Thursday, February 24, 2005

Fear and Joy

This will be my last post from Kalsu, and probably my last post from Iraq. I leave you with this tribute to the cycle of feeling and emotion I’ve experienced in my time here.

on my first day here I met some mortars nice and close
you might say we had lunch together
and they introduced me to Fear

Fear lay with me on the floor amid the noise and confusion
Fear sat with me in the bunker with shaking hands
Fear saw with me the other faces - some scared, some bored
Fear slowly left me as the hours passed into days weeks


now life in Iraq is a parade of Mondays
unbroken by weekends or holidays

I dwell on the past that is gone
and pine for the future that is yet to come
living in the present moment is elusive
but that is where I seek Joy

Joy sits with me in meditation
Joy inspires a ministry of words
Joy hides in the beauty of moon, stars, and sun

just waiting to be noticed

it’s the mortars again

they’ve come when I’m asleep
struggling out of a dream world of somewhere else
into the real world of my flak vest and helmet

curled in a fetal ball on the floor
I hear a single drop of steel rain
explosively born, it flies without wings

Fear comes again

when the mortars are gone
Fear leaves with them
time starts again as if they had never come

wide awake, I step outside and enjoy the afternoon
the sky is blue, the birds sing, and the sun is shining

on the piece of shrapnel half buried in the roof of my tent

Monday, February 21, 2005

Lights and Darkness

Walking around Kalsu in the dark can be both exciting and painful. I’ve run into concrete barricades, stepped into deep mud puddles, and most recently bruised my leg on a protruding part of a generator. Having a light helps prevent mishaps such as these.

Of course, being on a military camp, there are rules about everything, even the color of a person’s light. In this case, white lights are forbidden. The official reason for this is “light discipline” – the idea that by not displaying white light at night, the “enemy” will be less likely to know where we are. This makes no sense to me in our circumstances – this FOB has been in the same place for almost a year, so it’s pretty obvious where we are. The only legitimate reason I can think of for not using white lights is to avoid blinding vehicle drivers, who are presumably wearing night vision goggles.

The prohibition on white lights results in a spectrum of colors, the most popular being red, green, and blue. There is also a wide variety of types of lights in use, whatever the color. There is the standard L-shaped military-issue flashlight, which comes with a red lens, but is heavy and goes through D batteries at an alarming rate. Many people use “mini-MAG” lights, small flashlights run off AA batteries. This is my backup light, and I used a marker to color the lens of mine orange, just to be different. My primary light is a blue “pinch light,” a small light that clips onto my belt loop. It has two switches: on one side, a pressure switch that is only on when squeezed (hence the name); and on the other, a sliding switch for continuous operation. I think this is the light of choice for most people, as it is small, lightweight, and its halogen bulb is relatively bright. Mine is getting rather dim because no battery lasts forever.

My favorite light here, however, is that of the moon. In the last few nights, the lunar cycle has come to the point where the ground (and all unfortunate obstacles) is bathed in silvery light, and walking around at night is a joy rather than a chore. I love being outside in the moonlight, and it’s one of my favorite things about being on the night shift.

Recently, due to a change in my work schedule, I’ve begun going to MIDRATS (midnight rations), which is lunch for us night owls. The last two nights I’ve particularly enjoyed the walk from the Airboss tent over to the chowhall, mainly because part of it is a narrow path that goes down into a little gully and across a small wooden bridge. This “singletrack” evokes strong memories of - and a longing for - riding my mountain bike on such a moonlit night.

Riding moonlit singletrack, without other lights, has been one of my favorite activities for years, and has become a sort of spiritual practice. I first discovered this joy in southern Arizona, riding out in the desert under a clear winter desert sky and the illumination of a brilliant full moon. I continued to enjoy it in California, where there was the added thrill and challenge of riding in and out of shadows cast by small oak trees and bushes. Unfortunately, so far in Virginia I have not done much moonlit riding, because the trees are so dense that it is too dark to see the trail, even under a full moon.

In those circumstances, I certainly appreciate having a light; it makes riding singletrack at night possible no matter the moon cycle or how thick the trees. Night riding makes even the most familiar trails new and exciting, and provides a very different view of nature. From the eerily glowing green and gold eyes of deer reflecting my headlamp, to the tiny flashes of spider’s eyes on the trail, there’s a whole different world out there at night. It’s a world that begs me to slow down and pay more attention, rather than trying to climb the next hill as fast as possible.

Another thought that crosses my mind as I walk that moonlit path to eat is that next month during the moon cycle, I won’t have to fantasize about riding my bike. Next month, I’ll be home, and I can ride at night whenever I want to, moon or no moon, and I can use whatever color light I want.

Thursday, February 17, 2005

Adios, Kalsu!

It’s amazing how quickly things change around here. Just last week I was feeling very depressed because I thought I would be sitting here in Kalsu until the bitter end, but now suddenly the future has changed again. Now I should be leaving within a few days - to spend my last week in Iraq at Al Asad, a large airbase west of Baghdad in Al Anbar Province. Unless “the word” changes again, of course!

The biggest irony of this new turn of events is that I had adjusted to the idea of staying here, and had concluded that it’s not such a bad thing. For one, the chaos of new people moving in here is pretty much over, so things are settling down. The gym has been quiet and almost deserted the last few times I’ve gone, and I haven’t had to stand in line for a meal yet. For another, it’s quiet here, in the sense of being “away from the flagpole.”

Of course there are advantages in returning to Al Asad. It is a much bigger base, and much safer, which means I can get out and walk around without having to wear a flak vest and helmet all the time. There is a “real” PX, not that I’m going to buy anything this late in the game. They also have a post office, so I can mail some things home rather than having to pack them. I will be living in an actual building rather than a dusty, drafty tent; from what I hear there is actual plumbing, too! The biggest “plus,” other than being away from mortar attacks, is just the mental uplift of a change of scenery; the sense of making the first step on the long journey home to my family.

On the other hand, Al Asad is likely to be crowded as the new crew begins pouring in. I have heard stories of 30-minute waits for meals, crowded facilities, and little or no hot water. I will take it as I find it, realizing that it won’t be forever.

As I prepare to leave this place that’s been my home for the last few months, I see still more changes now that the Army has taken over. Although I have no idea how they do their “real” job of patrolling and working with Iraqi security forces, I have been very impressed with the way they have been running the FOB.

Most noticeable is the chowhall. Although the food is the same (as well as the workers who prepare it), it seems better in quality and variety than it had been. Instead of menus and notices haphazardly taped to the wall, there is now a wood-and-Plexiglas notice board. Humorously, they call the new chowhall “the basement” and the original one “upstairs” (there is about 3’ difference in height between the two).

The last time it rained, we had some mud, of course. Whereas the Marines just slogged through it and complained, the soldiers quickly lay down a “sidewalk” network of flattened HESCO containers around the airfield. Good thinking.

In between where I sleep and where I work there is a parking and storage lot. When the Marines were leaving, they had vehicles and shipping containers in there, and the lot was “secured” with engineer tape (white tape similar to “crime scene” tape, but stronger). Of course people just ducked under it to cut through on the way to and from the airfield (myself included). Now, however, there are concrete barriers and concertina wire surrounding this lot. The first night I encountered this, I grumbled about having to walk all the way around it (a detour of maybe 50 meters), but was impressed how they had really secured the lot. The next morning, the light of day revealed the final touch – they had left a “people gate” in the wire, so a person COULD cut through rather than walking around on the road!

Finally, yesterday I noticed flyers popping up around the FOB advertising “Tent-ernet, wireless Internet access in your tent for $25 a month.” That’s less than I pay for DSL at home! What a great concept.

Of course these observations beg the question “why couldn’t the Marines work like that?” There are several reasons, I think. First of all, the logistical “tail” in the Army is much, much larger (compared to the size of the operational “teeth”) than for the Marines. Having a lot more people to run concertina wire, set up wireless networks, and put up notice boards makes a difference. Of course they just got here, so they are going to spend their money on improvements. The Marines did too – but when they arrived, this was all dirt and ruined buildings, and they had to build it up from scratch.

Another factor – perhaps the most telling one – is that the Marines who were here are full-time, active duty members. The soldiers here, however, are National Guardsmen - part-timers who might think more like civilians than soldiers – and their commitment to comfort and common sense is probably higher than among the “professional” military. I think this is a good thing.

Monday, February 14, 2005

Confessions of a Vegetarian

As last Thanksgiving Day approached, I was faced with a dilemma: would I eat turkey or not? Tempting thoughts of succulent, juicy slices of turkey (and the promise of triptophane-induced satiation) were hard to ignore. Given my short history of not eating meat, it was very appealing to just make an exception.

Last July I met a young man named Alex, who inspired me with his dedication to living his values, among them not eating animals. I had been leaning toward vegetarianism for a while, so I decided to try it for a week. I had already stopped eating beef several years ago, after reading Fast Food Nation and because I just no longer enjoyed the taste. For the next few years I ate chicken, fish, and seafood, and occasionally pork. I found it very easy to eat vegetarian for a week, but when presented with the choice of delicious fish at a restaurant, I became a “vegequarian,” eating fish and seafood but not meat. And so I was, until November.

I sat down to my daily pages on Thanksgiving Day with several questions on my mind: why don’t I eat meat? Is it consistent to eat fish and seafood, but not meat? Does that even matter? Should I eat (will I eat) turkey today? That of course was the real question. Ultimately I did eat some turkey that day. Although I enjoyed it while eating, I regretted it afterward, and that was the last animal flesh I’ve eaten. Here are my reasons for continuing my practice of vegetarianism.

One obvious reason not to eat meat is health. Red meat can have lots of saturated fat, and along with chicken and pork, potentially contains hormones and antibiotics from factory farming. There is also the risk that meat carries pathogens resulting from mass production slaughter and packing. Some fish, such as tuna, concentrate toxins like mercury. However, meat and fish are excellent sources of complete proteins, and it is possible to buy organically produced meat, which is less likely to contain hormones or antibiotics.

Eating a vegetarian diet, or “lower on the food chain,” is also more earth-friendly than the alternative. The practice of using grain to feed beef cattle, for example, wastes a perfectly good human food on fattening animals. The feed grain itself is typically produced using environmentally unfriendly fertilizers, petroleum, and insecticides. Most meat is produced by corporate “factory farms” that produce concentrated animal waste streams, damaging both air and water quality. While this method is prevalent in cattle, hog and chicken operations, there is also an increasing trend toward “factory fishing,” polluting coastal waters. Furthermore, overfishing has depleted the world’s stocks of many species, and escaped hatchery fish compete with wild ones for shrinking habitat and food supplies.

The morality of eating animals is a much more subjective and personal issue. Simply put, I don’t want to be part of the process of killing other animals for food when there is adequate nourishment available from plants. Although it is very natural to kill and eat other animals – humans have been doing so throughout our evolution - unlike other carnivores, we are self-aware and capable of having a conscience about killing.

Finally, my food choices also have a political and ethical component - I choose not to be part of the corporate takeover of the food supply. Factory farms keep animals in inhumane living conditions, and force them to grow and mature unnaturally fast with hormones and chemicals. Giant slaughterhouses, among the most dangerous and under regulated workplaces in the country, place both our food supply and the workers at risk. Workers in the industrial food machine are underpaid, often work without benefits, and are typically unable to organize.

My choice is presently not to eat animal flesh, but there may come a time in the future when I change my mind about this practice. If that moment comes, I hope it will be an intentional, mindful act, preceded by consideration and meditation. I would want to be mindful of the source of the meat, and honor the animals who gave their lives to feed me.

I want to acknowledge my vegetarianism (and this post) as a personal choice, not a judgment of those who choose to eat meat. As in all things, each individual must follow the dictates of her conscience and intellect. Perhaps these words will inspire mindfulness in your eating, and maybe even provide a little food for thought.

Friday, February 11, 2005

The Kalsu Blues

My emotional life here at Camp Kalsu is a cycle of ups and downs, highs and lows, repeating with a discernable rhythm. The “highs” come when I am able to live in the moment, notice and appreciate the beauty around me, and be fully engaged in what I’m doing. The lows come when I dwell on the things about this place that I don’t like, when I long to go home, and when I fall prey to my own expectations.

In the last few days, I’ve cursed the smell of burning garbage rather than appreciating the clear crystal beauty of the night sky. I’ve lamented the infernal symphony of outgoing artillery, machine gun fire, and helicopter noise that wakes me, rather than being thankful for a comfortable bed. I’ve been frustrated with the monotony of eating the same rice, vegetables, and fruit for every meal, rather than glad there is hot food. I am mired in pessimism and hatred for this place, rather than feeling joy at being alive.

The high tide of the recent weeks has ebbed as the excitement of the UU Blog Awards drifts into the past, and the monotony of this parade of Mondays reestablishes itself. My final plunge into the Blues came when I found out I’ll be here at Kalsu longer than I had expected. It was painful to think that instead of going back to Al Asad next week for some more of the “good life,” away from the tedium and strain of living in two square kilometers of mud and mortars, I’ll probably stay here for the rest of my time in Iraq.

Of course things could be much worse. Just this evening I talked with some soldiers who had just arrived, and was commiserating with one of them who had the “Kalsu Krud,” the chest and head cold that helped make the first five weeks of my time here miserable. I realized that although I’m leaving this place within the month, they are here for a YEAR! I really feel for them, and for their families. I am truly thankful that my time here has been relatively short.

My unfulfilled expectation of leaving soon is the problem, of course. One of the main reasons I have dedicated myself to living in the present moment, accepting life as it is rather than as I wish it were, is to counter the uncertainty of my departure from Kalsu. Then one day, I’m given the key to Pandora’s Box – a date I am supposed to leave! Try as I might, I could not resist setting my sights (and my heart) on that day, and counting down the days to my departure. Now that is gone, and I suffer the inevitable disappointment of living by my expectations rather than accepting life as it comes.

An interesting aspect of being “down” is that it gives meaning to being “up.” If I were in the same mood all the time, whether I called it “good” or “bad,” life would be awfully tedious. I like this idea of complementary states, whether they are emotional – good/bad, happy/sad, love/hate – or physical – light/dark, hot/cold, hard/soft. Neither state can exist without the other and have any meaning.

This process of dichotomizing can be taken to extremes by declaring the choice to be either/or. That is, believing a thing, person, or idea must be one at the expense of being the other. This gives rise to simplistic rhetoric such as “we’re going to destroy evil in the world” and “if you’re not with us, you’re against us.” If we are good and we destroy all evil, how can we be good any more? Such a binary, “black and white” view of the world disdains shades of gray - the balance and blending of the two extremes.

This idea of complementary pairs of balanced and interdependent states is a central tenet of Taoist philosophy: yin and yang. Within each is the seed of the other, and together they form a whole. As Lao Tzu says in the Tao te Ching, “the myriad creatures carry upon their backs the yin and embrace in their arms the yang, and are the blending of the generative forces of the two.” Life is both/and, not either/or.

Any state can be divided again and again – for example, within the yin of “hot” there are the yin and yang of “very hot” and “warm.” Taken far enough, this process results in a continuum, rather than a stark series of either/or choices. Bend the continuum into a circle, and “before and after follow each other” – have you ever felt like ice cold water was burning hot?

And so I have come full circle, from joy to despair and back to joy – so this is the end of The Kalsu Blues.

Until next time…

Tuesday, February 08, 2005

Olfactory Observations

The wind wafts burning garbage when it blows from east to west;
West to east brings onion rings, which I like less than best.

From north or south, east or west, so too when no wind blows;
Dust and smoke of cigarettes wreak havoc with my nose.

But when it rains, I must admit, each cleansing shower brings;
The fragrance of clean desert, clouds, and grateful growing things.

Alas this rain brings mud for days, and oftentimes methinks;
No matter how it smells today, sometimes Kalsu JUST STINKS!

Saturday, February 05, 2005

Writing it all Down

I recently read in another blog words likening the creation of a blog post to writing a sermon. In my limited experience, the process of writing both posts and sermons ranges from easy and fast to difficult and slow. No two posts (or sermons) come together quite the same way, and the experience of writing and refining them can also be quite different depending on the topic.

My posts come together through several different processes. First there are the “immediate” posts, where something I see or experience sparks an idea, I sit down and start typing, and 30 minutes later, I have a post I’m ready to share with the world. These posts are like a nicely wrapped surprise gift, and of course they are just as rare. Most of my posts come from a process of “seasoning,” where I gather thoughts and conclusions from an experience, ongoing conversation, or meditation, and over the space of days or weeks translate those experiences into words. The third category is the “set aside” post. It begins with a hot idea and a title; a flash of inspiration that results only in staring at a blinking cursor, tentatively typing and deleting opening lines, and finally capitulation. Such a post finds a home in the “Ideas” folder, where it might languish for days or weeks (yes, even months!) before being rescued and written.

A glance into the Ideas Folder reveals many titles, including “Bearing Witness,” “Freedom,” “Hope,” “Depression,” “God Is,” and “Talking About Politics,” all patiently waiting for content. The oldest of these goes back to last November; the most recent was born today. Like little seeds waiting in a jar, nobody knows which one will be nurtured, grow, and blossom - and be harvested into the “Posted” folder. What fruit will they bear, I wonder?

Sometimes I have an idea that just won’t go away, but I can’t come up with a page of prose about it. For example, I wrote the poem “Beauty” to express how I feel about being able to see the beauty of Nature around me despite the ugliness of this place and the war. It still needs some work, but it was fun to see it just come together on its own. I have never been a poet before, so it is one of many new experiences and practices I’m exploring.

Writing for the weblog is actually only a small part of all the writing I do. I begin each day by writing 3 pages of longhand, simply writing whatever comes to my mind, even if it is “I can’t think of anything to write” over and over. I’ve only gotten to that point once or twice – usually I write song lyrics if I can’t think of anything else! I got the idea of Morning Pages from my wife, who is a big fan of the book The Artist’s Way, where she learned about them.

The whole point of these “daily pages,” as I call them (I write them in the evening, actually) is just to write! I see it as flushing the crud out of my brain to release the creativity behind it. It seems to work, and sometimes I find myself writing passages that are actually insightful and meaningful. I call these sentences and paragraphs “nuggets” - tidbits panned from the silt being flushed from my mind by the act of writing. Often I carry these thoughts and ideas into meditation, a two-step process that has been the genesis of more than one post. If nothing else, this writing helps me get going mentally for the night ahead.

My third writing practice is a journal where I record my day-to-day routine. This helps me remember what I’m doing, and at the end of every week I go back and review how my mood changed from day to day, what I noticed around me, and how I reacted to it. Journaling is a practice I have engaged in other times during my life, but never before with the dedication and regularity I have here. I hope I am able to continue to make it, and all of my writing, part of my life when I return home.

The sermon analogy is apposite to my post-writing, especially in light of this being a “ministry of words.” I also find this process akin to creating a work of art, playing a song, or composing a photograph. I draw from experiences in my past, current observations, emotions and ideas, and express a part of myself in words rather than paint, notes, or emulsion. Sometimes I get lucky - everything just clicks, and I produce a post that has “it.” Just like the rest of life, “it” is more about the process than the outcome.

Wednesday, February 02, 2005

Everyday Ministry

One facet of my journey in UU has been reclaiming words such as “religion,” “God,” “church,” and “worship” on my own terms, without the negative connotations from my youth and young adulthood. “Ministry” is another word I have reclaimed, because I have realized that it describes much more than the work of professional ministers. Anyone can practice ministry by taking the time to share her stories, giving heartfelt advice, or just by living his values.

During the past few months, I have come to view this weblog as a ministry. My original intent was to keep a sort of “online journal,” so I could keep my friends and family informed about what I was doing and experiencing. Before long, however, I realized that it might get boring, and that it would be much more meaningful for me to share the WAY I’m living my life, focusing more on what I am thinking and feeling and learning than just the day-to-day routine of my mundane existence. Looking back on everything I’ve written so far, I think I have created a picture not just of WHAT I have experienced during this deployment, but also of HOW I have experienced it. I also think this deeper sharing has been more meaningful for my readers than a dry recitation of my daily activities.

I first began thinking of writing as a ministry when a friend in California wrote me about my post “Fear,” saying

…this morning, when I was effectively immobilized by that fear of uncertainty,
was your very welcome "sermon" coming from a place of more dire threats than I'm
facing. I've already done a couple of simple but scary things I needed to do but
thought I probably wouldn't this morning. So, you are doing effective ministry
at a great distance and it is appreciated…
In the following months, I received similar comments about several of my other posts, usually from other UUs with whom my thoughts and philosophies resonated. To borrow a word from UU minister and poet Ric Masten, I developed a growing “cybergation.”

After posting “Who’s New in Kalsu” last weekend, I began receiving e-mails from an unexpected group: friends and families of Mississippi National Guardsmen who are either here or on their way here. It seems that other than my writing, there is very little information about FOB Kalsu available on the web. I have corresponded with a woman whose twin sons had to leave their studies for a year in the desert, a man whose brother is on his way here as a captain of artillery, a woman who finds she must deal with her own fear during her fiancé’s absence, and an expectant mother whose husband will be in Iraq when she gives birth to their first child.

All of these people have one thing in common: they want to know more about what their loved ones will be experiencing here at Kalsu. I am truly honored to be able to provide them with at least a glimpse, from my very narrow perspective, of life here in this tiny corner of Iraq. I hope that my words and images give them comfort as they are able to put a mental picture to what their husbands, brothers, fiancés, and friends are experiencing.

To paraphrase two of my favorite UU ministers, the only real requirement for ministry is to live an authentic life. For that ministry to truly be effective, it is also necessary to share that life with others. The foundation of my ministry is the theoretically simple, yet practically challenging, practice of living my life in congruence with my values. Finding the courage and faith to intentionally and mindfully open my life, telling my story with its ups and downs, being vulnerable and human, makes it whole. Mine is a ministry of words, enriching my life and hopefully in some way touching everyone who shares it.