Friday, November 11, 2005

Taking a day to remember

So, it's Remembrance Day. I think that is probably the most beautiful-sounding holiday out there, just rolling off the tongue. That this day has been designated for remembering is something I am grateful for, but this year I notice that it too is becoming stained by commerce and the drive to consume. Even our most solemn holidays are being shaped by the impulse to keep moving. To keep busy. To get things done. What am I supposed to do, stay home and make soup? Knit? Think about war or some other depressing event?

I am a case in point. I went out for brunch this morning with friends, as if it were any other long weekend. Mind you, I did expect the city to be shut down, so out I went, tesing it: If I will go, will they open for me? Of course. Take my money. This is business.

Yesterday at work a few of us talked about how we'd spent various recent November Elevenths. To my chagrin, I couldn't remember. When I was young we'd have assemblies and afternoons off. We'd spend the week previous writing awkward poems in hopes of being picked to read aloud in the echoing gymnasium--smelling of rubber and basketballs and play. Every year the same man would come in and play the same haunting song on the trumpet. The one with that part that makes every elementary child's heart leap up for the first time in some sort of empty patriotic impulse. The song that was perhaps for us then the first strains of a pride larger than egoism. A glory bigger than the self. The halls leading us towards the gym would of course be decorated with little squares of red tissue paper that had been meticulously ruffled around the index finger and glued to a Flander's Field of felt. The year I remember most clearly is the one where I sang John Lennon's "Imagine" with my friend Maria; we were the soundtrack to a visually accosting slide show of images from the second world war. Our backs were turned. Everybody else had to watch and all we had to do was sing. I think even in the cold sweat of stage fright, we had the easier time.

Past those ritual assemblies of youth I don't remember most of my Rememberance Days. For most of us now they mean a day off, or at least time and a half. I don't doubt that this morning many ate their eggs benedict and sipped their americanos with a heightened sense of respect and a bright poppy on their lapel. I just marvel at how we so casually go about our normal outings, demanding that retail cater to our material hunger. As we waited for a table one of my brunch partners mused at what we weren't remembering--civil wars in his dual homelands Columbia and Egypt, all the wars ending and beginning, the war in the East. Later I stopped and looked around at the turtlenecks, the shoes, the espresso beans glimmering behind the bar. I thought of all the blood that had been shed for these things we indulged in so unthinkinglyon this Friday in November. I gave it only a moment, and then turned back to my breakfast. A sense of social justice is so seldomly translated into action.

On the bus on the way home a large man came and stood right in front of me. Maybe my "Peace" pin had set him off, or maybe he had some kind of prophetic message for us, his captive cargo. "I am the first-born son of a liberal-voting...went to a pentecostal church after I left Catholicism...I am grateful for the united states' effort to save the world...after 6 years of living in assonance..." all these unfinished, mumbled sentences. When the bus stopped he barrelled through the crowd, raising his voice, "OK folks we're going to get to that door, let's MOVE, I'm needing to get to that door now..." and then he was gone. The young man standing across from me smiled and said "that guy is on something." As I looked down at my poppy, and the guilty-looking pin on my bag, I wondered what war had been raged around him, with him, in him.

It's Rememberance Day and there's much to forget, much to remember, and much to take notice of in the people and things around us every day. This day is an ode to memory and to indifference. To battles unneccessary and un-fought. To pain we don't understand and to wounds we do not see.

In Dachau Concentration Camp, an iron gate remains. The German words for "Work Makes One Free" are set into its clasp. The picture at the top of this post is the International Monument that stands at the entrance to the site's Museum. I wonder what it is that truly makes us free, ignorance or memory.

"Alas for those who lie on beds of ivory, and lounge on their couches, and eat lambs from the flock and calves from the stall; who sing idle songs to the sound of the harp, and like David improvise on instruments of music; who drink wine from bowls, and anoint themselves with the finest oils, but are not grieved over the ruin of Joseph! Therefore they shall now be the first to go into exile, and the revelry of the loungers shall pass away." Amos 6:4-7.

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