Want a lift for your spirits? Try this question: Which life events deserve a really good party? Does your list include
- your best friend’s birthday?
- your team scores its biggest win ever?
- a loved one is declared cancer free?
- you’ve just been given a job promotion?
While you’re having fun with your own list, here’s another question: Did you watch the Republican and Democratic conventions in July? Remember the dancing decorations, the upbeat music, the carefully crafted speeches, the hoisted placards and (well, more or less) spontaneous shouts from the delegates? Can you still picture the balloons – ah, yes, the balloons dropping in a mighty deluge?
If you say yes, then you know rah-rah. You understand celebration.
Let’s refocus. Transfer your attention from where you live and from the American cities of Cleveland and Philadelphia to a town – more specifically, a castle – in Germany. We’re suddenly in a different kind of celebration. We’ve come to honor what would have been Arno Peters’ 100th birthday. Dr. Peters – for all those who enjoy above-average competence in world history or how maps function in our lives, or who follow this blog or who have read How Maps Change Things – is the person who brought new insight to our understanding of history and geography, who died in 2002.
To call this a different kind of celebration demands explanation. Dr. Peters was a creative thinker; as such, it might have seemed appropriate to convene a gathering of scholars, peace activists, public intellectuals. Academic papers would be presented and discussed. The proceedings would be published for a wider audience.
That option was not selected. Neither were other possible ways to mark the centennial. Instead, planners chose to keep it a family event. So half a hundred people travelled to Blankenheim: sons and daughters, spouses, grandchildren and great-grandchildren. They had known this man well or wanted to know him better.
The family circle got stretched when three outsiders were added. Arno Peters’ personal physician attended part time, and my wife and I were invited. I had enjoyed a two-decades long relationship with Arno Peters –first at a professional level, then quickly moving to warm friendship. What made the invitation still more amazing was that the planners, to my surprise, invited me to deliver the keynote address.
What could I – an outsider, clearly the only foreigner on the program, possibly say to these people that they didn’t already know, to help honor this man’s life and work?
The answer came unexpectedly.
Aribert Peters, Arno’s son, emailed me a copy of his mother’s diary from 1945. It had been found, surprisingly, among her effects after her recent death in Amsterdam.
The diary, hand written by Anneliese, details the period May 11 to July 6, 1945. The war in Europe had ended just three days earlier. Reading the diary was like entering a time capsule; it made those distant days, those far-off places so real I recommended it be published. How thrilling, then, to be handed a copy of the book when I got to Blankenheim!
Reise nach Berlin – Trip to Berlin – was the heart of the story., Both Anneliese and Arno had roots in that city; they were determined to get there in spite of the chaos all around. Acknowledging the diary and their early experience and paying tribute to the controlling priority of Arno’s life, I built my presentation around the theme Reise nach einer besseren Welt – Moving toward a Better World. The twin themes made for interesting interplay: one trip to a city in ruins; the other to a fairer world. A more just world. A world at one, not at war. A world of understanding and respect. Arno Peters had many talents; this second Reise, I wanted to say, was the clear and consistent conviction behind everything he did.
Particularly well known as a cartographer and a historian, Arno Peters was also a musician. So it was fitting that music and singing were features of the party. He was an artist, so time was provided in the schedule for people to sketch and paint.
Balloons – don’t they belong in a party also? So we released balloons not only to celebrate a life but – in some symbolic way – to remember that while his human life was over, his spirit had been released into the beyond.
There was more – much more. Games. Family members getting to know others they seldom saw. Sharing stories, telling jokes.
One last observation about parties: they exist to be enjoyed. If everyone has a good time they have fulfilled their purpose. This one added a different, and significant, dimension: the clear take-away that Arno Peters’ work lives on. The Reise nach einer besseren Welt – the search for a more just world – goes on. The half a hundred people who were at Blankenheim are playing a part. So can we all. Whatever our special contribution to the goal of a fairer, cleaner, friendlier world, we are all invited to the party, to share in the fun and the energizing task of making good things happen.