Grey Matter Vietnam

Thoughts from a Vietnam diary

I awake from dozing in the sunlight, uncertain if it is morning or afternoon, one side of my face sensuously hot from the sunshine’s touch. I don’t remember it being so bright when I fell asleep. Perhaps that was in the morning, I don’t really remember. But now the bright light passing through the windowpane paints the dusty floor with bold designs of light and shadow, and the sun is high in the sky. Trapped in its highlights, dust particles spin and whirl in a Lilliputian dance. I try but I cannot shut out the brightness, though I squeeze my eyes tightly closed. The warm light defeats even my eyelids, and with them closed, my view becomes a wash of bright orange red like the sun itself. I savor the warm caress for a while longer, reluctant to wake fully. There isn’t any hurry, and doing so will serve no need, there hasn’t been for months now. I live trapped in a place where time has lost relevance. Staring through slits of partially opened eyes, I gaze out at the winter landscape formed by the rumpled white sheets in front of my view. Empty and barren, a miniature world devoid of noticeable life, the sheets mirror the arctic winter of my emotional condition.

On the windowsill before me the single stalk of a scraggly geranium bends towards the glass. Languishing in soil long ago depleted of nutrients, it lives a marginal existence in a feast or famine world, helplessly dependent on the whims of the passing clouds who snuff out the sunlight, and the sporadic arrival of water from the cooler down the hall. Trapped in a terracotta pot, its only movement has been an almost imperceptible slow motion turn towards the light over many months. A motion which over time has left it in a twisted and unattractive posture, its last singular cluster of leaves pressed into a corner of glass and wood. A crust of white minerals has laboriously worked its way out through the porous terracotta clay to the surface, and now surrounds the pot like frozen frost crystals on the high desert floor. I have watched those crystals appear one by one, though the process took months. Like a movie run at the wrong speed, row after row they gradually appeared in my timeless world, until they nearly obscured the red brown clay itself. Waking further, I rub similar crystals from the corners of my eyes and mouth.

In an earlier time things were different. Resilient green stems struck out in all directions. Pithy, aromatic leaves, each one competing for the most sunlit position, covered the stems, and flowers the color of lover’s lips burst from the surrounding green. The earthen pot was uniform in color, and if you looked closely, you could still see the imprints of the potter’s fingers on its surface. Yes, things were different when the geranium and I first came to this place. But that seems like a long time ago. Now I spend my time drifting in and out of sleep, living on memories, and contemplating the futile monotony of my daily existence. How we both have changed.An Hoa, Vietnam

Down the hall I hear the prattle of the nurses who watch over me. Mai and Dow. Like barnyard hens they incessantly chatter back and forth in Vietnamese. What an unattractive language. Full of harsh breaks and clucks, their conversations, a subtle irritant always in the background of my thoughts, grates on me. How ironic and fitting that phonetically, Dow’s name is the Vietnamese word for pain. They each have coal black hair and eyes, and when they look at me, I feel the gaze pass right through me as though I am not even in their view. I have never been able to fathom their words, and get no sense of their thoughts or emotions from their foreign words. Their expressionless faces provide little clues, and I am clearly only an object of their labor. Looking back into the bottomless black of their eyes I see nothing, infinity. Of course the prattle between them continues while they tend to my needs. Medication, feeding, and an occasional cleaning. But always the touch of emotionless hands, used as if rolling over a bag of potatoes.

There is the clatter of the sheet metal cart on wheels approaching down the corridor outside my room. One errant wheel shutters continuously like a broken shopping cart, causing everything on the pushcart to precariously bounce and rattle. Mai turns the corner into my view pulling the dented, shuddering rig which holds the tools of my imminent bathing. Sponge, soap, razor, mirror, and of course the sloshing bowl of tepid water. My desire to be clean or filthy is uniformly neutral. With my departure from this place uncertain, I have ceased to care about even the most basic aspects of my life.

I am young, though with the slow passage of unremarkable days, I feel like a lifetime has come and gone. Before I came here, I worked hard to achieve my varied goals in life, though it seems now in retrospect the general course of my existence was primarily a product of circumstance rather than intent. My life has been more intuitive than deliberate, though I would like to think otherwise. I had a knack for recognizing opportunity. While others would stare obliviously, my awareness acknowledged the numerous vacancies from which opportunities are born. This sense from an unknown source served me well. In friendships and love affairs, my openness to possibilities brought me many successes. But now I wonder; after so many successes, what has failed me that I should end up here; broken, future uncertain, alone? A series of random chance events working outward from a burst of shrapnel too near to a hydraulic line? A flight too near an obscure village, so meaningless as to not even warrant a name on a map? Whatever the circumstance, I am without means to alter the direction that it has set my life on, nor which my individual days take. One day perhaps I will leave this place, but I know that no matter how distant this experience becomes, it will always be a core part of who I am. Were it even possible to mentally distance myself from this experience, the many healing tears in my flesh will leave a visual reminder of these feelings, re-igniting them in an instant. I am now utterly cognizant that any feeling of control over one’s condition or future is fleeting, and belief in that control or self directed destiny, certainly is an illusion that our ego builds to cope with the reality of the randomness of our existence.