"No one sings as purely as those in deepest hell; what we take for the song of angels is their song."
Tomorrow is Veterans Day and this particular day has immense personal import for me. My dad was career military and served in both WWII and Korea. My grandfather was in WWII and i have great uncles who served in WWI. Some of my first ancestors in the States were Hessian mercenaries who came over to fight in the Revolutionary war and I also carry in my veins the blood of Saxon warriors who took their stand against Charlemagne, may he be damned, in order to protect their traditions. I'm well aware, to the marrow of my soul, of the debt we owe our military dead. We all have them, somewhere in our lines, and I like to think that the grit and sense of duty that motivated them to fight for their homes, families, countries, and people flows through our ancestral hamingja down to us as well. I sense them quite often around me, the military dead in my line and those military dead that I honor who may or may not be directly related as well. I maintain a special part of my ancestor shrine solely for them and occasionally I make pilgrimages to battlefields and hold rituals and do what I can to honor them too. One thing that I've found they very much appreciate, in terms of offerings, is the acquisition of trench art.
This wasn't what i intended to write about for Veteran's Day and I may yet write something else before tomorrow ends. Still, someone today expressed great surprise that I, who carry warrior medicine, am also a poet, painter, photographer, glassblower, and cook. This is not the first time that I've had this happen. I remember when I was working with a Theod, jaws dropped open when it was discovered I could cook and cook well. The idea that someone claiming warrior medicine could also have the power, potential, skill, and desire to create something of beauty, or something nourishing seemed shocking. It apparently causes serious cognitive disconnect for some. Yet, warriors have always had a keen appreciation of beauty.
How could they not? Even in the midst of hell, one needs reminders of what one is fighting for; one needs reminders that nourish the eyes and the soul. One needs reminders that the brutality and horror in which one is currently wading are not the only things in the world, that there was a world, a precious beautiful world before whatever war one is fighting, a world to which one hopes to return. Warriors need those reminders of the fragility and sacredness of life, of their own humanity, of those they love, and those things that sustain. (All those humanities we're so hell bent on culling from our educational system? They nourish our humanity. They connect us to some of the best parts of being human: our capacity for occasional, shocking greatness, for creative genius, for distilling love, honor, loyalty, joy, pain, weariness, defeat, salvation into concrete talismans of remembrance, i.e. art, music, sculpture, etc. We cut them from our educational systems at our peril).
I think that our hunger for beauty and our ability to find or create it in the most adverse of circumstances is one of the defining sensibilities of being human. Warriors, soldiers are men and women making hard choices and doing what is necessary often with horrific personal consequences. This doesn't' make them less human; i believe it makes them all the more aware of how human they are, and all the more aware of how sometimes that must be thrust aside for survival, raw, brutal survival. Warriors have always sought out and found ways to create beauty in the midst of trauma. Samurai were expected to be well educated in the courtly arts and many a Japanese warrior was also an artist or poet. Archilochus, the Greek poet, wrote of being both a devotee of the Gods of war and of the Muses. There was no conflict: both were necessary for becoming a whole human being; and men damned to the trenches in WWI and WWII took the implements of destruction and horror: shells, mortars, and assorted metal refuse of war and made things of occasionally astonishing beauty. Collectors and antiquarians call this latter type of art 'trench art,' because it was made by men in the trenches.
I discovered trench art completely by accident. A friend of mine who used to own his own antique store gifted me with a small box. It was made out of a large shell casing and the soldier-artist had carefully inscribed a little lion and the words 'Labor Ipse Voluptas" (work itself is a pleasure) on the top. It was made during WWI. My military dead immediately took to it and it ended up on their altar. I started to get pushed to find more of this type of art and so over the past couple of years, I've acquired a small collection, all of which sits on my shrine to the military dead as an offering to them and what they endured.
I want to share some images of those pieces with you today, of simple things of quiet beauty made by men in the midst of hell.
These vases, both made during WWI, in France. One has ivy running around it, the other poppies. Both are made from very large shell casings--they're about a foot and a half tall.
I am particularly taken by the small things that soldiers made, like these cufflinks made out of small shell casings, and this pill box, made out of a shell casing and a coin. It's a little larger than a nickel.
I believe these things served as a reminder of exactly what these men were fighting for: everything they loved at home. All too many of them never came back. May they have the grace of being remembered and hailed, not only tomorrow on Veterans Day, but always.
(the first photo at the beginning of this post is one that I took of the WWI memorial in Rhinebeck, NY. Please do not use without permission).