“I think there’s a kind of desperate hope built into poetry now that one really wants, hopelessly, to save the world. One is trying to say everything that can be said for the things that one loves while there’s still time.”

–W. S. Merwin

This man has been growing his hair since the 1980s as a protest against war.

This man has been growing his hair since the 1980s as a protest against war.

Last week’s post was about the spontaneous decision to drive to Washington, DC, for a short visit.

While there, I followed another “gut feeling” and went back to Lafayette Park across from the White House, where we had taken our picture the day before.

I wanted to chat with the man above, one of many activist volunteers who have kept a 24-hour vigil for peace going for more than 30 years.

This man has seen every president since Jimmy Carter come and go. A few of those presidents have actually talked with him. Bill Clinton engaged the protesters eighteen times.

The signs and the tent in Lafayette Park, across from the White House.

The signs and the tent in Lafayette Park, across from the White House.

I came home from the DC trip and returned to my “box in the basement” project —

reviewing and organizing our personal slide collection.

Soon I was looking at slides that stirred old memories of DC.

In the late sixties and early seventies, millions of people were protesting war.

Stuart and I joined them on May 9, 1970, when 100,00 people, mostly students, drove to the National Mall to register their strong disagreement after the decision to invade Cambodia and their anger about the death of four students at Kent State University.

I remember rumors that this demonstration could turn violent and conversations with my friends about how to maintain nonviolent commitment even if others did not.

It was a tense time. We decided to go.

As we drove on I-66 toward Washington, we passed other cars headed the same way and flashed peace signs of solidarity with them.

When we arrived, here’s how we saw the White House.

Journalists, police, Red Cross, and protesters all mixing in a stew of unrest.


The White House as seen from the Ellipse, May 9, 1970.

We listened, watched, chanted, and talked, adding our Mennonite voices to a swelling chorus of many others.

The day was very hot. So many students found relief in the fountains and reflecting pool.

We took pictures while others stripped off shirts and jumped in.

We took pictures while others stripped off shirts and jumped in.

My biggest act of nonconformity that day was to wear a white sundress instead of the student “uniform” of jeans and boots and blue denim shirts.

Can you spot me?

Enjoying the coolness of my homemade dress on a hot day.

Enjoying the coolness of my homemade dress on a hot day. Swimming upstream in the crowd.

We learned after the fact that President Richard Nixon had gotten up early and asked his valet and the Secret Service to drive him to the Lincoln Memorial so that he could talk with the students.

We would have been driving toward the capital during those early morning hours. Nixon later reflected on what has been called his “weirdest day in the White House.”

He was a tragic figure already, trying to be understood by the protesters,

recalling his Quaker past, telling them in his youth he too was

“the closest thing to a pacifist there is.”

The news this week is full of threatening triumphs of the Taliban and Isis and an unstoppable tide of refugees.

Everyone wants peace, but all seem incapable of making peace.

Outside the White House sits a lone protester with his signs.

Inside the White House, another president broods, unable to bring peace.

I’m still protesting against war, knowing it is hopeless. Like the poet W.S. Merwin in the quote above, I ground my hope in what and who I love.

Even more than that, I ground my hope in Love itself and in the “perfect love that casts out fear.”

Where do you go for hope when you are tempted toward hopelessness?

Shirley Showalter


  1. Sharon Lippincott on October 1, 2015 at 10:55 am

    Shirley, your pictures give me goosebumps. How sad that more of us aren’t protesting now. Perhaps the mobs have moved online. But are we as effective there? Probably not. I’m glad you were there. I was out in Washington state changing diapers in that era, protected by geography and busy-ness from much awareness of the action. So thank you for taking part back then, and for sharing these memories now.

  2. shirleyhs on October 1, 2015 at 11:10 am

    Sharon, I can visualize you as a young mother on the other coast, separated from and yet connected to, the news-making events of your times. Caring for the young is one of the ways we overcome the feeling of helplessness. It’s one of the deepest forms of peace-building there is. Thanks for offering this glimpse of your own life then and your peace-loving heart now.

  3. Marian Beaman on October 1, 2015 at 1:45 pm

    How well you merge the present with the past with those cleverly retrieved shots from that basement box. Of course, it’s easy to pick out the girl in white with her antennae up taking it all in.

    Like Sharon I was miles away from all this taking care of baby Crista in 1970. Nevertheless, I was then and still am a pacifist at heart. And I still stand by the statement I made in a poem from this post you must have read: http://plainandfancygirl.com/2014/01/21/poetry-peace/

    I agree, protesting against war is probably futile. Long ago Matthew Arnold describes our dilemma “here on a darkling plain, / Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight / Where ignorant armies clash by night.” But I cannot camp out with pessimism for very long. What I can do: take comfort in “the perfect love that casts out fear, in”the Prince of Peace.”

    • shirleyhs on October 1, 2015 at 4:39 pm

      Thanks for directing me back to your post on peace and to the hope which we both share in the Prince of Peace.

      I am not surprised that the desire for peace pulled poetry out of you — just as Merwin above describes.

  4. Laurie Buchanan on October 1, 2015 at 1:51 pm

    Shirley – I strongly resonate with the W. S. Merwin quote you opened with. More so, with 1 John 4:18, “perfect love that casts out fear.” That’s where I go, too. Not only for courage, but for “the peace of God that passes all understanding…”

    And I’m with absolutely with Sharon Lippincott — your photographs gave me goosebumps!

  5. shirleyhs on October 1, 2015 at 4:41 pm

    Thanks, Laurie, for your words about the photos. It’s good to know that others find these pictures haunting also. I have a series of about six of them that bring back the experience with almost visceral force. They were among the ones I most wanted to see when I went through 3,000 slides in the last month.

  6. Carol Bodensteiner on October 1, 2015 at 7:03 pm

    Each of these posts is so powerful, Shirley. You could be writing op-ed pieces for newspapers – or personal essays for magazines – on each one. Your then-and-now perspective would be useful in current discussions.

    • shirleyhs on October 2, 2015 at 11:58 am

      Thank you, Carol. I will mull over these encouraging words and look for a way to offer my perspective and experience to a broader audience. In the meantime, this blog is a good way to record my immediate reflections.

  7. Joan Z. Rough on October 2, 2015 at 10:56 am

    How can we find bring peace to the rest of the world if we have no peace in our own country. It’s similar to learning to love, which you cannot do unless you love yourself first. Yesterday’s shootings in Oregon are symptoms of the the lack of love we have for ourselves. Once we accept the everyday shootings that occur here in this country as normal, we will accept war as also being normal and yawn sleepily as we turn away those who are looking for a peacoefilled place to live. What is happening here makes me weep.

    If we all marched on Washington to protest the war and bring gun control to this nation would anything change?

    • shirleyhs on October 2, 2015 at 11:56 am

      You are so right, Joan, about our tragic propensity to violence. Like you, I was crushed to learn of yet another mass shooting in Oregon yesterday. And I believe your analogy makes sense. We do not love ourselves enough to love others. I remember reading the words of H. Rapp Brown in the 1960’s “violence is as American as cherry pie.” I didn’t want to believe those words.

      But, over time, as historians have written more complete stories about the past (and not just the master narrative of American goodness and triumph) and as we witness the news on a daily basis about violence within our society and in our failed wars abroad, it becomes harder to deny those words.

      You ask a great question about protest. Bernie Sanders says that if the people speak, the legislators will have to listen. Will the people speak if there is no immediate impact on their daily lives? When the draft went away, the energy for peace also dimmed. Or so it seems to me, sadly.

  8. Marylin Warner on October 3, 2015 at 12:58 am

    Shirley, you have a strong, vivid post that should be reprinted in newspapers and magazines. You did an excellent job on this and shared a clear-eyed perspective.

    • shirleyhs on October 7, 2015 at 11:04 am

      Marylin, thanks for this vote of confidence. I am considering more op/ed type writing. Waiting for the right news connection. Our country is so polarized. It’s hard to know what kind of words to use and stories to tell.

  9. Merril Smith on October 6, 2015 at 1:20 pm

    I thought I was following you, but it seems I was not. I’m glad I came across this post. It definitely resonates with me–the photos and the words. I would like to say I’m a pacifist–I believe strongly in peace, not war, and yet. . .it seems that at times war has been necessary.

    • shirleyhs on October 7, 2015 at 11:01 am

      Hi, Merril. Right now the best way to follow is to sign up for Magical Memoir Moments, on top right column on each page. You’ll get an email with a few words and photo each week which you can click on for the full post. Still recovering from the website changes made in April!

      I feel your desire for peace as I read your lovely posts. Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

  10. Elaine Mansfield on October 8, 2015 at 10:36 am

    I was in Washington protesting at the Pentagon a few years before this (1967, I think), but was in California in May 1970. That’s why I don’t remember your white sun dress. I remember the feeling of threat and the smell of tear gas. Vic and I went to many protests for many years. I still go to protests, but they’re usually about the environment now.
    Our animal nature seems addicted to war. Our spiritual nature doesn’t seem able to balance this desire. I don’t get it. I never have. I don’t have much hope it will change as we fight over dwindling resources and growing population demands, but I will keep signing petitions and taking an occasional trip to Washington. Thanks for taking me on your journey and introducing me to the persistent protester.

Leave a Comment