Poet's Notebook: My poem, "What do I do about the mice: A pacifist's quandary" and comments

What do I do about the mice? (A pacifist’s quandary)

It was late,
In the middle of the second half of the night.
We were asleep.
The mice were not.
They sleep during the day.

They were very busy gnawing
on something in the wall.
It is the kind of sound
That gets to you,
It feels like it’s inside you

Like a trespass.
The breaking of a commandment.
The kiss-off of a “thou shalt not”.
And my wife was not taking it.
She was incredibly awake.

I was only half-awake
When she said,
You have to do something about the mice.
I wondered if she meant, right now.
Or tomorrow,

Which at the moment
Seemed like never.
I have been promising to do something about the mice
For years.
My wife

Is one of the most patient people on the planet.
Or maybe I am.
See, I’m a pacifist.
We have all these little
Have-a-heart traps

That really work.
But in the winter
The average day is too cold
To release the mice-people.
Sure, they are disease-carriers

And they shit and piss
Between the walls.
But they have a right to live.
I can hear the peanut gallery laughing.
I imagine a gallery of grotesque

Caricatures of humanity
Ridiculing my pacifistic,
Some might say,
Spineless, quixotic position
On what to do about the mice . . .

I was born this way.
My mother couldn’t kill anything,
But it went beyond that.
She couldn’t countenance
The suffering of anything

No matter how small
Or pesky.
And I have a lot of her in me.
And at 3:00 in the morning
My heart seems

To take up a lot more of my body.
I’m not a Christian
And yet
I live by
The commandment,

“Thou must not commit murder.”
Killing to me
Is murder.
So, where does that leave me?
It’s not a thought, or an advisement,

It’s a commandment
Written in my bones.
Not to be taken lightly
We have to listen to our bones.

We have to listen to what they say.
Bones don’t care
About a lot of things
That matter to the flesh.
Why, sometimes

We can even reason with the heart.
But our bones
Have their own reasons.
They might not even
Care about my marriage!

So, I just had to get this down.
I’m going to catch some mice
And I’m going to keep them
Fed and watered
Until the weather improves

Which it will,
With global warming on my side.
And then I will release them
With apologies
For disrupting their lives

And wish them all the best.
Until we humans
Get a handle on our business on earth
I see us as on a par with mice in the walls
Doing what we do

But very much at risk
Of provoking the owners of the house
To do something about our destructive habit
Of incessantly gnawing the walls
Without either awareness or remorse.


My pacifism has been a joy for me and a crutch. It is one of the main factors affecting the direction of my life and the shape my life has assumed. At a very early age it set me apart from other boys my age except for a few close friends. I quickly learned that because of my aversion to killing anything, I was in a minority and sometimes it felt like a minority of one. But when I turned the draftable age of 18 and many of my friends were scrambling to get out of being sent to Vietnam, it was my pacifism that became my strength, my shield, my way forward with dignity. When my low number came up in the lottery I knew exactly what I wanted to do. I registered with my draftboard as a conscientious objector. I worked in a wire factory for the summer of 1969 and, with a friend, traveled by jeep to the Navaho Reservation in the late Fall where I tutored Navaho students at Navaho Community College. We were in Many Farms in the middle of nowhere. But that nowhere was for me a sanctuary, a safehouse. The beauty of it was, I was no longer in the United States — I was in Navaho Land. It was there I wrote my manifesto. It was a strong declaration of my truth, a bold outline of the principles around which I would build my life for the foreseeable future. And central to that manifesto was the commitment to follow my heart and conscience wherever that may lead.

Yesterday I was stopped for speeding. When the cop presented me with the ticket he said, . . .”looks like you haven’t served in the military”. I don’t know how he knew that or why it was relevant to my speeding violation, but I heard myself answering, I am a peace-veteran, a card-carrying CO. I serve peace. As I drove off I thought about what I really wanted to say: that Vietnam killed over 58,000 men, some of them my friends and, in terms of military objectives, they died for nothing. If we can’t learn to live in peace, how are we ever going to focus on what is really important – the precipitous accelerating degradation of the biosphere. I also thought of the gap between me and that cop and it made me very sad, sadder than it should have . . . It was that old feeling that crops up now and then of being in a minority and wishing for sanctuary. Maybe it’s time to write another manifesto.

Footnote: The US War on Vietnam also killed as many as 3 million Indochinese, most of them civilians, and the rest fighters for the freedom and independence of their own countries. It left behind a grievously poisoned landscape and generations of people born after the war suffered from genetic diseases caused by the criminal use of powerful defoliants.
Gary Lindorff