Saturday, November 04, 2006

Poppies for Peace

Thanks to suggestions from several kind Friends, we've put together a shoebox of stuff for a soldier. I realized fromthe list of items the Cub leaderhad given us that she had assumed that the receiving soldier would be male. So we made a box of treats and nice things for a female officer and then put in a hand puppet, 4 pairs of children's socks, and several coloured markers (I wasn't sure if crayons would melt) for Afghani children.

Now we have to write a little postcard to her. We've got four more days to come up with something to say. My son just wants to write stop shooting people. I have suggested to him that this is probably inappropriate.

However, in November, there's no getting away from the soldier theme and the war theme. Remembrance Day is on the 11th, and every year, I find myself asking: What does a Quaker do with Remembrance Day? Every year, I wrestle with the whole notion of wearing a poppy.

IN FLANDERS FIELDS the poppies blow
Between the crosses row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.

What does wearing a poppy mean? The official meaning is lest we forget. I think at one time that translated to lest we forget that soldiers died so that we could be free. Now sometimes I wonder if it has come to mean lest we forget that war is hell.

Should we be concerned about what a symbol officially means? Another website said wearing the poppy was a "tribute" to fallen Canadian soldiers. I don't know what "tribute" means.

We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.

Should a Quaker wear a poppy is the type of question that Margaret Fell might have called a poor silly gospel. Sort of like being concerned whether someone wears a hat or doesn't wear a hat, or whether they have buttons or no buttons. Religion is inward. Symbols are outward. Right? So it should be straightforward: wearing this symbol does not mean anything outward. It just means something to the wearer.

Yet I wonder how it is interpreted.

Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.

The prime minister has tried to boost support for the Afghanistan war by asking people to wear red on Fridays in support of the troops. I guess he managed to get a few military families to do this. But most of them are weary and just want their loved ones home, so I suspect that compliance has already fallen off. I know of no one who wears red on Fridays.

In contrast, even this year, compliance with wearing a poppy is near 100%. To not wear a poppy is to be boorish, selfish, ignorant. It's always been that way, as long as I can remember. Is this a type of knee-jerk traditionalism? Or do people see a difference between one set of symbols and another?

I bought a poppy as a cash register today and wore it. And I joined the sea of people wearing poppies, I'm sure each with their own meaning.

I'm wearing it for my shoebox soldier in Afghanistan, who probably has children back here in Canada, or if not, then parents or a boyfriend. I'm wearing it because of her companions that have already been killed and those who will be killed over the next few months.

And because in war, there are no good guys and bad guys. There's just guys.

And war is hell.


At 6:29 PM, Blogger david said...

I have not worn a poppy in several years. I don't know what people think they do not ask.

I don't wear ribbons (of any colour) or crucifixes or plastic arm bands (though there's a white one on my blog). I don't wear campaign buttons during elections.

Early in my Quaker life I endured an election where nearly a third of the folks in Toronto seemed to be sporting NDP campaign buttons. It was also near Remberance Day and there were buttons with poppies and anti war slogans attached and I saw all this as somehow -- foolish -- a silly poor gospel -- though I was unfamiliar with the term at the time. I started wearing a small white button -- no slogan -- with a picture of Peter Rabbit in his blue coat. When people asked I simply told them it was my bunny button.

I lost my bunny button years ago.

Oh, yes. I also used to have a bumper sticker: I brake for Unicorns. I never got around to getting a bumper to put it on.

At 4:25 PM, Blogger Nancy A said...

Hi David

This is the first year I've worn a poppy since becoming a Quaker. Partly out of humility, since I found there was a prideful element in bucking a tradition. Seeing myself as just one of my people felt like the right thing to do.

But also because I think George Fox sometimes was out to lunch about symbolic action. Such as when he decided people should you "thou" for their superiors, instead of the more respectful "you/ye". What he should have done was ask Quakers to use "you/ye" with poor people and rich people alike. To show respect for poor people seems a better symbolic gesture than to show disrespect for rich people.

The same goes for his doffing or not doffing of hats idea. The better choice would have been to doff hats all the time for everyone. A bit tedious, but showing respect for everyone.

Instead, he chose the symbolic non-gesture that was an offront to certain groups.

Causing affront seemed to be the point of these gesture decisions. I'm not sure that was a good foundation.

Also, I wonder if there is any real difference between a symbolic gesture and a symbolic nongesture in certain contexts. As Margaret Atwood once wrote: Context is everything. In a culture when pretty much everyone wears a poppy, non-wearing becomes the symbolic gesture.

This contrasts to ribbon campaigns, where only a small percentage of people ever take part. In that context, wearing is the symbol.

Absence of an expected gesture can be a gesture, just as much as not doffing a hat can be a gesture.

So I'm wearing a poppy because I decided that not wearing one was the symbolic gesture, and wearing one was not. I don't want to participate in a symbolic gesture.

If that makes any sense.

We'll see what I decide to do next year.

At 12:58 PM, Blogger david said...

Yes. I see this. Though the analysis paralysis frenzy could take hold and then what happens?

Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar. (oft-times attributed to Sigmund Freud)

At 2:06 PM, Blogger Amanda said...

I miss the poppies. To me they always stood for sadness, and missing people. I saw someone in Boston wearing a poppy on the 11th and I almost cried.

At 10:22 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

This was an interesting read. I'd like to respond mostly to your paragraph that poses the question; should a Quaker wear a poppy? Now, I don't believe this question to be a silly gospel, mostly because the gospel literally means 'good news'. I'd also like to suggest that your logic might not be well thought out. If symbols are indeed 'outward' themselves,(and I agree they are) then their meaning is also outward. A person's beliefs are inward, and thus, they are meaningful to themselves only.

Now, personally, I have decided that wearing a poppy is not appropriate, as the history behind it is less than clean. When it comes to symbols, history is everything. If the poppy is supposed to remind us that soldiers died to protect our freedom, as a Canadian, I would scoff. The freedom of my country has been challenged in no war in this past century. We fought in the second world war to protect the freedom of others. It was not about ourselves. To claim so, would be to cheapen the dead soldiers sacrifice.

Now, if this poppy's purpose is truly to raise awareness of the atrocity of war, then I would be wholly behind it. But as it is, this symbol has done nothing to prevent conflict, and has even become a tool that justifies war.

Finally, I would like to gently challenge your seemingly humble decision to avoid pride. To use the old term, what would Jesus do? Well, he happened to be a terrific revolutionary who had a knack for calling out bad traditions. I must point out, that appealing to the norm is ultimately the easy way out, and the best way to avoid healthy dialogue that we so sorely need to keep our society honest.

- Brent


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