Ashes and Embers Revisited[i]
We were driving down interstate 91 to New York, and I had my finger pressed down on the search-button of the radio going through the FM stations, trying to find some decent music. It’s real hard to find music that I like on the radio today.
I hit an old familiar tune, “Love the one you’re with,” by Stephen Stills, from 1968, done by Aretha a few years later.
because your baby
Is so far away
As the chorus came around, an adrenaline rush flared and I felt a harsh burning at the base of my chest:
There’s a rose
in a fisted glove.
and the eagle flies
with the dove.
And if you can’t be
with the one you love
Honey, love the one you’re with
Love the one you’re with.
I’m saying to myself, “It sounds like it’s supposed to be deep, ‘rose in a fisted glove… eagle with the dove….’ But the message is actually quite weak. Why is my heart pumping like this?”
I thought for a moment about what was going on for me at that time. In 1968, while I was swaying to the themes of “free love” and “do your own thing,” we were in the midst of the lame-duck presidency of Lyndon Johnson. While much of the world waited for Nixon, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, headed by General William Westmoreland, took the opportunity to step-up the blanket bombing of the country of Vietnam.
Now, the devil-bird B-52 bombers were raining tens of millions of tons of bombs on the Vietnamese people every month and in one month’s time in 1968 they were dropping one million tons of bombs on the city of Hanoi.
Hanoi, at that time, was an underground city. Built with concrete bunkers, the entire functioning of the city took place in tunnels, passageways and cavernous halls many feet below the surface of the earth. In fact, the only above-ground signs of life were the flowers known as the Stalin Organs. Anti-aircraft missile launchers given by the Soviet Union to Ho Chi Minh and the National Liberation Front of Vietnam, the Stalin Organs were the only military equipment in the world capable of taking out the death-bird B-52 bombers. And they did.
… By the hundreds. And the Viet Cong guerrillas who engaged the U.S. ground troops in the jungle in the south of Vietnam made use of the carcasses of these planes. From their charred metal crusts the mighty Cong made what they called fidelity rings. These women and men went into the jungle for two, three and four years at a time, not seeing their wives or husbands and families all the while; and faced the Agent Orange, phosphorous bombs, shrapnel, defoliant gas and napalm which were all part of the “Scorched Earth” policy of U.S. imperialism, designed to extinguish all living things on that section of planet Earth.
Husbands and wives, separated for years, wore on their ring fingers these fidelity bands made from the downed B-52s. For those wearing them through the experience of this firestorm, the shine of the rings represented their unbroken faithfulness to their spouses.
I have two feelings to describe my sense of myself and the world back then: confusion and extreme sorrow.
Today our community is seared by the germ warfare of U.S. imperialism in the form of the AIDS virus; and we are choking on thick clouds of crack smoke billowing from the combustion of tons of cocaine dropped on us by the Pentagon and the CIA….
The ashes cover the embers and in order to fully love myself I have to own both currents within me. When my blood rushes and my heart flutters I must take deep breathes, listen close for the real message, and be warmed by the smoldering coal inside so that I can reach my diamond true original self.[ii]
[i] Originally published in 1991 by Free My People. The title comes from the cinematic production Ashes and Embers, by the outstanding filmmaker Haile Gerima. That story depicts an African American veteran of the U.S. war against the people of Vietnam, and his journey back to recover his soul in his people and their freedom movement.
[ii] I got the concept “diamond true original self” from Amtul Hannan who was my spiritual advisor at the time this piece was written.