Christmas 2012

This year, on the 1st anniversary of Derek's passing, March 18th, I installed a bench in my back yard. A small group of friends and family came over for the unveiling. Beautifully hand made, from a simple block of wood, inset with a heart-shaped rock, this bench was something that Derek had planned to get built for our "Memory Garden". It was to be a place to sit and contemplate, in a circle of stones where some of the ashes of Derek's late wife Lin, and our friend Peter, would be scattered. Now, the Memory Garden is completed, and I have scattered some of Derek's ashes there too. It's a peaceful place.

This summer I made a pilgrimage to in England. My dear friend Cynthia and I made a three-day walk up the Yorkshire coast, to Redcar, where Derek was born. The trek was spectacular— breathtaking scenery unfurling under every step, but it was not without its physical challenges. I thought the clifftop traverse would be flat, but it involved many climbs in and out small river gorges. At the end of our first nine-hour day, we were rewarded at the end by hearty meals served in the most hospitable Yorkshire style.

On June 16th, Derek's birthday, we arrived in Redcar, and I scattered ashes in the rolling sea. It was a magical day. The sun warmed our faces, the waves crashed at our feet, and fossils revealed themselves from under the sand. Next, we found the house where he was born, back in 1940, during an air raid. Then, at the cemetery, my friend and I located the burial plot of Derek's father and grandparents, and scattered ashes there. Next, I met Derek's cousins, who were most generous and warm. The end of a rewarding day was heralded by the appearance of a full rainbow.

My pilgrimage continued. We headed down south to do some research for my friend's book, but I'd planned a lunch stop in Coventry, mostly because of convenience, but also because of a favourite Christmas song, the Coventry Carol. But my curiosity wasn't fully piqued until shortly before our departure when I did some research. What was there to see in Coventry?

I'd had no idea about the Coventry Blitz. In November, 1940, this industrial city was devasted by bombing, and its cathedral was reduced to a shell. After the war, as in Hiroshima, a decision was made not to obliterate the rubble and forget the painful past, but instead to preserve the bomb site and incorporate it into a new structure, as a memorial, an act of faith and symbol of hope for the future. The new cathedral building, completed in 1962, is a masterful example of a bold, visionary new modernism.

Cynthia and I entered the ruins first. The inside of the old cathedral was now an outdoor space, and modern sculptures depicting the effects of war had been set against the old stone and brick. Noticing a cross constructed from charred roof beams, we both began to weep. For several minutes, all I could do was stand and just take it all in, as I had done in both Hiroshima and Nagasaki when confronted with such blunt and poignant reminders of our terrifying human urge to destroy.

Then we entered the new cathedral, and were at once awestruck by the feeling of peace in the space. We sat down, closed our eyes, and meditated silently. I wished for that peace to be experienced by all those on earth who were in pain, or suffering violence or poverty. I called on Derek, I called on Gandi, and I called on John Lennon! As we sat, organ music filled the huge space around us. I don't even know if the organist was actually performing a composed work, or merely testing out the keys and stops. But I have never, ever, felt so utterly moved, and satisfied by such a wall of sound. Soul stirring. We gradually opened our eyes to take in interior of the church. Cavernous and stark, it is at the same time warm and human with details in the magnificent stained glass, and lights, and tapestry, that both subtly reflect the past, and remind us of the greatness we we all capable of: beauty, truth and love.

On our way out, we noticed a small room flanking the main space. It was a peace sanctuary, with origami cranes hanging in long strings beside an altar. Of course I had my origami paper with me, and, just as I had with Derek hundreds of times, we folded cranes and each left one as our grateful offering.

I grew up in relative privilege in Vancouver in the 70’s, and I learned very little about the war. Derek had shared with me his few memories of life in wartime England, but they were fuzzy recollections. I’d had little understanding of how the war completely permeated everyday life. Some of the things I saw on this journey shocked me to tears: the weathered shells of bombed-out churches in London and Coventry, museum displays of ration books, rusty helmets, and photographs of flimsy-looking air raid shelters. I knew this information would help me when it came to finishing our book, Walking to Japan.

The next week was spent in the southwest of England. The highlight of many unforgettable sights was our chance encounter with Stonehenge. Amidst a fruitless search for several locations of lesser-known standing stones and other ancient monuments, we suddenly and accidentally spied it on the horizon and it gave us both goosebumps!! What a powerful place.

We spent summer solstice in Glastonbury. The Tor was a perfect quiet spot to gaze at the green rolling countryside. I left a peace crane in the old tower ruin, against a weathered building blocks. At the Chalice Well, another ancient pilgrimage site, and more recently a World Peace Garden, we attended a solstice meditation, where I felt a pang of homesickness for friends on the Sunshine Coast.

Our first day in London seemed to last forever. Cynthia had downloaded a self-guided walking tour for us of Charles Dickens' London and we spent hours on a treasure hunt, wandering the narrow cobbled alleyways of the financial district, finding lost courtyard gardens, chapels and pubs, and statues. Present-day London surrounded us, with its towering steel and glass monoliths, but somehow we existed in an alternate universe woven into modern reality. It was a few hours into our walk when suddenly I realized I could live in London. This is a city for walking! Suddenly I was scheming a house exchange for next year. Please be in touch if you know anyone from London who'd like to get away to quiet Victoria.

Coming back home after my English pilgrimage, I felt the stirrings of motivation to finish writing our book. I hadn't worked on it since before his death. But now, I knew I was ready. I began scheming a six-month house swap next year, but the catch was— I'd have to finish the book first. And I am pleased to report that the first draft is done! I know Derek would be thrilled.

It has been such an interesting process. And indeed, Derek always said that it was the process that was important, not the result. This relates to the book as much as it does to peace, although I am happy to know there will be a finished product to show.

Derek began writing years ago, first in newsletters sent to friends while he was on the Great Peace March. He then wrote stories about his later walks, and when he and I became friends, I edited these pieces. In the last few years, we had worked on creating a book out of all the material, and it became a co-operative project. When he died, though, I knew it had to be more than just a collection of stories. This was a man's life, his legacy. I found old journal entries, letters, recorded TV interviews and various iterations of stories, and wove everything together. It is part memoir, part parable, and I feel that the book shines with Derek's words of simple wisdom, humour, and love.

Who knows what 2013 will bring? But, I hope to have copies of Walking to Japan ready to take with me to London next summer!

In peace, Carolyn Affleck Youngs
December 2012