At the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month.
As a child this sentence held such resonance and magic. It was laden with meaning even if I didn't really understand what it meant. No matter who said it I heard it in a with overtones of Churchill. It was biblical, epic, understood deep in the bones.
My mother was an only child but her father came from a family of thirteen. I called them all uncle and aunt, no need to say great. They were all veterans of the war having either fought or worked gruelling shifts, with war-rationed bellies, in factories that supplied the men at the front. Having survived the Depression in a family that had nothing, they gave everything to the war effort. When Remembrance Day came around each November 11th it had real meaning for them. We had the day off from school and I remember watching them march to the cenotaph, remember men who were tough and robust with tears in their eyes.
Their service took its toll. What we now call PTSD was obviously a factor in their lives, I can see that now, looking back. I was shielded from most of it, but by and large they treated the symptoms with alcohol. The shame is that today we offer few other choices to our vets. It is a national shame here in Canada and elsewhere. The young man in uniform in the picture was my Uncle George. He was in the division of Canadian soldiers that liberated Holland and then some of the camps. He stayed on in Europe after the war was over, serving for an extra few years with restoration forces. He never married. He fought his demons the only way he knew how. He died when I was in high school, still a comparatively young man, a victim of PTSD.
I've travelled to the battlefields and cemeteries in Europe. I've taken my children to the museum in Ypres and tried to help them understand the risks of letting human behaviours get out of control, dissolve towards violence as a solution. None of it is easy to explain. How could that war, the second, have been avoided? How could we not have gone? And yet I so wish we hadn't needed to. All around us we see wars brewing, battles on the verge of breaking out. The causes are noble. Oh that we could find other solutions, some alternative to trying to counteract violence with violence.
Many years ago in a calligraphy class Reggie Ezell gave us an assignment called "Best Voices". He challenged us to think about the people in our lives who had been examples and role models, who had influenced our thinking or challenged us to be more. Today I remember my uncles and aunts who form part of the chorus of best voices in my life. But I also today think about all those who have been advocates for peace and pray that humanity can someday find its way forward without weapons.
Since the attack on Parliament Hill I have written out a simple poem, a simple prayer each day. At the eleventh hour of the eleventh day this year this poem, written by Rabindranath Tagore, will again be my prayer:
Where the mind is without fear and the head is held high
Where knowledge is free
Where the world has not been broken up into fragments
By narrow domestic walls
Where words come out from the depth of truth
Where tireless striving stretches its arms towards perfection
Where the clear stream of reason has not lost its way
Into the dreary desert sand of dead habit
Where the mind is led forward by thee
Into ever-widening thought and action
Into that heaven of freedom, my Father, let my country awake