a poem, some thoughts and an afterthought
MEMORIAL DAY DOESN’T TELL A WAR
~for somebody who once wore it
I cry today the Memorial.
An empty wind
stirs chimes and hills,
echoes the floodplain
to Southeast Asia.
I smell a country,
taste a soldier’s fear
feel burning straw,
hear a twig,
a mother’s heart,
and a story break
on the six o’clock news.
for a nation too easily
forgets the words,
A national flag
snaps to attention,
salutes a lonely wind,
sings of unforgotten wars,
and now a wiser people
that fresh new war
can never heal another.
It stings like yesterday
forty years later.
A generation of peace
still missing in action,
the human race
for lack of imagination —
still prisoners of war..
war memories fade
for those who don’t touch it.
But the green patch of cloth
on the ground
in the center of a Memorial Day wreath
speaks an authentic story,
tells a war.
A somebody once wore it.
* “Highground is the name of a war memorial built on a hill outside Neillsville, Wisconsin. It is a typical bronze casting of soldiers, these in the Vietnam in war, but at the back of the monument is a rifle turned upside down (a symbol for peace and “war no more”) and a large set of chimes that ring through valley below when the wind blows. Highground is said to be a place of great healing for veterans and those who have been touched by war.
© B. Kaufmann
This Memorial Day I Acknowledge the Fog
Every year on Memorial Day I go through a major fog of sadness that begins to settle in before the weekend and lasts until the last band in the last parade has faded into the distance. This year’s fog is made thicker by the slaughter of innocents, once again, in Manchester where children barely out of puberty and some younger, were attending a concert by their pop-star du jour. Reveling in joy, so many youthful lives were summarily ended by a bomb-laden madman with myopic hysteria. There are too many Manchesters, Paris’, Syrias, Standing Rocks. Too much tragedy stops my mind from celebrating. Memorial Day is supposed to be about honor but it feels as if it’s mostly about killing and honoring death.
The day finds me sullen and sometimes apoplectic, far from the celebratory, grateful and solemn tone expected of a patriot. The marching bands, Olde Glory as some would call our national flag here, the military aire of it all doesn’t inspire pride. I just can’t be swept up in blind allegiance to a piece of cloth that separates me from the rest of humanity. Is this a myopic hysteria? I always land on this day with a nagging dissonance and the impatience of a child annoyed by having to continue a journey I didn’t choose while my “elders” and those who pretend to know better than me force me to ride along. It’s a petulance that wants to impudently ask: “are we there yet?” And then groan “how much longer ‘till we’re there?”
So there will be no national pride in viewing military display, no swelling chest or welling eyes. It’s not that I don’t honor or am not grateful for those who would sacrifice themselves to protect those of us they will never know or that I don’t revere the sacrifice and ultimate sacrifice some gave. It’s not the honor or duty part or the necessity of defense that keeps us “safe.”It’s the idea that we aren’t already “safe” by default, and that we even have to “protect.” It’s the ring of the inauthentic that I can’t hear beyond. It’s the glory that is attached to war. It’s the indoctrination of war itself. It’s the idea that it’s necessary and that at this stage of our human evolution, it’s not obsolete. Human ingenuity abounds with brilliance. Can’t we do better than this?
It seems a galling lack of imagination that we humans cannot apply the same reverence for honor and duty to life! To human life, to the life of the planet, to the planet’s peoples. To celebrate our uniqueness in all the galaxy, the Universe! To applaud our diversity instead of amplifying our differences and making “them” wrong. It’s not that life shouldn’t be protected, but it keeps changing — whose life is worth protecting today? It’s not that we shouldn’t respect the lives that have been sacrificed, it’s how we might better respect those left. It’s not that lives don’t have meaning; it’s that life itself doesn’t mean enough. Where is the awe? Where is the reverence?
Lives are taken far too easily singularly and collectively. The act of taking a life is far too cavalier, and especially so if the life that is taken is not one of “ours” — our land, our kin, our kind, our people, our nation, our fill-in-the-blank to fit the ones we claim.
It’s not that we shouldn’t honor our dead, but maybe it would honor them better to bring them home. And alive. Would it honor our humanity better to relieve people of war rather than compel them to fight it? Maybe it would raise better generations of children to teach them kindness, not killing? Community, not conflict? The change in the world begins at home.
Before this lament is relegated to “naiveté” or a child’s dream, I would argue that’s precisely the point. We are born into this world with a vision of perfection. We all have it when we arrive here. We all experience the same existential pain when we encounter our first disappointment in humans and then in humanity. We live the same anguish for senseless killing. We stagger in the same disbelief when we first discover that life is fleeting and can leave in the wisp of a nanosecond.
As this holiday unfolds in America, we will take time from our lives to commemorate with parades that pass us by and picnic blankets spread, with ceremony solemnly celebrated, with wreaths are laid on unknown tombs, and we will be asked for a moment of silence. We might take that moment of silence to reflect on why we feel compelled to do this. Are those military monuments erected in pride or in guilt? Are they too little and too late? Are we making war a last resort? Are the mettle in war and the metal of monuments in the aftermath erections of honor or of failure? How will the far future, if there is one, view this period in time? Will this age be considered barbaric too? Is it more honorable to continue the custom of weapons and war-making or to employ collective human imagination in the harder work of peace?
When we make people “other” we default to conflict to solve our social problems and territorial or social disputes. “Us” designates “them,” makes them less than us, and even less than human. Then we go a step father to claim a slice of land on a world that’s an island surrounded by the black emptyness of space and death, that we didn’t create and doesn’t truly belong to us. And we embrace an ideology that is a figment and fragment of mind — a made up belief that they” are “wrong.” Their society is wrong, their religion is wrong, their nation is wrong — all constructs of human whimsy. Mental fantasies with no ground in reality that change and shift with the ages.
By whose authority do we lay claim to our patch of a planet that we weren’t here to start? What makes something sovereign? To whom is it esteemed, against what value is it measured? “My” or “our” war sacrifice is not nobler than the mother in Congo who fetches water for her family. Or the boy in Sudan conscripted into a fight he isn’t old enough to understand. Or the woman from the Baltic States also conscripted, but so subtly into sexual slavery that she doesn’t realize she’s trafficked. My pain is not greater than the inner city kid whose father is in prison for drug peddling after losing his factory job to outsourcing. My angst for a sister is not loftier than for a girl from India whose rape at the hands of another, has sealed her fate, nor her brother who is bound by another kind of “honor” to restore his family’s “pride” by taking his sibling’s life.
Honor. Pride. Man up, bro.
It all makes no sense to me, not as a child with no power and certainly not as an adult with the power of reason. As a woman, I carried life inside me. My body was a sanctuary for a growing miracle — a human being! I know life personally — I felt its first stirrings. I know its sacredness intimately. I know how holy it is. No matter whose it is. And now that I know, I can no longer sit quietly in the back seat asking: “Dad, Mom, brother, sister, uncle, aunt, grandma, grandpa, mister, Father, Imam, Rabbi, Minister, friend, fellow, representative, leader, Sir, Captain, Commander, “are we there yet?”
Is it safe yet? Has this conveyance called history or evolution brought us to a civilized maturity? Are we behaving in a way that respects our origins? That shows reverence for the perfect storm where temperature, atmosphere, molecules and atoms, collide to give rise to biological life and a species that replicates itself and procreates with live births? Are we revering our own springing up however that was accomplished?
When will we forego defining and separating life, and esteem life enough to stop the carnage? When we finally grasp that we are all essential, here, and interconnected.? When will everybody’s child become our own? When will rituals that value life replace our solemn ceremonials to death?
It feels urgent, this fog, this lament. But it is only that — a feeling. But something in this fog has a compelling attraction, something is magnetically pulling me out of complacency and into action making clear that I can no longer wait for someone else to do this. I can take to the streets to claim a voice in the affairs of humans. I can do more than pray for peace; I can contribute to it. I can call my representatives and demand they act for the greater good. If they don’t I can replace them. I can organize in my community by asking people to gather for dialogue and to plan action. I can invite neighbors, friends, leaders into my home or a space made safe to speak. I can listen to the concerns of my counterparts. I can run for office or support someone who does. I can push for reform or if warranted — revolution. Not everyone in the world has the same freedoms and privilege I do. Do I turn away or take them into account and speak also for those on the planet whose voices are silenced?
But most importantly I can take time alone, perhaps walking in nature or through the park after the last musical note fades and reflect on why I am here and what I believe. I can ask myself why I am uncomfortable and what would I rather celebrate or memorialize? I can examine my beliefs to see if they are my own — freely chosen by me, or were they acquired — given to me by someone else? Were they perhaps indoctrinated by authority — of tradition, of custom, or my elders, or my church or my government? I can examine them to see if they still fit me and the world I’d like to see. I can weigh them to see if they’re life-giving or death-supporting. I can ask ‘just because we’ve always done it this way, is this the best way to do it?’
I can continue my work singularly and in community to improve the conditions of others here and around the world. I can self reflect to see if hubris, ego or generosity informs my decisions. I can re-remember the vision of the world I was born with before the existential loss of innocence began to end my childhood. I can remain in service to the world and recruit others in that same service. I can renew my commitment to the Charter for Compassion International with its 400 member communities around the world representing more than 8 million people, revisit the United Nations and its Sustainable Goals, review the Red Cross International Humanitarian Law and global work, reaffirm the Sister Cities International Projects, and science organizations that support global environmental stewardship. I can be a steward of and for humanity.
Given our current sociopolitical climate, maybe this Memorial Day will punctuate a collective longing or spark an epiphany: We are the ones we have been waiting for. First I must accept that I am the one we have been waiting for. I am the only one who can take action to bring the change I dream into the world. First I must know on a very deep level that I am the hope and remind you that you are too. Together we might become the vision that we came here with but lost sight of as the fog settled in. We can find each other in the fog. We can find our way out of here. We can move into the light if we work at it together. We can create solidarity and employ collective genius. We can when we reach into the fog to grab for and hang on to, the first hand we find.
© B. Kaufmann 27 May 2017
An Afterthought: Compassion Shouldn’t be an Afterthought
As I was finishing this reflection of my feelings about Memorial Day and what I might imagine it to be in the future, I received an email from the Charter for Compassion Director with an excruciatingly simple photo of a single lotus flower accompanied by a quote from J. K. Rowling: “You care so much you feel as though you will bleed to death with the pain of it.”
The quote is perfect. It describes perfectly the pain. Along with the quote were these statistics that encompass the goings-on in one single week upon this planet which further punctuates the pain, for included here were a couple I wasn’t even aware of. It’s as if they were not considered important enough for our media here (that was all over the Manchester incident) to give them the focus they deserve.
- May 20 more than 50 people killed in a string of suicide car bombs in Baghdad, Iraq
- May 22 twenty-three killed and 116 injured following a concert in Manchester, UK
- May 23 twenty-one killed as Isis -linked militants rampage through Marawi, Philippines
- May 25 five civilians killed and six wounded in Yemen following a U.S. raid
- May 26 twenty eight Coptic Christians killed and 25 injured in central Egypt
- May 27 thirteen people killed in a suicide car bombing in Khost, Afghanistan
And at the beginning of this Memorial Day Weekend, a man who was a known anarchist, racist and white supremacist was bullying a couple of women, one wearing a hijab, on the train in Oregon, here in the U.S. He was threatening them and telling them: “Get out of my country.” He then killed 2 of the 3 men who came to their rescue.
The killer didn’t look Native to me. You see, my ancestors on my father’s side are Native Americans. If the haters mean to send everyone away who illegally or legally immigrated here… only us Indians should be left. Do you see how ridiculous all the isms are and how utterly unimaginative and unworthy of human brilliance these things — racism, nationalism, jingoism, ego-centrism, ethnocentrism, land-centrism and human-centrism are?
This is what happens when we make human beings “other.” People die and we have to build monuments to their memory instead of sending them home to their families where we make sure it’s safe— the same place we’d all like to go and just be, at the end of our day.
Hatred has no place in the hearts of civilized beings on civilized planets.
Barbara Kaufmann, artist and writer is the founder of “Words and Violence” Program with more than 600 resources about bullying in all its forms on this planet. She’s written for Voices Education Project, The Charter for Compassion International, Huffington Post and is a poet, scriptwriter and filmmaker — who “writes to simply change the world.” A former Sister Cities Officer, her grant-writing and administration supported decommissioning WMDs in her sister city region. Her life’s work and ministry is dedicated to “establishing a more humane narrative on this planet.” You can find more of her writing by putting her name in the search window at the Charter for Compassion International www.charterforcompassion.org or visiting www.onewordsmith.com