Memorial to Andy Lopez

photograph at Andy Lopez memorial

Writer Shepherd Bliss is shown at the memorial site with his dog Winnie and young friend Emily. Photo by John Taylor.

The following article by Guy Kovner is related to the essay on moral injury posted a few days ago. In the essay, writer Shepherd Bliss described the shooting of teenager Andy Lopez by Erick Gelhaus, an Iraq War veteran and deputy sheriff. After a memorial to Lopez was erected, it was damaged by fire and then rebuilt.

There was never a question about rebuilding the fire-ravaged memorial to Andy Lopez on a southwest Santa Rosa lot where the 13-year-old boy was slain on Oct. 22.

“It was a matter of everyone coming together to get it done,” Nicole Guerra said Sunday morning at the site on Moorland Avenue.

About 100 people worked on Saturday to reconstruct the makeshift shrine, restoring a tent-covered structure around an altar for Lopez, who was fatally shot by a Sonoma County sheriff’s deputy.

“Bigger, better, stronger,” said Jamie Cairo of Santa Rosa, describing the memorial with white, freshly painted shelves holding flowers, mementos and photos of Lopez.

Repairs began on Thursday, following an early morning fire attributed to candles burning within the memorial, and Guerra said she put out word for the reconstruction to commence at 11 a.m. Saturday.

The new memorial rests on concrete blocks, and fire-proof panels will be added to the structure, said Josha Stark, the impromptu foreman.

Lopez’s family asked that the altar remain at the center of the memorial, and neighborhood youths made some suggestions, as well, Stark said.

Stark, a Bennett Valley builder with an 11-month-old daughter, said he would want the same community support “if this happened to my child.”

Lopez was walking along on a sidewalk on the east side of the lot when he was shot by Deputy Erick Gelhaus, a 24-year Sheriff’s Office veteran. Gelhaus told police he thought the boy’s airsoft gun — which looked like an AK-47 assault rifle — was a deadly weapon.

Protesters have repeatedly demanded prosecution of Gelhaus, and a large sign in the memorial says: “Sonoma County Sheriffs you have broken our hearts.”

A wooden cross that was singed by the fire is now mounted above the altar, and potted flowers form a cross on the ground in front of a small statue of the Virgin Mary.

Vince Campos of Cloverdale, who was helping erect an ancillary canopy on Sunday, said he also has participated in protest marches.

“We just pray and hope for justice,” said Campos, who has two teenaged sons.

Guerra said the memorial will remain in the 1-acre lot at Moorland and West Robles Avenue “until we get our park.”

County officials are working to establish a park at the site, where neighborhood kids played before Lopez was shot.

Guerra said her son Tony, 13, had been a close friend of Lopez since the two were in kindergarten.

Tony “has a lot of sleepless nights,” she said.

(You can reach Staff Writer Guy Kovner at 521-5457 or

Moral Injury

This essay by Shepherd Bliss describes the lasting effects of war. Bliss teaches part-time at Dominican University of California, has operated the organic Kokopelli Farm for over twenty years, and has contributed to over two dozen books.

One Military Veteran Kills Teenager, Another Kills Himself

Thirteen-year-old Andy Lopez was killed by sheriff’s deputy Erick Gelhaus on October 22, 2013, as the boy walked home in his Latino neighborhood in Santa Rosa, California. The Iraq War veteran claims he mistook the eighth-grader’s toy rifle for a real one.

A month later another Army vet, Paul Duffy, took his own life nearby. Duffy, as some friends called him, was found by his wife hanging from a rope in the writer’s cabin he had built outside their Tomales home by the Pacific Ocean. Far more veterans of the American wars in Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan committed suicide than were killed in combat. The number of suicides by vets increases.

How might these two deaths be related?

Twenty members of the Veterans Writing Group (VWG), in which Duffy participated, gathered last year on Pearl Harbor Day, December 7, for our seasonal all-day meeting, to remember our comrade. We sat in a circle in the comfortable home of a surviving World War II vet in the Redwood Empire of Sonoma County in Northern California. Many of us had participated in the group since its inception over twenty years ago.

This group means a lot to me, as someone raised in a military family that moved to a new post about every three years. It has provided one of the longest-lasting relationships during my nearly seventy years of life, and has helped my writing and contributed to my mental health.

Many of us speak of the VWG as a “family” that adds stability, safety, security, and confidence to our lives, as well as something to look forward to.

“Moral Injury”

These two deaths raise “deep and troubling questions,” said veteran Joe Lamb. “In how many unexpected ways are Paul’s suicide and Andy’s killing similar? What is the effect of the violence on their communities? Will these ripples of violence claim other victims? What is it about ‘moral injury’ that makes humans more prone to both suicide and violence against others?”

Suicides can stimulate those left behind to consider taking their own lives. One of my college students, a Marine, committed suicide, leaving three young children. He was one of the best, most active students in the class—no visible signs of depression.

Duffy helped me research and write about the emerging concept of “moral injury.” Some prefer this term to Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) to describe the invisible injuries many veterans acquire from their military service. I used quotations from him in various published articles.

Newsweek’s Dec. 10, 2012, issue describes “moral injury” as “the psychological burden of killing.” Some veterans speak about a sadness attributed to “bearing witness to evil and human suffering and seeing death and participating in it.”

“Every generation gives war trauma a different name,” explained Korean vet Jiwon Chung at the 2012 winter meeting of the VWG. “‘Moral injury,’ the latest term, is important because it de-pathologizes the condition. If you go to war, come back, and are not the same, not at ease, troubled, or suffering, it is not because you are psychically weak, but because you are morally strong. What you witnessed or did went against your deepest moral convictions, violating our humanity to the core. War is the reason for moral injury, not any individual shortcoming. Peace, justice, and reparation are the cures for moral injury.

Veteran Paul Duffy Takes His Life

“Our winter meeting is when we go into the darkness,” said Nancy Brink as she opened the session. “Then we come into the light,” she added. Near the end of our time together, our writing teacher Maxine Hong Kingston said that she is not always sure that we will arrive at the lightness. “This is the suicide of a writer who did not finish his work,” Maxine noted; Duffy had been working on a novel.

Duffy had an intriguing, mysterious, and unpredictable quality about him. Sometimes he would sing or even stand up at our meetings and dance. He was so alive, communicative, and willing to engage.

Duffy “had an ambling, slouchy gait, mischievous smile, and joyful twinkle in his eyes,” according to his VWG friend Matt Wathen. “He was always present, and that steady gaze of his never wavered when we talked. His ever-present blue jeans sagged as he presented the latest installment of his Vietnam novel.”

Wathen added, “We talked of books on PTSD, but no signs of its effects on his life were evident. He made beautiful things that performed functions, not just stylized objects dedicated to form. His house and work space were constructed with love, precision, and pride of craftsmanship. From the outside his life seemed rich, creative, and in tune with the environment. Didn’t he know by taking his life, he would also take something precious from us?”

“I still feel sad and empty,” said Duffy’s former neighbor Karen Saari, when she heard of the suicide. “For several years on Christmas Eve we would have a peace vigil here in Bodega. Paul would bring a giant peace sign he had made and then decorated with tiny white lights. I think of him and that peace sign every year about this time and probably will for some time to come.”

“Paul was a unique individual with a wicked sense of humor,” wrote a neighbor. “Most people here in Tomales had the reaction ‘But I just saw him yesterday,’ or ‘He was helping with a sheetrock job,’ or ‘He stopped in to say hello on his daily walk thru town.’ I think everybody felt like they were one of Paul’s best friends. He had that effect on people.”

“I’ve lost six people this year, three by suicide, including two young people,” Maxine reported. “It is good to attend memorials and have ceremonies to help you through it,” she added.

“This is the seventh veteran who has gone this way,” former military medic Ted Sexauer read from his poem—some by alcoholism and one by a rifle.

Denial, anger, sadness, and grief were among the diverse feelings expressed in response to Duffy’s suicide. The morning session, as we retired to write, ended with Maxine evoking a Buddhist tradition, after someone dies, of giving a name to the person’s departed spirit. The name she proposed was “Bearer of the Story without End,” partly because Duffy never finished his novel.

Vet Erick Gelhaus Kills Andy Lopez

As we spoke and when we wrote at the VWG gathering, the differing yet related deaths of Duffy and teenager Andy Lopez rushed in on me. Seconds after shouting at Andy, deputy Gelhaus shot him dead through the heart. He then fired seven more times, hitting the dead boy’s body another six times. Gelhaus then handcuffed him, to make sure.

Something triggered Gelhaus, perhaps a memory, and he opened fire without thinking, in the Wild West style—“Shoot first and ask questions later.” After a brief paid break from work, this killer cop was back on duty less than seven weeks later, this time at a desk rather than in the streets. The community continues its persistent, vocal plea for justice for Andy and protection from such militarized killer cops.

Gelhaus went from the killing fields of Iraq to a Latino neighborhood where he faced other brown-skinned people, where boys play cops and robbers, as I did on bases around the world. Gelhaus’ partner, driving in the same squad car, did not fire a single shot. Perhaps he realized that the boy was not a threat.

The response by the marginalized Latino community has been strong, enduring, and peaceful. Latinos and their allies have had numerous nonviolent marches and rallies and many prayer vigils. His killing has become a national and international story.

Santa Rosa and Sonoma County are each around 25% Latino, which is also their fastest growing population. The aroused Latino population decrying the killing of one of its young sons shows signs of making some needed changes, like making the vacant lot where Andy was killed into a park and convening a Civilian Review Board of the police.

Andy’s mother, Sujey Lopez, wrote a Thanksgiving letter addressed to Gelhaus, District Attorney Jill Ravitch, and others “responsible for the death of my son.”

“May this day of Thanksgiving be unforgettable for all of you, never forgetting my misery and the suffering of my family,” she writes. “You didn’t even give my son time to face you. You murdered him like it was nothing, killed like a bird or raccoon on the side of the road.”

“Go on, laugh, drink, while I comfort myself by hugging my son’s ashes,” she concludes. When I see this mother and Andy’s father at meetings, their faces are the saddest I have ever seen, making a lasting impression.

Gelhaus’ post-combat experiences differ markedly from Duffy’s. As with some veterans, Duffy returned to Vietnam frequently, where he worked with children in hospitals. As he explained last year: “I’ve gone back to Vietnam a few times to say that I’m sorry. We help kids with heart operations and have done about three hundred a year for the last ten years.” Many vets return to that crime scene.

Farming, Nature, and Remembering

From living and working on a farm for over twenty years now, I deal with death more regularly than most urban dwellers. My chickens die often. I see many graceful vultures circling above or on the ground eating dead deer and other wildlife. Birds fly into the windows on my ranch house and fall to the ground. Rural roads are full of road kills of possums, raccoons, and other wildlife. Friends bury their cats and dogs on my acreage. Death is a normal part of living on farms.

I watch many things decay on my compost pile and then feed the soil that nourishes my crops. I need to compost the distinct but related deaths of Andy and Duffy, watering them with my tears. A puppy recently adopted me, so I have been studying canine-assisted education and equine-assisted education, which an increasing number of vets are employing to heal and understand themselves. The four-footeds have a lot to teach us two-footeds.

“Many of the veterans that I conversed with over the past four to five years said that connecting with nature, in whatever form, connects them to life in a way that nothing else has since they left the military,” says Stephanie Westlund. Her book Field Exercises: How Veterans are Healing Themselves through Farming and Outdoor Activities is scheduled for release in June 2014.

How might we respond to the deaths of Duffy and Andy? One way is to express our feelings and write about them. Another way is to engage in actions to reduce such incidents happening in the future.

Our Veterans Writing Group is based on Buddhist principles, which include accepting impermanence and realizing that “this, too, shall pass.” But practicing those principles can be difficult.

At our gatherings we write in the morning and read what we have written in the afternoon. We begin the afternoons with an invocation to help us listen “in order to help relieve the suffering of the world” and “listen without judging or reacting.” We seek to “understand the roots of suffering.” Our goals include learning ways of “being present where there is darkness, suffering, oppression, and despair, so we can bring light, hope, relief, and liberation to those places.”

Maxine also noted that “in the First Precept (of Buddhism), the Reverence for Life Precept, we vow not to kill.” She added that “Thich Nhat Hanh was ambivalent about the taking of one’s own life—even for a righteous cause, such as self-immolation to end the war in Vietnam.” Most of the world’s great religious traditions have a version of Christianity’s first commandment, “Thou shalt not kill.”

Military and Civilian Communities Differ

Deputy Gelhaus turned his moral injury outward, killing an innocent boy walking home. Duffy turned his injury inward, killing himself, which hurt his wife, son, and others who loved him. They both took their unhealed war wounds and wounded others.

“The self-destructive nature of suicide can continue for generations,” said Oakland artist and musician Larry Stefl. His grandfather killed himself, as did his father, with the same military pistol. “The impact of suicide can be a death sentence for survivors,” Stefl added, who also lost a sister to suicide. His friends took this seriously when he was about to reach the age at which his father took his own life. Stefl has survived two decades longer than his father, with the support of friends.

I was born into the military family that gave its name to Ft. Bliss, Texas, and then served as a non-combatant officer in the Army during the American War on Vietnam. There are big differences in military communities and the civilian communities. The cultural differences are important.

“You can take the boy out of the military, but it is harder to take the military out of the boy” goes an old saying. As someone who was militarized for some twenty years, I have been spending nearly half a century working to de-militarize myself.

So as not to be misunderstood, let me say that I continue to honor certain values and virtues that I learned from the military, such as the following: discipline, follow-through, keeping commitments, helping protect others, duty, country love, having a mission, team-work, and seeing beyond the self.

In many indigenous communities, warriors are welcomed home from battle by rituals that help reintegrate them into civilian life. For example, among some people the women hold the men for as long as it takes them to break down and cry, sometimes even asking for forgiveness.

When people “enter the military, weeks are spent breaking down ingrained social taboos against violence and killing,” said Karen Saari of the Justice Coalition for Andy Lopez. “These relatively innocent boys—and now girls—are taught to kill. Military duty follows. Then these veterans are discharged back into society. But there is no period where the taboos against violence and killing are put back. When someone has been in combat, there should be a mandatory period where there is some kind of decompression and re-learning of how to cope in our society.”

Gelhaus was not reintegrated back into civilian culture, as he should have been. He has a long record of violence and gun use. Civilians need protection from him and other vets-turned-cops who fail to deal with their “moral injury.” Instead, police forces today have been increasingly militarized by their training and advanced weapons of destruction. Unless this is changed dramatically, we may see more murders of innocent children and adults.

Duffy, on the other hand, worked hard for decades to heal himself by doing good work back in Vietnam, in his home town, and in our Veterans Writing Group. Many thoughtful veterans, like Duffy, do reflect on their wartime experiences and work hard to transform them into positive contributors to society.

At the end of our VWG gathering, Maxine noted that “suicide is contagious.” Our co-host, Marg Starbuck, an artist in her eighties, suggested that we form a circle and hold hands. Maxine later wrote, “I felt that we promised one another that we would not kill ourselves.”

More information on these subjects can be found at Veterans of War, Veterans of Peace and

Military Veterans Explore “Moral Injury”

The following essay is by Shepherd Bliss, whose moving essay on his experiences in Viet Nam and Chile was published in Enduring War: Stories of What We’ve Learned.

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Photograph by Laurent Alfieri for Earth Island Journal.

Our Veterans Writing Group met the morning after Pearl Harbor Day for our regular winter gathering, as we have convened seasonally for twenty years. We came from throughout Northern California to a spacious redwood home in the Sebastopol countryside.

“Nobody wins a war. There are victors, but you lose the youth of your country,” a 94-year-old Pearl survivor reportedly said on the news. “We haven’t won any wars,” added Pearl survivor Herb Louden, 95-years-old, of Sonoma County. As I listened throughout the day to the stories and writings of two-dozen veterans and others directly injured by war–ranging from World War II to Desert Storm–we felt like living proof of these statements.

But we have been busy recovering from what has recently been described as “moral injury,” which I consider a better description than the clinical term Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). We are simply not disorders; war is the disorder. Moral injury can lead to difficulty sleeping, staying in relationships, and keeping jobs. It can create alcoholism, homelessness, imprisonment, feeling ashamed and bad about oneself, depression, hopelessness, and the final response—suicide. Or homicide.

The co-author of the book “Soul Repair: Recovering from Moral Injury After War,” professor Gabriella Lettin, Ph.D., writes, “War does not end when peace is declared and the troops come home. It continues in the ‘hidden wounds of war.’”

I arrived to our fourth all-day meeting of the year depressed from weeks of little sleep and nightmares after being laid off from teaching a college Leadership course that I had successfully taught for three years at Sonoma State University. I felt worthless after nearly 40 years of college teaching. I had been sent back down alone into a familiar darkness. Yet the minute I entered the room my spirits lifted, and continued to rise as I listened to my comrades tell their stories, which ranged from the heavy-hearted to the humorous.

Most were long-time members of the group, but there are usually newcomers at each gathering. This time it included an Army combat medic who was discharged as a Conscientious Objector. Another had lost her uncle in Vietnam and recently went to the stream by which he died.

“I’ve gone back to Vietnam a few times to say that I’m sorry,” reported Paul Duffey. “We help kids with heart operations and have done about 300 a year for the last ten years.” Many vets return to that crime scene.

Former UC Berkeley professor Maxine Hong Kingston is our writing teacher and attends most meetings. But she had just returned from Hawaii. In a Pearl Harbor Day email, she reported that a new vets writing group at San Quentin prison was using our book “Veterans of War, Veterans of Peace,” which she edited. ( Too many vets are in prison, homeless, or hiding out. More to come, as wars continue.

Among those who told their stories were decorated combat vets, pilots, Buddhists, filmmakers, recently homeless, a body escort for the deceased coming home, teachers, gardeners, poets, artists, a former monk, parents, and a machinist.

Our format for the day is to sit in a circle and begin with a meditation. Then we have a check-in with each person speaking briefly. We meditate again and then disperse in silence to write, returning for a pot-luck lunch that starts in silence. There is a powerful and healing intimacy in silence.  In the afternoon we read out-loud what we have written and listen without judgment.

Writing from traumatic memories evokes them—though now with some distance and in a context where they can be remembered, re-framed, and discharged. Then we take a walking meditation into the tall trees, which embrace and witness us.

As tears dropped during both the morning and afternoon sessions, the grief felt throughout the room connected us. By being openly expressed and received, the sadness was released. Voices that had been silenced by domestic and other forms of violence found words and receptive ears. None of us were alone anymore, but together with understanding comrades. Safety prevailed, as well as permission to speak one’s truth without judgment. Forgiveness was felt.

One of us had held the hands of four people who died during the last year, as well as the paw of a departing pet. We’re seasoned about dealing with death and wounds—to both the body and soul.

The military community differs from that of the civilian world. We are “Other,” having had unique experiences, those of us raised in military families or who saw duty in the services. The rules of appropriate behavior differ and it can be difficult to go back and forth between those two communities.

Over lunch we speak about “moral injury.” “Newsweek’s” Dec. 10 issue reports studies about “the psychological burden of killing.” Many veterans speak about a sadness attributed to “bearing witness to evil and human suffering and seeing death and participating in it.”

“Every generation gives war trauma a different name,” explained Korean vet Jiwon Chung at lunch. “Soldier’s heart, shell shock, battle fatigue, and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Moral injury, the latest term, isimportant because it de-pathologizes the condition. If you go to war, come back, andare not the same, not at ease,troubled, or suffering, it is not because you are psychically weak, but because you are morally strong. What you witnessed or did went against your deepest moral convictions, violating our humanity to the core.”

Chung later added, “That we vets suffer moral injury, despite the tremendous suffering and anguish it brings, is actually a validation of our humanity. War is the reason for moral injury, not any individual shortcoming. Peace, justice, and reparation are the cures for moral injury.”

Suicides by veterans of the American wars in Afghanistan and Iraq have doubled since 2004. Over 1000 vets attempt to take their lives each month. Killing or witnessing people being killed can disturb the soul.

I do not like the clinical term Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. It labels those of us who suffer from war trauma as being a disorder. Problems we may have, but it would be better to understand that the primary disorder is war itself.

In my case, I resigned my officer’s commission in the U.S. Army to protest the American War in Vietnam, much to the disappointment of my family, which gave its name to Ft. Bliss, Texas. Then I moved to Chile. My trauma comes from being raised in a military family and was increased by “the other 9/11,” which happened in Chile, Sept. 11, 1973. The U.S. supported Gen. Augusto Pinochet to topple the democratically-elected government.

Among those who were tortured and executed was my close friend Frank Teruggi, whom I had recruited to work there with me. So I carry survivor’s guilt, which contributes to “moral injury.” I can still hear Frank crying out, inside, these forty years later. 9/11 has been an anniversary date for me for many decades. Certain sounds trigger my re-wired nervous system and I am no longer fully in present time.

“It feels like I’ve lost my soul,” one vet is quoted in “Newsweek” as saying, which I can echo. So I have been working to recover from this shadow on my soul. One deep loss–such as my recent one of a teaching contract–tends to evoke previous losses, such as mine of Frank and my family.

I co-taught a “War and Peace” course at Sonoma State University for three years, which helped me recover from moral injury, as did teaching “Identity and Global Challenges” for six semesters. I had to be professional and focus on the needs of students, though I do teach partly from emotional intelligence. I am fortunately now teaching less stressful subjects at a smaller values-based college more committed to diversity.

Many vets will be returning from the killing fields and homes in Afghanistan and Iraq, and who knows where else in the near future. Iran? Pakistan? Some have worked on my organic farm. Farms can be healing places, as one works outside with plants and animals, caring for them, with fewer people around. I have written about this in books and elsewhere as agro-therapy.

Indigenous people tend to have extended rituals for welcoming warriors home and re-integrating them into civilian society. In the United States, we lack such rituals, except for the loud, chirpy parades, or we leave it up to therapists with little time. Since returning home from war is not like a football game but about killing people, perhaps we need what Vietnam vet Karl Marlantes calls a “solemn parade” in his book “What It is Like to Go to War.”

I have been to the woods with men for what is called “grief work,” after which one is often exhilarated by the release. One of the best relationships I have ever had with a woman included holding each other while we were both crying, often for a long time. We each have much to cry about.

This year, as in the past, I have had college students who descended from the holocaust and from internment camps of Japanese here in the U.S. Though those horrific events occurred before their lives, such moral damage within a family can pass through the generations, even when not spoken about.

My World War II soldier father, for example, never spoke of his war experiences, which impaired his hearing and feeling, trying to deny and bury his experiences. He did, however, name my brother, who became a Marine, after his buddy, who died in combat.

It was left up to me, who bears my father’s name and that of my warrior grandfather, being a third, to break the lengthy Bliss lineage of war-making and embark on a journey of soul recovery. This included denying my former wife a child, since I knew I could not survive sending another Bliss to war. So now of grandfather age I am childless, though able to turn to the grandchildren of friends for their regeneration. Many veterans have trouble shifting from war zones to family life, often separating from spouses.

“My oath is to see the darkness but not be overcome by it,” newcomer Heather Box tells our vets group on the morning after Pearl Harbor Day. When her father lost his brother in Vietnam, “it has had a silent presence in our family life since then.”

To transform that moral injury, Heather traveled to find the stream by which her uncle had died and reported the following: “A Vietnamese farmer was standing by a tree that I had assumed had been there since the war, one that has stood as a witness to all the horror and all the beauty that has come across this land. I am learning from that tree to be more grounded and rooted, even in times of darkness.” Our prompt for the day was to be stimulated to write by trees, as we sat in a circle here in the Redwood Empire.

Telling one’s story, and writing it down, can be healing. As for my own healing, in addition to writing and farming, I plan to play more with children, especially toddlers, as well as hang out with horses, dogs, and chickens. Since our group met, I have already been able to sleep better.

Shepherd Bliss teaches at Dominican University of California, has operated the organic Kokopelli Farm for the last 20 years, and has contributed to two dozen books. He can be reached at

In the Palm of My Hand

Photo by Dyanna Taylor, circa 1990.

Chester Aaron’s stories have appeared in two issues of MANOA: Enduring War: Stories of What We’ve Learned and Almost Heaven: On the Human and Divine. The following is his first published writing. He served in the U.S. Army’s Armored Infantry Division in Europe from 1943 to 1946 and participated in the liberation of the Dachau concentration camp. Later in 1946, he enrolled at UCLA. “In the Palm of my Hand” draws on his war experience and was published in The Daily Bruin, UCLA’s newspaper, on page 4 of the Sept. 26, 1946, edition. Serena Enger, a friend of Aaron’s who is a librarian, asked him for a copy of his first published writing, but he had forgotten this piece and was unable to help her. Undaunted, she used her skills and tools as a librarian and found the article on microfilm. She retyped it and emailed it to Aaron on Sept. 26, 2012, sixty-six years to the day of its publication. It does not express or represent a reconciliation but reminds us of the constant need for personal reckonings with history.

I held within my hand yesterday, all the agonies and pleasures, all the heartaches and joys, all the miseries and contentments, as is possible for one being to possess.  All of the emotions ever felt, ever attained by man were here – here in the palm of my hand.  For today I held in this hand a small bar of soap made of the bones and flesh of men, women and children – victims of the Nazi concentration camp of Mauthausen.

Forever, I believe, I shall remember the greasy sensation as my hand clutched that bar, and as I smelled it the bitter and pungent aroma increased tenfold when I realized that I was breathing into my nostrils the marrow of our civilization.  A civilization just as surely dead and just as surely vanished as are the bodies of these peoples.

What man, what woman, what child, gave of their life so that this small bar of taunting shame might be flaunted before our eyes?  This gray by-product of a civilized era.  An era in which man advanced so rapidly in all fields, excepting the field of human relations.

As that bar rested in my palm I noticed a dark gray splotch in the middle of the top, darker gray than the bar itself.  That, perhaps, is the face of Hans Friedlow who whistled as he climbed the mountain trails in the cold mornings and who used to wonder at the edelweiss blooming on the slopes of his beautiful Bavarian Alps.  Or perhaps it is the sun-darkened back of David Meyerberg, skilled surgeon, who used to lie on the beaches of the Chiemsee on warm August Sundays, watching his curly haired children frolic in the sands.  Or perhaps it is the children themselves.  A child would not make too large an impression in all the agonies laid here to view.

There was a piece chipped from the upper corner.  Perhaps that is the throat and chest of Hildegarde Brenner who enthralled audiences throughout Europe with her ringing soprano voice, who was happiest when singing or strolling beneath the swaying trees on the Unter Den Linden.  And if it is her throat and chest or if it is any part of her, then she must be content, because she is as she was in life, withdrawn from the rest of the flock.

That choking odor – it could not be the scent of the gorgeous Martina who held breathless the audiences of Berlin and of Vienna and of Paris as she acted in the plays of the continent.  Could it be lovely Martina who now emits this odor?  She who possessed the most varied collection of perfumes in Europe?  Could it be she who lies there within that gray block and reeks late our throat?

Here within this block lies the hopes and fears of a multitude of beings.  They who died because they wished to live.  Within this block rests that farce, named humanity, called decency, called love.  Behold within my hand the utter fantasies of war.

The whippings, the starvations, the freezings, the smotherings, the miseries of separations and the screaming of farewells, the fearful knowledge of coming crematories.  The extreme end to which a body can go and then go no further.

You who scream hate, and discrimination, feel this block, press this bar into your palm and attempt to forget the pangs of hunger and thirst and cold and torture.  Close your eyes and close your nostrils.

But the Lord will not permit the closing of your conscience.  The potency of this bar of soap, the thoughts within, careen from one wall of thought to the other.  It hammers at your soul, beats at your senses, throbs with the race of blood in your temple.  “Remember me!” it screams.  And remember, I shall.  Long after that soap dwindles to invisibility, I shall remember the feeling as it lay in the palm of my hand and as I gazed at it.  I did not see the soap.  I saw in its stead, dangling arms and legs and heads of those who gave.  I held the blood and the flesh of countless numbers.  What feelings, what emotions, what memories laid there within my grasp?

Interview with Filmmaker Linda Hattendorf

The eleventh anniversary of 9/11 will be marked in myriad ways. We are choosing to do so by bringing readers’ attention to an exceptional example of using the imagination to produce a significant and lasting reconciliation. The Cats of Mirikitani, a 2006 documentary by filmmaker Linda Hattendorf, tells the powerful story of artist Jimmy Mirikitani: his internment and loss of American citizenship during World War II, his life of homelessness on the streets of New York City, and his eventual reclamation of family and country. The following interview with Hattendorf was conducted by Pat Matsueda and Nelson Rivera one day before 9/11’s eleventh anniversary.

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The Cats of Mirikitani begins with shots of Jimmy on the streets. We assume that you were filming many things—Jimmy being just one—and that you were drawn to him because of how his life had been shaped by art and by loss. Then, during the filming process, the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center happen. The film begins to explore the parallels between the anti-Japanese sentiment during WWII and the paranoia surrounding Middle Eastern populations in the United States after 9/11. Did you have another direction for the film before the attacks? If so, what was it?

People often ask me when I knew I was making a movie. The film started almost accidentally, and evolved organically over time. I first met Jimmy in January of 2001. He was clearly homeless, and seemingly quite old.  It was a particularly harsh winter in New York, and he was taking shelter under the awning of a deli not far from my apartment.   Despite the cold temperatures, he was energetically drawing pictures of cats late into the night. I was curious and concerned—and I like cats—so I struck up a conversation.

He gave me a drawing and asked me to take a picture of it for him. I was working as an editor of documentary film at the time, and had a small video camera. So I returned with the camera and asked him to tell me about the pictures he was drawing. It turned out he had lots of stories to tell.  All kinds of tales spilled out in a jumble and it took me a while to begin to piece together what had happened to him. So I kept visiting. And I found that if I brought the camera, he would talk to me. So at first the camera was just a tool to get him to talk, to find out why he was there, what had happened in his life.

I initially thought I would just make a short video portrait of the life of this homeless artist, and hope that someone would see it and help him.

But as I began to understand what had happened to Jimmy in the past, I realized how significant his story was historically. During WWII, not only was he forcibly removed from his sister’s home in Seattle and sent to a Japanese American internment camp, but he lost countless family members and friends in the bombing of his ancestral city of Hiroshima. I began to explore the link between losing home in such a profound way in the past and his state of homelessness sixty years later.  I thought this tale of trauma, loss, and discrimination was the story I was telling.

By 9/11, I had been documenting his life on the streets for nine months and we knew each other well.  After the fall of the World Trade Center, I couldn’t bring myself to just watch him coughing in the smoke through the lens of the camera, and I impulsively invited him home.

We were suddenly surrounded by eerie parallels to the climate of the country after Pearl Harbor—only this time a different group looked like the enemy. At that point it became clear that there was an even bigger story here, and that it urgently needed to be told.

Some people would say that your act of empathy is a gift from one artist to another. It set in motion a series of events that enabled Jimmy the individual to reconcile with America the country, to help him regain his country, his family, and so on. That act of empathy is as remarkable as Jimmy’s story. Have audiences responded to or remarked on this aspect of the film? 

Documentary filmmaking for me is a way all of us can witness the lives of others, see the world from inside the point-of-view of someone we might not otherwise understand.  I enjoy making these stories visible, giving a voice to those who don’t always have the means to tell their tales. The history of those like Jimmy is not often depicted in mainstream media. As an artist, he was drawing pictures of these events because he was determined that this Japanese American history not be ignored or forgotten.  I hope my film is an extension of his own desire to be visible.  What has been so rewarding is seeing so many audiences around the world embrace the film; people from so many different backgrounds all seem to laugh and cry in the same places in the screenings—proving to me that in the end, we are all one big family, made of the same stuff.

Putting to rest the ghost people, as Jimmy calls them, helped him to (a) bring certain life-shaping memories to a close and (b) move forward in the present. At the beginning, he has no home and is completely alone. At the end of the film, he has his own apartment, and friends are joining him for a celebratory dinner. As a result of Cats, Jimmy’s story and art have reached many people. Does he still draw cats and scenes of the internment camp? Have his drawings changed in subject matter, mood, style? What is the present like for him?

Jimmy’s art changed after we attended the pilgrimage to the Tule Lake camp. When I met him on the street, he was drawing images of the camp over and over again, obsessively sketching the barracks, the mountain, and himself trapped behind a huge fence and gate. When we went back to that same site so many years later, the bus turned a corner and suddenly there was Castle Rock Mountain, exactly as he had been drawing it from memory all these years. As soon as we got off the bus, Jimmy pulled out his sketchpad and started drawing.  From that day on, he continued to draw the mountain, but soon the barracks were replaced by tombstones for those who died in camp, and then by cheerful little houses and traffic along the formerly empty road. He drew an open gate, and then the fence disappeared altogether. And he never put himself in the picture again. I believe he literally got out of that landscape by returning there and confronting the past.

Being reunited with a community of people who had experienced what he went through, and wanted to hear about it, was incredibly healing for him.  The Tule Lake Committee organizers do an amazing job of creating a safe environment where former internees and their families can talk about that trauma, often for the first time.

At ninety-two, Jimmy shows no sign of slowing down.  He recently had a one-man show in Santa Fe, New Mexico, and wanted to travel the west coast beforehand. So Masa Yoshikawa [her co-producer] and I took him to another Tule Lake pilgrimage, then to a screening and exhibit in Denver, then to the show in Santa Fe. Jimmy is like a rock star, surrounded by fans wherever he goes. He loves the attention.

Roger Shimomura, the Japanese American artist who is shown in Cats visiting Jimmy on the streets, curated an exhibit of Jimmy’s work which originated at the Wing Luke Museum and now continues to travel around the country.  Masa had a book published in Japan depicting Jimmy’s life and art (Peacecats). Several museums carry reproductions of Jimmy’s artwork as well as the Cats DVD, and there is now a children’s book in development using his art as illustrations.

And yes, Jimmy still draws cats. I don’t think that will change. The cats are always popular. I had no idea how many cat lovers there are out there. People from all over the world send us pictures of their cats!

Have there been attempts to connect with Jimmy’s family in Japan? What is his relationship with his American family like now? 

Ruth Addeo née Mirikitani is a cousin who discovered Jimmy when she saw the film playing in a cinema. A music teacher living on Long Island, she baked this cake for him.

Jimmy and I have now met many Mirikitanis, both in the U.S. and Japan.  Masa helped me to take Jimmy back to Hiroshima for the August 6 Peace Ceremony in 2007.  That was a powerful trip for all of us.  The family there unfurled a scroll with the family history that does indeed go back to Samurai times.  And we are so glad Jimmy was able to reconnect with his sister Kazuko in Seattle before she passed away this year. We have met Mirikitanis from Hawaii, California, and a cousin right here on Long Island who discovered Jimmy through the film! She visits regularly and baked him a special cake for his birthday last year!

You and Jimmy developed a powerful bond. The scene in which he expresses his worry about your returning late is very touching. Did you ever discuss working on film or art projects together? 

Well, yes, sharing a one-room apartment with an eighty-year-old stranger for almost six months was certainly a bonding experience. We had our ups and downs, but in the end, we became like family.  It’s been more than ten years since we met, and to this day I still visit Jimmy weekly. He introduces me to people as his granddaughter.  We understand each other as artists, and as human beings.  I credit him with the idea of making the film, since it was his initial request of “take a picture” that got me started on this adventure! He taught me a lot about the daily process of making art.  After 9/11, it was such a scary time, especially here in New York, and I wasn’t sure what to do next. But no matter what was happening, Jimmy just kept drawing.  And so I just kept shooting video.  I believe making art is how Jimmy processed the many traumas in his life. That has been a good lesson for me.

What films are you working on? How did The Cats of Mirikitani change your life, your ideas about filmmaking? What did it reaffirm about the way you understand and treat people?

Screening Cats around the world has really reaffirmed my deep belief in our common humanity. As a result, I’m currently developing a film called Picturing Peace. It’s a look at cultures of peace around the world, past and present. We know plenty about the history of war. I think it’s time we started seeing what peace looks like, and learning how to speak that  language as well. I visited the University of Peace in Costa Rica earlier this year—a country that abolished its army in 1948 and put those funds into education instead! Imagine that! I hope to raise funding for more travel and interviews in the coming year. Meanwhile, I continue to edit and consult on documentary films for others, teach at the New York Film Academy, and occasionally appear at screenings of The Cats of Mirikitani.
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Related pages:

Father Damien

The Manoa Readers/Theatre Ensemble production of Aldyth Morris’s play was presented this past weekend at Kennedy Theatre, on the UH-Manoa campus. The play was directed by Tim Slaughter, of Outreach College, and starred veteran actor Dann Seki as Damien. John Keawe sang and provided background music, and Nyla Fujii-Babb performed the opening chant in both Hawaiian and English.

Damien is printed in its entirety in MANOA’s winter 2011 issue, Almost Heaven: On the Human and Divine, which may be purchased at our website. In his editor’s note, Frank Stewart explained the context in which the play was being published:

We…wished to reconsider, in a volume of Manoa, responses by writers to the notion of “exceptional individuals,” people who are regarded as models of compassion. As Joseph Dutton noted, the world may be too impatient to bother with daily heroes, but this is more likely the result of our frantic busyness than evidence that the world lacks persons who are striving to lead ethical, empathic, and self-transcending lives. Whether such individuals are religious or even concerned with spirituality is not the point. Nor is it important what cultural or religious heritage they come from, or from what nation or era. They may influence only one other person or many—what matters to us in Almost Heaven is what the poet Rilke called “heart-work.”

In any case, few would argue against the need to recognize courageous ethical actions, regardless of how local or humble. Wherever and whenever they appear, such acts create in the world what religious thinker Thomas Merton termed “a saner climate of thought.” We can’t achieve much by ourselves, Merton wrote. “We need the help of articulate voices, themselves taught and inspired by love. This is the mission of the poet, the artist, the prophet. Unfortunately, the confusion of our world has made the message of our poets obscure and our prophets seem to be altogether silent.”

A saner world would be a version of heaven. If we didn’t feel ourselves capable of being almost there, through words and action, the world’s heart would always be breaking. In Almost Heaven we’ve brought together writers from past volumes—along with some new to our pages—who believe that the function of art, individuals, and communities is to create Merton’s saner climate of thought. Among these writers, we’re proud to include Aldyth Morris, whose play Damien is the centerpiece.

Dann Seki as Father Damien

Various ethical conflicts shape Damien, the most significant being Damien’s struggle with his notion of what is right and good in the eyes of God. The play ends with him addressing God and asking for a divine sign of acceptance of his faith and actions. The kind of reconciliation we are accustomed to—in which forgiveness is awarded or acceptance clearly voiced—is not found in Damien. However, the play poses a series of questions and shows us, powerfully and memorably, how essential they are to people of conscience. Only at the end of life, the play seems to suggest, are the questions resolved.

The eight-page program guide developed for the play contains information on the production, Father Damien, and playwright Morris, as well as a timeline and a list of selected readings. A medium-resolution PDF version of it is available.

Manoa Readers / Theatre Ensemble presents performances of literature and drama for university, community, and statewide audiences. MR / TE is a collaborative, cross-disciplinary initiative of UHM Outreach College, Community Services Division, and UHM College of Languages, Linguistics, and Literature. MR/TE’s co-directors are Tim Slaughter and Frank Stewart.

A Peaceful Power

This past weekend, His Holiness the Dalai Lama spoke at two events at the Stan Sheriff Center on the UH-Mānoa campus. He addressed high school and college students at the first event, “Educating the Heart.” At the second, “Advancing Peace through the Power of Aloha,” he addressed the general public. The two talks were part of a series of events planned by a Hawai‘i-based initiative called Pillars of Peace. Mānoa interns Megan Oshiro and Nelson Rivera attended the Saturday event, and Pat Matsueda the Sunday one.

The Dalai Lama spoke extemporaneously, drawing on the more than fifty years he has tried to lead the Tibetan people while exiled from his homeland. He characterized the PRC’s takeover of Tibet as a tragedy, but one that “woke” Tibetans and united them in a way they had not been before.

Having accepted that Tibet is a part of the PRC, he exemplified two of the principles he was trying to express: being realistic, and using one’s intelligence to understand situations, particularly the elements that appear to be in conflict. He also drew connections between valuing education and using one’s native intelligence to solve problems and stressed the importance of approaching people on a personal level, without bias and judgement. When we do that, he said, we open ourselves to the possibility of empathy and compassion. And when we do that with our enemies, we make forgiveness possible. Forgiving, he stressed, does not mean accepting wrongful deeds.

Related issues of Mānoa:

Song of the Snow Lion: New Writing from Tibet (vol. 12, no. 2); purchasing information. Excerpts:

Chinese rule had an immediate and striking impact on the Tibetan language at every level—because it was initially used as the means for the Communists to convey their message. At this stage, Tibetan intellectuals were recruited as “important patriotic personages”—a class that would mediate between the past and the present. Because many of the early literary elite came from monasteries and the religious community, the Chinese assumed that they would be trusted by the masses.—from “The Waterfall and Fragrant Flowers: The Development of Tibetan Literature Since 1950” by Tsering Shakya

He crawled to her side and marked a bloody cross on their son’s pure-white forehead. With a laugh, he spoke these last words: “Damn. Killing everywhere. With knives. With guns. That’s life.” Ugyen watched his mother pull his father’s knife from his belt and solemnly lay it on him there inside her robe, passing on the legacy to him. The icy blade on his face made him shudder as if he’d gotten an electric shock. The cold steel of the knife pressed against his chest so heavy he couldn’t breathe. His father stroked his face, laughed contentedly, then died.–from “The Glory of the Wind Horse” by Tashi Dawa