Speaking Soul-Fully

As I said in the previous post, I am reading Peter Van Buren‘s most recent novel,  Hooper’s War: A Novel of World War II Japan,  It is structured as a story told from end to beginning, both ending and beginning as narrated from a retirement home in Hawaii by a ninety-year-old Nathaniel Hooper, looking back on an eventful several days of his life, seventy years (and an alternative universe) behind him.

With Former Lieutenant Hooper on my mind, it was no surprise, then, that I was especially open yesterday to a real combat veteran, some twenty years younger than the fictional officer.  It was only our second meeting, but he was anxious to tell me a tale much shorter than Hooper’s, yet perhaps, for him, just as profound.

In another Asian war some twenty years later, this combat vet had come up the rear of a very famous battle, just as his fellow soldiers had broken through the lines. He readily admitted that he had thus been spared the horror of witnessing death occur right before him, next to him, behind him.  But at nineteen (the same age as young Lieutenant Hooper, miles and years away—and yet not), he did have not to only witness, but also to cross over and, even, at times to step upon the remains of what Death had left behind.  He stressed the words remains.

In Mr. Van Buren’s book, Mr. Hooper had a story to tell, to any who might be willing to listen. My patient also found himself having a story to tell, although found himself is indeed the right expression. For he narrated to me that, almost as an out-of-body experience, he had recently  spoken to a group of peers about his memories of that day.  Even as he told me of his conversation, he could not fully grasp, intellectually or, if you will, physically, that he had actually spoken the words that he had spoken.

He had wondered whether he had said too much.  His companions told him that he had not.  He was willing to accept their assessment.

I suspect that my patient’s tale was far less skeptical of War than was the tale of Van Buren’s Hooper.  Yet I could not help but recognize that both still spoke the same story:  once War has been, it is and will be. Whether fifty or seventy years later, it will still demand to be spoken, from out of a body and a soul that still can find itself filled with War’s remains, demanding those remains be emptied into a world, whether that world wishes to receive them or not.

Whether speaking in anger, in sadness, in distress—even, sometimes, in awe—War will have its say, in different voices, with different inflections, with stories coherent or not, with sentences complete or not.

The soul must tell its tale. And so I listen. And read.

Harvard Law School–and Private Jones

Currently I’m reading a recently-published novel, Hooper’s War: A Novel of World War II Japan, by Peter Van Buren.  An intriguing tale, it asks an interesting alternative-history question:  what if the atomic bombs had not been dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki?  What if, instead, the Allied forces had invaded Japan?  What if, soon after that invasion, the one city that had until then survived the bombings, the ancient capital of Kyoto, had instead become the city whose name we’d forever remember, not because of a single plane’s mission, but rather because of the mission of countless planes one particular night, lighting afire a city of wood and paper, turning the word Dresden into just another city that had had its share of War woes?

What if one particular American, Lieutenant Nathaniel Hooper,  had a story to tell of just such events?

Early in my reading, though, it is not yet Hooper who has grabbed me.  It is Private Alden Jones, from outside Tulsa, Oklahoma, USA.  No spoiler here: within pages of the narrative, you realize that the War will not turn out well for PVT Jones.  It is how it does not turn out well that pauses me this morning, sitting again on my quiet porch, somewhere in my consciousness hearing the wind chimes sing in pentatonic, do-la-sol-mi-do-mi-sol-la-do.  Quite Asian, come to think of it.

“You much for praying, Alden?”

“Sometimes, sir. Not sure God always listens,” Jones said.

“He’ll hear you,” [Hooper] said. […]

“If God listened, I don’t think I’d be like this now,” Jones said.  He looked away. “I wanna be older. I got a dog at home older than me”

So what does all this have to do with Harvard Law School, you might ask?

It’s been twenty-seven years since I graduated from HLS, as we lovingly know it à la acronym.  After having been well indoctrinated into the intricacies of Medical-ese, it took me a while to acclimate to its distant Legal-ese cousin.  I had an odd academic career at Harvard:  I did moderately well my first year, well my second year, and very well my third year.  By the end I could talk the talk with the best of them, magna cum laude, even.  Not bad for a kid from Westside Indianapolis.

But I never was good at walking the walk.

That brings me back to Alden from Oklahoma.

I have known my share of Aldens through the years (living, thankfully), young men and women who took their military jobs seriously, even if they might have found them perplexing at times, young men and women who believed.

Many of whom still believe, even though so, so much has complicated that belief.

Harvard Law School taught me the words to allow me to speak beyond solely the private experience, big words like deontologic and consequentialist and communitarian, words that enabled me to speak fluidly for or against the desires and plans of swaths of people. It’s quite nice speaking for lots of people.  You get to take intellectual selfies with such notables as Aristotle, or Locke, or the Founding Fathers.  Heck, even with William Brennan and Antonin Scalia, God rest their souls.  Pretty heady experience, I’ve got to tell you.

Yet I was never a lawyer at heart. No matter how much I tried to speak for the public, even for the private as one member of the public, I kept finding myself coming back to the private-private.  In fact, to quite particular Privates.

Through the years, the young Privates and I have not always seen eye to eye when it has come to politics, to War.  I’ve got me some pretty good words to talk about politics and War.  I’m pretty good at using them.  Trust me.

Yet they are the ones who have taught me, who still teach me what it can mean to be an individual caught up in a collective of one’s own choosing, only to find oneself in a situation that has turned out to be so much more than what one had thought of signing up for. They have taught me what happens in a soul, for good, for ill, when the collective suddenly becomes binary—a buddy, a child—and, even more, when the collective becomes all too private.

Yet they have also taught me what can happen in a soul, for good, for ill, when the private  soon returns to the collective, so that the Mission might continue, in War, in Politics, in Life.  Love and loyalty are complex matters indeed.

They are the ones who have taught me that, proud as I am to have learned to speak like a lawyer, I have been and am a doctor. I cannot abdicate the social, nor will I.  Evil is Evil.  The Common Good is the Common Good.

But when the moment comes, the moment, it is the patiens, the One Who Suffers, whose call I hear.

And at those very times, my snazzy Harvard words are—for this lawyer-psychiatrist, at least—just not the point.

Sorry, Mr. Justice Holmes.  But come to think of it: you were a combat veteran.  So I suspect you’d understand.

And then our Hero . . .

Earlier this week I read Army veteran, memoirist/novelist Matt Gallagher‘s story, “And Bugs Don’t Bleed,” in the collection Fire and Forget:  Short Stories from the Long War.  It is a memorable tale, to say the least, of an Army scout, about to head out for another deployment, who ponders memories—and who, quite painfully, creates them as well.

Also earlier this week I sat with a young Army veteran who is trying to get better sleep.  A worthy goal, certainly.  Fortunately for him, he is not tormented by nightmares.  Rather he is tormented by an emotional edge that simply refuses to settle with the mere darkening of the environment.

Also, fortunately for him, his mind rarely edges back to War at night.  It edges around and into his day, his past, his tomorrow, his future, wandering with an edge, biding time with an edge, prone with an edge.

He did tell me, ever so briefly, of memories of his own, of ones he had not created, yet which he had had to watch, hear, clean up after. Memories of “Taps” that he refuses to linger over.  Who needs the brass section, after all, in a life of Hard Rock.

So what will happen to our Heroes, one in his fictional universe, one in his very real one?  I haven’t a clue.  I hope that one hero will sleep better.  I made him no guarantees. He’s been edgy at night since he was a kid, after all.  There’s only so much a poor little pill can do—or only so much one wants to put up with from a nasty little pill.  He and I will discover that together.

Yet it is the distant future I wonder about.  Believe me:  many a combat veteran has found ways to manage memories, both created by them and created within them.  I would say that the antidote often does have some element of motion, of edge to it.  Keep moving.  Even if the memories are following you, you can usually depend on the theory of relativity to keep up the illusion of their being immobile, willingly keeping their place on the third shelf on the left.

But it’s not always motion they must turn to.  Not at all. Sometimes memories, even quite painful ones, can perch on shelves and stay put.  Life is not predictable.

Yet I still wonder. Much of my days are now spent with combat veterans from the Vietnam War era who had thought that their memories had long ago melted in the subtropical heat. They look at me and ask me, “How is this happening?” There is an answer to that question: the brain is not predictable.

Not exactly satisfying as an answer, no matter how true it might be.

I hope my veteran friend finds sleep.  I hope his memories stay put. We’ll find out together—or he’ll find out himself, long after I’m gone.

And I hope somewhere in some fictional universe, Will, the Army Scout, the creator and creat-ee of memories, will find his peace, too.

Seeing Better Days

Today it was a woman whom I’ve only met a couple times. Yesterday it was a man with whom I’ve spent many hours.  Each gave me something quite wonderful, gifts that differed only in degree of mutual acquaintance, rather than in any kind of emotional depth.

Each gave me the gift of their now seeing better days.

As a psychiatrist, my job is to be willing to listen to the stories of fear, of sadness, of rage, to do what I can to show a fellow human being that a another fellow human being is willing to try to understand—and in an imperfect way, experience—what he can.

Fortunately, though, my job is not all fear, sadness, and rage.

Not only do combat veterans ask me to experience the darkness of War itself, many also invite me to experience the light of what Life can become after War, after people have been willing to listen to them, wiling to take the risks of knowing what civilians don’t want to know, yet must know if the combat veterans are to have any hope of finding that light.

They invite me to share with them the joy—not unbridled, certainly, but also not tenuous—of their moving into the world a bit wiser, a bit more willing to understand that there are indeed so many things not worth fighting about.

They invite me to experience that the world can again feel good, for meaningful periods of time, even after their having learned that the world can rapidly become very, very not-good.

Funny.  Both persons thanked me for what they perceived as my having given them a gift.  And true, in a way that I could, I gave them a gift of my knowledge, of myself.

Yet what I have received in return.  To both, I can only say:  for your service, for your willingness never to give up upon yourselves and upon those whom you love, thank you.

Here’s to even better days.

Once the Grill Cools Down

In his book The Greatest Generation Speaks, former NBC anchorman Tom Brokaw wrote of sharing with a friend stories about those who had struggled through World War II.  The friend spoke a truth many of us would rather not have repeated in polite company:

You hear something like that and you’re resolved to keep it in your mind forever, but twenty minutes later you’re wondering what’s for lunch.

Memorial Day weekend in the United States is now past—dare I say long past, given the pace of today’s news cycle.  It’s Wednesday, after all. If you don’t heat those leftover burgers up in the microwave soon, you’re just going to have to stuff them down the disposal, and then all that money spent for what, right?  Might as well have picked up a couple of Whoppers and been done with it.

I have to say: I’m not so critical of us civilians for our ease in moving on from the stories of War. Believe me: no combat veterans actually want others to hold the memories they hold, no matter how angry at the world those veterans might be.

I’m more critical that we civilians are mostly unwilling to move even within ten feet of those stories in the first place, sit with them for more than the hour-long special on CNN, Fox, MSNBC, or whatever other station we pause upon between Netflix binges.  Perhaps if we were more willing to do that, all of us could get to lunch more quickly.

Perhaps, even, enjoy it.

Roll Call

Late yesterday I read two pieces:  a short story by United States Army veteran David Abrams, “Roll Call,” from the book Fire and Forget:  Short Stories from the Long War, and an essay from the 30 August 2010 Esquire, The Things That Carried Him,” by Chris Jones.  Both are accounts of remembering the dead, the first one short, staccato, the second one long, more largo than legato.

Abrams’ story tells of a memorial gathering miles away from me, literally and figuratively, of a fictional group of soldiers remembering the dead in the midst of Death, reciting among themselves a list of names that almost certainly was not yet complete, for the next time outside the wire was yet to come, then the next and the next.

Jones’ story, on the other hand, tells of an actual memorial that once happened just down Interstate 65 from me, starting in a small southern Indiana town where the story of a young sergeant’s body ended; ending, via a backwards timeline, at a beginning in far-off Mesopotamia, the beginning that had seen the young man’s spiritual/psychological end with the triggering of an improvised explosive device (IED).

Then, today, I went back to work, and I heard stories from several men who had struggled this weekend, seeing lists of names in social media and news pieces, remembering their own lists of names from their pasts, calling roll and knowing exactly who would say “Here!” in their hearts and who would not, some silent because of War, some because of War’s aftermath.

Remembering the Dead of War is always a complicated matter.  It will always be, in some ways, a political matter.  What could be more political than War, after all.

But, like all politics, War is also so very, very personal. As a psychiatrist, my days are spent with the personal, whether in reading a fictional narrative or listening to a tale told sometimes sadly, sometimes blankly, by a man or woman only feet away from me.

Whether the name is one or the names are twenty, the silence in the roll call is always jolting.  I owe it to them whose names are called, indeed, to feel the jolt.

Even more, perhaps, I owe it to them to keep listening to those who seek some hope of a more fond remembering that will allow the living, if not with gusto, then at least with peace, to speak their own answer at the call of their names:  “Here!”

In Memoriam

In memoriam, not in memoria.  Into memory, not in it. Motion, not place.

Soon it will be two years, JD.   Today, I once again move you, from my heart, into my mind.   Just as I do many, many days.

Rest in peace.

Hodie in cordem ingredior, ut in memoriam te portem. Semper animae tuae meminero, quia in corde permanebis.

Requiescas in pace, mi amice.

The Trauma Hero

Late last night I finished combat-veteran Roy Scranton‘s War Porn.  Memorable title. Even more memorable book.

I’d warn the faint-of-heart to be prepared.  Not for the reasons they might imagine, though.

Professor Scranton is no stranger to controversy, whether in book titles, book content—or literary reflection. Anyone who has read his 2015 piece in The Los Angeles Review of Books, “The Trauma Hero: From Wilfred Owen to ‘Redeployment’ and ‘American Sniper’” knows exactly whereof I speak.

For in the essay he asks us, after all, to question whether our “war literature” should embrace the “wounded warrior” more than the ones whom the warrior wounds.

Trust me:  in War Porn, he practices what he preaches.

As a psychiatrist, my job is to experience the story that walks through my office door. My job is not to be overwhelmed by that story (easier said than done, some days). My job is not to script it (although, granted, I have more than a few colleagues who might disagree with that). My job is to experience it, and not just its words, but its sounds, its muscle twitches, its eyes, sometimes even its smell. I’m charged with taking those experiences and translating them into a language (and, sometimes, a neurochemistry) that is supposed to ease Life’s motion forward.

Again, often, too often, easier said than done (although, again, often and, yes, too often, I have more than a few colleagues who might disagree with that).

Don’t for a moment think that everyone who walks through my door is traumatized.  A few who drop by wouldn’t even mind heading back and doing a bit more traumatizing if they could, truth be told.  Not most, by a long shot.  But a few. Power has its allures.

Plus destruction has certainty to it, after all.  At the end of the day, there’s always a record somewhere out there in the physical world, fragmented and motionless, such that it is.

Life and certainty, on the other hand…

I’m not one of those mental-health types who guides people toward what to tell me (again, more disagreements…) I’ve always had enough to do just with what they’ve willingly told me. I’ve never found it rare to encounter veterans who have been more than willing to allude to darkness in their souls.  Real darkness, nothing the veteran or I would quibble over.

After all, the painful physiology of darkness is part of what I’m there for.

We do so love our reason and cognition, though, don’t we?  Thank God for the Greeks who bore us those gifts.  Words, words, and more words.

Yet just like the Trojans, again and again we finds ourselves surprised by the chemical-spiritual forces hidden within those concepts.

For us humans, War colonizes what is within us, what is between us, what is among us. Just as I must remember that I will only hear askew those who have been traumatized, so will I only hear askew those who have also traumatized.

Equally, however, I must hold within me that I am, not could be, both Traumatizer and Traumatized. Otherwise I’m just playing a cruel hoax on everyone who does walk through that office door. After all, I just have the good fortune of brandishing the plausible deniability of my having never wielded a literally-lethal weapon in my hands.  That’s all.

My words, on the other hand…

The good professor reminds me that I must always be willing to be created by the stories told me, even if I don’t like the resulting product. He also reminds me of my obligation, in just such cases, to create something more human in return.

Easier said, yet still must be done.  No disagreements.


Moving Day

My eldest got married last fall, and until today she and her husband had been house sitting for a couple who has been spending the past school year in South America.  Today, however, was moving day, into a place of their own, finally.

Dad (in-law) only had to supply an old SUV for transportation, so I was able to enjoy watching my kids’ friends in action, all while remembering younger years when similar friends, now old like Dad, filled cars and trucks, eked sofas around treacherous corners, chowed on pizza and beer in later celebration.  I’m glad that their future is ahead of them.  I’m glad that, at least for some adventures, my past is behind me.

On the way to and from their house I continued to listen to Roy Scranton‘s War Porn.  People are also on the move in that narrative, in Iraq, in the United States.  So far, they’re not faring as well.  I’m doubtful for much reprieve.

I sit on the back porch and ask myself:  why am I reading this today, this weekend, Memorial Day weekend in the US?  Why not relax, perhaps remember War in a quieter state of mind?

Good question.

Yet so many combat veterans have to reflect this weekend on Life’s realities and live within them:  reflect and live successful moves, yes, perhaps, topped off by a slice of meat-lovers’ and a cold, microbrewery pale ale.

Yet also, perhaps, reflect and relive death and destruction long ago or just months ago, experienced for reasons that—that what?

A burger on the grill here, an anger-filled/tear-filled/empty-filled midnight walk there.  Life, Death, now, then, back, forth, hour after hour.

I at least get to enjoy my sunset today with a glass of Malbec.  I need to be thankful. I am.  For my family.  For my life.

And I owe it to the living and the dead to be only so relaxed.  Moved, maybe.  Yes, moved.

It’s the least I can do.

Listening to War

Well, for the faithful few:  I’m back.

I guess this would be what my kids would call 2.0.

If you’re an old friend, first of all: thank you.  Truly.

Second of all, though: you can see that quite a bit has changed.  Welcome to Listening to War:  Reflections on Words Heard Only Askew.  For a fuller explanation, see the Paving the Road Back tab above, or click here.

If you’re a new friend:  good to meet you.  On my new Twitter account (@deaton_rod), I advertise myself as “just a country psychiatrist trying to make a living by listening, reading, and thinking.”

Welcome to just that.

Recently I’ve been listening to Roy Scranton‘s debut novel, War Porn.  Good way through it, at this point.  The ugly stuff is ramping up.  I suspect that Professor Scranton, who teaches down the street from me at Notre Dame, might argue that, well, that’s War for you.

This morning, though, I heard the Audible narrator read former President George W. Bush’s speech to the United States at the time of the initiation of the fighting in Iraq.  The narrator gave a nice rendition of the President’s twang.  I had to admire it as I pulled into the parking lot of my clinic.

I parked the car.  I listened to the speech. I turned the book off. But not the car.  Not yet.

Fourteen years it’s been since that speech.  At the time I was working out of a nondescript office in downtown Indianapolis, occasionally walking down to the local Starbucks on Mass Ave to enjoy a latte in the corner of the store, staring at the latest in the window of the toy store across the street.

But this morning, some two and half hours away from that cafe, miles and miles away within my soul, I heard words I must have heard some time around then, must have, spoken in my native tongue, assuring me that all would be…

Yes.  Would be.

I turned off the car and headed into work.  Too many words ahead of me to think anymore about those words.  Too many words, too many lives since those were first spoken.

I’m a much older man now.  So is Professor Scranton.  So are we all, men, women, the then-infants who are now leaving middle school.

If only would be were not still is.

But it is.

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