“To you from failing hands we throw the torch; be yours to hold it high.”
The quote was boldly emblazoned in block lettering on a banner, hung just above the classroom windows in Mr. Miller’s sixth-grade math class. Surrounded by posters of various hockey stars and team logo flags, it wasn’t until halfway through the year that I learned that the quote had nothing to do with sports.
It was, in fact, a line from the poem ‘In Flanders Fields’ by John McCrae. Mr. Miller was a hockey fanatic first and foremost, but such an interest for him extended to a love of anything Canadian in general.
‘In Flanders Fields’ is arguably one of the most famous war poems of all time, and undoubtedly the most well-known to come out of what was then known as the Great War. McCrae was a Canadian physician who fought in the trenches of WWI, and he wrote the poem in memory of a close friend who was killed at the Second Battle of Ypres.
I was a terrible math student, but my fascination with history was well-established by the sixth grade. So while I didn’t absorb much in the way of complex fractions, sitting in that classroom over the course of ten months not only sparked an interest in the facts and politics surrounding WWI, but also brought me face-to-face with an deep understanding of the sacrifices of war. My idyllic, romanticized idea of Europe was gradually clouded by the reality that an inconceivable number of war dead were scattered throughout the French and Belgian countrysides.
And it would be at least another decade before I even began to explore the horrors of the Spanish Civil War. At least the war dead of Ypres were buried with dignity.
But McCrae’s words, especially the quote that hung in Mr. Miller’s classroom, wove itself deep into my thoughts and my perceptions. And as someone who had a close connection to the Dead from a very young age, both the fact that the poem spoke from the perspective of the dead as well as the imagery of fields of poppies had a profound effect on me in my formative years.
To this day, I closely associate poppies with the dead, and over the years I have found that run-ins with poppies often carry a meaning much deeper than what may appear on the surface.
* * *
The more that the reasons behind this pilgrimage clarify themselves to me, the more I am recognizing common themes which expand to both microcosm and macrocosm. Over the past few months, and especially since I purchased my ticket to the UK last March, the Gods and the ancestors have made it very clear to me that my marching orders, so to speak, are just as much about *my* past as they are about *the* past.
But while I accepted the latter from the very beginning, the former presents many personal challenges, as my own past, specifically my childhood, is an extremely painful subject that I have rarely ever written about. And it’s a subject that I would rather leave untouched, to be honest, but again, I have my marching orders and I know better than to ignore them.
My last two pieces for The Wild Hunt are a result of these orders. With my ancestors hovering close, arguably way too close for comfort, I wrote two successive pieces about the dead of my lineage. The first was a historical and political analysis of the links between migration, displacement, and colonialism. The second was a personal account of my own interactions and experiences with the dead in my family starting from when I was a small child.
And it was finishing that second piece, which emotionally paralyzed me for several days both during and after I wrote it, that sparked a whole new level of ancestral messages and communications that have left me in a state of rawness and vulnerability that has only increased since I left Portland.
I left for NY last Sunday, and spent four days staying with my parents in suburban New Jersey before heading out to the UK. I haven’t spent that much time with them and in their house since I left home at seventeen, mostly as a result of the aforementioned pain. And as it has been many years since I stayed with my parents, its also been many years since I’ve thought of Mr. Miller’s class and my introduction to John McCrae.
But it suddenly seemed quite relevant, so in the spirit of healing old wounds, I went by my old middle school and among other things I spent a moment thinking about Flanders and poppies and the roots that led to my current work.
And then that evening, I went out with my mother and my sister for ice cream, to another old familiar haunt that also carries painful memories. I didn’t really want ice cream, but I did want to push myself out of my comfort zone some more. What I didn’t expect was to be greeted by poppies.
Right at the counter as we paid was a display of ‘Buddy Poppies’, which are made by VFW vets and sold as a fundraiser for their veterans’ programs. I hadn’t seen such a display for years, to the point where I forgot that such a thing even existed. But there they were, and without even thinking about it I pulled a dollar out of my pocket, stuck it in the can, and attached a poppy to my bag right next to my bee patch.
Forty-eight hours later, I arrived in Manchester. Tired, hungry, jet-lagged, I collapsed into a train seat at the train station, only to find myself face-to-face with a beautiful woman with large, bright, poppy earrings. Unable to help myself, I ask her where she is from.
“Belgium”, she answers. “I am Flemish.”
(Reminder: as far as this pilgrimage is concerned, there is no such thing as ‘coincidence’…)
And then when I got off the train at Manchester Piccadilly, I randomly wandered a few blocks seeking out coffee when I ran into this display:
“If ye break faith with those who die, we shall not sleep though poppies grow in Flanders fields.”