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Saving the World

"On a buffety, blustery early summer day, when the news was bad and the sky turned yellow, a strange thing happened in the town where I live."
So begins the simple story that a woman in my town wrote to her new granddaughter three years ago. A story that has since been passed from mother to daughter, son to father, grandparent to grandchild, friend to friend, and so on--all the way around the world. The author of that story--which we'll get to more in a bit--has a favorite quote:
I am only one, but I am still one; I cannot do everything, but still I can do something; and because I cannot do everything, I will not refuse to do the something that I can do.

The quote, often attributed to Helen Keller, was actually written by Edward Everett Hale in his story, "Ten Times One is Ten." Originally published in 1870, it became the inspiration for the Lend-A-Hand clubs that rapidly grew to include 100,000 members. In a preface to the 1917 edition of the book, Hale writes: "I was simply trying, in an 'invented example,' to show to young people the extent and the rapidity by which the effort of one man extends itself in larger and larger circles...but some who read (the story) were more ready than I had supposed anyone would be to try the experiment."

Edward Everett Hale did something. Did what he could do.

Also in 1870, and living in the same community as Hale incidentally, was Julia Ward Howe--abolitionist, social activist, poet, and author of "The Battle Hymn of the Republic." Her children now grown, and with memories of the Civil War fresh and thoughts of the ongoing Franco-Prussian war heavy on her mind, Julia transitioned from working for the abolition of slavery to laboring for women's equality and world peace.

In a biography authored by three of her daughters, and well seasoned with their observations and Julia's journal entries, we read their mother's thoughts about this period: "As I was revolving these matters in my mind, while the war was still in progress, I was visited by a sudden feeling of the cruel and unnecessary character of the contest. It seemed to me a return to barbarism, the issue having been one which might easily have been settled without bloodshed. The question forced itself upon me, 'Why do not the mothers of mankind interfere in these matters, to prevent the waste of that human life of which they alone bear and know the cost?' I had never thought of this before. The august dignity of motherhood and its terrible responsibilities now appeared to me in a new aspect, and I could think of no better way of expressing my sense of these than that of sending forth an appeal to womanhood throughout the world, which I then and there composed."
The appeal, dated September 1870, reads, in part:

Again, in the sight of the Christian world, have the skill and power of two great nations exhausted themselves in mutual murder. Again have the sacred questions of international justice been committed to the fatal mediation of military weapons. In this day of progress, in this century of light, the ambition of rulers has been allowed to barter the dear interests of domestic life for the bloody exchanges of the battle-field. Thus men have done. Thus men will do. But women need no longer be made a party to proceedings which fill the globe with grief and horror. Despite the assumptions of physical force, the mother has a sacred and commanding word to say to the sons who owe their life to her suffering. That word should now be heard, and answered to as never before.

Arise, then, Christian women of this day! Arise, all women who have hearts, whether your baptism be that of water or of tears! Say firmly: "We will not have great questions decided by irrelevant agencies. Our husbands shall not come to us, reeking with carnage, for caresses and applause. Our sons shall not be taken from us to unlearn all that we have been able to teach them of charity, mercy and patience. We, women of one country, will be too tender of those of another country, to allow our sons to be trained to injure theirs." From the bosom of the devastated earth a voice goes up with our own. It says: "Disarm, disarm! The sword of murder is not the balance of justice." Blood does not wipe out dishonor, nor violence indicate possession. As men have often forsaken the plough and the anvil at the summons of war, let women now leave all that may be left of home for a great and earnest day of counsel.

Let them meet first, as women, to bewail and commemorate the dead. Let them then solemnly take counsel with each other as to the means whereby the great human family can live in peace, man as the brother of man, each bearing after his own kind the sacred impress, not of Cæsar, but of God.

Julia went on to convene the World's Congress of Women in Behalf of International Peace, held in December of 1870 in New York City. Following that, in the spring of 1871, The American Branch of the Women's International Peace Association, with Julia as president, was formed at The New England Women's Club in Boston. Incidentally, Edward Everett Hale is quoted in the aforementioned biography as saying about the club: "When I want anything in Boston remedied, I go down to the New England Woman's Club!"

Julia would next take her crusade to London. Her daughters write, "In the spring of 1872 she went to England, hoping to hold a Woman's Peace Congress in London. She also hoped to found and foster 'a Woman's Apostolate of Peace.' These hopes were not then to be fulfilled: yet she always felt that this visit, with all its labors and its disappointments, was well worth while, and that much solid good came of it, to herself and to others."

Following her trip to London, Julia next turned her efforts toward creating a festival, described by her daughters as, "a day which should be called Mother's Day, and be devoted to the advocacy of peace doctrines."

Julia Ward Howe did something. Did what she could do.
About six hundred miles away--and not too long before Hale wrote his "invented example" of how one person's efforts ripple out, and Howe wrote her Mother's Day Proclamation--was a woman in Grafton, West Virginia doing what she could do. Anna Reeves Jarvis was very involved in her church and community, and organized clubs to care for the poor, the sick, and the young--calling them "Mothers' Work Day Clubs." When the Civil War ensued, not wanting to let friendship and goodwill be a casualty of the war, she encouraged the clubs to nurse and care for the wounded of both sides. And following the war, she organized "Mothers' Friendship Days" to bring together families from both sides of the Mason Dixon line. Following her death in 1905, her daughter--also named Anna--inspired by her mother's efforts, worked tirelessly for the establishment of a national holiday honoring mothers. She succeeded with this mission in 1914 (though would later come to regret it when the holiday became commercialized) when President Woodrow Wilson declared the second Sunday in May, Mother's Day.

Both of these women, mother and daughter, did something. Did what they could do.

One morning, nearly one hundred years later and almost three thousand miles away, a woman named Sharon Mehdi sat down at a table in a coffeehouse in Ashland, Oregon. She'd been trying to write a nonfiction book about buried scrolls that would save the world, but had come down with a bad case of writer's block. Picking up a newspaper and glancing at all the bad news about war, violence, and economic woes, she recalled a Native American elder telling her, "Men have taken the world as far as they can. It's up to the women to lead us the rest of the way." Then and there, she decided to write her new granddaughter a story.

As mentioned before, the story began, "On a buffety, blustery early summer day, when the news was bad and the sky turned yellow, a strange thing happened in the town where I live."
"That first sentence just seemed to write itself," describes Sharon, "and it just went from there."

Went from there indeed. From there--and from the deep love of a grandmother--came a beautiful and moving story, The Great Silent Grandmother Gathering; A story for anyone who thinks she can't save the world. 
The story begins with two grandmothers, who don't even know each other, silently standing in the big grassy area that faces the town square, "Not speaking, not looking at squirrels, not munching on coconut candy...." When someone finally gets up the nerve to ask what, in fact, they're up to, they reply simply, "We're saving the world." Of course the townspeople are incredulous about this. But, as you might now guess, one thing leads to another and another and another. All because one person did what they could do.

Sharon shared the story with a few friends, "Here's this little story I wrote for my granddaughter, what do you think?" The friends liked it, and one by one, did something they could do. One of the friends took the story--which she asked Sharon to make into a small booklet--to two United Nations conferences in New York and an International Peace and Reconciliation Conference in South Africa. Another friend took it to the bookstore downstairs from the coffee shop where it was written, asking them to consider offering it for sale. They said yes, and invited Sharon to read at an author's night. The host of a local radio show happened upon the story and invited Sharon to be a guest on his morning program. The bookstore owner told Penguin Publishing about the story and two days later the president of Viking Penguin made Sharon an offer. (Viking Penguin published the book in 2005.) One thing led to another and another and another, all because one person did what they could do.
Sharon emphasises, over and over again, that all she did was write a small story, and that if any one person hadn't done what they did following that, the story wouldn't have gone anywhere.  
"I never wrote a book," Sharon explains, "I wrote a story for my granddaughter. I wanted it to be the truest true that I could come up with. I wrote it with the deepest love. And, I wanted my granddaughter to know that one person can make a difference."

Sharon Mehdi did something. Did what she could.

Perhaps Sharon, like Edward Everett Hale before her, was surprised that some who read her 'little story' were more ready than she supposed anyone would be, as we will soon see, to try the experiment.

It was the summer of 2006, a couple years after Sharon wrote her story, and a group of women in Ohio were contemplating the state of the world. . . wanting to do something about it, but not knowing what. One of the women, Deborah Ballam--a Professor at Ohio State University, and the Associate Provost for Women's Policy Initiatives--tells the story:

"Over the last year, we encountered women everywhere who were weary about where the world was moving. And more importantly, we found women who were ready to stand up and do something about it. Men as well. And then last summer, we came across the origins of Mother's Day--as it is celebrated in the US--in Jean Shinoda Bolen's book, Urgent Message from Mother: Gather the Women, Save the World (Conari Press, 2005.) In it we read Julia Ward Howe's Mother's Day Proclamation, and realized we wanted to do something for this coming Mother's Day, May 13, 2007. What, however, we did not know. In October 2006, Bolen spoke at Ohio State and we shared our thoughts with her. After listening, she pulled out a little book--the original version of The Great Silent Grandmother Gathering, by Sharon Mehdi. After reading it, and talking to Jean, we knew what we had to do."

And so was born the Standing Women Project.

When asked how the project unfolded, Deborah, like Sharon Mehdi before her, is quick to point out that the project has been a group effort. There were those who volunteered their technology skills to set up the website, those who volunteered to participate in the youtube video, and those who helped translate the message for a worldwide audience. Another suggested a flier. "We had three women who took cruise vacations and took hundreds of fliers to pass out to people on the ship, and we had versions of the flier made in all of the six official UN languages and I passed out 7,000 of them to women from all over the world who attended the annual meeting of the UN Commission on the status of women," explains Deborah.

There were also those who contributed to the statement of intent--which Deborah goes on to explain, "Standing for Peace in the states between the two coasts is a charged phrase. In today's political climate, a lot of folks interpret that as a statement against the war in Iraq. We wanted something that could unify and not divide. Before we sent the first soldier to Iraq, we had children around the world starving, dying from unsafe drinking water, dying from violence, having no education or health care--so we decided to have the intent be a commitment to a better future for our children."

Their message reads, in part:

The women of Ohio, U.S.A, call upon the women of the world, from day-old babies to our most senior elders, to stand with us on May 13, 2007, to save the world.

We will be standing for the world's children and grandchildren, and for the seven generations beyond them. We dream of a world where all of our children have safe drinking water, clean air to breathe, and enough food to eat. A world where they have access to a basic education to develop their minds and healthcare to nurture their growing bodies. A world where they have a warm, safe and loving place to call home. A world where they don't live in fear of violence--in their home, in their neighborhood, in their school, or in their world. This is the world of which we dream. This is the cause for which we stand.

Deborah, wanting to emphasize again the power of one person doing what they can do, says that by far the most effective way of getting the word out about the project has been by email. "For example," she says, "a wonderful retired couple in Sarasota, Florida--Julian and Penny--have been working non-stop on this since they heard about it a month ago. If you look at the Florida listings (of people registering their intent to stand), know that they are responsible for a good many of those. We have heard story after story like this, where people were touched by it, took it on, and notified hundreds of others about it."

Each person doing something. Doing what they can do.

In the beginning of Sharon's story--The Great Silent Grandmother Gathering--people look at the two women standing in the park and think them silly. "How can standing in a park save the world?" they wonder. But over the course of a week, more and more people, one by one by one, join them. By the end of the week, reports of people standing in town squares, parks, fields, and forests all over the world makes international news. There are millions and millions of women standing to save the world. The news anchor goes on to report, in "an unrelated story," that as far as they can tell, there has been no fighting anywhere in the world that day.

As of this writing, in a sublime example of fact following fiction, the Standing Women Project has registered 1655 events, in 54 nations.
People will be standing in Albania, Argentina, Australia, Belgium, Brazil, Chile, Canada, Costa Rica, Cuba, The Czech Republic, East Timor, Egypt, Estonia, Fiji, Finland, France, Georgia, Germany, Greece, Guatemala, Hungary, India, Ireland, Israel, Italy, Japan, Jordan, Liberia, Mauritania, Mexico, The Netherlands, New Zealand, Oman, Pakistan, Philippines, Poland, Puerto Rico, Sierra Leone, Singapore, Slovakia, South Africa, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, Thailand, Turkey, Ukraine, The United Kingdom, and in hundreds and hundreds of places around the United States.

Amidst war and violence, death and dismemberment, nuclear ambitions, and un-talking presidents; with changing climates, and poverty escalating, child soldiers being made, and humanity hurting; the people they gathered, just one and then more, until there were thousands, upon every shore. In streets and in fields, in shoes and bare feet, from Ohio to Oman, and all places between; the people they gathered, like one giant family, with a dream for the future, and hope for humanity.
Julia Ward Howe concluded her Mother's Day Proclamation with a clarion call, a call that rings even truer today: "In the name of womanhood and of humanity, I earnestly ask that a general congress of women, without limit of nationality, may be appointed and held at some place deemed most convenient, and at the earliest period consistent with its objects, to promote the alliance of the different nationalities, the amicable settlement of international questions, the great and general interests of peace ."
Let us stand together then--not just women, but all who feel inspired by the call--to save the world. Let us stand together, not only on Mother's Day, but every day beyond. Let us call for a general congress of humanity. Now. To promote the alliance of different nationalities, the amicable settlement of international questions, the great and general interests of peace.
As Sharon Mehdi says, "When enough people want peace, there will be peace. It's as simple as that."  
And seven generations from now, it will be said, "They did something. Did what they could do."
Article originally published by Common Dreams on May 7, 2007.
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Debi Smith lives in Ashland, Oregon. She welcomes your thoughts, comments, and observations.
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