Dreams hard to come by these days

(November 15, 2016)

To quote one of my favourite poets, W.B. Yeats: “Tread softly, for you tread on my dreams.”

It has been a tumultuous week for many, not just those people (mainly young) who still march in the streets of American cities proclaiming “not my president.” I have heard from many friends, from delegates at 22nd Conference of the Parties to the UNFCCC (COP 22) in Marrakesh, Morocco; to people in Kenya; to former students in the Canadian Forces; and students at the universities here in Winnipeg. I have been disturbed by what they have told me about their anxieties and fears.

The last time I experienced something like this was after the twin towers of the World Trade Center fell in 2001. At least among younger people, 11/9 has awakened feelings similar to 9/11.

It’s not so much about losing the election — after all, nearly half of the American electorate didn’t vote and the rest of us never had the option. Nor is it even about the attitudes of the winner — one American friend observed it was hardly the first time a white male racist had been elected president.

It’s about something deeper and more upsetting. The people in the streets are worried because they feel they have lost their future, their dreams, their hopes of having a better tomorrow than the one sitting on the doorstep.

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Sept. 11 Reminds Us To Find A Peaceful Way Forward

(September 19, 2016)

I will never forget 9/11. I had raced to the University of Winnipeg for an 8:30 a.m. class, not listening to the radio en route, and had gone straight from class into a meeting.

I emerged to watch the second tower fall, just in time for my first lecture in a course on science and society.

It was more group therapy than lecture, as we reflected on the fact our world had just changed — and not for the better.

Over the next eight months, we talked about many things, including the problems of elites, colonialism, power and control, democracy and what lay ahead for our generation on a planet struggling to find a route to a sustainable future.

It would have been nice to check back with that class at five years, at 10 years, and today, to see how their lives had been shaped by the events of 9/11, even though we watched the towers fall from afar, safe and secure in Winnipeg.

Since that time, we have seen a global surge of anger on many fronts relating to ecological and social injustice.

Perhaps we have reached some collective tipping point, where the collectivity of the Internet has allowed people to gain strength and solidarity by standing together around the world, but there are rough waters ahead.

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A Century of Poppies…and Larks

The National War Memorial (Ottawa), May 2015 Photo: Peter Denton

The National War Memorial (Ottawa), May 2015
Photo: Peter Denton

“The larks, still bravely singing, fly/Scarce heard amid the guns below”

The 100th anniversary this year in May of Lt. Col John McCrae’s famous poem, “In Flanders Fields,” has been marked by many. For all of its lines, the one that sticks in my head is not about torches or poppies, but about the larks, still bravely singing, that fly over the battlefield.

They are evidence of the tenacity and resilience of life, the continuity with the earth and the rhythms of nature, precisely at the time when the destructive powers of humanity are at their most devastating.

The guns pulverized the landscape, churning the soil so that the lime underneath made it inhospitable to other plants, while encouraging the poppies to flourish. Incoming or outgoing, the noise of artillery shattered thoughts as easily as eardrums. One withstood the barrage, survived the noise, waited for the space that followed the crump and crash of shells, knowing that the sounds of silence meant survival – for now.

It also could signal the start of an attack, as the barrage lifted, so one needed to rush out to the firestep to be sure, peering through the fog, the mist, the dusk or dawn, perhaps to see light glinting from the bayonets of a charging enemy.

In the midst of such muddy chaos, it was impossible to look beyond the moment, to think beyond the instinct for survival. Yet in the letters written home from the trenches, the sketches, the poems, some still did — preserving their own identity and humanity in the midst of an experience implacable about erasing both.

Where 1914 included the initial euphoria of those off to the grand adventure that would bring them home for Christmas, 1915 settled into the mud of Flanders. There was bitter and inconclusive fighting, Ypres, poison gas, the disaster at Gallipoli and the realization that no one would be going anywhere soon, except to the cemeteries that were already filled with more casualties than Europe had seen since the Napoleonic wars.

In that context, McCrae looked around at the poppies and then up to the sky, seeing and hearing the larks.

Remembrance Day ceremonies always move me. Where I attend, pomp and polish are usually missing, the printed program as stumbled with mistakes as the ceremony — and the delivery of words and messages as faltering as the veterans who march past.

But if the service is dusted off each year, along with the old blazers and racks of medals, much younger ones now join those old faces. Canada was at war in Afghanistan longer than in any other time in its history – those veterans walk among us, every day. They are at soccer practice and swimming lessons, waiting for ballet to wrap up or the instruments to be put away at the end of rehearsal. Their children have grown up worried whether about daddy or mummy will come home from the war. Their families continue to deal with the stresses back home of the effects of war on their own identity and humanity.

I don’t know how many of my Royal Military College students have been there and back, just that too many have. None were among the 158 fatalities, for which I am thankful, but I am sure that others have come home with physical and mental scars to mark their service to Canada and to the people of Afghanistan and elsewhere.

So however garbled the local ceremony, however awkward the procession, my thoughts always rise above the event, like the larks in McCrae’s poem. Remembering what I have never experienced, imagining places I have never been, seeing people whom I have never met, it matters that I am there. It’s what keeping faith means.

At the end of the service, I always pin my poppy to the green artificial turf at the base of the white cross that serves as the portable memorial at the civic ceremony in Winnipeg. I remember when it first started to happen – how it took organizers by surprise – but it became more moving than the dignitaries laying their plastic wreathes. Ordinary people, tears in their eyes from thoughts and memories unshared, old and young, mark their own place in that remembrance.

By coincidence, I was in Ottawa for the dedication of the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, and placed my poppy on it at the end of that ceremony, becoming part of a tradition that I expect will continue regardless of what else happens on the Hill.

It’s more than a sign of respect. It is a reminder that we need to live each day committed to the spirit of sacrifice, out of concern for others — caring about principles that will lead to a better world for everyone and not just for ourselves.

That kind of act, in the midst of whatever battles we are fighting, whatever the sound of the guns in our own lives, whatever dread comes upon us in the silence, is how we rise above the din of daily conflict that can otherwise overwhelm us.

Like the larks, still bravely singing, we are reminded of who we are, whose we are and where we are headed, because there is much more to life than what we find in Flanders’ muddy fields.

Peter Denton, Ph.D., is Adjunct Associate Professor of History at the Royal Military College of Canada, whose students he has been privileged to teach since 2003.