Today I traveled south to the town of Lakewood in Ocean County, New Jersey with a woman named Judy from Putnam Valley, NY. On our ride down we talked about what brought us together – our curiosity, our apprehension and even our prejudice. I told her about traveling in Japan, WWOOFing around the U.S. and how I passed my time these days. I confessed, without any prompting, that I hoped when I decided to join this walk that I would meet a beautiful activist… after all, I had not been in a relationship for over three years – three years, and during this time I had avoided getting too close to women, had spent a lot of time wondering if I am gay, and let my facial hair grow into a scraggly red and black beard (which I finally shaved in January). I thought, “It’s been a long time since I’ve allowed myself to be vulnerable or available around a woman; it’s time I stop agonizing over what-if’s and I-should-have’s.” Judy laughed knowingly when I explained all of this – she said I reminded her of her son, who is the same age, also born under the cancer sign; she described him as moody, mostly easy-going and sweet – words I have often used to describe myself.
When I asked her about how she made a living, Judy said that she did not work – or rather, that she was an actress; then, however, she explained that she also wrote grants and did consulting work to make ends meet. We talked about her experience of working with my father in theater, how he had pulled her out of a seasonal depression when he asked her to play the lead role in “Mother Courage.” I had never heard of the play, so she explained that it was the quintessential anti-war play. Intrigued by her description of the plot, I promised to check it out (someday).
After stopping at the “Athena Diner” in Lakewood, where I ate a greasy corned-beef reuben (a slight disappointment compared to the first one I ever ate, which was served to me at the Birdsall House in Peekskill, NY), we entered the campus of Georgian Court University, where a few local groups, such as, Jersey Shore Nuclear Watch, were holding a presentation and welcoming ceremony for us, the Peace Walkers. As Judy and I walked into the “Little Theater,” a fairly large lecture hall with split-green-pea-colored movie-theater-style seats and a grey-carpeted stage framed by a dark-wooden back drop, we were greeted by a few people organizing fliers on a table next to the entrance. After saying hello and loitering at the table while fussing with some fliers in my backpack, I took a seat in the second row and shortly fell into conversation with two university professors – a doctor of theology and a doctor of holistic health – sitting in the front row. We talked briefly about writing – specifically, we talked about searching for patterns in our surroundings and describing what we see in words, rather than through a camera lens; we also talked briefly about Japan – one of the professors was Japanese and recently returned from visiting her family in Tokyo.
As I was telling her about traveling there last year, a group of mostly young people entered the theater through the side-entrance to the left of the stage (from my perspective). There were three beautiful young Japanese women, two beautiful dirty-blonde, dread-haired young women, Christian, a tall, blonde-haired young man I had met a month ago in Stony Point, NY, a young Asian man with long black hair tied in a pony tail, a young, ethnically-mysterious-looking woman with dark black hair, a soft face and strong eyebrows, and a couple of older adults to whom I did not pay much attention because my eyes focused on two monks and a nun who entered behind the group. One of the monks was a well-built Japanese man with a shaved head and fairly tan skin dressed in orange robes over a white collared shirt and khaki pants; the second was a larger, also bald-headed, slightly darker-skinned man whose ethnicity I could not place – perhaps he is Japanese, I thought, although if he were not wearing the orange robes I would not think so; and lastly, the nun was rosy-cheeked, wore glasses and also had a shaved head and dressed in robes, although hers were yellow. I recognized her as Jun-san (I had seen her speak to a camera for a few minutes on the No More Fukushimas Peace Walk “tumblr” website. I excused myself from the Japanese professor with whom I’d been speaking, and walked over to Christian to say hello; after shaking hands and exchanging our greetings, I started to walk over to Jun-san to introduce myself, but she was already engaged with several people in conversation, so I decided to wait for a better moment to introduce myself. All the walkers sat down in the first three rows – perhaps twenty people in total – and soon I was surrounded by young folks – I felt excited to be part of such a young group and I felt further convinced that this was going to be a great three weeks.
During the next hour and a half, four presenters spoke about the theme of our event – how the nuclear meltdown of Fukushima Daiichi relates to near-by Oyster Creek Power Plant. Doctor Sachiko Komagata spoke of her experience of visiting her family in Tokyo; she emphasized that the Japanese are divided in their handling of the ongoing disaster – some, she said, are not interested in questioning the official government decrees and really just want things to return to ‘normal;’ others, however, are taking initiative in ensuring their own health and the health of their children by, for example, using their own Geiger counters to measure radioactivity in food, and are convinced that life will never be as it was before the disaster. She gave a great example of the choices a Japanese mother must make today: near to where her family lives in Tokyo is a public pool; wanting to take her children to the pool, but uncertain about the dangers of allowing her children to immerse themselves in the water – where certain radionuclides, such as cesium-137 and iodine-131, tend to concentrate – she faced a dilemma: what should she do? At the pool, along with the time of day and the temperature of the water, a display screen showed the level of radioactivity, which was below official limits; Sachiko did not know whether to trust the pool’s Geiger counters or even the government’s accepted safety limit for radiation. In the end, she said, “It was too hot and humid, so I let my children go swimming – after all many other people were in the water.” She might never be certain that she made the right choice.
Our second speaker, named Sister Mary Paula Cancienne, Ph.D – a fairly short, grey-and-black-haired, sharp-eyed and warmly-cheeked professor at the university – led us in a wonderful reflection of our vision for the future: What does it mean to want “sustainability?” What are we trying to avoid? What are we trying to create? She spoke slowly, de-li-ber-ate-ly, pausing to calm herself when she misread a sentence of her carefully-planned, and beautifully crafted speech. She stepped away from the microphone and asked us all to close our eyes and envision our “worst-case scenario” – how would the world be if everything we feared might go wrong did? I struggled to envision such a scenario on a large scale, so I tried to envision my own death and then the deaths of my yet unborn children – I imagined my son and daughter being trapped in a second-story room of a burning house, screaming out the window for help, and I could do nothing for them – restrained by those around me; I could only fall onto my knees and sob with despair. I felt a weakness in my chest as these thoughts stole my breath. What do you see when you close your eyes and try to envision your own worst-case scenario?
Sister Mary also then called us back and asked us to think of our best-case scenario: what would a “sustainable” world look like? Close your eyes and go to that place… I struggled with this, too. I kept thinking, “But right here, right now is my best-case scenario: I’m in a room full of people who really want to work for what they feel is right – what could be better than this? If my goal is to find and foster inner peace,” I thought, “then this is it.” Some people pointed out that it was harder to envision a positive rather than a negative future – why do you think this is the case? Since I struggled with both worst- and best-case scenarios, I did not see the difference, although perhaps it is because we are better educated to see problems rather than solutions.
Sister Mary passed the mic to Sierra Club of New Jersey Directory Jeff Tittel, and as I sat listening to his words I thought of the three men I know who work at Indian Point – how would they feel in this room? Would they know whether the words spoken were true or untrue? As numbers and nerves shook through Jeff Tittel’s body, I wondered what webs of shimmering spit were spun from his mouth, anchored by his moist lips. Yet, everything he said – about corruption in the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, the “secret” costs of nuclear power (including astronomical taxpayer-funded subsidies), and the inevitable ascendancy of, perhaps, decentralizing solar and wind power – everything made sense to me. Perhaps he was telling the truth and maybe my friends at Indian Point would find what he was saying threatening because it meant that they would soon need to find a new job; or, perhaps they would not or could not listen to a word he said due to their ears being soldered shut with molten lies manufactured in the rhetorical factories of militant industrialists. The only answer, of course is for me look all of this up myself! How much time is required to understand these issues well enough to deflect the spin-doctoring?
Our penultimate speaker, a young, soon-to-be-mother named Rachel Dawn Davis, called us young people to political action – to take this discussion to our municipalities, to vote into office representatives that would support us in our work for environmental justice, to tell our congressmen and congresswomen that the Nuclear Regulatory Commission no longer represents the views of the American people. I thought, “What we need in Cold Spring is a simple non-binding referendum (a political word for a survey) in which residents would answer ‘Yes’ or ‘No’ to the following question: Do you want Indian Point Nuclear Power Plant to be decommissioned (shut down)?” (Although, maybe a preliminary survey along the lines of “What do you know about Indian Point?” might be a better first step.) To end her speech, Rachel described her experience in the private sector: she explained that “solar and wind are happening fast, with or without our government.” “Without me, as well,” I thought.
Lastly, one of the three young Japanese women stood up to read a statement in Japanese (translated by the male Japanese monk, named Senji Kanaeda). Megumi-san, from Iwate Prefecture, told us about the devastation wrought by the earthquake, tsunami and nuclear meltdown disaster; she explained that she is walking here in the United States because she wants to let Americans know about what is happening in Japan; she wants people to learn the truth so that it does not happen here. As she spoke, she giggled with shyness, repeating a few sentences and often pausing for long moments before continuing her message. I felt charmed by her willingness to speak to us, despite her timidness.
To close the ceremony Jun-san stood up, walked in front of the stage, put on a head-lamp and asked for the lights to be turned off; she said, “We not needing so much light to seeing each other, to listening each other.” In the semi-darkness she chanted “Nam Myoho Renge Kyo,” which is known as the “lotus sutra.” Instantly the other Peace Walkers chanted three times in unison with her. Then, Jun-san thanked everyone for coming and explained that we needed to get to bed so we could have energy for tomorrow’s walk. Once the lights were turned back on, people eased out of their seats, walking up to different speakers to thank them and/or ask them further questions. I hung out by the stage for a few minutes, trying to draw a quick sketch of the theater, before Judy called me to say that we were leaving. Through the dark, damp night air, Judy and I followed the two vans carrying my fellow Peace Walkers to a house out on the barrier-island town of Lavalette, where a man named Willy De Camp was hosting most of us (a few others stayed at another house) in his large home for the night. After I spread out my sleeping mat and unfolded my sleeping bag, I sat down to write; as I type these words to you, I feel myself growing distant from the room in which I sit, from the people chatting while cleaning up in the kitchen adjacent to this dining room, from the others whoare getting ready for bed, and even detached from my tired body, which now calls for an end to this writing: “It’s time for bed!” Goodnight – hasta mañana!