Every August I am reminded by some tweet or news headline that we are approaching the anniversary of the days that the United States dropped atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
It always sets off a cascade of thoughts and memories in my head.
From second to fifth grade I, along with the rest of my elementary school classmates, took Japanese language class with a Japanese woman who taught us to count, name animals, and order food. We bowed and said, “Ohayō sensei” when she entered the room. We learned that Japanese students cleaned their classrooms and went to school on Saturdays. To this day, if ever anyone wants to settle a dispute with a game of “paper, rock, scissors” – I still instinctively say, “jan, ken, pon.” And in fifth grade, while we studied World War II in Social Studies, we read Sadako and the Thousand Paper Cranes in Japanese class. Sadako, a young girl with leukemia from the atom bomb, starts making 1000 paper cranes while she’s in the hospital. She dies before she gets to 1000, and her classmates complete the task for her.
And so while I learned about the Allied Powers and the Holocaust and Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor and other Pacific locations – I also learned about Sadako and the far-reaching horrors of wars.
And that year, when our teachers sat us down to tell us that one of our classmates who had been out for a few days was in the hospital with a brain tumor, we grabbed little squares of white paper and started folding cranes. We hung them by strings in the school lobby, placed them on the shelves near the front doors. A massive flock of white birds to greet everyone who entered. Something in my child-hood heart believed that if we could get to 1000, then Orlando would come back to school, would fill the empty seat in our classroom.
And there was some deep connection in my heart to these white cranes and my classmate in that hospital. His family lived in a house one-bus-stop before my trailer-park stop on the ride home every day. His house was near the road, slightly run down, sagging porch, shrubbery growing close to the steps. One night, sometime before we knew that Orlando was sick, I had a dream about that house, though I’d never been inside. We were just classmates, not friends. But in the dream I pushed opened the door to find a gleaming and spacious mansion. Light bouncing off the white and gold surfaces that filled the room. A crystal chandelier hung from the high ceiling, a double curved staircase lead up from the center of the room. It was magnificent. It remains one of two dreams in my entire life where I awoke both remembering the dream, and knowing that it meant something. Appearances are deceiving. Beauty is often hidden within. Judgments get us nowhere.
The cranes did not save Orlando either. There was an empty spot on the stage when our 5th grade class had our ceremony to end our elementary school years. In the many years that followed I saw his house get swallowed by the trees and kudzu and vines that surrounded it. The family moved away, the house sat abandoned. And eventually the house was demolished and the vegetation grew back, taking over the land once again. But if I slow down enough to look when I drive by, I can still see the pattern in the grass on the side of the road that indicates a driveway used to be there. A driveway that lead to a house where lived a boy who died far too young.
When I hear “Hiroshima” – I hear all of those memories of grief and hope. The far-reaching effects of war, the hopes of children, the way that dream still pops into my mind anytime I find myself judging something before I take the time to explore it.
When people argue about the “justness” of the use of violent warfare that kills civilians, weigh the benefits of annihilation over extended war, I find myself thinking we’ve all missed the point. These are not the options we should be aiming for. I recognize the complexity and the need to address immediate conflicts, but I think we’d fare far better taking the steps now to reduce the chance that we end up on that road, weighing those options. I get called naive for the belief, but I think building relationships and making connections goes a long ways towards peace, one slow tiny step at a time.
We should be aiming for a world where we encourage each other to push open creaky doors on falling-apart lives and discover the beauty within. Knock gently on the doors of the worn-down and the worn out, the ones who have thorny-bushes crowding at their gate. Assume there is grandness inside and wait to see it. And I well know that all the world’s problems can’t be solved with jan ken pon, but maybe if we have the hope of thousand paper cranes and the knowledge that goodness and beauty exists in unexpected places because we are all created in the image of God, we would be less likely to resort so quickly to war, to find reasons to justify our violence.
this article originally appeared at my old blog in 2014