Category Archives: Heroes

Our Lady of Themyscira

There are people out there who worship superheroes.

I am not one of them.

But after having watched the new Wonder Woman movie, twice, one could almost…,

Oh, I’ve heard all the rationalizations, the misapplied references to Jungian archetypes, the quotes lifted reverently from Joseph Campbell’s books, the endless suggestions that the gods are merely manifestations of the collective consciousness, and that the superheroes, having achieved iconic status within western culture are every bit as valid a target of our mental energies as any of the “old gods”…,

I’m not buying it.

But if that’s your gig, the writers and marketers are certainly happy to sell it to you.

No, the superheroes are not actual gods, but when handled correctly they do have the power to inspire us, to lift us up from our own troubles, and to free us from the limitations which society and gravity would impose upon us, if only for a little while.

And, for a long time now, Wonder Woman has been my favorite.

Oh sure, I started out pretty firmly in the Superman camp.

I mean, what little boy doesn’t want to discover that he has amazing powers due to his secret alien parentage?

But we grow up a bit, we become angsty, our worldview darkens, and we glom onto the Batman, reveling in his trauma induced war against a bizarre criminal underworld.

Or, anyway, that’s what happened with me.

And I still buy his books, along with those of the Green Lantern and a smattering of other titles.

But it gets expensive pretty quickly.

If you’re one of the popular superheroes, a Superman or a Batman, you’ve probably got a dozen titles with your name or image on the cover, including monthlies, crossovers, and one shots.

Wonder Woman really only has the one title.

They say it has to do with marketing decisions, and the difficulty in writing a female lead who will be interesting and popular among young boys.  And sadly, that’s probably a big part of it.

But it’s not just the woman in the title.

The gods are in there too.

And I think that scares the crap out of them.

I love Wonder Woman because, even before they revamped her origin and made her a child of the gods, she was a gift from the gods.  Sculpted from clay by her mother the Amazon queen, she was given life by the Olympian gods, and sent to the world of men as an ambassador of peace.

I have always been perplexed that, in a medium where literally ANYTHING is possible, comic book writers almost never treat the gods as actual gods.  They are invariably aliens with magic seeming technology, livings in some dimension, removed from our own.  Or they are creatures of limited power, created by human thought and belief, languishing in a universe that no longer prostrates itself before them.

The gods are almost never written as actual gods.

Except in Wonder Woman.

For a long time, I thought this must have something to do with the publishing houses not wanting to rankle a largely Christian audience.  But I honestly can’t remember the last time I heard any of my Christian friends complaining about the presence of Hera or Apollo in a Wonder Woman comic.

Mostly they just seem put off by the fact that she doesn’t wear pants.

“She’s dressed like a whore,” one of them told me, a few years back.

Yeah, you try to think the best about a person, and then they make an idiot remark like that.

But for a while there, the artists gave us a Wonder Woman in pants.  And it looked terrible.

Oh how this new movie must be making their heads spin!

So I’ve been eagerly awaiting the new movie, and for the most part it has exceeded my expectations.  But the revelation, in the first few minutes of the movie, that Ares has murdered all of the other gods of Olympus…,

It seems as if the bravery of the comic did not translate so completely to the silver screen.

If the gods are dead, we don’t have to write for them, we don’t have to explain them, we don’t have to be worried that people will be offended by their presence.

Maybe Ares was right, and we don’t deserve them.

But it’s not about what we deserve.

It’s about what we believe.

Leave a comment

Filed under Comics, Culture, Heroes, Modern Life, Religion, The Gods

On the Last Monday in May

A perfect face dressed in crisp blue and white.

A flag, folded to a razors edge, held in white gloved hands.

A widow, a child, eyes downcast in sorrow.

A white stone, one among many, in an unblemished field of green.

These images are everywhere at this time of year.

Holy icons, whether framed upon the mantlepiece, or shared on public media.

Because it is the last Monday in the Month of May, and while we may claim that we are memorializing our war dead, and we may dimly remember a time when we decorated their markers with ribbons and flowers and shared meals and stories among their graves, the reality is that a curious thing happens when our young men and woman in uniform are taken from us while in the performance of their duty.

They stop being people in any meaningful way, which is itself a common function of death.  But unlike the rest of us, they ascend, becoming the very archetype of military service.

It is strange, to see a country which many claim is Christian, birthing so many young gods.

But ours is not the first culture to deify its war-dead.

Nor, indeed, shall it be the last.

And lest you mistake my intent, I wish to take nothing away from their sacrifice.

I honor the great service which they have rendered upon us, and I know that each has felt the brush of the raven goddesses wing against his or her cheek.  They walk now in a land far from our own, and yet only a heartbeat away.  Perhaps they will know peace there.  Or it may be that they gather together around some distant campfire, awaiting a battle which is yet to come.

At this time of year, as these idealized images of truth and valor are burnt so brightly into our collective consciousness, I find myself wondering mostly about the company they keep.

Surely, the soldiers of other nations must be there as well, friends and enemies alike, who sacrificed themselves in valiant service to their homelands.

But what about those who didn’t volunteer?  What about the draftees?

And what about the children, kidnapped from villages throughout Africa and Southeast Asia, or transferred from Russian orphanages into military training camps?

This is something that is happening right now, as you read this!  Kids who should be learning math and spelling, who should be teasing their siblings and driving their parents to distraction, are being stolen from their homes and forced to fight and die in conflicts that most of the folks enjoying their Memorial Day Picnics have never heard of.

I know that some, maybe many, will disagree with me here.  Certainly, there are those who believe that he who throws himself upon the grenade has made a greater sacrifice than one who had doom thrust upon them.

Not in my eyes.  One volunteered and the other was a victim, but the raven came for them both and if she does not discriminate, why should I?

Memorial Day

It is the last Monday in May.

You can keep your stars and your stripes.

You can keep your banners and parades and picnics.

I will honor the war dead in my prayers.

All of them.

Both friends and former enemies alike.

And if there is someone that you have lost, and if it is your habit to speak to them on this day, or any day, maybe you could ask them to look after the children, the youngest gods, frightened and forgotten by a world that let them down.

It would be nice if they had someone to look out for them.

1 Comment

Filed under Culture, Death, Heroes, Holidays, Modern Life, Philosophy

Sometimes Spock • Always Nimoy

You could say that I grew up in a Star Trek family.

We were not what most people think of as ‘Trekkies’.  We neither plastered our walls with the posters, nor cluttered our shelves with memorabilia.  There were no uniform shirts or foam ears hiding in our closets, and the car in the driveway was bumper-sticker free.

Still, there were a few books floating around the house, including a technical manual, replete with ship schematics and tricorder designs.  There were a couple assembled model kits on a shelf in my room, the U.S.S. Enterprise (of course) and an old Klingon cruiser, unsightly decals peeling.  And I think that at one point, there may have been a snow-globe in the living room, with a tiny Enterprise inside.  Although, I think it was glitter in there, rather than snow, to give the impression of passing stars.

In any case, we watched the show whenever it was on.  And sometimes, on Sunday mornings, on our way home from church, we’d play Star Trek trivia in the car.  One of us would recite a line of dialogue or name a character, alien or object, and the others had to try to name the episode.

“Yonada,” my mother might say.

And I would answer, “For the World is Hollow and I have Touched the Sky.”

And the game would continue…,

“Tranya…,”

“I need a hint…,”

“It was a drink…,”

“Oh, I know this, the one with the giant ship made out of ping-pong balls…,”

“The Corbomite Maneuver!”

We enjoyed the escapism of the show, the optimism and the whacky alien costumes.  As a family we discussed the not-so hidden social messages contained within many of the better episodes.

The show, and its characters, were a part of our household shorthand.

And, if I had a hero growing up, it was probably Mr. Spock.

I say “if” because I’ve never given the question much thought.

Did, I have a hero, growing up?

Superman was pretty cool, but as a child, I didn’t understand why someone with so much power had to pretend to be someone else.

Batman, at that time, was still the television version, played by Adam West.  He and Robin appeared to be costumed buffoons, surrounded by enemies who were more of the same.  Fun to watch, yes, but definitely not hero material.

There were Frodo and Sam, and Robin Hood, and the Knights of the Round Table, who all lived on the printed page, and in a world just a bit too remote from my own, to truly identify with them.

On the silver screen, I watched Luke and Han, the presumptive cinematic heroes of my generation, fighting an uphill battle against the Galactic Empire.  Yet I never idolized them the way some others seemed to do.

I suppose, Dr. Indiana Jones would qualify as one of my childhood heroes.  I liked that he was an intellectual, an expert on ancient cultures and civilizations, who was also perfectly capable of kicking some Nazi ass.  In those days, it seemed like most characters who used their brains were either nerdy supporting characters, or villains bent on ruling the world.

And in that respect, if in no other, Indy was very much like Mr. Spock.

Classic Mr. Spock

Spock was an intellectual giant who was willing to surround himself with people who did not like him, for the opportunity to learn more.  And he wasn’t a weakling, like most ‘smart’ characters.  His Vulcan heritage gave him a physical strength more than twice that of a normal human, and while he might prefer to use the Vulcan Nerve Pinch to take out an opponent, he wasn’t shy about throwing a punch or whipping out a phasor, when the situation called for violence.

Spock was both human and alien, meaning he was often an outcast in both worlds.  For those of us who, as children, never quite felt we fit in with the other kids, this was a pretty big deal.  Especially considering, when Kirk was away, it was Spock sitting in the big chair, with everyone looking for him to make the hard decisions.

What’s more, Spock was in constant conflict with his emotions, struggling to maintain the Vulcan calm that was all too often mistaken for a complete lack of emotion.

Growing up, as I did, with a father for whom rage often seemed like the default setting, I come by my own anger issues quite naturally.  And Spock was there for me, at an early age, to show me an alternative to letting my own base emotions run free.  I know that I have been a poor student in that regard, and although more than one friend has cursed me over the years for my “damned Vulcan logic,” I am far too often made a slave to my own feelings.

Still, I can’t help but think I am a better person for having tried to follow his example.

Fictional, though he was.

Leonard Nimoy has died, and here I am talking about Spock.

Because that is how I knew him.

Without Nimoy, there would have been no Spock.  Whatever Roddenberry had planned, whatever the writers cranked out, it was Leonard Nimoy who breathed life into the character, and influenced him in ways that have become an inexorable part of what we think of when we say the name.

He may have done too good a job.

“Do I have an identity issue?  Of course I do.  You know, somebody yells “Spock” on the street, and I’m the one who turns his head…,”

—Leonard Nimoy, Dallas ComicCon 2011

There are those fans out there who have trouble distinguishing between the character and the actor, but I’ve never had that problem.  My mother is a living database of every actor and every role they have ever played.  I swear, the woman could put IMDB to shame.

As a result, I grew up watching Nimoy’s performances on more programs than I could easily name.  There were the westerns and Twilight Zone episodes and of course, Mission Impossible.  No, it was always clear to me that Mr. Spock was a work of art, and Nimoy, the artist.

In later years I have seen some examples of his photography and been truly impressed.

And only recently, as you will see, was I introduced to his skill as a poet.

Nimoy and Spock

When I heard that he had died, I was saddened by the loss of a great man, who was sometimes Spock, but always Nimoy.  I spent the rest of the day celebrating his life as best I could, by watching again my favorite episodes of the original series, and then ‘Wrath of Kahn’, and finally, skipping ahead to the last few minutes of ‘Search for Spock’.  Because, like his crew mates, I know that he will never really be dead, as long as we remember.

I had the chance to meet him once, a few years ago.  I could have stood in a line and paid to have him sign a photograph, all for the opportunity to shake his hand.

I didn’t want to, and I’m not sure why, except that the old line “never meet your heroes” kept going through my mind.  And so I made excuses, the line was too long, the price was too high.  As if either of those things could have made a difference.

Instead, I crowded into a room with a few hundred others.  I sat, maybe six rows back from where he stood, and listened to him speak in that familiar voice of his, about his life and his career, and what a deep honor it was to be appreciated by so many.  At the end of the hour, he left us with this, and it means more to me now, than any simple handshake ever could.

I am an incurable romantic.
I believe in hope, dreams and decency.

I believe in love, tenderness and kindness.

I believe in mankind.

I believe in goodness, mercy and charity.
I believe in a universal spirit.
I believe in casting bread upon the waters.

I am awed by the snow-capped mountains,
by the vastness of oceans.

I am moved by a couple of any age, holding hands,
as they walk through city streets.

A living creature in pain, makes me shudder with sorrow.
A seagull’s cry fills me with a sense of mystery.

A river or stream can move me to tears.
A lake, nestling in a valley, can bring me peace.

I wish for all mankind the sweet simple joy,
that we have found together.

I know that it will be.
And we shall celebrate.
We shall taste the wine,
and the fruit.

Celebrate the sunset and the sunrise,
the cold and the warmth,
the sounds and the silences,
the voices of the children.

Celebrate the dreams and hopes,
which have filled the souls
of all decent men and women.

We shall lift our glasses and toast,
with tears of joy.

May you all live long and prosper.

— Leonard Nimoy, Dallas ComicCon 2011

3 Comments

Filed under Culture, Family, Heroes, Modern Life, Movies, Spiritual Journey, Television

A resurrection done right?

Oh my friends, John Constantine is back from the dead!

Constantine is Back

You may remember that it has been almost twenty months since they put him in the ground.  By my own count it has been one-year, seven-months, and seven-days, since I penned my own small tribute to the Hellblazer.  And suddenly here he is again, big as life on my TV screen, the dirt of the grave still clinging to the soles of his shoes…,

“Nay!” boom the voices of the cynics in the crowd, “It is well known that comic book characters cannot ever truly die.  Did not John’s adventures continue in the pages of ‘Constantine’ after the run of ‘Hellblazer’ had been brought to an end?”

I’ll grant you that folks in the hero-books never die.  However, John never really spent much time walking those circles, and characters in the more adult Vertigo imprint do not seem quite so robust in their immortality, as are the SuperFriends.

As for the aforementioned book, titled ‘Constantine’, well you can borrow a man’s name and his clothes, but without the body you’ve got nothing to hang them on.  Which is just my fancy way of saying that the disneyfied guy in that book is NOT John f@*king Constantine, so don’t even get me started!

A Banishing Spell

“Fine then, leaving aside the question of IF it counts as a resurrection,” comes the counterpoint, “it’s not really much of one, is it?  Over a year and a half go by before he crawls up out of his literary grave, and here you are crowing like it was the second coming!”

Oh sure, Odin only hung on the tree for nine days, and Jesus did his bit over a long weekend, but these are deities we’re talking about and shrugging off death is right there in the job description.

The character of John Constantine is a foul-mouthed, chain smoking, deviant, with highly questionable moral underpinnings, who traffics regularly with unclean spirits and the worst dregs of humanity, and has somehow made the leap from a little known comic book, into a prime-time network television series.  That alone might be miracle enough, but if the first couple episodes are any indication, he’s managed to retain most of his edge through the unlikely transition.

And as an added bonus, he’s not being played by Keanu Reeves!

“And that’s the problem,” cry the ever helpful doubters, “it’s network television, so they’ll screw it up.  He can’t possibly be the same bastard he was in the comics.  Have you noticed how most of his smoking is done off-camera, so as to be politically-correct?  You can’t really believe it’s the same Constantine you knew from ‘Hellblazer’ and not some sanitized pretender?!”

And maybe they’re right.  Maybe I’m hoping for too much.

It’s too early to tell, just yet.

Personally, I’m one to keep a real sharp eye on anyone or anything that comes back from the dead.  No one leaves the lands of the dead unchanged – fictional or otherwise – and such changes are not always for the better.  So, I’ll be watching, to see if he really is who he says he is, or if ‘something else’ is using his body to take a stroll.

Back From The Dead

I’ve missed my monthly dose of the Hellblazer.

I don’t think I’m the only one.

The writing, the casting, the look of the show, they all feel as if they were lifted right out of an old issue and projected onto the screen.  Even John’s little speech at the end of the first episode was pulled almost word for word from one of my favorite issues.  It is the same speech I quoted at the end of my little eulogy last year.

And so, as is always the case where John Constantine is concerned, there is a cautious species of hope arriving from the most unlikely and unlooked for of places.  And anyway, I really should have known better than to believe that the swindling bastard would stay in the grave one second longer than he had to.

The old place still smells the same, that’s the weirdest part.  Beneath the new carpets and the fancy wallpaper, the gloss paint and velvet drapes, the lingering taint of blood and sweat, piss and shit.  The tang of human fear.  Takes me right back, it does.  I never expected to come back.  Not after last time.  I thought I was done with this place.  Thought it was done with me…, But here I am again, back for one last ride on the merry-go-round.

Let Me Ask You

John Constantine: Hellblazer 1988 – 2013 / 2014 – ?

3 Comments

Filed under Art, Comics, Culture, Heroes, Modern Life, Television

Way of the Warrior

I walked, recently, through an exhibit of Samurai armor and artifacts, which is currently on display at the Kimball Art Museum in my home of Fort Worth, Texas.

Passing from display to display, I found myself almost overwhelmed by the detail and artistry put into each piece by the craftsmen of centuries past.  The eye is drawn into the intricate lacing, along the elegantly knotted cord, into the clouds of fine chain links, in and out through serpentine designs of enameled beasts, ultimately arriving upon imposing masks of iron, grinning with an inhuman fury.  It is easy to see how the men inside these suits of armor would inspire terror in their enemies, and how they may have felt themselves as becoming something more than human.

Individually, the works are stunning.  In aggregate, they come together to give us a picture of a society which knew, in no uncertain terms, how it felt about war.

Our society, on the other hand, is nowhere near so certain.

We have come so far in just the last hundred years.  We can measure the distance between atoms and map the human genome, but the more we learn about the universe around us, the less we appear to understand about ourselves.

Kabuto and Menpō (helmet and half-mask) from the late Edo period.

Kabuto and Menpō (helmet and half-mask) from the late Edo period.

The works on display span almost 700-years of Japanese history, but most of them come from the Edo period (1603-1868).  Japan, during this era, was a culture in the midst of a long and fruitful peace, yet still dedicated to the very principle of the warrior ideal.  Bushidō, or “the Way of the Warrior,” was both a personal code of conduct and a philosophy centered around seven essential virtues: Courage, Respect, Benevolence, Honor, Rectitude, Honesty, and Loyalty.  It was this ethical core which compelled the Samurai to become masters of the arts and social graces as well as warriors of unparalleled skill.  Bushidō was, among other things, a celebration of the Heroic Ideal which stands as the foundation of every great society.

The hero is, in many ways, the ultimate manifestation of the culture from which he comes.  Maybe his name is Gilgamesh, Heracles, Cú Chulainn or Arthur.  For that matter, she might be called Boudicca or Candace of Meroë.  In whatever guise, the hero stands as the apotheosis of the people from which he comes; a mythic figure, more than man but less than a god, both savior and sacrifice for his people.

Those who came before us knew that a people without heroes were doomed, and that to treat their heroes poorly, was an affront to those beings that had invested them with power in the first place.

We appear to have forgotten these lessons.

“Ah, but times have changed,” people tell me, “and the Samurai existed within a warrior culture while ours is far more civilized.”

Really?  Ours is NOT a warrior culture?

I think the fact that in the United States, roughly 20% of our federal budget goes toward military spending while 2% goes toward scientific research and less than one-tenth of 1% toward the arts, would suggest otherwise.

No, we are a warrior culture, to be sure.  We’ve simply become woefully bad at it.

Oh, we go through the motions.  We both memorialize our fallen soldiers and honor the living with special days full of picnics and parades.  We praise them for their service, and glory to their fictionalized exploits in the cinema and on television.  If we meet them on the street, we commend them for protecting our freedom, even though that’s not really the job we have them doing.

We do not send them off into the fray, showered with flower petals, to win the day against the iron grip of some great evil.  Instead, we dress them up in the most utilitarian gear possible and ship them into some sorry “war of choice”, like they were prisoners cleaning up litter by the roadside.

When finally, they come home again, we don’t seem overly bothered by how many of them are forced to live under bridges.  We prop them up at political rallies while we slice away at funding for veteran’s hospitals and services.  We fret about the validity of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder while they commit suicide in record numbers.

Yes, we can kill you from across the planet with the touch of a button, but for all our technical prowess we have grown clumsy in the Art of War.  Indeed, in the last hundred years we’ve done everything we can to take the “art” out of it entirely.

We hate the needless killing.

We hate the brutality and we’d like to think that we have risen above it.

“War,” we tell ourselves, “is dirty.”  It is something we are forced into by our more primitive enemies.  “The barbarians are at the gate,” cry our leaders, “and we’ve got to sink briefly to their level, just this one last time, if we hope to protect our shining city on the hill.”

But it’s not so easy as that.

War has been around for as long as people have been walking upon the globe (and possibly longer).  War is a part of us and always will be.  The only “everlasting peace” you are likely to find is in the grave.  And even then, it would be wise to remember that the gods themselves are all warriors of one sort or another, and the graves of the ancients were often arrayed with the weapons of war.

Perhaps, if as a society, we could embrace the ‘Way of the Warrior’, we would actually see less warfare and fewer sombre memorials.  Certainly, I’d like to think that the wars we still did have, would be better ones, worthy of the sacrifice we ask of the young men and women we send into harms way.

Maybe, we are fighting the wrong kinds of wars because we stopped breeding heroes of great virtue.  I think we owe it to the world we are leaving for our children to try.  Certainly, we owe it to those who have gone to their graves to see to it that no more will follow them into the ground without just cause.

The Exhibit at the Kimball runs through August 31, 2014.  If you are a resident of North Texas, or just passing through and looking for something to do, I suggest that you stop by and take a look.  It is well worth the visit.

The Exhibit at the Kimball runs through August 31, 2014. If you are a resident of North Texas, or just passing through and looking for something to do, I suggest that you stop by and take a look.

Leave a comment

Filed under Art, Culture, Death, Heroes, Holidays, Modern Life, Philosophy, Traditions

Close Encounters

You can’t give an experience.

Items, on the other hand, make easy gifts.  You find just the right book perhaps, or some knick-knack for around the house.  You pull it off the shelf, pay for it, wrap it up, jam it under the tree, and you are done.

Experiences are another story.

We can’t buy them and they don’t come pre-packaged.

We can set up the circumstances, perhaps, but in the end, an experience has a life all of its own, and it will ‘be’ whatever it chooses to be.

You can not give an experience.  They have no tolerance for being bought or sold.

An experience, good or bad, may only be shared.

CloseEncounters

On Yule morning last, as we exchanged gifts, I revealed to my mother that on the second weekend of February, she would be meeting one of her all-time favorite actors, Richard Dreyfuss – my gift to her.

The plan had been hatched only a few weeks before, when I learned that Mr. Dreyfuss would be attending a local sci-fi convention.  From that moment on, the wheels began to turn, tickets were purchased, preparations made, plans…, ummmm, planned.

On the surface it seemed pretty simple: we go, we get in line, she gets an autograph.

Easy – As – Pie.

Except, of course, that there is so much that can go wrong.  Circumstances beyond our control may dash even the most carefully constructed scheme.  It’s maddening.

Items are so much easier – buy it, wrap it, and done.

Experiences I fret over, and needlessly.

We can’t control them.

We can only share them.

And share them, we did!

It was an incredible weekend!

There were crowds to wade through with all the attendant bumps and bruises and a fair helping of “hurry up and wait.”  There were scheduling snafus, parking adventures, and the gastronomic ‘roll-of-the-dice’ that is convention food.  There were all those things of which I have come to expect from the ‘Con’ experience, but which were completely new to my mother, and which I tried to ease her through.

And I should have known better.

Mom with Richard Dreyfuss

My mother, Kathleen, enjoying her encounter with Academy Award winning actor, Richard Dreyfuss.

My mother got to meet Richard Dreyfuss!  She got to shake his hand, get his autograph, and they even shared a memory of the first thing she ever saw him in (an old episode of ‘That Girl’ with Marlo Thomas – filmed in 1967, the year of my birth).  It’s been a long while since I’ve seen a smile quite that big on my mother’s face.

And I think she was buzzing too much to really even notice the crowds.

Later, we sat and listened to Mr. Dreyfuss speak passionately about his efforts to bring civics education back into the classroom, while still answering questions about shark movies.  He was funny, and down-to-earth, and inspiring in a genuine way that is rare among celebrities these days.

DreyfussAutograph

So she has the autograph, and a photo of herself with one of her cinema heroes.

But those are just objects.  They are ‘proof of contact’, yes, but of no real significance.

Far more important is the encounter, the experience, the story.

These are things not given, but shared.

I’m glad we could be there, Mom – to share in your ‘close encounter’.

This one was for you!

1 Comment

Filed under Culture, Family, Heroes, Holidays, Modern Life, Movies

Will you visit their graves?

In the years following the American Civil War, a tradition began to grow among those left behind by a family member or loved one, lost to war. During the fading days of May, the graves of fallen soldiers would be decorated during gatherings at graveside, in remembrance of their ultimate sacrifice.

There is some quibbling among historians as to precisely when and where the first “Decoration Day” was held. I rather suspect that there was no first occasion which spawned the others. It seems more likely to me that the tradition sprang up naturally among people in many places, a natural yearning, in the springtime of the year, for a little hands-on ritual and ceremony, among a people still struggling with loss and confusion in the wake of our most dreadful conflict.

And so, the people of the past century would gather their families to share a meal, sometimes spread picnic style among graves newly tended and festooned with flowers and ribbons. They would dine among the dead, sharing tales of their valor and heroism with children who would otherwise remember them only as names etched in stone or a yellowed photo, framed upon the mantle.

Soldier's Home National Cemetery - 1864

Soldier’s Home National Cemetery – 1864

The parades and political speeches, the concerts and retail sales — that stuff came later, along with the name change to ‘Memorial Day’.

I’ve read a lot of articles, in these last few days leading up to the holiday, from people deeply concerned that you should know, “Memorial Day is not just about firing-up the barbecue!”

Well no, it’s not, but let us not downplay the power of a neighborhood cookout.

We, as a culture, sometimes seem so eager to distance ourselves from the more visceral aspects of our lives (and deaths). We don’t like to get our hands dirty and so we civilize and formalize and memorialize our societal rituals, often beyond recognition. We lose touch with the emotional need, the spiritual impetus which instills within us the call to celebrate and to mourn.

We transform a local tradition of ribbons and flowers into a national procession of perfect little flags in perfect little rows set before perfect little stones. Oh, by all means, let us have our color guards and marching bands all draped in a jingoistic wash of red, white and blue; give us our twenty-one rounds fired into a blue sky while a bugler plays Taps in somber tones. Let us dull our senses with scripted testimonials and stale protocols…,

Or…,

We could have a cookout.

We could put the “Decoration” back into Memorial Day and adorn the graves of our honored dead with flowers and tokens of love and appreciation. Maybe we could just wander among the graves, reading the names and dates, listening to the sound of children playing hide and seek among the stones.

I can think of no better way to praise the dead, than to bring to their resting places the sounds of life and love and laughter. These are the very same gifts which they have rendered unto us through their service and their sacrifice.

When you have spent some time among the graves, when you have awakened their spirits with the breath of life, go home and (weather permitting) fire up that grill under an open sky.

Will it be grilled burgers on toasted buns, or maybe some juicy brats with spicy mustard and onion on a hard roll? Open a beer, pass the chips, and share your memories of the fallen. Do not memorialize them by making them larger than life. Simply remember them as they were, without the platitudes and the flag-waving. We honor them best through the simple act of living our lives, dearly won, in peace and fellowship.

2 Comments

Filed under Culture, Death, Heroes, Holidays, Modern Life, Traditions