Finding hope where the love light gleams

(December 14, 2020)

If there is a COVID-19 Christmas song this year, it surely must be I’ll be Home for Christmas. Written for those who were overseas in military service during the Second World War, its most famous recording was by Bing Crosby in 1943.

The emotional punchline comes at the end: “Christmas Eve will find me, where the love light gleams. I’ll be home for Christmas, if only in my dreams.”

I will never forget the first time I didn’t make it home for Christmas. That song echoed in my ears for weeks beforehand. All of the excitement of a new place, new beginnings, creating new traditions of my own, crashed on the emotional rocks of what, for the first time, was missing.

Christmas is the most poignant of Christian holidays, when whatever we do is measured up against the ghosts of Christmas Past (or Hallmark Christmas movies), and invariably seems to fall short. Especially as family ages and children grow up, there is also the mournful question about who — or how many — will be missing from that Christmas table next year. Every Christmas could be our last — there is no comfort in realizing that it always is, until the next one.

This year, more people than usual will only be home for Christmas in their dreams. Others will never again be able to make that journey, or to sit around the table sharing familiar foods and annual celebrations.

Yet this is not a new circumstance. Every year, many people experience a “blue” Christmas, instead of a “white” one. Like that other Christmas song (by Elvis Presley), they are “blue” because someone is missing. Grief may not wear an obvious face, but at Christmas, at least it has a colour.

Believers who bumper-sticker their Christian faith by proclaiming “Jesus is the reason for the season” miss the point of the Hallmark formula: the meaning of Christmas extends far beyond its religious expression, into the heart of Western society and culture. But that doesn’t mean Bing Crosby got it entirely right, either.

Singing “I’ll be home for Christmas” presumes you have a home, and someone in it who wishes you were there, too. And mistletoe is pointless, unless you have someone to kiss under it. As for the snow, in a climate-changing world, fewer and fewer places have a white Christmas — but none ever did in the southern hemisphere (except Antarctica), and nor much south of Minneapolis, either.

Every year our Christmas celebrations compete — and usually lose — against both the magic of Hallmark (do other people really decorate that much?) and the power of memory (“That’s nice, but I remember when…”). Christmas can too easily become a hollow celebration of inadequacy, of not-quite-enough, of not-as-good-as-before, at least until those hoped-for, magical moments in which all the flaws are swamped by the real feelings those movies try to capture on screen.

And when you don’t make it home for Christmas, or when someone you love never will again, those people and experiences you took for granted before become painfully present through a sense of loss, even grief, that the familiar songs somehow manage to make worse.

Yet the focus of I’ll be Home for Christmas is entirely personal. It’s all about me, and life often gets in the way of what I want for myself. For adults, therefore, Christmas can easily mean a personal sense of magic lost. But that can change in a heartbeat, by seeing Christmas again through the eyes of a child, by receiving gratitude from a stranger helped — or through the wonder of some stranger helping us, unexpectedly.

Growing up, that kind of unrequited generosity was key — giving, more than getting, was central to that feeling of being home for Christmas. With other relatives far away, Christmas dinner was just us — until one casual invitation for some plum pudding became an annual gathering of my father’s Jewish colleagues and spouses that overflowed our dining room.

Family at Christmas became who you chose, not who you were given. As people (like me) moved away and others passed on, that dinner table was filled with other faces and new family members, some celebrating their first Christmas in Canada.

Too many of those soldiers who heard Bing Crosby sing in 1943 were never home for Christmas again. But that doesn’t mean they were loved any less — then, or now.

As we make plans for a COVID-19-infused holiday season this year, in which our care for other people (not just public-health rules) means staying where we are, we need to remember this:

That lyrical “love light” will find each one of us this Christmas Eve once again, because it gleams as far as we need it to, in time and in space. Wherever we are, and whomever we are missing, that is a dream of home worth having.

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Pass torch to younger hands

(November 10, 2020)

“In Flanders Fields” is woven into the framework of my memories of Remembrance Day ceremonies. For years I have wondered why that poem stands out more than others I have read from the Great War.

It could be somewhat personal: I recall the plaque identifying the McCrae family pew in St. Andrew’s Presbyterian Church in Guelph, and John McCrae’s name etched into the Memorial Wall at the University of Toronto, close to the arch I passed through many times.

I was brought to think of that poem again this year, as I listened to a young girl bravely recite it, supported by her mother in dress uniform and medals, as part of a service in Stony Mountain intended to be streamed on this strangest of all Remembrance Days.

There is a simple plaque on the cenotaph in Stony Mountain, noting that it contributed the most volunteers, per capita, of any community in the British Commonwealth, to service in the Second World War. Every year, their intergenerational Remembrance Day service has been packed to capacity by their descendants.

One line from that poem caught my attention, this time: “To you, from failing hands we throw the torch…” Taking a pause from treating (as best he could) the wounded and dying from the unending horrors of trench warfare on the western front, McCrae knew his generation was failing the test it had been given at the start of a new century. In a shattered world in which there were many victims but no victors, those who survived knew the reality of that failure, too.

Mere months after the armistice ending the First World War, even before the Treaty of Versailles was signed in 1919, people started preparing for the next war. Pandemic disease (the Spanish flu) followed world war. Later, the global economy fell into the Great Depression. To desperate people, the promise of strong leadership led them to support totalitarianism and fascism.

But at least, on the Allied side, there was victory in 1945. Seventy-five years ago, we won. There was no failure, this time. In the surge of triumphant emotion, the United Nations was then set up, riding that wave of victory into a better future. We had caught that torch, held it high, and let the dead finally rest in peace, in Flanders fields and elsewhere.

Believing this was to be some final victory, however, turned out to be a serious mistake. The generation that caught McCrae’s torch and fought through everything to win in 1945 did not, in turn, throw the torch to the next generation. They (and their children, the baby boomers) did not lay the necessary foundation for future generations. Instead, deciding on their own reward for sacrifices made and services rendered, they have built a world only they themselves are able to enjoy.

These are harsh words, aimed as much at myself as anyone over the age of 50 who reads this. But they are true.

In some ways, the people of Germany and Japan have done a better job — there was no triumph for them in 1945, just a shattered society that (literally) had to be rebuilt from the ground up. That generation could see its failures all around, every day, and so worked hard to make amends to the next generation.

Certainly, in reunited Germany, that sense of loss, guilt and determination is palpable — inescapably woven into the fabric of its society, because everyone remembers, still, the high cost of failure.

Here in North America, we seem to have forgotten victory costs almost as much as defeat. The gains of a post-war world have steadily eroded since 1945. We now live in a society that seems more polarized and less tolerant every day. The gap between the obscenely rich and the rest of us widens.

More troubling, that sense of voluntary service to others has faded with time. (Think of the community service groups that have withered and died, as the Royal Canadian Legion struggles to survive.) Members of that wartime generation set an example of service, without communicating clearly to the next generation why they felt so compelled to volunteer.

They held on to the torch, and my generation did not demand it. Instead, we baby boomers have amused ourselves and each other into the mess we are all facing today. Twenty years into the next century, our own world war has been against the planet, not each other. Now, our own pandemic is here, too.

In the U.S. between 1933 and 1939, the New Deal responded to the Great Depression with programs, public work projects, financial reforms, and regulations.

The world, not just the U.S., needs a global New Deal — a green one, in which there is ecological justice, racial equality and economic sufficiency for all. We are called, once again, to live in service for others — especially for that next generation, into whose younger hands, very soon, we must throw the torch.

Otherwise, we will be the ones who break faith.

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Nothing to celebrate on this anniversary

(August 6, 2020)

Seventy-fifth anniversaries are normally a time of celebration, because we tend to remember significant events that are important in our lives as individuals and as a society. Birthdays are generally something to celebrate, but not necessarily events in world history.

So far this year, we have celebrated V-E Day, the end of the Second World War in Europe, and the signing of the United Nations Charter. Later this month, we will mark V-J Day, the end of the war in the Pacific, and then in October we will celebrate the founding of the United Nations.

But before these, we must today mark the anniversary of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima, and on Aug. 9, the bombing of Nagasaki. There is nothing to celebrate on either of these days, as we think of the horrors inflicted on the people of those two cities, and the premature deaths from radiation poisoning of hundreds of thousands — perhaps millions — of people since that fateful month in 1945 when Pandora’s box of nuclear nightmares was opened.

The world certainly changed in 1945. People hoped that change was for the better, and so history was rewritten to make it seem that the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki were necessary, to turn the global page toward post-war peace and prosperity.

Since then, the evidence has only grown more compelling that neither atomic attack was warranted. The war was in its final days. American intelligence had known all along that the Japanese empire had never possessed any nuclear capability — in fact, we have since learned that the few Japanese physicists who might have had the ability to create an atomic bomb ensured the sabotage of any such attempt.

So imagine the Allied conversation behind the scenes, especially after the death of U.S. president Franklin Delano Roosevelt and the elevation of Harry S. Truman, who supposedly was unaware of the Manhattan Project until FDR died. Of course, they wanted the war to end — but not too soon. What was the point of spending a lot of money to build a bomb you didn’t use? Besides, it was going to be used against the Japanese — and not against people “like us.”

Historians have long concluded that there was never an Allied intention to use atomic weapons against Nazi Germany, which at least attempted to establish a nuclear program, and certainly felt free to use V-1 and V-2 rockets against civilians in Great Britain. It is therefore very hard not to also conclude that racism was inherent in the decision to use atomic weapons on Japan — and chilling to realize that only two bombs were dropped before the war’s end because that was all they had.

If there had been 20 bombs, perhaps 20 Japanese cities would have lain shattered under the mushroom clouds that became horrifyingly familiar to the world after 1945.

Racism, xenophobia, colonialism and power were the Four Horsemen of the nuclear apocalypse from the start.

We think 2020 will be seen as a pivotal year in the 21st century, because of how much the COVID-19 pandemic has changed how we live together in a global society. But while the pandemic looms large in our field of vision, there are other events unfolding that might be more crucial for the future we hope our children will enjoy.

The United States is leading the way in dismantling the treaties that were efforts to make nuclear annihilation less likely. The year 2019 saw the U.S. withdraw from the Intermediate Range Nuclear Forces treaty. This year, the Trump administration has announced it intends to withdraw from the Treaty on Open Skies, which allows reconnaissance overflights to monitor military buildup on any side. The next Trumpian target is the New START pact that limits nuclear weapons platforms between Russia and the United States.

Ending these agreements makes the world a much more dangerous place than it was — or than it needs to be.

Seventy-five years after the mushroom clouds rose over Hiroshima and Nagasaki, we need to remember that nuclear weapons today are larger and far deadlier than those first two small bombs. There are more than enough, on all sides, to mean the end of life on Earth, whether by radioactivity or by triggering a nuclear winter and dropping temperatures to levels too cold for vegetation and most animals — and people — to survive.

Even a small-scale, regional nuclear conflict could be enough to trigger catastrophic global climate changes, given that we are already close to tipping points because of how we continue to live against the planet by not cutting greenhouse gas emissions from fossil fuels.

In a nuclear age, facing climate crisis as well as a global pandemic, there is no place for “them” and “us.” We are all in this together.

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