This essay is part of an occasional series provided by our partner organization Encore.org, which is building a movement to tap the skills and experience of those in midlife and beyond to improve communities and the world. Read more stories and share yours at Encore.org/story.
I began taking war personally as a child during World War II. My mother was a refugee from China, where she was a medic during the bombing of Canton (now known as Guangzhou). Years later, two of my brothers were in the Vietnam War, and one of them returned with severe post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD.
Over time, I became a professor at the University of California, Berkeley and wrote seven books, including “The Woman Warrior: Memoirs of a Girlhood Among Ghosts,” which is marking its 40th anniversary. Yet the problem of war stayed with me. I wanted peace for my loved ones, and for the world.
In October 1991, I lost my father, then my house and neighborhood, as well as my novel-in-progress, in the Berkeley-Oakland firestorm. My trauma was such that I lost my ability to read. I needed a shout-out – an Encore!, or “Hana hou!,” as we say in Hawaii. A phoenix of an idea came to me: Gather around me veterans, who have been through fire, and let’s write together. Write our way home. Write Peace.
During two decades, veterans of many wars have answered my call – mostly veterans of Vietnam, but also of World War II and the wars in Israel, the Persian Gulf, the Dominican Republic, Guatemala, and now Iraq and Afghanistan. There are “veterans” of Tiananmen Square and Philadelphia’s MOVE raid and bombing, and an uprising in Malaysia. Survivors of gang violence have also come, identifying themselves as veterans, as have widows and children of soldiers, as well as peace activists. More than 800 people have participated.
For want of a name, the veterans call our community The Veteran Writers Group. We have no formal organization; veterans prefer being underground. My hope is that with a calming practice and artistic expression, veterans can find peace and relief.
Unlike people in hourlong classes or therapy sessions, our group stays together all day, and sometimes through the night. A volunteer will teach a theme, lead meditations, establish silence for writing, hold space for everyone to read, chair discussions, and host the breaking of bread.
The most important goal of this project is to build community, what Martin Luther King Jr. called “the beloved community” and Buddhists call “sangha.” The veterans come out of the isolation of PTSD – out of lonely apartments, out of the bush, off the streets.
Our workshop/community/sangha has been meeting for a dozen years. Nowadays, about 30 of us gather in Sebastopol, Calif., each season. A veteran from the other end of the country will set his clock to Pacific time and meditate when we meditate, write when we write. Nearby or at a distance, we inspire and influence one another.
All these years, these faithful writers have paid attention to wars past and to wars ongoing. Their stories and poems are immense in scope and in heart, and – amazingly – full of life and laughter. They have carried out our motto: Tell the truth. And so, make peace.
I retired from UC Berkeley at the age of 65, but there is no retiring from the good that it behooves each of us to do in this world. I am Buddhist and take this vow seriously: “However innumerable the sentient beings, I vow to save them all.” So I have made a comeback – an encore. I am doing my lifework.