Phaeacians were the mythic people who listened to the war veteran Odysseus on his way home from war. After 10 years of war and 10 years of thwarted homecoming it was the Phaeacians who finally helped Odysseus return home. This blog records notes from my ongoing study of modern day Phaeacians - civilians who make a point of listening deeply to the narratives of war veterans. It explores an old idea - that there is an important and necessary relationship between warriors and the communities of people that send them to war. The project asks, what happens or how are we changed (if at all) by listening to military and war veterans? It includes my observations and interviews with modern day Phaeacians and my own experience of listening to war veterans.

Thursday, February 9, 2012

Returning the sword

The journey to Vietnam is now complete. Our group met Tuesday in Hanoi for a final dinner. Together we had been through a powerful experience. The journey had touched old wounds, stirred memories, brought needed closure and healing and provided powerful new insights and responsibilities. We had experienced so much in such a short time that we found ourselves struggling to find words to match feelings. We all acknowledged the need for time and distance to process it all.

Along with Ed Tick and Kate Dahlstedt, I remained in Hanoi beyond the group's departure to reflect and continue my research. Watching the group board the bus and leave for the airport, I felt a deep sense of loss. Most of us had begun the trip as strangers, but in a short time we had developed a closeness and commitment to each other I will miss.

As I walked alone through the Old Quarter reflecting on all the stories, places and discussions about war, I was drawn to the beautiful green waters of Hoan Kiem Lake.

In Vietnamese myth, the great 15th century warrior and king Le Loi had to surrender his sword to these waters. Like King Arthur, Le Loi had acquired a magical sword. This sword, called Heaven’s Will, had helped him successfully fight off the colonizing Chinese Ming Dyanesty and free the people of Vietnam. After the war, while Le Loi was crossing this lake in a boat, a large golden tortoise surfaced and asked that he return the sword. The time for war and the need for the sword had ended. So Le Loi gave the sword to the tortoise, who took it in its mouth and slowly sank into the waters. From that time on, the lake was known as Hoan Kiem – The Lake of the Returned Sword.

As I came to Hoan Kiem and crossed a small red footbridge to a little island temple, I found a peaceful place to look across the water. With the smell of incense wafting from the temple and the distant sound of morning traffic, I realized I could not go back to where I had been before this journey. To willingly witness the memories and narratives of war is to offer one’s shoulders to carry a burden. I felt new weight but I also felt a deep sense of responsibility and gratitude – a responsibility to not forget and a gratitude that only comes from leaning into the darkness and becoming more awake and connected. As I looked across the water, I saw a small stirring and imagined the golden tortoise rising from the water and taking back all the instruments of war and then slowly sinking peacefully beneath the glassy surface.

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