Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Remembering Armistice Day

"The New Century," linocut on Combat Paper by Walt Nygard

Veterans Day Talk
On November 11, 1918, my grandfather
on my father’s side was on a stateside dock
with his Army unit about to ship out
to fight in France,
when word was received
that the war had just ended.
Armistice Day, they called it.
Sometimes you’re lucky in war;
sometimes not.

On November 11, 1944, my mother’s
brother was killed in a Navy dive bomber
that crashed into the sea in a battle
near the Philippines.
There was no armistice
that Armistice Day.

 Surviving war is no guarantee it’s over.
Never know when something from the war
may catch you unawares. A flare up,
a flashback, a smell from a bad day long ago. 

With two bitterly contested wars churning out
more wounded, more dead, more veterans,
there’s still no armistice
on Armistice Day.

Veterans Day, they call it now—
as though all those war emotions
can be contained in a holiday.    

In Vietnam, I was a Boy Scout
turned into Army radio specialist.
A communications breakdown
in a war zone can be fatal.
Communications failure among veterans
and our support network
of family and friends
can also have scary consequences.

 That’s what we need to talk about today,
after the parades, the bagpipes,
the drums and trumpets, the bugle calls,
the solemn speeches, the moment
of silence, the hearty drinks at the bar—
when memories of war
still intrude into our dreams, our lives.

--Jan Barry

Tuesday, November 10, 2015

Thao’s Library: Finding Life’s Purpose Amidst Loss

Thao and Elizabeth Van Meter at Thao's Library

Feeling depressed, given the state of the world/one’s life lately? Track down “Thao’s Library,” an astonishingly uplifting documentary about crawling out of despair and finding purpose in life that’s forever fractured. 

Actress Elizabeth Van Meter was devastated by her younger sister’s death by suicide. Then she saw a photo of a woman in Vietnam whose body was devastated by Agent Orange chemicals used by US military forces in the war, yet was cheerfully operating a homemade library for village children from her wheelchair. The photographer said the Vietnamese woman, Thanh Thao Huynh, had one request: some money for more books. 

Stumbling around New York City in a daze of grief, Van Meter felt drawn to help the disabled woman with her project in Cu Chi, a rural village near Ho Chi Minh City. This low-budget, low-key film tells the story of what happened next.

“ …it’s about building bridges with our friends in Vietnam,” Van Meter wrote in a poignant update on Facebook, “it’s about sharing stories about women made by women, it’s about introducing the world to my soul sister Thao, it’s about the acknowledgement of the ripple effect of war, it’s about love and the healing power of connection, it’s about resilience and forgiveness, it’s about the ability we all have to reach out and be of service to our brothers and sisters of the world with whatever gifts we’ve been given.”

Van Meter raised funds to provide a larger building next to Thao’s family’s farmstead to house a larger library and one-room school. Thao, as shown in the film, struggled to live without use of atrophied legs and found her calling in teaching young children how to read. She encourages those around her with her joy in living each day. 

At a recent showing in the Teaneck International Film Festival, audience members at the Puffin Cultural Forum were greeted by Van Meter, who directed the documentary. Her film is making the rounds of festivals and showings in some theaters. During the Q and A, she talked about feeling that her late sister, Vicki, was with her as she interacted with Thao. Vicki, famous at age 11 for flying an airplane across the US, killed herself at 26. 

“I feel as though the three of us made this film together,” Van Meter said in similar comments to an interviewer with Timeout in Chicago. “When we experience the loss of a loved one, especially in the way that Vicki chose to go, it leaves a lot of unanswered questions. It's not necessarily about ‘closure’ but about evolving to a new place. The pain, the loss, it never goes away but my relationship to it evolves.”

For more information:


Thursday, November 5, 2015

Sustainability or Lights Out

Monksville Reservoir, NJ   (photo: Jan Barry)

Modern people act quite often as though the Earth were replaceable—trash this one, order a new one in the morning.  So it may have been a revelation for many who heard Pope Francis tell world leaders at the recent United Nations General Assembly meeting in New York that harm to the environment harms us too.

Speaking out against “misuse and destruction of the environment” and a growing “culture of waste,” which has left increasing numbers of people impoverished and living in places poisoned by toxic spills and contaminated air and water, the leader of the Roman Catholic Church said the universe was not created by God for humans to tear apart. Man was given a gift of living on this Earth, Francis added, “he is not authorized to abuse it, much less to destroy it.”

In his UN address, on the heels of an historic speech to Congress, and in a widely disseminated environmental encyclical to the people of the world, the head of one of the world’s major religions mounted a campaign to get government leaders and ordinary folks to seriously tackle environmental protection through social and economic transformations.

At a forum at Ramapo College in September on Pope Francis’ call for action on environmental protection, a man stood up in the audience and said: “We have to start acting now! My children and grandchildren may not have a place to live.”  

Addressing the panel of environmentally minded professors, the speaker continued: “I was a student here in 1975-80. We were encouraged to be activists. We were provided tools to be activists.”

A few weeks later, in October, Ramapo College hosted a conference on student activism on environmental sustainability. President Peter Mercer said this focus is a priority for the state college, which borders the Ramapo River, a regional water supply stream, in Mahwah, NJ. Billed as “Campus Sustainability Day,” the event provided an opportunity for student leaders in various clubs to hear report outs from department heads about environmentally focused changes on campus—such as installing LED lights and cutting uses of paper—and to offer ideas for additional actions.

Among the students’ suggestions: institute a required course in sustainability in every major, turn lawns into “sustainable landscaping” such as wildflower meadows, provide compostable plates, cups and utensils in dining halls and at conferences.

“We’re working on a project to have 100 percent of food waste go to compost,” announced a student activist.

A few days later, the college hosted a conference for community activists on climate change and energy issues. Sponsored by the public interest group Food & Water Watch, the conference attracted more than 100 environmental activists from the New York metropolitan region. Many were there to exchange ideas on how to counter a deluge of fracked oil and gas being shipped by trains, barges and pipelines to refineries in New Jersey. Rail lines and pipelines cut through water supply areas and residential neighborhoods, state parks and forests.

Panelists included leaders of the Coalition to Ban Unsafe Oil Trains, Coalition Against Pilgrim Pipeline, NJ Working Families, NJ Pinelands Preservation Alliance, New Jersey Environmental Justice Alliance, Sane Energy Project and many other groups.

“You can feel change coming,” said Lawrence Hamm, a Newark-based civil rights activist, addressing the crowd in the keynote address. “We must reestablish our connection with Nature…We need to join these movements together in the same fight.”