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Hope and Humor Keep Us There: Reflections of a Peace Vigiler
Don Abbott, September 28, 2003
On the evening of March 16, 2003, hundreds of vigilers assembled in the
center of Andover, MA, in solidarity with citizens in communities around
the globe who simultaneously witnessed for a peaceful alternative to the
imminent invasion of Iraq. On the evening of the day after the onset of
war, a handful of these people returned to the scene to continue the vigil,
and ever since a steady band of a dozen or more individuals has maintained
an hour-long vigil five days per week. Several, including this writer,
have since joined Merrimack Valley People for Peace.
Tonight is our 6th-month anniversary. Weve been here for half
Boryana startled me with this declaration at a recent vigil. By mid-September,
we had generally noted the passing of time because now we were beginning
once again to light candles against the growing darkness, just as we did
the day after we invaded Iraq. But could it be half a year?
A kaleidoscopic memory began to kick in, images falling in and out of
time and place, as I let Boryanas revelation carry me where it would.
More than 225 people overflowing the square at Old Town Hall, in
concert with hundreds of thousands of like-hearted souls gathering at
7 pm, following the setting sun around the globe in their home communities;
everyone lighting the darkness with the unconventional hope that a mad
juggernaught could somehow be stayed.
A commitment by some of us to meet on the evening of the day after
the invasion, followed by a same-time-same-place invitation which soon
led to a surprisingly clear need, immediately felt, to keep it up. Why?
It didnt exactly matter; each of us had reasons, and we seemed open
to an uncertain journey and whatever discovery it would offer.
So we felt our way along, in the cold and brilliant full moon and
windswept icy rain, and the gradually brightening spring evening. And
what began as an everyday witness settled into a Mon-Wed-Fri-Sat-Sun.
Whatever the ensuing, steady weeks of vigiling may have communicated to
the public, it has become an intensely important, shared experience for
each of us. Desmond Tutu was so right to remind us in Cochran Chapel last
May that we become human through other human beings. Thats what
a dozen or so of us have been trying to become for all these months. The
affection we have discovered and expressed for each other and the solidarity
we have created (not to mention the vital, updated news and commentary
we have exchanged) surpass anything I ever could have imagined.
But because we primarily are there to communicate with anyone who passes
by, mostly anonymous people with unpredictable moods and responses, the
vigils can be difficult at times, requiring an even-keeled, good humor
and self-restraint in the face of hatred, fear, ignorance, and intolerance.
From the outset at least two dialectical realities have been clear to
us: 1) Xenophobia, for generations a notorious American trait, is all
too alive and well today in our land and yet, 2) A clear and growing majority
of responding people are in favor of our messages, close to 60% from the
beginning and now approaching 80% and higher.
Although in the minority from the start, the voices of hatred and fear
on the street were almost overwhelming during the first month.
Bury em. Dig em up, and shoot em again. Theyre
We already got the Sand Niggers. We blew em all up.
Do the fuckin Iranians next!
As our second month
passed and people began to notice that we had not gone away, we sensed
our emerging opportunity to engage the public in the issues, especially
as the invasion gave way to occupation and casualties daily mounted for
the Iraqis and our troops.
This War Was Not the Answer
Passerbys question: What is the answer? Got that one?
Vigilers reply: Justice.
Passerby: Dont you know? The war is over. We won. You
Vigilers reply: What did we win?
People would stop
and initiate conversation with us, sometimes to argue their justifications
for the war, often to ask questions and even admit uncertainties. I had
an especially poignant and somewhat lengthy discussion with a young man
in his mid-20s who approached me on crutches. Serving in an Army
Reserve Unit on Cape Cod, he had suffered a knee injury that required
major surgery and prevented him from shipping out with his unit. He first
wanted to know if we were against all war in principle or had qualms about
this one in particular. I responded in the latter instance, citing my
opposition to pre-emptive invasions and my concern over our
use of depleted uranium munitions. He was proud of his training and his
men, but anxious about their safety and conflicted about the turn of events
that had kept him home. His in-laws live in the area and his wife was
due to deliver their first child in a few months. We parted, separated
by many differences but respectful, and I called out, I hope youll
take awhile to heal. He returned an ironic smile and disappeared
into the darkness.
Other responses developed from the natural inclinations of individual
vigilers. We wrote and distribute a handout Why We Still Vigil, with useful
website resources on the flip side. By mid-summer, both the Stars and
Stripes and the Earth Flag flew regularly with our multicolored Peace
flags from Italy. In August, some of us stocked a table with fliers, important
news articles and commentary, and items for saleflags, bumper stickers,
buttons, and the critically important book on depleted uranium, Discounted
Casualties. This display is now a feature of every Saturday morning vigil,
when numbers of pedestrians stop, browse, and linger for conversation.
I wish I could remember who wrote or said something I scribbled down in
a notebook at least 20 years ago, because his or her words capture what
has carried us along these months: to laugh one another into fruitfulness
and courage for the long haul. Ah, the sudden glory of humor as it keeps
us human, if not deft and on our toes! How many times we have split our
sides laughing at comic visitations.
who stopped after passing us on the sidewalk, turned and said in all
seriousness, Get a job. And when you get some money, you can
become a Republican.
The jogger who christened us Saddams Glee Club.
The bicyclist who jeered at us as he sped by, I eat
Hippies for breakfast.
The motorist who stopped to say, Jeez, if there wasnt
a war in the first place, you wouldnt be standing there!
The driver with the ultimate pronouncement, Jesus supports
The mother of two, pre-teen daughters who parked her SUV at curbside
to give us a piece of her mind, concluding with, We could have
had a woman President with PMS, and shed have pushed the button
by now. Yeah!
Our latest curbside banter
suggestions for a vigil sign:
I Am a Patriot Act and for bumper stickers: Bush/
Cheney 04: Leave No Billionaire Behind and Vote
Bush in 2004: I Has Incumbentory Advantitude.
With tragedy forever
wed with comedy, the grave urgency of peace work continues. And it will
endure well beyond whatever the outcome of the 2004 elections, as long
as pandemic poverty and injustice, the conditions that create war and
terrorism, prevail across the world. Enter humor as progenitor of long-haul
fruitfulness and courage. A Japanese proverb reminds us, Time spent
laughing is time spent with the gods. Laughter is more than a stay
against either burnout or senselessness. If we dare to let it, it will
link us, if not to the divine, then to a spiritual wellspring of resistance
and possibility: in spite of everything, yes!
Thats the source of hope that the Andover vigilers have become for
me. And now into our seventh month, I need these hearty friends more than
ever. Just yesterday,
man spoke with some disdain, Have you been in the Service?
I tried to reply, We all are, sir.
A driver accosted me through his open window, What about
all those who died in New York? I replied, We mourn
them. We knew some of them. But violence begets violence. Oh,
he muttered, Thats so 3rd grade.
A storeowner on Main Street confronted me at the end of the morning
vigil as I was stowing my flag in the back of the car, How
old are you? You know who Hitler was. Dont you remember World
War II? Surely you know all about Hitler, dont you!
And there was even
more today, in Shawsheen Square:
Thank heavens, Mike was
at the opposite curbside, and I called over to him, The venom is really
back these days. He was quick with an upbeat reply, Maybe because
the message is getting through. I turned my signs back toward the
oncoming traffic: Bush Lied, Thousands Died and No Justice, No Peace.
at the red light, rolls down his window: You think that little
sign and that little flag will protect you against the Jihadists?
I asked, Do you feel safer now than you did on 9/11?
Yes, I sure do! he affirmed. Even though our
invasion and occupation are breeding more terrorists? I asked.
You better keep you head low, he warned, deadly serious.
A backseat passenger yells out, Why dont you grow
some balls and join the military? I reply into thin air, Why
Another driver: So you want anthrax in your coffee?
A sedan slows to a halt in the midst of the Square, just next to the small
island where I stand, and through his open window a gentle, middle-aged
stranger offers, Thank you, my brother, and heads off again
on his way
As the prophet and activist, The Rev. William Sloane Coffin Jr., would always
say, it is faith that puts us on the road and hope that keeps us there.
There's Don at Shawsheen. Arthur has an important message too.
People for Peace meets monthly, on the fourth Tuesday,
at 7:30 pm, at
North Parish Church, North Andover.
Merrimack Valley People for Peace (978) 685-1389
P.O. Box 573
North Andover, MA 01845
to post on the website to email@example.com