In Which I Endeavor to Speak of Plum Village

Hello friends,

As many of you know, I recently spent a week in a Buddhist monastery in southwestern France. Given the curiosity surrounding my experience, a deep-seeded desire to write, and the material I want to write about, I present to you a brief outline of my week at Plum Village, Thich Nhat Hanh’s hermitage and site of spiritual enlightenment.

But first, a back story. I would not have found Plum Village were it not for this string of events, which I could easily expand into a novella of its very own, or a series thereof. Since I left the Mormon church as a young West Point cadet in 2008, I’ve steered clear of the chaplaincy of the United States Army with staunch determination, and largely only sought out churches for the music. I’ve been called Holden Caulfield before, and this applies to my opinion on most churches… damned phonies. Further, as an officer living in Germany for nearly three of my three allotted years now, church services have not been a remote priority in my life relative to travel (I could write a European travel guide), and who needs a building when nature is my cathedral? Check out Konigsee. It’s two hours from my house. Why would I choose to stay inside?

That mentality changed when I found myself standing in an icy tundra in Latvia in January of this year. I had just come from the ports of Kiel, Germany and Klaipeda, Lithuania, where my task had been to ensure the onward movement of our military cargo . I was the Squadron Movement Officer for a unit spread across five countries in Central and Eastern Europe (namely, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, and Germany), and the primary officer responsible for coordinating the flow of personnel, equipment, and ammunition across these countries for the next four months. If you’ve read Kafka’s The Trial, you’ll have an idea of the nature of the  quandaries I encountered on my way. But I didn’t know that in January. I just knew that our chaplain was an Anglican who grew up in a bar, drank liquor, and had a tattoo. I also knew that he was looking to identify English language services in Riga to provide for the spiritual welfare of the soldiers there when he was away in Estonia, Lithuania, or Poland – and I knew that one of these was an Anglican church and I wanted to join that expeditionary force. I shelved my reserve, made my introductions, and prepared for the weekend’s mission.

We embarked with two leads that same Sunday – an Anglican service and a Catholic service. The first of these is Saint Saviour’s Anglican Church in Riga, Latvia. The second faded into obscurity after one visit. St. Saviour’s is a 150 year old Anglican church built on imported British soil with imported British materials for an imported British congregation – for her majesty the Queen! It’s also a sanctuary, unique among churches I have visited to date (here’s an exception). From the opening swells of J.S. Bach’s Goldberg Variations Aria in the prelude music to the international congregation to the introduction of the Lord’s Prayer (“And now we will say the Lord’s Prayer in English, or in whatever language is closest to your heart”) and the use of Gabriel’s Oboe by Ennio Morricone during the Eucharist, I was sold. Hook, line, and sinker sold, smitten and determined to go back.

And go back I did. Every Sunday from January through Easter Sunday, me, myself, and I. My fellow staff officers and I were granted a weekly pass from 1700 on Saturday until 1500 on Sunday, which was enough time to have dinner, rage hard, sober up over a grease laden breakfast, and return to duty. As clubbing is not my scene, I typically went to bed after dinner and a drink or two at my favorite Belgian haunt, then rose early to enjoy the crisp morning air over Riga in peace. I reveled in these first Sundays, where I was allowed the time to stay and enjoy coffee hour following the service. However, these soon dried up as my boss deemed it essential that his minions be back by 1300. This was just enough time to catch the service, leave promptly at noon, and hitch a taxi back. While it provided no time for talk, it was enough.

I anchored my sanity on those services. No matter how terrible a week could be – and terrible they were – if I could make it to St. Saviour’s, I could make it through the next seven days. In the Army, I’ve often told myself that I’ll never again work as hard as I did in college – but in Latvia, I would work busily from sun up to sun down, a litany of projects always on my plate. My dreams became work-centric: unfinished tasks would surface at 0300, reminding me to tend to their completion. I was juggling three distinct redeployment efforts (that’s the movement back to home station), coordinating for the receipt of the unit relieving us (Dios mio, chaos), and propping up the ammunition bureaucracy with what sliver of attention I had to spare. My lifestyle was anything but healthy: my diet, an amalgam of coffee, cigarettes, trail mix, and chocolate; my exercise routine the occasional set of pull-ups on a door frame; my sleep, fitful at best. I trudged forward because I had to. Reflecting on it all as I write, I feel the weight of that experience like a millstone on my soul. St. Saviour’s was my light in the darkness, a candle flickering in the night.

In mid-March, I submitted my last document for our redeployment efforts, a euphoric moment. I had freedom to breathe! I had the intellectual space to read! At the recommendation of a good friend, I read Cheryl Strayed’s Wild, then moved on to Tiny Beautiful Things. Note that I had planned out a wedding sequence with my girlfriend of nearly three years – we had spent Christmas in Germany together (and the previous summer), acquiring ornaments and such for our lives together in Rothenburg ob der Tauber (hometown of Christmas, yo) – and she was taking the lead on planning our summer trip, with a focus on the Balkan region – Sarajevo in the centennial of The Great War held (holds) great allure. That was ongoing – now back to the book. Some books are life changing – East of Eden, Les Miserables, Brave New World, All Quiet on the Western Front, The Crucible, Atonement, Born to Run, and the whole Frank McCourt trilogy are a smattering of books in this category for me.

Tiny Beautiful Things was life shattering. I’d been wrestling with questions of aspiration and ambition after the Army, duty versus desire, and the book initiated a collision of paradigms such as I have never before experienced. Two irreconcilable life paths competed for dominance in my soul, and I could feel the friction like the sliding of a tectonic plate. Settle down or launch free? America or Europe? Africa? Be a teacher? A logistician? Gay? Straight? Bisexual? I could not breathe, could not sleep. A line in the book had told me that “if there’s a voice in your head telling you to ‘go, go, go,’ then go!” (I had a series of compelling arguments telling me to go, go, go). It gave me cold sweats. I pulled my lifelines. I called my wonderful friend and occasional mentor (and psychologist) Jill, and she dropped everything to talk to me. I called Trip, the man who had paired Franchesca and me together in Columbus, and talked ad nauseam with him, teasing through emotion. I called, texted, and emailed my circle of confidants. And then, with freedom as my highest aspiration and citing a need for space to figure out who I am after eight years in uniform and a lifetime under somebody else’s dominion, I broke up with my girlfriend.

In so doing, I availed myself of a summer to plan. Enter the Army.

Operation Dragoon Ride concluded on 1 April, with the bulk of 3rd Squadron, 2nd Cavalry Regiment driving their fleet of military vehicles from Prague into Rose Barracks. Seizing a moment of opportunity, my friend Ryan called my boss and requested that we be allowed to fly to Helsinki for a weekend, as we were static in Latvia with a multinational operation that left much to be desired. To our great surprise, our Executive Officer returned the call and granted us permission – we were ecstatic! As efforts to book airfare online had been stymied, we laid a plan to stop at the Vilnius airport after securing our friend from the embassy there the following morning.

On 2 April, we drove to Vilnius to secure Zack and take him back to Latvia to fly out with the bulk of soldiers remaining there. Once he was with us, Ryan and I decided that he should probably go to Helsinki with us, and being the movement officer and the personnel officer with all of our senior leaders in Germany, that was totally within our purview. We made the manifest change, and all three of us bought airfare from Riga to Helsinki at the Vilnius airport for the upcoming weekend. We began our four hour drive back to Adazi, site of our headquarters in Latvia. Nothing could get us down.

And then, I got a phone call. It was my captain, the intermediary between me and my boss. He told me that my trip was in question, citing concern over my ability to manage the redeployment in a foreign country, then hung up. I had resolved a logistical problem over the phone at lunch in Vilnius just an hour previous, but one does not protest in uniform. A few minutes later, he called back with my boss on speaker phone. He canceled my trip. I argued that I had just spent two hundred Euro on his promise. He told me that if it was about the money, he’d pay me the two hundred Euro. I told him that it wasn’t about the money; it was about trust. My captain, sensing tension, brought the conversation to a hasty close and hung up. I was devastated, furious. My peers, understanding the intensity of the situation, stopped at a rest stop and purchased a bottle of wine for me. I started slamming the beers that I’d bought in Vilnius with one of the NCOs who rode along with us. I drank that wine too. And I smoked those cigarettes with a vengeance.

As compensation for this raw deal, my boss gave me permission to stay alone in Riga until I flew out on 8 April. My task was simply to ensure that all of our personnel and cargo movements happened,  In doing so, he gave me the license to pursue a portion of a life goal: follow the procession of the Holy Week without restraint. He also gave me the courage to throw orthodoxy and conservatism to the wind and get the tattoo I’d long wanted – the numbers 24601, Jean Valjean’s prison number, my personal Army prison number, and a symbol of redemption, perseverance, and blatant defiance on my left wrist. I emailed a tattoo parlor near my hotel a picture of the tattoo in the font I wanted, and prepared for the morrow.

On 3 April, Good Friday,  between a Baroque music concert and an evening mass at St. Saviour’s, I got that tattoo. I walked into that tattoo parlor and told the artist that I wanted the tattoo. Almost incredulous, he asked me if I wanted it today. I responded in the affirmative. I will admit, there was a great bit of spite in the impetus to ink that ink. So, we got straight to business. He prepared the stencil, then invited me to sit in the chair. He shaved the area, laid on the gel, overlaid the outline, and began to work his tattoo gun. Ten minutes later, the task was complete and my wound was bandaged with a paper towel and plastic wrap. This is a highly discouraged practice in the world of professional tattooing. I didn’t care. It made for a hell of a good picture.

On 4 April, two flights departed Riga for Germany. Owing to a myriad of factors, there was much drama surrounding our gamut of flights, and I mitigated the drama from a bar in Riga with my smart phone. Whatsapp and Telekom’s European flat rate phone and data plan, man. At one point, I had the chief of European air operations in Wiesbaden, Germany, emailing documents from her office to my smart phone so that I could email them to my friend on the flight line so that he could show them to the load master of the airplane so that a given load could fly. I started drinking at 1000. Guinness.

On 5 April, I attended Easter Mass at St. Saviour’s Anglican Church. It was a profoundly beautiful service, a meditation on the life of Christ through the work of J.S. Bach. The musical ensemble in the church had changed weekly, and was always superb (and always Bach). The musical ensemble this week was a full choir and chamber orchestra to complement the organ. The musical selection was Ich habe genug, BWV 82, a cantata whose translation reads “I have enough.” As an aside, Bach’s Lenten sacrifice was the writing of cantatas. For forty days per year, one of the greatest composers the world has ever known refrained from composition. I cannot fathom. Anyway, Ich habe genug. I have enough. It was a message I needed to hear. The words draw from the book of Luke, in which Simeon lays eyes on the Christ child as he had been assured that he would before he died. Ich habe genug. I have enough.

And then, I got to participate in coffee hour. The pastor, who was surprised that I was still around, asked if I were going to be at the service the following week. I told her that I would be returning to Deutschland that week, Deutschland, mein Lieblingsland. At the utterance of the name, a German girl sitting against the back wall perked up, and we began a conversation over coffee and cookies. It was her first Sunday at St. Saviour’s, and she was a medical student in the city. Within minutes, we were discussing Buddhism (I’ve had a fascination my entire adult life). Within the hour, my block leave ambitions were honed in on France. I was bound for Normandy, a pilgrimage trip; and Plum Village, Thich Nhat Hanh’s Buddhist monastery (he is one of my new heroes), and my stepping stone to civilian life. We walked out of the church together, Isa and I. A few hundred meters on, we said our goodbyes and split: she headed north; I headed east. We have not seen each other since, but glory be to Whatsapp and an acknowledgement of our kindred spirits, we’ve stayed in touch.

On such small interactions, lives are irrevocably altered. The utterance of a name. The recognition of a face. An invitation to conversation. An experience shared. New life given. And all because I defied my prejudices and befriended a military chaplain.

I suppose that’s enough for one writing. I’ll get to life at Plum Village in my next entry.

Until then, be well.

James

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