Finding Meaning in Memorial Day

May 31, 2010 by  
Filed under 2010, Blog, Events, Family, Front Page, Holidays, Slideshow, U.S.

What does Memorial Day mean to you? How do you honor the men and women who gave their lives for your country? Photo: Julia Wasson

On Memorial Day, in the United States, many of us pause from our regular workday routines to honor those who died while serving our nation. The tradition dates back to post-Civil War days. Here’s an excerpt from Memorial Day History, a website that claims to share the true meaning of the holiday:

Memorial Day was officially proclaimed on 5 May 1868 by General John Logan, national commander of the Grand Army of the Republic, in his General Order No. 11, and was first observed on 30 May 1868, when flowers were placed on the graves of Union and Confederate soldiers at Arlington National Cemetery. The first state to officially recognize the holiday was New York in 1873. By 1890 it was recognized by all of the northern states. The South refused to acknowledge the day, honoring their dead on separate days until after World War I (when the holiday changed from honoring just those who died fighting in the Civil War to honoring Americans who died fighting in any war). It is now celebrated in almost every State on the last Monday in May (passed by Congress with the National Holiday Act of 1971 (P.L. 90 – 363) to ensure a three day weekend for Federal holidays), though several southern states have an additional separate day for honoring the Confederate war dead: January 19 in Texas, April 26 in Alabama, Florida, Georgia, and Mississippi; May 10 in South Carolina; and June 3 (Jefferson Davis’ birthday) in Louisiana and Tennessee.

Memorial Day History chastises those of us who think Memorial Day is an occasion to honor and remember all those we’ve lost. I will admit that I have lost the “true meaning” of the holiday, in its original intent. For me, Memorial Day is a time to reflect upon all of the dead whose lives have mattered to me. Some of those are former soldiers — though I never personally knew anyone who died in battle — but most are dear humans who never heard the call to arms and never stood on a battle line.

I don’t apologize for this. I will continue to honor my own lost loved ones as I observe Memorial Day. But today, in light of what I just read, I am taking time to reflect on the lives of those in military service who shaped my life. Perhaps my story is similar to yours, if you’re a fellow Baby Boomer.

But perhaps you are much younger than I. Maybe you don’t relate to WWII at all, but to the Korean War, the Vietnam War, the Gulf War, the War in Iraq, the War in Afghanistan — or some other armed conflict. Or, maybe you live in a different nation. Maybe you’re serving your nation right now — or your son or daughter, wife or husband, father or mother is wearing battle gear and praying to survive another day.

If your story is different — and most are — your reflections will be widely varied from mine. Still, I urge you to reflect. How would your life be different — or would you have a life at all — if not for the sacrifices of those who served your country? And what responsibility do you have to those who died?

My father, David D. Wasson, was a veteran who served in the U.S. Marines and the U.S. Army. Photo: Valley Studio, El Cajon, California

My father served in both the Marines and the Army in World War II. With the U.S. actively engaged on two fronts, he was eager to join up, despite the fact that he was only 16. First, he had to get his father’s permission (though family lore says his dad, a preacher, was happy to see his wild son join the military to get some structure in his life). He advanced quickly, becoming the youngest enlisted man ever to hold the rank he attained (if he were still alive, or if I were a better historian, I would be able to tell you what that rank was). My uncle, a lifelong Marine, and Dad’s buddy before the two men married sisters, once told me that what my dad, David Wasson, did was a remarkable feat for such a young man.

Until his body was cremated, in December of 2002, my father’s left arm was emblazoned with a tattoo of the Marine Corps symbol. By then, the tattoo was disfigured by more than half a century’s aging skin, but he wore it with pride — a badge of honor.

He narrowly missed the fighting in Japan, as he was on a vessel heading from Hawaii to Japan on the day Victory in Japan was declared. Had he arrived even a day earlier in that battle zone, I most likely wouldn’t be alive to write this. So I have a special reason, as do so many other Baby Boomers, to be grateful for those who served our country in the Pacific theatre and in Europe. More than 100,000 U.S. soldiers died in the Pacific during WWII. Their sacrifices gave me my dad, and in doing so, they gave me a chance at life.

After mustering out of the Marines, my father and his young wife headed back to his home turf in Missouri, so he could start college and they could begin a new life together. But once their first child was on her way, my father once again sought out the military and enlisted in the Army. I’m not sure why he didn’t return to the Marines, but because of his choice, two of my sisters and I later became “Army brats.”

Military housing was the first life I knew and the first I remember. As a family member with the Occupation force in Germany after WWII, I spent my first birthday on German soil. I used to wonder why my parents hadn’t allowed us to mingle with German kids and learn the language. We were at the perfect ages: my older sister, Belinda, was 2 1/2 to my 1. My next sister, Betsy (now Liz), would later be born in Heidelberg. I didn’t learn until many years into adulthood that dependents living in Germany at that time we were not considered to be particularly safe. We were “the occupiers,” after all, and there was still a lot of tension in Europe. So, I’m thankful, too, for the soldiers who kept my family and me out of harm’s way while my dad and his colleagues were helping to restore order and security to a nation ravaged by war and divided by hatred.

Of course, I also think back to the beginning, to the origins of this nation I love and to the people who fought for her independence. (But that’s another holiday.) Or, I could consider wars in my ancestral homelands (there were so many, as I’m a true product of the American Melting Pot), but today I focus on WWII. And I am grateful for all those I never knew, who gave me the opportunity for life itself and, especially, life in a free nation.

But what does showing my gratitude really entail? What are my responsibilities to those who died for this nation I live in?

When I’m called upon to vote, I need to be informed – and then I need to follow through and cast my ballot wisely. When I see pollution, I need to step up and do something about it. When I learn of bigotry and hatred in the media or in my neighborhood, I have a responsibility to visibly object and try to correct it. When I see my leaders interacting with other nations in ways I think are dangerous to us all, I must not stand by silent. When I see myself and my fellow citizens squandering the planet’s resources in mindless consumerism and over-relying upon fossil fuels, I must not participate in the problem, but work toward a solution. You see, I have been given a rich life in this nation — on this planet — and have been entrusted with protecting it each and every day.

To me, celebrating on Memorial Day is not enough. I must honor the memory of those who died in service to my country — and my father, who lived into old age — by working for a better future for all of us, in every way that I can.

What does Memorial Day mean to you?

Julia Wasson

Blue Planet Green Living (Home Page)

Don’t Give More, Give Better

December 17, 2008 by  
Filed under Blog, Front Page, Holidays, Tips

Spend time together focusing on each other more than the gifts you give. Photo: ©

“Too many people spend money they haven’t earned, to buy things they don’t want, to impress people they don’t like.” — Will Rogers

During the nineteenth century, merchants began encouraging a greater focus on holiday gift-giving because, of course, it fostered gift buying. Two centuries later, we are confronted with holidays overwhelmed by consumerism. According to Grist magazine, “Nearly a quarter of all retail goods move out of stores and into homes between Thanksgiving and Christmas (and, we suspect, often into landfills by January).”

For many of us, holiday shopping means dealing with crowds.

For many people, holiday shopping means dealing with the stress of crowds. Photo: ©

Not only do we overspend, we also deplete our time and energy negotiating traffic and crowds, wrapping countless presents, and fretting over questions such as, Did I get more for Betty than I did for Bill? All the stress and anxiety of shopping, combined with other struggles that holidays often bring, leave many of us secretly wishing it were January already.

Whether all this consumption makes for a better life is questionable. Compared to much of the world, most Americans have far beyond what is necessary to meet our basic needs. More stuff means a need for more storage, plus time to clean, maintain, repair, and organize it all, not to mention the stress that such heavy consumption puts on environmental resources and geopolitics.

How can we maintain open and generous hearts, giving gifts that show true appreciation for the receiver without running ourselves ragged and breaking the bank? Can we somehow reclaim the spirit of the holidays, simplifying gift-giving without turning into Ebenezer Scrooge?

A Mental Reboot

Here are a few tips for getting started down the road to more meaningful holidays:

Recall holidays past. Our fondest recollections usually revolve around warm connections with friends and family. Look for ways to foster such experiences this year, rather than the picture-perfect, consumer-driven holidays pushed by Hollywood and Madison Avenue.

Connect with your family to relive old memories and make new ones.

Connect with your family to relive old memories and make new ones. Photo: ©

Celebrate your values. Don’t simply change your old holiday habits; replace them with new ones that are richer and more fulfilling. What is important to you about the holidays? How can you make space and time to celebrate those values? Create new holiday traditions or emphasize existing ones you find meaningful.

Explore your connection to stuff. Advertisers target our desire for happiness, youth, success, luxury, status, convenience, and beauty. Will the item you are purchasing actually deliver any of these things for the eventual owner? Opt only for gifts that are truly meaningful.

Avoid advertising. Recycle catalogs and newspaper fliers as soon as they arrive, turn off the television, and stay away from the sparkle of large shopping centers and department stores.

Let value be determined by the thoughtfulness behind a gift, not the price tag. Memorable gifts usually require more thought than money. Shop for presents with the interests of the receiver in mind. A gardener might enjoy a gift basket of seeds and bulbs for spring planting. Cooks will appreciate a collection of unusual spices with tasty recipes to match.

Avoid tit-for-tat gift giving. You don’t necessarily have to give a gift to someone just because he or she gave one to you. A sincere thank-you will often suffice.

Increase altruistic giving. Open-handed giving to causes we care about, without expecting anything in return, can transform our relationship to material wealth. In the spirit of the Millennium Development Goals, many advocacy groups encourage individuals to give 0.7% of their income toward charities that target extreme poverty. You can also give your time: “Buy Nothing Christmas,” a national initiative of the Canadian Mennonites that seeks to revive the original meaning of holiday giving, recommends donating one hour to charity for every $20 you spend.

Children can create their own gifts. Photo: ©

Don’t give things as substitutes for time or to assuage guilt. In the words of Lennon and McCartney, “Money can’t buy me love.” Even the most expensive or thoughtful gift is no substitute for your time and attention.

Explain your decision to friends and family. Be upfront, yet positive. Let your loved ones know that you won’t be taking the usual consumerism track this season, not because you are a cheapskate and don’t care about them, but because you want the holidays to be richer and more meaningful. Be prepared for surprised reactions, or worse.

Be courageous. It is more difficult to lead than to follow. Part of the pressure to consume is the idea that “Everybody else is doing it,” and swimming against such a powerful tide isn’t always easy. Some people in your life may feel threatened by your decision not to go along with the status quo. Avoid coming across as self-righteous, and instead offer alternative ways to show you value the person. Though you may meet resistance, many will secretly envy your new-found freedom, and you will probably find more family and friends following your lead next year.

Guilt-Free Gift Ideas

Here are a few ideas for meaningful and conscientious gifts that won’t leave you in debt until spring:

•    Donate to charity in the name of a loved one. Honor the recipient while also doing your part to create a better world. Many relief and development organizations, such as Heifer International and OxFam, offer ways to donate items needed in developing countries (farm animals, mosquito nets, etc.) through alternative gift catalogs.

Keep the joy of the season by focusing on what's most important — the ones you love. Photo: ©

•    Give coupons. People love to receive free babysitting, household and lawn chores, car washes, a homemade dinner, and so on. Share a useful talent or skill, such as financial planning, resume consulting, or web design. Volunteer to take the recipient on an adventure — a camping, fishing, or canoeing trip.

•   Create something. Anyone can collect family photos, memorabilia, stories, anecdotes, aphorisms, or recipes for a simple album or scrapbook. You don’t need to get too crafty; it’s the content they will cherish. Digital versions also will be greatly appreciated, as would a “greatest hits” arrangement of old family video footage. For children and grandchildren, create a book describing games you played as a child, or write and illustrate a book with the child as a main character. Of course, traditional holiday baking is always popular.

•    Hand down family heirlooms. Why wait until you die to pass along Grandma’s quilt or Dad’s old fishing pole? Let your heirs begin enjoying these precious items now. You’ll also have the benefit of decreasing the number of things needing storage around your own house.

Give an experience, such as a concert, play, or ballgame.

Give an experience, such as a concert, play, or ball game. Photo: ©

•    Go green. Look for recycled or recyclable content, and opt for items with minimal packaging.

•    Look for gifts that create little clutter or waste. Gifts that won’t end up in a corner somewhere include tickets to plays, concerts, sporting events, amusement parks, or ski areas; gift certificates to a favorite local restaurant; movie and ice-rink passes; museum memberships; spa packages; frequent flier miles; and membership to a nonprofit organization the person cares about.

•    Buy durable gifts. These items can be used over again, can be easily repaired, and won’t quickly wear out, become obsolete, or go out of style. Examples include well-made furniture, tools, and clothing in classic styles.

•    Use alternative shopping resources. Seek out alternative gift fairs and fairly traded world markets, such as Ten Thousand Villages. Give fair-trade agricultural products, such as coffees and teas.

•    Don’t overlook vintage. Antique and consignment shops are a great source of unique items.

Plant a tree together and watch it grow.

Plant a tree together and watch it grow. Photo: © Vitaliy

•   Give a seedling that you can transplant together in the spring. Choose a fast-growing tree and watch it develop.

•    Re-gift it. If you have an item you can’t use but that others may value, consider re-gifting — but only if you can avoid offending either the receiver or the previous gift-giver.

•    Opt out of gift exchanges at work. Suggest that your workplace adopt a needy family in the community or contribute to a charitable organization instead.

This holiday season, we can choose not to step into a flurry of shopping and spending that leaves us physically, mentally, and financially drained. By purchasing fewer, but more thoughtful gifts, we save not only money but time, freeing ourselves to connect more deeply with loved ones and celebrate the meaning behind the cultural traditions we hold dear.

We can also contribute to a more just and sustainable world by adjusting our shopping habits in a few simple, but significant, ways. We might even find that more meaningful holidays give us new energy, propelling us through the rest of winter — exactly as they were meant to do all along.

Karen Nichols

Contributing Writer

Blue Planet Green Living (Home Page)

We’re Dreaming of a Green Holiday

Comments Off on We’re Dreaming of a Green Holiday


•    Between Thanksgiving and New Years Day, Americans take an additional 25% of waste to the curb. That amounts to over 25 million tons of trash for the holiday season.

•    If every family reused just 2 ft. of ribbon from holidays past, that would save 38,000 miles of ribbon — enough to literally tie a big bow around the entire planet.

Ribbon can be reused again and again. Photo: Julia Wasson

Ribbon can be reused again and again. Photo: Julia Wasson

•    2.7 million holiday cards are sent across the country too — that’s enough to fill an entire football field 10 stories high!


Fill your recycling cart with:

•    Corrugated cardboard boxes (flatten it out to fit more!)

•    Gift boxes

•    Catalogs

•    Newspapers and all of those advertising inserts

•    Wrapping paper (non-metallic only)

•    Non-metallic greeting cards


•    BYOB — Bring your own (shopping) bag.

•    Send e-cards this year.

•    Avoid gift wrap — just decorate the box. The comics pages makes great wrap for kids.

•    Decide what catalogs you want, and rid yourself of the rest.

•    Opt out of all 3rd Class mail lists — write to the Direct Marketing Association at P.O. Box 9008, Farmingdale, N.Y. 11735-9008.

•    Opt out of credit card junk mail offers by calling 1-888-5OptOut.

•    For shipping, use real popped corn (no butter) to protect fragile items, and tell your gift recipient to feed the birds once opened. Donate those Styrofoam peanuts to your local packaging store.

•    Rechargeable batteries and a charger are better choices to power those electronic goodies.

•    Compost your trees and wreathes or buy a tree with roots, and transplant it. Don’t know what to get someone? Plant a tree in their honor!

•    Go homemade with cookies, funky vinegars in saved wine bottles, or hand-knitted scarves and mittens.

•    Skip packaging altogether with gifts of massage, sporting events, babysitting, dog walking or tickets to the museum. Always think about the packaging! If you can’t recycle it, buy something else instead!

•    Holiday lights all in a bunch? will accept your old, incandescent Christmas lights, which will then be recycled. Be sure to ask neighbors and friends if they want to recycle their lights as well. You can reduce waste and shipping costs by sending all lights in one package.

•    Did you get some great new things? Appliances, clothes, gadgets, cookware? Well, chances are great that you have some “less-new things” that would make a lot of people pretty happy. Donate them to your favorite charity or non-profit.

Reprinted with permission from RecycleBank.

Blue Planet Green Living (Home Page)