Memorial Day is one of those occasions when we don't get time off from classes and we don't have a campus-wide celebration, but Greg does a talk on history and we are all strongly encouraged to attend. This year, though something was different--this year, the US is quite clearly at war.
It's curious how, today, we are both more connected to the outside world than normal and more out-of-step from it. On the one hand, we're talking quite deliberately about current events--politics, news, what's going on in the Middle East and why. There are days when it feels like we're living in a bubble, some idealized Avalon, a world all our own. Today is not one of those days. On the other hand, in the larger world, today is the cultural first day of summer--and we already had that, back on Beltane.
My Dad always has a big outdoor party on or near Memorial Day. As I've said, he's a serious grill-freak, and while he never actually puts his grill away for the season--he's cooked Easter Dinner on it, some years--in the summer he likes to have these parties, with big mountains of meat and even vegetables, for our friends and neighbors. Memorial Day is the first one.
My Mom enjoys the parties, but she disapproves of the way such things take over Memorial Day, distracting from the real reason for the holiday. She disapproves of the commercialization of Christmas and President's Day and all the rest of it, for the same reason. But I've told her that I don't think Memorial Day is really a case of commercialization. I think America is trying to celebrate Beltane, the beginning of summer, and just doesn't have a better day for it. And summer is worth celebrating. She likes that idea and says it may be true.
Anyway, Greg gave his talk this year in the Chapel after dinner--usually he does it outside on the central field, but today it was raining, a light, gentle mist that wouldn't let up.
He told us about the history of the day, like he always does, how it began as a day to decorate the graves of the Civil War dead, and talked some about the different ways people have conceptualized the dead of wars over the years--as heroes and as victims--and about the importance of seeing them as individuals.
"Each is an individual, personal death, and each was an individual life, with his or her own reasons for going to war, embedded in and reflecting the various cultural and historical threads of the time," he said.
All that is about what he's done in previous years. This year he said more. He talked about an individual dead soldier, Lori Piestewa, whose death was made public last month. She was the first American woman to die in combat in Iraq and the first Hopi woman to die in combat abroad. She interested Greg for several reasons, he said--first, her death was high-profile enough that a fair amount of information about her is available, obviously important if you want to do a talk on something, though Greg isn't sure how much of the information is true.
Second, she was Native American, allowing Greg to talk about the long and complicated history of Native Americans in the US military, a story with some interesting parallels to the history of Japanese-Americans in the US military, a subject obviously close to Greg's heart.
Third, Piestewa was Hopi, and as such largely pacifist, as Greg is. He said he had not been able to find out how she reconciled pacifism with going to war, but he speculated about some possibilities, including the fact that joining the military is often the only option for young people from poor families who want to get ahead. And poverty and race are strongly linked in America.
"Ostensibly," he finished, "the invasion of Iraq has succeeded, the war is complete. And yet fighting continues and there is no sign of the weapons of mass destruction we supposedly went in there to find. The war in Afghanistan continues. In the two wars combined, over 260 American soldiers have died so far--a small number, overall, but there will be more. How many Iraqis? How many Afghanis? We don't know. They won't tell us. Maybe if we pay more attention to these things there will be fewer wars."
And he sat down. Steve Bees stood up.
Paying attention has been a major part of Steve's education, so far. Steve, as I've said, asked Greg to help him build a better awareness of social justice issues, especially the real challenges and concerns of poor people and people of color. He's trying to break through the obliviousness that he says comes with growing up as a white, cis-gendered, straight male. Greg is Buddhist, and as such is very concerned with both awareness and compassion. Apparently that translates into making Steve learn a fantastic amount of historical and anthropological detail--when the Invasion of Iraq began a few months ago, Greg set Steve to learning the geography and history of Iraq as well as studying who joins the US military and why. As Greg says, perhaps if we pay more attention, there will be fewer wars.
Anyway, Steve is also Kit's student. He's been taking voice lessons from Kit and has made a lot of progress over the past year. And so, after Greg was done speaking, Steve sang. He sang a single Don McLean song, a Capella.
And the rain fell like pearls on the leaves of the flowers
Leaving brown, muddy clay where the earth had been dry.
And deep in the trench he waited for hours,
As he held to his rifle and prayed not to die.
The song went on for several verses, simple, vivid, without much overt editorial comment and with very little melody, almost musical talking, rising and rising in intensity and then falling again to the simple, stark last line: he's gone.