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“From Laramie to Baghdad: Dreams of Peace in a World at War”

Dreamseeker Magazine, Spring 2004

I am sitting by the railroad tracks at the edge of downtown Laramie, Wyoming, watching the colors of the evening sky spread to a hazy pink in the frigid dusk air. Previously, I’ve known Laramie only as the home of Matthew Shepard before he was brutally murdered for being gay. I make a note to watch “The Laramie Project” when I get home to California again.

There is a footbridge across the tracks, and I notice the silhouette of the trestles. With my camera in hand, I leave the warmth of my car and Garrison Keillor’s breathy monologue about the Passion Play in Lake Woebegon. It has not been a quiet week for me. As I soak in the desolate industrial beauty in the fading sunlight, my eye views it through the camera. It is the first calming action I have permitted myself in three weeks. When I run out of film, I head back to the car and Keillor.

I am in Laramie with my husband, Doug, and our 18-year-old son. Matthew enrolled in a technical school here, and we are settling him into his new life. I monitor each day’s events, watching the three of us cycle through a range of emotions. With the aid of a city map and phone book, we find our way around town to buy eating utensils, cans of SpaghettiOs, and other assorted necessities.

Earlier in the evening when we picked Matthew up for dinner, he told us that his new roommate informed him he hates gays and Mexicans, although blacks are okay, at least the ones he has had contact with.

“Then he told me,” Matthew continued, “that he’s a Christian. How can that be?”

Here in the town where Matthew Shepard died there are many loving people, I am sure. But even the most loving among us find it difficult to love outside our own circles.

As I settle back into the warmth of my car my cell phone rings, shattering my momentary peacefulness. It is one of my brothers who often calls when I’m on a trip. I can sense immediately that this isn’t a “just checking” call.

“Is Doug with you?” he asks.

I tell him no. Everything around me is dimming as the sunlight edges away. I hear a hum in my ears, a deadened roar as if I am under water.

With Wendell’s question, a wave of fear hits me as I remember what has made the activities of settling our son into college life seem so normal and at the same time so incongruent. The U.S. has waged war on Iraq. We in turn are being bombarded with the images of Baghdad under siege.

My parents’ stories of conscientious objection during World War II permeated my growing-up years. I can almost repeat the stories word for word. This war, however, offers a twist to the family narrative. My brother Weldon is in Baghdad with Christian Peacemaker Teams, there to “wage peace.” Instinctively, I know this call is about him.

“Weldon was in an accident. He’s in the hospital in Amman,” Wendell tells me. “He has some broken bones. We think he’s okay, but that’s all we know.”

I breathe again and begin to laugh.

Like everything else right now, my reaction has a surreal edge. I remember my college T.A. explaining surrealism to our freshman English class: “If you open your oven and find one work boot sitting on a cake pan—that’s surrealism,” Russell taught us. My laughter is that boot.

I’ve been keeping a journal during Weldon’s absences, but I have felt reluctant to record mundane activities in a world in which people have been torn from normal daily schedules. Today I write that Laramie is growing on me. I’ve always been a bit intrigued by this western town, although I’d be hard pressed to explain. I am simultaneously repulsed, an equally inexplicable reaction.

In August 1998, a mere two months before Matthew Shepard’s death, we stayed here overnight during our move from Ithaca, New York, to Reedley, California. I cannot shake the eeriness of knowing that we were here and he was alive, preparing for another year of college.

I am drawn to Laramie’s beauty and history, but tonight, I am uneasy with the underside of both the history and the location. From the broken treaties of the 1851 council at Fort Laramie to the torture of Matthew Shepard, there have been many painful events. Laramie is much more than the sum of these negative events, but this too is part of its collective reality. Our world is filled with good people whose experiences have fostered a particular distrust and anger.

Over dinner Matthew tells us that he has already learned that the University of Wyoming students hate the WyoTech students and vice versa. It was one of the first things his new neighbors told him in their orientation for him, sandwiched between who throws good parties and where to buy a cheap DVD player.

Knowing college towns, I had warned Matthew about this. He had laughed and asked if I was saying that Laramie had gangs made of the technical school kids and college kids. I told him he could laugh, but I know a little about small college towns and about the human propensity to distinguish between “us” and “them.” Tonight I think aloud about this tendency.

Matthew responds with his own observation about human nature. “A person alone can be good,” he states, “but you put several people together and they always do bad things.”

I tell him that his observation has a history. In 1895, Gustav LeBon published The Crowd, a sociological study of the behavior of groups. Crowds, according to LeBon, are always unconscious, intellectually inferior, and unreasonable. However, he adds, a crowd can as easily be heroic as criminal. It depends on “the nature of the suggestion to which the crowd is exposed.”

I remind Matthew that it is also within groups that we can do our greatest good. We can come together like the Danes, nonviolently defying Hitler. We can build houses for Habitat for Humanity. Together, we can demand the right to vote or press for an end to war. For these things, we need collective action. Hopefully, we find community where “the nature of the suggestion” sets the pace for our best impulses.

At home, our peace rallies elicit a virulent opposition. We have been told to get out of our country and admonished to support the troops. One person informed us that God is not on the side of peace. But I also remember Rusty, who stepped out of the crowd to join our candlelight vigil.

“I came here,” Rusty told us, “to show support for the troops and to tell you you’re wrong. But instead I decided to join your circle because I believe you have a right to be here.”

These days, when I find hope it surprises me.

While we eat it starts to snow, and for 20 minutes we can barely see across the street. Once again, we hear that Interstate 80 is closed between Laramie and Cheyenne. CNN informs us that south of Baghdad, the wind is blowing the sand, obscuring the view and slowing the troops.

Doug and I leave Matt for a cup of hot tea at a Laramie coffeehouse before heading to Motel 6. Sitting there I try to put words to my anxiety. Looking at the people around me, I realize that there is a divide in our society that is, at least partly, an integral aspect of the U.S. war on Iraq. This seemingly insurmountable division shapes our faith, our views of the world, our relationships, and, ultimately, what we choose to believe about our war on Iraq.

In the coffeehouse there are antiwar posters on the message board and under the order counter. The décor is unique, but we could be along Telegraph Avenue in Berkeley or in Takoma Park, Maryland. The sounds, the conversations, the clothing, and even the smells are familiar. If I began a tirade against our current president, I am sure most people would nod.

Yet if I went to buy a drink just a few blocks away, I would have to order an American beer and sit under a flag with a notice that “these colors don’t run.” I would be afraid to get into a political discussion and out of my personal comfort zone. So I’ll stay here, where I know what is acceptable, how much I am willing to risk.

The pro-/antiwar sentiments have roots in something I cannot comprehend. Understanding and communication come infrequently, and in slivers far too small.

I am sitting in my room at Motel 6. It’s 3 a.m. and I cannot sleep. As I worry, I send out a prayer for understanding; for Weldon’s healing; and for the people of Iraq. I begin to write by the street light that shines through the window. The crack of light awakens Doug, who turns on the television and CNN babbles in the background.

A reporter is talking about the terrorist-style fighting by the Iraqi soldiers, calling it uncivilized. While he talks, the scrolling message at the bottom of the screen reports that the war is going as planned, then asks the viewers, “How long do you think the war will last? Cast your vote at” Once again I think of the word surreal.

We live amid such complexity. Our history and our theology have created a mythology by which we live. I live by the stories of conscientious objection, others by stories of lives given for freedom. Phrases that seem meaningless to me have great importance for others.

My fears are running in high gear as the reality of the war comes to me through Weldon’s eyes, through my knowledge that he was there. I move from questions to worry, disbelief, and tears. I waver between quiet reflection and intense rage.

I have tried to share Weldon’s story but it is difficult. Reactions seem to be at one extreme or another, neither of which fits what I feel. Some people find his actions naïve or worse. Others believe his sacrifice is so noble. I am angry at both responses, unable to speak about it with any of those commenting no matter how they respond.

I have never felt more alone. I cannot make sense of my own reactions and that, too, frustrates me. There is no way to make sense of war. I feel helpless in the face of my terror, my anger, and the ambiguities.

My thoughts have become an incessant and obnoxious staccato amid CNN’s reports and my memory of slogans chanted in recent days. Human shields for Saddam. War is not the answer. Love it or leave it. No blood for oil. Freedom isn’t free. Pray for peace. God bless America. God bless the Iraqis. The price of freedom is written in blood. Support the troops. We do support the troops—we want them home.

It builds to a crescendo of meaningless words. I don’t expect to sleep tonight.

There is, I suppose, a glimmer of hope even though I have not felt it lately. I heard it when Rusty spoke at our vigil. I found it in the words of the Iraqi doctor who treated Weldon’s wounds—then waved away thanks by saying, “We’re all part of the same family.” I see it in anyone who, like my brother, is willing and able to face the chaos head on.

We want things to fit but they don’t. We want answers to be simple and they aren’t. We search for coherence when dissonance and ambiguity are the basis of everyday life. We declare our answers to be the right ones. It strains our goodwill to live together.

Maybe my own part (for now) is simply this: to listen more closely, to question lovingly, to support wholeheartedly, and to look for the ways to embrace the pain and step beyond my small circle of comfort. I do not expect it to be easy.

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