I have a special love for red poppies, the ones growing in my sister’s early summer garden and the humble velvety-covered plastic variety that we pin to our lapels (or however else we choose to wear them) throughout Canada, the UK, Australia, and New Zealand this month of November. November: the month of remembrance.

By All Saints’ Day, when we’re reminded to honour this great communion, possibly to light a candle for a departed loved one while a fellow church member chimes a bell, out come the poppies. In the midst of the hustle-bustle and ever-maddening rush-rush of daily life, their warm red brightness gives us pause, attunes our thoughts to the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of this eleventh month when armistice came into effect in 1918: the end of the First World War. And ever since Armistice Day, Remembrance Day as we call it in Canada, hearts hold vigil both with the tragedy of war and the blessedness of life. We remember the fallen and the veterans from the Great War, and we honour all fallen soldiers and civilians, along with the suffering survivors, since 1918 to the present day. We are grateful for lives lived sacrificially; likewise, we strive to live well.

Poppy Girl, Karl Wilhelm Friedrich BauerleThe red poppy has transcended the political lines of division that it began with; it belongs to all—a symbol of our common humanity, frail and wondrous. The poppy aids us in recalling that the year is waning and so our own lives. What are we doing, and why? What is worth remembering about the millions and millions of people in the past? How have they gifted us? Then, again, what about our own lives might be worth remembering by the young and those yet to be born?

Perhaps I especially love the red poppy because my mother’s nickname for me was Mohnblümelein (little poppy). I was born at five minutes to midnight on November 11th, Remembrance Day, so shy of November 12th that the nurses in Vancouver, B.C. who helped birth me safely into the world fretted aloud, “Poor girl, she’ll never have a birthday party.” My parents quietly disagreed, but even into the early 1960s they worried a bit about what the neighbours might think. All of these facts have encouraged me to be one who wishes to remember.

The word “remember,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary, comes from the Anglo-Norman remembrier, and it means what we all know it means: “to keep in mind, to recollect.” But here’s another thing: the call to “re-member,” to become members connected with one another once again. Imaginably, this season of poppies is also an invitation to re-member, to reunite, to become increasingly whole. We are all members of some group or other, probably several. Yet so often we are divided, perhaps sometimes acceptably, even politely, but often unnecessarily, angrily. And in this twenty-first century, our age of increasing anxiety, not only are we living in societies progressively experiencing deep division, but we are also divided within ourselves: anxious, uncertain, worried, fearful.

In this season of remembrance, shall we take a lesson or two from the red poppies we wear? The real ones, so fragile, yet so resilient that they sprang up from the bludgeoned earth of the First World War, inspired the Canadian brigade surgeon, John McCrae, to pen his famous poem, “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.

Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
     The torch; be yours to hold it high.
     If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
          In Flanders fields.

The poppies symbolize honouring the many fallen but also hope for the future, for peace. And the real ones, their green closed heads drooping downward until they are ready to bloom, unfurling their silken petals and rising on tall graceful stems, are like the human soul: fragile, sometimes forlorn, capable of atrocities, but also at times blossoming with gentle grace. Such beauty co-mingled with such horror—the red poppies remind us of both.

Poppies in the Sunset on Lake GenevaAs Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn declared in Gulag Archipelago, “the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being.” It would be so simple to separate good and evil by states, classes, and political parties, he said, but instead we need to face the truth: become willing to examine ourselves and uproot the evil within. This is a daily ongoing task. An arduous task. C.S. Lewis also spoke to this in “The Weight of Glory.” There are but two possible eternal destinations for each human soul—eternal glory or damnation—and at every moment of every day our choices move us closer to one or the other. Moreover, “All day long we are, in some degree, helping each other to one or other of these destinations.” So we need to be vigilant about how we “conduct all our dealings with one another, all friendships, all loves, all play, all politics.” The stakes can’t be higher, and like soldiers we need to be on ready alert.

In these days of quiet solemnity then as we remember the dead, we could consider the challenge to re-member, to re-collect as members of the human community. We could also welcome re-membering, re-collecting the disparate, sometimes warring aspects of our own psyches.

This past week a third generation Canadian veteran held his box of poppies for shoppers outside of Costco. It was a brilliantly sunny afternoon in this country that we both so love. When he and I exchanged a little of each other’s stories, he said, “It’s bringing tears to my eyes.”

“Yes,” this season whispers. “Yes, it’s time. It’s time for re-membering, for choosing to wish to become increasingly whole. Begin the task; let Mercy guide you. May the poppies remind you.”

The Kilns, C.S. Lewis's former home in Oxford (2014)

We all stand on the shoulders of those writers who’ve gone before us, and it’s best to know who these folks are, why they speak to us as powerfully as they do, and applaud them with gratitude and joy. I have many favourite writers and the list keeps growing, but if I had to choose only a handful, these five are the souls who’ve especially nurtured me, always sustained, encouraged, and emboldened me on my path.

C._S._LewisC.S. Lewis, yes, he’s number one. He’s been my mentor the longest. I grew up on German fairy tales and the Bible; I knew both were true but in different ways, which I later discovered was a fairly special start in life. And so when after a considerable dosage of modernist, depressive literature I at last stumbled into Narnia and then travelled into the cosmic trilogy, the heavens opened for me, set my feet a’ dancing. Lewis’s theological, apologetic, and literary criticism writings taught me much about how to think and write and eventually teach. One of his favourite quotes from Dunbar became mine:

Man, please thy Maker, and be merry,
And give not for the world a cherry.

Aslan’s words to Lucy in The Voyage of the “Dawn Treader” entered my DNA: “Courage, dear heart.” One more favourite quote, from his sermon “The Weight of Glory”:

There are no ordinary people. You have never talked to a mere mortal.
Nations, cultures, arts, civilization—these are mortal, and their life is to
ours as the life of a gnat. But it is immortals whom we joke with, work with, marry, snub, and exploit—immortal horrors or everlasting splendours.

A favourite book: That Hideous Strength

 

imacdod001p1George MacDonald, Lewis’s primary mentor. The more I read this Scotsman—such a pleasure!—the more I realize that Lewis wasn’t exaggerating when he said he’s always quoting him. When I first read The Princess and the Goblin in a university class, the sweet clarity of childlike faith and wonder welled up in me. I felt the invisible thread in my life with greater sureness and followed it from the safety of the known, through dark tunnels, past goblins’ schemes, right up to solid rock blockades. And when I was then tempted to retreat, I recalled how Irene’s thread vanished when she tried the same, and like Irene I kept going, removing one rock at a time, until I discovered victory. A favourite quote: “The child is not meant to die, but to be forever freshborn” (The Princess and Curdie). A favourite book: The Princess and the Goblin

 

lengleMadeleine L’Engle. The day I discovered that L’Engle and Lewis shared the same top mentor, George MacDonald, it made terrific sense to me because these writers so intimately informed much of my soul. When I came to do my Ph.D. I sat down to figure out why I loved these three so much and that became the focus of my doctoral work, “Educating the Moral Imagination.” I was fortunate to meet Madeleine a couple of times, to be in one of her creative writing classes, and to interview her on the telephone in 2000. I treasure the countless ways in which her writings have inspired me with love, passion, and hope. Madeleine’s chutzpah and her artistry play one beautiful song. A favourite quote: “Believing takes practice” (A Wind in the Door). A favourite book: A Swiftly Tilting Planet

 

lucyL.M. Montgomery. This fellow Canadian lady’s writings have blessed my heart with a sense of home. As much as I love my native Pacific Coast and my family’s European origins, part of me belongs to the red soil, the windy shores, and the rural spaces of Prince Edward Island. I’m an islander as sure as Anne-girl, the newcomer, always will be. And with my students, who thrill to the short story “Each in His Own Tongue,” I wish to speak with my own voice, truly, freely, as I ought to speak—for the love of God and humanity. A favourite quote: “See to it that you never make your music the servant of the power of evil—never debase it to unworthy ends. For your responsibility is as your gift, and God will exact the accounting of it from you. Speak to the world in your own tongue through it, with truth and sincerity…” (“Each”). A favourite book: The Blue Castle

 

tolkienJ.R.R. Tolkien. This author’s love of language, pilgrimage, and simple fare speaks to my longing for all things bright and beautiful, great and small, wise and wonderful (to echo the lovely children’s hymn by Cecil Frances Alexander). What British Columbia mountains have I climbed, green lakes canoed, tree mosses admired, waterfalls, rushing rivers, and deep pools prized, without thinking of Tolkien? He’s helped me to see more clearly, listen more closely, climb higher and longer, and sit by the campfire under starlight in yet deeper serenity. Here’s a favourite quote from one of my favourite sections of his epic, The Lord of the Rings: “All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us” (The Fellowship of the Ring). One more favourite quote: “Some who have read the book … have found it boring, absurd, or contemptible; and I have no cause to complain, since I have similar complaints of their works, or of the kinds of writing that they evidently prefer” (“Foreword to the Second Edition”). Such courage, such realism—our Tolkien. A favourite short story: “Leaf by Niggle”

So I can truly say, I am a better reader, writer, and teacher because I stand on very tall shoulders. These authors have given me enormous delight, deepening joy, and much, much needed hope in a dark world to which the light has come. To each and all, I say Thank you! Thank you!