May 26th, 2007

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Good Morning!!

I am happy to be back.  This is where I pause to breathe, and breathing and the pause are very big for me.  When I spoke at Esalen, Sharon Olds "got" that when she was stumped with writer's block, that if she paused to notice her breath, she would wiggle on through the slump.  I don't think about it that way,  but when I spoke of my book at the publishing workshop, people "got" that it was a spiritual book.  Since I had not planned to "bill" it as a spiritual book, I am this morning with what spirituality means to me.  To begin,  I look up the definition of spiritual and it really says nothing at all.

For me, spirituality is connection, connection with the breath, noticing where it wiggles in and out, how I am touched and where.  I notice that my cat Tiger lies exposed, allows air to flow on all sides, whereas little Bella likes to tuck into a pillow on a chair.  I see trust in how and where they sleep.  I think for me, spirituality is touch, connection, the breath, and feeling how much we all share, so I suppose the book is spiritual.  It is about the pause, and entering a slower place where one feels their own breath and how it mingles, influences, and touches the breath of others.  I think it is very important to live so that our breath has freedom and ease.  Perhaps, for me, that is spiritual.

The fog is in, and I am softly tucked with my two furry, sleeping friends.

May this weekend give you a chance to reflect on the veil between the worlds.   I am reminded now of a poem I wrote about that.  I wrote it after a visit to a wonderful, little pond, a break in a rapidly falling stream.  I was staying in Vicki's yurt in Ukiah.  The water truly did shake in a way that allowed us a vision into another world.   The toad was our guide.  For me, nature is spiritual and says it all.  I lean in to listen and breathe in what is said in trees, leaves, and ponds.  

The Gift


We sit by a pool,

a seasonal pool,

        a barrette on the braid of a stream.


Newts hang, dangling,

dark and still.

A toad sits on a stone

as though thinking a book.


Thought strings lanterns.


Water striders pucker the surface, like stars.


We think we see deeply,

until a shimmering romp shakes a depth so clear,

We see ourselves from the other side,

lifted on the palm of a giant love.


        The Zuni say,

                The distance between the living and the dead

                                is thinner than a strand of hair.

                                        A horsehair worm

                                                glides by.



        Life stretches through layers of cohesion, bonds.


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In memory of those who died in WWI -

I feel WWI as a very sensitive subject, since my grandfather fought there and truly believed it was the "war to end all wars."  When WWII happened, and he knew his son was going over to fight, he got sick and died.  I think it broke his heart to know his son would endure what he went through.

I offer this today.  It is placed at the beginning of the book Maisie Dobbs by Jacqueline Winspear.  Winspear writes:

    "Final verse "Disabled," by Wilfred Owen.  It was drafted at Craiglockhart, a hospital for shell-shocked officers, in October 1917.  Owen was killed on November 4, 1918, just one week before the armistice."

Heart-breaking, isn't it, and our government continues to stamp along, and the tragedy of war continues to break legs, arms, and hearts.

Here is the final verse of "Disabled."

    Now he will spend a few sick years in institutes,
    And do what things the rules consider wise,
    And take whatever pity they may dole.
    Tonight he noticed how the women's eyes
    Passed from him to the strong men that were whole.
    How cold and late it is!  Why don't they come
    And put him to bed?  Why don't they come?

             - Wilfred Owen

Haunting, isn't it?   It is for each of us to ask, Why don't we come to the rescue of peace?

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Architectural Review!

Here is a review of the Netherlands Institute for Sound and Vision, titled "Heaven, Hell, and Purgatory Encased in Glass," as reviewed by Nicolai Ouroussoff.

HILVERSUM, the Netherlands — It’s almost daunting to note how many young architectural talents are flourishing today in the Netherlands. If Rem Koolhaus, the profession’s reigning intellectual prince, casts a long shadow, it’s clear that plenty of emerging architects have managed to assert strong creative voices of their own.

The completion of their Netherlands Institute for Sound and Vision here can only elevate their status. Wrapped in a luxurious skin of colorful cast-glass panels, it is their most gorgeous work to date. Yet beneath the glittering surfaces they have fashioned a serious critique of a world saturated in advertising and marketing images, and reaffirmed architecture’s heroic stature.

A leafy suburban hamlet southeast of Amsterdam, Hilversum is best known as the center of the Dutch television industry. Yet it has quietly amassed an impressive array of architectural works. The folded concrete forms of the Villa VPRO, the offices of a private broadcast authority designed by the Dutch firm MVRDV, are visible from a distance; Willem Marinus Dudok’s low, graceful brick town hall, a landmark of early-20th-century Modernism, is a short drive away.

The Netherlands Institute for Sound and Vision, the home of the national broadcasting archives, was conceived as a perfect cube, half of it buried underground. In addition to the archives and offices, it houses a museum, making it a new cultural focal point for the city.

Standing on an isolated lot flanked by a small garden, its glowing glass shell recalls the translucent exterior of Gordon Bunshaft’s 1963 Beinecke Rare Book Library at Yale . Like many architects of their generation, Mr. Neutelings and Mr. Riedijk have been heavily influenced by postwar architects like Bunshaft: the brutal directness of his buildings carries particular appeal when so much architecture is corrupted by fairy-tale images straight from Disney. Both buildings are taut, confident structures. But Mr. Neutelings and Mr. Riedijk’s building is rooted in pop culture rather than in the ethos of postwar corporate America.

Conceived in collaboration with the 65-year-old artist Jaap Drupsteen, the structure’s panels are imprinted with famous images from Dutch television: the justice minister riding his bicycle, say, or Johan Cruyff scoring a goal. Using computer technology, Mr. Drupsteen ran the images together and baked them into the glass.

The effect is mesmerizing. The images are only barely discernible from certain angles, as if the building were imprinted with the faint traces of shared memories. But the exterior facades are also a sly critique of contemporary culture. The blur of images conveys the daily bombardment from the Internet, television, movies and newspapers, yet here they seem frozen in time, as if temporarily tamed.

Inside the building that tranquillity gives way to a comic-book version of Dante’s “Divine Comedy,” with strict divisions between various worlds. Visitors enter via an internal bridge that crosses over an underground atrium. From here, a vast hall conceived on the scale of a piazza leads to a cafeteria overlooking the calm surface of a reflecting pool. On one side of the hall looms the ziggurat form of the museum; on the other, a wall of glass-enclosed offices. Here the spectral glow of the interior of the cast-glass skin evokes the stained-glass windows of a medieval cathedral.

It’s a stunning space whose power lies in the contrast between the various architectural experiences within. Clad in cold gray slate, for instance, the underground atrium is a striking counterpoint to the heavenly glass walls above. Mr. Neutelings and Mr. Riedijk call the atrium their “inferno.” It also evokes a tomb: big, square openings are cut through the atrium’s walls, revealing a series of corridors painted a hellish red. The archives are tucked behind these corridors, where researchers and scholars, you suppose, toil away with the concentration of monks.

Neither fiery nor blissful, the offices are something closer to purgatory. Arranged in neat little rows, they open onto long, narrow corridors that overlook the bustling main hall. The office interiors are more contemplative, the colored cast-glass panels alternating with more conventional strip windows. The colored glass emits a soft glow that is strangely soothing.

But the true inferno, in visual terms, is the museum. Mr. Neutelings and Mr. Riedijk set the entry stairs off to one side of the main hall, as if they were trying to avoid it. There are hints of the architects’ presence inside: the walls of the museum auditorium are covered in an elegant, diamond-shaped pattern, and two small openings pierce the darkness at the top of the stairs to the museum’s upper floors, offering sudden glimpses of the colorful glass skin.

But the architects had no control over the design of the exhibitions, and what little architecture there is here is completely overwhelmed by a nauseating mix of interactive installations, reproductions of stage sets and tchotchkes from old Dutch television shows. The effect is cringe-inducing.

Like many architects, Mr. Neutelings and Mr. Riedijk are struggling to come to terms with a society that is on the verge of being completely consumed by global advertising and marketing images. More often than not, architecture is becoming a tool of those interests.

By sealing off these competing forces in distinct worlds and then juxtaposing them, the architects have subtly reasserted the dignity of the public realm, while providing a potent commentary on where our culture is heading.

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Let choice
        in your ear

And Love
        in your heart.
                 Be ready.
                     Here comes life.

                     - Maya Angelou

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Memorial Day Weekend!

For this weekend, and in memory of those who have died for our freedom, Bill Moyers had Maxine Hong Kingston on his show this week.  I just watched it and it is incredibly touching.   Sandy Scull is on it, and he is one of the poets who was there with me at Esalen.  When you hear his poems, you will understand why the power of the poetry there so affected me.  He wrote a new one at Esalen on Vietnam and read it to us.  James Janko is also interviewed on the show.  I have mentioned his book Buffalo Boy and Geronimo as a must-read. 

Maxine's newest book is Veterans of War, Veterans of Peace, and it, too sounds like a must-read.  She has been working with veterans and writing to aid their healing.  This book is their stories.  On this weekend, especially, let us move the consciousness of the world toward peace.

You can read more about the show at

It is well worth watching.
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Interview with James Janko -

Interview with James Janko, author of Buffalo Boy and Geronimo

By: Jaclyn Allard, Curbstone intern

Do you consider your experience in writing this novel a period of reflection, as well as a therapeutic outlet after your time in Viet Nam?

To sit alone and try to write one true thing is reflective, radical, an act of rebellion in today's world. The goal is to be an honest witness, and in the effort itself—whether or not "a good story" emerges—there is healing.

Although your book is fictitious, is there a great sense of reality in it for you? How true are the experiences of the characters to the actual events of your Viet Nam experience? Do you feel it possible or impossible to replicate such an experience, in fiction or nonfiction?

If I'd told a journalistic account of my experience, I would have missed too much. The Vietnamese, for instance. I didn't know them during the war. I wasn't drafted and sent to Viet Nam to get to know anyone. I had to go back decades later to meet these people and open my ears.

The platoon I was with had a high casualty rate, a bit over 50%. In detail, I only told about one American death, that of Geronimo's friend, Billie Jasper, killed by a booby trap. I think what I wrote about 'Billie' gives a reader some idea of what a violent death looks like and feels like. I took something that happened and wrote what I could.

At bottom, the level of violence that I witnessed is impossible for me to replicate in fiction, nonfiction, or spoken word. I can only leave hints.

Throughout the novel, both your main characters find a specific connection with nature. Hai bonds with his buffalo, while Geronimo's interaction with a tiger leaves him changed. What intimate connection with nature did you experience when you served as a medic in Viet Nam?

Ironically, I know the Vietnamese earth more intimately than I know the earth of my own country. I was a platoon medic for the 25th Infantry Division for around nine months. We operated in the Cu Chi and Tay Ninh areas, and were part of the U.S. invasion of Cambodia in May of 1970. I stumbled through rice paddies, forests, jungles, waded through swamps, and at night I lay down on Vietnamese soil ten thousand miles from home. I sometimes felt that the land was inside me, that it was growing in me, and this—rather than being a burden—was my one comfort. I was dazed, not quite believing I was in this war, but now and then the beauty of the place was too great to be missed. Lushness is too mild a word to describe the Vietnamese earth and the Cambodian jungles. Even the bombed-out Cu Chi countryside still had a few pockets that blossomed. In those I took refuge when I could.

What was the underlying purpose of creating two characters, typically viewed as enemies, but who share a common attunement with nature?

Nguyen Luu Hai is as complicated as a rice field. At a glance, a bright green paddy may seem lovely in a simple way, but if you look with care you see that you will never live long enough to understand all the life it contains.

Conchola (Geronimo) is complicated in a different way. Imagine a gnarly hedgerow, or a darkness where a tiger roams. I love what poet George Evans says in his poem, A Walk in the Garden of Heaven: "...someone must remember, someone refuse to be tethered." Conchola is lean, un-tethered. Everything's been stripped away from him but his conscience. He remembers what most Americans forgot or never cared to know.

While writing, I have zero interest in conceptual scaffolding. I work with feeling tones, scenes, smells, colors. It seems to me that I make few conscious choices while writing. Analysis—if there is any—comes later.

Buffalo Boy and Geronimo highlights the importance of nature, and the destruction that war causes on ecological stability. In fact, nature plays such a large role in your novel that it almost takes on the position of a character. Why is it important for people to recognize natural surroundings not only on a daily basis, but more specifically, during wartime?

Thich Nhat Hanh, a Vietnamese monk, writes, "In a tiny grain of corn, there is the knowledge, transmitted by previous generations, of how to sprout, and how to make leaves, flowers, and ears of corn. Our body and our mind also have knowledge that has been transmitted by previous gnerations."

As I see it, most Americans have squandered their knowledge for the sake of money and things. The artist Naomi Ido, speaking of westerners in general, said, "We have lost our sense of belonging to nature." I would add that we have lost our sense of reality.

Nothing is more harmful to the earth than the preparation for war and war itself. Even if the U.S. never uses its vast supply of nuclear weapons, the toxins involved in their production will continue to pollute the earth for tens of thousand of years. The culture of militarism is a culture of death.

In regard to war itself, the destruction of the land and its creatures is a lonesome subject. In Viet Nam more than three decades ago, we mainly mourned the loss of American lives, and today the same is true in the Iraq War. I too acknowledge the suffering of our soldiers, the tragic waste, but I want to point out that the natural world—that which sustains all forms of life, ours included—is also being destroyed.

The Vietnamese word for human is con nguoi; con means animal, and nguoi means person. The language is old enough to recall a time when human beings did not view themselves as separate from animals. In the present time, it seems to me that an awareness of the oneness of life is essential for the survival of many species, including Homo sapiens.

A much-needed documentary called Scarred Lands and Wounded Lives,The Environmental Footprint of War, will soon be produced by the Center for Environmental Filmmaking at American University.

The mechanical element of combat, troop maneuvers, and overall military life, are common themes explored by writers, such as Virginia Woolf, Erich Remarque, and many others when describing war. Do you view war and its tactics as something stiff, machine-like, and without thought? How might the use of nature and its destruction in your novel be an indication of the robotic and impassive takeover of the military?

Most of the destruction I witnessed in Viet Nam was the work of men and machines. In the Cu Chi area, we Americans fought against a resistance force that often disappeared into tunnels. Unable to find the "enemy," we called in the Air Force to kill the earth that sustained the "enemy." Planes bombed fields, forests, rivers, water buffalo, etc. Before I knew the term military-industrial complex, I witnessed its work first-hand. Poet Gwendolyn Brooks, in The Near-Johannesburg Boy, puts it this way: "To be mechanic, automatic, Quick—This is the way of the time of evil."

It could be assumed that you recognize a part of yourself in Geronimo, due to his role as a GI medic in Viet Nam. However, what other aspects of Geronimo do you relate to? And in what ways do you also identify with Hai?

Like Hai, I can't survive without beauty. Geronimo is this way, too. They are relentless in their search for beauty. They do not compromise; they do not give up. Beauty is where we meet.

Hai remains rooted in his culture, but Conchola—because of the destruction he has witnessed—no longer sees himself as an American. He wants to be Geronimo, a force of nature that cannot be killed by a bullet or bomb or anything mechanical. In the end, he is the opposite of the war machine. I identify with him when he stumbles through the jungle shouting, "Geronimo, Geronimo!" to scare birds and other creatures from an area about to be bombed.

Which scene and/or character do you find most true to the Buddhist teachings that run throughout your novel?

A chapter called "Hero" describes the nightly prayer routine of Ma Xuan, the buffalo boy's mother, by far the most devout Buddhist in the book. Buddhism has many cultural variations; for the Vietnamese, ancestors are at the heart of the religion. Ma Xuan has an altar with pictures of those who have passed on—her husband, her parents, her husband's parents. Que huong (ancestral homeland) is home in the depest sense. The placenta and umbilical cords of Ma Xuan's two children are buried in the land of the ancestors. Her husband is buried near the field where he worked, as are her parents. The ancestors and the fields they farmed, and the living who continue to work in these fields, are one circle, one web of union. When one lives in this way, and honors the dead in this way, how can one harm the land? It would be like stabbing one's own flesh.

Maxine Hong Kingston, in China Men, says it this way: "Men build bridges and streets when there is already an amazing gold electric ring connecting every living being as surely as if we held hands, flippers and paws, feelers and wings."

Recognizing the fact that this is your first novel, and the excellent critical acclaim it continues to receive, do you see yourself writing another novel? If so, will your material continue on the path of war, nature, or perhaps once again, a combination of the two?

I just finished a novel about baseball and where it intersects, or might intersect, with poetry and politics.

I'm now working on a new novel about Illinois boys (I grew up in Illinois) who end up going to the Viet Nam War. The Vietnamese call it the American War.

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Martin Luther King, Jr -

Here is Martin Luther King in 1964 accepting the Nobel Peace Prize.

He ends with the following words:

So man's proneness to engage in war is still a fact. But wisdom born of experience should tell us that war is obsolete. There may have been a time when war served as a negative good by preventing the spread and growth of an evil force, but the destructive power of modern weapons eliminated even the possibility that war may serve as a negative good. If we assume that life is worth living and that man has a right to survive, then we must find an alternative to war. In a day when vehicles hurtle through outer space and guided ballistic missiles carve highways of death through the stratosphere, no nation can claim victory in war. A so-called limited war will leave little more than a calamitous legacy of human suffering, political turmoil, and spiritual disillusionment. A world war - God forbid! - will leave only smoldering ashes as a mute testimony of a human race whose folly led inexorably to ultimate death. So if modern man continues to flirt unhesitatingly with war, he will transform his earthly habitat into an inferno such as even the mind of Dante could not imagine.

Therefore, I venture to suggest to all of you and all who hear and may eventually read these words, that the philosophy and strategy of nonviolence become immediately a subject for study and for serious experimentation in every field of human conflict, by no means excluding the relations between nations. It is, after all, nation-states which make war, which have produced the weapons which threaten the survival of mankind, and which are both genocidal and suicidal in character.

Here also we have ancient habits to deal with, vast structures of power, indescribably complicated problems to solve. But unless we abdicate our humanity altogether and succumb to fear and impotence in the presence of the weapons we have ourselves created, it is as imperative and urgent to put an end to war and violence between nations as it is to put an end to racial injustice. Equality with whites will hardly solve the problems of either whites or Negroes if it means equality in a society under the spell of terror and a world doomed to extinction.

I do not wish to minimize the complexity of the problems that need to be faced in achieving disarmament and peace. But I think it is a fact that we shall not have the will, the courage, and the insight to deal with such matters unless in this field we are prepared to undergo a mental and spiritual reevaluation - a change of focus which will enable us to see that the things which seem most real and powerful are indeed now unreal and have come under the sentence of death. We need to make a supreme effort to generate the readiness, indeed the eagerness, to enter into the new world which is now possible, "the city which hath foundations, whose builder and maker is God"18.

We will not build a peaceful world by following a negative path. It is not enough to say "We must not wage war." It is necessary to love peace and sacrifice for it. We must concentrate not merely on the negative expulsion of war, but on the positive affirmation of peace. There is a fascinating little story that is preserved for us in Greek literature about Ulysses and the Sirens. The Sirens had the ability to sing so sweetly that sailors could not resist steering toward their island. Many ships were lured upon the rocks, and men forgot home, duty, and honor as they flung themselves into the sea to be embraced by arms that drew them down to death. Ulysses, determined not to be lured by the Sirens, first decided to tie himself tightly to the mast of his boat, and his crew stuffed their ears with wax. But finally he and his crew learned a better way to save themselves: they took on board the beautiful singer Orpheus whose melodies were sweeter than the music of the Sirens. When Orpheus sang, who bothered to listen to the Sirens?

So we must fix our vision not merely on the negative expulsion of war, but upon the positive affirmation of peace. We must see that peace represents a sweeter music, a cosmic melody that is far superior to the discords of war. Somehow we must transform the dynamics of the world power struggle from the negative nuclear arms race which no one can win to a positive contest to harness man's creative genius for the purpose of making peace and prosperity a reality for all of the nations of the world. In short, we must shift the arms race into a "peace race". If we have the will and determination to mount such a peace offensive, we will unlock hitherto tightly sealed doors of hope and transform our imminent cosmic elegy into a psalm of creative fulfillment.

All that I have said boils down to the point of affirming that mankind's survival is dependent upon man's ability to solve the problems of racial injustice, poverty, and war; the solution of these problems is in turn dependent upon man squaring his moral progress with his scientific progress, and learning the practical art of living in harmony. Some years ago a famous novelist died. Among his papers was found a list of suggested story plots for future stories, the most prominently underscored being this one: "A widely separated family inherits a house in which they have to live together." This is the great new problem of mankind. We have inherited a big house, a great "world house" in which we have to live together - black and white, Easterners and Westerners, Gentiles and Jews, Catholics and Protestants, Moslem and Hindu, a family unduly separated in ideas, culture, and interests who, because we can never again live without each other, must learn, somehow, in this one big world, to live with each other.

This means that more and more our loyalties must become ecumenical rather than sectional. We must now give an overriding loyalty to mankind as a whole in order to preserve the best in our individual societies.

This call for a worldwide fellowship that lifts neighborly concern beyond one's tribe, race, class, and nation is in reality a call for an all-embracing and unconditional love for all men. This oft misunderstood and misinterpreted concept so readily dismissed by the Nietzsches of the world as a weak and cowardly force, has now become an absolute necessity for the survival of man. When I speak of love I am not speaking of some sentimental and weak response which is little more than emotional bosh. I am speaking of that force which all of the great religions have seen as the supreme unifying principle of life. Love is somehow the key that unlocks the door which leads to ultimate reality. This Hindu-Moslem-Christian-Jewish-Buddhist belief about ultimate reality is beautifully summed up in the First Epistle of Saint John19:

Let us love one another: for love is of God; and everyone
that loveth is born of God, and knoweth God.
He that loveth not knoweth not God; for God is love.
If we love one another, God dwelleth in us, and His
love is perfected in us.

Let us hope that this spirit will become the order of the day. As Arnold Toynbee20 says: "Love is the ultimate force that makes for the saving choice of life and good against the damning choice of death and evil. Therefore the first hope in our inventory must be the hope that love is going to have the last word." We can no longer afford to worship the God of hate or bow before the altar of retaliation. The oceans of history are made turbulent by the ever-rising tides of hate. History is cluttered with the wreckage of nations and individuals that pursued this self-defeating path of hate. Love is the key to the solution of the problems of the world.

Let me close by saying that I have the personal faith that mankind will somehow rise up to the occasion and give new directions to an age drifting rapidly to its doom. In spite of the tensions and uncertainties of this period something profoundly meaningful is taking place. Old systems of exploitation and oppression are passing away, and out of the womb of a frail world new systems of justice and equality are being born. Doors of opportunity are gradually being opened to those at the bottom of society. The shirtless and barefoot people of the land are developing a new sense of "some-bodiness" and carving a tunnel of hope through the dark mountain of despair. "The people who sat in darkness have seen a great light."21 Here and there an individual or group dares to love, and rises to the majestic heights of moral maturity. So in a real sense this is a great time to be alive. Therefore, I am not yet discouraged about the future. Granted that the easygoing optimism of yesterday is impossible. Granted that those who pioneer in the struggle for peace and freedom will still face uncomfortable jail terms, painful threats of death; they will still be battered by the storms of persecution, leading them to the nagging feeling that they can no longer bear such a heavy burden, and the temptation of wanting to retreat to a more quiet and serene life. Granted that we face a world crisis which leaves us standing so often amid the surging murmur of life's restless sea. But every crisis has both its dangers and its opportunities. It can spell either salvation or doom. In a dark confused world the kingdom of God may yet reign in the hearts of men.

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Maxine Hong Kingston -

I repeat what Janko said, since it is so important to remember:

Maxine Hong Kingston, in China Men, says it this way: "Men build bridges and streets when there is already an amazing gold electric ring connecting every living being as surely as if we held hands, flippers and paws, feelers and wings."