I have stood silent for two minutes at the eleventh hour, on the eleventh day of the eleventh month, many times. Dutifully, I have worn a red poppy, recently, with reluctance. My mind becomes a battleground in the yearly two minutes; I question whether remembrance day does not glorify armed conflict, in a world unwilling to rid itself of guns, violence, and war.
Last year, November 11th fell on Monday. I was to be teaching a class on death, dying, and grieving, to theology students at Toronto’s Emmanuel College. Because the classroom faces Queen’s Park, site of Remembrance ceremonies – cannon shots and fighter jet flypasts – I could not ignore the eleventh hour, despite that, like me, the students had probably stood for two minutes of silence in church the previous morning.
In the early morning hours I had lain awake struggling with how to incorporate the act of remembrance into the class time. One of the students, a military chaplain, was scheduled to present in the afternoon on suicide and complicated grief in the armed forces. The idea came with obvious force; I asked him to do his presentation early and end with two minutes of silence at eleven, which he would facilitate. He agreed.
His presentation of sobering statistics and stories put a human face on the military. I was riveted as he described how a soldier, age twenty-one, having returned from Afghanistan, one morning left his bedroom unusually tidy, came to the armoury and shot himself close to the chaplain’s office. He spoke of a military culture that understands grief as weakness; where mass casualties are taken for granted, and in which there is little help or re-integration on return home. Leading into the two minutes, he reminded us that the precise hour and day is when the last shot was fired at the end of World War One – framed as the war that would end all war.
My heart had been opened by his stories, but as he spoke, I felt viscerally something I had always known: My maternal grandfather fought in the trenches for four years. He returned home at age 23; most of his buddies did not. I only knew my grandfather as gentle and loving. An aunt recounts the time she asked him about the war. In a completely uncharacteristic voice and demeanour he replied: “Don’t you ever ask me that again.”
I remembered something else about my grandfather and experienced the full irony of his death at age sixty-five, on November 11, 1961. Two weeks earlier a knock at my classroom door summoned me to the school office. I was sent home. There I learned that my grandfather, at the bank to cash his pay cheque, had been shot during a robbery. Two others were shot and died. My grandfather lived two weeks.
But my reflection on November 11 was not over. When my holiday plans for this past August included time in Dresden and Berlin, I did not know just how much more cracking open both my head and heart were in for. Also, before leaving on that trip, I read a recently published book by Jan Hatanaka titled ‘The Natural Brilliance Of The Soul: A Soldier’s Story Of War And Reconciliation.” This small book made a big impression. I began to understand and feel compassion for the untenable situation that the training, combat, and then return home, creates for the young people we send to war. Self-medicating with alcohol, drugs and the rush that comes from high-risk behaviour shuts down the pain of thinking and feeling on return.
In Dresden and Berlin, massively bombarded during World War Two, there are constant reminders of the horror, the destruction, human loss, and cost of war. The capacity for human evil is memorialized in little brass “stumbling blocks”, embedded among the paving stones of Berlin. These blocks name those who lived in adjacent buildings that were taken and murdered by the Nazis. Both cities also speak to human resilience: Cathedrals and other buildings have been rebuilt with remarkable care, detail and beauty. After the war it was the women who literally cleaned up the stones and rubble, the men missing or dead. While those women were attempting to eke out survival in the post-war years, Canadian women were having babies – I was one of many, born in between 1945-55. I felt both gratitude and guilt for the privilege of being born in Toronto in 1947.
One the trip, I wrote in my journal about the pain and deep sadness I felt witnessing places that knew such destruction and bloodshed. I also wrote about the amazing spirit of people to rebuild! I guess it has always been this way: evil, destruction, power, greed; in contrast to the human spirit, the impetus for good, compassion, and life which can never be totally extinguished. One evening as I wrote, my iPod gently playing through my music, the following words caught my attention, evoking yet more tears:
My heart is moved by all I cannot save
So much has been destroyed
I have to cast my lot with those, who, age after age,
Perversely, with no extraordinary
Power, reconstitute the world.
(Poem “Natural Resources,” Adrienne Rich; music, Carolyn McDade)
This and every Remembrance Day I will no longer carry on the war in my mind, I will simply breath and remember where I “cast my lot.”