March 23rd, 2017 |
It was springtime in Lexington, Virginia—1958—my final months at Washington & Lee University.
Arnold Toynbee, the British historian, who had just written a monumental 12 volume Study of History, was on campus for an extended series of lectures. Being a philosophy major, I was privileged to hear him.
Like all great teachers—maybe preachers and everyone else, for that matter—what I remember most was his presence. Not his obvious erudition. No, it was his humility. I still recall him saying that every door he opened, there was another door facing him.
After classes, I would hustle over to lacrosse practice. My last season of playing a game I had played and loved since I was a young boy. That boy emerges still. Every spring, even now, I feel the urge to pick up the old lacrosse stick in my basement and bounce a ball off any nearby wall. It might as well be spring again.
I did know that graduation was about to happen. In June, I was handed a diploma. Afterwards, a short walk over to Lee Chapel, I was sworn into the Marine Corp. One week later, I was playing lacrosse in the North-South All Star Game in New York City. The next weekend, Judy and I were married.
Two weeks later we were headed to Quantico, Virginia, then on to Camp Pendleton in Oceanside, California. Within the next two years, we had a son, and I was floating around off the coast of Southeast Asia, prepared, if need be, to kill yellow people I did not know.
What did I know about marriage, or yellow people, or war, or raising a family? What did I know about my own country, the American Empire? There was so much more to learn.
So, here I am, still putting the pieces of my life together, past, present, and whatever future I can image, doing time inside the life I love. Still trying to learn, I dig out some Toynbee, from the musty past. Long dead, he still has something to say.
“Militarism has been by far the commonest cause of the breakdown of civilizations. The single art of war makes progress at the expense of all the arts of peace…The only real struggle in the history of the world, is between the vested interest and social justice.”
Toynbee’s Study of History recorded the rise and fall of empires, over 20 of them. The fall of an empire, or its rebirth, was dictated by the responses made at critical challenging moment, tipping points, if you will. For sure, that’s us, right now.
As difficult as it is for some to recognize, we are living in the dying American Empire. Visions of imperial power die a slow death. Martin Luther King Jr. was right when he said, “A nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual doom.” Gulp! That’s a hard message to swallow.
How to live lovingly and justly in our dying American Empire, visible in our bloated military budget, is the challenge. The militarism lodged in our way of life, here and abroad, must die. Our task? Bird business. Tending to a phoenix, that unique bird that lived for centuries, then burned itself out on a funeral pyre, in order to rise from the ashes to live into another age. In church-talk, my language, it has to do with death and resurrection. Lent and Easter.
It might as well be spring again.
March 23rd, 2017
March 21st, 2017 |
I know, I know! You can’t tell a book by its cover, nor know what’s in a person’s soul by looking at what they’re wearing. But quite honestly, I do pay attention to what people wear, and it can tell me even more than meets the eye.
In 1965, Mary Beth Tinker and her brother John wore black armbands to school in Des Moines, Iowa. They were protesting the Vietnam War. School officials expelled them. The students filed a suit and the case went to court, all the way to the Supreme Court. The Court decided in their favor, by stating that students do not “shed their constitutional rights at the school house gate.” What a person wears can count.
Now, consider the pink pussy hats at The Washington Women’s March. This attire, along with the t-shirts that defined the wearer as a self-proclaimed Nasty Woman, were fashion statements messaging President Trump that women are the vanguard of resistance to his presence in the White House.
And don’t forget the white dresses worn by Democratic congresswomen at President Trump’s first congressional address. The dresses were a reminder of the attire worn by suffragettes at he Women’s Suffrage March in 1913, the day of Woodrow Wilson’s inauguration. That was when 5,000 women took to the streets of Washington demanding the right to vote. It got violent. Badgered by onlookers, over 100 women were hospitalized.
What is worth noting is the fact that a year later, on August 29, 1914, 1,500 women marched in New York City. It was a march against the war in Europe, a march to let President Wilson know, in no uncertain terms, that women were in the streets to resist sending United States troops into what finally became World War I.
A whole army of suffragettes, a generation of nasty women in the early 1900s, marched and worked to gain what men had, the right to vote. Marching their way to a ballot box, they also protested the march to war in Europe. In their wisdom, they saw that the war, described as “the war to end all wars,” was in fact, just another war, one that would most surely perpetuate more war. It was no more than death-dealing militarism.
Think of militarism as a boa constrictor that wraps itself around every aspect of our lives, chocking the life out of everything we care about. Since it is by a woman that we have life, war is a feminist issue, par excellence. It is a male-perpetuated, monstrous erotic distortion. War makes love to itself, in a perverted way that procreates more war.
War abuses women. War is rape. War disrupts the peace. War sacrifices children. War creates homelessness. War seduces men. War attacks the poor. War destroys the earth. War gives birth to refugees. War creates jobs for killing. War disables its own troops. War is a march toward a graveyard. War is the enemy of faith hope and love.
I never met Jeannette Rankin; I only wish I had. The first woman to be elected to Congress back in 1917, she was a leader in the suffrage movement, as well as a leader in the creation of the Women’s Peace Party. A Republican feminist pacifist, she voted against WWI and WWII. In 1968, she marched in Washington against the Vietnam War. Her own testimony: “It is unconscionable that 10,000 boys (eventually over 50,000) have died in Vietnam. If 10,000 American women had mind enough they could end the war, if they were committed to the task, even if it meant going to jail.”
“Politicians and military leaders sound increasingly belligerent,” says Mikhail Gorbachev, in a recent Time magazine interview, “and defense doctrines more dangerous. Commentators and TV personalities are joining the bellicose chorus. It all looks as if the world is preparing for war.” I would only add, an escalation of the war we are already fighting.
On the way through Lent, toward Easter, there is more to say about this after a good night’s sleep.
March 21st, 2017
March 20th, 2017 |
Monday, March 20th is dwindling away. It’s close to bedtime. I am at home on the third floor attempting to squeeze words from my computer. Perched on a table Judy and I refinished in Delaware some 20 years ago, one that hospitably held plates full of food, it has now become a space for wordsmithery.
The pitch-black silence that has replaced the companionship that once lived in this home hangs like a shroud over my solitude. Outside my window small puddles have formed on the school playground; they entertain quivering pockmarks as a gentle rain finds landing space. The raindrops tapping on my window keep a temperate beat, like friends who might want to keep me company.
Today, March 20th, is the first day of spring It’s been six weeks since Punxsutawney Phil, emerged from his burrow on Gobbler’s Knob, saw his shadow, and then beat a path back into the hole from which he came. This toothy woodchuck can come out now, on schedule, and get on with the business of chucking wood.
Last weekend I got a call from a friend in North Carolina. “I thought maybe you were dead, Jim Lewis. Where have you been? You haven’t written anything since Trump went to the White House?” Missing in action, perhaps, but I assured her, with a dab of dark humor, that in my daily perusal of the obituary page I had yet to find my name.
As for my writing, I have been doing plenty of writing, hours worth of writing since Donald Trump’s inauguration. But I have been stuck, stuck, stuck. My computer is like a neglected, overloaded closet begging to be tended to. Hunks of Trump-induced sporadic writings. Unsorted stuff. Bits and pieces. A patch here and a peck there. Spontaneous jottings and frail fragments. Wedges of reaction to the rapid-fire Trump tweets. Sketched clips of responses to media and print punditry. Distillations of numerous troubled conversations with friends.
All day long I have had March 20th on my mind. March madness? Yes, March madness. For you see, on March 20th 2003, the United States invaded Iraq.
As a Christian, even without a congregational connection, I have been keeping my very own Lent, beginning with Ash Wednesday, when a priest smudged my forehead with a finger-full of soot. In the trek toward Holy Week and Easter, I engage in my own daily prayer, spiced with Bible verses, sauced with robust readings that offer succulent reflective meditation.
In my reading I have been dabbling in writings by Margaret Drabble, one of England’s very fine writers. Reading her latest novel, The Dark Flood Rises, I’ve inadvertently stumbled onto an essay she wrote in May 2003, just after the invasion of Iraq. Entitled, “I Loathe America, and What It Has Done to the Rest of the World.” It begins:
I knew that the wave of anti-Americanism that would swell up after the Iraq war would make me feel ill. And it has. It has made me much, much more ill than I had expected.
My anti-Americanism has become almost uncontrollable. It has possessed me, like a disease. It rises up in my throat like acid reflux, that fashionable American sickness. I now loathe the United States and what it has done to Iraq and the rest of the helpless world.
These long and dreadful years of war, the election of Donald Trump, and the honest acknowledgement of prophetic loathing witnessed to by Dame Drabble, has emboldened me to use what’s left of Lent to unburden my own soul about the nation I both loathe and love. Leading up to Easter, which falls on April 16, I intend to climb these three flights of stairs, before bed, address the table, and attempt to squeeze words from my computer, soulfully hoping for shared companionship in these troubled times, as the dark flood rises.
March 20th, 2017