Sunset at the Ritual for Veterans
Sunset at the Ritual for Veterans

When Joe [Vietnam veteran) returned [to class], Miriam suggested a group project to develop a ceremony to deal with situations such as Joe’s. The project would not have to focus on Joe in particular but could be generalized to Vietnam vets or vets in general. Miriam was a believer in ritual and ceremony to mark occasions, to put something behind you or to place it square in the center of your being. New ideas for new rituals or hearing about old ones from other cultures that she knew nothing about intrigued her.  She had studied indigenous rituals, especially African ones when she was in graduate school and agreed with Malidoma Some from Burkana Faso, for instance, that such grief rituals were a large part of what was missing in this culture. We are simply expected to go on as if nothing had happened after a short grieving period…

They brought wood and dragged in driftwood for the bonfire. The altar was set up between the dunes and the bonfire. Both had plenty of space around them for the group who would assemble later. They were expecting about twenty participants. The cloth on the altar was a piece of camouflage material. Barbed wire was twisted around the edges and Lucy’s picture of Kent [her ex-husband]stood in the middle. Again, they had items representing the four elements, including a candle, a small dark blue glass jar of water, a picture of a machine gun and tank, and a can of rations. An evacuation tool—a portable shovel—held down one end of the cloth. At the other end was a model of a fighter jet. Joe had propped his dog tags up by the picture. There was a quote by Gandhi across the bottom of the picture reading: “An eye for an eye makes everyone in the world blind.”

People arrived with more items for the altar—pictures of loved ones who had been killed as soldiers in war, friends who were veterans, and pictures or belongings of innocent civilian victims. When Mr. Ng [who had lost his wife and baby in the war] came, he placed his raggedy quilt on the edge of the altar. He wept and knelt down beside it.  He put his fingers in the jar of water and sprinkled them over the quilt. Everyone was instructed to take a candle protected by a glass container, light it and go and stand by the bonfire.

After everyone had joined the circle, Joe asked them to take the ten minutes before the sun set to go to the altar or to the beach and find something that represented what they needed to let go of –something that was connected in some way to war. He said, “In the end you will throw what you find into the fire. If there is anything standing in your way before you can throw it in, we ask that you let the group know what that is. Then, if possible, we will provide it for you.”

When they all returned to the circle with their items, Joe welcomed everyone and introduced the ceremony ushers and Miriam as the teacher. They joined hands and Joe asked each person to say their name and their relation to this ceremony. People had to speak loudly to be heard over the constant input of the ocean. Comments ranged from veteran to mourner to beggar of forgiveness, to peace-maker to dreamer to lover to healer.  Before they released each other’s hands, Joe asked that they let the energy flow around the circle, receiving and giving.

Diane took over from Joe and introduced the calling of the directions. She said that in this ceremony, they would call in qualities that came from those directions, but they wanted everyone to call in the countries and people who lived in those parts of the world as well as animals and the land itself. Anyone or thing injured by war. Could be ancestors, friends, acquaintances or beings one had read about in books.

First Diane instructed them to face East, away from the ocean. When they were all facing East, Diane said in a strong beckoning voice, “Spirits of the East, we welcome you. Energy of sunrise and spring, new shoots, babies and new life. The air we breathe. Welcome. And we welcome those in the east who have been harmed by war.” Diane stepped back and let others call out: “Native Americans, Irish, Stan, Harry, Wounded Knee, Leonard Peltier, the Balkans, Jews, gypsies, Israelis, Palestinians, Bosnians and Albanians, Iraqis, Paul, oil spills, the innocence of the soldiers…” The list went on and on until it became quiet.

They moved to face the South. Hermann stepped forward, and said, “Spirits of the South we welcome you, your warmth, your passion, your fruit and your sweet summers. The fire to cleanse and give us hope. Welcome. We honor and welcome those in the South who have been injured or killed by war and the participants responded: “Cuba, Nicaragua, El Salvador, Mexico, Chile, Guatemala, Panama, Granada, Venezuela, Peru, Victor, Isabelle, Franklin, the rain forest, the Amazon and all the rivers, Columbia, South Africa, Zimbabwe, Mozambique, Libya, Nigeria, Liberia, Brazil, the Philippines, the Maori, Australia, the Aboriginal peoples, New Zealand, and the list went on until it became quiet.

Everyone turned to face the West. Joe began, “Spirits of the West, we welcome you. Ocean, water, waves, baptism and forgiveness. The fall and the grace. Crimson and orange. Our blood flowing through us. West we welcome you and pray for the forgiveness, the purification you offer. We honor and welcome those in the West who have died or been injured in war. “Hawaii, Pacific Islands, Japan, China, Uncle Marty, Hong Kong, Singapore, Viet Nam, Laos, Cambodia, Thailand, Burma, the Buddha sculptures, Tibet, India, Carl, Andy, Wan, Marjory, Karen, Leroy, Tom, Kent, Native Americans,” and the list went on until there was quiet.

Again, they all turned to the North and Rati began, “Welcome North, ancestors and those yet to come, white bones, power of death, wisdom of the ages, welcome polar bear and snow, the deep deep earth, welcome. Welcome all those in the North who have died or been injured in war: “Russia, First People, the Netherlands, Elena, the glaciers, the Alaskan wilderness, polar bears, Norway and Sweden,” and the list went on until the quiet settled in.

Joe continued, “And we welcome those above us and those below us into our circle. If at any time you think of peoples or creatures you may have forgotten, please say their name into the circle.” Joe paused and looked briefly around the circle. The extent of the devastation from war was lodging in his throat. He wondered if he could continue. Already tears streaked down the cheeks of the participants.

Joe cleared his throat and continued, “Thank you all for your offerings so far. For the next part, we would like to go around in a circle in order, if possible. You may pass if it does not feel like the right time for you. We will come back to you. We ask that you show your object, make a short statement about it. Then, if there is anything you need before you can let this thing go, you may state it. The group, if it is able, will give you that thing. We as a group will be standing in for the many peoples, animals and the land whom we have brought into this circle today.

“Let me give an example: if someone’s father died in Germany in WWII as a soldier, and the daughter is here and wants to hear an apology, anyone can take on the persona of Germany, Japan, the United States, etc. and can offer that apology. You do not have to be the person who was responsible, but try to step into their shoes and offer it. Then, after you get what you need, you can throw your item onto the fire. If you do not get what you need, you may hold onto the item a little longer. Any questions?”

Joe volunteered to go first. He stepped forward, took out his dog tag, and said, “I want to get rid of my identity as a veteran and the guilt that keeps me from living. I need to stop seeing the faces of those I killed. I ask for their forgiveness.”

Suddenly Mr. Ng fell to his knees in the sand. “I forgive you, I forgive you, I forgive you,” he said as he cried, rocking back and forth on his knees. Joe put his arm around the small shape and rocked with him for what seemed like an eternity. Then Joe took Mr. Ng’s hand and gave him part of the dog tag. Together they threw them into the fire. The metal hitting the fire was the sound of redemption. Dull but final.

Then Mr. Ng approached the fire with his quilt. He said, “This quilt all left of baby daughter Huoi. Wife, Song, sew it. Can’t see them in terror any more, eyes big, so scared. Need to hear they not fear anymore—they in peace.” He sighed. All was quiet for a moment.

As Lucy looked at him across the fire, she could almost see a dark, tortured aura about him. Maybe this was what she had sensed the first time she met him, and what had set her apart from him. Lucy wondered how Miriam could work with such darkness.

Just then Miriam stepped forward toward Mr. Ng and took both of his hands in hers creating the circle. Then she said with strong voice full of the authority of someone who knows, “The dead feel no pain. They wish for you to be happy so that they may rest in peace.” As she continued speaking, her voice started to quake. “They need for you to let them go so that their wisdom can Dwell in the DEEP WISDOM WELL.” With those last words, Miriam could not keep her own life out of this ceremony. She trembled visibly and went into an almost-collapse, falling to her knees, sobbing. Mr. Ng comforted her automatically, putting the quilt around her shoulders as he had done many times for his daughter. Then he helped her up. Together they threw the quilt into the fire and watched as it smoldered and threatened to put out that part of the fire. Gradually it was consumed by the flames with billows of smoke.

When she had recovered herself, Miriam looked younger than her years. In fact, she looked like a child who needed to be cradled, to be rocked and sung to, to be told everything was going to be okay.

Miriam struggled in that moment to be professional and not to take away from the ceremony with her personal problems. Taking a deep ragged breath, she approached the fire with a piece of driftwood that looked like a tuning fork with two tines. She said that to her, it represented the forked tongue, the lies. “I have to give up believing the lies they tell us about the enemy, about why we have to separate ourselves from them and then kill them.” What about the lies I tell? she thought to herself. “Before I can give it up, I need your promise to help all of us speak the truth.”

The people began promising each other to help reveal the truth. Lucy came to Miriam and hugged her small body and said, “I promise to help you speak the truth.” Miriam felt dizzy and leaned into Lucy for a moment, remembering her sweet and powerful energy. She wanted to stay there, be energized by her, be inspired and at ease. Lucy, though, remembering their estrangement, did not want to push her too far. When Lucy withdrew from her, Miriam, again felt bereft. Sighing, she turned towards the fire, threw the wood into it, and with the rest of the people, witnessed it burning.

Hermann had not known what to throw into the fire. He was tormented by dreams of dead people, many of whom had been killed in wars. He held a long, thin spaghetti-like end of a bull whip kelp seaweed.  He said, “I have to let go of all these unknown people who haunt me at night, send them on their way. But before they can leave, they need to forgive those who harmed them. Can we ask those who have perpetrated harm on others to accept forgiveness?”

The group began fervently asking these unknown people to please accept forgiveness. At first the pleas were whispered. Soon the people were on their knees, begging for forgiveness for all the pain caused by wars everywhere in the world and being, in turn, forgiven. The energy of the group was solemn, as if they channeled the very soldiers and decision-makers who had killed and ordered other people to kill.

Finally, Hermann took the tether he held and sliced it in half. He threw one half into the fire. “Rest in Peace,” he said to them all. “Let us war no more.”

Lucy was next. She had brought a small flag from the altar and placed it in front of her. “I have to let go of the idea that I can do it alone—the idea that borders and boundaries of ‘this is mine’ and ‘that is yours’ are real. ‘Self do it’ used to be my motto.

“I need to learn to ask for help across the borders of my self and not try to build my life full of insurance that I will always be able to do everything alone. The idea that I must acquire everything I may ever need, even go to war for it, comes from the idea that others will not come to my aid—that no one is going to help me—and that people are out there only for themselves—that I need protection from all those out to get me.” Lucy looked around at those in the circle who were nodding their heads in agreement.  “But before I can throw that away, I need to know that we will take care of each other, that we pledge to help each other out, allowing us all to take more risks that expose our vulnerabilities. Will you be there for me when I let go of the illusion of independence?”

Lucy had had no idea she was going to say any of that. She had been thinking something quite different. But now the group of people was pledging not just to her, but to each other, that they would do their best to help each other out. Rati said to Miriam, “All you need do is ask and together we will find a way through.” Joe came up to Lucy and said, “If you need a place to stay for a while, my place has an extra room. You are welcome.”

Lucy looked at Joe wide-eyed. She pulled him to her and whispered in his ear, “I’ll let you out of it later if you are just caught up in the moment here, but damn, that sounds ideal! Don’t forget I have a cat who must come with me…” In their embrace Lucy could feel Joe’s heart was beating quickly. She felt the ritual transforming him in that very moment. When she pushed away from him and looked into his eyes, she saw a wholeness she had not seen in him before.

Miriam did not approach Lucy then. She made promises to many people but not to Lucy. Lucy noted this with a sharp stab. If it hadn’t been for Joe’s words, she couldn’t have thrown the flag into the fire. But she did, looking over at Miriam as she threw it. Miriam was once again unable to look at Lucy.

Many more items went into the fire—a moon rock, driftwood shaped like a bird’s eye, a coin, a black rock, a broken piece of green glass, a shell with a spiral in it, an intricate piece of seaweed. And many more assurances were given until it was quiet, and all had contributed. They thanked the Spirits of each direction; buried the fire and all remnants of what had been burned.

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