War & Peace: A Travelogue

1. Jolly Roger Espresso

There’s nothing like starting a vacation as a tourist in your own town. We missed the 3pm ferry to Port Angeles, killed four hours in Victoria strolling the Harbourfront, and returned to the terminal in time for the 7:30pm sailing. 

The crossing took two hours. Our tired disoriented kids made friends with other kids and they held hands in a circle, dancing. We nixed our earlier plan of camping in Olympic National Park; the night was already dark. Finally settled on a small cheap room at the All View Hotel. One kid slept in a cot, the other, crying, on the closet floor. 

a) when it was just me and him, we spent hours a day with our bodies glued together. work was something to patch the in-between moments. on summer mornings we showered simultaneously, his body facing my body under the wet stream. we washed each other’s hair, backs, bums, talking the whole time. then in the afternoon we’d lie down in bed and cuddle until we talked ourselves out, fell asleep, or made love. evenings took us out on long roaming walks all over the city, forget dinner, let’s just get a samosa. my first pregnancy brought more of all that. he came close to listen to the baby’s voice, even though she was silent then. as my belly grew bigger he found ways to curl himself around it. there was all sorts of crying and being honest about things. we felt time running out.

i) Sometime before getting married, I became a pacifist. I don’t remember when it happened, but the decision involved both practical logic and heart sense. To my youthful mind the obvious question was, why should we fight with others when it doesn’t beget peace? Over the years the rejoinder has crept out: “We do fight with others.” So the question hasn’t been answered; instead, it’s morphed into a new one. Even though we fight with others, should we keep hoping to stop? 

2. Brewed Awakenings 

We woke up to rain, wet, cold, steady. Tried to ignore the early rising of the kids, painful. The little guy screamed at his sister if she even looked at him. Weather forecast predicted rain and cold all through Washington state until next weekend. We decided to make a break for the coast of Oregon, where it’s supposed to be sunny. Drove on silent wet roads the entire day. 

There were several “what are we doing/what were we thinking” moments on the way through fresh-scented Olympic National Forest. It might have been wiser to head east, where the weather’s hot and sunny . . . but we came on this holiday to see dunes and broad sandy white beaches. We’ve settled on the soggy city of Olympia for now.

b) first one kid, then another. both beautiful and perfect. they forced a wedge between us, between our thoughts. the ideologies we’d held before parenthood were easy to manage. this is the way things should be – this is the way we’ll make it be – this is the way … but biology took over. babies are sexist; they prefer mothers to fathers. and they speak in tongues. drooling, babbling, sleepless, hungry tongues. our words about patience, love, hope, community, and what that’s all about, melted impatiently. we still conversed over and through the extra sounds, exhaustedly trying to agree with each other, with our new identities. now we had to stand as mother and father, work together without words and sometimes without touch. walks became short and to the park. 

ii) When you think of war, you think of countries. They use war as a tool of threat and persuasion, in order to protect real or political boundaries. Nations battle to represent their interests, which are so numerous and convincing that large numbers of men will join together and kill large numbers of men who join together on the opposite side. I suppose at some point, everyone becomes so afraid of the dying that the countries leave off fighting. That’s what force accomplishes, eventually. A tired peace. 

3. Hail Mary Espresso 

We got going as early as possible. Headed down Hwy 5 and into Oregon. Problem – the little guy hates being trapped in his carseat. It’s become a chronic hardship on the road. He rarely stops fussing! squirming! screaming! Mama! every minute or two. It gets worse as we go; so we have to stop a lot. We stop at gas stations, public parks, rest stops, deserted side roads. At the trip’s commencement, we said were prepared for this reality, but now its difficulty becomes too stark.

We entered Oregon by crossing the Columbia River on the Lewis & Clark Bridge. Drove into huge forested hills. After traversing the awesome Astoria-Megler Bridge, we arrived at Fort Stevens National Park in the early afternoon. 

First we visited a beach graced by the shipwreck of the Peter Iredale, which ran aground in 1906 while heading down the Columbia for a load of wheat. The skeletal hull sank to its knees before the horizon, eaten by sun and salt. A broad, soft beach disappeared into mist on either end and grassy dunes formed a large hill overlooking the ocean. Numbing water made it impossible to swim in the waves that reared up and tumbled like wet dragons. 

After Shipwreck Beach, we headed down to the South Jetty’s tip to watch the river meet the sea. Hundreds of dead jellies lay on the sand; the water showed weird currents where fresh met briny. Grass and plant life grew straight out of the white sand. Birds shrieked and skimmed the waves. Pelicans, cormorants, Bonaparte gulls, oystercatchers.

c) now we form a millionaire family. boy, girl, man, woman. fire, air, earth, water. eight arms, eight legs. four heads. the man doesn’t belong to me anymore, but spreads himself around like nature in our house. we never stop running and cleaning and fixing. we talk over their shining heads; don’t interrupt, we tell them. sometimes during our conversations i forget to look in his eyes, which are still the brown of our wedding day. on that day we were sweet and alone. the children were ghosts who laughed their way back from the future into our hands, slippery.

iii) Or maybe we fight wars to prove something to ourselves. There’s nothing like a big blow-out to make you pick up the pieces and get going again. A big spree of destruction only leads to one end: the renewal of hope. It’s possible that the human race has a short collective attention span. We forget that what we really wanted in the first place was to be happy.

 4. Hot Shots

We enjoyed a quiet morning wandering around the old military installment of 1904-1944. The tiny Friends of Fort Stevens Museum boasted a collection of soldier’s uniforms, some guns and photos, and rosebushes surrounded by an electric fence. I was especially delighted by the homemade sign fashioned by irate soldiers following the shelling of the fort by a Japanese submarine: “Rot in Hell, commie bastards!” 

Several now-defunct batteries sat snugly in the hills, pointing 10-inch guns toward the sea in the event of a foreign invasion. We spent a long time running in and out of echoing cement hallways, rooms, anterooms, alcoves. Swallows flitted in and out of shadows, across broad fields where the Civil War is re-enacted each year by enthusiasts. 

Battery 245 housed a swallow’s nestful of babies above a door jamb. Both parents kept arriving to feed their young, but they were afraid of us. They hovered and flitted near the doorway. As soon as the babies saw their caregivers, they piped up in a hungry chorus. But underneath other nests lay tiny fluffs of carcass. Where were their mommas and poppas? Such a quiet plop of an ending, unheard the world over.

Later, we flew the kite and played on the skimboard in numbing cold and rain. Everyone was tenuously joyous. Grey sky, large horizon, many pelicans headed somewhere in purposeful groups. Sagacious gulls hovered, looking down into the water as if reading the future in a mirror.

d) people thought we were brave for going on a holiday. brave? i said. why? then i read somewhere that the phrase “family vacation” is a contradiction-in-terms. then i sat in a car with my three favourite people for twelve days. then i noticed that words are mirrors we tilt toward one another: hard, shiny,with edges. the light bounces rudely from the surface, it’s impossible to tell what’s being said. the light moves sharply and fast like knives.

iv) Sometimes the nations say, “We’ll never forget.” Then all the veterans die, or grow so old they can’t talk. Their grandchildren are taught that war on terrorism is different than world war, that invading another country is a good thing if it promotes democracy. Support our troops, so they can help promote equality. What did we say we wouldn’t forget? The plight of our cultural values? What the other guys did to our guys? The sacrifices? It’s as if we’ve cut ourselves open and bled. Now we’ll never forget the weapon that injured us. But the problem is in the blood.

5. Fast Break

Road-tripped down the Oregon Coast, through several charming seaside towns. Tidy, old, weatherbeaten Cannon Beach. Unpretentious Manzanita. Their beaches stretched out on soft, light gold sand as waves came long and rolling. The surf was thunderously loud. Hulking monadnoks rose straight out of the sea – things the process of erosion forgot as it was carving out the shoreline.

We drove through Nehalem Bay and stopped at the Tillamook Cheese Factory. Bought bright orange curds, beef jerky, pepperoni, and continued inland toward Portland. A winding road led by the Wilson River into deciduous forest. 

The little guy made the last leg of the trip a rather tense affair, but we made it into Portland by evening. Found dinner at Thai Basil, a small truck serving fast food from a parking lot. It belonged to an old sweet couple who were closing down for the night, but sold us a meal anyway. As they cooked it together I watched the patient lines in their faces. 

e) the new agreement has to be a bodily one. respect abides in the way we move around each other – giving enough space to fill where language once flourished and saved. we lie carefully side by side night after night, in the darkness, without collapsing the walls of hope on which marriage is founded. if they went down we’d fall, as we’ve fallen before, into the kind of distance that makes us countries separated by a hard sea. we’d be closed fists, knocking knuckle to knuckle, like words at understanding.

v) Nikos Kazantzakis wrote, “God always works this way. Deep in the foundations of wrong he buries the small despised cry of justice.” Is it this glimmer of hope making us fight even as we seek peace? Or vice versa. It doesn’t seem possible that the two poles of violence and pacifism can exist without each other – death without life, bone without skin, male without female. To violate means to “break an oath”. It’s vehement, impetuous, forceful. Pacifism attempts to please, appease and satisfy. Where do we meet in between those extremities? In conflict? In relationship?

6. Divine Grounds

Spent Saturday at the Oregon Zoo. The kids held up well, especially the four-year-old, who had to walk most of the day. My favourite animals were the naked mole rats, the lorikeets, the restless cougars, and the humungous polar bear who stood playing with an orange helmet and a piece of poo in front of the window for ages. The kids loved the steam train ride and cotton candy. A thirsty, exhausted frenzy of a search for dinner, then the little guy peed his pants right as we started tucking into our sushi.

f) parenthood has succeeded in molding us into two people again. the gulf between us fills up with two bobbing heads and their ever-present needs. the day’s moments are divided up into meals, snacks, and maintenance tasks. it’s a regular enough rhythm; underneath it floats our dialogue, silent and loud. sometimes i notice the absence of passion’s warm flow, as the steady click of peace permeates our family life. i look to him; his eyes skim the surface of our connection, as if the depth is untouchable. Breaking the surface might cause us to lose our breath.

vi) Zues, god of thunder, fell in love with a woman named Semele when he spied her swimming in the river Asopus. She was washing off the blood of a ritual sacrifice she’d made to him. After they conceived a son together, Zues told Semele she could have anything she wanted. She replied that she wished to see him as what he really was, in his full glory. He begged her not to ask for such a thing, but she insisted. Zues complied and came as bright as a flash of lightning, and Semele was incinerated on the spot. Out of their union was born Dionysis, god of madness, ecstasy and wine. The life of the party.

7. Bump and Grind

Downtown Portland. After exploring the famed Saturday market we walked the wide, green Willamette River in warm sunshine, then took the tram through the city core. It’s large, edgy, replete with tattooed 20- and 30-somethings. In the afternoon, we took a drive through several funky neighbourhoods. Each one had a distinct feel to it, but on a Sunday none of them thrived as much as I’d anticipated. For a picnic dinner, we drove to Mount Tabor, a broad high hilltop overlooking the city. 

g) who’s responsible? we share the children and the confusion over which actor should take the stage at any given time. if he’s scolding, i harmonise my voice with his, playing a supportive role. when i chide, he says listen to your mother when she’s talking to you. both of us feel interrupted, torn. we share each other’s frustration, thereby doubling it. now affection is meted out, a closed kiss at two predictable intervals, a brief hug given at goodbyes. everything extra is a needful distraction, a tug at the reserves. it’s an uphill march of muted battles.

vii) The balance of tension that governs the world is often revealed in a test. Hard and soft power, action and words, intent and meaning: all of these come together to illuminate the dynamics of a situation. In 1942, after Fort Stevens was shelled a single time by a Japanese submarine, the soldiers sat on their hands for several hours awaiting orders. They were bitterly disappointed when told not to counter-attack. Hackles raised, resentments boiling, they wanted to fight. It would’ve felt cathartic to blow something up. For the protection of the nation and its way of life? Hardly. Such noble reasoning only comes into propaganda. The desire to war comes from a more basic instinct; it’s the excitement of forcing a happening. A violent climax makes sweet the lull of peacetime. 

8. Joltin’ Java 

The Children’s Museum swallowed the first part of the day. Afterward we played in a fountain at Jamison Square. The water rushed over a fake stone wall and a hundred kids were splashing in it. Our girl was sad to leave; she’d already cemented several quick, soaked friendships. 

h) communication is by nature a peaceful effort, a compromise within disagreement – anything else is war. the nitpicking, bruising, snagging conversations are part of a small insignificant war. when the children play nicely together, the boy says to the girl, “look, you are being my friend!” when they argue, he runs at her like a tornado and she waits for him to smash her in the chest. then they both cry gustily. the rise was something they wanted. but now the discomfort is hard to bear, so they appeal to mother and father for comfort. we vacillate between comforting and blaming. i’m sorry you got bitten – but you didn’t defend yourself. 

viii) If you invade and attack, you’ll change the course of events. It says something definite about your desires. The state of the world will be shaken up by your admission and your willingness to act on it. You’ve matched your intent with the work of your hands. You say: death and destruction are worthwhile endeavours if they lead closer to the completion of our goals. The mothers of little bleeding children, the maimed and broken survivors, the exhausted soldiers who can’t remember what their mission was, holes in buildings planned and constructed carefully by skilled human hands, craters in nature, quietness of skies where birds have long flown away – the flesh of society is raked and exposed to electrified air. Feel, feel the loss! Will you accept peace now? on what terms?

9. Log Cabin Espresso

In Portland it was sweaty, bright, stinkin’ hot. We left. We drove through the plains and dappled forests on the 99 West toward Lincoln City. The little guy slept about half the time and remained patient for the rest. As soon as we passed the coastal hills, the temperature dropped about 24 degrees Fahrenheit. Fog rolled in. At Lincoln City we stopped to play on the beach and shivered in the mist. There were kite flyers and people everywhere. 

We camped at South Beach in a warm comfortable yurt, situated high up on a hill and surrounded by scrubby coastal forest, crowded with native rhododendron and laced with sand from the dunes. Secluded, quiet, grey, lovely. 

i) we did not invite children to our wedding. to keep it small and quiet. it wasn’t one of those family weddings with 200 people and children and cousins and aunts and uncles running about. leave your little ones at home, we said, take a break. i suppose we thought of children as being interruptive. now i think something was missing, some loudness: the element of surprise that youthfulness brings, and with it the acceptance of unpredictable moments. there is a sadness to my memory of that silence.

ix) They say in World War I the soldiers stopped fighting on Christmas Day, shook hands, gave presents, expressed good wishes. On Boxing Day they started killing each other again. Fresh from greeting, human eyes now sighted and sought to destroy. Still handshake-warm, human fingers pulled on triggers so small bits of metal would explode inside bodies, erasing a whole life’s worth of memories and loves. 

In a way, every relationship with another person is subtly akin to marriage: it’s a contract, a promise, a connection, a hope, however brief. With time’s passing, the promise to ensure the survival of the other is repeatedly broken. And with each fracture there’s the option of looking into a possibility more ethereal than blood. I hope we won’t do this to each other anymore. I hope to regain trust. I hope we can work this out. It’s feathery and fragile and flat. Not as concrete as a bombing strategy, which knows what to do next and doesn’t have to ask.

10. Cowgirls Espresso

Road trip’s gearing down. In the morning, a park ranger took us on a tide-pool exploration at Seal Rock Park nearby Newport. It’s a place from another planet. Tall lava cliffs rise straight out of sandstone into the misty sky, homes to gulls and oystercatchers. A stinky curtain of excrement shrouds the top edge of each cliff. A large sign stands at the opening to a narrow, walkable bridge leading to one summit: “Several people have died here. Do not trespass.” 

The beach is fronted by sand and a steep slope of sandstone, punctuated liberally by small outcroppings of lava rocks. This makes for great tidal pool exploration. Some pools are more than 1.5 metres deep. Rock lice, isopods, anemones, seaweeds of many different sorts. Our faces in the glassy water.

Eventually we headed to the aquarium after grabbing a much-needed espresso beverage from one of those little highway stands. I saw the fish, jellies, octopi, sea lions, all through the haze of whiny child clinging to my bosom. 

j) it’s possible to pass through the days from distraction to distraction. skimming over the surface of each moment, paying as much attention as necessary, dampening down the inconveniences until finally, quiet. there are cups of tea, desserts, glasses of wine to anticipate. meanwhile the children stick to their environment like lint to wool. they absorb it, press it for answers, pluck it apart. mama, papa, they call, come see. and we see, as we’ve seen it before. the glow of their faces is attractive; we can’t observe through the keen eyes, but we can stand close by and stay warm.

x) This is what I know: Kindness exists. Violence exists. Intense chaos, relaxed peace. Force is used to order things. Peace is order. The threat of force begets order. Force organises. Peace organises. The military’s an organising force. War is a show of cohesion. The depth of cohesion is peace. War identifies what we believe to be peace. War has kindness and violence. Marching in war. Singing in a choir. The military is a show of solidarity. Hierarchy, organisation, movement. War fulfills a function in society. Religion fulfills a similar function. Violence and force draw together even as they destroy. Peace puts together and also dissipates. A pinnacle’s needed to draw together and solidify: a reason. Some people get killed by others. Some get loved. Or both.

11. Sexy Espresso

At the mouth of the Columbia River we waffled for a bit on where to set down. Our restless children had pushed us up the coast fairly quickly. Stopped at Manzanita again and they dug in the gold sand with their big plastic shovels. Drove straight past Seaside into Astoria, debated whether to check out Ft.Stevens Park again. I’m already forgetting to be on vacation; my instinct is to keep on toward home and not dilly-dally. 

We ended up heading across the Astoria-Megler Bridge to Cape Disappointment in Washington, a lonely and picturesque site that used to be a fort like its counterpart over the river. Neither of them ever did succeed in protecting anything.

k) at one crowded campground, we hear the parents in the neighbouring tent verbally abusing their children. they don’t remember that a tent wall is nothing but a curtain. it’s 10 o’clock and the children won’t sleep. the parents say hateful things to make their children settle. then one child gets hit – we hear the threat, the thump – and cries for a while. a beam of flashlight casts wide shadows of their bodies into our tent. my daughter lies listening. she’s heard anger before, but never this.

xi) The turmoil of politics is human emotion on a national scale. Just as Semele called Zues’s bluff, so the nations invite each other to self-destruction. Show us what you can do! Mothers and fathers are annihilated in the expression of their children; from the dying plant issues a precious seed. 

Futility doesn’t build; only hope creates something out of nothing. Even in war, it’s hoping toward victory that makes generals plan an attack. Maybe we’ll lose some, but hopefully they’ll lose more. Then we can get on with the business of living.

12. The Espresso Garden

Last day of vacation. We headed up Hwy 101 toward Aberdeen, then hugged Puget Sound all the way up to home territory. 

We camped in Sequim State Park, right beside the highway and cramped as hell. It’s Friday night and sunny weather. For supper we picnicked at nearby Dungeness Wildlife Reserve, a cozy area with a half-mile trail that leads down through leafy forest to a long sandspit. 

Cruise ships sailed by, the ocean roiled, rocks and driftwood lay in eternal piles everywhere. We ate roast beef and turkey sandwiches, watching the sky and hills darken across the Strait of Juan de Fuca. Next day we caught the noon ferry from Port Angeles and returned home.

l) one stressful day he smiled at me. it had a hint of a question to it. do you? can you? will you? 

xii) Amazing grace. How sweet the sound.

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