November 10, 2019 § 1 Comment
Paul Mann Habitat Team: First building site/Tân Hôi Trung Commune. We’re all cleaned up and ready to get muddy.
Then: Post Build, Hoi Xuan and in the classroom.
Handing out the Peaks Island Elementary School kids’ drawings at Hoi Xuan Elementary School where we’ll then be drawing up a storm as part of the Hoi Xuan/ Peaks Island Elementary School Cross-Cultural (Grades 3-5) Drawing Exchange.
After our Habitat build was over in Dong Thap Province, five of us returned to the Mekong Delta after we said goodby to the rest of our team in Saigon. We had made arrangements to re-visit the school where we first suggested the drawing exchange between Peaks Island Elementary, where I live in Maine ,and Hoi Xuan Elementary. During the past year, the two schools have exchanged drawings. The kids in both schools (grades 3-5) drew the lives they live, sometimes sharing sentences or words. Drawing, to me, has always been an international language like music or song or quite frankly like getting dirty and working with other people whose native tongue you do not share.
The photo you see above was taken on a Sunday morning where the schoolroom was packed with kids and teachers and officials from the community gathered there to greet us and to see the drawings I brought to give to the kids in Hoi Xuan from the kids on Peaks Island. It was also a time for the school and community to thank us for the project and for the gifts of paper and pencils that we brought to them from Maine, USA.
After introductory remarks, we handed out paper and pencils and drawings began in earnest as the Hoi Xuan kids got busy drawing their responses to the drawings the kids from Peaks had drawn for them. These kids, of course, have never met and live in very different cultures and climates to name just a few outstanding differences, but I was struck by the similarities in many of the images drawn and /or responded to. For example:
Here’s a Peaks Island skateboard drawing by one of the boys on Peaks. And below, one of the Hoi Xuan kids took inspiration and did a riff of his own.
Birds were Big Subjects for both groups of kids: First, a Peaks variety.
Then, a Rooster from Hoi Xuan.
Who knew? Trees Have A Similar Shape. First, Hoi Xuan.
Then, Blessings drawing (from Peaks) of a girl swimming.
Has found its way to Vietnam.
Even local officials were drawn in.
All in all, we had a wonderful day and I left with an emotional lift from this kind of sharing. What wonderful art was produced in such a short period of time! And, how the language of art can transcend supposed cultural divides. To help build a home with a family and to make art with children is to share a universal language, one that transcends the artificial geographical and political boundaries that are so often used to divide us as human beings. Perhaps we all need more bricks and pencils in our lives.
November 9, 2019 § 2 Comments
Fifty-four years ago on the evening of November 8th, 1965, I had what turned out to be my final conversation with Roger La Porte. Early, the next morning on November 9th, Roger walked to the United Nations Plaza and at 5:20 sat down on a little cement island on First Ave in front of the UN, doused himself with gasoline and immolated himself. According to the then morning paper, The Journal American, his mumbled words to attendants and police during the ambulance ride to Bellevue Hospital were: “I am anti-war, all wars. Give me water.” When asked if he did this to protest what was going on in Vietnam, he said, “No. I did this as a religious action. Water. Give me water.” The next day, Doctor Jacob Richards pronounced Roger Allen La Porte dead at 2:50 p.m. on November 10, 1965. He was 22 years old.
This event altered the lives of those of us who worked with and knew Roger. We were all young. We had the complicated and intense relationships of youth and a commitment to non-violence and the works of mercy. We were living and working on what then was the Bowery’s skid row in NYC. Immolation was as hard for us to grasp as any of our countrymen and women Today, not many people think about or know the complex story of Roger La Porte. If November 9th, 1965 is remembered at all, it is because that evening the first great northeast blackout in the United States took place. The plug was pulled on New York City as Roger clung to life in Bellevue Hospital.
I was 23 when these events happened. I am 77 now. I know that Roger’s death was not a suicide. But, what was it? The private conversation that I had with him that last night was all about his concern for his friends: one near death and stricken with a mysterious ailment in Saint Vincent’s Hospital and other friends who were facing arrest for burning their draft cards. Our activities at the Catholic Worker were under FBI surveillance. Roger’s questions to me that night were urgent and ones I could not properly answer. Did I believe a person could take another person’s pain and did I believe in God. Not exactly light topics but typical of Roger’s personal intensity. To the first question I said, “I didn’t know; to the second I said I also didn’t know, but felt there was some energy there, something beyond our comprehension, and I remember him nodding in agreement, his face ardent and very much alive. It was not the face of a depressed and defeated human being. But to go as far as he went is hard to grasp. Certainly, it is especially baffling for the Western mind.
I’m tired of martyrdom. I wish it would go away. We have too many martyrs. They are disturbing. They make it hard for us with their inconvenient yearnings for a better world. But, maybe that is the lesson of such a terrible sacrifice. We should be uncomfortable. Some actions remain mysteries. We don’t need all the answers and even if those answers remain elusive, we should be working harder for a better world.
October 16, 2019 § 1 Comment
Tomorrow morning I take off for Vietnam to participate with a Habitat for Humanity team where we will help build in rural Dong Thap Province housing for two families, structures that are sturdier and safer than the current small homes they currently live in of metal sheeting, wood frame and broken bricks. Along with family members and skilled workers from the community, we will construct homes with a stable foundation, concrete floor and preformed metal sheets, homes that will especially help the families resist the intense storms that have increased in the Delta.
My little sketch above is not one of my best efforts since packing and fighting a cold has sapped a bit of my creative efforts but you are in for a visual treat to follow.
After the build is completed five of us will travel to the rural area of Hoi Xuan with our good friend Phuoc to visit again with the children of Hoi Xuan Elementary School and to bring drawings to them from the kids on Peaks Island Elementary School. Through this exchange of drawings the kids will be able to see what is similar and what is different about the way they live.
So I’m packing a great trove of Peaks’ drawings with me and I want to share a few with you below as well as a shout out to Keith and Ginna Christy owners of the Art Mart at 517 Congress Street. Keith and Ginna have donated a plentiful and wonderful supply of pencils and drawing paper for the kids in Hoi Xuan that I have also packed away in my bag. I know they will be appreciated.Here below is just a sample of what the Peaks kids are sharing with the kids in Hoi Xuan. We’ll pass out the drawings and Phuoc will do his magic translating. And then the kids in Hoi will begin their drawings.
I wish I could publish all of these drawings and it will be great fun to see what the Hoi Xuan kids make of the stories and lives revealed. It seems like such a small thing to do but drawing puts us into a thoughtful and curious place and kids when encouraged can be masters at that activity.
To Be Continued.
October 11, 2019 § 1 Comment
After our Habitat for Humanity building project in the northern Tu Ne Commune last year, we all returned south to Saigon and then several of us went to visit Phuoc and his family in Cai Lay. Phuoc had been our translator during my first trip to the Mekong and now we all were friends. Phuoc is very involved in a group of retired teachers and students who offer educational and financial supports to students in need from elementary to high school. One of these schools is in Hoi Xuan, a rural, elementary school some 75 miles from Cai Lay. Phuoc arranged for us to go to the school to speak about an idea we had about a cultural drawing exchange between Peaks Island Elementary where I live and Hoi Xuan Elementary. So, on a Sunday afternoon, 5 of us and Phuoc along with a driver bundled into a van and set off. Unfortunately, we ended up getting lost and arriving two hours later than we said but everyone was still waiting for us, the principal of the school, the teachers and the children.
We introduced ourselves and… I explained how we had all flown from the United States to Vietnam, that I lived on an island in the state of Maine called Peaks. As I was talking I drew on the board to illustrate much of what I was saying while Phuoc translated.
I asked Phuoc to tell them about our idea of the children from the two elementary schools exchanging drawings that would show how their lives were different and also how they were similar. Since Hoi Xuan is located in the Mekong Delta and Peaks Island is surrounded by Casco Bay both of those worlds have bodies of water in common. The kids were all in the same age range but so much is also different when neighborhoods are quite literally half a world apart.
Phuoc translated all this and then I asked, did the kids want to do it? Phuoc translated and the children responded in unison with an upward and downward lilt of voices and Phuoc took a step back with a funny, quizzical look on his face. I asked him what they said. He said,”They said, “No”. But why, I asked? Why wouldn’t they want to do it? He translated again and the simple and unified response was that they would not have the money to send the drawings to America. Both Phuoc and I assured them not to worry, that we would find the money to send the drawings back and forth. With that impediment resolved (and another lesson learned for me) Phuoc and I handed out paper and pencils that I had brought from home. Then….
The kids (as well as Paul, our fearless team leader and my own Saint Andrews Elementary School childhood chum, got down to the real business of drawing their worlds to share with us.
To Be Continued.
October 5, 2019 § 2 Comments
I first went to the Mekong Delta with Habitat for Humanity Global two years ago to assist a family with building their new home. This October 17th, 2019 I will return to the Mekong Delta again to do the same activity with another family. This will be my third trip to Vietnam.
I hope to record this trip differently through words, images and drawings of contemporary Saigon, the Mekong, my fellow team members and people I meet on the way.
This photo was taken last year in a Muong community where we were building a home with the family. Here, my friend, Dan, a pediatrician who served time in prison as a young man for resisting the draft during the Vietnam war and one of the kids in the village. Helping a family in need is one way that people together can bond after war to rebuild what was destroyed.
It is never lost on me that a great part of my coming of age in the United States of America in the early 1960’s was influenced by the war in Vietnam. The books I have written reflect how war in general has been crucial in forming my world view.
This year, especially, I am conscious of all the divisions in our world, both internally in the United States of America and within the global family. The story of Vietnam and our country’s participation brought all of us such harm and division . Habitat For Humanity offers a study in how countries and former combatants can try to reconcile.
Today Vietnam is not at war. It is a very young country with the median age being 30.9 years of age. During that conflict, 2 million Vietnamese civilians were killed and 58, 000 Americans were killed in the war. One of the soldiers’ names etched on the Vietnam War Memorial in Washington, D.C. is a childhood friend. In the War Remnants Museum in Saigon I saw photos of other friends of mine who protested the war. In many ways, all of our lives are still connected and our country remains divided by that war.
Young students in Saigon who wanted to speak English, an impromptu class is a common occurrence if you are sitting and reading, writing on sketching in a park.
Habitat for Humanity builds homes where once fire rained down on villages and paddy fields. Vietnam is not a perfect, idyllic society but it is young and energetic and rebounding from a demoralizing and tragic time. I think there are lessons to be learned here for our own country. I do believe we must be warriors for peace and reconciliation as ardently as our country has called upon us in the past to be warriors for war. In that spirit, I hope to illustrate in subsequent blogs that I post some efforts toward that spirit of reconciliation.
A tranquil paddy field we crossed in the Mekong in order to get to the building site two years ago.
I will only be taking an iphone with me to Vietnam so I hope I will be able to continue these postings without interruption. However, I will publish one more entry before I leave on the 17th that tells the emerging story of a collaboration between the Peaks Island Elementary School on Peaks Island, Maine where I live and Hoi Xuan Elementary School, a rural, elementary school on the Mekong. This is a private venture in kids to kids communication through drawings that a few of us have undertaken beyond that of our Habitat for Humanity involvement. The kids on Peaks Island live near the water on Casco Bay and the kids in Hoi Xuan live by the Mekong. What are the similarities and what are the differences in these two global villages? The kids have begun to illustrate these differences by sharing drawings of their lives and sending the drawings back and forth to their home schools. The photo below is a teaser for the next blog entry I will post before departing for Vietnam.
Getting ready in Hoi Xuan to draw the story of their lives to share with the kids on Peaks Island, Maine.
December 27, 2017 § Leave a comment
Everyone has an opinion on the Vietnam War as well as everyone has an opinion on the recent Ken Burns documentary on the Vietnam War. My first book, City of Belief, documents, under the guise of historical fiction, my and my friends’ coming of age experiences during that time. We have become and are a part of our country’s disparate, contradictory and combatitive historical memory of that chapter in American history.
A little over a week ago, I was in Vietnam as part of a Habitat for Humanity Global Build in the Mekong Delta. I went with two friends who I worked with at the Catholic Worker in the 1960’s, Dan Kelly and Paul Mann, both draft resisters during that war. Dan served two years in federal prison and Paul, sentenced to three years, had his jail sentence reframed to serving time in National Service.
I landed in Tan Son Nhat airport on December 2 and walked out into Ho Chi Minh City but part of me landed in the old Saigon and news reportage circa 1960’s in my head of that airport under attack. These were superimposed images that would come from time to time as I visited locations that were, in my early twenties, always flickering on tv screens in American living rooms or being written about with fervor in newspapers. Indeed, as the Ken Burns series has revealed and our current political climate in the United States continues to reveal, we remain a nation divided on that war and on any number of political and social issues that were the cultural spin-offs from that era.
That said and because I have my own “take” on what I experienced during that time, I am going to present via this blog a little slice of what I saw in Ho Chi Minh City that has a direct bearing on experiences re-imagined in City of Belief.
The first day walking around Ho Chi Minh, Paul took us to see the memorial to Thich Quang Duc who on June 1963 immolated himself on a Saigon street protesting the persecution of Buddhists by the South Vietnamese Government. The photographic image of that somber act appeared in newspapers across the world and was one of the first images to be burned into the psyche of the American public. In some ways, it introduced the complex ferocity of that war. The three of us visiting the memorial placed sticks of incense on the alter and watched as the thin, wavering trails of smoke lifted up along with our private intentions.
Next we went to The War Remnants Museum. The following three photographs are displayed in a section of the museum devoted to the story of United States protest to what is referred to in Vietnam as the American War.
The first photograph is that of David Miller, Catholic Worker friend and colleague, who in September 1965 was the first man to publicly burn his draft card after President Lyndon Johnson made it a Federal crime to do so punishable by 5 years in prison. Dave subsequently served three years for draft refusal.
The second photo found in the museum is that of the public draft card burning in Union Square in November 6, 1965. On the left is Tom Cornell, a founder of the Catholic Peace Fellowship, next is Mark Edelman, a cabinet maker, alongside him is Roy Lisker, a teacher, next to Roy is Jim Wilson, a Catholic Worker friend and colleague and the youngest of the draft card burners and, finally, David Mc Reynolds of the War Resisters League. For those of you interested in some archival footage that depicts the tumult of the time, the following PBS account is accurate.
Finally, the last photo and most jarring for me, is of our friend and Catholic Worker colleague, Roger La Porte, who immolated himself in front of The United Nations in NYC in the early hours of Nov. 9th, 1965. His story, as I recall it, is told in City of Belief.
We were all young and the war in Vietnam is our story also. All of us have made our separate peace. May our country do the same.
July 19, 2017 § Leave a comment
What could Chekov’s gun have in common with a fountain pen? Did Chekov want the gun if mentioned in the first act, discharged in the second act or by the conclusion of the play? You might tussle with that question in a playwriting course or literature class. You might even have a hot debate about it, some academics even might come to blows, but in the end what happens to that gun or to that pen or, let’s say, to a letter brought conspicuously into a scene yet left unopened. If so, that letter will scream throughout the performance, “Open the damn letter”and if not opened, the audience would squirm in their seats as if sitting on velcro. Such, also, is the power of the prop and the power of the stage-hand who must place the prop in the right place, the right time, the right viewing angle and, yes, be quick and quiet about it.
In Le Retour, a pen plays a central role. I won’t say what happens to said pen or why it plays that role. You’ll need to come and see a performance of the play or follow us to Belgium in the summer of 2018 to get the answer. I didn’t even know the pen would factor so significantly when I started writing the play. Except, now, keying in this blog entry, I see in my mind the spidery, ink scribing of the priest’s grade entry for my young Uncle Léo (circa 1912, College Saint Anne, Church Point, Nova Scotia) where Léo went to school before he enlisted in the Royal Canadian Regiment and sent to war. He never came home. Now, almost 100 years later, we are remembering and bringing those ghosts back. They have words for us whether through pens or keyboards. We need to look and to listen to what they have to say.