Throughout elementary school in the small town where I grew up, I was in Brownies and Girl Guides. Every November, we sold poppies to support the local branch of the Royal Canadian Legion. Selling poppies meant going door to door in northern Alberta, freezing our butts off. This was still when dresses were a mandatory part of our uniforms, and tights don’t really keep your legs warm in a blizzard or wind chill. But we didn’t complain (much), because we knew the importance embedded in those poppies.
A few days after poppy selling, we’d attend our school assembly for Remembrance Day. At this assembly, tradition said that one class always recited In Flanders Fields and another class always responded with In Flanders Now. Veterans joined us in the school gym, and an older student from the high school band played Last Post on the trumpet (until provincial funding cuts meant no more music classes and no more trumpets).
I remember these moments vividly because Remembrance Day was always treated with such respect. This year, I’m feeling Remembrance Day and the poppy symbolism very strongly.
It means something to me that so many people have made an effort to protect democracy. And yes, sometimes military personnel are sent to fight wars that have far more to do with entrenching power and wealth into fewer and fewer hands. But even in those problematic cases, I don’t think that’s why most individuals sign up for the military. I think most people join because they believe we have something worth protecting.
I’ve never joined the military, but I can say thanks to those who have. I can honour the sacrifices they’ve made: loss of life, lost moments and milestones with family, and sometimes lost mental and emotional wellbeing.
The phrase that comes with this time of year is “lest we forget”, which makes me wonder why we don’t use the word “lest” more often. It’s kind of fun. But I digress. More to the point, I worry that we do forget.
With that in mind, I wanted to take a moment and consider what a poppy means to me in 2020. The list below makes me glad that I trudged my little legs from door to door (I certainly didn’t do it for the watery hot chocolate we drank afterward).
Lest we forget that:
- if you hold public prominence and use your platform to insult others and encourage division, you’re one of the reasons wars exist
- if you let yourself be influenced by the kind of public figure mentioned above — or a company, or a news outlet, or social media that does the same thing — you’re not much better
- none of us truly knows what it’s like to walk in someone else’s shoes, so maybe it’s best just to believe people who describe their experiences
- apologies and compromises are not a sign of weakness; they are empathetic stepping stones toward peace
- equating governing and policymaking with campaigning is dangerous to the future of democracy
- believing there is only right/wrong (versus an open-minded middle ground) comes with some risk to each of us as individuals, and much bigger risks to our overall society
- the fact that 145-ish million people found a way to vote, even during a pandemic, is cause for celebration – not accusations and calls to ignore their ballots
Around this time of year in 2016, I was out for a walk and thinking about what it must have felt like in the early and mid-1930s. Seeds of hate and blame were being sown. I wondered then, as I do now, did people notice? Were they aware of how they were being manipulated to distrust and despise others? And if we are in a similar situation today, do enough of us notice? Is it too late to turn things around? Consider these lines from the second poem I mentioned above:
We have kept faith, ye Flanders’ dead,
Sleep well beneath those poppies red,
That mark your place.
The torch your dying hands did throw,
We’ve held it high before the foe,
And answered bitter blow for blow,
Are we holding the torch? Are we keeping faith?
Lest we forget.
ps The handcrafted poppy in this photo comes from the Legion’s online poppy store, where you can also buy “virtual poppies” and many other poppy-themed items, all in the name of a good cause.