neighbours once friendly now stand each side of the line that has been drawn
they've been fighting here for years, but now there's killing on the streets
while small coffins are lined up sadly, now united in defeat
We always need to hear both sides of the story
And the lights are all on, the world is watching now
people looking for truth, we must not fail them now
be sure, before we close our eyes
don't walk away from here
'til you see both sides … Phil Collins from his song Both Sides of the Story
Tomorrow I am joining a Code Pink peace delegation to Gaza to ask the world to help lift the blockade that has been in place since 2006. I leave for Cairo in the morning.
What do I expect to accomplish by going? I’ve got no grand illusions. Even if we get into Gaza we’ll still have to teach the mainstream media to cover the people’s narratives rather than the story line of the politicians. If the borders are opened, meaningful change must be lasting change, so they must stay open. The violence of bombs and oppression has to end. Those are tall orders that depend on the world not only watching, but caring enough to change. It’s a matter of the heart.
How far do I reach back to explain why I couldn't walk away? Every personal story has a beginning. And underneath the cover are other beginnings. Which names and faces and other stories belong to the bibliography of my small narrative?
Ann Wright and Bert Sacks would each have a place. Wendell Berry’s wisdom is there. That’s the extent of name dropping I’ll entertain. The rest are special friends from Juneau’s peace community who some of you know and many others don’t.
In March I listened to Bert Sacks tell a short story at a Veterans for Peace conference in Seattle. He explained how a few years earlier, while walking to the University of Washington campus, he shared with a stranger his excitement about a different VFP convention being held there. The man replied that he liked his lifestyle, his comforts and standard of living, and the war in Iraq was necessary to sustain all those.
Bert’s point was about how he appreciated the man’s honesty even as it opposed everything he has worked for. Truth and honesty is a starting place for the dialogues we need to have with our neighbors who see the world differently than we do. After eight years of ultimatum diplomacy, who can argue with that!
At dinner that evening a few veterans were discussing Bert’s story. They wondered aloud how much work we have to do to change people who think like the man that Bert had encountered. I posed the question to them another way. “What are we willing to give up for peace” I asked. No one answered, except in my head, where I imagined Wendell Berry was speaking.
"Protest that endures, I think, is moved by a hope far more modest than that of public success: namely, the hope of preserving qualities in one's own heart and spirit that would be destroyed by acquiescence."
The question evolved. “What would we be willing to give up even if we believed it wouldn’t make a difference?”
I’ve was immediately bothered by my own challenge. Being a peace activist for 3-1/2 years can’t touch what Bert gave up for the Iraqi people. Worse yet, I’ve got my comforts and security, including a big house and enough kayak cockpits to hold the starting five of a basketball team. I sit here on my computer and bang out intellectual nonsense in near total freedom.
I forced the question into exile.
A month later I happened to be in Colorado the same time Ann Wright was speaking there. I had met her a few years earlier when she came to Fairbanks to speak at a Military Families Speak Out event that I had helped organize. During the past few months I had also been helping her plan her speaking tour through Alaska that just ended.
I decided to make the 45-minute drive to Boulder to hear her talk about Gaza. There were only a handful of people there when I arrived in the small lecture room. I was early, so I walked out back into the lobby and ran into Ann. She started to introduce herself to me, then smiled and said “what the heck are you doing here.”
As people were arriving, Ann introduced me to them after introducing herself. It was a reversal of what we imagine a celebrated personality does. She made me feel that my presence at her talk was somehow special rather than holding protectively to center stage.
Her talk mixed the tragic facts in Gaza with a modest touch of personal story telling. It was easy to imagine her in Gaza and how her spark would encourage people to talk to her. I could see her listen attentively to their stories. She told us a few heartbreaking ones. She closed by saying she was going back in May to build playgrounds for children. And she said if anyone wants to join a delegation, come see her before they leave. They needed volunteers.
Then she took questions. The man sitting next to me wondered about the wisdom of trying to rebuild anything in Gaza. What was the point, he asked.
I thought to myself that they would be bringing in goodwill to keep hope alive and they’d be bearing witness to the tragedy. They would bring the stories out with them. I thought about Bert Sacks and his efforts in Iraq. Wendell Berry and the question I had been avoiding returned too.
Ann’s request for volunteers was directed at the audience, not to me personally, but she had given the evening a personal touch. I thought about all she and others have done. I realized I might be able to help tell the people’s story, but only if I don’t close my eyes and walk away. The instinctive intellectual reflex to avoid disrupting a reasonably convenient life was being tested by a truth my heart seemed to understand. There wasn’t a way to say no without finding an excuse that suddenly felt weak and insincere.
I don’t expect this trip to resolve the dilemma I imagined through Bert’s story. I am learning, that’s all. If life is about learning, there will be more questions, and always more to do on side and more to let go on the other.
I’ve never been out of the country aside from our neighboring Canada. I’ve never even seen Russia even though I’ve been out to the last island on the Aleutian chain. But I am far from alone on this journey across the world as there are more than 70 people participating in the delegation. Some were there with Ann in March. Others have been working for peace and social justice for many years. There are a few students. I wonder how many other 40 or 50 something rookies will be on the bus as we drive across the Sinai Desert.
I hope to contribute something of value to the Palestinian people. I won’t know what form that might take until I listen and see their true story. I am bringing soccer balls for the children too. Judy Maier has collected almost two dozen, all donated for the children of Gaza from within the heart of Juneau's wonderful community.