Sometimes recently it does seem that way — as if we are living in the 11th hour. Today, as I reflected on that hour of now 100 years ago, I thought of our grandfather, Charlie Kilbourne. He’d have been a vigorous 45 years old that day. He’d been at St. Mihiel and the Meuse-Argonne. He’d lost the sight of his right eye in a mortar accident, and the shell fragment stayed in his brain till the day he died — too risky to take it out, the Army docs thought, —and he lived almost to age 91. In this photo, he’s somewhere on the Rhine …
I thought as well of Louis Ferdinand Celine’s Voyage au bout de la nuit, his epic World War I era novel, and of his indelible description of the battlefields. As one translation has it, “I cannot refrain from doubting that there exist any genuine realizations of our deepest character except war and illness, those two infinities of nightmare.”
Earlier today I heard the U.S. president, who drew international reproach for failing to show up on Saturday at the Aisne-Marne American Cemetery and Memorial, murmur something about how good it was that a “brutal” war had ended, way back then. He didn’t sound particularly aware of just how brutal that war was– the intersection of modern and traditional warfare, with deadly weapons and horse-drawn cannon, leaving almost 17 million dead.
It wasn’t surprising. For him, it was probably just one more road trip in a busy schedule. Meanwhile, fires are burning out of control in California, mass shootings in this country are almost a weekly occurrence, the Middle East is in ruins, we’re well into our second decade in Afghanistan, and there’s no such thing as climate change. I’ve just started reading On Desperate Ground, Hampton Sides’s account of the Korean War. Sometimes it feels as if we too are on desperate ground, though of course not an actual battleground.
But in the face of that, my sister and I recently attended a retreat at an Anglican monastery on the Hudson River. We heard a sermon by one of the youngest of the monks, by the look of him. He spoke of autumn, season of change, reminder of impermanence. He said that, in the times we now inhabit, he has woken lately to look out the window at the brilliant leaves and wonder how many more years he will see them there.
But, he said, this was a sermon about hope — because hope, he said, is an act of insurrection.
As the people of California — fifth largest economy in the world — struggle with natural and unnatural disasters and as refugees from Central America are met with U.S. troops, we also see a shift in the political climate, more young people and women stepping up to lead, more voices speaking out.
Let us hope. And let that act of insurrection lead us onward.
As the French would say, Soit-il. Let it be so.