Merrimack Valley People for Peace
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- Vigils after Two Years:
“Do you think they do any good?” -

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Saturday vigil March 19, 2005

by Don Abbott; March, 2005

Does all this vigiling matter? It’s the same question, frequently asked of us. But it’s dressed in different tones. Sometimes it’s skeptical and challenging. Often it’s just plain confused or exasperated. Maybe it’s curious: what are passersby thinking and saying to you? At other times it’s tentative and hopeful. And when we are honest with ourselves, it is our question too.

Under any circumstances, it puts the definition of success up for grabs.

I’m reminded of what Tom Ashbrook said on his evening talk show on WBUR right after we invaded Iraq. I know he was trying to goad responses from callers, but I think he believed it himself: “Don’t you think this invasion shows that the whole ‘peace movement’ was a failure? It had no ground to stand on practically speaking, and so it now should fold up its tent and let things play out.” This, just days after the invasion.

Of course, tent folding is not an option, except perhaps for those who invest in the instant gratification promise of our society. So, our flags still fly over the camp we pitched in front of Old Town Hall on March 19, 2003…as do Mary Kate’s and Arthur’s signs at Raytheon, and those of the Shawsheen vigilers and others in Merrimack Valley, for longer than that.

Reality is kaleidoscopic when viewed through the prism of a vigil. Just when you think you’ve heard it or seen it all, along comes a new and different visit, comment, or gesture to surprise, hurt, uplift, confound, bemuse, depress, confirm, or confuse you. True, many of the clear responses have been positive from the beginning, and they run close to 90+% every day now. Some just double us over in laughter: “Hey, if it wasn’t for Iraq, we wouldn’t be there!”

But the negatives can be downright ugly and devastating: “I know what the bottom line is for you. The Jews caused it all. That’s about it!” What’s even more perplexing are the numbers of people who stare right at you with no discernible expression whatsoever. The ranks of “sleepwalkers through history” may be more numerous than Sen. Robert Byrd could ever imagine.

Yet, so many (more with every month) are not in denial. The children in the back seats aren’t. They almost always wave and smile. (Mothers in “Market Basket” tell us their kids ask to get out and join us.) Veterans are awake too. Typical is the one who served 22 years, the son of a Korean vet and nephew of a World War II vet, who said he thought we were dead wrong from the outset, but now he supports us. Why the change? “Abu Ghraib. What we did there. That’s not what my father, my uncle, and I stood and fought for!”

Two weeks ago, a stranger parked his car across Main Street and walked slowly over to our curb. “You people are the only ones saying what we need to hear. The media have never told us. But you do. I’ve seen you when I drive by, and I want to say thanks.” It turns out he lives in Beverly, and his sister, an Andover resident unknown to us, had told him about our vigils.

On a recent night, a van pulled up to the dark curbside in front of me. The driver reached over and rolled down the passenger’s window, and called out: “I pass by a lot and see you always here. I have something I think you should have. I got it once in an antique store, and I really think it should belong to you and your group.” He handed me a wooden figure and quickly drove away. I held up the object to see what it was: a carving of a right hand, about 6” tall, fashioned into the “V” sign of peace.

But stories only hint at what these vigils may mean. Weather of all kinds adds texture--the brutal sub-zero air; a windswept, summer rain; the take-your-breath-away silence of full moons; early, sap-flowing, spring warmth. Extended conversations among ourselves and with strangers intensify and expand our mutual support and awareness. It is common for people to approach us more freely now, linger awhile, and share in a space where it feels safe for them to be. What may have started for us as acts of a relatively silent witness for peace has evolved into mutual choices to risk for new relationships and deeper understandings of ourselves, others, and the world.

But these vigils? Do you think they do any good?

They haven’t yet curtailed the imperial U.S. juggernaught, have they? And we will probably never find any meaningful quantifiable measures of their impact. Yes, it is wonderful to hear, as we often do, that somebody we never knew has noticed us and somehow taken heart from what she saw. If we were unaware of that person until now, how many others might be out there like her, sympathetic but silent strangers to us? We’ll never know, and it is not worth speculating, because success as American culture promotes it was not our goal in the first place.

The true meaning of each vigil is perceived through the prism of the heart. I believe what some blessed soul (Mother Teresa? Dorothy Day?) once said: that we are called to be faithful, not necessarily successful. Vigils don’t represent ordinary human behavior. They encourage and permit us to witness publicly to something of value outside of ourselves. They are acts of imagination, affirmations of hope, expressions of resistance to the prevailing temporal powers and historical trends. They tell us to wake up and pay attention. They enable me to stand free and open. They evoke all my relations. They keep me grounded and sane. Sometimes they impel me to risk into a better way, somewhere else in my life. And, who knows where, they just may spark the beginnings of some of these same possibilities for another person.

Paradoxically, at the level of mystery, we do know this. From the heart and through the spirit, transforming work gets done…and carries on. A teacher rarely knows if he or she has had any lasting impact on a student. But as Schweitzer once said, “All work that is worth anything is done in faith.”

Revolution, they say, is of the spirit, or not at all.

vigil 2 years after the invasion

Merrimack Valley People for Peace meets monthly, on the fourth Tuesday,
at 7:30 pm,
at North Parish Church, North Andover.

Contact Merrimack Valley People for Peace       (978) 685-1389
            P.O. Box 573
            North Andover, MA 01845

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