Joseph is a soldier. He joined the war before he was old enough and, with faked papers, became a sniper. If you ask Joseph, he has been a soldier as long as he can remember, in his past lives, in his present life even though he is a father, is no longer in the military, cooks, cleans, is a massage therapist. Joseph is still at war.
War follows Joseph. He is randomly shot at, challenged, fought. He is six-four. Impressive. Imposing. Intimidating. Still, things happen to Joseph. Violent things. Hateful and hurtful.
Joseph feels this is normal. Others shake their heads, look with disbelief. To who else do such things happen on such a regular basis? In Melbourne, Florida? Fort White and Gainesville, Florida?
I suggest we get what we expect. Become magnates for what we carry, create our worlds within.
Joseph eschews help, picks up a washing machine by himself, hurts his back, bemoans his misfortune.
I want to fix this but can’t. Joseph is capable of so much compassion, care, kindness. He is the most moral of people, trustworthy. In constant battle.
It is a Saturday night. We have met at Craig’s house to sing, talk, drink coffee, enjoy each other’s company. Evanne, Jack, Beth, myself. We will create sweetness in an evening with our company, our voices. A fat songbook, a dulcimer. It is an evening of pleasantness planned after a difficult week and I know, now, Joseph is coming and the evening will change.
He will talk of war. He will talk over the singing, needing to be heard. There will be bodies, bombs, special forces, politics, shrapnel, combat. I will sing “Peace” by Tom Paxton and he will shout over it about soldiers having body parts cut off, hung in show.
Coffee is served. No-one makes coffee like Craig. He has Kahlúa and Baileys Irish Cream and I ask him if he would not mind preparing my coffee. If I make it, it will not taste the same. He does, smiling, unsatisfied until it is perfect. I appreciate Craig. More and more, as a matter of fact.
We sing, Evanne and I. Joseph comes with his family, long-time friends; beloved, respected, treasured but not always an easy friendship. “Lemmon Tree” is sung in two part harmony and it is sweet, melodic. My voice blends with Evanne’s well and creates one of my favorite sounds. She tells me she cannot sing but her voice in song is a sound of water falling from a height, of children playing at a distance, the sounds of a night-forrest. In harmony it is the sound of peace, the tones sing of friendship, they capture comfort, give it back for all to hold. Suddenly we cannot hear ourselves and Nicaragua is recreated in Craig’s living room. Or it is El Salvador? I use to know this.
I pick up my dulcimer and play “The Water is Wide.” The lap dulcimer is not a loud instrument. I am straining to hear it over a story of conflict, a history of a secret violence. Evanne is singing “Savage Daughter” and I am attempting to learn it on my dulcimer as she sings, but I cannot here the notes over the grenades.
Jeannette, Evanne, Craig and I are singing a shaker hymn, then “How can I keep from Singing”, we try a showtune and always over the notes is a cacophony of gunfire, wounded, the taking of bullets. Hymns of peace in combat with combat.
I think I should be more compassionate, but this is a constancy. At some point, compassion must include oneself and I have heard this as an ongoing saga of bluster and fear. He may be re-deployed. He may have to serve again. I keep my own counsel and say nothing. I only sing louder.
I then do that which I perhaps should not. My birthday is soon. Soon. Joseph is, of course, invited. I could not think of not having him there. I tell him, over his voice, interrupting, next Saturday, there is no talk of politics. I agree with everything he says and still, no talk of politics. My muscles are tight, my stomach hurts. I wish to celebrate my birthday with the living, the breathing. I wish for the dead to be at peace just for a few hours. I pick up my dulcimer and slip it into its bag.
I know we deal with violence. In order to handle violence, we must have a place of peace to hold fast. We can hold it in ourselves. If we can keep peace in ourselves, we bring it into our homes. If we can all bring it into our homes, each home, we have brought it into our neighbourhoods. If we have done that…
And so I should have been able to have handled it, let is flow in and through but it is a practice. It is not perfect. I am not and I spoke up for the first time in a decade. More than a decade.
Last year at my birthday, we were eating cake to stories of street violence, martial arts demonstrations, paramedic episodes. Space around Joseph became wide. In a small apartment, a large man took up more and more space, a wider swath. Is he always like this, I am asked. Yes, he is. He tells me he would take a bullet for me. I have no doubt. I would for him. No question. What I can’t do is take another night of death stories.
It is not that war did this to him. After all, he chose to go before he was of age. This is inside Joseph.
His answer? He will not show up. He will not come to my birthday. He chooses his dead over the celebration of my life. I am more sorry than hurt.
The stories continue. People leave. Joseph wonders if he chased them away. Apologises to Craig.
It is three am. I cannot sleep. I walk into the backyard and hang bamboo shades. I wonder if I should have held my tongue. When is kindness not kind? And what is kindness when it comes to Joseph?