Posts Tagged ‘Vietnam’

A Way Forward

January 27, 2017

One of my followers, and fellow bloggers, recently inquired after my well-being, not having seen a post from me in quite some time. I appreciate the concern – am in general okay – but recognize that in subtle ways I have not been myself, or at least not the self who reflects and blogs.

Now that I’m coming out of the blank space, I can see that it was:
1) real (not an alternate fact),
2) somewhat akin to depression,
3) also at least partially rooted in a doctor-ordered change in thyroid treatment,
4) definitely influenced by political ugliness in both the U.S. and Cameroon,
5) full of flashbacks, or recognition of old patterns and feelings that no longer have a place in my current life, and
6) clearly an opportunity to process and release residual mental patterns that do me no good.

I know that some of the threads I pulled from the tangle included a deep anger that our society still values a sorry excuse for a man over an intelligent and accomplished woman – an anger that eased on January 21st.

Another thread was a profound fatigue, best reflected in one of the signs carried on January 21st by an older woman. “I can’t believe I’m still protesting this shit.” Really, do I have to do this all again, fifty years later?

Yet another thread was a vivid remembrance of my college years, in the infamous sixties, marching in protest against the war in Vietnam and in support of civil rights, dating an African fellow student and later marrying a Black American, living integration on a day to day basis at a time when that marriage was still considered illegal in several southern states. Today we have an Oscar nominee in a new movie about the legal case that ended miscegenation laws, but also an upsurge in attacks on mixed race couples and their children, legitimized by the new administration’s ugly rhetoric.

Yet another thread from the past woven into the present was my own feeling of limitation in what I could say or do to protest domination by values with which I profoundly disagreed. In my youth, that limitation resided in the fact that my father was an officer in the nation’s diplomatic corps and I was made to understand that my conduct could not undermine his position and responsibilities. He had written reports in the mid-1950s, warning of the quagmire into which the U.S. would fall if it followed the course of action then being dictated in southeast Asia. He was ignored, and then told to stick to economic reporting. He was back Stateside, and assigned to an academic setting, when I attended the very first march on Washington to protest the start of the Vietnam War. He warned me to be very careful where I went and what I said, just starting out on my working life, in order not to prematurely curtail my options – and also in order not to bring more censure down on him.

I was not then, and am still not now, a demonstrator in the public crowd sense. I tend rather to make my statement of values in the choices of how I live my daily life. I’ve become comfortable having friends from a variety of backgrounds, working in a helping profession (Care Coordinator for an MCO with Medicaid recipients as my caseload), married now to a Cameroonian studying here, and living in a “rural frontier” community in a state known for its multicultural heritage (Hispanic, Native America, Anglo and with a small but historically significant black population) that has also welcomed many Vietnamese and, lately, Tibetan and Middle Eastern immigrants.

I began to come out of my blank space when I read that my college Swarthmore, in Pennsylvania, has declared itself a sanctuary school. Santa Fe (NM), near my home, has declared itself committed to remaining a sanctuary city. I wear a safety pin on my outer garments ever since I learned of the act as a symbol that others, of whatever type, are safe with me. It seems that I’ve needed time to find my way into the acts that allow me to express my resistance to the present state of the nation. Because I am under constraints now, as I was all those decades ago. Again now, as then, people whom I care about can be harmed if I become too outspoken.

Am I truly having to go through this yet again? How could the nation have regressed so far, so fast?

I have not been writing, and therefore not posting, while I work through my response to what seems to be the undoing of everything I have cared about and supported my entire, many decades long, adult life. Living my values in my small corner of the state is necessary, but has not felt sufficient. I’m signing petitions, but ignoring the constant demand for cash contributions to fund more protests, because I don’t have the cash to donate (if I did, I wouldn’t still be working full time at long past retirement age). I’ve been seeking what would feel like an appropriate expression of my objections to the so-called swamp which, instead of being drained, has been broadened and deepened to cover the entire nation with greed and egotism and petulant childish tantrums and threats to our most fundamental Constitutional freedoms.

Today, when I heard that federal funds will be cut off to any entity that resists the government’s attack on immigrants, I remembered another piece of my past – tax resistance. As a Quaker, I refused to pay for war when I was young. Might I now refuse to pay for a wall, and a registry, and an immigration ban? Might I give my tax money directly to Santa Fe schools that will need it, instead of to the Federal government to spend on taking this country backward a century or more?

I don’t know how this idea will unfold, but it is clear to me that identifying a form of protest congruent with my life experience has been necessary to bring me the rest of the way out of my funk. Now let’s see if it also ends my silence.

Tea-tinted Memories

August 29, 2016

Filling time between a dermatology appointment (Neosporin aggravates rather than helps to heal wounds!) and a dharma talk at Upaya, the Zen center in Santa Fe, I took a walk up Canyon Road, famous for art galleries, a history of being the path to the source of water and wood for city residents, and site also of the Santa Fe Friend’s Meeting with which I have a long and pleasant history. Most of the galleries I knew from years past have gone; so too a few favorite restaurants.

Living 80 miles away for the past 25 years, I’ve obviously not kept up with the street’s evolution. I did walk past the house where longtime friends lived when I first visited Santa Fe, in the early spring of 1972. And the gallery where, during that visit, I purchased a small bear fetish made from serpentine is, amazingly, still in business. The Glory Hole is gone. I miss its lively presence, the roar of the furnace and the crowd of onlookers enjoying the vivid, skilled and energetic process of creating blown glass objects.

In that space there are now several galleries – and a tea shop. Very ready for some cool refreshment, I went into the store to order a freshly brewed glass of Assam, and looked around at the walls of tins of different types of tea for sale. Many familiar labels stood among the black, green, white and herbal teas offered. Old friends from Ceylon, Darjeeling, Kenya, and Russian, English, and Scottish blends. Smoky Lapsang Souchong, various Greys (all with the bergamot that I have an allergic reaction to and therefore do not ever consume) and also a variety of jasmine blends. Last in a row on the top shelf, with a plain white label, one canister caught my eye. Vietnam OP.

In a flash, I was thirteen, touring a tea plantation with my father, in the Vietnamese highlands. Seeing how the leaves were graded according to which plants they had been picked from, told that those plants higher on the sunny slope produced a better quality of tea. We walked through the drying sheds, saw the different ways leaves were handled, to make green versus black versus smoked final products. My father’s role was to verify that the packaged tea was totally produced in the “free” south of Vietnam, not in the Communist controlled north. His certification made it possible for the tea to be marketed in the United States (this was in 1957, when the U.S. was determinedly not dealing with any countries with socialistic or communist-style governments.) My presence was the result of my father arranging a treat for me, compensation for a missed birthday party that had to be cancelled due to a government imposed ban on gatherings of all sorts, after a series of bombings had occurred in Saigon. (No terrorism, bombing of innocent civilians is NOT new).

We had journeyed up the coast and first visited a salt producer – beds of ocean water walled off and allowed to evaporate, with the resultant salt raked up, rinsed, dried once more, and bagged for market. Then we traveled up into the hills to the tea plantation. Both business operations were being managed jointly by a French and a Vietnamese proprietor. Both had been solely French until 1954 and the ouster of France from Indochina. Many of the French living in Vietnam had gone “home” to France initially, but many had then returned to take up their former occupations, more at ease in the tropics than their native land in which they had not lived for as much as 20 years. These returnees negotiated with the Vietnamese government, trading their expertise for acceptance back into their former occupations and lifestyles, now with Vietnamese “partners” to participate in the production and profits of salt, tea, cinnamon, rice and other agricultural products.

After the tour of the tea plantation was complete, we were treated to a “tasting”. Tiny cups – one sip worth – of each of the teas produced on the plantation were offered for sampling, freshly brewed with bites of plain local rice taken between sips, so that the palate would be clear and ready to appreciate the new and different tea sample.

Much has been written, and incorporated into literature, about the rituals associated with wine tasting. I learned then that there is as elaborate a process in savoring tea, though it is much less well known in the West. I did know even then, from my father, how to make a “proper” cup of tea. He followed the Russian process of brewing a very strong essence, then serving a small portion of it into a cup and adding freshly boiled water to bring it to the proper strength for drinking. Although I admit to using tea bags (or make my own with bulk tea), I still follow my father’s process for special occasions.

I’ve made a series of such special occasions this past week, each time I brew myself a cup of the Vietnam OP which I purchased in Santa Fe.

Half a world and most of a lifetime separate my two experiences of tea from Vietnam.

Probably not coincidentally, the message in the sermon my husband heard in church this morning was about the importance of making memories – and of sharing them.

So won’t you join me for a rich, energizing yet soothing cup of tea?

Tea for Two

Tea for Two

 

I Went for a Walk

August 14, 2016

Cleaning out unneeded documents in my computer files, I came across an essay I wrote for myself about eight years ago. I don’t recall writing it. Rereading it now, I recognize that I’ve integrated the essence of it into my self, my life, my philosophy of living, my spiritual path. I choose now to share it with others, offering a bit of my beloved grandfather’s wisdom to those who honor us both by reading my words.

A Walk with My Grampa

I Went For a Walk in the Forest was the book title and first phrase I learned to read, precociously at age three, sitting on my Grampa’s lap as he read the story over and over to me. The book was paper bound, about 6 inches high and 10 inches long, with a black and white cover sketch of the forest surrounded by a pumpkin-orange border. If you opened the book out flat, so that the back and front covers made one whole picture, all the animals met on that forest walk could be seen hidden among the trees. In the delightful manner of children’s fantasy, the animals collected in that forest ignored the habitat restrictions which would normally prevent them meeting, except perhaps in a zoo.

From the safety of Grampa’s lap I learned about lions and horses, a giraffe, an elephant, deer and antelope, and a monkey. When the reading walk was done we rested. He smoked, and I trapped the smoke rings he blew into a wide mouth bottle, where they magically retained shape until the genie who also lived in the bottle stirred them into a fog to give himself shelter.

I went for a walk at the zoo, with my Grampa, most Sundays from when I was seven until I was twelve. He would come down on the train from Baltimore to spend the day with us, and would take me for ‘our’ time. Not always to the zoo, sometimes to the park or just for a walk around the neighborhood. He would ask me about my week in school, what I had learned and what I was reading, and he would tell me about the poem he was working on, or the article he was writing (in Hebrew, or Yiddish) for The Forward (which he pronounced as though a “v” began the second syllable). It was important to him to pick just the right Hebrew word from among several choices for his poems, to convey mood and spirit, as well as meaning.

I went for a walk on the beach – alone now, a world away from my Grampa, he still in Baltimore and I on the sand at Nha Trang, picking up tiny pink and black and pearl-colored shells which elderly Vietnamese refugees from the north collected to string into elaborate necklaces. I wore a small gold pendant my Grampa gave me, with the Tree of Life etched into it. A link, he said, that would stretch from Vietnam back to Maryland, to keep us sharing our walks. Those were harder years, without his immediate presence and gentle wisdom to balance the emotional stresses of my early teens.

I missed him still, when I went for a walk in the Bois de Boulogne during my high school years. I wrote to him, sitting on a sarcophagus in Pierre La Chaise cemetery, one of the few places in bustling Paris that I could find solitude and quiet. Those were very hard years, for both of us. He was no longer working in his dental practice and had fewer places to publish his essays and poems. He was no longer as able to care for himself, and not very aware of time, so his replies to me were intermittent, and rarely responsive to the questions I asked.

I went for a walk in the Crum Woods on Swarthmore’s campus, during my college years, and felt his presence through the guitar in my room, a fine instrument I’d found in a pawn shop, which he gave me the seventy-five dollars to purchase. I’d asked my parents for the money, but my mother had responded in her usual fashion. “Why don’t you prove your interest in playing guitar by learning on a borrowed one before you ask me to spend my money on something you may not pursue?” Fifty years later, that guitar stays easily in tune and its tone is admired by everyone who plays it.

I went for walks by the Chicago shore of Lake Michigan, and along the Charles River in Boston, after helping my mother to settle Grampa in Miami, where the better weather and the presence of a few close friends made it easier for him to manage. We talked on the phone since his eyes had failed to the point that he could not write, nor easily read. With a metal-bound, rectangular, hand-held magnifying glass left from his collection of dental tools, he would slowly read the daily Yiddish press, sharing his opinions with me on the events which he didn’t trust TV news to present fairly. He worried, after the Six Days War, that while its outcome improved Israel’s security at the time, there would come from it a negative turn in world opinion toward the Jewish state. He would, I know, be distraught over the actions and decisions taken recently – the wall, and the West Bank settlements which have become symbols of oppression rather than statements of freedom.

I went for one last walk with my Grampa, along the path beside the railroad tracks in Lamy, here in New Mexico, after he could no longer live on his own. My mother and I moved him into a nursing home outside Santa Fe, where I visited with him several times a month, and brought him to my little converted boxcar house for an outing, the one weekend he was strong enough to come. I told him the story of looking out the train window, age twelve and on my way to Vietnam, seeing Lamy as a strange, wild and western place – missing him desperately and never imagining that we two would walk together there. He answered that it was good to walk with me, though he didn’t really grasp where we were, and complained to me that there were people in his nursing home whom he could hear speaking Yiddish from a distance but who, when he came close and spoke to them, would not answer. I tried to explain that they were speaking Spanish, not Yiddish. He was by then seriously deafened, hearing just enough scraps of language to know when it wasn’t English being spoken. Like most speakers of more than one tongue, with advanced age Grampa’s communication abilities lasted longest in his first language, or in his case his first two, Yiddish for everyday and his beloved Hebrew for poetry and praise.

My grampa died within days of his official 91st birthday. Official, rather than real, because he had to transfer a birthdate from the Jewish (lunar) calendar used in what he called the “dot on the map village outside the dot on a map town” where he was born in Russia, to the western calendar he encountered when he entered the US as a twenty year old man in 1907. Knowing Shvat to be a spring month, he arbitrarily called it March. He equally firmly rejected the proposed Americanizing of his name to Hill, insisting that “no, my name is Domnitz, Aaron Domnitz.”

I go for walks now, often a brisk measured mile by Storrie Lake, or a leisurely stroll along Bridge Street, and realize I am just the age my Grampa was as my parents prepared to take us (his only close family) across the world to Vietnam. After 14 or more years of weekly trips from Baltimore to DC (he began them when my mother became pregnant with me), how great a change – and loss – that must have been for him!

I wonder – but obviously have no one to ask – why my parents didn’t bring him with us? Perhaps it was discussed and he refused? More likely, I’m afraid, my mother determined that she ‘didn’t want the responsibility’. That was her standard reply with which to block everything from my having friends for a sleep over, to helping host visiting dignitaries whom it was my father’s job to entertain. Blessedly it was also her response when Grampa needed nursing home care, so that I got to have him close to me for those precious last 18 months of his life. We went for so many lovely walks, in our talks, during my on-my-way-home-from-work visits with him!

Because life in his natal village had gone virtually unchanged for centuries before he left it, his awareness bridged nearly 300 years. Thus, we talk-walked streets of the 1700s in Russia as readily as those of Santa Fe in 1975. He shared the concern of many, that our technological skills so far exceed our ethical advances. “Will we now bring war to the moon?” was his question after that ‘one giant step’ for mankind.

Grampa’s dental cabinet, filled with a fragile, gaily decorated porcelain tea service from Vietnam, sits in my dining room. I use his magnifying glass when I need stronger eyes. The guitar provides music from many cultures, when I entertain students from the United World College. I pick my written words with care, respecting the importance he gave to nuances of meaning.

My Grampa started me reading about a walk through a forest to meet different animals. He continues to guide me on my walk through life, meeting its varied challenges. Some of that guidance arises from one of the last things Grampa said to me, shortly before he died. I’d asked if he had his life to live over, what he might have done differently. His answer was that he had only two regrets. The first was that he thought perhaps my mother might have been a happier person if he had remarried (he raised her on his own), but he’d never found the right woman. The second was that he wished he’d learned to play the mandolin. No wonder he supported my learning the guitar!

However long my own life walk turns out to be, I hope that when it ends, I will have as few regrets as my Grampa did. With his gifts surrounding me, and his ethics a part of me, I have every reason to succeed.

Small World

November 24, 2013

Have you ever swapped “small world” stories?

Some are simple, like the appearance in the training class for my new job of a woman who lives barely five miles from me in the rural area denoted by a dot on the map called Sapello – a woman I’d met once briefly before, but did not know until we were paired, during the training, for motivational interviewing exercises. Turns out we have a number of common interests, and a shared love of living “on the frontier” as our employer labels the area we serve.

Other small world stories are of more surprising meetings (Coincidences? Fated encounters?)

Two of mine have their roots in my stay in Vietnam, from 1956-1958. I was in my early teens, my father assigned as the economic officer at the U.S. embassy in Saigon.  Ingrid, a few years younger than I, was one of my friends. Both of us were socially awkward, neither of us fully aware to what extent the stresses within our families contributed to that lack of ease. We – in modern parlance – hung out together. After Saigon, Ingrid was sent to a boarding school in Colorado and I moved with my parents moved to Paris. She visited once, briefly, during those three years I lived in France. Then we lost touch.

Blaufarb Family with My Mother and Me Behind Them

Blaufarb Family with My Mother and Me Behind Them

Skip to four years later, my junior year in college, and a trip to New York City.

With my then boyfriend Ray, I was on a date that included a meal at the Russian Tea Room. We walked into the dining area, and saw before us a large family group seated at a round table. Ray started forward to greet one couple and their daughter Pamela, a former girlfriend from his high school days. I started forward to the same table to greet Ingrid’s parents. Ray and I looked at each other. “You know these people?” he quizzed me.

“Yes,” I replied. “Those are the Blaufarbs, parents of my friend Ingrid.”

“Pamela’s aunt and uncle. I’ve been told about them.”

I didn’t share with Ray how immediately I felt transported back to the tropic heat and teenage anxieties of Saigon, where I’d heard too much detail about Ingrid’s socially popular cousin Pamela!

*******

My second Vietnam-based story begins at its end, tying Saigon to Sapello. One of the people working in the office of my vet is a tall, energetic woman a few years older than I, named Susan. She is the sister-in-law of Louie, who trained my younger mare, and with whom I became friends when I first moved to Sapello in 1990. At some point in my on-going  conversations with Louie, it came out that his sister had “run off with a Frenchman” when she was in her late teens, and that the siblings had only reconnected many years later, when they both settled back near their mother. in the Sapello area.

Louie told me that Susan had gone to work for “our” vet when he set up practice about three miles from my home. On my next trip in with an animal in need of care, I met Susan. Remembering what Louie had told me, I mentioned that Susan and I had a connection of both knowing French. The next few sentences revealed that we both learned our French, not in Paris, but in Saigon. We had both spent leisure time at the Cercle Sportif, the “club” where we swam, played tennis, and in my case took classes, and performed the French Can Can at one of their “spectacles” – shows put on for the enjoyment of the members.

Contemplating a Plunge

Contemplating a Plunge

Susan’s time in Saigon preceded mine – she left in the spring before the October that brought me to Vietnam, just in time for my 13th birthday. Susan’s Frenchman, whom she married at seventeen but divorced just a few years later, was the older brother of Marie Claire, with whom I became friends in the dance class, and with whom I performed that Can Can.

******

Ingrid now divides her time between New York and Maine; her son went briefly to Swarthmore, where Ray and I attended college. Looking through a Swarthmore Alumni Bulletin sent to her son, Ingrid found an essay I’d written. Through the college, she obtained the information to once again contact me, some forty years after our last encounter in Paris. I’ve since traveled to the East Coast. We met for an afternoon. Ray recently traveled west, and we also met after a parallel forty year gap, as I recounted in a post this past summer.

Meanwhile, Susan is retiring from the vet’s office for a combination of reasons, including the fact that the vet is introducing a complex new computer system to the practice. Susan “does not get along well with computers” and decided the stress of trying to do so would be an unacceptable strain on her health. I’m feeling vivid kinship with her now, as I try to understand the complexities of the several computer systems I must master in my new job. I don’t share Susan’s aversion to computers, indeed feel fairly comfortable with them – or thought I did – until I encountered the multiple encrypted layers of security that must be understood to navigate around a health provider’s regulation-compliant system. Thank heavens, Presbyterian’s tech support is a seven-days-per-week operation!!!

I expect I’ll still see Susan occasionally, as we live quite near one another and have overlapping interests. I’m in intermittent contact with Ingrid, and with Ray, by email. If the occasion arises for me to introduce them to Susan, will that somehow close a loop that stretches over fifty-five years and around half the world? Linkages through the Internet, which enable me to “chat” simultaneously with a friend in Singapore and one in Norway, have already made the world much smaller, but enjoyable as they are, those conversations don’t have the same feeling of “oh my, how amazing” that accompanied my encounter with the Blaufarbs in New York, or with Susan at the vet.

Is it just me, or is it something to do with the life experiences of my age group, that makes the face-to-face connection of a small world encounter more precious than even the most globe-encompassing Internet link?


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