The Vietnam Veteran

In Tsvet and my first month of practicing aikido, in February 2004, our dojo in Iowa City hosted a seminar that brought participants from around the Midwest aikido community. We participated in the Friday night class, but only watched the weekend’s main classes. As I reflected on my experience of aikido at this early point, I wrote,

I am imagining myself in the dojo. I raise my arm to grab my partner’s wrist, but then I stop. My partner is surprised, uncertain, possibly concerned, wondering, ‘Why did she stop?’

‘I need to understand this differently,’ I state, looking down and to the side, in my characteristic present-at-a-distance manner. ‘I have no desire to harm you. Why would I reach for you?’

‘Because I am lonely,’ is the answer that comes to me, not from the individual, but from the human condition.

Vietnam Women's Memorial detail
Detail of the Vietnam Women’s Memorial, by kalacaw

This strikes me as quite a productive answer. Human contact is essential to human wellbeing. Aikido has a strange potential, which has pushed Tsvet and I, perhaps especially me, outside our comfort zone — it’s the intensely interpersonal nature of aikido. I am exhausted after only an hour of being so close to other people. (This is why I didn’t attend the seminar.) And it is about energy. Working with it. Sharing it, you might say.

Tsvet and I were both really impressed by Jaime, a middle-aged man from Lincoln, Nebraska, who taught the seminar’s Friday-night class. At one point, Jamie demonstrated a technique in which his attacker rolled in his arms. It was so gentle, my mouth hung open in amazement. Tsvet said he wants to be like Jaime someday – to have Jaime’s intense grace.

Later on in that class, I confessed to my partner that I hadn’t understood Jaime’s instructions. Jaime came over. He radiated a sunlike warmth.

‘Here, try it with me,’ he said.

This stressed me out. Jaime is larger than the men in our dojo. His wrists are immense, his center deep — and then there’s me, a petite woman that has practiced aikido less than a month. Yet his warmth!

After I practiced the technique by attacking him a few times, he said, ‘Okay, you try.’

I laughed aloud as I imagined myself trying to throw him. It couldn’t possibly work, could it? And yet, it did — I threw him, after a beginner’s fashion. Still, beyond the technical workability of this art, it’s the warmth that is so striking and deeply touching.

Detail of the Vietnam Women's Memorial, by kalacaw
Detail of the Vietnam Women’s Memorial, by kalacaw

 

I sometimes contemplate sacred texts. The Baha’i texts say that everything in this world exists for our education. In other words, the purpose of all the stuff-ness of existence is the development and refinement of consciousness. That’s interesting. And it makes sense to me.

But here’s a new idea: What about personality and spirituality? But I don’t mean my own personality by itself; I mean, how does interacting with other people figure as a spiritual path? Does interacting with other people change me? Can it change me (or change both of us) in ways so deep it could be said to have changed our personalities?

I think about presence, that hard-to-describe quality of a person that lets you know that he or she is with you — for instance, that ‘sunlike radiance’ by which I recognized Jaime in class. Maybe people would consider presence to be an aspect of personality — an innate, unchangeable aspect of a person. But what if presence is an aspect of human development, something that can be changed as a person grows?

I hope presence can be developed. People who meet me right now might consider me a not-very-present, intellectual kind of person — far away, and built that way. But I don’t want to be only that.

I will ponder this more. I will ponder that voice in the wilderness saying, ‘Here am I… Here am I…’(1) (February 17, 2004)

Detail of the Vietnam Women's Memorial, by kalacaw
Detail of the Vietnam Women’s Memorial, by kalacaw

The next spring, in April 2005, another seminar brought the region’s aikido community together in Iowa City again. It was then a little over a year after Tsvet and I began practicing aikido. I wrote,

We went to the Friday evening dinner with Anne, Dan, Lisa, Luke, and Jaime and Kathy from Lincoln. We spent the majority of the evening discussing war and the equality of men and women. Jaime is a Vietnam veteran, and Luke an Iraq War veteran; the elder was helping the younger to process his thoughts. Luke is getting a religion degree in his efforts to process it.

Jaime reminded Tsvet and I of Carl [our friend who is also a Vietnam veteran] — he has worked so hard to process that experience. Jaime has dedicated himself to peace, to aikido, to working toward peace by changing himself.

‘Women should be allowed to become combatants if they want to,’ Anne insisted at dinner.

‘No person should really be allowed to become a combatant,’ Jaime growled.

‘And being a combatant can’t really be considered an opportunity,’ Luke added.

‘Perhaps women want to be allowed to make their own bad choices?’ I suggested, and was answered with a few dark chuckles.

‘I agree that all people should be encouraged to become less combatant,’ Anne conceded. ‘Less combatant, and more feminine.’

‘I don’t know that I want to become more feminine,’ Jaime disagreed. ‘Intelligent,’ he called it. ‘I want to be more intelligent.’ …

Before the next day’s practice began, I went to where Jaime stood near the dojo’s closet doors.

‘I wanted to tell you how much I enjoyed being at dinner with you yesterday,’ I told him. ‘One of my closest friends and mentors is a Vietnam veteran. We learn so much about the world through talking with him. It makes for very real conversation.’

He looked a bit taken aback, so I continued. ‘I mean, so much conversation these days is trivia, isn’t it? So I really appreciate conversation about things that are real. Things that matter.’

He then relaxed and said in his fervent, dark but resigned way, ‘Well, if these men really wanted it to matter, they wouldn’t do war any more.’

‘May it be so,’ I agreed. (April 25, 2005)

Detail of the Vietnam Women's Memorial, by kalacaw
Detail of the Vietnam Women’s Memorial, by kalacaw

Three years then passed in our training. In March, 2008, a point nearing the end of Tsvet and my time in Iowa City, we all gathered for another seminar and trained together once more. Here are my notes:

Jaime from Lincoln taught several classes. He taught with such love! Such a contrast with what one might expect from his exterior — a sullen, brick-built, grizzled and graying Vietnam veteran.

After having demonstrated a technique for the big group, he helped a teen-aged boy as he struggled with the technique. We gathered around, watched Jaime’s slow, fathomless patience, the great, safe space he made (the young man looked like a child, preemptively frightened, compared to Jaime’s bulk). The rest of us knelt close by, sort of bowed, like we were interrupting, as Jaime’s love fairly blinded us. When they finished, I wanted to applaud.

Later, Jaime helped me with a technique, too. I felt like the young man had looked. As Jaime finished demonstrating with me, I lay at his feet, my hand in his fingers, his forms of the technique folded through my memory like great tree branches still in the sun.

Jaime then leaned down to me and said gently, ‘Now, I want you to go out there, and show them how to do it right.’ (March 30, 2008)

Detail of the Vietnam Women's Memorial, by kalacaw
Detail of the Vietnam Women’s Memorial, by kalacaw

*

Notes

(1) This is a reference to a verse in the Baha’i Long Obligatory Prayer, which was written by Bahá’u’lláh. The full sentence in the verse goes like this:

I entreat Thee by Thy footsteps in this wilderness, and by the words ‘Here am I. Here am I’ which Thy chosen Ones have uttered in this immensity, and by the breaths of Thy Revelation, and the gentle winds of the Dawn of Thy Manifestation, to ordain that I may gaze on Thy beauty and observe whatsoever is in Thy Book.

*

Image links:

(All of these beautiful images are details of the Vietnam Women’s Memorial, photographed by kalacaw. The Vietnam Women’s Memorial is located on the National Mall in Washington, D.C., and was dedicated in 1993. Find out more at the Vietnam Women’s Memorial Foundation. Kalacaw also has a gestalt photo of the Vietnam Women’s Memorial sculpture.)

Hand | Prayer | Hand and boot | Boots | Face

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