Seeds of peace

At the recent antiwar rally, people acted the way they wished the government would act -- with goodness and tender respect.

Published February 28, 2003 4:56PM (EST)

I woke up full of hate and fear the day before the most recent peace march in San Francisco. This was disappointing: I'd hoped to wake up feeling somewhere between Virginia Woolf and Wavy Gravy. How did America get to this point, when the Bill of Rights is systematically being abolished, and American leaders can bully and buy their way into preemptive war? Haven't these people ever heard of karma? Hitting first has always been the mark of evil. I don't think one great religious or spiritual thinker has said that it was OK. Everyone, from almost every tradition, agrees on three things. Rule 1: We are all family. Rule 2: It is immoral to hit first. Rule 3: You reap exactly what you sow. You cannot grow tulips from zucchini seeds, or peace from murder. And, it helps beyond words to plant bulbs in the dark of winter.

I tried to pray my way out of the fear and hate, but my mind was once again a pinball machine of anger and hopelessness -- I blame this condition equally on Bush and menopause, which have more things in common that you might think. There was very little hope that day. People were no longer using the word "if" we go to war. They were saying "when." And I suddenly realized that I didn't believe in God anymore. It was so frightening, like being 8 years old again, listening to my parents fight, holding my breath. I clutched my cat like I used to, a life preserver in cold, deep water. But then -- a small miracle -- I started to believe in George Bush. I really did: In my terror, I thought maybe he and Colin Powell and Christopher Hitchens are smarter than me, and they have gathered and can grasp classified intelligence and nuance that is well above my understanding.

Then I thought, George Bush? And relief wafted over me like a breeze.

I decided to start from scratch, with a simple prayer: "Hi!" I said, and then I could breathe. I prayed again: "Help! I'm so afraid!" And I felt better. Augustine said that you have to start your relationship with God all over from the beginning, every day. Yesterday's faith does not wait for you like a newspaper with the morning coffee. You seek it, and in seeking it, find it. Fra Giovanni wrote, during the Renaissance,

No heaven can come to us
       unless our hearts find rest in it today.
        Take heaven!
No peace lies in the future
        which is not hidden
        in this present little instant.
Take peace!

And millions of us are taking peace. By the time my friends and I got to the march that day, I did feel like a cross between Virginia Woolf and Wavy Gravy, elegant and solemn, goofy and eager to help. We showed up.

Tens of thousands of people were already there, people like us, idealists who had been angry and scared upon waking, but who were now milling around on the Mobius strip of the '60s, together once again on sacred ground. Harangers harangued us from various sound systems unimproved in the last 35 years, like heavy metal played backward on the wrong speed. But the energy and signs and faces of the crowd were an intoxicating balm, and by some marvelous yogic stretch, we all stopped trying to figure who and what we agreed with, and who the bad elements were -- Bush? The socialist haranguers? The Punx for Peace who had come prepared with backpacks full of rocks? The Israel haters? The Zionists? You just had to let go. There was space for us all, and we began to march, each a small part of one big body, fascinatingly out of control, like protoplasm bobbing along.

The endless sea of people looked like a great heartbroken circus, wild living art, motley and stylish, old and young, punks and aging hippies and veterans, strewn together on the asphalt lawn of Market Street; a yard goods peace march. We took tiny shuffle steps, like Zen monks in a crowded wedding procession. It was like being on a kind of conveyer belt, overwhelming and scary, because you might trip and get stepped on, but once you were really in, you could either sit by the curb and sob, or adjust to it. It's so disturbing not to walk with your usual gait, to move with purpose, slowly. It was like trying to pat your head and rub your stomach at the same time.

The "I" turned into "We" and "You." You shuffled along with your friends, moving at the pace of the whole organization, moving to the heartbeat of the percussion. You saw people you knew, and hung out awhile, and then they moved away, and new people fell in step beside you, and offered you comments and gum. Whoever came along, came along. The goodwill somehow gave you a feeling of safety in this mob, a fizzy euphoria despite the grim reality of an impending and unnecessary war. Songs I've loved a lifetime were sung -- "I Shall Not Be Moved," "Ain't Gonna Study War No More," "Give Peace a Chance" -- and then we'd tromp along, and the peace march wave rose again -- a joyful roar of solidarity rippling out toward us from the front of the line, over us, picked up by people walking behind.

There was gaping, and a lot of volition; you were swept along, but the crowd had a self-correcting mechanism -- it kept letting go of what wasn't right, the more raw, angry elements, the strident, and the divisive. And people made such great fun of Bush -- "Bush Lost", "Daddy, I Want My Own War," "Impeach Cheney First." It's easy, because he's so greedy and dumb, which I mean in a loving, Christian way. If a satirist wrote up this administration, you'd say it was too broad. But the greats, like Tom Lehrer, won't even bother with Bush, because like Nixon, he's already a parody. And at any rate, all I meant to say was that the people have a great sense of humor, and this gives me as much faith as anything. This is the chemo.

It was a Golden Rule Parade -- you acted the way you wish the government would act, with goodness, and tender respect. The golden rule held the peace. The splinter groups that went crazy later and trashed everything, were peaceful when they were still with us: I saw only friendliness, sorrow, goodness and great theater: My favorite people were the sheep on stilts, huge silver Renaissance masked-ball aliens, with horns and curly tinsel wool. No one had any idea why there were sheep on stilts -- maybe they were peace sheep. And they were stunning, like puppets that Louis XIV had commissioned.

A line of women moved solemnly in the middle of the bobbing throng, so steadfast and profound, witnessing for peace. They held peace signs and dressed in black like madres in South America. They stopped you with their presence, like punctuation, made you take a different kind of breath, and truly take in why we were here.

Two things carried the day: regular people saying no to power, and glorious camaraderie. We were sad and afraid and we had done the most radical thing of all: We had shown up, not knowing what else to do, and without much hope. It was like going on a huge picnic at the edge of the fog. The mantra you could hear in our voices and our footsteps was, "I have a good feeling!" The under-mutter was said silently, with a shrug, "What good will it do to do nothing?"

The barricades were broken down for once, between races, colors, ages, sexes, classes, nations. There are so few opportunities for this to happen -- at first, it always feel like us vs. them, and then you're shoulder to shoulder with thousands of people, walking along to the heartbeat of the drums, reading each other's signs, signs that pierce you or make you laugh out loud. You rub shoulders, smell the bodies and the babies and pot and urine and incense and fear, and everyone's streaming past, including you, for once, you're part of the stream and in that, in being part of, you smell the pungent green shoots of hope. The feeling is just for the moment. But it's a quantum moment: It might just happen again, spread and spread; and for a moment and then another, there's no judgment, no figuring out, just an ebullient trudge, step step step.

People sang, and babies cried, and your feet start to hurt, and you want to go home, and just then the broad-bottomed Palestinian women start chanting, "This is what democracy looks like."

Wow: That's the prayer I said the morning after the peace march. Wow. Eleven million people marched for peace, worldwide, and it doesn't matter at all what Bush has to say about that. People were already saying "if" again -- "if we go to war," and that is simply amazing.

Maybe by the time this piece sees print, we'll have already started bombing. But maybe not. There's a wall of prayer and peaceful protest between us and the war. The tide is rising, and the administration sacrificed Powell, the one person most of us still sort of trusted. And the first bulbs have begun to bloom. When this finally happens in late winter every year, I'm always astonished. I've always given up. Months before, when I plant them, I get swept up in the fantasy that the earth, after so much rain, will be rich and loamy, and planting bulbs sounds like such a romantic and fun thing to do, but it never is. The earth is rocky and full of roots; it's clay, and it seems doomed and polluted, but you dig little holes for the ugly shriveled bulbs, throw in a handful of poppy seeds, and cover it all over, and you know you'll never see it again -- it's death and clay and shrivel, and your hands are nicked from the rocks, your nails black with soil. December and January have been so grim the last two years, and the power kept going out, and everyone was just crazy as a rat. Yet here we are in February, with war drums and daffodils everywhere, and poppies in the wings.

By Anne Lamott

Anne Lamott is the New York Times bestselling author of "Help, Thanks, Wow"; "Small Victories"; "Stitches"; "Some Assembly Required"; "Grace (Eventually)"; "Plan B"; "Traveling Mercies"; "Bird by Bird"; "Operating Instructions" and "Hallelujah Anyway," out April 4. She is also the author of several novels, including "Imperfect Birds" and "Rosie." A past recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship and an inductee to the California Hall of Fame, she lives in Northern California.

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