Respect

September 1st, 2019

Karin and I have slept in some strange places. I am not saying that we have had unpleasant experiences. On the contrary, we almost always stayed with people who were kind and hospitable. It’s just that in our journeys we have often crashed somewhere new and different. We have grown used to this sort of thing, if it is possible to get used to the unexpected.

While we were participating in the land purification at Ground Zero, we stayed two nights at someone’s home on Poulsbo. On the first evening, we drove at the house with several of the Buddhist monks/nuns. Upon our arrival, the Buddhists pulled out their taikos (small, handheld drums) and began chanting “Na Mu Myo Ho Ren Ge Kyo” at the front door. It was a greeting and a blessing.

The owner of the house opened the door, and looked at us with horror. She said,

“Oh no, I told Senji ‘no drumming or chanting’. I don’t want to bother the neighbors.”

Wow. What the hell kind of neighborhood was this? Was there an ordinance against chanting? I didn’t see anything posted.

On the second night at the house, Karin and I were getting ready to sleep. Then I heard a loud voice outside of our room. It sounded to me like the person yelling. Somebody was clearly on a roll. I told Karin that I was going out to find out what was happening.

I walked into the living room to find all of the monks and nuns sitting in a circle. An old man was ranting and raving in front of them. The guy had a fringe of white hair around his very bald head, and he wore thick glasses. He spoke passionately and without pause. I caught him in the middle of his talk. He was telling the Buddhists about a conspiracy to kill Robert Kennedy, and he tied it in with other nefarious activities of dark political forces that lurk in the shadows.

I leaned against a wall. I thought to myself,

“This guy is fucking nuts, and these people are listening to him.”

I found out that this man was Jim Douglass, co-founder of the Ground Zero Center, and a prolific author. Jim was scheduled to be one of the keynote speakers at the land purification ceremony the next day. I could hardly wait.

Jim did indeed speak at the ceremony. He used his eight minutes at the microphone to good effect.

Jim talked about the arson at Ground Zero almost four decades ago. He explained how two Marines from the naval base next door came on to the Ground Zero property and torched a building. Prior to starting the fire, these two soldiers destroyed a statue of the Buddha and a crucifix. The remnants of the statue and the cross fused in the flames of the fire, and are now buried together under the base of the stupa.

Jim went on to say that these two Marines (who apparently were brothers), saw the crucifix and the Buddha as a danger to nuclear weapons housed inside the naval base. He said that it was their duty to protect the bombs on the base, and that they considered it their job to eliminate any possible threat to these weapons of mass destruction. I don’t know how Jim came to this conclusion. I think that he was just making an educated guess as to the motivations and intentions of these Marines. My own guess is that these two knuckleheads got good and drunk, and then decided to do something stupid and destructive. Both Jim and I could be right about this.

What struck me was that Jim showed a remarkable amount of sympathy toward these arsonists. He was really trying to understand their perspective, twisted as it may have been. He made the comment that it was essential to have “mutual respect on both sides of the fence”. Both the military personnel on the base and the Ground Zero folks had to respect each other. I admired what Jim was saying. I seldom hear people recognize the humanity of their opponents.

Jim is not nuts, and I listened to him.

 

 

The Shine of your Japan

August 30th, 2019

“Bodhisattva, would you take me by the hand
Bodhisattva, would you take me by the hand
Can you show me the shine of your Japan
The sparkle of your china, can you show me?”

from “Bodhisattva” from Steely Dan

Karin and I spent the day prior to the land purification helping the monks and nuns get things set up. Actually, most of the time, I just acted like I was helping. There was an excess of labor available at the Ground Zero site. Remembering back to my Army days, I made every effort to at least look busy. Sometimes, I failed to even do that.

When I went outside after breakfast, I found Toby, a monk from Massachusetts, on his hands and knees. He was scrubbing the pavement around the stupa with a wire brush. Why? I don’t know. The concrete looked good to me, but I guess it wasn’t clean enough for the ceremony. I asked Toby if he wanted help. He did, so I took over from him.

What is a stupa? Well, in this case, it is sort of a monument. In the center of the concrete pavement is a massive base made of large stones. On the top of the base is a tall granite slab. The slab has Japanese writing inscribed on opposite sides. The phrase “Na Mu Myo Ho Ren Ge Kyo” is written in gold paint. Buried under the stupa are the remnants of a crucifix and a statue of the Buddha. These fragments were fused together in a fire started on this property by two Marines from the neighboring naval base. The arson occurred thirty-seven years ago.

Kamoshita, a young monk from Okinawa, was standing on top of the base of the stupa. He was washing down the large, upright granite slab. The hunk of stone was taller than Kamoshita. He stood on a ledge and diligently cleaned the granite.

Several people were raking the dirt around the site of the soon-to-be-erected peace pagoda. The site was circular and looked like a moon crater. Inside of the crater were concentric rings etched in the soil. There was some steel rebar sticking up in the very center of the circle.

Other people were working on the altar. It had three levels, and those would eventually be covered with flowers, and food offerings, and a statue of the Buddha. Flags were being set up near the altar. Post holes were dug in order to set up artificial trees with paper flowers.

Karin was inside the Ground Zero building. She was there with Takashi and some other folks. They were polishing brass bowls and ornaments. Denise was placing vegetables into a bowl and trying to make it look something like a flower arrangement. Other food offerings were already set up. There were pyramids of oranges. Watermelons had somehow been made to stand upright. There numerous vases filled with flowers and ferns. Most everything was going to stay inside until the next morning, and then the altar would be decorated prior to the land purification ritual.

Udae and Ben were in the kitchen cooking. I steered clear of that. Udae was like a whirlwind, in constant motion. He knew exactly what he as doing, and he didn’t seem to need any extra assistance.

Work continued throughout the day. I’m not sure who was in charge. Maybe nobody was. It was hard for me to tell because often the people were speaking in Japanese. I felt kind of lost. I guess that was okay, because everything got done.

 

 

 

 

 

Judge Not

August 30th, 2019

“Do not judge, and you will not be judged. Do not condemn, and you will not be condemned. Forgive, and you will be forgiven.” – Luke 6:37                                                                                                                                                                                                                            

The night after the purification ceremony was confused and chaotic. Karin and I had thought that we might be able to sleep in the temple at Nipponzan Myohoji. Senji told us that was not to be the case. We were not going to sleep in the hondo, the sanctuary. I was a bit disappointed by that news. I really wanted to sleep at least one time in the temple. I often have nightmares, and I thought that maybe a night in the hondo would keep my demons at bay. I guess I will never know.

Instead, Senji told us that we would be sleeping in the house at Ground Zero. Actually, that was not at all a bad gig. There was a queen size bed in the attic, and that was just right for Karin and myself. We shared the attic room with Utsumi and Denise. Both Utsumi and Denise were Buddhists from the Atlanta temple, and they are currently  building a peace pagoda in the Smoky Mountains of Tennessee. Utsumi has a rough voice, reminiscent of Marlon Brando in “The Godfather”. He seems to be ready for anything. Denise is a gentle and sensitive woman, a good listener. We were all settling down to sleep when we heard voices from the floor below us.

Two visitors had arrived. I knew nothing about them except for the fact that they were loud. Ben, who apparently is the unofficial ambassador for Ground Zero, welcomed them into the house. I couldn’t sleep, so I went down to see who the newcomers were.

Ben was in the kitchen, cleaning up dishes. One of the visitors was with him. I greeted the stranger. The person wore Buddy Holly glasses and a Michael Jackson perm.

The person’s first words were, “Hi. I’m León. I’m trans. Do you know what that is?”

I replied, “I’ve heard about it.”

I was tired and not on top of my game. The visitor had a Latin accent, but I couldn’t place it. I tried to make conversation, but I didn’t get very far.

The other visitor came into the kitchen. I’m pretty sure that she was from New York. This woman was not shy at all. Somehow, she knew Senji and Jun Sen and some of the other Buddhists. She was more than willing to provide us with her trendy, progressive credentials. I mentioned to her that I had been with the Indians on the Longest Walk last year. She made it clear that she had deep connections with indigenous peoples. I was using the wrong words to describe the Native Americans, apparently.

Ben asked me a question,

“Frank, your son told you that this might be a good time for you to try weed. You want to smoke some?”

Note: I have never tried marijuana. I don’t know why. It just hasn’t happened.

Before I could answer Ben, the New Yorker blurted out,

“I don’t smoke anything!”

Good to know.

I told Ben that I wasn’t interested in weed right at that moment. However, I would be willing to sample a glass of red wine. Ben was good with that.

I tried to resume the conversation with the New Yorker. I told her,

“I’m former military.”

Bad move. Very bad move.

She gave me a hard stare and said,

“Well, thank you. And I am sorry (for you).”

I replied, “I’m sorry too.”

She got onto her soap box.

“I am opposed to ALL types of violence!”

“And you think that I’m not?”

The woman paused momentarily, and said, “I don’t know you. I can’t judge.”

I said dryly, “You’re right. You don’t know me.”

The conversation aborted then and there.

Ben and I drank some red wine, and then I went back to the attic.

Karin and I settled into bed, and Ben came upstairs to talk. He noticed our situation and said,

“Oh, I’m sorry. I’ll come back some other time. Sorry.”

Last year, I spent some time with a Cherokee warrior who held court in his bedroom (with his girlfriend beside him). The guy had a bad back, and had to lie down frequently. Karin had met both of them (in their bedroom). It seemed like it was our turn to hold court.

I told Ben, “Hey, come on in.”

He said sheepishly, “I wasn’t sure if you all were decent.”

I replied, “Even if we were naked, we would still be decent.”

He grimaced, “Now I have an image in my head of you being naked.”

“Sorry, man.”

Ben went on, “That thing downstairs…I’m sorry about that.”

“I made a bad first impression.”

Ben said, “Well, the woman basically told you that you had joined the military because you liked to kill people.”

“You think?”

Ben replied, “That’s what I heard. She pushed one of your buttons, and I think she was surprised when you pushed one of hers.”

“Yeah, I think so too.”

Ben left Karin and me. I laid in bed and thought.

The woman had said that she could not judge me, but she had been doing that ever since the moment she first laid eyes on me. The truth is that I had been doing the same thing. I was judging her, and I am still doing that.

Everybody on the group, including the two newcomers, went to the Olympic National Park the next morning. The New Yorker lent Karin her scarf when Karin was cold on Hurricane Ridge. That woman is a good person. I know that. However…

we will never connect.

I don’t know why. It just is. Shitty karma. Stupidity on my part. Whatever.

It’s a shame, and I feel bad about it.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A Jewelry Bag

August 30th, 2019

We were almost home. The train had just stopped in Columbus, and we seemed to have no concerns. We had our bags packed, and it was only an hour to Milwaukee.

Karin looked into her handbag, and became agitated. She said,

“I can’t find my jewelry bag!”

I rolled my eyes. Karin often cannot find her things. We blame it on ADD, which seems to be the flip side of creativity. Karin is endlessly inventive, and she can never locate her car keys. It is not unusual for her to lose something. Fortunately, it has (so far) never been anything really important.

I waited for a moment until Karin had searched our entire sleeper room. Then I asked her,

“Did you forget it in the shower this morning?”

She immediately replied, “No! I had it here when we went to breakfast.”

We sat across from each other for several minutes, as the train roared through the corn country.

I asked, “What does the bag look like?”

Karin answered, “It’s just a little bag, like a purse with a clasp. It’s colorful.”

I asked her, “Do you want to ask the attendant to look for it for you? We could ask Donald to check around for it.”

Karin shrugged.

Then she said, “There isn’t anything really valuable in the bag. It just had some earrings that you bought for me. That, and a ring from Oma (Karin’s mom). And a bracelet.”

Karin tried to keep a brave face, but she failed to do so. I had bought the earrings in Arlington, Virginia, at an immigration conference. The earrings were from Guatemala. Karin was right. Nothing in that bag was valuable in a monetary way, but everything meant something to her. Everything was somehow irreplaceable.

Neither of us spoke. We just looked out the window.

The train pulled into the station at Milwaukee. We grabbed our belongings and found our Lyft ride.

We never talked about the little bag.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Stories

August 29th, 2019

“Don’t give me answers or I would refuse
‘Yes’ is a word for which I have no use
And I wasn’t looking for Heaven or Hell
Just someone to listen to stories I tell”

from “Stories I Tell” by Toad the Wet Sprocket (a really good song, by the way)

I tell stories. I’m good at that. It is curious to me that, as I tell stories, the emotional impact for me diminishes. I read once that we initially remember actual events, but later we only remember the narratives that we have created around those events. I think that is true. Often the actual events are too traumatic or confusing to describe. So, we make up a story, something that makes a bit of sense, to explain what happened. The story may or may not have anything to do with an objective reality. However, the story is the only reality that we can tolerate.

It was the morning after the land purification ceremony. I was just hanging around the Ground Zero house, waiting for breakfast to begin. I sat next to Sawada, a Japanese monk who currently runs the temple in Los Angeles. We hadn’t really spoken before, so we haltingly tried to get to know each other.

We sat, and we talked about languages for a while. I told Sawada that I had learned Arabic in the Army. Then I told him about how our son, Hans, had gone to Iraq to fight. Sawada nodded, and said,

“Yes, I read your letter about ‘Memorial Day’. It was very good.”

Then he placed his hands together and made gassho.

I talked about Hans and the war. I started telling Sawada the old story about what had happened to Hans. It was like a recitation for me. I was telling the monk a story that I had told many people many times in the past.

Then he put his hand on my knee.

That move was the emotional equivalent of getting stuck with a cattle prod.

My mind shifted abruptly. I was no longer telling Sawada a story. I was back in the story. I was back in a small room, talking with Hans on the phone. I went back ten years ago, listening to Hans tell me things that I never wanted to hear. In a way, I was no longer with Sawada.

I lost track of my words. I shook my head and told Sawada,

“Uh, well, then I asked Hans if he had shot a man in Iraq…”

Sawada looked at me intently, and nodded for me to continue.

I bit my upper lip, and then I said,

“Hans said ‘Yes’, and then it was quiet.”

My eyes misted. I told Sawada,

“I asked Hans if the man died.”

Sawada stroked my shoulder with his hand.

Then I said, “Hans told me, ‘Yeah, I guess so. I pumped thirty rounds into him.’ He said that so calmly.”

My chest heaved. Fuck, that hurt. Goddammit.

Sawada nodded again.

I got up. I needed to get away.

Sawada stood up with me.

He hugged me. He hugged me like he would never let me go.

I cried.

Eventually, we came apart. He smiled at me and said,

“Thank you so much for your words.”

He bowed and made gassho.

I went outside to pray.

 

 

 

 

Blackberries and Atom Bombs

August 29th, 2019

The land surrounding Puget Sound is remarkably vibrant and beautiful. Even now, in the dry season, almost everything is still lush and green. Last week, Karin and I were on a small piece of property owned by Ground Zero near Poulsbo, Washington. This lot, like most of the land around it, is mostly covered with towering Douglas firs and cedars. The underbrush consists of ferns, rhododendrons, and blackberry bushes. There are lots of blackberry bushes.

The blackberry bushes would probably be considered an invasive species, if they were anywhere else. The bushes have thorny canes that reach out to cover almost all objects blocking their  way. Fresh shoots from the bushes find new paths wherever and however they can. If left unchecked, blackberries can take over everything, and it seems that they often do. The saving grace of these bushes, at least in August, is that the berries are ripe and sweet and always within reach. It required literally no effort for me to feast on the blackberries.

Karin and I were staying at Ground Zero in order to help with the land purification ceremony that the Japanese Buddhists (Nichiren order) were preparing. The ritual was to be performed in anticipation of the construction of a peace pagoda on that spot. The people affiliated with Ground Zero are adamantly opposed to the possession and use of nuclear weapons. Ground Zero’s property is adjacent to the U.S. Navy nuclear submarine base at Bangor, Washington. Ground Zero and the Navy are uneasy neighbors. It’s more than a bit ironic. The Buddhists had attempted to build a peace pagoda right next to the naval base almost thirty-seven years ago. Their efforts were interrupted when two Marines from the base burned the original structure to the ground. It is only now that the monks and nuns are ready to resume their work.

I had some free time while I was hanging out with the Japanese monks and nuns. I used some of that time to go for long walks. Ground Zero is on the Clear Water Creek Road. After going along that road in one direction, I walked onto an overpass that was very close to the entrance of the naval base. Clear Creek Road rose high above the street that led to the military base. From the bridge, I watched the cars go into the base, and the cars that left from it. It all seemed so mundane, so ordinary. I just stood and watched, and watched.

I was in West Germany during the Cold War. I was an American soldier there. Every day I woke up wondering if we would go to war with the Russians. We didn’t, but that thought was always in my mind. Always. I was always conscious of the fact the end of the world was nigh. Now, people don’t think about a nuclear holocaust. I don’t understand why that is. The end of the Cold War did not solve the problem of nuclear weapons. We simply chose to ignore the problem. The nukes are all still there. Waiting.

As I stood on the bridge, I had time to think. I thought about the fact that a number of Trident submarines are stationed at the Bangor base, and that each of these subs carries ballistic missiles with multiple nuclear warheads. Each of these submarines has the power to destroy millions of people, almost instantaneously. I also considered the fact that Bangor is certainly a target for any enemy of the United States. This facility, along with anything within hundreds of miles of it, would be obliterated in a war. This lush, fertile land would become like Sodom and Gomorrah. All that I could see and hear and feel would be gone in a flash.

I saw blackberry canes coming through the cracks in the concrete at the side of the overpass. They found paths through even the tiniest spaces. There were some ripe blackberries available to be picked.

I reached for a berry and pricked my hand on a thorn. It hurt. I swore to myself and pulled my hand away. I ate the berry, and then I looked at my hand. My fingers and thumb were stained with the juice of the fruit, and there was also a bit of blood mixed in with it. I wiped my hand on a concrete slab.

I turned to look again at the gate to the naval base. I couldn’t understand. I can’t wrap my head around Armageddon. It’s just too hard. I can’t imagine everything dying.

Even the blackberries.

 

Living Dangerously

August 17th, 2019

“But beware and watch yourself very well, lest you forget the things that your eyes saw, and lest these things depart from your heart, all the days of your life, and you shall make them known to your children and to your children’s children.” – the words of Moses, from the Book of Deuteronomy

“Live dangerously and you live right.” – Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

Rabbi Dinin gave a quick sermon just prior to the Torah reading. I didn’t stay for the actual reading. I probably should have. It was the Parashat Va’etchanan, and, like all the parts of the Torah, it has several layers of meaning. The rabbi spoke briefly about the need for every person to “watch yourself”. As I understood it, he meant that, in order to remember and follow the commandments of God, each individual has to care for his or her own physical body, and refrain from doing dangerous things. Caring for one’s own body is an act of gratitude toward God.

That all seems very reasonable, but…what does it really entail?

Let me say upfront that that the rabbi’s sermons make me think. Sermons should do that. Sadly, I cannot remember most of the sermons that I have heard during the course of my life. Preaching can cause amnesia in the listener. It is not unusual for me to forget everything I heard in church, once I leave the parking lot. However, this rabbi keeps me interested even after I walk out of the synagogue. That is remarkable.

It is hard to argue that caring for one’s own body is a bad thing. Hell, Karin tells me to put on a scarf when it’s cold outside. There are plenty of exercise and health gurus to tell us that smoking, drinking, doping, and all the other usual vices are bad for us. However, we keep doing those things. Well, I keep doing some of these things. Other people have greater willpower and fortitude than I do. I have made peace with several of my bad habits, and I don’t expect to abandon them any time soon.

Then there is the subject of living dangerously. I have great respect for those people who live on the edge. I admire the ones who can befriend danger.

“I want to stand as close to the edge as I can without going over. Out on the edge you see all the kinds of things you can’t see from the center.” – Kurt Vonnegut

Do I ever live on the edge? Yes, at times. I certainly lived on the edge when I was a helicopter pilot in the U.S. Army. For five years I did things that were objectively crazy. I distinctly remember moments of raw terror. Do I regret having had these experiences? No, not at all. Those were the times when I felt completely alive.

Now, I look at our kids. They are all fearless, and occasionally reckless.

Hans joined the Army, and he went to fight in Iraq in 2011. He got shot twice, and he killed people. When he came back from the war, he started skydiving to get the necessary Adrenalin rush. He bought himself a Kawasaki crotch rocket, and cranked it up to 150 mph on the Texas Motor Speedway. He really likes guns. He has been with motorcycle gangs. He has worked in the oil fields, and now he pumps concrete for a living. Enough said. 

Our daughter has done many brave things. She has also done things that were perhaps unwise. Enough said.

Stefan is an Iron Worker. By definition, he lives dangerously. Stefan sends us videos of himself, walking on steel beams that are several stories above the ground. He was once suspended in a cage from a crane, about 24 stories above downtown Milwaukee to do some work on a building project. In his free time he rides a motorcycle. Enough said.

There is a fine line between courage and stupidity. Some of us cross that line a bit too often.

The paradox is that we need to care for ourselves, and we also need to push ourselves to find our limits. We can’t always play it safe. I know people who have played it safe for their entire lives. In the end, they will be just as dead as I will be. The only difference is that I have stories to tell, and they don’t.

How do we serve God best? Each person’s journey is different. Some people, like Thérèse of Lisieux, lived lives of quiet contemplation, and they have inspired millions to emulate them. Others, like Gandhi or Martin Luther King Jr, had wild adventures, and they likewise inspire many people.

I guess the point is for each person to find his or her unique path to the Divine. You have to “watch yourself”. So do I.