Saturday, July 8, 2017

Pursuing Peace—#2

In 1941, I lived with friends of my parents while my dad worked in a munitions factory in Parsons, Kansas. By the time I was in first grade, Mom, Dad, and my baby brother had returned to Kansas City. Dad then began to work at Salt Lake City, another munitions factory close to where we lived in Independence, Missouri. I was too young at the time to connect munitions with either war or peace.

Dad was thirty-six when the war began and blind in his left eye from a mining accident. Because of this he could not join the army. However, he hoped to become a Seabee. The Seabees were construction battalion units that built naval bases in the various theaters of war. Dad was a steamfitter; he felt certain he could serve his country with his work skills.

The Seabees, however, turned him down because of his blind eye. Not being able to serve devastated him. It made him feel, I realized much later, as if he weren’t a real man. The consequence of this was that Dad became an alcoholic. He drank for the rest of his life, always feeling, I believe, that he was a failure as a human being.

Throughout the war and during all my grade and high school years, my father’s drinking terrorized me. When sober he was a kind, thoughtful, gentle man. When drunk on hard liquor, he became belligerent and sometimes violent. The arguments Dad and Mom had at those times frightened me because I feared he would harm, and possibly, kill her. 

I longed for quiet, for no arguments, for calm. That is how I began to think of peace—as a great calming of the waves of rage, fear, pain, and abiding grief within my father and mother.

When they argued, I would go to my bedroom, lie face down on my bed, and imagine myself lying on a grassy hillside. I’d be on my back, looking up through the branches of a white-blossomed apple tree while swallows swooped overhead amidst cushiony clouds edged with the gleaming gold of sunrays.

In that place. On that hill. Beneath that tree, I found peace—a peace that I came to know as serenity many years later.

As the arguments raged, I initially heard all the anger and pain because there was no door to my room, just a privacy curtain hanging in the frame. But as I lay on that hill and listened to birdsong, felt the whisper of breeze against my cheek, smelled the rich loam of the earth and the fragrance of apple blossoms, all my senses settled into the calm of peace. In a world of my own making, I lived beyond the arguments. That, then, was peace for me.

Many years later, Dr. Nimlos, the psychiatrist who saved my life, said, “Dee, if you hadn’t had that hillside you would, I think, be totally psychotic. Or dead. It saved you.”  A few months ago, I heard for the first time the song “Pure Imagination.” Its lyrics helped me remember what Dr. Nimlos had said: it was my imagination that enabled me to live through those tense days. My childhood imagination had enveloped me in peace.

That blissful scene on the hillside may have saved me, but it also became what I expected from life. In the convent, I expected no dissension. In friendships, no dissension. I remained caught in the romantic notion that peace meant a life devoid of any kind of disagreement. It took years for me to let go of that idyllic view of peace. The peace I wish you now is not idyllic. It is hard won. Peace.

Sunday, July 2, 2017

Pursuing Peace—#1

Recently a friend asked why I sign off on my blog postings with the word Peace. That question prompted me to think of my history with both the word and its meaning. Today I’ll begin to share with you my initial memories. I suspect I’ll be writing more than one posting about my relationship to peace, but here’s where it all began.

I was five years old and in kindergarten when the United States entered World War II. My parents had told me before then that England was fighting the Blitz and that RAF pilots were defending the island nation. Dad used a large world map to show me Great Britain.

“The British airmen are defending England now, Dodo,” he said. “We’ll probably end up entering this war. Like we did the last. This time we’ll fight for real peace.” I know I didn’t understand the words war and peace then.

However, in 1942, the song we heard repeatedly on our radio was “The White Cliffs of Dover,” sung by the English songstress and actress Vera Lynn. The lyrics spoke of the RAF pilots—called the bluebirds because of their blue uniforms. Lynn sang of their valiant efforts to defend their England and bring peace. That song is perhaps when I first understood the emotions that peace implied.

Between December 1941 and August 1945, I was like most children in the United States: we saved money for war bonds; collected scrap metal for the war drive; and listened as our parents talked at the supper table about the bold newspaper headlines on the battles, which were being fought on multiple fronts.

Several times each year, we gathered around the radio in the front room to listen to President Roosevelt’s fireside chats. By our beds each night we knelt to pray for our fighting men. We laboriously printed short letters to soldiers, sailors, marines, and airmen. We were all in the fight together; all of us—those fighting; those on the home front—were pursuing peace, which my mother told me was “elusive.”

Kitty-cornered from Saint Mary’s Grade School was a small grocery store. It was there I went after school one day a week to buy a few necessities and to present Mom’s ration books and the cash she’d given me that morning. The store’s owner had thumbtacked two maps on his wall: one of Europe, northern Africa, and Asia and one of the Pacific islands.

Each time I came into his store, the owner, whose name I’m sorry to have forgotten because he touched my life with goodness, gave me a history lesson. After I’d made my purchases and while I waited for the town bus, he’d summarize the war effort. Using thumbtacks, he’d show me where our soldiers were advancing or retreating. He’d point to islands in the Pacific and make educated guesses about where the marines would land next. He’d read to me from the letters his son sent.

Early on that son trained at Fort Leonard Wood, which had been built in the Missouri Ozarks in early 1941. He shipped out to the Pacific where he learned jungle warfare and finally fought in the Battle of Luzon. His letters, like all the military sent, had blackened letters. “Can’t let no spies find out what’s happening,” the grocer would say to me.

Frequently, he spoke of what he’d do when his son came home. Of how they’d run the store together. Maybe enlarge it. Of how they’d agree to disagree without fighting. Of the peace they’d share. Slowly I fashioned a picture of a world not torn by war but woven together by that peace.

Until we meet again, may you know peace.