Recommended Reading: Two African Novels

Once again my book clubs have introduced me to books I may not have found otherwise – two more to add to my growing collection of African novels.

Book coverHalf of a Yellow Sun, by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, is about the civil war in Nigeria in the late 1960s, something I knew next to nothing about. Before reading this novel, I’m almost embarrassed to admit that the only mental image I had of “Biafra” was of starving children. If you’re like me and know next to nothing about Biafra, here’s some background from Wikipedia: “Biafra, officially the Republic of Biafra, was a secessionist state in south-eastern Nigeria that existed from 30 May 1967 to 15 January 1970, taking its name from the Bight of Biafra (the Atlantic bay to its south). The inhabitants were mostly the Igbo people who led the secession due to economic, ethnic, cultural and religious tensions among the various peoples of Nigeria. The creation of the new state that was pushing for recognition was among the causes of the Nigerian Civil War, also known as the Nigerian-Biafran War.” I had no clue about the war, and certainly not from the perspective of those who were on the minority Biafran side, so this book was educational in addition to being a good story.

When I think about where I was and what I was doing from 1967-1970, I suppose it’s at least a little understandable that I didn’t know much about Biafra. I was in college and graduate school at the time; I didn’t have TV and I didn’t listen to NPR in those days (actually, NPR was incorporated in February 1970, after the Biafran War was already over), so my knowledge of world events beyond the Vietnam War was fairly limited. That feels like a poor excuse, however, for my ignorance!

In Half of a Yellow Sun, the story of Biafra is told from the point of view of five characters (all Igbo except one): Ugwu, a thirteen-year-old houseboy; Odenigbo, a university professor and revolutionary; Olanna, the professor’s mistress; Olanna’s twin sister, Kainene; and Richard, an Englishman infatuated with Kainene. As you might imagine, the war was horrific, and yes, to explain why my only mental image of Biafra is of starving children, there was widespread hunger and deprivation because of the war.

Perhaps the most haunting sentence in the book is this one, which is also the title of a book about the war written by one of the characters: “The world was silent while we died.” During the war, the citizens of the breakaway country of Biafra struggled to gain recognition from other countries, and it didn’t seem like the rest of the world cared very much that thousands of people were suffering and dying in this little tiny country with few resources but lots of pride. I couldn’t help thinking of other times when it has seemed like “the world was silent”: Rwanda, Sarajevo, Bosnia, Sudan, Sierra Leone, Syria…and the list could probably go on. What is our responsibility in situations like this? What can and should we do? I honestly don’t know.

Front CoverThe second African novel I read recently is Nervous Conditions by Tsitsi Dangarembga. I was much more familiar with the setting and issues in this book because it takes place in colonial Rhodesia in the late 1960s and early 1970s. This is after I left Rhodesia in 1961 and after Ian Smith declared unilateral independence from Great Britain in 1965, but before the height of the war that resulted in majority black rule and the change of name to Zimbabwe in 1980. Nervous Conditions has been described as one of the best African novels, and is the first by a black Zimbabwean to be published in English outside the country.

The story is told from the point of view of Tambu, a young girl who leaves her rural village to go to the mission school run by her wealthy, British-educated uncle. The book explores coming of age, gender and identity issues. The title refers to the sense of displacement and feelings of ambivalence that come with being a native in a colonial system – everyone in the novel has a “nervous condition.”

There was a lot for me to identify with in this book. It takes places at a time that was not all that far removed from when I lived in Rhodesia. In many ways, the story felt like my story being told from the opposite point of view. As a missionary kid, however, I saw the world I lived in from the point of view of missionaries who believed they were doing a good and right thing – not only by bringing the good news of the gospel to the native people but also by improving their lives with education and medical care. These were good things, but it never occurred to me to think about how the missionaries and other white settlers also disrupted life and created a whole new set of of challenges for the native people. The novel shows the work of missionaries and colonialism from the other side, and how education and the white person changed things irrevocably. I appreciated this perspective which is different than the one I grew up with.

The effects of education, westernization and money are explored, along with the loss of traditional values. There is also a loss of language and culture, and distrust of the new culture that seems to be taking over. Family dynamics change when some are able to receive an education and others don’t, when some have wealth and opportunity and others don’t, when those with wealth and advantage are expected to share with and take care of those who don’t. The “nervous condition” of Tambu is clear as she desperately wants an education and forsakes her village and family to get it, even as she critiques her more worldly-wise cousin for her inability to speak the native language anymore and her rebellious attitude toward her parents, especially her father. The cousin’s own “nervous condition” has tragic results when she suffers from an eating disorder that eventually requires professional help to save her life. Interestingly, there are no significant white characters with any unique personalities in the book, even though so much of life is controlled by whites. This is Tambu’s story, or as she puts it in the opening paragraph, a story of escape, entrapment and rebellion, told in a fairly introspective style.

There’s so much more to both books that I haven’t mentioned, so you’ll just have to read them if you want to know more!

 

 

On Creating Space

One year ago today, I launched a thirty-day discipline to write for this blog every day during the month of April. I had hoped that after the month was over I would continue to write regularly, but life intervened! What started as a goal to continue to write a couple times a week faded to maybe a couple times a month, and a year later I find myself having posted only twice so far in 2014. One was a summary of 2013 and one was a rerun from five years ago, so they hardly count.

It’s not that I haven’t thought about writing. I’ve written stuff in my head, I’ve jotted down notes, and I’ve even started drafts. But they haven’t yet seen the light of day. I don’t have time to fine-tune the writing, or the idea I have doesn’t seem to be going anywhere, or I fear the topic is too controversial and I’m quite frankly scared to enter the fray (think commentaries on gun violence or health care or some other hot button topic…).

Probably the issue of time is at the heart of my inability to write regularly, despite my best intentions. In my life, there is always a new deadline; it’s an occupational hazard for editors of what are supposed to be regular publications. I struggle enough to keep up with all the deadlines for the seven publications I’m currently editing that adding another deadline for this blog looms large. If I’m going to write more regularly (which I really want to do!), I need more space in my life.

As I’ve thought about how to create space, I can’t help drawing an analogy from my life as a writer and editor. Of the seven publications I edit, only one does not have a page limit. Take the almost-monthly news update I produce for the Bureau of Children’s Behavioral Health Services. More than 20 years ago, when it was created, we decided that it should fit on one piece of paper – using both sides. Keep in mind that this was still in the days of hard copies and snail mail. Over the years that length limit has not changed, despite the fact that it is mostly online now and could easily be much longer. I continue to maintain the discipline of sticking to those two sides of one piece of paper (or, more accurately now, two Word document pages). Some months, there is barely enough to fill the two pages and so I space things out a little more, or add a seasonal graphic to fill an empty corner. But more often than not, there’s too much copy. I could decrease the margins on the page, or decrease the font size, or eliminate space between news items to gain a few extra lines, but beyond a couple small exceptions to the font size thing, I have disciplined myself not to do that. Instead, I’ve become really good at editing out unnecessary words or even sentences, taking what I or someone else thought needed two paragraphs and making it say the same thing in just one. It’s amazing how many words you can get rid of if you have to and still maintain the meaning! Sometimes I’ll decide that an item I thought was really important isn’t important after all, or it can easily wait until next month when there might be more space. In almost 22 years, I have never gone over the two-page limit!

Now if I could just apply the same discipline in my life… Sigh! I wrote awhile back about my “multi-tasking life,” referring to all the juggling I do to manage many different projects and volunteer assignments, in addition to my part-time job. In the months since, I really have been trying to decrease my responsibilities, to get control and create some space in my life – to get it down to “two pages,” so to speak. I’ve decided to step down from one responsibility this summer, and I’m decreasing my part-time hours from 12-15 a week to 6-10 a week starting July 1. Next year I’m looking forward to creating even more space when I step down from a couple other responsibilities. I’ve recently even had a little (although not enough) practice saying no when I’ve been asked to take on something new, although I’ve also ended up saying yes to a couple shorter-term things I really wanted to do.

To push the two-page analogy a little further, it might even be nice to get my extra-curricular responsibilities down to just one page, but to do that, I would have to do some serious editing and make some hard decisions about what’s really necessary. In the meantime, as I keep working on the discipline of creating space, here’s hoping some of those partly-written posts and/or thoughts rattling around in my head will eventually (perhaps even soon!) find themselves on the virtual pages of this blog!

Three Mile Island Anniversary Reflections Reprised

Five years ago, I wrote some reflections on the 30th anniversary of the Three Mile Island nuclear power plant near-disaster. Today is the 35th anniversary of that event, so I thought I’d post the piece again. I could tweak a few things I said five years ago, but I decided not to. I still feel pretty much the same way I did then.

The 30th anniversary on March 28, 2009 of the near-meltdown at the Three Mile Island (TMI) nuclear power plant in Middletown, Pennsylvania has triggered a bunch of memories, not only of our family’s experience but also of some of the issues that were so real 30 years ago and which, if you ask me, have never really gone away.

When the first news reports started coming out about an “accident” at TMI, we didn’t take them too seriously, partly because at first they didn’t sound too alarming. Our children were 5 1/2 years old and 7 months. Dana was in pre-kindergarten in Harrisburg, and we continued to send her to school and let her to play outside, not thinking there was any reason to disrupt her routine. A neighbor scolded me for allowing her to play outside, and at first I thought she was over-reacting and then I began to worry that perhaps the accident was a bigger deal than we originally thought. Very soon, of course, news reports became much more ominous, and evacuation recommendations were issued for pregnant women and children within a 5-mile radius of TMI, and additional recommendations to stay indoors for those within a 10-mile radius. We lived just outside the 10-mile radius (probably at about 11.5 miles), but we were close enough to begin to think seriously about whether or not we should leave the area.

Dale and I debated for several days, all the while being only too aware that if a meltdown or partial meltdown actually occurred, the disaster would be horrific and almost unimaginable. About a week after the accident, we finally decided to leave (probably after whatever damage there might have been was already done!). With no close relatives far enough way, we fled to my best friend’s home in Indiana where we stayed for a week before deciding it was safe to return home. We took family photos and other important papers along with us, in case we wouldn’t be able to return. While our decision to leave was probably made too late, we nonetheless felt better and like we were being responsible parents.

Even after we returned home, Dale and I and our friends repeatedly discussed a number of issues, and he and I are not sure anything has changed a whole lot in 30 years. The same questions still persist:

1. Can we ever really be prepared for massive evacuations? At the time of the accident we talked a lot about how awful it would be if everyone tried to leave the city of Harrisburg at one time: crowded highways, panicked people, disabled vehicles, etc. I don’t think we are any better prepared now than we were 30 years ago.

2. Can we trust our government and other public officials to tell us the truth? Even though no deaths or serious illnesses have ever been officially attributed to the TMI accident, you will never convince some people that there were no serious lingering effects from the accident. Despite repeated assurances that not enough radiation was released to do any harm, many people still have lingering doubts that they were or are being told the whole truth. I remember in the years immediately following the accident that we often made TMI the scapegoat for whatever illnesses might have been going around, and who knows whether or not there might have been a connection. By now, I am inclined to believe the official version, but I still harbor a healthy suspicion about the complete trustworthiness of government officials for whom it is in their best interests to cast reality in the best possible light.

3. How safe is nuclear power, really? First of all, there’s the issue of nuclear waste, which I’m not sure has ever been resolved satisfactorily. Second, will it ever be possible to guarantee that a nuclear power plant will not have a meltdown? Certainly when Chernobyl happened in 1986, less than 10 years after TMI, we who had lived through TMI were reminded all over again of the potential for disaster.

4. Whatever happened to the idea that nuclear power would create electricity that is “too cheap to meter”? Probably most people have long ago given up on that idea, but it’s worth remembering the slogan as a major selling point for a technology that had serious safety concerns. Perhaps many of the safety concerns of nuclear power have been addressed in the years since TMI, but we certainly don’t have cheap electricity!!

While our family’s experience was not nearly as traumatic as those who lived closer to TMI, every anniversary of the accident reminds me of what tense and uncertain times those were in the spring of 1979. When I fly into Harrisburg International Airport and see those cooling towers, including the disabled one from the accident, I always have that momentary chill in the pit of my stomach remembering what it was like that March.

The Top Five of 2013 and Looking Ahead to 2014

Apparently, the thing to do for bloggers is to list their top posts from the outgoing year, so like a lemming, I’m doing the same. Many list their top ten, but since I haven’t posted all that often (except for last April when I was posting every single day), I decided to limit my list to my top five.

What To Do With an English Major Besides Teach: I became an English major in college somewhat by default. I had wanted to be a nurse since I was a child. I was always fascinated by medical things and read lots of Cherry Ames Student Nurse books, and there didn’t seem to be many other viable and acceptable career options. You had to be something when you grew up and nursing seemed like the thing for me. My choice at that point had nothing to do with aptitude.

Honoring People While Opposing War: On this Veterans’ Day, as I sift through postings from friends on Facebook and see all the discounts being offered to veterans that express gratitude to those who have served or are serving in the armed forces, I confess to feeling very conflicted. I am a conscientious objector to war, committed to nonviolent peacemaking and resolution of conflict. Veterans’ Day (and Memorial Day as well) celebrates those who have fought in wars I wish hadn’t been fought, wars that perhaps could have been avoided had more people been committed to nonviolence and finding other solutions to the serious conflicts that were at the root of those wars.

Can I Pull My Plug? Boarding School Memories, Part 1: My longest stint in the same boarding school was at Beit School in Choma, Zambia, where I attended for three years from 1958-1960 (ages 9-12). Boarding school anywhere, and in my case 1950s British-run schools, was an experience in having your daily life highly controlled and structured. Housemothers, also called matrons, weren’t known to be particularly gentle and nurturing; they were usually disciplinarians who demanded obedience to the rules.

The Pelicans: One of the fond memories we have from when we lived in Harrisburg was our custom of regularly sharing dinners with the Deyhle family. During those times together while our kids were off playing elsewhere in the house, we four adults would sit around the dining room table and talk – and look forward to a time in what felt like the way distant future when we would go somewhere together to celebrate our 25th wedding anniversaries (we were both married in 1971).

Movies and Midnight Feasts: Boarding School Memories, Part 2: Between baths and dinner, we polished our shoes after which they had to be inspected by the matrons to make sure they were shiny enough. After dinner we had free time, usually in a large hall. Sometimes we used that time to finish homework, and once a week on Thursdays we had movie night (lots of Laurel and Hardy and Abbott and Costello shorts), but mostly it was fairly unstructured although certainly never rowdy.

I can’t help speculating on why these five rose to the top, especially the first one. I suspect lots of young English majors out there wonder what their major is good for, and the title I gave my blog post is fairly close to the search words one might type into Google. So it’s not that my post was so interesting, but rather that I gave it the right title!

My Veteran’s Day post struck a nerve, I think, especially among like-minded people who want to honor the people who serve in the armed forces but are uncomfortable with preparation for and participation in war. Besides, my blogger friend Devin Manzullo-Thomas linked to it in from his blog. Always helps when other people promote your blog!

The two posts about my childhood, specifically my memories and experiences of boarding school, generated interest for two reasons, I think: 1) they were autobiographical, and 2) they likely turned up when other former students googled “Beit School, Choma.” I know at least two people found my blog that way because they told me.

Finally, the post about “The Pelicans” (the group of couples Dale and I are part of who celebrated our 25th anniversaries together 17 years ago and still get together regularly as friends) probably ranked high because several friends shared it and because I “reposted” it on Facebook months later in anticipation of another Pelican get-together.

Nothing I’ve written has gone viral, however. Not that I’m asking for that kind of attention, but it would be nice to have more traffic. Most people who make their writings public want people to read what they write, and I’m no different. While I do write for myself, as a means of self-expression and recording parts of my life and thought that are important to me, I like sharing what I write with others and I appreciate feedback.

One of the most important ways to generate traffic on one’s blog is to post regularly, and that’s where I have a challenge. I enjoy writing, and it’s been great to have this outlet for my own writing (as opposed to all those pieces I write for other publications). I’d love to repeat what I did last April when I wrote every day, but with everything else going on in my life, I’m pretty sure I can’t manage that. As I’ve been thinking about 2014, I’d like to commit myself to posting at least once a week, or perhaps twice a month, but even that feels somewhat daunting and potentially unattainable. So I’m not making any promises, but please bookmark my blog or sign up to follow me. I’ll be back!

The Sewing Basket

When my brothers and I were making dIMG_1271ecisions about what to do with my mother’s few remaining possessions, I “inherited” her sewing basket and its contents. The basket dates back to our years in Africa. I don’t know exactly when my mother acquired it, but it’s been part of my memory for a long time. She probably bought it from a village woman who was selling handmade items at the mission station, or perhaps it was given to her. It’s the kind of basket that could easily sell well these days at Ten Thousand Villages, given its style, design and quality.

So it was with a mixture of nostalgia, sadness and joy that I passed the sewing basket on to my oldest granddaughter this Christmas. Alecia leads the next generation of needle-working women in my family. My grandmother was a seamstress and a knitter – plus she was an expert quilter and made many quilts to give away, including one for each of her fourteen grandchildren. Mine is on the bed Alecia sleeps on when she visits. My mother not only sewed; she also knit, crocheted, and did needlepoint and cross-stitch. She made all her own clothes and most of mine when I was young (including school uniforms for boarding school); she made my wedding dress and often sewed for other people; she made clothes for my dolls and for the dolls of her grandchildren. She knit sweaters for herself, me and her grandchildren, as well as for other people and my dolls. She crocheted doilies and table covers, and even some window treatments for my sister-in-law. She knit and crocheted baby blankets and dozens of lap blankets as her volunteer contribution at Messiah Village when she was no longer physically able to do anything else. One of the last things she made was a baby blanket for Alecia.

My mother taught me to knit and sew when I was young. I can remember knitting doll clothes when I was in boarding school, so I was skilled enough by the time I was Alecia’s age to follow directions and manage on my own. I owned my own Singer sewing machine, a toy that actually worked but was limited in its functions and often behaved in very frustrating ways. (I still have it – pictured at right). When I was doing serious sewing, I used my mother’s hand-cranked grown-up machine (we didn’t have electricity on the mission stations in those days). Using a hand-cranked machine meant learning how to guide the fabric with only my left hand!

Not long after I was married, I bought a new Singer sewing machine. I made a lot of my own clothes and even made a sports jacket and slacks for Dale one time, and after the kids were born, I sewed for them as well. Derek especially remembers the Halloween costumes, some of which he commissioned in his belief that Mom could sew anything he could conceive! I have a clear memory of sitting in church one Sunday morning watching Derek sketch a design for a cover for his boogie board he was sure I could make. I wasn’t so sure, but I tried and succeeded! I stopped sewing when I went back to work outside the home and eventually got rid of the sewing machine because it was just taking up space in the basement. I also knit for awhile early in our marriage, and even took up crocheting, but at some point I put all needle-working aside, partly because I lost interest but also because other pursuits took precedence. Then in 2005, when Dana was pregnant with Justis, she decided she wanted me to teach her to knit. The knitting bug bit me harder than it bit Dana, and even though she hasn’t knit much since Justis was born, I’ve been knitting ever since. I always have at least one project on my knitting needles, and, like all knitters, I have an ever-growing stash of yarn. (See one of my very early blog posts for some “life lessons from knitting.”)

DSC08039When Alecia was about six and visiting at our house, she watched me knit and said she wanted to learn too. So I began teaching her the basic fundamentals. She is easily distracted and the knitting sessions never lasted long enough for her to finish anything. For awhile every time she visited, I would have to give her a refresher course. Now, when she comes, she can pick up where she left off and doesn’t need me to re-teach her. But she still doesn’t make much progress on her project because she gets distracted or interested in doing something else. She has always liked doing crafts of any kind (rainbow loom, friendship bracelets, origami, drawing and painting, etc.).

IMG_1216Then, during this past year, Alecia took sewing classes at a local community center near her home in Philadelphia and loved the classes. She learned how to use a sewing machine, and decided she really wanted one of her own, so Dale and I gave her a new basic Brother machine for Christmas. Of course, a sewing machine is no good without some accessories – scissors, pins, fabric, etc. That’s where my mother’s sewing basket came in. The basket was still filled with my mother’s old pin box, her pin cushion, thimbles, sewing needles, measuring tape, and scissors. It seemed like this was the right time to pass on this particular heirloom, so now, the sewing baskets and its contents, along with a few items I added, are in Alecia’s possession. I have no idea whether she will in fact continue the family needle-working tradition; if she does, she has some really good role models to follow – and I’m speaking more about my mother and grandmother than I am about myself. They were the experts, not me! They would be proud to know that the skills they learned from their mothers and passed on to their daughters are continuing into the next generation.

December 22, 1961

December 22, 1961 is the marker between two lives: my life in Zimbabwe and Zambia, and my life in the United States. On this date in 1961, my parents, my younger brother Rich and I arrived by ship in the New York City harbor, having left Africa several weeks before. My parents packed up our belongings at Macha Mission in Zambia while Rich and I were in school in Bulawayo, Zimbabwe, and then traveled to Bulawayo to meet us. Rich and I left school before the end of the term, and as a family we took the train to Cape Town where we boarded one of the Cunard ships to Southampton, England. There we boarded another ship (the S. S. United States, I think), bound for New York.

Even though I was 13, I don’t have all that many clear memories of the trip. I do remember thinking it would be cool to arrive in the U.S. in winter with a tan from summertime in the southern hemisphere, and so like a teenager, I tried to work on my tan on the deck of the Cunard ship while we were still in warm weather. I also remember a day off the ship in Las Palmas in the Canary Islands. That day is particularly memorable because my mother and I went alone while my dad stayed on the ship with my brother who was having one of his nine-year-old meltdowns.

The morning we arrived in New York I was so excited. We hadn’t seen my older brother John for six years – since the day we left New York for Africa in November 1955. In the meantime, he had grown from an awkward teenager to a college senior, and I was now the awkward teenager. I can only begin to imagine what it must have been like for my parents to finally see their son again after so long. As I recall, five people came to meet us in New York: my brother John; my maternal grandmother; my uncle Glenn (married to my mother’s sister); Jacob Kuhns, representing the Brethren in Christ Board for Missions; and his daughter Marian who was then a freshman in college home for Christmas. After going through customs and collecting all our luggage, we set out by car for Pennsylvania, stopping once along the way for something to eat.

Although we were headed to my aunt and uncle’s home in Mifflin County for Christmas, we stopped briefly to unload most of our things at the house in Grantham where we would be living. In the evening, as we neared Grantham on Route 15, someone pointed out the lighted steeple of the Grantham Church on the Messiah College campus. I’ve never forgotten my first sighting of the steeple of what has been my home church ever since. The next day, we went shopping for winter coats and boots. In my memory, it either had recently snowed or it snowed that day, so the boots were important.

Before 1961, my Christmas memories range from special holiday parties at boarding school at the end of the term, to missionary get-togethers where the adults and kids exchanged names and gave gifts to each other, to Christmas Day services on the mission stations when people came from the surrounding villages with their containers to receive a gift of salt from the mission. I also remember Christmas 1954 when we were on furlough and living in southern California. My mother’s entire family was together in one place at the same time: my grandmother, the six siblings and their spouses, and the fourteen grandchildren. The only person missing was my grandfather who had passed away in 1950 while we were in Africa. The cousins exchanged gifts. My cousin Art had my name and gave me a toy baking set, complete with miniature Betty Crocker cake mixes. I was enthralled, and believe it or not, I still have a few pieces of the baking set left that my grandchildren play with now!

SCAN0028

My high school senior picture taken in 1963, with me wearing my 1961 Christmas gift from my brother

For Christmas in 1961, it was just my grandmother, my aunt Mary and uncle Glenn and two cousins Andy and Peggy, and our family. It was important not only because our family was together again for the first time in more than six years, but also because it was the boundary between my two lives. The only gift I remember from that Christmas was a crew neck sweater that John gave me. Either by happy coincidence or because my mother and brother conferred beforehand, the sweater perfectly matched the wool plaid pleated skirt my mother had made for me in Africa before we left from fabric one of her sisters had sent her from the U. S. The sweater and skirt together created my most fashionable outfit, which was really important for me as a shy and socially awkward 13-year-old desperately trying to fit in with American culture.

After Christmas, we settled in the missionary home in Grantham, and when school started after the Christmas break, I entered the second half of tenth grade as a 13-year-old (see “Re-Entry” for what that was like). So much of who I am today was formed by the 13 years of my life before December 22, 1961, but so much has happened since too. Today, as I reflect on this 52nd anniversary of my family’s arrival back in the U. S., I am nostalgic about the past but also incredibly grateful for the present, filled with the prospect of another Christmas with my wonderful husband of 42 years, our two children and the beautiful people they chose to marry, our three grandchildren, and new little one due to make her appearance early in the new year.

Honoring People While Opposing War

On this Veterans’ Day, as I sift through postings from friends on Facebook and see all the discounts being offered to veterans that express gratitude to those who have served or are serving in the armed forces, I confess to feeling very conflicted. I am a conscientious objector to war, committed to nonviolent peacemaking and resolution of conflict. Veterans’ Day (and Memorial Day as well) celebrates those who have fought in wars I wish hadn’t been fought, wars that perhaps could have been avoided had more people been committed to nonviolence and finding other solutions to the serious conflicts that were at the root of those wars. So many wars and conflicts, in my view, are just dumb, as my daughter once said many years ago while we were watching a war movie on television.

At the same time, I don’t want to dishonor those who sacrificed so much to defend their country, including not only the veterans themselves but also their friends and family members. I recognize that even though I believe that “war is not the answer” (to use that bumper-sticker phrase), the wars that the United States has waged probably helped in some way to secure the freedoms we enjoy. I am grateful for those freedoms, especially since I know that many people in other countries around the world don’t enjoy the same freedoms. I also grieve at the high incidence of post-traumatic stress disorder and suicide among veterans, particularly of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, and at the emotional toll deployment takes on family members left at home. I want veterans and family members to have the services they need to cope and to heal. And I am aware of how the armed forces often serve as a source of respectable employment and job training for young people who might otherwise be stuck in poverty with few opportunities.

But the fact remains: Veterans’ Day is difficult for me because it tends to glorify something I don’t believe in, namely war. How do I, as a believer in nonviolence, show honor and respect to those who have done what they thought was right to defend my country even when I don’t agree with many of their methods? Or as one Facebook friend asked me today, how do we practice peace on days that honor values we don’t hold?

In Canada, November 11 is called Remembrance Day. In keeping with that label, Mennonite Central Committee has a button with the statement, “to remember is to work for peace.” I like that.

Previous posts that have also explored my commitment to peacemaking and nonviolence:

“My Pieces of Peace”

“War is Dumb”

“Gambling on the Rapture”

“Guns and the Violence Within”