Monday, July 18, 2005

From Mortars to Meditation

I wrote this essay last winter as a submission to UU World Magazine, and I offer it here as a "teaser" for my other writing while I was in Iraq. If you want to read more, scroll down and use the Index by Topic links or the Archives. Enjoy.

I spend my first morning at Camp Kalsu (a dusty, desolate outpost of the occupation, south of Baghdad) with one of the “old hands,” a helicopter pilot who shows me around and tells me what to do in case of a mortar attack. “Always hit the deck – that’s the safest place. If the rounds land far away, run for a bunker. If they’re close, stay down until the last impact and then run for a bunker.” He suggests an early lunch, because yesterday the chow hall was attacked at the end of lunchtime.

I feel very exposed and vulnerable as we wait in line outside the chow hall; the thin aluminum building, although surrounded by huge concrete barriers, looks about as sturdy as a beer can. Once we are inside and seated with our food, I find it very awkward to eat while wearing my flak vest, and I keep spilling little bits of rice down the front. I wonder if it’s worth the bother. I ask “what do we do if we start taking fire while we’re in here?” My host replies, “same as outside – hit the deck, get your helmet on, and wait for the stampede out the back door to end. Once it clears out, run for the bunkers.”

This advice is very timely. Less than a minute later, our meal is suddenly interrupted by a series of unbelievably loud explosions - mortar shells falling just outside the chow hall, no more than 10 yards from where we sit. In a few seconds we are all on the floor, except for the sergeant next to me, who still sits on his chair in dazed disbelief. I pull him to the floor and fumble to fasten my helmet strap under my chin. The sound of explosions is deafening as the rounds keep falling.

When the impacts seem to end and the crowd has thinned, we scramble outside and dive into the crowded bunker. I feel hysterical laughter welling up with the release of adrenaline and the knowledge that I am unharmed. Sitting in the bunker, I look at my shaking hands and the faces of strangers around me – some scared, some bored – and wonder if I will ever get used to this.

Mortar attacks (frequent and nerve-wracking, but mercifully short and usually harmless) become part of the scenery here at Kalsu. The biggest challenge is day-to-day life here in this parade of Mondays - a seemingly endless flow of solitary hours, days, weeks, and months – unbroken by weekends or holidays. I work alone as the Night Airboss – a task neither difficult nor interesting - and I am challenged to avoid despair, self-pity, and homesickness. This is much more difficult than my four previous peacetime deployments as a Harrier pilot. To transcend the sameness of my daily existence, I turn to the spiritual practices I have learned since I discovered Unitarian Universalism.

I like to tell people “I’ve been a UU my whole life; I just didn’t know it until I was 35.” My first taste of UU came when my wife dragged me to a service at the Unitarian Universalist Church of the Monterey Peninsula a little over three years ago. I sat in the sanctuary with the minister’s voice flowing over me, watching the trees swaying in the wind, feeling the palpable love and welcome of the congregation. I knew I had found my spiritual home – something I didn’t even know I was seeking.

I soon became a committed member of that community, and the larger one of Unitarian Universalism. I have twice had the good fortune to attend the Pacific Central District Leadership School in Alamo, California – once as a student, and once as a staff assistant. During these weeks, I was introduced to a variety of spiritual practices; among them are two that I bring to my life here in Iraq – Tai Chi water exercises and meditation.

I begin each day with writing, meditation, and Tai Chi. Today, as on so many days, I write about how much I miss my wife and two children, and all of the relationships I have at home. I carry these thoughts into meditation, deepening my understanding of how important these people and our relationships are to me. When the time comes to transition from the peace and joy of meditation to the reality of my present, the mental and physical flow of Tai Chi provides a path. The world within my mind is safe and comfortable, but life only really exists in the present moment, in the real world where I am right now.

This reality includes mortar attacks, often when I’m asleep. I awaken to that gut-wrenching crack-BOOM, as I struggle out of a deep sleep into my flak vest and helmet. Lying curled in a fetal ball on the floor, heart pounding, I recoil with each explosion. I hear the subtle sound of something falling on my tent like a drop of rain. Eventually there is silence.

I step outside, and the present moment holds beauty – fear is now in the past. The sky is blue, the birds sing, and the sun shines. It shines on me, it shines on my tent, and it shines on the jagged piece of shrapnel imbedded in the fabric. In the present moment, fear comes again.