Thursday, March 20, 2003

On the Sunday before the war...

On the Sunday before the war, Margaret and I walked down to the Arcata plaza to participate in a candlelight vigil for peace that had begun, I'm told, in New Zealand, and circled the world until it got to us. You can't get more than maybe five miles any farther west than we were, anywhere in the lower 48 states, so as Margaret said, we were sending the light back across the Pacific towards where it began.

When we arrived shortly before seven p.m., some people had already gathered in the center of the plaza, a concrete circle ringed with planters, and around an absurd statue of William McKinley. Even though it's mid March, our coastal climate doesn't vary much, and there's always something growing. The Iris were conspicuously in bloom; they are Margaret's favorite flower.

Margaret carried in her backpack a tall candle in a glass tumbler, a clear-glass version of the candles usually decorated with the images of saints that are apparently favored by Mexican Catholics. Until recently, it was possible to buy them pretty cheaply in the ethnic food section of the Safeway supermarket. But somebody caught on to the fact that they've become a bit stylish---now they're with other decorative candles, and they've doubled in price.

These candles burn for days, and Margaret's idea was to light it at the vigil and keep it lit on the mantelpiece at home, where she would always have such a candle lit, until there was peace again.

I carried a bare white candle, very cheap to buy and also long-burning, the kind that many people had at the vigil I attended just a few weeks ago. That vigil was an annual event, a memorial for the Wiyot slain on Indian Island during their "fixing the world" ceremony in 1860. That vigil had also begun at around dusk, a few feet from Humboldt Bay. The candle was the very same one I had held from dusk into darkness that evening. For the last several years it had rained---a couple of times it really poured---but this year it was clear and bright. We watched geese fly over in V formation. Then it got windy and eventually cold. I was colder than most; I was in the middle of some strange flu or cold or whatever bug it was.

But on the Sunday before the war, the evening was pretty warm. At the Wiyot memorial there had been prayers and talk, songs of a half dozen Indian cultures, and drumming. Here there was only silence.

We stood in the silence, a nearly full moon sliding in front of clouds. I thought of the first candle-light demonstration against a war I had attended, in 1965 or 66, in Galesburg, Illinois, also in the town square. There couldn't have been more than ten of us, a mix of students and young faculty from Knox College. It was not a popular thing to be doing, and people hooted at us from cars and trucks and nearby sidewalks. There was real danger in opposing that war too visibly. I seem to remember we huddled a little closer together, for more than warmth, for more than shelter against the wind for the flickering candles.

Eventually there were several hundred people in the Arcata Plaza. I'd say 400 at the peak. That's a pretty impressive number, since Humboldt State was on spring break, and when the students leave the population of the town drops by half.

There was a little noise around us---people smoking in front of the bars across the way, and there was one camper that circled the plaza a few times, with an American flag waving from the radio antenna. But that was about it.

I noticed that the flag at the post office seemed to be at half mast.

This was a day after the largest peace march in Eureka-lots of color and noise, clever signs and rhythmic chants, then a rally and speeches.

But in the Arcata Plaza no one said anything. There were no signs. Just people holding candles, people of all ages, descriptions, pairings, groupings. Most candles were more practical than mine---if they weren't in glass, they had little aluminum foil wax-catchers. I had to keep spilling the wax from mine or it would drip down over my hands. This was a new problem--I'd never been able to keep my candle lit for very long out by the Bay.

We stood for an hour in silence, holding small flames, small scratches of light. A few people sat on the concrete or on the grass. Some meditated. I stood and watched, watched the camper circling the plaza, watched the faces of all these strangers, watched the moon through the bare branches of a tree.

(Later Margaret remarked that she recognized only a few people and we didn't see anyone either of us knew. I remarked that it must be a peace demonstration for introverts.)

The silence started to seem a little strange, a bit surreal after an hour. I was thinking that in the old days people would at least sing "We Shall Overcome," but I thought that idea probably just dated me. And then it started, very softly from the other side of the statue, until it got to the verse that says "we shall live in peace, someday," and then it got louder. After wanting to sing it, I was so moved I couldn't.

As we walked home, I noticed some light down a side street. There was a traffic circle there, something of a new addition to Arcata culture, and the neighborhood had turned the center of it into a flower garden. Now it was ringed with candles. Perhaps they'd had their own vigil there a little earlier, and left the candles there.

I heard a reporter next evening on Bill Moyers remark that in walking around Washington on Monday she'd noticed people standing in small groups here and there, silent, holding lit candles. I crossed the plaza in Arcata on Wednesday afternoon, before the bombing started, and a scattering of people were standing, facing outward, silent. They were standing on the corner where Women in Black assemble on Friday evenings, facing that same way, silent. But these weren't just women, and they weren't all in black.

Silence and candles. To me the message---and certainly my thoughts when I was standing there---was part memorial, and part hope, the endurance of hope. I was thinking of the people who were going to die, as I looked at the children with their parents holding candles. People who got blown to bits suddenly out of the silence would be the lucky ones. Yet some in Baghdad would endure, would rebuild, would have children who would endure. Some of the children of America would come home, and though few would ever be the same again, some would endure, and have children. And those here would still be here, and some through whatever disasters are unleashed, would endure.

The candles burn for the living who might soon be dead, they burn as the light of hope. There is reason to hope, even in this moment of peril. Though so much of what is happening has happened before, and some have learned nothing from the suffering and stupidity of the past, some have learned something.

I've spent much of the last several weeks learning that there is reason to hope, in the work that people are doing towards furthering compassion and cooperation, in creating systems of communication and participation, in schools and organizations, in daily life. They've been working at this all along, when few of us were looking.

There's reason to hope in what we were doing there, we silent strangers, holding candles, on the Sunday before the war. That George II didn't heed us does not mean that what happened here and around the world for the past several months is meaningless. Not at all. The worldwide opposition to a war expressed openly in huge demonstrations is a reason for hope.

Jonathan Schell wrote in The Nation magazine about the demonstrations on February 15: "When terrorists attacked the Pentagon and knocked down the World Trade Center on September 11, everyone marveled that nineteen men had coordinated their actions for evil with such efficiency. On February 15, 10 million coordinated their actions for good. February 15 was the people's answer to September 11."

Parts of Schell's new book have been published in the last two issues of Harper's Magazine. After reading the first one, it became much clearer to me why people in Europe, by from 85% to 92% in polls, opposed this war. He describes some of what has been going on in Europe, and put it in historical perspective. This is the part of the world, he reminds us, that was mostly at war for centuries, and plunged the world into horrific warfare twice in the twentieth century. But the nations that fought those wars are now becoming so intertwined in the European Union, that war among them is virtually impossible.

These are nations where the wreckage of world war is still physically present. Nations that lost generations of young men. Nations stripped of their fondest and proudest notions, stripped of illusions in bitter pain, and still wounded by the pain they caused each other and themselves. The Holocaust, the terrors of empire. The denial is not over, new illusions replace the old, not every part of Europe is there yet, it isn't the perfect society, and yet...look at what they have done. The nations of "old Europe" have banished war. Yet they are economically strong, culturally alive, and socially much more responsible and enlightened than the self-satisfied North Americans. They know something we apparently don't.

Schell wrote one of the best and most hopeless books about the prospect of nuclear war, "The Fate of the Earth." At least I experienced reading it with hopelessness. But his new work strikes me as hopeful. A few years after "The Fate of the Earth" was published, the apparently fatal blind alley the U.S. and the USSR had gone down suddenly opened up. It was the largely peaceful collapse of the Soviet empire in a few short years that changed everything. The Reaganites have tried to take credit for it, but as Schell writes now, it was really the people of eastern Europe who did it. We forget the changes of the twentieth century for the better that happened in the same way, from the liberation of India from the British to the end of apartheid in South Africa to the end of the Cold War: they were brought about by the people, and they were brought about without war.

I don't know that I'll go back down to the Plaza on the Sunday after the war has started. But there will be a candle burning.

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