Thursday, March 18, 2010
Gene Stoltzfus, man of Spring
I've been thinking so much this week about Gene Stoltzfus, remembering some of the things he said during his several visits to Austin in recent years. I've been re-reading his blog posts and the moving testimonials written about him since his sudden death on March 10. I remember liking very much the way Gene often used terms like "enliven" or "awaken" in his talks, referring to the positive growth that peacemaking can engender. He had a way of being able to talk about very difficult things with a gentle and discerning approach, so that one could listen, empathize, and then discover the energy to act.
The first time I met Gene was in the Spring of 2005 when he drove through Texas on a Christian Peacemaker Teams speaking tour. While he was in Austin, he spoke to a peace studies class at the University of Texas, a meeting of Veterans for Peace, a group at the Mennonite Church, with an editor at the Austin American-Statesman and at a bakery with a writer friend, Greg Moses, and me for a story we co-wrote about Gene and CPT (published on Counterpunch).
I liked Gene right from the start. His demeanor made a person feel comfortable and welcome. It was partly the Santa Claus beard and figure, but it was more than that. You got the feeling that peacemaking was something he knew very, very well.
The final time I saw Gene was last October, when he was a guest speaker at the second annual Assembly to Honor Freedom of Conscience, organized chiefly by members of the Austin Mennonite Church. I took notes. Gene's first words to the assembly were, "Hello, everyone. Thank you for what you are doing!" That was very typical of Gene -- to thank others, even though he was the one to be appreciated for coming so far to be with us.
I also recall Gene talking on that occasion about something I hadn't heard him discuss before. He related his own experience with PTSD, finding much in common with GIs who also spoke at the assembly. Gene's PTSD had developed as a result of what he saw and experienced in Vietnam when he was doing alternative service as a conscientious objector in the 1960's. He said that when he returned to the US, he could sleep only about 20 minutes a night for about the first 6 months back. He had dreams about the dead he had seen in Vietnam. He also had a recurring dream about LBJ and Ho Chi Minh -- that he was trying to get them together, and just when he was about to succeed, they'd slip away. In another recurring dream, he was in a speeding car racing down a hill about to crash. Gene said he'd kept a dream diary for the past 40 years, which he credited as part of his healing.
Acting from conscience has risks. It also, as he said, opens new relationships and closes others. "Fundamental to every conscious decision is saying yes to some things and no to others." Often, the trajectory of our careers changes.
"Conscience gives our imagination a new lease on life," he said. "We think of creative ways to act. Conscience is not captured by the right, the left or the middle, or even by religious people. It's available to all of us."
I've been thinking especially about Gene today, as I've been home, listening to music wafting in all my open windows from SXSW venues in the neighborhood. In the front windows come strains from a stage set up about two blocks down. In the back porch windows come voices, guitar licks and drumbeats from a backyard set-up nearby. I can see people in chairs, listening carefully and applauding generously. I think Gene would like this, too. It's all about creation. Spring is emerging. As long as the earth and we earthlings spinning on it remember our purpose, our creative centers, our lives will be re-leased.
Thank you, Gene. Your courage, compassion, wisdom, creativity and vitality endure.