I just finished reading Junot Diaz’s moving article, “The Legacy of Childhood Trauma,” in The New Yorker, about being raped as a boy and how he hid from this memory for decades and how running ate him up inside. It’s an amazing essay. Real. Honest. It makes me think about how we all have buried selves and how we run from them and how they finally catch up with us. It is a brave essay – important and necessary. And it reminds me of the long process it took for me to unearth me. I’m thinking about this because in a few weeks I’ll be giving a talk at my high school reunion about the year long trip around the world my wife and I took back in 2015. Planning to give this talk has caused me revisit my high school self, or rather, my submerged high school self. Because that’s who I was back then. The fact that I was gay but not ready to be out, that my father had a secret job we never talked about (he was in the CIA) and the trauma of losing my mother to breast cancer in my junior year, left me numb and lost. I had a huge backlog of feelings that I needed to get to but no idea how to get to them. When I look back on my submerged girl self, I see someone waiting to heal, waiting to find the shore of wholeness. Just like Diaz. A few years into college, I started to see a therapist, someone who helped me learn the strange language of naming feelings and understanding myself. As I get ready to return to my high school now, I know it may feel strange to be back at the place I felt so lost. And it’s ironic – but in a good way – because I’m going back to talk about an amazing journey that changed me and opened me, as everything important in life changes and opens us. As l step onto campus with its manicured lawns, I’ll think of the girl who labored beneath her mask of “everything is fine.” She got past this mask eventually, got to her real feelings and named them, but she is the one who got me through those hard times and who got me to the beauty and gift of now. In fact, I use her strength and fortitude everyday. And everyday I’m grateful.
A couple of years ago when I was in Tokyo, I heard about these places called “Owl Cafes.” I thought they would be peaceful rooms where people sat and drank tea and read books. Owls would be sitting on perches preening themselves or staring and relaxing. Somehow I imagined that they would be someone’s well cared for pet and that they would be accustomed to living in the city, brought there by some odd circumstance. My wife and I researched one of these cafes, checked the address and then set out on foot to find it. After getting lost and then being personally guided by a very helpful woman, we arrived at a sterile looking building and stepped inside. The owls were there and they were beautiful. There were a bunch of them. there were barn owls and burrowing owls, and types I had never seen before. They sat on perches or in boxes but instead of chilling or sleeping, they were busy. Trainers prompted them to fly from their perch and land on a person’s arm. Everyone wanted a photograph with an owl. It wasn’t the romantic scene I had imagined. But in that year of wandering the planet, unsettling events happened every day, things I didn’t see coming. Like the Owl Café. But there was also usually something magnificent or unexplained within these situations too. I stood there, taking in the craziness of the Owl Café, grappling with my mixed feelings at being there, when I noticed an owl sitting perfectly still by a window. It sat by itself sort of looking down at the city below. It seemed removed from everything but at the same time oddly in charge. The wizened supervisor. And so here was that explainable thing. It was the way the owl occupied its own space, the way it sat anchored by something I couldn’t see, and completely unencumbered by the strangeness of the activities around it. Even though it was surrounded by an enormous city, it remained singular, a thing unshakable in its wildness. it never forgot itself. I think of this owl now, whenever I feel swallowed by chaos or strangeness. I think of it sitting still and quiet its talons gripping the wooden perch as snow falls on the streets below.
For the past 12 years, I’ve been writing a book about secrets – my spy dad’s and mine. Every day that I wrote, I was immersed in feelings. Love. Sadness. Fear. Lots of that. But I just kept doing it – kept sitting with memories, doubts, and questions. I had so many questions. About my dad and the CIA, about coups and dictatorships and a million other things. I researched, traveled, interviewed people (including my dad), and wrote. I wrote and wrote and wrote. The pile of journals in this photo represents just a fraction of the pages I filled. This project feels like a lifetime. It engulfed me in a crazy mix of uncertainty and hope, and it made my father extraordinarily real to me, realer even than growing up, when I would find him eating Doritos and watching SNL. Now the book is done and I am at a loss. You could call it “letting go” or “transitioning” but I don’t know what it is or what to call it. I just know that I’m going through it. Still, I marvel that I did it – wrote into material that took me through my mother’s death again and again, took me into my fears about speaking out and breaking the spy family code of silence, and took me through so much human sadness. My own and the world’s. But what stuns me most is the way writing became its own path and how the path it created led me to healing. It is what I hoped for but was never sure of when I started 12 years ago. I am finally here – wherever here is. It feels like a miracle. The starting and the finishing. And everything in between.
As Aleppo falls, I think of an old Tibetan man who kept refilling my glass with buttery yak tea at a café in downtown Lasa. I think of so many of the people I met while traveling last year: the construction worker in Myanmar, who transported a stack of bricks on her head; the swimmer near Havana, who said, “I’m not a communist. I’m Cuban;” the driver in Swaziland, who, despite not wanting to become ‘just another taxi driver,’ did so in order to lift his whole family out of poverty; the hotel employee in Ho Chi Minh City who fixed Susan’s cane in an hour, so that her shoulder no longer ached every time she leaned into it.
The modest and generous people I met while traveling were the rule and not the exception. Meanwhile, their governments varied. Some were repressive, others neglectful. It was the rare one that seemed to listen and respond to its people’s needs. But I can only guess at this as an outsider. What I don’t have to guess at is where each country’s true wealth lay. That was easy: its people. Every day people were the ones who ran things and grew things and fixed things.
And so, as the Syrian government and its allies bomb those who grow things and fix things and paint things and heal things, I send a prayer for assistance. It is a prayer of love and survival too, and of this truth: You can never be bombed away or felled because you are the core of the world, the beauty of it, the backbone of everything.
Cuba was my father’s first assignment with the CIA. He was young, only 26, when he began working at the Board of Estimates. His job was to monitor the intelligence on missile deployment in Cuba. “I watched the whole thing,” he said to me once, “saw the entire build up.” He joined the agency of his own volition in 1962. He had been working within the city manager’s office in San Antonio when he decided to fly to D.C. to interview with different agencies. The Cold War terrified him. “I thought the days of the US were numbered,” he said, “I really did.”
I traveled to Cuba for the first time last spring. As I walked the streets of Havana, my father haunted me. It felt taboo to be inside the country he had for so long considered ‘the enemy.’ At the same time, being in Cuba made me feel close to him. I think many children of spies feel this way. We feel close to our parent when we’re in the countries and places they were once assigned. His work at the CIA was more a calling than a job, and as a father, he was more absent than present. It’s not strange for me then to think of him acutely when I travel. That’s when I most feel his energy, his presence.
But Cuba was a place he never traveled to and yet I felt him there. He was a 1950s sort of person, a man who wore Brooks Brothers suits and horn rimmed glasses. Cuba feels locked in the 50s too, a place where old Chevrolets roar down avenues, passing faded, Cold War slogans that span buildings and billboards.
They say that the older generation of Cubans mourns the passing of Castro more than the young. Some say he is the only leader they have ever known. I wonder how Dad would have felt, if it would be odd for him, after so long, to finally lose his ‘enemy.’ Would it have felt, on some level, even bewildering? Then again, Dad was a practical person, someone who adapted readily to change, and there is no denying that change has now come. The future relationship between the United States and Cuba stretches out before us, long and uncertain. To me, it’s an opportunity. I wonder if Dad would agree.
One of the things traveling for a year revealed to me was how much stuff my wife and I had. On the road, we had very little – one suitcase, one backpack and one day bag. We got used to needing and using less. It felt good to travel light and wearing the same clothes over and over again was no big deal. What did that matter when every day felt new?
It reminds me of the black browed albatross I was lucky enough to witness in the Antarctic. They possess the amazing capacity to fly for years without alighting on land because their internal organs are surrounded by little air sacs. Every day that I watched them dip and rise in the air currents behind our boat filled me with a sense of possibility. They knew how to ride the world’s currents.
Coming back to a house of stuff was the opposite of that spacious Albatross feeling.
We had forgotten, literally forgotten, 3/4s of all the things we owned: furniture, clothes, tchotchkes, dishes, pillows, socks, etc.
Stuff management then, became our first task.
Towards this end, we sorted and piled and went through a ton of items from our pre-travel life. Once piles were amassed, I dragged the items to the curb in preparation of helping them find new homes. The pile included an old futon and broken frame, two old dining room chairs, plastic file cabinets, a wardrobe rack, an ugly and tired office swivel chair, two good office chairs, clothes, books, duplicate kitchen ware, a broken side table and a rickety wooden desk.
I arranged everything as invitingly as I could in front of the house and placed a “free” sign on the swivel chair. Over the next week or so, items slowly disappeared including the wardrobe rack, a file cabinet, and the two good office chairs. That was a start but what about the rest?
To handle the remaining things, I arranged for the Veterans Association to do a pick up. They came right to our door and took the clothes and boxes of books. This left the furniture to contend with.
I called some more non-profits. They wanted photos of the furniture that I then had to upload to their website before they would schedule a pick-up. This made me re-examine some of the items. The two dining room chairs were covered in a faded floral design and weren’t all that stable to sit on. The swivel office chair looked pretty mangy too. And then there was my Achilles heel: the lumpy futon and broken frame.
At that point, I broke down and did what I didn’t want to do, what I had resisted from the start: I called the city and arranged for a curbside bulk pick up. I had seen so much of the world in need of resources or overwhelmed with trash, and hear I was resorting to throwing some of my largesse into the landfill. It felt way wrong.
Another week went by with the free sign. A few more items were picked off but not the futon or the chairs or the rickety desk. I felt heavy with dread. Bulk pick up was just a few days away.
Then something shifted for me.
After two weeks of spending most of my waking hours of sorting, piling, moving and otherwise getting very intimate with stuff, I started to relate to our old junk as less junk-like. Maybe I could use that lumpy futon as a kind of chair pillow in my new, cleaned out office. And maybe the ugly swivel chair could be covered with a cloth and kept in use.
So two weeks after dragging it all to the curb, I brought much of it back to the house.
Some items have been put back to use like the surface of the old desk, which has been placed atop two of my wife’s file cabinets to form a new work area. Even parts of the rickety desk came back to the house, to be burned as wood in the fire place later this winter. Other items sit on the side deck, waiting for my office to be ready.
The city did come take the futon frame, too broken and splintered to be used, and a few other items, but most of the items has been or will be repurposed.
It feels good to have empty drawers in the bathroom, kitchen, and bedroom, and far fewer clothes hanging in the closet. Each day I walk through a less cluttered house, I feel lighter inside, more like an Albatross. And that feels amazing.
I’m back after traveling for a year, trying to make sense of things. Who am I? Which life do I go back to? Sometimes I catch myself wanting to fill my days with completely unexplored paths and places. But then that’s not quite it either. It’s more than that. Or deeper.
What I’m really hungry for is to stay rooted in new ways of seeing.
That’s what every day was like on the road. Whether I was in Tibet or India or Myanmar or Australia, every moment was filled with people and streets and faces and languages and skies I had never encountered before. Every new eyeful and earful of world shook me out of my old ways of seeing.
I’m trying to keep my eyes on the new – walking to work instead of driving, cooking something different to eat, or taking photographs of kids on the beach in Santa Cruz, local stuff. When I don’t know what to do, I just sit in my uncertainty until something gets revealed, until I see the new fresh right in front of me.
Everyone in Cambodia is young. Tuk-tuk drivers look like they are in their late teens or early twenties. Hotel and restaurant staff look twenty-something too. Outside the city of Siem Reap, young mothers walk along the roads with small children. Outside a handful of monks and nuns, I hardly saw anyone who looked elderly. People seem young because they are. 75% of the population was born after 1979, when the Khmer Rouge ended. Their brutal reign is the dark truth behind this demographic. When the Communist Khmer Rouge government ran the country from 1976-79, they emptied the cities and took away the middle class and anyone who was educated. Visiting Cambodia brought the Khmer Rouge and their atrocities to life. Their impact is everywhere. It doesn’t feel a thing of the past at all.
I met a man who told me his story. He was born before 1979 and when he was five, the Khmer Rouge took over and took his parents. He never learned what happened to them. He shared this calmly and quietly. I wasn’t expecting to be told this. I thought the trauma of the Khmer Rouge was something many people didn’t talk about but this man was open. He said he was taken out of school to work but that he was fortunate and met a man who raised him.
His face was somber as he told me. He told me about a former killing field turned memorial just outside of town. So one afternoon, instead of going to a temple we went to visit this site. There are thousands of killing fields everywhere, he said. It was located outside of town. He said every year a local politician comes to honor those killed there.
When we pulled up to the killing fields memorial, we got out of the car and walked over to some informational boards. There were photos of people forced to do hard labor, to build roads. A few other tourists around milled around. A donation box sat in the shade.
In the center of the site sat a burial container filled with what looked like bleached bones.
I thought, Those can’t be real, can they? The sides of the burial container were made of clear plastic. I stepped up onto the platform and leaned toward the Plexiglas. Some skulls were bleached white. Others were yellowed. Then I saw that many had molars still intact. Real jaws. Real skulls. It was like a stone dropped inside me. The man who had told us his story and who had driven us here leaned in over my shoulders. “I remember seeing people doing this,” he said. “I was a boy and I looked over a ditch and saw people working like this.”
Before we said goodbye, he showed us photographs of us family.
He told us that the education of his children was the most important thing. His parents were educated and this is probably why they had been taken. He seemed like a quiet man. But also a hopeful one. His children were his hope.
This is what I learned in Cambodia: it is filled with so many kind people. Tuk-tuk drivers gave directions. Nuns invited me into temples to receive a blessing. Our guide took endless photos of us and shared his passion for his country and culture with us. What I really learned is that Cambodia’s people are more beautiful than the ugly past that shapes them. They are more than they know.
Traditionally dressed Tibetan men in wide brim hats and heavy, dark coats, and women in long, multi-colored skirts stand near the entrance to the courtyard where I’ve come to take photos. I’m in Tibet for a week and during one of my wanderings a faded yak skull hanging on a shop door catches my eye. I move toward it and start taking pictures.
Just then, in a nearby building, I hear a man’s voice. He yells in a rapid, staccato manner and sounds angry. More than angry, he sounds vengeful. Is there a fight somewhere? But then his tone shifts and becomes more melodic. Maybe he’s chanting. I look up at where I think the voice is coming from and see a bank of windows. Several heads are all turned in the same direction. Then another traditionally dressed Tibetan couple steps into the courtyard and disappears through a doorway. I walk to the courtyard entrance and see a sign: King Gesar Storytelling Center. Is that what’s going on up there? I wonder. Some kind of story telling event?
I walk over to the doorway, push back a heavy cloth curtain and step into a grungy stairway.
Curious, I approach the doorway, push through a curtain and climb the stairs. My heart pounds hard from the strain of being 12,000 feet above sea level. As I climb, the singing/chanting sounds closer. On the third floor, I pull back another heavy cloth curtain and step into a room filled with small sofas and low lying tables. At the head of the room, a man wearing a white silk shirt and a white head piece holds a mic. The storyteller. His lips move fast and his words spill out. The whole time I’ve been listening, he hasn’t taken a break. His words have continued unabated, something I don’t think I could do. I can’t understand what he’s saying but whatever it is, he is telling from memory. No script.
People notice I’ve stepped into the room. I am the only foreigner here, the only Westerner. Heads turn. A woman looks over at me, then a few children. They smile and I smile. “What is this Western woman doing here if she can’t understand Tibetan?” they must be thinking. Even though this center is in the heart of one of Lhasa’s main shopping thoroughfares, I feel like I’m in a village high in the Himalayas.
I wonder if I should leave but it feels rude somehow, so I take a breath, find an empty spot on a nearby sofa and sit down. I focus on the storyteller. He’s talking as if he were in a trance. The family to my right is drinking tea. A boy half listens while he plays a game on his iPhone. Another boy smiles shyly at me from across the narrow room. I smile back. Now that I’ve sat down, adults from the other side of a nearby aisle turn to look at me. We smile.
A woman in traditional dress walks up and down the aisle picking up and dropping off thermoses.
The storyteller’s voice rises and falls. I pull out my journal to jot down what’s happening. If I don’t write this down now, I’ll forget important details. Just as I start to write, an extremely old man walks up the aisle, a dark cowboy hat on his head, his gate uneven. He sits down on the other side of my sofa and smiles at me. I smile and nod. He keeps smiling and watches me as I write.
As I scribble, I fold the pages of my journal so that he won’t see that my journal has a kitschy image of Mao’ face on the cover. I bought it at a tourist shop. It seemed wrong to put Mao – a man responsible for so much suffering and starvation during the years of agrarian reform in China – on the cover of a journal, but the shop seemed in on the irony. I’m only in China once, I thought, so I bought it.
But now I’m sitting inside a room of Tibetans, inside the so-called “Tibetan Autonomous Region.”
But being in Tibet is another matter. China’s grip here is clear. Military bases dot the city and check points are everywhere. When we first arrived, the airport felt like an occupied territory with Chinese military planes and helicopters sitting to the side of the runway.
But the dynamic came more into focus when we entered Lhasa itself. A huge blue banner stretched across the wide avenue announcing, “Welcome to prosperous, harmonious, legal, civilized, and beautiful, socialist Tibet.” Just beyond it, a huge sign featured the portraits of the last five chairmen. Mao’s face was at the top. It didn’t look kitschy at all.
But in this small room where a traditional storyteller tells a cultural story, the Chinese State seems distant. I’m just starting to relax, jotting down my thoughts and impressions, when I sense someone over my shoulder. The tea server stares down at me. She’s all smiles but I close the journal anyway. After all, this is a room devoted to the oral tradition of storytelling not the writing of it.
Just then a man two tables away approaches and asks me if I like Tibetan tea. “Yes!” I say.
A moment later a thermos is placed before me and the old man next to me pours me a cup. It’s tangy and buttery and like nothing I’ve ever had. In fact, it doesn’t taste like tea at all. It’s more like liquid butter. People turn to watch me drink. Even though it is a bit sharp, I smile and give a thumbs up.
By the time the storyteller ends, I’ve drained my cup, making sure to finish it all.
I don’t want to seem rude or unappreciative. The moment I place my empty tea cup on the table, the old man takes the thermos and fills my cup again. I wasn’t prepared to drink more so I laugh. Still, it’s kind of him to pour the tea and I take another sip.
Five minutes pass and then the storyteller stops finally, putting down his mic. Although I don’t know what he’s been saying, I later learn that he has been reciting a story based on the mythic story of the Tibetan King Gesar. I also learn that the way someone becomes a King Gesar storyteller, is through a dream. The person wakes and begins to tell the story of King Gesar, a story he’s never heard nor read before. It’s a kind of divine knowledge and so telling this story becomes their calling. The storytellers travel Tibet and tell the exploits of this mythic king, a king whose story traces the history and outlines of the culture of Tibet itself.
I see it’s time for me to leave. I take a last sip of the yak butter tea, get up and make my way over to the counter to pay. I smile at a few more faces and thank the server. Afterward, I step into the gray hallway and make my way down into the courtyard below.
The guide books say the future of Tibet is unclear.
I think about the future of Tibet under so much Chinese control. The city of Lhasa is now at least 50% Chinese. Can it survive continued Chinese control and domination? But today, I feel I witnessed the strength and power of a culture told through story. Children and families had gathered to listen to the old story, the story of Tibet itself. I’d like to think that stories can heal us, that they can help us stay whole and free and strong. This then is my wish for Tibet.
The sounds of talking are distant, bouncing off trees and walkways. I’ve made the morning trek up Takao Mountain outside of Tokyo with my partner and many other tourists. Everyone has come to see the main Buddhist temple further up the mountain. Soon enough, I will see it too. It will be vibrant with color and burning incense and people. I will hear the chanting monks who walk in procession to and from their quarters, a procession announced by deep throated horns. They will light a fire and perform the Goma fire ritual by throwing sticks that symbolize human defilement into the flames. But that’s all for later. A rush of cool air penetrates me. I am standing before a seated Buddha, part of a smaller shrine on the way to the main one, and no one else is here.
It’s a relief to be inside this tranquility.
I step up to the seated Buddha and everything shifts. Externals fall away and I am in some deeper chamber inside myself. Is it the eyes that don’t seem to look outwardly? The formalized hands, the fingers, the wrist, all turned just so? A small sprig of red flowers grow just behind the statue. I feel hushed and crave nothing.
Maybe it’s the plain gray stone that quiets me.
My mind bounces for a second and I wonder when this Buddha was created. I remind myself to look it all up later – the meaning behind the hand gesture, the nuanced importance of the gaze, the historical context. Right now, none of this matters.
It’s like a reset button to stare into a face so self-contained.
As I stare at the Buddha’s tolerant expression, I shed the train ride and all the station changes my partner and I took to arrive here. I don’t think of the language barrier that surrounds me or what it’ like to be on the edge of a world I’ve no footing on.
The world stops. I breathe and listen and soften. And nothing else.