Trip to Portland

November 10, 2010 • Blog Post • by Mary-Ann Rich

Pamela: As the San Jose Workshop was coming to a close, I realized that I didn’t want this experience to end.  I felt inspired, humbled and grateful to be a participant among other veterans unfolding their stories as they relate to these current wars. Very powerful, intense stories from amazing, brave people.  I wanted to, in some small way, show my appreciation to Monica and her team for the amazing work that they are doing with this project.

I don’t know exactly how it happened, I just knew I didn’t want this to end, so I went to Portland to take part and help out with the next workshop.

My thoughts were grasping at how to continue to support Monica, so I simply asked, what else can I do…go to Portland?

Without hesitation, Monica jumped at the offer.  She knew my limitations and was immediately making suggestions of roles I could play, such as helping with the flow of food & water, and taking pictures of the workshop.

The next day, in my insecure manner, I revisited the pleading question of my going to Oregon. I didn’t want to get in the way. I just didn’t feel that I really had the kind of skills that all the other helpers had.  I wasn’t an artist, writer or even skilled on the computer.

Monica assured me that my support and help would be useful and appreciated at the Portland workshop.

Mary-Ann was present, as usual, and looked up, obviously curious about the conversation.

Mary-Ann: Pamela declared with her guilty smirk, “I’m going to Portland!”  I think it must have been the envy in my eyes because she followed with, “you wanna come?”

Ashamed of my envy and surprised that she wanted me around, I blurted out, “YES!”

After all, I invited Pamela to the workshop. I don’t know why I asked her; I really thought she was going to say no. I had assumed she was afraid of life even before her trauma and settled into the victim role without desire or need to change.  She wasn’t, though.  During the workshop in San Jose, we worked long hours, side-by-side. She worked like I did: obsessively focused, driven, non-stop, skipping sleep, not thinking about meals – a real over-achiever. She was a unique sister, passionate about the project. I began asking her questions and found that she’s a remarkable woman with incredible strength, not like the fragileness she displays.

Towards the end of the workshop, she came up to me and told me that she liked me and was glad we met. I was surprised. People don’t usually tell me they like me, let alone enjoy my presence. She was not seeking attention; she was giving, unconditionally. I wanted to hug her, but she warned me off.

On the road, we were going to be Monica’s groupies. It didn’t take much creativity to figure out what kind of support we would give as justification to tag along. After all, we’re smart old gals.  I had the nerdy genetics to fake computer skills. Pamela had owned  cleaning and service businesses so how could Monica refuse that help?  We made sure to offer skills she couldn’t refuse.

Stuffed into the car was the black leather lounge chair from our workshop space at the San Jose Biennial, a donated case of water, a dozen reading lamps, a case of the Riley book, Faith’s 3’ by 4’ painting, Monica’s backpack and a mini refrigerator, which acted as a traveling ice chest.

Little did Monica know that it was the first vacation that both of us had taken for a long time: 20 years for Pamela, and five years for me. We could entertain her with our sisterly jokes about each other’s PTSD symptoms.

Car-ride discussion was as follows:

Pamela: I am still trying to process this workshop.

Mary-Ann: Yeah, I have no idea if this was therapeutic; I’ve been having more intense nightmares, yet I don’t think I’m worse, just processing.  My nightmares have shifted. Now they seem to bring the past, present and future all together.

Pamela: My nightmares are more fluid since the workshop. Not fragmented the way they usually are.

MA: Yeah, I know. Coming out of the PTSD residential program, I felt worse off than when I started. The yoga class at the Vet Center has helped, but this workshop was a more encompassing evolution.

Monica has a way of helping each person introduce their thoughts, emotions and experiences in a way that invites people to listen.  I am so tired of people placating us, thanking us for our service, but not wanting to hear our pain for fear of exposing the rawness of it all.

Pamela: I feel like people ask me how I’m doing, but don’t really want to know. It’s a courtesy response of our culture.

MA: I just want to cry when I think about people who say they are patriotic, yet are quick to punish or blame or close their eyes; war in itself is a crime that changes us. There is no room in society for the horror of it all. Doing the workshop was very validating.

Pamela: Making my book was like taking a linear trip through the events that caused my trauma.  It’s investigative work – writing and reflecting and narrating my own story. This is the story the VA missed when they tried to investigate. This workshop exposed a raw, powerful truth about my past that I can share with others. I felt a lot of compassion from everyone working with me in the workshop. It provided community that I so badly needed. Monica is right when she calls the books “containers.” They are a tangible track for making us more whole.   I think when people read our books they become compassionate witnesses.

We arrive in Portland.

Yummm Voo-doo dounuts!

We finished editing our books, scanning the other veterans’ photos and archives, edited video, took pictures, decorated the building, set up internet access and even entertained the homeless.

I guess unemployment was high in Portland. The Workshop space was operated by Portland State University (PSU) and named “Field Work.” Sadly, there were many times when we had to explain to passersby that we didn’t have jobs to offer.

Also, we laughed a lot.  Pamela showed off her catering skills and set-up elaborate lunch spreads each day (which contributed to great morale). They were the prettiest Cheez-its, carrot sticks, hummus, left-over pizza, cookies, avocado, jicama and spring rolls imaginable. I repaired the plumbing. All of these things caused Monica & Clare to sing our praises.

On the final day of the workshop, PSU held an open-house for The Veterans Book Project. Students and visitors came. The turn-out was high. We fielded questions about our writing, art and war. I read the section from my book on limb salvage. It seemed to move people and stimulate all kinds of questions that I’ve never been asked before. For once, the questions were not insensitive, but rather really thoughtful.

As typically happens, the question of politics came up and whether our opinions of the war are represented in the project. I answered by saying, “politics aside, God forbid anyone becomes a victim of these wars.” Monica added that the bookmakers represent a wide range of political backgrounds. Many are balancing their own internal political conflicts as well, as personal politics sometimes become very complicated after experiencing the wars (something I empathize with).  For her, the politics and issues people write about uncover deeper states of being…. This is what she’s interested in talking about.

We’re not done. In order to have Monica facilitate another workshop in the Bay Area, we are recruiting other veterans to write their books. We give out postcards to veterans and invite them to download our books from lulu.com. We encourage people to let their voices be heard, uncensored. Making books in these workshops helps vets tell their stories right from the gut. Veterans talking to veterans, we support each other in a way that no civilian could. We don’t want anyone to be left out. We’ve been speaking with Vietnam veterans and find that they want to share their personal stories too.  I have even encouraged a WWII vet, who became an Episcopal Priest because he was deeply affected by what he witnessed when he rescued prisoners from the concentration camps, to write his story too.

We have made our own business cards with the web links for our books.


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