Return from the Sacred

Sometimes during life the door to the Spirit World opens up and people experience revelations, epiphanies, visions and other spiritual phenomena. In the sixties psychedelic drugs were sometimes a medium for opening the “doors of perception”. Unfortunately those glimpses were fleeting and the doors often slammed shut again.
For thousands of years human beings have practiced ceremonies as a means of achieving Holy Communion, healing, dialogue with ancestors and deities and openness to experiencing the flow of divine energy. One of the dilemmas of any peak spiritual experience may be the awakening of traumatic or other disturbing material from the deep psyche. Emotional imprints recorded at an early age can be activated in such a way that the participant in ceremonial or other intensive spiritual practice begins to act out dramas from an earlier stage of life.
Return to the everyday world can be quite difficult for a person in the throes of such activation, as if a more primitive (developmentally earlier) sub-personality wants to run the personal show and get unfulfilled needs gratified. Some of the most powerful sub-personalities orient from the 2-3 year old stage of life. One way I refer to this phenomenon is as the abandoned two or three year old.
Sacred space is so beautiful, ecstatic and fulfilling that the desire to not let it go is totally understandable. At least temporarily spiritual experiences can fill all of our empty places inside. At its best ceremony is an experience of total immersion in the flow of Holy Spirit or God Energy. All desires are fulfilled. All troubles are soothed. Life is in perfect balance.
Then the ceremony ends, and we find ourselves dealing again with the conditions of our lives, and our awareness of what’s problematic or just not working may be acutely magnified. The clarity, purity and perceived perfection of ceremonial experience may serve to aggravate or intensify one’s feeling perception of past trauma and current imperfections. Thus arises the sometime dilemma of returning to the everyday world after the intensity, bliss, balance an/or sense of perfection experienced in ceremony. How does one carry the ceremonial experience, not lose it or allow it to slip into unconsciousness and also without being so caught up in the spiritual immersion of ceremony that one’s behavior is markedly out of sync with the everyday world?
There is no single definitive answer to this question, but it is the right question with regard to trying to maintain some balance. In some circumstances it may be totally appropriate to turn one’s life upside down. In another case it might be best to try to just sit contemplatively with all of the thoughts, feelings and experiences and petition Higher Power (in some form) for guidance.
Myths and folk tales are full of stories about the Return of the Hero. Sometimes s/he sinks into forgetfulness. Sometimes s/he is betrayed by those previously judged to be close friends or relatives. Sometimes the gifts from the Spirit World are misunderstood by loved ones and discarded or disregarded. Sometimes s/he simply collapses under the complex pressures of life in what feels like an unreal world. And sometimes s/he is able somehow to hold an appropriate balance “rendering unto Caesar what is Caesar’s and unto God what is God’s.” Guidance is good, and s/he steers a course between rocks and waves and reaches the other shore having lost very little of the gifts of Spirit s/he carries. Sometimes s/he has to bargain and compromise and prioritize in order to save that one thing or those few things that are really really important.
The Return is often the most dangerous and difficult time of the journey, which seems strange given the ordeals of some ceremonies. The Return can give a person the feeling of being caught between the two worlds, the Sacred and the profane, not being solidly connected with either one. Realities that seemed self-evident within the Sacred Circle are now uncertain. The realities experienced in Sacred Ceremony don’t translate directly into a world that feels out of focus, out of balance and out of sync. The fact of living in a society that doesn’t generally accept or even recognize the realities of the Sacred further complicates the dichotomy. There is a cognitive and emotional dissonance in trying to follow the guidelines of the Sacred in the profane world. The teachers of the Sacred may not be helpful with the struggles of memory, background and childhood trauma. I know people who were sent home from ashrams because the psychological crises that arose for them were beyond the abilities of the ashram staff to deal with.
So what’s the Hero to do, having returned home with a new vision of Self, when s/he gets treated like the same of person who existed pre-ceremony? What does she do with the healing, learning, Medicine Power and new visions of Self.? For each person there are possible approaches which may be helpful. The key questions to be asked over and over again are, “How do I live my vision as best I can in my everyday world?” and, “What changes do I absolutely have to make?” and, “What can I do on a daily basis to support and nurture my new sense of Self?”
My own answers inevitably point to meditation, prayer and the practice of simple, meaningful personal ceremonies that re-create and sustain connection with the Sacred. Whenever possible social interaction with others who have some understanding and harmony with the ceremonial and visionary process can be very helpful. Keep telling your story to yourself and to sympathetic others. During the process of integration the story evolves and adapts to inner and outer environment. It is still the flow of yin and yang into and out of each other. It is still the flow of the four directions into and out of each other. How can the Sacred co-exist with the profane? How do personal psychology and social interaction work harmoniously with newly awakened spiritual truths? For ceremony and vision to have validity we have to find how to make our spiritual gifts work for us in our everyday lives. Keep asking for further guidance with regard to how to accomplish this spiritual activation within the everyday world. We are only limited by our inability to overcome the impediments of our personal psychological makeup and lack of skill at dealing with the barriers presented by our external environments. The great ones in the modern world (Gandhi, Mandela, King, St. Teresa of Cabora, et. al.) figured it out. Each of us in our own realms can figure it out too.

All of this discussion of the Return brings me around to my personal and immediate dilemma and the interface between the spiritual and psychological. While guiding my last quest in Ukraine, I had an experience which felt like total immersion in spiritual/divine love. This experience was progressively intense over several days and culminated in sharing an all-night vigil with a young Ukrainian woman. We had previously talked at length about our intentions, boundaries and guidelines. We agreed that we were not seeking a physical/sexual or romantic relationship with each other. We did recognize an amazing amount of energy flow between us. We decided to explore within our agreed-upon principles and parameters. We both recognized the potential for this energy to go in sexual or romantic directions. At one level, energy is just energy. We had decided to explore in the context of Sacred Space our own ability to experience a kind of spiritual love and sustain that expression without dropping our focus to some other manifestation of the energy.
We seemed to implicitly and mutually know exactly where the boundaries of physical contact were. In a sense they were exactly where they would be with a dear family member of the opposite sex–father-daughter, brother-sister, or mother-son. When there was doubt about whether a particular physical contact was within the parameters, we would talk about it. By holding ourselves within these agreed-upon limits, we were able to create and sustain an intense and immense experience of communion, well beyond anything I had previously experienced. It was not an in-love experience, which I have previously experienced with a great deal of intensity. There was a third presence in the tipi with us, a spiritual presence which suffused this Sacred Space we had defined. It was love, but the kind of love that Jesus/Morning Star/Quetzalcoatl represents, manifests and teahces. Was there sometimes temptation to move this energy to more familiar ground of sexual or romantic expressions. Of course there was. But both of us exerted a degree of discipline to stay on the Spiritual Path, in large part because the rewards of staying on this spiritual plane were so satisfying that the temptation to relate in any other way decreased over time. As one spiritual teacher said, “Why play in a puddle, when you can swim in the ocean?”
So where’s the dilemma? My best understanding at this point is that this immense experience of Communion stimulated very old material from deep in my psyche. When the questers returned from their solo time, this young woman, who was my translator, and I had to go to work. There were threshold ceremonies to welcome the questers back to the community and then there were their stories to be heard, translated and mirrored. She and I were still in communion as we worked, but there was little if any time to talk with each other, to integrate the experiences we had shared. When I was finally out of her presence, I was shocked to find myself feeling very young and panicky. I felt like an abandoned three year old, desperate to find my mommy. I went from the most fulfilling spiritual and multi-level experience of my life to feeling bereft and all alone and very, very young. Sitting under the stars, breathing, praying, smoking tobacco, and repeating certain phrases such as “Let go, let God!” finally calmed me down enough to sleep restfully that first night.
In my inner work I had previously identified a chronic and recurrent feeling of deep loneliness underneath the depression that I had experienced in my life. At a mindfulness conference one of the presenters had talked about this deep loneliness as a part of the human condition that Buddha referred to as “suffering” in the Four Noble Truths. Our suffering is primarily separation anxiety resulting from loss of connection with primary loved ones, something that virtually everyone who is not indigenous experiences to some degree. The exceptions may be cultures who practice some form of community-wide ceremonial communion on a regular basis, so that the sense of interconnectedness between the people and between the people and Spirit is never really lost. This experience of the abandoned three year old felt even deeper and more primal than these Buddhist teachings. It was more than yearning for something lost; it was panic, and I don’t have panic attacks. So the most profound and total immersion spiritual experience of my life led to an equally profound re-experiencing of early childhood emotional trauma. I had experienced having it all, everything that humans yearn for, a deeply satisfying experience of loving and being loved by another human being and both of us being loved by this sublime Spiritual Energy, for a time completing a circle of light and love. It was the Garden of Eden before the Fall. It was the original Spirit-Being-Humans before fear and greed began the downward spiral out of paradise. It was life in complete harmony with Spirit, Nature, and Inner Voice. It was flying with the angels. It was connection with ancient ancestors who were still living by the Original Instructions. Separation anxiety had not been invented. Deep interconnectedness was a primary fact of existence.
From ancient spiritual bliss and beauty to modern jagged and ragged material existence, but for the most part the group ceremonies sustained us for the ensuing three days even though there was only a little time for personal communion. Then came the day of separation, and our journeys continued without any physical presence, touch, encouragement, support or personal understanding. With pledges such as, “I carry you in my heart,” and “What we have experienced together lives in me forever”, we parted company to walk our individual paths. Since that time my roller-coaster ride continues to pass through lovely landscapes of Spiritual Love and Oneness, but also desperate wastelands of abandonment, loneliness, and disconnection. The Spiritual Self and the Psychological Self are dancing some hybrid of hip-hop and slow-motion martial arts. The intensity diminishes only slightly over time.
Am I grateful for what happened? Absolutely! We were given a gift of Holy Communion that I had yearned for, but had little sense of what it was like or how to get there. And I was given some clues about my ongoing psychological healing that went deeper than anything previously experienced. The psychological work continues. And the spiritual work continues. My studies and participation in ceremony with indigenous teachers have given me clues about how human beings have sustained a sense of communion and interconnectedness during the whole span of human history. Teachings I had previously only grasped with my mind begin to have analogues in my soul. My understanding that Jesus/Morning Star/Quetzalcoatl is more than anything a sublime Spiritual Energy now has an experiential base. May all beings be liberated! May all beings walk in Beauty!

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Spiritual Love–An Essential Component of Community

In July of 1995 I went through a training program with the School of Lost Borders to become a Vision Quest guide. The essence of this spiritual quest is to spend four days and nights alone in the wilderness fasting and praying for healing and vision. On the fourth night questers are directed to remain awake for the entire night to the best of their ability. This portion of the quest is called the All-Night Vigil.

I sat facing east in the cold high desert air of the Inyo Mountains. Sometime after midnight the crescent moon came over the horizon and held within Luna’s smiling mouth was the Morning Star, the planet Venus. I was immediately suffused with an energy divine, wonderful and pleasurable. The colors radiating from this heavenly body had an ethereal, suffused-with-gentle-light quality which seemed to flow through my body and being, awaking awarenesses and feelings in me I had previously only suspected might exist. The existence of divinity in some form was self-evident. As this tandem of moon and planet rose in the eastern sky, I bathed in the purifying and enlightening energy radiating to me and through me. For hours I sat in this sweet altered state, feeling loved, taking in a subtle but profound visual beauty, feeling blessed, contemplating meanings at many levels of understanding, and permeated by a sense of awe and wonder that such an awakening could be provided simply by sitting in the presence of heavenly bodies with openness, willingness and trust.

There are many stories from many tribes all over the Americas of a traveling man who passed through their land and stayed awhile before moving on again. He was a great teacher often pictured as pale-skinned, bearded, and wearing a long robe and sandals. In each place the people would ask him his name. His reply was, “What would you like to call me in your language?” Often the name given to him was “Morning Star” or “Dawn Star”. The people seemed to recognize an energy radiating from him similar to the energy of this heavenly body. This teacher carried a simple message of peace and love.  Most importantly the people felt loved by him with a love that had no strings attached. They were loved in the way children are loved by the best parents or grandparents. They were loved unconditionally with only the expectation that they would do their best to love each other in the same way.

If we seek to experience and practice Spiritual Love, the Great Ones who have gone before have shown us the Way many times and in many places. This energy of Spiritual Love has been carried, demonstrated and given by Spirit Beings who have come to teach the people of Mother Earth. The message is essentially the same each time, sometimes with some extra embellishments or practices to help us awaken and maintain this experience and practice of peace and love. This love is without possessiveness or expectation of personal gain. One does not love in order to get something back. Of course it’s beautiful and wonderful when love is returned. The energy builds and becomes stronger and more resilient.

If there is self-centeredness in Spiritual Love, it is simply a form of enlightened self-interest. If one is truly able to sustain an attitude of Spiritual Love, the rewards include everything that human beings ordinarily seek: pleasure, fulfillment, warmth, support, community/communion, etc. In other words Spiritual Love can be the greatest feel-good possible for human beings. Why aim for anything less when the rewards are less and don’t last as long? This bears some examination.

Sexual love can be very pleasurable. I come from the generation that marched behind the banner of sex, drugs, and rock and roll. We had some great highs and some awful lows. Sexual love sustained by nothing else is ephemeral and as likely to lead to long-term suffering as long-term pleasure. Romantic love can be very fulfilling. The sense that he or she is the one and all the wonderful emotions that arise around that perception of the special one. Falling in love is very pleasurable, but the pink cloud of romantic lovers seems to last about six months. Reality begins to erode the idealization that has initially occurred. Romantic love sustained by nothing else begins to lose its luster within six months to a year. Then what? Often a person will turn to the next willing participant in the drama of falling in love to ride the roller-coaster of romantic love one more time, eventually wondering why it never really works out or lives up to the expectations about it.

There is a love between soul-mates, a sense of understanding and being understood, speaking the same language, implicitly getting the essence of the other person without explanation. This soulful love can be very beautiful and long-lasting. Without a strong spiritual foundation this love of best friends (same-sex or different) can have hard times and even a falling out over some real or imagined betrayal. If the expectation that one’s confidant is supposed to always and forever understand in just the right way, there will be disappointments, hurt feelings, and perhaps rejection. No one is anyone else’s absolutely perfect mirror. We can be very good but not perfect.

What is this Spiritual Love that may serve as the foundation to hold and contain these other forms of love? What is so powerful about Spiritual Love, that I would say it is sustainable and much less likely to create some kind of negative backlash? Hopefully trying to define it will not take away from it in some way. It is recognizable as an experience that many human beings can reference in some way. It includes being guided by the personhood and teachings of the Great Ones–Jesus/Morning Star/Quetzalcoatl, Buddha, Lao-Tzu, White Buffalo Calf Woman and others. It includes experiences of ceremonial/holy communion with a community of fellow practitioners. To practice Spiritual Love is to expect nothing in return, but also to be pleased and grateful when blessings return to one’s heart. We are touched in a deeply fulfilling way by the act of loving. We are also touched by being loved in this purer, less self-seeking way.

To sustain a practice of Spiritual Love usually requires a self-purifying/self-beautifying  practice of some kind.

Meditation, prayer and ceremony all help us to refocus or realign our energies with the Higher Self which resides within, the Atman, that part of each of us which is aligned with Spirit and has the ability to walk a clear Spiritual Path. There may be a razor’s edge feeling like riding the highest wave on the north shore of Oahu. It’s great, but if you fall, it’s really going to hurt. So how not to fall? Daily practice of reconnection or maintenance of connection with the Highest that we can conceive inside or outside of our Selves provides the best safety net for spiritual surfing. When the Bushmen of Southern Africa dance and move and shake and sing and vocalize, they say simply that they are doing this to open themselves for the energy of God to flow through them. Since they are the trunk of our human DNA tree, I think of them also as the trunk of our Spiritual Tree, simplest methods to facilitate an ongoing spiritual communion.

A simple form of meditation practiced regularly serves to build the Spiritual Center within, so that it is progressively stronger and other influences, such as the conditions of one’s life, are by comparison weaker. It is a practice of clarity and peace, making steady progress over time. It seems strange that a very simple act performed repetitively over time could have such a profound impact. To focus on your own breathing or the sounds in the environment, letting all other thoughts, feelings and sensations be noticed but pass by–this practice is calming to the entire psycho-physical system and occasionally revelatory.

We know from medical research that prayer like meditation has positive physical and psychological effects, which are easier to describe and quantify than the spiritual effects, which tend to be more personal and vary from person to person. Prayer is generally addressed to something a person considers higher or greater than oneself. We can pour into prayer all of our best aspirations, hopes and wishes for ourselves and others, and gratitude for that which we have received.

White Buffalo Calf Woman brought the gift of the Sacred Pipe to the people of the Plains. She initially met two hunters. The first immediately desired this beautiful woman physically and sexually. The second suspected she might be sacred. The first young man acted on his desires and in a few minutes was allowed live an entire lifetime, not a bad life but one limited by the focus of his desires. He did not receive the gifts of Spirit, because he single-mindedly focused on satisfying his physical desires.

This Sacred Woman/Spiritual Teacher taught the people the ceremony of the Sacred Pipe. This ceremony facilitated peace among at least ten tribes soon after her visit. She emphasized that in all our actions we must first look to Spirit, and then proceed if the intended action feels harmonious with Spirit. She taught, “Those, like the young man whose bones now lie beneath the prairie moonlight, who think first of the sexual expression of this fire and only second, if they think at all, of the spirit behind it, lock themselves into cycles of suffering and illusion–cycles unknown among our people a few short centuries ago, but which now are debilitating your nation, weakening your vitality and draining away your power.”

A similar analysis can be made with regard to Spiritual Love in relationship to the use of power and the formation and maintenance of community. In the forming of modern South Africa Nelson Mandela faced many temptations to use newfound power in the wrong way. It seems that in each instance he chose the path of Spiritual Love. In evolving the concepts of forgiveness and reconciliation, he gave everyone a chance to begin a process of “loving their enemies”. As a true elder, he could acknowledge the desire to use power in less than spiritual ways, but his Medicine Power continually guided his actions to embrace everyone as the Father/Grandfather of His Country.

So spiritual love does not deny other expressions of love nor power nor attempt to suppress them. There is a single admonition, “Look first to Spirit.” Ask for guidance and let Spirit help you to seek and reach for and experience the highest and most fulfilling expressions of our bio-psychological human being-ness.

 

 

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Daddy, What’s a Flower Child?

 

As someone who came of age in the sixties, I’ve felt compelled to define and redefine the importance of an era that was unique in American history. Flowers in their Hair is my most comprehensive retelling of the story of that decade of upheaval during which there was a wholesale rejection of the values of mainstream society by the younger generation and their allies. One of the epithets applied to the youth was Flower Child.  I have taken on that representation as a serious core symbol and attempted to define its multiple levels of meaning.

The sixties represented a break with everything that had preceded that decade in American history. For the first time there was massive resistance and protest to the very idea of having a war. It so happened that the Vietnam War lacked justification and stood out as particularly unjust. There was also a huge shift in consciousness fueled by the advent of psychedelic drugs.

LSD opened up the possibilities of perceptions and beliefs not directly based on individual psychology/experience or cultural programming. Something manifested in the psychedelicized brain that could only best be described as spiritual vision. This spiritual vision arrived with a visual and emotional intensity that at least temporarily shouted out all previous and more limited programs. The numinous, intricate and interconnected beauty of nature was self-evident. The wisdom of the great teachers was self-evident. Jesus, Buddha, Lao-Tse, Gandhi and Quetzalcoatl became friends and compatriots in a struggle to manifest on earth a higher truth and stick with that truth in spite of all threats and temptations. “Love is all you need.” Okay, we’ll act that out as dramatically and graphically as we possibly can because the opposite message is being fiercely thrown in our faces on a regular basis. But more importantly, we’ve seen the light.
The path is a path out of pain, violence, brutality and hateful actions of all kinds. Perhaps an earthly existence could be brought about that would be based on peace, joy and love.
There was an evangelical fervor to the desire to proliferate this new understanding that we’d stumbled upon, that felt like it had to be a gift with some higher purpose and intention behind it, like it was now our responsibility to somehow manifest this vision of a better way of being. “Come now, people, smile on your brother…you gotta love one another right now.”
The symbol of the flower and the Flower Child emerged, don’t even remember when or where or how. What a great representation of both beauty and non-injury, the principle that Gandhi taught, the principle that the Yaqui St. Teresa of Cabora expressed simply as, “Don’t hurt anyone.” Something had inspired us or possessed us that we could take the abuse and not even have the impulse to retaliate. It was easy to discover this state of consciousness, much harder to hold onto it with a strength that enabled one to act accordingly day by day, moment by moment.
If a person could do that s/he was by the standards of conventional psychology, a bit deviant. Yet once a person had seen the vision of how beautiful life could be and then tried to live within the conventions of mainstream society, that person would often be driven crazy by the contradictory dichotomy of spiritual vision vs. the demands of a militarized society. Put simply, “LIve your vision or suffer rather extreme negative consequences within your own psyche and in the outer world.”
We had been given something to carry, something that felt no less important than the ark of the covenant. We could carry that essence, knowing and feeling ourselves sustained by Spirit and go wherever that led us. Or we could turn our backs on the vision and suffer from alienation and the depression of knowing at some level we had chickened our, sold out, and gone over to the dark side. And the dark side was so dark. The images of death and dismemberment graced nightly TV. The growing knowledge that our country was fighting a people who only wanted their independence,a people that were being killed and herded into concentration camps and burned with napalm by our government–this increasingly fleshed out knowledge haunted us all.
What could we do? There had to be a a better way. We could practice civil disobedience, placing flowers in the barrels of the national guardsmen’s rifles. We could try to create a better, less exploitative, simpler, more earth-friendly way to live by starting country communes and inventing less destructive technologies. We could work for social justice and the liberation of all oppressed and downtrodden peoples We could. . . well, the answers were many and various based on people’s personal visions, but each answer came from basically the same question, “Given what I have seen, and experienced and understood, what am I supposed to be doing now to make the world a better place for myself and for all my relations, and for Mother Earth herself and for all life?”
Someone who continues to ask and try to answer that question–that must be what a Flower Child is.

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The Love Generation–Love and Fear

Most of us who spent our formative years in the sixties are probably still trying to figure out what it was all about. One reason I wrote my novel was another attempt to answer that question. There are no final answers. There are a bunch of answers which are convoluted and wound around each other like a classical yin-yang symbol. So I open one more aperture into the Tao of the sixties, how fear brought about a Love Generation dedicated to promoting love as an antidote for all the ills of the world.

If Vietnam had not happened the sixties would not have happened the way they did. There was so much fear about the possibility that oneself or one’s loved ones might be killed or grievously harmed, we bent over backwards to affirm love, vehemently, stridently, even with a vengeance. We would stand for love against the SOBs who stood for killing.

Much of the acting out was simply acting out, like children do when their emotional brains are overloaded by what’s going on in the world around them. Within that, however, there began to be a focus to the acting out. It became street theater, guerilla theater, a desperate attempt to get mainstream society to notice how vicious and absurd the war was and how vicious and absurd the campaign against civil rights was. Martin Luther King underscored the centuries of oppression and violence toward non-white people. He linked the civil rights struggle as being part of the same struggle as the anti-war movement, including the disproportionate number of ghetto youth being drafted for front-line duty in Vietnam. Shortly after that assertion King was killed.

Yes, we were right about the dangers of standing up for what we believed to be right. Our heroes got killed. President Kennedy, Malcolm X, Martin Luther King, Bobby Kennedy all died at the hands of assassins, not to mention the millions dying in Vietnam. Yes, if we count all the Vietnamese, it was millions. It was easy to believe that there was a coordinated program to maintain the status quo and destroy everything that we and our heroes stood for.

Ram Das told us there is only one choice, between Love and Fear. In Conversations with God Neale Donald Walsch makes the same assertion. So many events and pervasive conditions made us so afraid in the sixties, I chose love and spirituality to try to feel less afraid. I wore love like a magical robe, in hopes that it might protect me from the very real dangers of violence and death. Was fear one of the strongest factors that brought us to so proudly proclaim a Love Generation?

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Vietnam and other Wars

A few weeks ago I was walking from my office to the nearby deli. On a park bench butted up against the wall of the parking garage sat a man about my age enjoying the warm sunny day. He wore a bucket hat which held pin simply stating, “Lord Buckley Lives.” I continued on to the deli. He was still sitting there when I came back by.

I passed him by, then turned to him. “Lord Buckley lives, eh?”

“Yep,” says he, “I got a bunch of these made up when I got back from Vietnam. Gave a bunch of them away. Still have a few.”

“Yeah, I remember Lord Buckley. Had a couple of his records. I specially remember his routine about the Naz.”

“That was a good one. He had a lotta good ones. Well, here.” He pulled off his hat and handed me the pin. “Anybody who remembers Lord Buckley should have one of these.”

“Well, thank you.” A bit of a warm glow spread through me as I pinned that pin to the side of my “South Africa” baseball cap and continued on down the street.

I walk that path several times a week, and I haven’t seen him again. I’ve thought a lot about him and all the Vietnam Vets that I’ve known. I think about the ones who were lucky enough to survive. My best friend in graduate school lives now up some holler in West Virginia in a passive solar house. He polishes rocks and turns them into jewelry.

I think about the vet who came to the class at the alternative high school. He talked to a group of wannabe gangsters about what violence does to your soul. He was a farm boy from the Sacramento Valley who became a hotshot warrior in Nam. He was a gunner on a helicopter gunship.

His story went like this: “There’s a crew of three on a gunship, the pilot; he flies the thing, the spotter; he scans the terrain and tells you what to shoot, and the gunner; that was me; he does the shooting. The gunner doesn’t ask questions or make decisions. He just shoots. Did I shoot civilians? Of course I did. Did I shoot farm animals? You bet. In my mind they were somehow all Viet Cong, if I needed a justification. I was like the guy in Platoon, the William Defoe character. I was on a high, being a crackerjack warrior. All my senses were alive. I was running on superdrive. I was having so much fun I signed on for an extra half tour of duty.

“After nineteen months I came home. The second night the nightmares started. The adrenalin wore off. Things were too quiet. The impact of everything I’d done came crashing in on me. The next day I hit the road and stayed on it for the next five years. I drank; I used drugs; I kept moving. Nothing helped. Finally I came in from the cold. The Vietnam Vets had created some services for all of us. I sat in groups with other guys like myself and finally talked about the things we’d done. It helped. It took a lot of time before I began to feel halfway like a decent human being again

“So I’m here to tell you. Don’t go down that road. It’s not worth it. It does terrible things to you. I have friends who never got out of the cold. They’re still homeless or living all hid away somewhere in the woods, or they suicided, or they’re dead from drink or drugs. If you remember one thing from meeting me, it’s this. Don’t do it! Get yourself a job and a girlfriend and a couple of kids. I have lived a life of torture since the war. It took a lot of work just to keep living and try to have a normal life.”

I looked around the room. Some guys were shifting uncomfortably in their seats. Others were staring at the floor. The girls just looked shocked.

Today I think about my friends in South Africa who are facilitators in the reconciliation programs. They sit in circles with ex-combatants from both sides of the conflict there, the whites who were part of the apartheid-enforcing army, the blacks who were freedom-fighters. My friends tell me that the shame is equal. Atrocities are atrocities, and they haunt us, no matter how well justified they might have seemed at the time.

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Vision Quest

Check out my Ukrainian Vision Quest friends link on my facebook. They have two magnificent youtube videos on their website.
http://www.istoki-center.org.ua

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the spoils of war

as grim as a battle for a hill,

whose name is a number

in a country bereft of all protection

from extremes of black and white,

wind, stream and trees–

a single leaf sashays to its death

on an icy ground made awkward

by the rigor-mortis of holy flag-wavers.

blood-diamond-studded rap stars,

monkey-suited politicians wearing rough rope neckties

bearing proclamations of one ism or another,

marching in unison to a gated strategic hamlet,

leaping for the prize of a golden ankle bracelet

and ignoring footprints in the snow.

oblivious to the impression of white on white,

they charge ever further into helplessness

beyond the reach of air drops

rescue missions

dogs bearing caskets

or even well-meaning men from mars.

thus accumulate heaps of complexities beside

roadhouses jam-packed with blues singers and their fans–

it is on a night like this that a single soldier

glances casually at an almost full moon

declining in a nearly cloudless sky

and wonders.

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