Poppies have always seemed rather cheerful flowers to me, with their vivacious red petals filling my borders with colour year after year. So to me it has always seemed a bit of a misfit with the somber remembrance of the loss hundreds of thousands of vibrant lives, on the 11th of November every year. Visiting the local war memorial this year on Remembrance Sunday, as I have done for as long as I can remember, got me wondering about why the poppy has come to signify this deeply depressing remembering of lives, cut down before their time on earth had run its natural course.
When I was a little girl the wreaths, encircling curious emblems, were part of a mysterious, mournful yet colouful pagent which marked the time between Halloween and Christmas. There was lots of standing solemnly in church, and at the war memorial, usually in bitingly cold wind. There was the wildly emotional sound of the last post playing valiantly on a lone horn, and the tear inducing cry of the bagpipes, while autumns leaves swirled around our feet. There were the huge colourful regimental flags and of course dashings of poppies. My mother was, and to this day still is, sad and introverted around this time. She lost her father in the II WW, and as it happens she opened the door to the postman bearing the grief infused telegram for her mother which was to change all of their lives forever. I think she still carries some misplaced childhood grief about the excited way she skipped down the hall to announce the exciting arrival of the telegram. When I was younger the day always felt like a strange mix of universal pride in the men and women who had given their lives for the greater good of the country, and personal grief for those families who had lost beloved members. It was as though national pride could somehow wash away and compensate for all the individual private losses.
Nowadays the 11th of November holds a very different mix of emotions for me. I feel universal despair and grief at the pointless loss of so many promising lives, and at the seeming endless excuses for war and violence as a solution to difference. I feel personal grief and disillusion at the casual way my brother and many of his fellow soldiers have been sent into hell, and then been abandoned when broken by the experience. I can find nothing uplifting or comforting in the senseless loss not just of life, but of promising futures. The lists of the dead are only part of the losses incurred, the even longer lists of the wounded, maimed and mentally tortured are rarely mentioned.
Perhaps the poppy is after all the perfect symbol, known as the flower of forgetfulness, its opium juice has been fueling conflict in Afghanistan for countless years. It springs hopeful from the battle-scarred earth, but its hope is cut down every year, as new conflicts arise. As I sat in the 2 minute silence which engulfed the country on the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month, with the sound of the tolling bells still ringing in my ears, all I could feel was the senselessness of war, and my powerlessness to do anything about it. This was a different kind of mindful silence from my usual daily practice, yet there was also a deep feeling of being connected to thousands of others who were also observing silence in this tiny part of the day. There is no other time in the year when some much silence is experienced universally by so many.
I like the silence, and next year I think I may wear a white poppy.
In Flanders Fields
In flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row
That mark our place, and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below
We are the dead; short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow
Loved and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.
by John McCrae