Tuesday, August 31, 2010
One afternoon at REI, an older gentleman came up to me with the hope that I would order for him a new pair of hiking boots. When I got the email address by which to contact him, I was intrigued by his name. Musai. Somewhere I'd heard it before, this obvious dharma name. Googling it later, I found out that he was the dharma heir to the priest who had performed the ceremony for my first marriage back in 1997. He was now Roshi to a Zen group just outside Santa Fe. Looking over their website, I noted that he did hikes monthly with friends and sangha members.
Last Saturday I joined him for the first time. There were just three of us, waking at dawn for the long drive up the High Road to Taos. We hung a left at Truchas (where Redford filmed " The Milagro Beanfield War"), passed the still operating flume at Trampas, then turned right onto the long dirt road past the village of El Valle, spread proud and isolated along its grassy valley. Where the road ended we moved onto trail, tracing the San Leonardo watershed to its eponymous lake source, up over 11000 ft. It was a lovely hike, crossing the stream a few times, with a long snack break for 'Elevenses.' The conversation was light, mostly about the wildflowers and the ample supply of fleshy mushrooms growing to impossible sizes.
It felt great to get into the hills. I'd too long been putting it off. It seemed that the timing had never been right. The snow season gave way to mud season, a time when even down in town, the dust turns to mud, splashing up to dirty the undercarriages of all those expensive European toys people here drive. I couldn't even imagine what the roads at altitude were like. Then the spring winds came, and in the window between when they clear the stage for the summer monsoon, somehow work told hold of me, taking away triple the weekly hours I had been working over the past decade. Inertia creeps as always, and over this past month a terrible craving for space, both temporal and spatial, has begun to build.
Again, it felt great to get into the hills. While it is admittedly a blessing to have a wife who shares my love for the mountains (and in many ways, is more intrepid than I), it is a treat to be out with the fellows. It also reminds me how much I enjoy walking solo, something I'll need to attend to before the snows come again.
There was a large open meadow at 10,000 ft, the trees all blown down or pushed over by avalanches. From here the trail showed its seriousness, leading us up a 1000 ft climb in less than a mile. It was here that I was truly awestruck by Musai. His pace across the level trails or slight inclines matched my own. It was only on the more steep ascents that his legs revealed their mileage. Lunch was well earned, beside the smaller of the two San Leandro lakes. Small fish swam in water which surely must freeze at this altitude. Across the water was the steep slope that we'd later climb, between the trees and up over the talus, looking for footholds where no trail has ever been. It was tough going, even with the hiking poles I was initiating. I'd always questioned their use, but was now forever sold. Four legs are indeed better than two. Using the poles brought more stability and balance, and occasionally I'd lean onto one, looking down at the floor far below, and across at the adjacent rock wall, where big horn sheep leap and strut, though not today. I'd have envied their sureness of foot. To slip here meant a long and dangerous fall, every step requiring full attention. Awareness built into every step.
It took a couple hours to reach the ridge. I'd sat awhile on a rock just below it, looking over the scenery over which we'd walked, over which we'd driven. All the familiar landmarks were there: Taos and Los Alamos; Black Mesa and the Jemez. Yet, by contrast, the view over the back of the ridge introduced the unfamiliar: the higher Pecos with all that open space, and the ridge that looked like it encircled it all. The Sandia range was visible far to the south, with the Truchas Peaks closer in, all gnarled and misshapen like deformed hands. The beauty ensnared me. I was both in, and of, the landscape. I simultaneously began to expand and disappear.
Then my eyes began to greedily seek more details within the view, and the mind joined in by wanting to capture everything in photos. I wanted to linger, but we still had a short climb ahead. We followed the ridgeline up to Jicarilla Peak, nearly 12500 ft and a good place for tea. I believe I said something like, "Three-sixty is a fine number." All of northern New Mexico was there for us.
There weather was good, but it was nearing three. We didn't dawdle as we moved down the ridgeline, trying to keep equidistant between the two watersheds on either side of us, the truck parked near their confluence. When the descent would grow steeper, dropping us into one of them, we'd veer off at a diagonal for higher ground. It was a long afternoon, feet sore at taking near sideways steps, ankles pitching and rolling. We wound up in a creek bed, thankfully dry, but which required some bobbing and weaving over fallen trees and over rough terrain. Finally, we found the Trampas Lake Trail, wide and well-kept. I'm rarely so grateful to see something constructed by man. The rapidly encroaching dark reminded us that this was the time of the animals, not so subtly demonstrated by the paw print of a very large cat, and in the half-devoured carcass of a porcupine, its quills scattered about like spilled toothpicks.
The truck was there, outlined in the nearly full dark. It had taken us about four hours to get down. Musai mentioned that his goal with these hikes is to be completely emptied out. I felt the opposite, full and re-energized after all those summer days seen from indoors. Not that I wasn't suffering. My stomach was crying for food, but luckily we arrived at Rancho de Chimayo a few minutes before its 9 o'clock close. The ride home seemed long, myself crammed sideways in the jumpseats of the truck cab, my neck stiff from altitude and dehydration. What didn't help matters was arriving at a police DWI checkpoint back in town, me rankling at such a deliberate display of control after a full day of freedom in the wild. Finally, my fatigue found a cure in sleep, crawling into bed nearly 18 hours after I'd left it.
(Musai has posted his own take on things, with pics. Scroll down to Aug 21 post.)
On the turntable: Gentle Giant, "Gentle Giant"
On the nighttable: David Hatcher Childress, "Lost Cities and Ancient Mysteries of the Southwest"
Sunday, August 29, 2010
Saturday, August 28, 2010
Another unexpected side effect to my repatriation is an oft-awkward re-immersion in my mother language. This has happened before. After fifteen months in Japan, I took my first trip abroad to New Zealand, and for some reason it took me a day to get used to hearing my native tongue again. (Some would argue that understanding Kiwis is difficult already, as theirs is a nation that has found it possible to get by with a mere three vowels.)
One place that this showed up repeatedly was during dharma talks at Upaya. Granted, mostly it was during a talk given by a non-native speaker. Once I mistook the words 'Go Ye Unto the World" for "Go Ye Undo the World." Another time Beatte-sensei was talking about having a "calm, abiding mind," and I was sat there thinking, what the hell is a karma-biting mind?
During dharma talks I always bring a pen and my moleskine, not to take notes, but to jot down all the weird ideas that pop into my mind. That mind was most busy during a talk by
Yamada Roshi, head of Sandai Kyodan. He kept mentioning that his lecture dias was illusion, an illusion from his glasses repeatedly fell when he'd set them there. If such matter is empty, is it not faith then that creates the illusion of material things? Is this similar to a Christian faith in God, form in emptiness and all that? As if to emphasize this, dust began to swirl in the air, in a still room seemingly devoid of any wind. Where then, did the dust in this sunbeam come from? More form in emptiness?
The most powerful talks are usually, no surprise, given by Roshi Joan Halifax. During the talk, "On Grief and Buddhism," she quoted us a poem by Issa:
Tsuyu no yo wa tsuyu no yo nagara sari nagara
The world of dew --
A world of dew it is indeed,
And yet, and yet . . .
And the bottom fell out of my world. A month earlier, during the film retreat, we saw "The Secret Life of Words," a film that floored quite a few people. After the viewing we had a brief discussion, then wrote poems. One woman, a friend, devout Buddhist, and radical feminist, read hers, angrily asking how men can keep talking (in the discussion) after being exposed to such violent acts against women? And I felt personally attacked at her words, questioning both her Buddhism (her blinding attachment to her own emotions) and her feminism (which was so exclusionary to men).
Yet here I was, in the midst of my own despair. And, as Roshi kept going on with her lecture, I too was thinking, "How can you keep talking!?" when my grief has stopped the world yet again? And as it passed, I thought about the mysterious nature of grief, and the many ways it reveals itself. As the years go on, the grief and sadness I sometimes feel seem detached from the actual loss of Ken,and are seemingly now connected mostly to my own feelings and memory .
On the turntable: Dire Straits, "Sultans of Swing"
Thursday, August 26, 2010
I came home late one evening to find my landlady standing in front of her home, talking on her cell phone. It turned out she was in the midst of calling me, hanging up as my car crunched up the gravel. She wanted to tell me that she'd seen a bear go across the property, silhouetted against the darkening sky as it moved along the ridge just above my house. It dropped down to the road and into the yard of the weird old guy who'd once been under police surveillance because he allegedly got his kicks opening his robe to passing school buses.
Not long afterward, a young couple moved into the casita just down the hill from ours. Fresh from Manhattan, they weren't too clued in about animal control. In less than a week, the husband, after stepping out onto the balcony for a middle-of-the-night smoke, was startled by the sound of the bin being tipped over by a bear that was looking for the heart of some attractive olfactory delight. The poor guy spent the better part of the morning picking the trash--mostly liquid-encrusted, styrofoam take out boxes-- from the hillside. A week later it happened again, probably not long after I joked to my neighbor that I hoped that the bears weren't on their way for a meal out, this being date night.
The odd bear incidentally making its way across the land doesn't bother me. One conditioned to a free lunch does. Where the neighbors wanted to triple bag everything, I suggested we simply take the trash out in the morning, before the trucks roll by around eight. Crisis averted.
What has changed for me is my relationship with bears. In Japan, I dreaded an encounter with one. Here, I'm not so much scared as cautious. Whereas I used to walk up the hill to my home in the dark, marveling at the incredible number of stars up there, I now turn on the lights lighting the path every time.
At my job at REI, I find others who have their own relationship with bears. Whenever anyone comes in to buy bear spray, I always ask their story. One guy told me that he often rigs his trash bin with a small water balloon filled with ammonia, since bears have such an acute sensitivity to smell. Another guy told me that it isn't bears that he uses it on but the cougars (which really scare the crap out of me). He's used it before, on a mountain lion that is lured onto his property by his two dogs. He essentially called in an airstrike on the whole area, dogs and cat alike, since it was a quicker and more effective way to get his pets into the house.
A few weeks ago, a small newspaper serving the mountain communities of the east face of the Sandia Mountains ran an article on bears. Apparently, there have been 120 encounters in the 3 months since spring, with 40 of the animals being shot by landowners. In the week after the article was run, we completely sold out of spray. Not a day has gone by without at least three customers looking for a can.
My favorite bear spray story happened months before this, during my first week at REI. A woman walks up to the counter, asking for some. She was wearing those big Jackie-O sunglasses, with a poodle under one arm. I asked her what was up, and she told me that a bear kept coming over her fence into the yard, located in one of the posher areas of Santa Fe. I asked her, quite seriously, if she thought taking on a bear was a good idea. Wouldn't it be easier to call Fish and Game? She said that she already had. What did they suggest? Bear spray. When I returned from our back room where we stock it (since it has reportedly been used by robbers on mountain shop employees), she asked me how to use it. I read her the directions off the can, saying that she had a range of about 30 feet, which was from the counter to the front door. Oh! But the entire can would empty itself completely in 7 seconds. Without a beat she said, "Better get me three." I still have an image of her, standing beside her palatial home, poodle under one arm, quick-drawing the cans from a Gucci holster on her waist.
(I'm sure that there'll be a sequel to this story.)
On the turntable: Frank Zappa, "Bongo Fury"
On the nighttable: Stanley Crawford, "The River in Winter"
Tuesday, August 24, 2010
This return to the US has me staring down the barrel of the gun of aging. In Japan, no one could peg just how old I was, often guessing a decade younger. Here, I am expected to act my age. In Japan, I could constantly reinvent myself, the judgments and perceptions of the locals going no further than my identity as gaijin. Beyond that I had all the room in the world to be who I wanted to be. Now I'm back in my own cultural context, and can't escape the framework.
Yet how AM I defined here? I find myself as Neither/Nor. I'm a native New Mexican who no longer recognizes his state. I'm as much a gaijin here as I was in Japan.
I'm most puzzled how do I fit into all of this as an American. Since the national nervous breakdown year of 2001, I no longer know what that means. The America I see in the 21st Century is not the place I learned about in school (however fictitious that was). I don't remember such a high degree of fear and anger, of distrust and ingratitude. While most of the Japanese I knew tried to harmonize and blend with what was happening around them (manifested at its worst as the dreaded 'shoganai'), Americans try to dominate the space. I see it in the conversations, in the body language, in the government policy. I don't really want to be part of it.
While in Japan, I'd made a conscious attempt to be a big fish, as a yoga teacher , a writer, a musician, a martial artist. It was exhausting. Here I want a quiet and simple life. To do my job and go home. But those around me (God bless 'em) are pushing me to both succeed and exceed. Such an American thing, to fill up and overflow the container that is your life.
On the turntable: Yes, "Tales from Topographic Oceans"
On the nighttable: Stanley Crawford, "The River in Winter"
Sunday, August 22, 2010
Thursday, August 19, 2010
A decade in Japan created in me the habit of wearing shoes without laces, preferring the whole Mr. Miyagi, slip on-slip off thing. The shame about this is that I lost a creative outlet of artistic self-expression: tying a pair of worn-out shoes together by the laces and throwing them over a power line.
I was reminded of this in spying a pair from the train I was riding, as it pulled into the station in Los Lunas. The link between these shoes and my own is further paralleled and linked with trains, as I most often threw my own shoes over a wire shaded by the upper eaves of that massive tree beside the rail station in Santa Barbara. Just as these shoes welcomed me back to my native Valencia County, no doubt hundreds of passengers were waved at by my shoes as they blew back and forth in the Santa Ana winds of the Central Coast.
On the turntable: Ricardo Lemvo, "Ay Valeria!"
Tuesday, August 17, 2010
My work situation has finally stopped thrashing about, entitling me to some free evenings. The nightly monsoons have kept me away from the live music down on The Plaza, so films once again present themselves as alternative. After the marathon stretch of Kobayashi's "The Human Condition" (we could only handle one hour doses of this brutal, 10 hour masterpiece), we've settled in with Shimizu Hiroshi. He reminds us some of our beloved Ozu, manipulating actors as props as a means of diminishing the subjectivity of role, and creating a story that speaks to the universal in us all. If Ozu was a maker of tofu (as he famously claimed), then Shimizu is a master of okayū. He shares Ozu's slow pace of storytelling, yet utilizes camera techniques seemingly cribbed from European Surrealist films of a decade earlier. These effects weren't commonly seen in Hollywood until being 'pioneered' in Citizen Kane in 1941.
Shimizu was one of the first directors to commonly use location rather than sets. To view the dirt roads of 1930's rural Japan is to see the contemporary Laos roads over which I traveled this winter. It also shares a lot with the deep-country Shikoku pilgrimage trails I walked last autumn, minus the power lines and vending machines. Shot on a bus actually traversing the Izu countryside, "ありがとうさん” ("Mr. Thank You") features scenes of a long gone country life rolling on behind the characters, showing it such deference that the landscape itself eventually becomes more important than the actors themselves. It is one of the earliest road movies that I can think of. As I watched it, I surprised myself in that the film reminded me somewhat of John Ford's 'Stagecoach' (filmed three years later), where archetypes are thrown together, then bound by the landscape through which they pass. But rather than solidifying that bond through the drama of an Indian attack, Shimizu's film stays true to the fact that most of our human encounters stay light and impersonal, in our sharing moments with strangers who will remain just that. His films offer glimpses of life that, while possibly thought mundane at the time of release, bask in a beauty that is both bittersweet and enchanting, made more so by their fleeting nature.
On the turntable: Drive-by Truckers, "The Big To-Do"
On the nighttable: Hammett, et al., "The Essence of Santa Fe"
Sunday, August 15, 2010
Saturday, August 14, 2010
Back in the US just over 6 months now. Some days I feel settled in; on others, like I'm sailing rudderless on rolling seas. That February drive across a third of the country seems hazy now, but I do remember the disorientation and the bizarre sights like those slot machines in Nevada convenience stores, and the intriguing 'weird beer here' written on a sign somewhere in Utah.
The disconnection lingered for months, due partly to my incubation period at Upaya Zen Center. I moved about town like the walking dead, detached and awkward. The Ipod helped keep me safe, perennially hanging around my neck like I was a latchkey kid, though in this case the key changed with every song.
That first month, the only time that I felt calm and in my element was at Whole Foods in Boulder. It proved fleeting, and even there I felt on display, with other shoppers taking voyeuristic interest in the contents of my cart. Boulder Whole Foods being a notorious meat market, single women seemed particularly interested in my vitamins, as if getting a sneak peek at imperfections destined to present themselves six months into a new relationship. Walking the aisles whose wood always reminds me of a comfortable 1970's den, I smiled at those idiosyncrasies that seem soooo American to me: the obsession with transfats in cooking directions, or the omnipresent, magic elixir approach to advertising product.
Down in New Mexico too, I initially felt most relaxed at Whole Foods, the ubiquitous dot along the songline of my multiple yoga teacher trainings, marking where I'd grab dinner after a long day on the mat. One late-winter evening, I'd escaped the house, driven into the cold by the TV. I'd hoped to spend the evening with the Super Bowl, but in my still jet-lagged state, found it too brash and noisy. That morning I'd grabbed a tube of lotion, in order to soothe hands cracked open by the cold. Upon removing the lid, the entire package emptied out in one go, finally freed after the pressurized confinement of altitude. Buying a new tube, hopefully one more eco-friendly than the cheap shit I'd bought in Bangkok, gave me an excuse to flee the adrenal-charged sports commentary echoing down the abode wallways.
I detoured to the pizza counter, as I do. Ahead of me, a Latino family was ordering a slice, in Spanish. The familiar finally found me, and I finally exhaled. Good god, I love New Mexico. Dios mio, I think I'm home...
On the turntable: "Putumayo presents: Italian Cafe"
On the nighttable: Mark Singleton, "Yoga Body"
On the reel table: "Mr. Thank You" (Shimizu, 1936)
Thursday, August 12, 2010
(This piece completes the triptych. Posts on Hiroshima and Nagasaki appeared earlier.)
Forgive me but the entire world was conspiring to make me think of mushrooms. On the drive in, huge clouds stacked up with weather above the mountains, including a tall mushroom shaped-cloud rising from the Jemez. After tracing a line rising diagonally long the edge of the Pajarito plateau, we arrived in Los Alamos, and immediately sought out lunch. The Hill Diner is an old favorite, though not quite as old as the décor would have you believe. It speaks of woodsy roadside diner, the paneling hung with photos from a half-century gone, with old neon beer signs, and garage sale items like skis and snowshoes hanging from the walls. Mushrooms showed up again here, batter-fried and flanking my chicken fried steak. This place is popular with both the locals and those working at the labs. The ‘good ole’ lost America’ theme attempts to whitewash some of the threat that hung in perpetuity over those ‘gentler times,’ a threat birthed less than a mile away. In a conspiracy of irony that only the universe can craft, I noted Asians at about a third of the tables here this Saturday morning.
After lunch, Miki and I wandered around town, a pleasant place like a small New England college town, trees shading dormitory-style housing for the lab families constantly revolving in and out of their temporary assignments at the Labs. It would be a pleasant place to live but for the work going on across the canyon. We stopped off in the tourist info center to see what this town had to offer. I desperately wanted to find something attesting to the local character, to draw my attention away from the obvious. As a fan of history, I find that I visit places with a fair amount of projection, scanning the landscape and residents in an effort to find connections with those events that brought them onto the world stage. I’ve done it in Vietnam and Cambodia, in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, using tragedy as an information sieve, until time and the locals present me with a different face that allows me to let go my stereotyping. Then I can finally accept the place on its own terms. I’d done it earlier in the day with the cloud formation, and in coming upon the ruins of an elementary school in mid-demolition. This latter caused me to exaggerate the presence of tragedy here, but what else could I think, being presented with such an obvious example of the decline in education spending in the town which, again, started the arms race and the current blank check approach to military spending?
Scanning the walls of the tourist center, I so badly wanted to find mention of an ancient Native American festival, or a photo of a ruined Spanish church, or read a about some Anglo bigwig who’d established a modest ranch which eventually grew into this town. But all I could find were T-shirts and coffee mugs tastelessly emblazoned with pictures of an exploding bomb, hung above bags of “Atomic chili pepper.’ A sign on the glass door listed events held during the summer in this, “The Atomic City,” including a concert being held, without any apparent irony, next Friday, August 6. The view beyond the poster and through the glass door revealed a town whose history began with the atomic age, and seems stuck there, both in architecture and in mindset.
A short walk took us to a series of lovely buildings that look as if they belong in an Alpine town. Had I visited them prior to November 1942, I’d have found that history I’d been searching for, in the form of the Los Alamos Ranch School, whose alumni include the CEOs of a few major corporations, as well as William S. Burroughs and Gore Vidal, though these two latter names inevitably escape mention. On an autumn day less than a year after the US entered the Second World War, the grounds were bought by the military for a top secret project. Some of the buildings are now being used as the Los Alamos Museum. The actual place where the bomb had been designed is now a large open space with a pond in the center. It was here that we’d meet up with Pax Christi for the peace march. Along the way, I stepped over a patch of mushrooms, barely noticeable amidst the neatly clipped grass.
The peace march was to begin at Ashley Pond, site of where the first atomic bombs were built. There was a picnic going on, children running after balloons, and the adult members of the local YMCA queuing up to buy BBQ from a red trailer with a flaming pig emblazoned on one side. The Pax Christi people weren’t far away, their banners with anti-nuke slogans spread across the grass. In a pile was a collection of burlap sacks and dozens of small bags of ash that we were expected to drape and decorate ourselves with for the march. This was inspired by the biblical story of Ninevah. When threatened with Divine destruction, the inhabitants of the city repented, putting on sacks and smearing themselves with ash. Sacks were traditionally seen as a sign of deep repentance and humility. Ashes were often included as a further symbol of personal abhorrence and chagrin.
The organizer of this march, Jesuit priest John Dear, was being interview by a TV station from Albuquerque. We’d met John months ago when he gave a rousing talk on Gandhian non-violence at Upaya Zen Center. He’d really motivated us there in Santa Fe that day, so it was very disappointing that the only attendees who’d actually turned up for this event were Miki and myself. Prior to setting out John led us in prayer, where, he neither accused those involved in the making of nuclear arms of being evil, nor asked God to forgive them. (In keeping with the Ninevah biblical story, where God states He is showing pity for the population who are ignorant of the difference between right and wrong ("who cannot discern between their right hand and their left hand"). Instead John simply asked us to repent our own complicity in violence, and to beg the god of peace for a world free of nuclear weapons.
Then we marched, moving down Trinity Drive, crossing with the light at Oppenheimer. Through breaks in the buildings lining the road, we could get glimpses of the Labs standing with a certain majesty through the trees. They’d been built in the 50s, when the one-off Manhattan Project had spawned a child that had grown with the arms race. Along the way, a couple of people stopped to collect apricots that had fallen from a tree. One woman nearby nodded her head toward the labs and said bluntly, “You sure you want to eat those?” The apricot collectors quickly dropped the uneaten fruit back onto the grass.
We stopped our march at the hospital that sits beside the bridge leading over the canyon to the Lab’s front gate. About fifty young people showed up about then, all carrying sunflowers. This was “Think Outside the Bomb,” a national youth-led nuclear abolition network. They were here to protest Obama’s policies regarding nuclear strategy. While professing in public a reduction in nukes, the administration was instead going forward with policies set up by their predecessors, yet their proposed increase in the amount of plutonium pits to be constructed at Los Alamos would go far beyond what the Bushies had envisioned. The group was camped out in the hills near the Sanctuario de Chimayo for a week of workshops on permaculture and on non-violent protest. They’d be back on the actual anniversary of the bombing on the 6th, for a protest up at the Labs themselves. (And at which eight of them would end up arrested.) For today they’d settle for a less confrontational demonstration, for we’d go no further than Omega Bridge, and would do little more than sit and meditate.
John gave the word and we all sat down on the sidewalk. While some had smeared their faces with ash, other had simply outlined their bodies. A couple of people had emptied their bags in a clump, tracing with their fingers small pictures or simply the number 140,000, the believed number of nuclear bombing victims. We stayed like this for half an hour, quietly reflecting. A light rain began to fall, and I was reminded of the black rain that had poisoned so many in Hiroshima. Then, after the final signal, we all got up and began walking back to the park. As on the march down, we were exposed to a variety of reactions by the locals. Some flashed peace signs as they drove by, or honked their horns in apparent solidarity. Others yelled out in opposition, words mostly lost in the wind but for the swearing. It was predictable how the reaction of the driver consistently matched the type of vehicle driven. Most memorable was the extended, black-gloved middle finger of a Harley rider.
Back in the park, John gave a closing prayer then introduced a few speakers. One of them was Col. Ann Wright, famous for her resignation from the military when Bush okayed the invasion of Iraq. Most recently, she’d been on the Gaza flotilla that had been attacked by Israel last June. At one point, Ann asked us where we’d all traveled from, and when Miki yelled out “Hiroshima!” my wife suddenly found herself before the mike, giving a brief speech. A couple of folk singers then began to gather the crowd together in a sing-along, but Miki and I quietly slipped away. We did a symbolic circumabulation of Ashley Pond. Two black cranes extended out of the water, their iron material an ironic contrast to the delicate paper cranes of the peace park of Hiroshima.
A few hours later we met again down in Santa Fe, in the wrap-around bar of El Canon, with its million-dollar view down San Francisco street, toward St. Francis Cathedral lit gold by the setting sun. We found ourselves with John Dear and other organizers of the event, in a sort of debriefing. They seemed disappointed at the numbers, a mere hundred when last year they’d had three times as many. They also mentioned that this year’s march had seen the most vehement reactions they’d yet seen. As Miki and I headed toward home in the heavy storm, the group was questioning the event’s significance. According to the local news team that had been there, very little, as they gave us less than 10 seconds coverage, giving no mention of who we were or what our message was. To the average viewer, we’d appear to be just another bunch of loony hippies.
But really, what did they think? I know quite a few couples that live up there, most of whom work at the labs. When I mentioned that I’d been at the march, one woman seemed supportive, mentioning that her husband had been quite active in disarmament work. To which he gave the hilarious quip, “Yeah, disarming the Russians.”
Waning a bit more perspective, Miki and I returned to Los Alamos a few weeks later on a quiet Friday afternoon. We wanted to visit the museums and see how they presented ‘their side.’ The Historical Museum is, as mentioned earlier, in one of the old cabins that once made up the Ranch School. I’d entered with a certain amount of cynicism, but as I made my way through the quaint narrow rooms, I was quite taken with it. Represented was the scientists’ story, composed of the somewhat comedic tales of the civilians who found themselves sudden residents of a town that literally appeared overnight, one that remained in complete secrecy for over two years. I spoke with the curator for a while, telling her how pleased I was to find this place so free of propaganda. Through the words of Oppenheimer and others, I could really see that the scientists were the only ones who saw the real scale of what was going on. They thought that their work in presenting mankind with its complete elimination would introduce a period of enlightenment that would end war altogether. She told me that the scientists themselves had felt so betrayed by the subsequent Cold War behavior of the military and the government.
Their tale is better told across town at the Bradbury Museum. The POV here is pure propaganda, attempting to whitewash history in order to make nukes palatable. (Though it is nowhere near the overt and disgusting self congratulatory displays of the nuke museum down in Albuquerque.) The Bradbury screened a film, “The Town that Never Was,” in which there was a line about the local natives who were “happy to give away visiting right to their ancient ancestral grounds, for the good of the nation, “ that was particularly disgusting. The cold, scientific approach to information here was predictable. As was the sight of the US Government plates on the vehicles out front.
It was a beautiful day on the cusp of autumn, so Miki and I chose to drive home through some of those same ancestral lands, through the canyons that flank Bandelier. I asked her about her reaction to the day and the town. She said that she didn’t harbor any bad feelings toward the US. In the war, both the US and Japan were equally victims and aggressors. The past is done, and it is more important to focus on the future. No one wants nuclear war, so we should all work together to prevent something like this from ever happening again.
I looked out at the soil that had once belonged to the natives, and wondered if they too have such a magnanimous attitude.
On the turntable: Ry Cooder, "River Rescue"
Monday, August 9, 2010
(The setting here is 1995, yet rewritten in 1999 to include the (then) current political activities of Nagasaki's mayor and residents.)
Compared with its counterpart in Hiroshima, Nagasaki`s Peace Museum is much smaller. But where the exhibits lack in size they make up in emotional power. Here, it is strictly about the bomb`s effects on the victims, free of any politics or moralizing. Rubble lies on display under glass. The photos are horrifying. One picture I had seen in various books. It shows a woman lying on her side on a blanket, with a look so blank it`s as if she has transcended the pain and confusion around her. The look is of a person resigned to death. It is an image that shocks me each time I see it and haunts me still.
But it`s the poems and drawings by children which tear into you the most. The stories are so sad, of losing parents, of witnessing terrible things, yet being completely incomprehensible to it all. My friend and I leave the museum in silence until she says, “My heart hurts.” We continue walking until we reach the one-legged torii, one leg of this Shinto arch blown away by the bomb. From a distance it appears perfectly solid. What a perfect metaphor for the justification for nuclear weapons: the simultaneous prevention of, and preparation for, war.
The next morning, the ninth, we follow a large crowd up a flight of stairs into the Peace Park. Out front, there are many photographs of the victims and the damage to the city. As I look at them, a news team begins filming me, making me feel incredibly uncomfortable and conspicuous. I don`t like them intruding on this private moment of mine, yet aren`t I, in looking at these pictures, currently intruding on the pain of someone else? In any case, the camera crew, in assuming I`m American, films my reaction to the photos as if courtroom footage of a man when pronounced guilty.
After passing through metal detectors, we join the crowd of twenty-eight thousand. This service begins much like Hiroshima`s did, with flower and water offerings, a speech, then the minute of silence. As in Hiroshima, the latter was as moving as it was tragic. Somewhere behind me a woman wails, a sound so mournful that tears begin to well up in my eyes. Here in Nagasaki, the schoolchildren sing of the dead , their shrill voices cutting out the sound of the cicadas as they hover above the crowd. When the politicians begin their speeches, people begin to file out. As I leave, I pour water over a black stone, then say a prayer for the dead, knowing that my thoughts can little more console the dead than can the hollow words still ringing on the mikes.
I`m still not sure what brought me to the services. An odd curiosity? A hope to feel closer to the people of my host country? Or maybe a sense of Catholic guilt and a hope for atonement for my country`s sins? Judging from the large number of foreigners with blank looks, peace activists carrying placards, neo-hippies singing, Native Americans beating drums, or Hindus bearing pictures of Gandhi, it appears that what everyone really wants to do is to look forward and do whatever`s possible prevent these memorials from spreading to other cities. The people of Nagasaki have been especially active here, Mayor Itcho Ito in particular. He traveled to New York last May and was present at the commitment by the five major nuclear-armed states to eliminate all nuclear weapons. Yet Nagasaki`s goal had always been elimination within this century, which doesn`t, at the moment of writing, appear feasible. This autumn, a group of NGO`s and citizens will gather in the city in order to continue the fight...
Meanwhile it seems most Japanese are tired of looking back and want to forget. While the hibakusha live day to day with the effects of the bomb, most Japanese don`t appear to think much about those two days in August. With recent nationalistic statements made by top politicians, with the national anthem and national flag given official status without public debate, and with the Diet preparing to reevaluate Article 9 of the Constitution, Japan at the close of the Twentieth Century is becoming more and more an unfriendly place. I sincerely hope that to the people of Japan, “Peace” means more than just a popular brand of cigarettes.
On a hill in Nagasaki is a monument dedicated to twenty-six men who were martyred for their Christian beliefs. At the beginning of this century, the Japanese revered their Emperor as divine, the latest in a long line reaching back more than two millennium to the sun Goddess, Amaterasu. Perhaps the Japanese, like the saints on the hill, were punished for this blind religious belief. In their case, however, the tragedy was multiplied ten-thousand-fold.
Friday, August 6, 2010
Here's a piece I wrote back in 1995, after attending the 50th memorial service for the Hiroshima bombing. That was my first summer in Japan. Now, my first summer back in the States, I find myself living forty-five minutes from where that bomb was midwifed into existence...
Seven-thirty a.m. or so. The air is cool this morning but growing hotter. The sun hangs low and is slightly blurry over the Gembaku Dome. People are entering the Peace Park from all sides , a steady stream quiet, somewhat solemn. The only sound now is the cicadas who scream from all the trees. I`ve heard that on that infamous morning fifty years ago it had been clear as well. As we near the museum area, the crowd grows denser, so we cut through the throng amidst a sea of chairs, moving in a near-orderly fashion toward the very front, an area reserved for bomb victims and their families. I feel somewhat strange sitting up here, a lone American amongst people who have every reason to hate me. Outside this area are thousands of people: Japanese and international press, important personages, and more foreigners than I`ve ever seen in a single place in Japan. Boy and girl scouts mill around handing out programs. Young men with armbands line the perimeter, and the large presence of police represents the upper limits of Japanese body size. The Prime Minister just pulled up, lined by a dozen or so bodyguards. I`m more curious about who I can`t see, either celebrities or friends. I think the Russian ambassador is here somewhere, and I wonder about Gary Snyder, Nanao Sasaki and others dedicated to the fight against nuclear weapons. I think of my brother Kurt and his personal commitment to this fight, not to mention the thousands of others in this crowd. The sheer number here is amazing, twenty thousand? Thirty? For a group this size they`re certainly quiet. There is a sense of peace, of harmony. People seem light, but far shy of joy. A brass band tunes up with a low note which sounds ominous as it fans out over the crowd. Flower after flower is laid out and Hiroshima`s last memorial service of the century is about the begin....
Yesterday, I hadn`t felt so light. Riding the bus into the city, I`d been reading Kenzaburo Oe`s Hiroshima Notes, being convinced yet again of the living proof of such power, a power that here in Japan actually fell once, twice, unlike in America where the power is merely a threat that hangs over head as it has for the past five decades. As I flipped the pages of Oe`s book I saw more and more reason for man to hate man, innocents victimized for the tyranny of others. Would that cruel experiment a half-century ago dredge up bitter resentment by an aged keloid-bearing victim toward a young healthy American like myself? I had heard of foreigners accosted outside the Peace Museum, verbally attacked for decisions made by the fathers and grandfathers of others, and in many cases the accosted were from a country other than the one responsible. This city and its name have a way of provoking strong emotion. This time of year emotions run particularly high, and emotions, like storms must finish their course in some fashion or another. All in all, I felt great hesitation about attending. Another scenario: wouldn`t an event of this size and with this much media exposure be an excellent forum for an act of terrorism? Aum, however much defanged, still operates its businesses successfully. Various other groups have been active recently as Asia goes through her latest stage of growing pains. The worldwide attention factor at this event is huge. More reason to worry.
The bus pulled into the station and I met a few friends. After a quick lunch we wandered through a busy shopping area and Wow! the dome was before me, not ten meters away. Earlier, on the bus, I had craned my neck for a glimpse of the thing and here it was, sitting unobtrusive amidst glories of Western-style success; a mild imperfection like a mole on a model`s cheek. Its outer structure was mostly intact, a few holes here or there, but the inside was completely empty and black. Bits of debris lay on the lawn like children`s toys. The steel beams forming the dome`s shape were slightly twisted, and in one of the windows, a bit of concrete hung down like a broken tooth. I was mesmerized by the thing, tangible proof of the fear that has gripped the world for three generations. I personally have never been entirely afraid of the bomb. I guess I`ve always looked at it like cancer; if it`s going to happen to you, there`s little you can do about it. Others I know have at times been nearly encompassed by that fear. But looking at this hull I realized for the first time the true power of modern weaponry.
Passing the “eternal” flame (to be extinguished when the last nuclear weapon is destroyed), we entered the memorial area. Beyond the cenotaph, which bears the names of all known victims, was a sea of chairs, ten thousand or more, impressive in itself, and beyond this was the museum.
The Peace Museum, as it is called, is less a reminder of the bombing and more a call to halt the spread of nuclear arms. I think that a good way to go about this would be to present disturbing evidence which in turn pull at the sympathy of its viewers. As it is, of course, no one “approves” of nuclear weapons, but the American government, at least, seems to see them as preventative medicine, cauterizing an entire area rather than let “evil” spread. I think that to view the photographs of victims and to hear about the terror from their own lips could conceivably alter that kind of thinking. (It was said that for the first time, the hibakusha are finally willing to speak of their experiences. Over ninety-percent of Hiroshima`s citizens think that it`s best to tell the world what went on here, in order to prevent it from occurring again.) Perhaps a person with the right amount of power could do something to stop or slow my nation`s insane flight on the path of atomic manifest destiny. As it is, we need not physically conquer the world since we`ve already taken the hearts and minds through fear, intimidation, and consumerism.
The museum is powerful, the scale and breadth of its displays amazing. The physical debris showed the incredible power that a single bomb can possess, with melted bottles, twisted bicycles, and glass-flecked concrete. The human shadow forever indelible on the steps of a bank was terrifying, as were the permanent stains of “black rain.” Most frightening of all were the documented occasions that the US government considered using nuclear arms. Most incidences, with a little historical hindsight, seemed pretty minor, and I shudder to think of the opportunities to which the government didn`t admit. (In Oe`s book, he mentions a hypothetical scenario about a nuclear power bombing a remote African village, then covering up the traces.) Yet for all the museum`s power, in places it seems to have lost its focus. Some displays become less about presenting fact and drift into political rhetoric and propaganda-like discourse. (I`m also told that there is a serious discrepancy between the Japanese and English translations, both in content and strength of speech.) The three-dimensional exhibit of dazed bombing victims walking with skin in tatters was presented in a way half-horrifying and half-surrealistic Disney. The testimony of survivors and the photographs of victims were surely the most deeply disturbing, yet could be so much more powerful if allowed to stand alone, without such a strong accompanying moral message. The viewer can`t help but be moved.
Walking out of the museum, I was quiet a long time. A year or so before, when watching Akira Kurosawa`s “Rhapsody in August,” I thought it unrealistic for Richard Gere`s character to apologize for America`s bombing of Nagasaki. Yet here I was, telling my friend Osamu that I was ashamed to be an American after what I had just seen. He told me that he felt the same way when he traveled to China and Korea. When I asked him if he was moved by the museum he told me in typically stoic Japanese fashion that he`d seen it many times and that he`d probably be moved tomorrow during the ceremony.
My fears of bad Hiroshima vibes appear to be unfounded. The night before the ceremony, I went to my friend Osamu`s home, in a village high in the hills outside the city. There is an elementary school a block from his home, and they were holding a Bon-odori there. As we entered the yard, the abundance of stares made it obvious to me that not many foreigners are seen in this area. Buying a beer, I was given free popcorn. Throughout the night, I was chatted up by a variety of people, laughed at when I tried strange food, and was the attention of all. At one point an old woman pulled me into the center of the yard to dance. It wasn`t hard to figure out eventually, but I floundered for a while. This song, one of the most popular in Japan, was an old laborer`s song and the moves seem that of a worker—dig, dig, throw, throw, smooth, smooth, push, clap. Dancing that first time turned out to be unwise because as soon as one song finished, another woman would pull me into the circle, ever growing as people became drunker. Later, the drummer at the center of the circle called me onto the platform where I beat out a rhythm for the dancers. After talking with a few people—while helping some drunk guy eat his fish—I went back to Osamu`s home for dinner. It was really elaborate, his folks making me feel as comfortable as possible, going above and beyond as is the usual Japanese custom with guests. I spoke a lot with his mother who, like most of the old people at the dance, tried the two or three words of English that she knew. His father had worked for the Americans during the Occupation and used to teach English, so we spoke in a weird Japanese-English hybrid. A bottle of the local shochu was brought out, and in my role as guest I had no choice but to drink one after another. The drunker I became the more I lost my Japanese and my ability to use chopsticks.
This morning we awoke early. Osamu`s father moves quickly down the hill to the bus stop, showing absolutely no effect of last night`s drinking. Osamu and I follow as well as we can, our headaches intensified by the sun already hot though well before seven. We continue to follow in silence all the way to our seats in the Peace Park among the hibakusha. Osamu`s silence has little to do with his hangover. As a boy, his father had gone to school in Hiroshima. On the day of the bombing he was too ill to attend and subsequently, he was one of ten classmates who lived. Osamu is grateful that his father was here today sitting quietly beside us, and obviously Osamu himself was glad to be here as well. It seems amazing that a seemingly insignificant illness a half century ago could contribute to the existence of a young man whose friendship I deeply cherish. Osamu isn`t alone in being grateful about his father being alive for I feel that this man is one of the kindest I`ve yet to meet. How depressing to think of all the kind men who perished in the bombing and of all the children who didn`t get the opportunity to become kind men themselves. Osamu's father is testimony to that fact, sitting amidst the survivors for the fiftieth year, wearing the same green ribbon pinned to his chest.
At eight-fifteen, two children ring a large brass bell and the clock at the far end of the park begins to chime. The anti-nuke protesters on the perimeter of the crowd drop their placards and cease their chanting. The members of the Die-In drop to the ground, their contorted bodies outlined in chalk. The whole crowd of fifty-thousand is as one in a silent prayer. For the next minute, the only sound I hear is the woman next to me dabbing her eyes. Sounds of crying around me increase as two school children give a speech. Over the crowd, their immature voices are a reminder of potential never allowed to develop and of our own growth as humans, with our ability to overcome pain and sorrow, and our capability of becoming accustomed to a world filled with nuclear weapons.
Unfortunately, the emotional high we all feel is quickly immersed in a morass of political speeches. One ran into another with the monotony of trying to follow the same message said a dozen different ways. The UN representative`s speech (the only one in English subsequently) was so bland and unemotional that I was embarrassed to be his fellow countryman. This same sort of neutral rhetoric is used not to question the wisdom of nuclear weapons but rather to justify their continued existence. Leave it to politicians to take the heart out of things.
After the ceremony, the crowd rushed forward to offer flowers and prayers at the cenotaph in such a mob that old people were in danger of serious injury. People lingered throughout the day, visiting the museum, folding paper cranes. The crowd thinned out considerably by evening. As is done every year, candles are floated down the Motoyasu river in honor of the dead. This year, a group was performing a play on a barge while nearby, men in small boats placed candles in multicolored bags into the river. These floated awhile, drifting single-file before being overtaken by the water. It`s unfortunate that the memorial flame won`t be snuffed out so soon....