Remembrance Day is upon us, and I am wearing a white poppy.
This alternative to the red poppy was designed by a group of British women in 1933 to reaffirm their commitment to peace. I see it as a focus away from the red of bloodshed towards the light of hope — a hope that comes from love.
We are all familiar with the red poppy that marks Remembrance Day (also known as Armistice Day and Veterans’s Day.) The symbol commemorates all those who have died serving in armed conflict, and its message is “Never Again”. But wars are still happening.
We are forgetting the reason to remember, the reason to spend time in silence. Instead, in some places the day is capitalized on by retailers as an excuse to offer discount sales. More gravely, if we zoom out to the bigger picture, we see a military industrial complex with deep ties to our economy. It seems there is much to lose if we stop manufacturing instruments of war, and if we stop invading countries to plunder resources. But this is fear talking.
Critics say that to refuse the red poppy is to disrespect those who have fought for our country. I disagree. I honour all those who have died as the result of wars, innocent civilians and military personnel. War is not necessary, and I refuse to normalize it. There is another way. If I choose to love you and not fear you, I will not harm you, and I will not seek power over you. This may not be easy, but it is simple, and it can start right now.
Today would be our 9th wedding anniversary, and the 15th anniversary of our journey as friends. Derek and I are still on that journey, but it’s a very different experience being in relationship with someone who doesn’t exist in the material world anymore. I still miss his physical presence. His was a very grounded, solid physicality. When he was with me, his attention made me feel like a star.
We walked into each other’s life in 2004, on the Camino pilgrimage in Spain, when I was working through the grief of my father’s death. I helped walk him through the grief of his wife’s death three years later. The steps we took together were literal and figurative, but it’s so meaningful for me to remember those physical ones.
On one occasion in a small European town, I remember tripping and stumbling on cobblestones, and his reaching out to catch me before I hit the ground. “Are you falling for me?” he quipped, a twinkle in his eye. Often, while trekking on the Camino, suddenly his imagine would pop into my brain, and then there he was. He always showed up at the right time, somehow magically knowing when and where to find me. I never had to wait and wonder. One year — it could have been 2008 or 2009, I walked all the way from Langdale to Lund on the Sunshine Coast, north of Vancouver. It took the better part of a week walking mostly on the highway for four to six hours a day, and Derek would meet me at the end of each stage, a huge grin on his face and admiration in his eyes. He loved nothing better than to support me (and I him). Today I drove part of the way along the same highway and the feeling came back to me instantly, this warm knowing, that after so many hours passing trees and lakes and hills, I would round a corner and he would be there just when I was flagging.
My destination today was Skookumchuck Narrows, the sea rapids where Sechelt and Jervis Inlets meet. The first time I made the hike there was with Derek. After getting out of the car, he held my hand that whole hour while I walked with my eyes closed. He had me reach out and feel different textures — dry tree bark, moist spongy moss. He had me stop and smell resinous pine needles and earthy mushrooms. We agreed that the forest smelled its own shade of green, like no other. He had me step up onto stumps and jump down. He had me listen to the different qualities of sound, surrounded by thick forest compared to a clearing beside a pond. How near to the rapids did we get before I could hear them? How giddy I became when I heard their faint roar in the distance.
When we finally made it to the rocky outlook the sound engulfed me. The intensity of the water was palpable. I opened my eyes and tears of joy began to flow. How glorious the colours — the amazing array of grey granite hues under my feet, the deep blue of sky above, and the white foam of racing water. I laughed and laughed in pleasure and awe. Today I stood there just like the first time, mesmerized by the coursing, surging tide. I thought back to that first time, and how little we had to say to one another in that moment, so full of gratitude and love. A moment later I was snapped back to the present — a black shape surfaced, and then disappeared. What had I just seen? I kept my eyes fixed on the eddies and began to get dizzy. A minute later, another shape emerged, ever so briefly breaking the waves before disappearing in the swirl. A dolphin! I watched for some minutes. It seemed to be at play but perhaps there were tasty fish below the froth. What strength it would take to keep from being swept out with the tide.
Eventually I headed back along the trail. Today Derek wasn’t there to hold my hand physically and guide me, but I felt him walking with me. I closed my eyes and felt my centre of gravity drop. I walked for half a minute along the rocky trail, lifting my feet high and noticing the shifting of my weight. It felt effortless. I had the urge to take long slow inhalations. It smelled like green. I laughed.
…and love to friends and family at home and far afield, and to those who are lonely, hungry, grieving or in pain. May we give all we can and receive all we need.
May all our wishes for peace come true.
A bit of irony… On the day after Remembrance Day I am in a ferry lineup. Ahead in an adjacent lane, I see a gentleman get out of his car and go up to the window of the car behind. In this smallish community folks do this with friends and not infrequently with strangers, if there’s local news to share. As he nears the other car, I see that he’s sporting a white peace poppy, and my heart swells as I realize it was likely from the batch I’d recently handed out to friends to give away. What happened next gave me a jolt, though. He began yelling, accusing the man inside the other car of cutting him off in traffic. The second fellow, I was relieved to witness, didn’t resort to shouting, and attempted to explain himself rationally. But, the encounter escalated, with a flurry of one-sided insults and door-slamming, which upset the woman in the neighbouring car. Clearly the man was uninterested in hearing anyone else’s voice, and unable in that moment to do the work of peace. Alone and furious, pent up in his car, he drove onto the ferry. This event reminded me that despite how we might see ourselves or advertise ourselves, we must be continually mindful of our energy, intentions, and actions, if we want to be peaceful people. I wish this encounter could have ended with a hug, as the discussion did between Charles Eisenstein and Guy Dauncey a few weeks ago, at the talk on climate change at OUR Ecovillage on Vancouver Island. They shared different viewpoints, sometimes passionately, but always mindfully, and hugged afterwards. So inspiring. I sat in the car sending love and light to the white poppy-wearing man, wishing him peace.
I wrote this piece just 6 months after my first Camino pilgrimage with Derek Youngs. I had no idea what a journey we’d go on together after this, and how our paths would continue to weave together…
It’s one of those rare sun-drenched days in November. T-shirt weather! I’m walking through my East-Vancouver neighbourhood, reveling in the warmth, open to whatever surprises I encounter. Ripe autumn raspberries offer themselves between slats of a rickety fence; violin music wafts through an open window; a flock of tiny bushtits whooshes by, chirping excitedly. After last night’s rainstorm everything still glistens. The reddest of vibrant red maple leaves coat the sidewalk, turning it into something like a fresh oil-painting: beautiful but slippery!
As I reach the corner of Renfrew and Kitchener, I look down and notice some recent graffiti in the concrete. I take out my camera and snap a photo. Someone has scrawled PEACE, and next to it, there’s a footprint. I doubt these were juxtaposed intentionally, but it couldn’t be more perfect, because – I’m a peace walker. Being a peace walker doesn’t mean I carry a placard or fight for a cause. It’s more about what I carry inside me when I walk. It’s an intention; a way of being. I didn’t fully understand this until now.
Continuing my walk, the blur of the last six weeks is starting to make sense. I’ve been home for a few days now from a trip across the country. A lot of ground was covered, by foot and by motor, and I’m swirling with images, memories and feelings. I need to ground myself, and walking is my first priority. When my body is occupied and my senses are busy taking in the world around me, my mind has a chance to sift through its contents.
When did I begin to walk? The first walks I can remember (which are some of my first memories at all) were taken with my father when I was a toddler. Up the steep hill outside our house we would climb, heading for the small park two blocks hence. Along the way I would savour every detail of our excursion. I stuck out my tiny hand, brushing it along every thing I passed as each surface created its impression in my kinetic memory. To this day, I recall the texture of each fence: the rough rusty iron railing, the thick rough flaking paint on a wooden fence, the mossy rock wall that became slick in the rain. Each garden had some feature that was a landmark along the way – a scratchy juniper hedge with its aromatic berries, a weeping cherry tree with its sweet pink blossoms and secret hiding spot underneath, a birdbath with mysterious dancing angels.
As a child, walking was a regular feature in my life. At eight or nine, in a spate of vigilantism, I made rounds through the neighbourhood carrying a large trash bag, as a one-girl recycling team. An incredibly shy kid, somehow my purposefulness enabled me to unselfconsciously scour the back alleys, bagging useful cast-offs from garbage cans and the roadside. I loved the feeling that I was caring for my neighbourhood, even if just in my own small way.
My social phobia was debilitating at times, but I worked around it. I just couldn’t bring myself to step through the doors of the public bus into a crowd of strangers, so I walked an hour a day to school and back. I deepened my intimacy with the environment, and broadened my sense of the world. Soon, I took on an early-morning paper route. I rose eagerly before daybreak, enjoying the chance to walk in peace and quiet, getting to know short-cuts through the back yards and learning to expertly fold and throw the newspapers. My customers’ appreciation did wonders to ease my fear of people.
The weekend paper would almost double in size with the addition of comics and wad of advertising supplements. On some occasions my newspaper satchel was too heavy to lift, and my father would assist, driving along side me with the papers as I dashed from car to house up and down the steep hills.
The last walk I remember taking with my father was from my car to the oncologist’s office. After his course of chemotherapy, my dad’s feet were so swollen they could no longer fit into; he shuffled along in his bedroom slippers, bent over as I supported him on my arm. Despite his obvious decline in faculties, he didn’t speak of suffering indignities; he possessed a mild disregard for appearances that stood him in good stead. We learned from the doctor that the chemo had accomplished nothing; the tumor was the size of a grapefruit. Although he fully hoped to live another year, he was in hospital a few days later, and passed on the following week. The day he died, I took a walk outside the hospital grounds. I could feel his spirit, alive in the sky and trees. The world glowed in full colour.
This year, after months of grieving, sorting through mountains of paperwork and cleaning out my dad’s house, I felt lost. The Camino came as a real gift, renewing my sense of purpose and allowing me to find myself again. Along this ancient 800-km trail I also found that walking soothed my sadness, calmed my anxiety, cleared room in my head for fresh insights and ideas, and reawakened a sense of adventure. I began to experience my world anew: to see, smell, touch, and hear with fresh awareness the beauty that is around us, all the time and everywhere. I learned that my companions were on a similar journey of self- discovery – releasing pain and fear, embracing joy, love, and peace.
My feet have now taken me many miles. Where will they take me next?
I am so touched by friends who are still asking me how “Walking to Japan” is doing. I usually tell them it’s going well, but honestly, over the past year I have not looked at numbers at all. At every event, it’s rare that someone will go home empty-handed, and folks have written me to tell me how the book has inspired them, entertained them, enlightened them. I am truly humbled and honoured by the outpouring of gratitude and good feelings that have come my way. But I’ve had to look at numbers recently, when filing my taxes. I could very easily now say “humiliated” instead of “humbled”. Numbers are still in the hundreds, and I’m still in debt. But does this really matter? No.
I’ve never been all that keen on measuring myself against anyone else’s standards. Still, with the barrage of “successful” creative ventures that abound on the Internet (if you measure success by “like”s), I’m disheartened, especially when some of these things seem so bereft of meaningful content. I must admit I can be judgmental sometimes. I also must admit I have been disappointed when friends’ words of support and congratulations don’t translate into interest in the book. When it comes to supporting my own friends, I always try and purchase a buddy’s CD even when it’s “not my style of music”, or go to their opening season baseball game when I’m not the least interested in sports. Derek was always so gracious with me this way. He didn’t know a thing about choral music, and it wasn’t his favourite, but he came to my concerts because he wanted to know me better.
Taking a deeper look at my friends’ passions and creative efforts has broadened my understanding of them, and enriched my own life. My best friend Una, who died two years ago, was a prolific painter. I didn’t like everything she did. But I could always say something positive, and true, about her creative process. Another friend is an academic writer. I proceeeded as far as I could in his book until it seemed I was reading the dictionary more. But I was so impressed at what he had created. And, delving into his treatise gave me so much more insight into his life, his character, his values. However, I also love my friend far and beyond anything in the material realm, and this includes his book, as brilliant as it is.
A friend recently told me she hadn’t bought my book because:
A) she never reads memoirs, and B) she was afraid of what she would say to me if she didn’t like it. But she took a chance. And hugged me the other day, with tears in her eyes, to thank me. Thank you, Katharina. And thanks to all my friends, whether you’ve read the book or not. I understand that there are reasons. And I trust that you love and support me beyond anything I have done or said or created.
This time of year in northern climes we attune to the elements. The chilly air is sharp, the earth hard, and water frozen. In the dark, we hunker around the fire. IIt’s sometimes hard to trust that the light will return, that goodness will prevail amongst all this turmoil in the world.
Nature has never failed us. Solstice comes—the longest night—and then the sun will linger for just another minute each day, with the promise of more. Is it really true? The Earth continues to turn and the sun to shine, just as we each have the capacity to shine.
This has been quite a year. For me it was busy. It has been incredibly surreal to see “Walking to Japan” in print, and I still sometimes can’t quite believe that I’ve done it, fulfilled Derek’s dream to write a memoir, which is now taking me to places I never thought I’d go. The book is about making the impossible possible, one step at a time. And in this way I continue on in my own life, not always knowing where I’m going, but saying “yes” and walking through open doors.
Sometimes I have moments when I question if what I do in life has any value in terms of making the world a better place. But every so often I’m reminded, when someone comes up to me after a reading and tells me how moved or inspired they are. When I honour my talents, and share the wisdom and beauty and love and compassion that comes through me, I am contributing to something bigger.
I hope you have time this season to celebrate the return of the light outdoors in nature, as well enjoying the warmth of your own home. And may your own light radiate into the world.
It’s Remembrance Day tomorrow. On this day on at 11:00 (the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month) we observe the end of what was called the “War to End all Wars”.
My mother’s father, a keen amateur photographer, fought in the First World War, was wounded in the trenches, and returned home disabled, which was bad enough, but he was also shell-shocked. The far-ranging symptoms and affects of PTSD on individuals, families, and entire communities are much better understood now, but then it was seen as a weakness. To me, it shows he was human. Who takes part in war and come out unscathed?
My grandfather also came home with an album full of photos from the front. I look at them and can hardly believe they’re real. But he was there. Though he never talked about his war experiences with his family, the album is chilling proof. I honour him and all those who have fought and died for fighting for our freedom. But I dearly wish they hadn’t had to.
Of course the WW1 did not live up to its headline; we’re still battling it out, country against country, neighbour against neighbour: the macrocosm and microcosm. Has anything really changed? As the song says, When will we ever learn?
We humans seem to fall prey to a kind of amnesia— which seems viral these days. I feel bombarded by consumerist messages in the media and in the streets, and find myself worrying if I need to buy a teeth-whitening kit, when I could be spending my thoughts creatively and my money philanthropically. I must inoculate myself by refocusing on what’s truly important.
I think we will be at war until we recognize ourselves in each other with compassion and love and then act from that place. It’s the most simple principle, but can be ever so difficult to live out. But if we each do just one thing a day, even just sending our thoughts in the right direction, I believe we can make a difference.
Some years I choose to attend the Remembrance Day ceremony wherever I’m living. This year, I’m putting out a call to friends to join me in a peace walk at 11:00 am. It need not be a solemn affair. But it’s important for me to do something on this day in the name of peace.
Last Saturday: It is two days before Thanksgiving. I am scheduled to give another reading from Walking to Japan, and as always, that morning, I get a little nervous, unsure, ungrounded. Obviously a walk would help, but I haven’t allowed myself enough time. Why am even I doing this? I ask myself. I’m an introvert! The energy it takes to publicize and organize and travel and prepare sometimes makes me feel that giving readings is more effort than it’s worth. But then I remember that scene in the book….
Derek is walking for peace through farming country in the middle of summer, nothing around him but fields of corn and the smell of pig manure, and he is tired and sweaty and the blisters on his feet are agonizing. Why am I even doing this? he says to himself. Who even cares? And then he remembers. I care.
Later that afternoon, as I welcome guests into the event room at the public library, I start feeling more excited. Oh, people are here! But then I begin to worry. Will they like it? Will they “get” it? Do Shakespearean actors worry about their audience ‘getting” it? I suspect they give it their all but realize that not everyone clicks with Shakespeare. I close my eyes and offer a silent prayer. May I just do my best today.
I start reading. The passages I’m reciting are familiar but not rote. Every time I read them they come alive again. I feel energized, and at the same time I feel my body relax. Perhaps it’s because I am, in essence, invoking Derek in these words. I feel closer to him, his love, support, and wisdom. And, the very words he speaks in the book are always relevant to the situation I’m in at that very moment.
These days, with all the big scary stuff that’s going on in the world, I’ve been wondering if I’ve been doing enough for peace, to combat climate change, shift systemic racism and sexism, and on and on and on….. I tire myself out each day, but it’s hard to see the effects of my actions sometimes.
Walking to Japan is the story of how one man made a difference. He didn’t stop the nuclear arms race, but he connected with people, one at a time, and shared his wisdom and love. I am reminded that we can’t singlehandedly save the world. But if we all do a little each day, we ARE making a difference. We have to trust that. I have to trust that.
Back in the library, I’m reading to my audience about Derek’s first attempt to make a peace crane. “It wasn’t perfect, but my whole heart was in it. When I finally swallowed my pride and let go of my fear, I forgot to care about what others may think and enjoyed [myself].” Ahem. Yes. I have to smile. I am quite enjoying myself now. And, I feel a sweet and precious connection with my audience. This is why I do this.
After the reading, people made it clear that they were touched and inspired. On this Thanksgiving Day, I voice my gratitude for having Derek in my life, and for being given the opportunities and the courage to stand up and share his words with the world.
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