Nobody is more surprised than I am about how I've spent what should have been my summer vacation. It all started last September 11, and if it didn't have something to do with you, I wouldn't be writing about it. But it does. Thinking back to last September, it seems to me that grief is like labour. It's totally encompassing while we're in it. Once its over it's almost forgotten, but it rewires us somehow. The pain of birthing cracks open the future, but grief is a conduit to all the losses of the past. Personal history itself is just the top layer. Under it we carry the unknowable sadness of earlier generations. Death is all it takes to connect us backward.
History will change its mind many times about the significance of September 11. But what I know with authority is this: I have been altered by my time with the dead that day and days after and on into the ongoing "war on terrorism."
Public grief. It turns out that it is usually about matters considerably more painful than, say, Lady Di passing away tragically. So, in those post- 9/11 weeks, I know I wasn't alone in being plummeted onto my own ancestral bedrock of sorrow. And I'd be blind not to see how earlier cataclysmic geopolitical moments like September 11 twisted my own family's fortunes and my own psychic inheritance.
But for murderous tyranny and war, I'd be worrying about recovering from the flood in Prague right now. And I'd have known some other members of my father's family in my lifetime.
My father escaped because he had an early warning system in place. The moment Hitler's army took what's now the Czech Republic, a friend and newspaper editor who was on the story gave him word. He made the quick transformation from successful lawyer, with a huge case going against a German corporate plant takeover, into a near penniless but resourceful refugee, in only hours. Choosing the daring opposite route of a typical fleeing person, he got across the Austrian border using his flawless German, though he refused to speak the language ever again. A 1937 Cord car and well-pressed tuxedo got him into high-placed roulette circles in Monaco (one player was a royal of Iran, for example) and then through the border checkpoint into the safety zone of France by tagging along on a fat-cat cross-border gambling trip. From there, it's a long story still. It even features world-famous Chilean poet Pablo Neruda, who was murdered by Pinochet, in a surprising supporting role. He was the official who signed the papers that got my father across the Atlantic with a boatload of Spanish Civil War refugees headed toward the port town closest to Santiago.
I guess my sister and I are the happy ending to his story, but my father, like most of those who survived holocaust, never stopped paying the price.
And like most children of these wounded ones, the suffering -- even of those I never knew -- touched me in the deepest places. I remember the nightmares as a child. And how the fear of being enslaved and physically violated -- evoked by naked images that I dared only to peek at -- for years made the tingling of my dawning femininity a source of gnawing dread.
My mother, like my father, came from people who were integrated Europeans at the time of her family's exodus to Mexico. From her perspective, she was a young Catholic Berliner attending school in Budapest. The Nazis viewed her mixed ancestry differently. They also liked the large family home right downtown near the zoo, which they quickly took over.
When September 11 came around, I had a place in me where mass death was alive and the souls of the dead could stir. As a mixed-breed, I have always known that my family experience was not unique to any one culture. So when I connected with those Americans whom I saw die at the World Trade Center, I ended up haunted by all the souls whose lives were taken in war and violence on that day.
Now, I have been trying to do my bit since I was a teenager. A coincidence of timing that has personal resonance for me -- on September 10, NOW had just completed exactly 20 years of publishing. I'm proud of how we have delivered on presenting ethical voices that advocate for innocent civilians -- a fundamental of our self-defined mandate. But I'm frustrated, too.
Here's what has changed me. It's the effect of real-time personal fear. The question is not if, but how unknowable others -- of different times and especially faraway places -- affect absolutely the fundament of our lives. We've seen it, touched it, tasted how it feels. New fears, new laws. It's a virus. Will it get us at the borders or through the mail? Will it be the cops or the robbers?
Like all of us, I remember how it felt watching certain death on TV in the comfort of my own living room. Like millions of others, I became so grateful for that space in the days and even months that followed the attack that I could barely tear myself away from home.
Like the Prague and Berlin of my parents' time, most of us live in a kind of paradise here. The ghosts of September 11 remind me that this is a fragile gift. I am haunted by the thought of future generations scratching their heads and wondering how we lost it all.
So that's how I came to spending my summer vacation being some sort of peace activist. The gestation period was a classic nine months. Then it all went so fast, I'm not even sure how it happened. With fellow conspirators Lorraine Segato and Jesse Hirsh, and a small grant from NOW, I founded a new grassroots media arts organization called Wild Faith. It's dedicated to boosting a culture of reconciliation and non-violence through the power of artful communication and networking. It went from mere big idea in June to birth in mid-July to full tilt into our first project -- to bring a new day to light in Toronto.
That day is almost here. By some weird turn of fate, September 21 is the world's first-ever annual UN-decreed day of global ceasefire and non-violence. The brainchild of a small UK group called Peace One Day, the resolution passed unanimously last September 4, with all the usual lofty phrases from world leaders.
But it won't mean anything unless we innocent bystanders stand up for our rights. Of course, it may not mean anything anyway, which is why we call our organization Wild Faith. Here's our motto: "It takes a leap of wild faith to believe you can make a difference. But don't let that stop you."
The day itself is just a beginning, of course. But the timing. Soon, we will all be back on our couches watching death being delivered. We need not be silent witnesses again. September 21 is a way to talk back. It's a container for a new kind of do-it-yourself activism. All kinds of groups and individuals have responded to our call. There are over 20 colourful, creative events going on across the city. You can pray with Muslims and Jews at the Pope Squat or join war and torture survivors in a peace blossom ceremony. You can make masks, comic zines or knitwear or balance rocks on the beach (see sidebar). Or just decide for yourself what you want to do. Then tell the world by logging on our Web site, www.wildfaith.org.
People have the power to create social norms. Especially in the eight richest countries of the world, where we the (consuming) people hold a relatively high level of political and economic power. Let's use that power to develop a culture that values peaceful problem solving in our own lives and in our world. September 21 is a good place to start. Please join email@example.com