Yesterday was Remembrance Day - the 100th anniversary of Armistice Day, and the official end of the Great War. The War to End All Wars.
Many things bubbled to the surface yesterday, and this will be a true musing ... I'm not sure that it will be a coherent flow of thoughts.
This morning I finished Joseph Boyden's "Three Day Road," a novel graphic both visually and emotionally. It just happened to be that I was immersed in it as Remembrance Day approached and passed, and it happened to be that the weather in Toronto on Friday, November 9 was cold, wet and miserable. I had biked through the sleet to and from my daughter's Remembrance Day assembly at school, mindful of my frigid hands and face on the barely 10 minute ride, thinking of Boyden's description of life in the trenches and knowing that - with god's grace - I would never experience that level of despair, fear and discomfort. It almost felt like a necessary pain - like a penance for the pain suffered by so many for the freedom that I live daily. (Incidentally, I also recently finished Anthony Doerr's "All the Light We Cannot See", an intimate view into the personal experience of individuals in Germany and France during the Second World War; equally moving.)
In the church where my choir rehearses, there are many plaques lining the walls in honour of fallen sons and husbands ... all in their 20s. It struck me this weekend that if there was to be such a war today, both my son and my partner would likely be taken from me - a though that sears my soul. I can't even imagine the anguish of loved ones - then and now - as they wondered and prayed and hoped for the safety of their dearest. An anguish that continued upon their possible return as veterans were and are plagued with deep wounds to body and spirit. This year, Anita Cenerini personified that pain as the first Silver Cross mother to a soldier who died by suicide.
I admit that I have been ambivalent about Remembrance Day most of my life. I am a deep pacifist, and I struggled with the idea of honouring soldiers - as if it is synonymous with honouring violence. With time and curiosity and experience I am developing a greater understanding of the horrors and dynamics of war. I am so grateful to be Canadian, to know that our soldiers have generally fought in the name of peace (though that still seems like an oxymoronic statement); the role that violence sometimes must play in liberation. I think this year was the first time that I really felt connected to the sentiment of November 11, and truly felt moved by the history and the importance of carrying forth the memory of that terrible, terrible war, and all the battles since.
In my own church on Sunday, the service was a beautiful exploration of these themes, and tears rolled down my cheeks as thoughts and feelings swirled through me. Our minister's reading referenced Barbara Kingsolver's description of the cemeteries of another war in Normandy: “There’s a graveyard in northern France where all the dead boys from D-Day are buried. The white crosses reach from one horizon to the other. I remember looking it over and thinking it was a forest of graves. But the rows were like this, dizzying, diagonal, perfectly straight, so after all it wasn’t a forest but an orchard of graves. Nothing to do with nature, unless you count human nature.”
My parents took my sister and I to those graveyards when I was 12. I was bored. I didn't understand, hadn't yet studied those wars in school. I do remember the vivid geometry of the cemeteries. I remember the expressed appreciation of citizens of small villages in Belgium and the Netherlands as we bicycled through with Canadian flags on our gear - still, 50 years later. But it didn't sink in at the time. We ventured down into the trenches at Vimy, and though it was interesting from an intellectual level, I didn't feel it until I returned when I was in my 30s. It breaks my heart that around the world that unlike me, and unlike my own littles, 12-year-old children know first-hand what war is like. I'm grateful to my parents for taking me, for showing me the consequences of battle, for exposing me to ground zero, for not protecting me from the truth. It helped to foster a deep need to do what I can to make the world a better place.
And yet, that is the exact conundrum. It can feel so overwhelming and hopeless to read news of hatred and violence that still plagues the world - instead of ending all wars, that horrific mess simply ushered in a modern approach to war and mass murder. Even in our own communities - gun violence, and road rage, and horrible verbal attacks from those that are supposed to be our leaders. It can be easy to spiral into a dark place where it seems that nothing will make a difference.
And then I think of my children. My students. My family and friends. I think of time spent reconnecting with colleagues over this same past weekend at a professional convention. I think of the actions - small and large - that we can each take to leave the world just a little bit better, and to send out ripples of love and peace and healing. Our minister Shawn reminded me of this in his sermon yesterday, as he invoked Lao Tzu:
"If there is to be peace in the world, there must be peace in the nations. If there is to be peace in the nations, there must be peace in the cities. If there is to be peace in the cities, there must be peace between neighbours. If there is to be peace between neighbours there must be peace in the home. If there is to be peace in the home, there must be peace in the heart."
I also think of the Dalai Lama who expressed:
"World peace must develop from inner peace. Peace is not just mere absence of violence. Peace is, I think, the manifestation of human compassion."
I will continue to nurture peace and compassion in my heart and in my home. I pray that I can extend that to peace in my community, and hope that peace will ripple to encompass the world. Sending love.