To you from failing hands we throw the torch

Poppies in Flanders – Photo by Flickr user nataliej

Warning: this post has nothing to do with Maine politics. If that’s what you’re looking for, you should check the latest offerings from Amy or Ethan. If instead you’d like a short primer on Canadian customs and a rambling digression on family history, then read below.

In addition to universal health care and a humane maternity leave policy, one of the things I miss most about living in Canada this time of year is the sprouting of red poppies on winter coats, honoring the nation’s veterans.

The poppies, distributed by the millions by the Royal Canadian Legion, are a reference to In Flanders Fields, a poem by John McCrae, written while he was a battlefield surgeon in France in the First World War and one of the most famous pieces of Canadian literature. The poem, while making stark reference to the costs of war, also romanticizes the conflict and was used in British and Canadian wartime propaganda. It strikes a bit of a discordant note with later, negative perceptions of the war and the reality of the horrors of trench warfare and chemical weapons.

My wife’s great-great-grandfather, Sir Andrew Macphail, was a friend of McCrae, a fellow soldier-physician-poet and his editor and biographer. He was there in Flanders as the poem was written.

McCrae died of pneumonia during the war but Macphail survived, after four successive seasons of watching, as he put it, “the raw earth of Flanders hide its shame in the warm scarlet glory of the poppy.”

My wife and I are expecting twins in April and Macphail’s life is one of the many family stories we’ll tell them as they grow up. It will exist alongside the story of my grandfather leaving his family farm as a teenager at the height of the great depression to build a life and a business with the strength of his own hands, and the tales of other, more-distant ancestors like Susannah North Martin, who was killed in the hysteria of the Salem Witch Trials. From these examples perhaps they’ll learn something about family, war, love, art, the choices people make and the effects their lives can have down through time.

Macphail’s home on Prince Edward Island is now a museum and I had the pleasure recently of sitting in what was once his study and leafing through some of the products of his prolific career as a writer. In addition to his books, poems and plays, there was also a binder of the columns he wrote for the local newspaper on everything from national politics to potato cultivation to the industriousness of “the Chinaman.” Reading those made me wonder if some day my scribblings here might be read by a member of some distant future generation with a very different understanding of the world. It made me want to make sure that whatever I write, however contemporary, also communicates deeper values and meaning. (As you can tell, that feeling didn’t last long.)

Today we honor all those who have served in the armed forces and celebrate the armistice that brought silence to Flanders fields. It’s an opportunity to thank those who serve for us now as well as to examine our links to the past and recommit ourselves to creating, in every way we can, the better world for which those who came before us fought and sacrificed.

Mike Tipping

About Mike Tipping

Mike writes about Maine politics and policy with a focus on analysis and explanation. He works at the Maine People's Alliance and Maine People's Resource Center, writes a political column for the Portland Press Herald