Sunday, November 1, 2009

Cranes, war, music and I

I'll try to keep this short. It probably won't be. At least you know the effort is made.

There aren't many opportunities as a Canadian to really get hit by the enormity of war. I've only experienced it on the three occasions, and the first and the last brought me full circle.

The first time was a Remembrance Day assembly at my Calgary elementary school in Grade 4. In a dimly lit gymnasium, the entire school was read the story of Sadako and a Thousand Cranes. As I sat there, blinking at the dark walls, I began to comprehend that war didn't just have to do with military men with guns, that it made an innocent young girl a few years older than me lose her life slowly and painfully. Afterwards, we folded our own cranes to be sent to the Children's Peace Memorial in Hiroshima. We and another elementary school held a peace march with signs and media. We sang Where Have All the Flowers Gone and Give Peace a Chance. It made an impact.

The second time was on tour with the Mount Royal Youth Choir in 1998, when we visited Vimy Ridge. Two things struck me - the towering monument to the Universal Soldier, of course, but also the hilly, ridged ground, created by mortar shells and underground tunnels which had caved in. We sang a spiritual at the monument and it resonated off the sides of the ridge.

And the third time was yesterday.

We stepped off the train at Hiroshima and I felt the pit of my stomach. I wasn't expecting this. I thought I'd feel a little solemn, thoughtful, perhaps. Instead I felt as though I really didn't want to be in the same place as past obliteration. It was odd. This was further amplified by the fact that it was a) cloudy and rainy, and b) that my water bottle had exploded in my garment and turned 9 of the 25 of my student's music projects for children in Japan into a watercolour mush. (I'm so sorry, kids...I did get the chance to hand most of them out the night before.)

On the streetcar to Hiroshima's Ground Zero I stared blankly out at what now seemed to be a bustling city and felt a brooding sense of anger at how one group of humanity could make a decision to turn hundreds of thousands of others into dust and kill the rest with cancer. I didn't like the fact that people seemed upbeat in these circumstances, although in another way I was happy to see it. I didn't understand why this was hitting me like it was. We got to the Peace Park -- I read a sign pointing out where the bomb had hit and was this close to getting teary.

I was feeling like an idiot. I'm not much of a crier. I'm normally relatively stoic. I look around at people crying in movies with a quizzical grin. It was bothering me that I was bothered. It felt silly.

We walked across a bridge and I had almost found my equilibrium again when someone from the choir motioned me over to an exhibit and said, "well, there are more than a thousand cranes here, but this should do". These weren't Sadako's cranes, no. They were, however, the creations of thousands of schoolchildren from all over the world for the Children's Peace Monument, keeping the spirit of Sadako alive. I lost all composure, let out a sob, turned around, walked away and needed two minutes to get myself together again.

Again, I felt like an idiot. Like some sort of drama queen who fails to truly comprehend the real emotional impact. I had no relatives from this area. I was a privileged Canadian. I felt as though I was cheapening the survivor's actual experience by sitting there blubbering.

Since I'd sat there crying, I'd lost most of my time to actually view the exhibit and most of the choir had already moved on. I tried hurriedly to take as many pictures of as many cranes as I could, trying to retain, realizing when I was almost done that the crane I'd made in Grade 4 was probably in there somewhere.

We moved on to the museum where Sadako's actual cranes would be. They were supposed to be near the end of the exhibit - I didn't feel I had much time. I made my way through the museum, seeing pictures of mushroom clouds and the Enola Gay pilots calling the bombing a "success" and people's skin sloughing off and felt a dull dread in the pit of my stomach that I would made an idiot of myself once again. Then, next to an exhibit explaining the effects of radiation poisoning and cancer on the children, there they were.

They were so tiny.

They weren't made out of origami paper, but little wrappers. I imagined a green-and-white one to be some sort of peppermint, probably a hospital treat. Each of their little heads and wings were carefully cocked to one side or the other. I looked down at my museum brochure and realized I'd been unconsciously making tiny little folds in the side of it.

I counted them and got different numbers each time - 43, then 40, then 41. The daughter of one of our Shunan concert organizers sidled up next to me and counted 41. I told her mom who this was the only story about the war that had really hit me as a child. She nodded and seemed to understand.

I stood there for about 30 minutes with my forehead against the glass, peering at these tiny little creatures. It struck me that the exhibit attracted every child who walked by - the preschoolers who liked the pretty colours and dainty shapes, the school-aged children with their yellow hats who had obviously heard the story before and stood there in reverence.

Standing there, I started to understand the content faces of the Hiroshima natives on the train, started to understand why this was saved for the end of the exhibit. Each little bird was imbued with a very simple emotion. Hope. I understood then that the story wasn't about a little girl who had her life taken away through such catastrophic circumstances, but that she had given something to herself and to others which was so much more powerful than all of that. It lifted my spirits.

This blog did get long-winded. My apologies. It has not escaped my attention that music has had some role to play in each of these experiences. I'm grateful for that.

- Jenny McLaren


  1. Thanks Jenny for such a beautiful and heartfelt essay. It deserves a much wider publication.