[This post’s obligatory image is of a trading card that I found in my parents’ basement while my brother and I were helping our mother eliminate our childhood memories from that place this weekend.]
The big trusty paper dictionary that lives on top of my bookshelf defines Memorial Day as follows:
May 30, observed in the United States in commemoration of those members of the armed forces killed in war. It is officially observed on the last Monday in May. Also called Decoration Day.
I want to write about this occasion, this current event, this day of observance: I want at least to try to be timely; but now I can’t think of a single thing to say.
Slain warriors… slain soldiers… Anyone who sacrifices their own freedom for the sake of increasing humanity and harmoniousness—how can one acknowledge, or rather praise such an act sufficiently? Words fall short. In Saint John’s gospel (15:13), Jesus says:
Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.
And my own favorite prophet William Blake has a similar proverb:
The most sublime act is to set another before you.
Contemplating this subject, I turn to the arts, since I’ve been lucky enough to avoid having to suffer war’s direct effects personally. My memory is still fixed on the scenes that set up the main conundrum of the film Seven Samurai (1954). Bandits come streaming over the hilltops and raid the valley’s farming community. This is not the first time this has happened; now the farmers have had enough: they grow determined to defend themselves against the bandits’ next onslaught. So the farmers go in search of some samurai to help them. The samurai train the farmers to protect their families…
Modern warfare confuses me—it doesn’t seem as clear-cut as the Seven Samurai. I can’t always discern who the enemy is. There is no hillside to monitor, no obvious bandits that come storming down over it. Everything is clandestine, under-the-radar, suspicious. I can barely tell the “good guys” apart from the “bad guys.” The same corporations sell their weapons to both sides at once. Civilians are slain without regard, in obscene numbers. (ANY number of casualties is obscene.) Politicians talk about “carpet bombing” before even attempting to negotiate. “Bomb them into the stone age,” they bark. And remote-controlled gadgets like toy airplanes slaughter human beings indiscriminately: men, women, and children…
The companies that profit from such madness—what do they have to say for themselves on Memorial Day?
The poetry of a work of the imagination constantly illustrates the fundamental and endless struggle with fact. It goes on everywhere, even in the periods that we call peace. But in war, the desire to move in the direction of fact as we want it to be and to move quickly is overwhelming.
That’s a quote from Wallace Stevens. The last sentence indicates a type of impatience. Add to this an observation from the “Blue Octavo Notebooks” of Franz Kafka:
There are two main human sins from which all the others derive: impatience and indolence. It was because of impatience that they were expelled from Paradise; it is because of indolence that they do not return. Yet perhaps there is only one major sin: impatience. Because of impatience they were expelled, because of impatience they do not return.
Imagine if we, as a species, could work though and transcend these snares illuminated by Stevens and Kafka, to end up at something beautiful: as if presently we’re only the stem of a plant, but in time we’ll end up as the flower’s blossom. Some dream along these lines (if I remember right) is why I titled my very own tractate Impatiens.
And I’ll privately label this next fact “BREAKING NEWS” because I learned it only today: Certain species of that same genus (impatiens) are known as jewelweed, touch-me-not, and busy lizzie. I find these names attractive.
Also my vodka bottle came shrouded in plastic shrink-wrap boasting a stars-and-stripes themed ink pattern.
It’s true: I have a hard time staying on topic, especially when the topic is struggle and bloodshed. I’d rather focus on the brighter side of life. Yet it surprises me to hear me say this, even as I write it—I normally think of myself as pessimistic. If such a “talent” as despair-plus-angst would pay, I’d make a great Professional Worrier: for I’m always convinced that doomsday is just around the corner.
On this entry’s first sentence and the christening of bookshelves.
Although I scrapped it because it seemed too lighthearted (I feel that one should have a heavy heart on this day), I almost started out this entry by writing: “The trusty big paper dictionary that lives on top of Old Smoky—that’s my bookshelf’s name: the short one, I mean; the other three skyscraping bookshelves are named Ossa, Chocorua, and Horeb…” Now I will explain where those three names came from:
The first term of endearment is from Hamlet’s taunt to Laertes while they’re grappling with each other in Ophelia’s grave (5.1.275):
And if thou prate of mountains, let them throw
Millions of acres on us, till our ground,
Singeing his pate against the burning zone,
Make Ossa like a wart.
The second is from the poem “Chocorua to its Neighbor” by Wallace Stevens. Stanza XX begins like so:
Now, I, Chocorua, speak of this shadow as
A human thing.
And the third is from the book of Exodus (3:1) in the King James Bible:
Now Moses kept the flock of Jethro his father in law, the priest of Midian: and he led the flock to the backside of the desert, and came to the mountain of God, even to Horeb.
That’s the place of the scene where the angel of the LORD appears “in a flame of fire out of the midst of a bush.” …Speaking of the LORD and Exodus and commemorating fallen members of the armed forces, here’s another short verse (3:15) from that very same chapter:
The LORD is a man of war: the LORD is his name.
Any elected official who presses for warfare is known as a hawk. A politician who has never seen combat yet who constantly attempts to instigate or escalate war is known as a chicken-hawk. I find it interesting to note that most of our recent warmongers are chicken-hawks; and by “warmongers,” I mean “U.S. leaders.” I hope that our next president is a peacemaker.