Given the news, I’m not surprised when my ten-year old screams out in the middle of the night.
When I meet him in the hallway, he wraps his arms around my waist, and whispers, “I dreamed of a tornado.”
I hold him tightly without saying a word…
I don’t tell him that he is safe or that tornadoes are rare in the mountains. Instead I stand with him in the face of life’s fragility, in the same way that I would have liked my own parents to do when my own nightmares began.
As Aidan and I embrace in the dark, I think of all those families whose lives have been turned upside down this year by weather; and I stand with them too.
Just over an hour away is the city of Springfield where a tornado swept up the Connecticut River, rivaling the special effects of any blockbuster.
We don’t have television, so my son hasn’t seen those images, but it’s enough to know that people die, even children, at the hands of water and wind and war.
This original Mothers Day Proclamation from 1870 in Boston is particularly poignant for mothers of sons.
Arise then…women of this day!
Arise, all women who have hearts!
Whether your baptism be of water or of tears! Say firmly:
“We will not have questions answered by irrelevant agencies,
Our husbands will not come to us, reeking with carnage,
For caresses and applause.
Our sons shall not be taken from us to unlearn
All that we have been able to teach them of charity, mercy and patience.
We, the women of one country,
Will be too tender of those of another country
To allow our sons to be trained to injure theirs.”
From the bosom of a devastated Earth a voice goes up with
Our own. It says: “Disarm! Disarm!
The sword of murder is not the balance of justice.”
Blood does not wipe out dishonor,
Nor violence indicate possession.
As men have often forsaken the plough and the anvil
At the summons of war,
Let women now leave all that may be left of home
For a great and earnest day of counsel.
Let them meet first, as women, to bewail and commemorate the dead.
Let them solemnly take counsel with each other as to the means
Whereby the great human family can live in peace…
Each bearing after his own time the sacred impress, not of Caesar,
But of God –
In the name of womanhood and humanity, I earnestly ask
That a general congress of women without limit of nationality,
May be appointed and held at someplace deemed most convenient
And the earliest period consistent with its objects,
To promote the alliance of the different nationalities,
The amicable settlement of international questions,
The great and general interests of peace.
“Why do they have to keep their eyes facing forward?” my son asks. We’re watching the film, Annapolis.
“They have to keep their focus,” I say, though what do I know of soldiers or navel academies?
My best guess is that the Mid-shipman is trying to see if he can provoke the plebes to react, testing their strength in the face of anger or fear.
I don’t typically share movies about soldiers with my boys, but we are heading to my father’s new home in Annapolis for Thanksgiving and I thought this DVD might lend a sense of place.
As a young teen, I lived on the army base at West Point. Soldiers ran in the woods behind my house in full fatigues with heavy packs and boots–in the heat of summer.
I saw the heads of plebes shaved in the courtyard outside the barracks when they arrived, and I was there the year that the first women were admitted to the Academy.
You could drive right into the heart of the campus then, and even years later when I returned to visit the base, before 9/11.
I watched soldiers march on winter weekends in the cold snow, paying off demerits. I saw them faint in summer pageantry. I knew that plebes couldn’t date. I’d eaten in their mess hall and witnessed the hoops there were simply to eat.
Despite this intimacy with a soldiers training, I don’t respect the job of killing. I’d like to see our military be creative with their talents and resources.
I know it isn’t always this simple, but I did stumble upon something that shed some light inside my own troubled heart around what soldiers do. It came from the question my young son asked.
Why do they have to keep their eyes facing forward, stayed with me all evening, and was there again the next morning when I woke.
This inquiry led me to explore a deeper connection with a soldier’s training.
“Facing forward” lends presence to what is right in front of you–without succumbing to the distraction of fear, anger, exhaustion, and no doubt, self-doubt.
In this way, military training might be very Zen, although I’m not an expert there either.
In the film Annapolis, my sons witness the steady focus demanded of soldiers, in the face of spewing insults, assaulting weather, pain, fatigue, hunger, and whatever else the human mind can conjure up in the form of suffering.
I don’t know how they’re able to carry this type of focus into the battlefield, but I’m sure it serves all who do. With deep presence, there is an absence of resistance, fear, escape.
I wonder, however, how much are they able to salvage from this gift of presence?
From what I know of veterans, they simply can’t remain present to all they saw or did or endured.
They turn away. They compartmentalize. They anesthetize. They experience or inflict pain. They reap heaps of punishment on themselves, becoming their own drill sergeant. And sometimes, they become the enemy itself, taking their own life, or the lives of their comrades, or the lives of those they’ve sworn to protect–their families or community members.
But what if like my son so aptly witnessed, they were able to keep looking forward?
What if their training included such presence after their service was complete?
What might come of that?
Great healing I suspect. In being present, even to that which horrifies us, we release and soften and accept, and then all there is… is love.
This truth is echoed in the lives of soldiers who “live” to share their stories and fight their way toward peace, on the inside. And in that discovery, each lends his voice to those who proclaim the futility of war through the generations.
With clear vision, a soldier’s astounding ability to focus could be taken into the world in service–in the kind of service, that she doesn’t have to turn away from when he comes home–in the kind of service that he can look in the eye without shame or hatred–in the kind of service that can change the world, one heart at a time. One soldier at a time. One pair of eyes looking forward at a time.
I recently attended the premier of the film, Taking Root, a documentary about Wangari Maathai, the activist, awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for her environmental action in her country of Kenya. Wangari was present at the viewing, as were the filmmakers who live in our town.
In the great breadth of her life’s work on behalf of the environment, Wangari convinces the military that their job as protectors, includes the land, and so they too join her in her campaign to plant trees, reforesting arid land, and improving lives around them.
This kind of rethinking about the role of protector is just a drop in the empty bucket of the terror faced around the world, but this is how change is watered.
As I revisit this piece of writing following a rise in military suicides, a son of our own arrives in Iraq. Joseph is not a biological son, but a son of our community, a young man I’ve watched grow up.
He came to this country from Ethiopia as a boy, and has now been sent across another sea as an American soldier.
I know his beautiful spirit.
I know some of the pain his young life held.
I know he lost most of his family to AIDs.
I know he watched both parents and his grandmother die.
Though Joseph was welcomed into our small rural community with open arms, he faced hatred when he went to high school in the neighboring town for the color of his skin.
Perhaps becoming a Marine after graduation was his way of finding place. I know that his childhood dream was to return to his Ethiopia and help the children there.
He wanted to buy a farm and raise cows, like those he tended as a boy in mountains of Ethiopia.
But America doesn’t fund those kind of dreams, not for teenage boys, particularly those with less means. Instead we train them to kill others in far away places and then expect them to return “home,” and live as if it never happened.
These same crimes would land Joseph in jail in the states, and it is he who will have to come to peace with that incongruency.
And it is WE, who hold the responsibility of sending our children to such places of anguish outside–and inside–themselves.
And so the military will hire more therapists and increase spending to support soldiers with their mental health or their missing limbs or lost comrades or visions of death while the rest of the country will worry about the economy which relies so heavily on perpetuating this machine of hopelessness and cruelty.
I wonder if it might help if we all did that to which my young son bore witness–face forward. Can we find a soldier’s strength to face forward in our lives and do the work that needs doing.
And to let that work be of service to others–the kind of service that lends itself to other “drops” of change…