A Pretty Good Day

November 7, 2010

Clay Nelson

Remembrance Day


I’m sure you’ve noticed how tricky remembering is. How much of what we remember has any fact in reality? How much is wishful remembering or polishing up of the tarnished? How much is an alternative reality so we can live with ourselves?


If you have siblings, have you ever compared notes about some piece of family history and wondered if you grew up in the same household or even solar system? And then there is the most important part of remembering: forgetting. Treasuring certain memories often requires serious editing. Whole episodes must often be forgotten if we are to maintain our belief that something or someone is worth cherishing.


It is the nature of remembering that makes me ambivalent about Remembrance Day services. I twist and turn every year over whether or not it is a good thing that we hold such a service. I am uneasy about the church being in league with the state for what is essentially a civic service. I’m always nervous when the state and religion are on the same side. In this case we undeniably are. In about an hour the Governor-General, Members of Parliament, the Consular Corps, active and retired military figures and other civic leaders will be sitting where you are. We will be remembering those who have laid down their lives for their country. How we remember that sacrifice is what I worry about. Will our collective memories glorify past wars that we might justify the tragedy and cost of future ones? Does it serve the purpose of instilling patriotism in the next generation so they will be ready to die for Queen and country or does it serve to make us give up the notion that any war is just or worthwhile? 


Ultimately I think remembering is worth the risk.


One month before his death Howard Zinn, an American historian, finished his last book, The Bomb. In it he wrestles with his memories as a B-17 bombardier during World War II, especially his last mission in 1945 on a raid to take out German garrisons in the French town of Royan. For the first time the Eighth Air Force used napalm, which burst into liquid fire on the ground, killing hundreds of civilians. He wrote, “I remember distinctly seeing the bombs explode in the town, flaring like matches struck in the fog. I was completely unaware of the human chaos below.” Twenty years later he returned to Royan to study the effects of the raid and concluded there had been no military necessity for the bombing; everyone knew the war was almost over (it ended three weeks later) and this attack did nothing to affect the outcome. His grief over having been a cog in a deadly machine no doubt confirmed his belief in small acts of rebellion, by which he meant, “acting on what we feel and think, here, now, for human flesh and sense, against the abstractions of duty and obedience."


This kind of remembering gives perspective that strengthens our resolve to act for peace. That is my hope for today’s service. Remembering can also lead us to envisioning a different kind of world. Songwriter Loudon Wainwright III succeeds in doing this. He lived outside Sarajevo during the Bosnian War. I would conclude with how he remembers it.


A Pretty Good Day So Far


I slept through the night

I got through to the dawn.

I flipped a switch and the light went on

I got outta bed

I put some clothes on

It was a pretty good day so far.


I turned the tap

there was cold there was hot.

I put on my coat,

to go to the shop.

I stepped outside

and I didn't get shot.

It was a pretty good day so far.


I didn't hear any sirens or explosions,

no mortars coming in from those heavy guns

no UN tanks

I didn't see one.

It was a pretty good day so far.


No snipers in windows taking a peek

No people panicked running scared through the streets

I didn't see any bodies

without arms, legs, or feet.

It was a pretty good day so far.


There was plasma, bandages and electricity,

Food, wood, and water,

and the air was smoke free.

No camera crews from I-TV.


It was all such a strange sight to behold.

Nobody was frightened, wounded, hungry or cold.

And the children seemed normal,

they didn't look old.

It was a pretty good day so far.


I walked through a park

you would not believe it.

There in the park there were a few trees left,

and on some branches

there were a few leaves.


I slept through the night

I got through to the dawn.

I flipped a switch and the light went on

I wrote down my dream,

I made it this song,

It was a pretty good day so far.


May we all remember a pretty good day in the past that we may have many more in the future.

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