In the spring of 1969 during People’s Park, Berkeley was under martial law. I was friends at the time with a woman named Randy Rappaport who now goes by Randy Ross. Randy and I were part of a group of radical activists who, among other things, wrote a manifesto we called the Berkeley Liberation Program. (Google it!) As Stew, Tom Hayden and a slew of others argued, Randy, a group of women and I wrote our women’s liberation plank in the most intimate location we could find: the Art Deco foyer of a women’s rest-room in a downtown Oakland hotel.
Randy and I lost touch in the intervening years, but we met again in the spring of 2014 at a Boston women’s liberation conference. David was with me. Like me, in the 1970s and again in 2013, Randy had visited Viet Nam. She’d also met lead Paris Peace Accord negotiator Mme Binh, and recently helped out with Mme. Binh’s autobiography. Over the last two days Randy and I began what I consider a fascinating e-mail conversation. Here’s a mash-up:
RANDY: Oh Judy, I am so so sorry to hear about David’s death. I really enjoyed meeting him in Boston. Such a kind dear person! But it was way too brief a time.
JUDY: Thank you for your kind words about David. I’m glad you had a chance to meet him.
RANDY: I read your blog last night. It was just before I intended to go to sleep, so sleep was long in coming. The pictures of Stew and of David, your writing about “Dewey,” and your honesty about the agony of your days (and nights) touched me in a way that I am still trying to comprehend.
We have all had losses, of course, and we have all had grief. But do we face the grief or run from it, bury it? My father died in 1962, when I was 17, dropping dead from a heart attack right in front of me. It took at least ten years and a lot of running (most of which was during the movement years) to finally stop and begin to feel the grief. I say “begin,” because I have realized over the last fifty years that I revisit that grief and sadness again and again. Sometimes with fresh insight, sometimes just feeling the old sadness wash through me all over again.
JUDY: You are so right when you talk about stopping running to feel the grief. After Stew died I entered a total panic, fight or flight mode and got the hell out of Portland. It made practical sense in that I needed to move anyway out of our 4 bedroom house that cost $800 a month to heat during the winter, and Jessica was down here by then so I up and left. I railed against my fate but, being an activist, I acted. I didn’t take time to grieve Stew’s loss with depth or insight. So now, as I mourn David, here comes my grief for Stew in a deeper way. And that’s a good thing.
RANDY: Reading your blog, and perhaps knowing you (strange after so many years of not knowing you, to say I know you, but it feels right somehow), it is clear that you try to face your grief. Maybe we know we have to by this time in our lives, but there are many who never do face the grief, let it run through and over them, submerge and nearly strangle them. It is how waterboarding might feel somehow. Can’t breathe. Can’t speak. And this is the second waterboarding you’ve had to live through.
JUDY: You are the perfect person to answer a question I’ve been wondering about. I’ve heard it’s important to have role models of how to grieve. How did “the Vietnamese” (or “our” Vietnamese as opposed to the South’s Vietnamese) deal with grief? Repress and keep on fighting? How did being surrounded by suffering, adversity and death affect Mme. Binh’s outlook if it did? Mme Binh was one of my role models, but I for one have very little information about this aspect of her life. You ask how you could help me. If you have any ideas, thoughts, speculations, imaginings about this, I’d love to know.
RANDY: I went through my copy of Mme. Binh’s autobiography to find what words of wisdom she might have for you (and all of us, as we age and lose our loved ones) concerning her husband Khang’s death:
MME BINH: In 1989 [25 December], two years after beginning work with the Union of Friendship Organizations, I suffered a major loss. My husband Khang passed away from illness. At the time, our son Thắng was studying in Czechoslovakia. It all happened suddenly. On 24 December, a Sunday, Khang and I were talking about our two grandchildren. That evening, we took Khang, in an emergency run, to 108 Hospital, which had treated him before. I wanted to stay over at the hospital to look after him, but he insisted I go home to rest. His character was like that. He would never trouble anyone, not even his wife or children. The next morning I arrived to visit him before going to a National Assembly session. He was very weak and could only say, “I’m so tired!”
The doctor arrived to give him an injection for his heart. With that, Khang stopped breathing! And so, our plans, simple hopes, deep attachment, and our thoughts that, after I retired, we would take better care of each other and travel as tourists to different sites— all that disappeared in a flash! I had many friends and comrades around me. They were endlessly sympathetic, but I still felt truly alone and bereft. That pain is endless. Until now, I do not have anyone with whom I can pour out every thought, confidence, and worry, from whom I can receive encouragement and the words of comfort that I need. Life is like that. What can we do?
RANDY: Her last two sentences, simple though they are, seem to me to hold the clearest way of understanding how she, and others like her, handle their grief. Acceptance — Life is like that. What can we do? Impermanence and suffering are part of life, not just because of the political situation, though that certainly can make the suffering far worse.
Judy and Mme. Binh, Hanoi 2013
RANDY; One story that may explain why I feel that this is her meaning…. When I was in North Vietnam with Eldridge and the others, we met one day with Pham Van Dong. Though I don’t remember the context, he said something that has stayed with me all these years. He said, “Vietnamese Communism is a blend of Marxism-Leninism and Buddhism. It is our unique way.”
JUDY: I love that quote! And also what you said about Mme. Binh.
RANDY: You probably don’t know this about me, but I have been a very serious Buddhist meditator for decades, since just a couple of years after returning from Viet Nam in 1970 and then going to Paris in the summer of 1971 to meet with Mme Binh. it was Pham Van Dong’s words that led to my interest in Buddhism. I went to my first Buddhist retreat in September 1973. I have often joked that I went to Asia (remember — North Korea, North Viet Nam and China!) a Communist and came back a Buddhist. A bit flip, but it has some truth.
JUDY: A friend of mine, a widow and like you a Buddhist, talked me into taking a course about Buddhism called “Awakening Joy. ” I’m learning a lot. Meditation techniques help. Old age, suffering and death are inevitable and universal. I want to learn how to approach my life with compassion. But there’s something about Buddhism I really resist. How do I reconcile accepting pain, suffering and death with what all of us, and especially Mme. Binh believed in : fighting against oppression and for national liberation? If one accepts the inevitability of death, why not accept the inevitability of foreign occupation? If one accepts suffering as part of life, why fight against being poisoned by Agent Orange? Is suffering caused by injustice right to fight against, while the best response to inevitable suffering is, as Mme Binh says, to tell yourself, ‘Life is like that, What can we do?” I guess what I’m really asking is – where does being a rebel fit in? So this is what I wrestle with about Buddhism.
RANDY: This is an amazing and important conversation. And believe me, I have struggled with EXACTLY the question about activism/acceptance that you have raised. I have some thoughts, but of course no answers. It is our particular koan as social justice advocates.
Randy’s words reprinted with her permission. To be continued….
ADDENDUM: I reported this conversation to Kokko, my acupuncturist and Chinese herbalist.
KOKKO: You were a monk in a past life. You don’t have to come back and do it again.