writers and peace activist Grace Paley came for an afternoon. We also had a day with Vietnamese soldiers (the “enemy”). Le Minh Khue had spent her youth on the Ho Chi Minh (Song My) Trail. Her greatest fear on the Trail was of American pilots just hundreds of feet overhead, releasing napalm or fragmentational percussion bombs. She could almost see their faces and look into their eyes. Now they were face-to-face, pilot and foot soldier. They met, touched, and hugged.

We edited together. We brought copies of stories, lay them on a table, and gave and received criticism. It was scary and very moving. Grace Paley said, “Editing is taking out the lies!” This group was a great lie detector.

We did bookstore readings and a public radio show on Veteran’s Day. Some of us were men who had lived on the streets for years. At Black Oak Bookstore, Tom, blinking, twitching, and agitated bellowed out, “I useta get kicked outa Black Oak, now I’m reading here!” Maxine held steady through all this, month after month—encouraging, criticizing, and firmly prodding us. Now Maxine is taking a rest from group organizing to finish her own peace novel.

An anthology is in the works. Our task is to keep writing, to find the stories in this great flow of memory, and to bring them to the surface. There are many more stories to come.

mb16-Calmly3

Lee Swenson, a longtime peace activist and community organizer, lives in Berkeley, California.

PDF of this article

Poem: Discourse on True Contentment

By Sister Dang Nghiem

mb41-Discourse1

I heard these words of Thay one time when he was living in the vicinity of Escondido at the Deer Park Monastery in the Oak Grove. Late at night, a group of coyotes appeared, whose passionate howls made the whole Oak Grove tremble joyfully. After paying respects to Thay with the right front paw pointing in the direction of the moon, the elder coyote asked him a question in the form of a verse:

“People, animals, plants, and minerals are eager to know
what are the conditions
which bring about true contentment.
Please, Thay, will you teach us?”

(This is Thay’s answer:)

“To live in a Sangha,
to have brothers and sisters working in harmony,
to serve peoples of all nations ––
this is the true contentment.

“To have a chance to practice and transform,
to see yourself becoming more accepting and more solid,
to recognize that others also blossom ––
this is the true contentment.

“To be able to recognize and forgive,
to nurture gratitude to your blood family and spiritual family,
to express love through loving speech and deep listening ––
this is the true contentment.

“To have time to sit peacefully for your ancestors,
to touch the Earth tenderly with each step,
to eat in union with the whole cosmos ––
this is the true contentment.

“To create practice centers and hold regular retreats,
to turn gymnasiums and theatres into Dharma halls,
to bring the Dharma rain into ghettos and prisons ––
this is the true contentment.

“To witness police officers, business people, legislators,
scientists, and war veterans enjoying the Pure Land
with their mindful breaths and mindful steps ––
this is the true contentment.

“To provide a joyful environment for young people,
to help them reconnect with their families and society,
to show them that there is a beautiful path ––
this is the true contentment.

“To practice, work, study, and play together,
to realize the beauties and hardships of your brothers and sisters,
to cherish and protect them as your own marrow ––
this is the true contentment.

“To live a life simple and uncompetitive,
to come back to your breath as your soul food,
to rejoice in the music of the bell, wind songs, and laughter ––
this is the true contentment.

“To avoid speaking and reacting in anger,
not caught by your ideas and judgments,
and to be diligent in doing beginning anew ––
this is the true contentment.

“To savor the freedom in non-waiting,
to transform the grasping mind into that of true love,
to be a kind continuation of your spiritual ancestors ––
that is the true contentment.

“To see all life forms as your brothers and sisters,
to enjoy simply being together,
to actively build a beautiful past with your true presence ––
this is the true contentment.

“To rise in the morning with a smile,
to retire each night with peace, content to let go of all,
to know that you have loved and have been loved deeply ––
that is the true contentment.

“To live in the world
with your heart open to impermanence and change,
to progress stably on your true path, free of fear and worry ––
this is the true contentment.

“For he or she who accomplishes this,
arriving and at home wherever she goes,
always he is peaceful and happy ––
true contentment is in the moment one lives.”

Thay had finished the teaching. The coyotes were extremely delighted at what they had heard. At once, they stood up with posture erect and gave rise to another harmonious and joyful howl. The moon smiled contentedly from above, as she floated freely in the immense space.

Sister Dang Nghiem lives at Deer Park.

PDF of this article