On March 20, the one-year anniversary of the war against Iraq, peace groups around the world plan to take to the streets and declare, "We still say no to war!" In Portland, Oregon, the nearest metropolitan city to where I live, tens of thousands of people are scheduled to protest. Up the Columbia River in my small town, our group is also prepared to demonstrate for peace that day.
Our peace group originally formed around the energies of an 80-something mother of four, Evine, who has lived in this rural county for sixty years. In the past few months, she has been hospitalized twice for pneumonia, her brother died, and her sister -- who had stood next to her in choir every Sunday and lived on the same land with her for 30 years -- died suddenly. Yet Evine spent a recent Monday afternoon phoning people to remind them about the next peace meeting.
Holding a peace rally in a politically conservative area is somewhat of a risk, but we've done it several times, confining ourselves to a one-block area along the main road through town. Most people driving by waved or stared at us blankly, although some gave us the finger, shouted at us, or kept driving around the block in their pick-up trucks making as much noise as possible.
I was never certain of the value of these peace demonstrations, but I participated because I thought it was imperative to do something and because I enjoyed being surrounded by my esteemed elders who had been working for peace for more decades than I had been alive.
During the first rally -- in October 2002, before the war -- I walked beside Evine for a time. I was afraid she would get sick out in the cold, wind, rain. She wept quietly. I put my arm across her shoulders.
"Are you all right?" I asked.
"I've seen this too many times," she said. "My brother fought in World War II, and my son went to Vietnam, and they were never the same. There has to be a better way."
That day and during other demonstrations, Evine and I were a part of a group of about 40 (out of a community of about 2,000). Most of the members of our group were over sixty, with a few of us 40-somethings hanging around. Several children participated, but few people in their twenties or thirties ever showed up. It was a lively group, nevertheless. Some of our elderly peacemakers could not walk far, so they sat on benches, waved signs, and shouted slogans.
One woman who was recovering from cancer held up a "no more war" sign and waved to passing cars, to the mortification of her teenaged daughter who stayed home. "Mom, people will see you," her daughter said beforehand. "That's the idea," she said. "I'm not going to stop standing up for what I believe because I might embarrass you."
A Korean vet helped display a huge banner which read, "Support our troops. Bring them home NOW!" One demonstrator who had been a medic in World War II walked beside me for a time during each rally. He had been wounded during the war, plus he had taken care of hundreds of wounded soldiers. "I have seen the horrors of war," he told me. "I can't tell you what I've seen. It was too awful. But I can try to stop it from happening again."
After the war began last March, our peace group struggled. We could not wrap our minds around the reality that millions of people around the globe had worked tirelessly to stop the war in Iraq, yet it had happened anyway. What had we done wrong? Where could we go from here?
I was one of the stunned. I read every article I could about "what went wrong." Organizers around the country were asking the same questions we were. I examined my own methods. After 35 years of activism (if I went back to my first fight -- to save the killdeer on the grounds of my elementary school), I didn't think I had accomplished anything. I certainly had never celebrated a victory.
For months afterward, several people in our group bravely kept up weekly peace vigils -- despite angry denunciations from a few community members who accused the peacemakers of not supporting the troops. Other members of the group dropped out to recollect and do peace work on their own. Some decided to get more involved politically.
Evine continued to try and get us to cohere as a group. This week she called to remind me about the peace meeting and ask if I had any names and numbers of people who had come to past meetings. I did, so I took the list to her house.
"During World War II, I was horrified by what was happening," she told me as we sat in her living room. "But I had four kids and 100 diapers a week to wash, and I didn't become politically involved. By the time the Vietnam war came around, I was more politically aware, and I opposed the war. When my son got home from Vietnam, he opposed it, too. There has to be a better way to solve problems than by waging war. If we put all the energy, money, and thought we put into war into peace, we'd have peace. And we've got to work on peace during peace time. We've got to."
During this conversation, she worried about some of John Kerry's policies. "But we've got to get Bush out of office," she said. "So I'll take Kerry. I've never seen things as bad as they are now. We've got to get people involved." She said this as she held up the phone list I had brought her.
As I talked with Evine, I realized the peace rallies and all the work we had done in the peace group did have value. The demonstrations may not have stopped the war last year, but they had helped us build connections with each other in our own communities as we acted locally to bring about peace.
I have always imagined that if I reached Evine's age, I would be basking in the sun somewhere. Although I have lived in this area for many years, I have spent a good part of my adult life wandering this country and that, looking for a place I could call home, a place where nature and connections were cherished, where peace, tolerance and compassion were a way of life.
Evine has lived here nearly her whole life. She has not looked over her shoulder for a better place. She has remained in a community where the majority of people often held differing views from her own. She has stayed and nurtured those relationships she created with the land and the people who lived on it. She has made her community better and stronger because she was an intregal part of it. I hope when I am 80-something, I am just like her.