Soaring Spirit with Tears



by Ingrid Naiman

It's almost spring, the time of balance and then new life. The world needs new life and flowers, lots and lots of flowers, flowers that face the Sun and worship Light.

Many thoughts have drifted across the mirror I call my mind and reflected the past back to me as vividly as thirty plus years ago.

I remember sitting at a dinner table with some Vietnamese and American guests, people I didn't know well. They asked me for whom I'd be voting in the election. I said, "Bobby Kennedy." There was a hush. I was a traitor. I opposed war. I would cast Vietnam to the fates. After a lot of commotion, I spoke again, "I do not see bloodshed as a solution for any of the problems I have seen since arriving in Vietnam."

My arrival in Vietnam had been dramatic. Despite the rush to get me out to Vietnam, no one in the State Department was aware of my arrival, but my ex-roommate and my fiancé's ex-roommate, both Vietnamese, were at the airport . . . despite the fact that neither had been notified of my arrival. They saw my name on a PanAm passenger list, although neither worked for the airlines or had any reason to be checking such lists. They took me on a brief tour of Saigon and then to the old French sports club. Sipping lemonade, I saw gunfire on the opposite side of river from where we were. The president of the country was water skiing. My first impression was, "The president doesn't seem to be taking this war very seriously." At some point, we went to the office where I would be working. A bomb had gone off the day before and glass from the window had wedged itself in the government standard issue heavy steel filing cabinets.

I went into a coma that evening. The next thing I remember was a lot of noise outside my hotel room and a man's voice. He was insisting that they open the door because I hadn't been seen in the four days since checking into the hotel. I had no idea I'd been sleeping for four days. Two Americans in uniform insisted that what I needed was some good American food. They took me to the officers' mess and I remember chasing a pea past some mashed potatoes, totally unwilling to capture the pea and place it into my mouth. Then, one officer said, "See, I told you, she needs to see a doctor."

At the hospital, one person said what I needed was a square meal. The other shouted, "Did you take her temp?" This latter fellow prevailed and wrote S.O.D. on some papers. How I had the presence of mind to ask what S.O.D. was, I'll never know, but this strange Oriental disease haunted me for many years to come though a French doctor absolutely insisted the diagnosis was wrong and should have been F.U.O. (fever of unknown origin.)

While I was in the coma, the window in my office was replaced with plastic sheeting but the glass in the filing cabinet was never removed. Looking back, I have no doubt but that my soul needed a special conference with its allies to determine how to navigate the next 20 months of my life. This clearly could not be achieved in a conscious setting.

Vietnam for me was not at all what it was for those in uniform or those in the front lines. It was about insanity, about people who obeyed orders that made no sense and did so because it is evidently easier to follow orders than to think for oneself. I asked myself again and again what it is in the propaganda or leadership that makes people abdicate common sense. If Republicans and Democrats are willing to risk great prizes to a capricious electorate, then capitalists and communists should be willing to do the same, without losing a single drop of blood. It was a very simple outlook on a situation that became increasingly convoluted as I began to meet the people who were involved in decision-making, people for whom promotion seemed to mean a lot more than logic. I was not a career diplomat. I had no intention of working for the government once I had done my part to stop the war. Within our office, there were hawks and doves—and infidelity on a scale that made me doubt the merits of marrying though thanks to the persuasiveness of androgens, I fear there are many women who are tricked into believing they are the one and only, if but for an hour or two.

In this, I was myself eventually to be proved right because despite countless letters from my fiancé with hearts and passionate words on the outside of the envelope, evidently to alert others to the fact that I was engaged, my fiancé married someone else while I was in Vietnam, and I heard this from my former roommate rather than from him. His letters continued as if nothing at all had happened. When I got the news from Fusako, I was catatonic for a few hours.

With marshall law, the nights were very long. They were also noisy because military activity tended to increase under the cover of darkness. I listened to classical music to keep madness at bay, and I wrote a poem to the adagio movement of Beethoven's 9th. Born to a pianist mother, my soul not only thrives on music but manages to convince the reluctant part of me to stay incarnate.

I learned a lot about politics. In the early months of 1968, hundreds of congressional delegates "visited" Vietnam. I want to tell everyone what was really happening.

Telegrams from Washington flooded our office. Typically they read, "Arrange room at the Mandarin in Hong Kong stop Floating market tour in Bangkok stop." The rest was all about photo ops and measurements. Why measurements? We had tailor-made fatigues for each visitor so he could change clothes at Tan Son Nhut Airport, jump into a special trench with a genuine water buffalo and gorgeous Vietnamese girl in an ao dai. Then, he could get back on his plane and go on the floating market tour in nearby Thailand. He could tell all his constituents he had been to Vietnam—and there were pictures to show it.

Only a few came into Saigon proper: Ribicoff and Kennedy (the young Teddy Kennedy.) That's what I remember, and I remember this because I was usually asked to help prepare briefings or even to deliver the briefings myself. These two played it very safe. They asked questions about orphans and diversions of American shipments that might be falling into the hands of the enemy or perhaps ending up on the black market. Maybe generals discussed strategy with congressmen, but I doubt it because if generals were doing their jobs, it wouldn't have been possible for the North Vietnamese to mobilize 800,000 troops during a cease fire without a shred of intelligence picking up on the movement.

Politicians are not really leaders, they are people with perks who need to be on the right side of issues in order to continue to enjoy those perks. Orphans are safe issues. Concern for orphans makes one look compassionate, and I found that out when I convinced the Navy to give me some paint and organized the younger diplomats in my office to spend a day painting an orphanage. Just when things started to look really nice, the wife of the president came by with the press to have pictures taken. She took credit for the charitable deeds, and I learned a little bit more about how the real world works.

I have to go on record saying none of this was making me either happy or optimistic. Oh, I couldn't care less whose picture was in the newspaper. I did, however, care what happened the next day and the next and the next for the children. I learned that this kind of compassion is regarded as very unsophisticated. One general with political aspirations never tired of asking me if I was naïve as I seemed.

Then, one day, Robert Komer arrived. He was an ambassador but the day he arrived, they gave him a hat with five stars so no one would forget for a minute who ranked. He demanded my presence on a field trip. As we were landing in a remote village, he didn't quite say "get lost," rather something more like "mill around, talk to people." I took that as an order and spent a bit of time with the lieutenants and captains (and I was starting to be able to tell the difference by looking at their lapels.)

On the way back, Amb. Komer asked me what I had learned. I thought he had attended the important meetings and that I had just been killing time. I bounced the question back to him and asked what he had learned. He said that security had increased. I asked how he was so certain. He said, "Casualties are down." I said, "Yes, but it's because they didn't send out any scouts." He said, "Now you know why I asked you to come. They'd never have told me that." I said, "They figured out how Washington scores their efforts, and they decided to take fewer risks so as to lower the casualties. It has nothing to do with safety or control over territory, just more time in camp, more beer, more hamburgers, and more movies."

I learned that people at the top hear what they want to hear because the people the next rung down are very ambitious and know they will never get to the top with bad news.

How the world works was all getting much clearer.

We had a meeting in our office to determine staffing requirements. Recruiting was very difficult, housing and office space were in short supply, but we needed more people. So far as I could see, almost no one knew what they were expected to do and people were tripping all over each other so I made the big mistake of saying I could manage my job without any new staff. I sealed my fate: I hadn't read those manuals in which in was explained that job descriptions and rank were determined by the number of people working under you. So long as those manuals aren't changed, the name of the game in government is always to need more people and more money to do the job because then you look important instead of incompetent. I didn't get promoted for a year!

Even with a war going on, you could walk through office after office and see people cleaning their toe nails on government desks while being clocked for being at work.


When I was sixteen, I had had a great good fortune to be seated next to Suzuki-sensei at a banquet at a Chinese restaurant in Honolulu. This great Zen master seemed larger than life to me and throughout the whole dinner, I felt a strange kind of energy in him: quiet, steady, focused, strong, clear. I felt I should ask him a question, any question, a question important enough for a great man. I have long since forgotten the question, but the answer was, "When you eat, eat." The next day, I saw him on campus at the University of Hawaii and he said, "When you walk, walk." Then, he motioned for me to sit on a bench next to him and said, "When you talk, talk." He walked away, leaving me forever changed because I could never not be interested in where my mind was.

So, when I worked on Wall Street and saw people doing what appeared to be highly repetitive mindless work, I asked what they were doing. They were rubber stamping papers and taking home pay checks and supporting families, and I was a trouble maker for asking what B.B.O.K. stood for — it was to them the letters stamped on a paper that went into the outbox once stamped. One can do this until age 65 and never make a single wave. I made waves everywhere I went.

However, I knew the difference between working and sitting at a desk until a bell rang. Lots of people watch the clock and life begins at five or at six when they get home. I couldn't believe so many people would follow orders without thinking nor how many would face machine gun fire because someone told them to do something that absolutely stupid. It was even harder to believe that one would leave home and travel to a place one had never been before just to shoot a commie. The world had to be crazy or else I was the one losing my mind.

However, thanks to years and years of Zen practice, I knew exactly where my mind was and what it was thinking, and my mind seemed perfectly clear to me. Ergo, what was in other minds obviously was not clear, and this I came to understand as another mystery unveiled.

"Important people" seldom have any ideas of their own. They appropriate anything and everything that is useful to them. They appropriate people, material resources, and power. Then, they take money away from you and spend it on their own pet projects, projects like bombs and bullets and the falcon missiles my father helped to create . . . and I remembered a day in my childhood when he came home from the office with a look on his face I hadn't seen before.

Though I was for the most part terrified of him, on that day he looked curiously harmless, almost weak. So, I asked him about his day at work. He said the scientists had been discussing their responsibility for the use of the weapons they were creating. My heart raced. I was excited and my soul was doing cartwheels until he said, "We decided that it's our job to design weapons and the government's job to decide how to use them." I was suddenly very cold; and it was a long, long time before I asked him about work again.

Now, back to Vietnam. One Vietnamese government official asked my boss to send me instead of coming himself. Since my boss felt the situation was a bit delicate, he didn't argue. Ever curious, I asked this man why he wanted to see me. He said, "American men are rude. They are big and they put their feet on our desks and tell us what to do. You aren't like that so we want to talk to you." My boss thought this explanation was silly, but the next thing I learned is that great intellects are sometimes self-satisfied, and it is only when ideas are mirrored that we know how they appear to others. Power does not require a mirror. Pollsters use mirrors, but politicians work with ideas that are carved in stone and they repeat these statements in easy to remember one-liners that do not confuse people who are not thinking.

What is relevant about this and the current world situation is that what we see at press conferences and most of what is on the news is a photo op. It is an opportunity to state a simple thought in a few words that are easy to remember. We remember the pictures of the senator with the water buffalo in the trench who "was there" and hence "knows." Powerful people do not take chances; they do not risk their hides. They get others to do that for them. They take credit when things go well and find a scapegoat when things go badly. This is how power maintains its grip on power, and it is a feeding frenzy for the powerful because power is like a vortex around which are all those who also want power, people who are drawn towards the center because they have lost their heads over something totally ephemeral and absolutely worldly, something that is the envy of lesser beings and something that confers glory, if only for a moment. Power is strange; it's an entity in its own right, a force that feeds itself and aggrandizes itself, and pleases itself. It's an utter anomaly to Nature.

When Alexander the Great was dying, he commanded his subordinates to leave his hands outside the coffin when they nailed down the lid so that all would know that empty-handed did he come and empty-handed did he go. Thus it is with all who aspire for the ephemeral: the soul takes on the costume of an innocent babe and after the experiences of a lifetime leaves its attainments, only to embark on the difficult task of reclaiming innocence, the most necessary and harmonizing process on the Planet.

To move beyond anger and grief, beyond resentment and revenge, beyond me and thee to what matters which is how we express our true selves and leave the illusions of being more important than anything or anyone else in God's Creation. Thus, I left the world of war and politics and went to the land of wisdom and poverty: India.


Copyright by Ingrid Naiman 2002

Written in the Spring of 2002
Originally entitled "More Snow— More Memories"




Poulsbo, Washington