Reflections by Jerry Webber

Sunday, July 3, 2011

Just to Remind Ourselves

One of the great joys of being father to my two great young adult children is they share with me books and music they've found that they know I'll like. Very often they find books by the circle of authors I read, books I have somehow missed.

I spent several days with both of them last week -- full of laughter and joy -- and one of the gifts of our time together was a book of poetry by William Stafford that I had missed. My son, a writer and poet himself, checked it out from his local library and brought it to show me.

We both have our favorite William Stafford poems, and some of them overlap. This particular book, compiled by Stafford's daughter after his death, has various writings from throughout his life.

The book's material is organized and presented around the theme of Stafford's pacifism. He reflected in journals, interviews and poetry on being a conscientious objector during World War 2. His objection to the war was religious, moral and practical. War doesn't work as well as reconciliation, Stafford believed. So he refused to fight, and was taken with other conscientious objectors to a labor camp in California where they lived in meager quarters and spent long hours in manual labor.

Stafford had a long history of thinking counter and looking at things from the other side. Rather than demonize "the enemy," Stafford wondered what it was like to be in his or her shoes. In the language of WW2, what would it change in me if I imagined the families of the German or Japanese soldiers, if I envisioned the fear in those soldiers -- surely the same fear that lived within American soldiers? In more contemporary language, if I identified with a member of the Taliban playing with his children or eating a meal with his family, how would that change how I thought about "the enemy"? Those are the kinds of questions Stafford pondered and wrote about.

That way of stepping into the world arose within him at a young age. In 1920 the young Stafford came home from school and described to his mother how the kids at school had surrounded two new students on the playground and taunted the two because they were black. His mother asked, "What did you do, Billy?"

Stafford replied, "I went and stood by them."

So with thanksgiving for William Stafford -- and for my son, who brought him to me yet again -- I offer Stafford's poem for thinking counter about the world.

For the Unknown Enemy
William Stafford

This monument is for the unknown
good in our enemies. Like a picture
their life began to appear: they
gathered at home in the evening
and sang. Above their fields they saw
a new sky. A holiday came
and they carried the baby to the park
for a party. Sunlight surrounded them.

Here we glimpse what our minds long turned
away from. The great mutual
blindness darkened that sunlight in the park,
and the sky that was new, and the holidays.
This monument says that one afternoon
we stood here letting a part of our minds
escape. They came back, but different.
Enemy: one day we glimpsed your life.

This monument is for you.

[William Stafford, "For the Unknown Enemy," Every War Has Two Losers: William Stafford on Peace and War, ed. and intro. by Kim Stafford, p. 96.]

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