Sunday, March 16, 2008

Riding my bike through Vietnam was, hands down, one of the most spiritual experiences of my life. Each day was a high mass in the most sacred of all cathedrals, and I was the acolyte serving the liturgy in the holiest of holies. And I'd go to bed exhausted. And then get up and have it all again. Every day. A spiritual feast everyday for three weeks. I still can't believe it happened to me and that I got to do this. I rode on the highways, roads and paths of Vietnam, from Ho Chi Minh City to Hanoi. I rode through the frenzy and tangled snarl of the cities, by the bustling markets and harbors of the villages and over the mud paths of remote areas. People riding expensive bicycles dressed in spandex are a novelty in Vietnam still and I can only imagine, quite a sight for all to see. So as I rode, anywhere I rode, I was greeted with shouts, smiles and big waves, as if I were Lance Armstrong riding through the villages of France. While it pleased and charmed me endlessly, the comparison of me to Lane Armstrong still makes me laugh. So it was a delight on so many levels and the Vietnamese people quickly became to dear to me. So, so very dear. And I laughed and laughed with the parents and the children, all the way from Ho Chi Minh to Hanoi.

But as I rode on in the buffer zone outside of My Lai that day, I cried for all of us. All of us that were there at My Lai, then and now, and all of us that will be there; fully absorbing that war is and always has been a piece of civilization, even though it is deeply wrong--on all so many different levels. And at the base of my tears was the grief and shame of being an American. We know better; we know better. We're the people that kicked Hitler's ass; we're the English-speaking people who stand up in the face of tyranny and oppression. Where did it all go so wrong for us?

After about an hour, I emerged from the buffer zone around My Lai that serves as a remembrance to those killed that day and the rice paddies began to pop up everywhere. Although the tears had stopped by now, I was still deeply sad as only one with a real knowledge can sometimes be. I heard a voice, way off in a rice paddy, directed to me: "huuuuuuuuh-llloooo!" I turned and waved, almost surprised that anyone would be speaking to ME. I saw someone in a conical hat with a huge grin, giving me a two-armed wave, from three rice paddies over. Amazing.

Without warning, I approached a little village and collided with the changing of the shifts at school, as I did quite often. School starts at 7 am in Vietnam, goes until noon and then another group begins at 1pm and goes until 5 pm. The kids ride their bikes and skip along their mothers' sides back and forth to school and it's magic to be among them, as they laugh and giggle and wave, with big shouts of "huh-loooo!" They are happy, clean, well-nurtured children, each with hats to protect from the sun and many with masks, as is common these days in most parts of Asia. They are never far from their parents and their sunny, shiny spirits pick you up and carry you to heaven. This day was no exception; they kids were so excited to see me and the mothers laughed and waved and let their children stand by the side of the road and hold their hands out to be slapped, as true athletes do with each other. The older kids turned their bikes around and rode beside me, practicing their English: Howareyou? Iamfine? Whatisyourname? Iloveyou! Their smiles and giggles are infectious so it's impossible to be anywhere around the children of Vietnam without being in your best and finest self. But at a point, they all were safely at home and in school, as I rode on alone.

I watched the people toil in the rice paddies up to their hips in muddy water and marveled at how those kids turned my mood completely around. I rode on, so deeply grateful yet again, for generosity towards a stranger. And then I almost ditched the bike as I realized what was missing: fear. hatred. These kids nor their mothers were afraid of or hated Americans. They had nothing but hospitality and friendship for me, even in the face of what had happened to their entire village, only a generation ago. Utterly amazing.

It was the mothers of My Lai who never taught their children to hate Americans and never taught them to be afraid of Americans; instead showing them how it is we open our hearts to each other, particularly strangers among us. I was washed clean by the hands of the mothers of My Lai and on that day during Advent 2007, I felt the true and sweet measure of reconciliation and redemption, at the hands of Buddhist people of My Lai, Vietnam.

I believe the mothers of My Lai should be nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize, for giving peace a chance, for turning away from fear, for walking toward a new future in forgiveness. I now know how it feels to be truly forgiven and I pray with the deepest of all gratitudes, that I, too, will always be a person with a smile and an open heart. I also know now that nations will never resist the seductiveness of war and that as since the beginning of time, our nation, like many, will make war with other nations. But I know that between people, peace always stands a chance. And that true Peace really can happen, one person at a time.

The 'Kan EWA


Carla said...

So absolutely beautiful. The children and adults were the same in China as well. So happy, so curious, so loving. I loved reading this.

MarmiteToasty said...

Sighhhhhhhh....... JBelle you write with such grace...


Inland Empire Girl said...

Your travel essays give us the opportunity to be armchair travelers right beside you. For someone who doesn't travel very far away from home I appreciate your point of view.

Kim_Norm said...

This whole story of your trip has really intrigued me, as I have been there as well, but not as a tourist. DFO recently had a story on My Lai on his blog and I commented quite a bit about my story of being over there and also of a woman I met in the past ten years or so that I used to wave to as a soldier driving through the countryside in my tank. She was 18 and I was 19. Small world. I'm glad you got the chance to go. I have been offered the same trip, to escort Gold Star Mothers, but so far have declined. My year there was enough for me, but I am like the people there in a sense, I harbor no ill will and many of them are my close friends to this day. Spokane has a small community of them, around 3-5 thousand I believe, and they all have special stories to tell. I enjoyed yours very much, thanks.