Tuesday, October 5, 2010

A peace message from "The Lorax"

This essay is slightly adapted from the version I wrote originally wrote that was published by The Whalesong in September 2010.

“the world was much smaller than ever before
And “over there” wasn’t so far anymore
what we did unto others washed up on our shores
the answer was hard to ignore…..the end of war”
… Eric Colville, from his song The End of War
The lyrics of End of War earned Eric Colville 1st Prize in the 2009 USA Songwriting Contest. The song’s title is an understandable wish given that the United States has been at war in Afghanistan for nine years now. Except Colville wasn’t writing about Afghanistan, the war in Iraq, or any war in particular. He was imagining a world where all nations lived in peace. And Dr. Seuss was his first inspiration to write about his dream.

Like many artistic endeavors, there is more than one muse behind the work. What other voices did Colville hear? Taking a peek into his lyrics we find him paying tribute to John Lennon as some guy who

"went so far to say “try to imagine”
No heaven, no hell, and no God
No King, no country, not even possessions
We all thought he was asking a lot”

The reference was to Lennon’s song Imagine which was recorded in 1971 during the height of the Vietnam War. But would people ever give up God and country to end all wars? And who would be willing to sacrifice all their possessions? Even Lennon knew we’d say he was dreamer, but he added he’s “not the only one.”

Dr. Seuss was a dreamer too. His books challenged children to imagine a very different world through a playful mix of unique cartoon characters and rhyming language which often included silly words he invented. But more than a few were an extension of his early career as a political cartoonist.

The book that got Colville thinking was the environmental classic, The Lorax, which was published the same year that Lennon asked the world to Imagine. He had been reading it to his son while PBS was broadcasting "The War", a seven-part documentary about World War II produced by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick. The book and film merged in his imagination to form a wish that he could explain to his son that wars were a terrible calamity of the distant past.

The Lorax didn’t end in that manner. Seuss tells his story through a character called the Once-ler whose face we never see. Speaking to a youth from the nearby city, he explains that the Lorax spoke for the Truffula trees, and the fish and wildlife that depended on its natural habitat. The Once-ler sadly admits he never listened to the Lorax’s concerns. Instead he chopped down all the trees for the sake of profit and possessions.

After the devastation was complete, the Once-ler discovered the vague message “Unless” that the Lorax left behind on a stack of rocks. It’s this question that bothered Colville. For as the Once-ler tells the young lad

“Unless someone like you
cares a whole awful lot,
nothing is going to get better.
It’s not.”

Part of the lesson from the Lorax is that the pursuit of material possessions distracts us from caring about the impact of intense resource extraction from the land. The same is true for war. What small things can we begin to set aside to make room for working for peace? To care a whole awful lot we have to set aside our needs and start speaking for those who suffer the devastating consequences of war.

The story of the Lorax ends with a Truffula tree seed being passed to the young lad who represents our future hopes. We could also ask which world do we want to pass onto to the generations that follow, a scarred landscape the like the Once-ler left, or one in the process of healing from all the wars that that have ever been fought.

Now you may say it’s just a story. But peace can become real one story at a time. And Coville’s story is seed worthy of Lennon’s dream on the way to The End of War.

Sunday, January 3, 2010

Once in a blue moon

Reflections on the Gaza Freedom March

Blue moons were once thought of as an absurdity. We were just granted the chance to see one, and here in Juneau Alaska we got rare clear skies so it could grace our landscape through the night and into the morning. It reflected peace on our waters and the light of love on the snow draped mountain peaks. The natural world should remind us that all which is possible must first inspire wonder. Peace is possible too if we wonder deep enough into its mystery. And freedom is still calling for the people of Gaza.

Freedom and peace took a major blow though as the Egyptian government denied 90 percent of the international peace delegation access into Gaza. "Word from Gaza is that 6,000 marched — the maximum allowed by Hamas in absence of international shield.”

That's far less than the 50,000 the organizers of the Gaza Freedom March had hoped would march. But does this mean it was a failure. Absolutely not. To imagine it was is to deny the meaning of Gandhi's work on behalf of peace because India and Pakistan are in a constant struggle still and both now possess nuclear weapons.

To imagine the Gaza Freedom March failed is to ignore the legacy of Martin Luther King Jr., for have we eliminated injustice based on race, religion or ethnic differences yet? And what about his passionate call to end the Vietnam War? That's in the past, but have we created his dream of a "worldwide fellowship that lifts neighborly concern beyond one's tribe, race, class, and nation [and] is in reality a call for an all-embracing and unconditional love for all mankind."

Does putting failure aside though mean we have to redefine success? I suggest we ignore that line in the sand. Nature doesn't draw such lines, it wanders the shore as each individual wave comes and goes with variations as infinite as the contours between high and low tides.

The direction King saw for us is still here today - "We must move past indecision to action. We must find new ways to speak for peace ... and justice throughout the developing world, a world that borders on our doors. If we do not act, we shall surely be dragged down the long, dark, and shameful corridors of time reserved for those who possess power without compassion, might without morality, and strength without sight."

Martin Luther King Jr. is and always will be a hero for our cause. The question is, what is next, what new ways are there, if we are followers of his ideals. I propose the first step is always self examination. Who are we and are we really called to this cause? What does calling even mean?

To King, the truth of the words he spoke that day at the Riverside Church in NYC were beyond doubt, but he also said "the mission to which they call us is a most difficult one. Even when pressed by the demands of inner truth, men do not easily assume the task of opposing their government's policy, especially in time of war. Nor does the human spirit move without great difficulty against all the apathy of conformist thought within one's own bosom and in the surrounding world. Moreover, when the issues at hand seem as perplexed as they often do … we are always on the verge of being mesmerized by uncertainty; but we must move on."

We move on because we must, the first step being to fight the urges of apathy. After all, if King and Gandhi couldn't make a lasting difference, who are we mere common folk to think we can? That is the question, indeed the voice, in our minds that we must silence.

Here I offer another philosophy. For those of you who read why I went to Gaza, you'll recognize the words of American poet Wendell Berry - “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.”

A few days ago I spoke about the Gaza Freedom March in front of a mere 30 or so people in the windy and frigid Taku air in downtown Juneau. It would be easy to imagine I wasted my time, especially after so relatively few marched in Gaza . It would be easy to swap my dreams and realize that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is either beyond hope, too complicated, or outside of the spectrum of true American interests. I will not acquiescence though, because I believe seeking success, or to be part of the success narrative, is a phantom, a ghost of apathy's curse, and for too much of my life I gave an ear to that voice.

I choose poets like Rainer Maria Rilke to trust instead. Yes, as King says the mission is a most difficult one, but it is Rilke who reminds me that the easy is a trap which weakens the heartbeat of life.

"People have, with the help of conventions, oriented all their solutions toward the easy, and toward the easiest side of easy. But it is clear we must hold to what is difficult; everything alive holds to it, everything in nature grows and defends itself in its own way, and characteristically and spontaneously seeks to be itself at all costs and against all opposition. We know little, but that we must hold to what is difficult is a certainty that will not forsake us."

And I trust dreamers like John Lennon, so I imagine the world living in peace. I imagine we each take Berry 's wisdom to heart and chase away the grand expectations and find it our own necessity to follow King and Gandhi, so as to preserve the goodness deep in our heart and spirit. Because as each of us do genuinely discover this secret, we will begin to see more and more people standing in solidarity with the many already there seeking the dreamer's dreams, and maybe, maybe someday will arrive when enough of us do to make the impossible possible. Then Gaza too will be free from the siege, the occupation and the violence of war.
by Rich in Juneau