Last December a group of older women (many with long experience as activists) met to form Grandmothers Against the War, dedicated to “ending the shameful war in Iraq” and “inviting all like-minded people (of whatever age, gender, and parental status) to join in the effort.” Their first action was “Take Us Instead,” their Valentine’s Day rally and attempt to enlist at the Oakland Induction Center.
That was followed on April 17 (income tax deadline) by a rally leafleting outside the Oakland IRS office to protest the eventually “Trillion Dollar War” being financed by our taxes. Plans for subsequent actions and long-term projects are ongoing.
One of these, The Grandmothers’ Letters Project, chaired by Marge Lasky, got underway on June 9. Aimed at starting a unique letter-writing campaign, it was sparked by Helen Isaacson’s urge to “write something to my 10-year-old granddaughter—not to scare her about the war and the state of the world but to help her to live positively in the world she must grow up in.”
The Project committee agreed that age and experience (“We’ve lived through so many wars!”) made them well qualified to pass on to younger generations the helpful lessons they had learned. One way, they agreed, was to write letters, describing their own real experiences to people of the younger generations, and, most important “Not lectures and sermons and slogans.” said Pat Cody, “Concrete examples of how we learned something or did something.”
One of the committee members had brought along a letter she was thinking of sending to her grandson.
“I don’t know. It’s not even about Iraq.”
“Read it to us,” suggested Julie Forsmith.
She read aloud the letter printed (with permission) below:
I was just a little older than you are when Yoshio disappeared from my seventh-grade class. At recess that day about six of us stood in the schoolyard talking about him. Donny, one of the slow learners in our class, said he didn’t understand what our teacher had told us. “I don’t get it,” he said. “Why did Yoshio have to go away?”
I was at the top of our class. I could recite everything that our teachers, our parents, and the newspapers said. I explained that, since Japan had attacked Pearl Harbor, San Francisco might be next; Japan was not a democracy like ours, it was ruled by an emperor who was worshipped as a god; this religious worship made Japanese believe they should do anything for the emperor.” My classmates nodded, a little bored at hearing it all again.
All except Donny, who wrinkled up his forehead, shook his head slowly in confusion, and asked, “What has all that stuff got to do with Yoshio?”
Then someone yelled, “I found the ball,” and everyone ran off to start a game.
I just stood there alone for a minute, turning hot with rage. Then I turned cold with shame. My stomach turned over with disgust—for myself. I, the smart one, had swallowed everything I was told, and then had given it back, word for word, like passing a test. Donny, the dumb one, had asked a simple question that blew my little speech apart, showed me that our government, our teachers, our neighbors, our parents—none of them bad people—were lying to us and, worse, to themselves.
I wish I could tell you that I went around asking Donny’s question everywhere, but I was afraid to. I knew that I would just make the adults very angry at me, because, deep down, they knew they should be asking the same question: why were Americans like Yoshio and his family being put behind barbed wire in desert camps? That unasked question sank into a great silence that lasted years and years—until it was broken, leaving a terrible shame that became part of our history, yours and mine.
I never forgot Donny, and I try not to forget the lessons he taught me: that being smart is harder and deeper than filling in the blanks on a test; that smart people in the highest positions can be wrong; that asking a simple, “stupid” question takes courage, because people get angry if you catch them lying or showing their ignorance. Above all, I try to remember that there are no stupid questions; what’s stupid is swallowing whatever you’re told and repeating it without making sure you understand it.
If people tell you that two plus two equals four, and that a red light means STOP, you can believe them. Anything more complicated than that—ask questions until you’re very sure you understand. Just asking might stir up some hidden truth, and that truth might start other people asking more questions. And if everyone keeps asking questions, we might avoid doing some bad things. We might even manage to stop someone else from doing bad things, and, best of all, succeed in doing some good things together.
The committee agreed that her letter certainly was about issues surrounding the war in Iraq, and that it might nudge writers who had trouble getting started. “Let’s send it, along with our call for letters, as a sample to encourage writing.”
“Not a model!” said Wendy Oser.
“Absolutely not,” said Renate Sadrozinski, “just a hint that could trigger a memory or an idea.”
The committee then put together a list of criteria for letters to actual children and young people, or imaginary ones, along with copies to friends, relatives, newspapers—with requests to forward it to others, and to write more letters to be sent to the addressee and disseminated widely, above all to the Grandmothers Letters Project! They agreed on the following guidelines:
• 1. Length can range from 200 to 1,000 words.
• 2. Addressee should be preferably an actual young person, but may be imagined.
• 3. Letters should focus on a real experience, something the writer has seen or done or not done (or perhaps wished s/he had done), something s/he wants to pass on as valuable action or learning experience.
Finally, the group laid out a few rules for the Letters Project Committee and for letter contributors:
• 1. Letters will be edited solely for clarity (proofreading) and brevity (under 1,000 words, cutting repetition). No substantive changes will be made without consulting the writer.
• 2. Contributors must include name and all contact numbers (email, snail mail, telephone). No anonymous letters will be accepted, but the writer’s name will be withheld if requested..
• 3. Submitting a letter to the Grandmothers Letters Project constitutes permission for the Project to publish the letter in any format—newspapers, email, blog, printed book, sound recording Website or beamed to the stars of our galaxy. This is, of course, a non-exclusive right, and the main purpose of the project is that writers disseminate their own letters in every way possible (another reason for putting your name to your letter).
• 4. Grandmothers Letters Project will bear only its own costs of printing, distribution, website fees involved in distributing the letter and so on. In the extremely unlikely event that any money beyond what might cover these costs comes back to the Letters Project from its efforts to publish letters, that money will be donated to peace organizations.
• 5. People who don’t want to write a letter can volunteer to help in other ways: promotion, printing, editing, distribution, etc.
“Did we miss anything?” Marge asked the group.
“We should try to get some well-known authors to write a letter too.”
“Okay, call up your famous friends.”
“But don’t forget, this is for everyone—people like us, who struggle with writing, as many people as possible.”
Marge looked around at the group. “That’s it? Okay, let’s get the word out. Telephone, email, snail mail—tell everybody we EAGERLY await their letters. Tell them, sit down and write, NOW!”
If you want to contribute a letter, (or help in some other way) send an email to: GAWletters@hotmail.com. Or send snail mail to Grandmothers Against the War, Letters Project, P.O. Box 9476, Berkeley, CA 94709.
To get on the email list for announcements from Grandmothers Against the War, contact firstname.lastname@example.org.