Friday, November 11, 2011

How to Celebrate Armistice Day

Some of you may be scratching your heads:  Armistice Day?  Isn't it Veteran's Day?

Well, yes, but before it was Veteran's Day, it was Armistice Day, the day that the Armistice was signed that brought World War I, one of the bloodiest wars in human history, to a close.  In so many ways, this event was the one that catapulted us all into the twentieth century.  We got to see first-hand the ways that technology could be used for evil, as well as for good.  We got to see damaged war veterans return, and we got reports that made many people question the idea that war builds character.  And in a more positive spin, as so many men went off to war (and so many didn't come back), it opened up interesting doors for women into the world of work.

The entrance of women into the world of work would have far reaching ramifications far into the 20th century and our own time.  The most obvious, of course, is that many women could earn their own money.  Some you might see as more minor:  for example, many women began wearing pants.  You may not see that development as a big deal, but I could argue that it was.  Wearing pants gave women freedom in a way that few other clothing developments have. 

During World War I, many women began driving for the first time, because so many men were gone.  Would this development, and many others, have happened without World War I?  Probably.  But World War I accelerated the emancipation of women.

I don't want to underestimate the terrible price, especially for Europeans.  I've been to the World War I  cemeteries in France, and it's sobering, those fields of white crosses and the knowledge that it's a small percentage of the dead.  Today would be a good day to read (or re-read) the works of Wilfred Owen, one of the finest poets to write about the war.  Unfortunately, he didn't survive it.

Today would also be a good day to read (or re-read) chapter 7 of Sandra M. Gilbert and Susan Gubar's No Man's Land:  Volume 2:  Sex Changes.  Their analytical work was the first to alert me of how World War I impacted women.  That chapter also includes wonderful photos from the time period.  I love the one on page 297 of a grinning woman on a motorcycle:


Those of us who are Virginia Woolf fans could read (or re-read) her book Mrs. Dalloway, which features a war-damaged veteran as one of the major characters.  Once we've done that, we could read (or re-read) Michael Cunningham's The Hours and marvel at what he's done.  If we're fiction writers, we can find much inspiration from those works.  We can spend some time today thinking about the interior monologue and the stream of consciousness techniques that so many of those post-World War I writers used in the 1920's.  Can we attribute any of that experimentation to World War I?  I've read more than one literary critic who would say yes.

Those of us who are poets can think of ways to use Armistice Day as a symbol.  One year, my annual trip to Mepkin Abbey coincided with Armistice Day.  It also happened to be near All Saints Day, the first All Saints Day after Abbot Francis Kline had been cruelly taken early by leukemia.  Part of one of the services was out in the monks' cemetery, and all the retreatents were invited out with the monks.  I was struck by the way that the simple crosses reminded me of the French World War I cemeteries:



I took the above picture from the visitor side of the grounds, but it gives you a sense of the burial area.  I turned all these images in my head and wrote a poem, "Armistice Day at the Abbey."  It ends this way, by pondering the graves of monks and the role of monks:

Their graves, as unadorned as their robes,
stretch out in rows of white crosses, reminiscent
of a distant French field. We might ponder
the futility of belief in a new covenant,
when all around us old enemies clash,
or we might show up for prayer, light
a candle, and simply submit.


However you choose to celebrate this Armistice Day, I hope it gives you some restored peace.

2 comments:

Lofty Ambitions said...

We just saw that you've linked to Lofty Ambitions blog. Thanks much!

Your Veterans Day post is a keeper! Always good to end such a thing with a poem. I'm glad we found your blog.

Kristin said...

I'm grateful for your blog too. Thanks for your kind words here.