Friday, November 11, 2011

...11.11.11: in remembrance, in hope

In Flanders fields the poppies blow between the crosses, row on row,
   that mark our place; and in the sky the larks, still bravely singing, fly
scarce heard amid the guns below. We are the Dead. Short days ago we lived, felt dawn,
saw sunset glow, loved and were loved, and now we lie in Flanders fields.

(excerpt from the poem "In Flanders Fields" by Lt. Col. John McCrae)

Poppies illustration adapted from a photo by Dirk Beauregard

Today, in Great Britain, Ireland, Northern Ireland, and Canada, poppies are worn on Remembrance Day. From government officials to newscasters to the general populace, 
the symbol is seen everywhere.

Yesterday I read a poem by the late Israeli poet, Amichai, called “The Diameter of the Bomb”. 

The diameter of the bomb was thirty centimeters 
and the diameter of its effective range about seven meters,
with four dead and eleven wounded.
And around these, in a larger circle of pain and time, 
two hospitals are scattered and one graveyard. 
But the young woman who was buried in the city she came from, at a distance of more than a hundred kilometers, enlarges the circle considerably, and the solitary man mourning her death at the distant shores of a country far across the sea includes the entire world in the circle. 
And I won’t even mention the crying of orphans that reaches up to the throne of God and beyond, making a circle with no end and no God.

An ever-widening circle. The ripple effect. A butterfly flaps its wings in Beijing. The tipping point. A million bad choices later, war. The poem builds to reveal the ugliest circle. Death, mutilation, torture, the senseless slaughter of innocents...beyond solitude to utter loneliness. No great goodness left in the world. The bad choices seemed harmless once, even proper, before the holocaust...born out of a need for control, the fear of change, free-floating distrust, prejudice, different values and opinions. And they mount - one at a time, then a hundred, then a thousand -  until all decency is lost and truth distorted. Since reading the poem, my thoughts have focused on the circle, the symbol of the infinite, a metaphor often found in literature. I re-read my entries in my e-journal.

And therein lies the whole of man's plight. 
Human time does not turn in a circle; it runs ahead in a straight line. 
That is why man cannot be happy: 
happiness is the longing for repetition.  
Milan Kundera, The Unbearable LIghtness of Being

Ever spent an afternoon with a toddler? Watched him build a Lego tower, then knock it down and do it all again? Nine million times? Or listened to your granddaughter sing the alphabet song? Nine million and one times? The old adage - “How do you get to Carnegie Hall? Practice, practice, practice.’ - is part of the truth. But perhaps another aspect is that repetition reminds all of us that we have learned and gives us hope that we can learn more. A straight line, on the other hand, moves us away from all that is familiar. We are marching toward the unknown. 

A human being is a part of the whole called by us universe, 
a part limited in time and space. 
He experiences himself, his thoughts and feeling as something separated from the rest, a kind of optical delusion of his consciousness. 
This delusion is a kind of prison for us, restricting us to our personal desires and to affection for a few persons nearest to us. 
Our task must be to free ourselves from this prison by widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty.  
Albert Einstein

Until he extends the circle of his compassion to all living things, 
man will not himself find peace. 
Albert Schweitzer

How sad that our circles are often miniscule. We build exclusive compounds - sometimes in our minds, sometimes with brick and mortar and razor wire - to guard “our kind”. But the comfort they offer is only a false, temporary illusion. At some point these walls become our jail where we are bound to others by fear and hate only. 

I thought about one of my favorite Sufi poems, 
which says that God long ago drew a circle in the sand 
exactly around the spot where you are standing right now. 
I was never not coming here.
This was never not going to happen. 
Elizabeth Gilbert

I have stood in many spots now. When I view my journey, all my small circles are strung together like a great, infinite strand of gemstones. My gems. In the beginning, though, I could feel only the fire and pressure of creation, not the beauty. I could understand only the words of Robert Heinlein: When in danger or in doubt, run in circles, scream and shout. I am grateful for the erosion of illusion but not proud...I am still under de-construction. The war within must be faced before I can begin to understand the war without. 

Most of us memorized “In Flanders Fields” in fifth or sixth grade. A powerful juxtaposition of beauty and death: profuse mounds of poppies springing up in the fresh-turned soil between graves of  fallen soldiers. The poem was written by Lt. Col. John McCrae, a Canadian physician, the day after he witnessed the death of his twenty-nine year old friend, Lt. Alexis Helmer.* The cold statistics of war mount and the impact is minimized. Steven Spielberg addressed this powerfully in the film, Schindler’s List. We first see a small girl in a red coat running in the ghetto. Later, when the dead - huge piles of bodies - are being carted off, the only bit of color in the black and white moment is the red coat of the dead child. What was inconceivable becomes gut-wrenching, real. Let us remember names when we can. The Vietnam Memorial, the roles of the dead that are found in sundry places, not only honor the dead but touch the living. 
And it’s not enough to think of declared wars but of all who are killed by hatred and prejudice. By disease, physical and mental. To remember those who walk among us, scars visible and invisible. I do not like sharing my birthday with the Oklahoma City bombing. But those who died once lived, live still in the hearts of those who love them and on the anniversary I honor them. And in Birmingham, it is not enough to say that four girls died in the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in 1963. Remember their names: Cynthia Wesler, Carole Robertson, Addie Mae Collins and Denise McNair. They were full of life and vigor that morning. Banish the killers to anonymity perhaps but not these young girls.
I’ve read and re-read “The Circumference of the Bomb.” I have not lived in the Middle East and do not have the poet’s perspective of the senseless killings that occur with random, horrific regularity in his homeland. But I cannot accept the last sentence. When we are enveloped in darkness, surrounded by evil, good seems at best a distant wish, at worst, absent. 
I believe, though, when our circle is in that dark place, great goodness is present with us. 


Fifteen men were executed in the prison yard at Kilmainham Gaol in Dublin, Ireland, after the 1916 uprising: the last, close to death, brought through a gate on a stretcher, so badly wounded that he had to be tied to a chair to be shot. Whatever ideology, religion, or cause is cited, the bottom line is that the human capacity to kill, to torture, to subdue, pales in comparison to the power to love, to comfort, to empower. My culpability: have I told anyone this? Have I shared that I broke, that willpower and self-reliance failed, that good deeds pointed only to myself? That I came to know that I am loved just as I am? 

Wars are not started by demagogues or stoked by ideologies alone. One person, then two, add a few more, become complacent. Delayed gratification - a loser’s choice in this winner-takes-all world - falls by the wayside. Little by little, lines blur: souls sullied by the quick fix, too in need of approval to make the hard choice, lulled by empty promises, point fingers, then mix another drink: the road to oblivion so inviting . . . until the crossroads, where stands one ancient cross. The choice? Through it or around it. “It is done.” Already.  
Journal Entry 2009

Jesus wept.
John 11:35 


Carole said...

I stood at the War Memorial in my home town this morning with my teenage daughter by my side, wearing my poppy in remembrance, and I wept. I wept for all those lives cut short by war, for families in mourning past and present, and for myself as the mother of a young man who is set to join the British Army when he finishes University. The Diameter of the Bomb is a powerful poem Celeste, but I, like you, believe in a God who is present in the darkest of circles. I am also reminded of the 'encircling' prayers of the ancient Celtic Christians, and shall pray one for each of my loved ones this night.

Celeste said...

Carole, I love the ever-widening circle afforded by cyber-space. We would have never met otherwise. I am touched by your words and will remember you and your family in my prayers, each time I light a candle. Much love.

Cathy said...

Um....I followed your lovely comment on Don Miller's post and found THIS blog of yours...and I love every single bit of it.

Are you on Twitter? I'd love to follow you...that's how I keep up with most of my bloggy people.

And I need to keep up with you. XO

Celeste said...

Thank you, Cathy...I am on Twitter. Have just started this recently. I'll post my latest blogs there from now on. Welcome to the ether-hood!

Celeste said...

Cathy, for some reason my full reponse didn't post. My twitter id is celestebracewel. They dropped the last "l" alas.