The following article first appeared in the journal ADVANCED DEVELOPMENT, Volume 4, January, 1992 published by the Institute for the Study of Advanced Development, 1452 Marion St, Denver, Colorado 80218, tel. (303) 837-8378 and is reproduced here with their permission and that of the author.
An Extraordinary Life
by ANN RUSH
PEACE PILGRIM: An Extraordinary Life
Ann Rush with John Rush
Ann and John Rush are the founders of the Peace Pilgrim Center in Hemet, California. This organization, run entirely by volunteers, is dedicated to the publication and dissemination of the words and work of Peace Pilgrim. Ann and John are Quakers who have lived their lives as peace activists.
ABSTRACT: The life of Peace Pilgrim, as she chose to be known, is traced by friends who knew her well, from her unassuming beginnings through an extraordinary transformation to a life of unusual commitment. Pieced together from interviews, letters, personal communications and her own words, her life story unfolds, showing the steps along the way to her life of total service. This service took the form of a pilgrim's life, lived in utter simplicity and spiritual trust as she walked America for 28 years speaking for peace.
In the summer of 1952 Mildred Norman, traveling alone, hiked the entire length of the 2050 mile-long Appalachian Trail. She was the first woman to accomplish this feat. It turned out to be a practice run.
"Oh, it was a very enjoyable experience and a very educational experience and a very inspirational experience," she remarked in a radio interview in Philadelphia that fall. (Friends of Peace Pilgrim Newsletter, 1988, p.6.). She went on to announce another walk she had in mind. She was going to do what she called "some optimistic hiking" from Los Angeles to New York and on to Washington, DC, starting January 1, 1953. she would talk to anyone and everyone who would listen to her about peace - peace in the world and peace within. "I think that those of us who have found the way to peace should be shouting it from the housetops," she beamed. This idea had been born in a vision that had come to her at the end of the Appalachian Trail, and it was to be her life mission: a pilgrimage for peace.
Walking For Peace
Mildred began her pilgrimage at the head of the 1953 Rose Parade in Pasadena. She walked ahead along the line of march, talking to people and handing her little peace leaflet to those interested. She later said,
She carried with her three peace petitions: one requesting immediate peace in Korea, one pleading for the establishment of a national Peace Department, and the third, directed to the U.N., seeking freedom for the world from the burden of armaments and, in its stead, the furthering of world prosperity. Signatures for these petitions that she and others collected were presented to the White House and the U.N. upon her arrival in the East Coast 11 months later.
She didn't stop there. She kept on walking, criss-crossing the United States six times, walking for the rest of her life. She wore navy blue slacks and shirt, tennis shoes and a self-designed navy blue tunic with pockets all around the bottom in which she carried her only possessions: a comb, a folding toothbrush, a pen and her small blue leaflets to pass out on the way. On the front of the tunic were the letters, PEACE PILGRIM, and on the back was: WALKING COAST TO COAST FOR PEACE, and later, 25,000 MILES ON FOOT FOR PEACE. This was her outfit for the rest of her life, with new clothes being bought for her and new letters sewn on by friends as the old wore out.
She moved north in the summer and south in the winter to take advantage of the weather. After the first 25,000 miles she stopped counting. She carried no money, nor would she accept any. Contrary to the tradition of the Buddhist monk with his begging bowl, she did not ask for anything. She went without food until it was offered to her or she found it in the wild. She slept wherever she could, such as a bus station or a corn field, if no one offered her a place to sleep. "I seldom miss more than four meals in a row," she told her many audiences. To all who would listen she talked about the vital need for peace and the practical things that anyone could do to work for peace - peace in the world and peace within, which she recognized as interwoven.
Living in this way was no mere caprice. Peace Pilgrim explained, "I was determined to live at the need level, that is, I didn't want more than I need when so many have less than they need." (Peace Pilgrim, 1982, p.30) She traveled "on foot and on faith," determined to be an activist for peace. Early on, she left even her name behind when her sister's family began to be bothered by the F.B.I., who suspected this peace walker was a communist. She wanted to spare them harassment.
In these days of glasnost and Berlin Wall mementos, walking for peace may seem courageous and dedicated but not totally extraordinary. However, the background to Mildred's pilgrimage was McCarthyism and the Korean War. Hers was a groundbreaking, pioneering effort which bespoke moral courage to the nth degree. How did this total commitment come to be? Who was this Mildred Norman and how did she become Peace Pilgrim?
As a pilgrim, she would tell very little of her life as Mildred - not her name, age, or where she lived. When asked, "Why not?" by a college student, she answered, "I would much rather they remember the important things instead of the very unimportant thing." (Peace Pilgrim, California State University talk, 1974) Her focus was on her mission to further the cause of peace, and to inspire those who "want to do more growing."
Five of us who were her friends took on the joyful task of compiling her ideas and experiences into a book called Peace Pilgrim, her life and work in her own words (1982). We felt this was the most important thing we could do to help bring peace to a violent world.
My husband, John, and I knew little of Mildred's early life, although we knew her as Peace Pilgrim for 24 years. We first met her in the backwoods of British Columbia where we had moved with four other Quaker families to raise our children away from the militarism and materialism (and TV) of our country. We Quaker pacifists were in the same nation-wide peace movement as Peace Pilgrim. I loved talking to her in Argenta, BC. I felt very close to her and was thrilled to find someone so dedicated to peace. I tried to convince her to stay a few days. After all, she was a free pilgrim without strict schedules, or so I thought. I was disappointed to learn she had tightly scheduled herself on her trek across Canada and could only stay a day and a night. We drove her to the ferry and stopped at Kaslo, where to our delight she had an ice cream cone with us. (We recently learned she ate an ice cream sundae every day at work - before her pilgrimage, of course.) One of our daughters, who loved her especially, remembered her saying that she never carried a penny, so to play a trick on her tucked a penny in her tunic pocket. Our family had a great time with her on that trip; she was such fun to be with.
As time went on, she would stay with us in different parts of the country where we happened to live - the last time for most of two months because we had over 100 speaking engagements for her in the Los Angeles area. This was a year and a half before her death. She told me more about her early life than she ever had before. Other friends of Peace Pilgrim have expressed surprise at her telling about her life before the pilgrimage on her last visit with them. We wonder why she told those things and if she was aware she was about to leave.
Much of our information about Peace's youth comes from Helene and Eugene Young, Peace Pilgrim's sister and brother-in-law. They remember her as having plenty of friends, being an outstanding student and having excellent health (some colds and headaches, that's all). In a trunk in Helene's attic I found awards for never missing school.
There is little in Peace Pilgrim's early life that would indicate she was to become such a saintly person. After her transition we were visiting with Helene and Eugene when a neighbor came by who was amazed at all the "to-do" about her death (telegrams, long distance phone calls, visitors from Texas and California.) She said to Helene, "Imagine...Mildred!!!"
Her early years seem unremarkable. She was born around 1908 on a small chicken farm in Egg Harbor City, New Jersey. She was the oldest of three children in a household filled with adults. In addition to her parents, brother, and sister, her father's three sisters lived with them, and a bachelor uncle lived nearby. Helene recalls:
Another memory of Helene's was "discussions at home. They had discussions all day long. My three aunties were always discussing issues of the day." (Young interview, 1985, p.11)
There is evidence that Mildred was bright. She remembered learning to read at age four or five before starting school. She had a fantastic memory and could recite long poems at age three. (Whittier Transcript, 1979, p.41) She taught herself to play the piano over the course of one summer, and at age 16 was a senior in high school with the highest grade average in her class. But she did not consider herself a scholar or a reader. She saw herself always as a "doer." (p.44)
Mildred grew up in a loving and creative family. They did not belong to any church, and she received no formal religious training as a child. She was first inside a church at age 16 to attend a wedding. She made up her own mind about things and carried out her own investigations. When she came across the Golden Rule in a text, comparing this idea in many religions, she was struck by its truth. She translated it into immediate practicality "If you want to have friends, you must be friendly," and later, "if you want to make peace, you must be peaceful." (Peace Pilgrim, 1982, p.3)
As a senior she carried out another investigation, asking, "What is God? What is God?" She asked everyone she thought might know but was satisfied with none of the answers. Instead, she went for a long walk with her dog and found her own answer: "We human beings just lump together everything in the universe which is beyond the capacity of all of us, and to all of those things together some of us give the name 'God.'" (p.2) She said, "That is when I discovered I could get my spiritual answers from the inside." (Whittier Transcript, 1979, p31)
"In high school my most vivid recollection of Mildred was her role on the debating team," continues Eugene. "She put all she had into it and took it all very seriously. Even then she was an impressive speaker." (E. Young personal interview, 1988)
After graduation from high school she had no trouble finding a job. She spent her money on clothes, matching shoes and hats, a luxurious, very soft bed her sister envied, and a flashy car. Helene remembers, "She used makeup when she was in her dating days. She spent quite a bit of time before the mirror before she went out, putting on all sorts of makeup, which was foreign to our people. We were plain folk who didn't go in for that sort of thing." (Young Interview, 1985, p.5) She had a busy social life and wrote plays for the Grange, for which she was director, costume designer, lighting manager and producer. Her life was happy and fulfilled.
The Disintegration of Mildred
With that kind of a very happy family life and fulfilled social life, it is not easy to understand how Peace could have made the choice of the husband she did. "Physical attraction only," according to her sister. Peace and her father and one of her aunts were very close and had many interests in common. They were keenly disappointed in her choice. Her husband in those Depression years had a very hard time making a living. He wrote bad checks (taking advantage of her father's good name). This must have been a great trauma to this closely knit family that was widely known and highly respected in the little town of Egg Harbor City. Imagine how Mildred must have felt to bring such disgrace to their good name!
It was at this time, 1936, that her father was killed in a car accident. Because of financial difficulties, the family had to leave the home she had grown up in. They all moved together, including the aunts, into a large apartment with Mildred and her husband. Their mother, shocked by her husband's death, developed a brain tumor. After an operation, she went to live with her sister and brother in Atlantic City.
Helene remembers, "Mildred was having trouble with her husband. There wasn't much meaning in her life. She was seeking something meaningful." (Young Interview, 1985, p.9) It was a time of crisis for her.
The Turning Point
It was apparently in 1938, unhappy and questioning her way of life, that Mildred had what she always referred to as "her spiritual experience." In her own words:
This was a turning point indeed. Peace said, "I tell you it's a point of no return. After that, you can never go back to completely self-centered living" (p.7). She began to "live to give instead of living to get" (p.7). She spent the next 15 years preparing - she did not know for what - getting rid of unnecessary possessions and meaningless activities. Although she moved to Philadelphia with her husband in 1939, where he had a job opportunity, their marriage ultimately dissolved. When he went into the army in World War II, Mildred did not follow him. She began working with senior citizens and those with emotional problems.
At the same time, she was doing volunteer work for peace organizations, such as Scott Nearing's World Events newsletter and the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom, for whom she was a Washington, DC legislative lobbyist for peace. A friend who knew her then reports that she was living on ten dollars a week and had reduced her wardrobe to two dresses. (Peace Pilgrim, 1982, P.201) She was radically simplifying her life.
Charting Spiritual Growth
During this 15 year period the struggle continued between what she called the lower self and the higher self - the self-centered nature and the God-centered nature. In her words:
Through trial and error Peace worked out her steps to inner peace, walking daily in receptive silence amid the beauties of nature and putting into practice the inspirations that came to her. After she had attained inner peace she was on fire to share it with everyone she met. This was the main reason for her pilgrimage, and she often said she could not have become a pilgrim without having first gained inner peace.
On her pilgrimage she shared her steps whenever and wherever she spoke. A friend asked her to share them in a radio talk in Los Angeles in 1966. He transcribed her talk and made a little booklet, Steps Toward Inner Peace (n.d.) which was sent to Peace's hostesses. Today they are distributed widely around the world by Friends of Peace Pilgrim, along with the Peace Pilgrim book. Her Steps are succinct and practical and
There are four preparations:
There are four purifications:
There are four relinquishments:
Peace gives further advice: "The path of gradual relinquishment...is a difficult path, for only when relinquishment is complete do the rewards really come. The path of quick relinquishments is an easy path, for it brings immediate blessings." (p.21)
Peace Pilgrim's own relinquishments finally led to her first experience of true inner peace:
This experience was a bench mark to which she could return again and again, until it became a plateau from which she sometimes descended.
When asked, "When you began your struggles, did it seem rather hopeless to you - very difficult - that you would never attain this maturity?, she replied:
The realization was total, never to be lost again. Not that existence became static:
In many of her talks before classes and audiences, Peace would recount her experiences on her path toward peace. She illustrated this in the following diagram:
Figure 1: Peace Pilgrim's Chart of Her Spiritual Growth
The time period between Point 2 and Point 6 represents her 15 year period of growth toward spiritual maturity. Often, in drawing this diagram for the classes and congregations before which she spoke, she would draw the point 3 to point 4 Ups and Downs as progressively rising higher, showing that she was making progress then, although it didn't seem like it. The diagram clearly shows that her growth continued even after the attainment of complete inner peace.
At the time of this experience of complete inner peace she saw her vision of the pilgrimage, like a map spread out before her. The route across the country was visible and even some of the major cities along the route were marked out. She knew clearly then what her work in the world was to be.
Peace Pilgrim "walked her talk." She walked in complete fearlessness, calmly facing arrest for vagrancy, sneering interviewers, violence, misunderstanding, all kinds of weather, drunks and psychotics, even near death in an Arizona snowstorm. She walked with boundless energy, in complete health, with sparkle and verve. Those who met her were impressed by her intelligence, serenity, wit, and genuine loving nature. Homes and hearts opened to her, and as many testified later, lives were changed.
Today, ten years after her "glorious transition: (as she called death) interest in Peace Pilgrim is stronger than ever. Over 600,000 of her booklets, Steps Toward Inner Peace, are in print in English. It has been translated by native volunteers into 13 languages and keeps showing up - in African villages, in the shadow of the pyramids, in Thailand, at a Bedouin hostel, in Central America, in an Ashramic Library in the Himalayas, in an English class in China. Friends of Peace Pilgrim, formed to perpetuate her work, continually distributes Steps, the Peace Pilgrim book and newsletters, to an ever increasing demand. Stories and testimonials continue to pour in from those who met her and from those moved by the words she left behind:
It was wonderful knowing Peace Pilgrim for 24 years as she walked back and forth across this country. We could always think, "Oh, she's out there somewhere spreading her message of peace and love, inspiring people everywhere.'' Then it was unbearable to think she wasn't anymore. I buried myself in answering her mail and collecting her writings for a book in her own words. After a Peace Pilgrim Memorial Retreat in Santa Fe, five of us compiled the Peace Pilgrim book and we have now filled requests for over 200,000.
John and I are spending the rest of our lives filling requests for these books and the Steps booklets. We have also filled requests for thousands of audio and video tapes around the world. We feel her message, which is also Jesus' message, is our best hope for world peace.
There are so many good memories of her. I remember her speaking at the Church of Religious Science in Whittier. She was 70 (we learned after her death, because she never would tell her age) and at her peak. She refused a microphone though the church was packed, including the balcony. When she moved her leg to changed her stance, there was a youthful lilt to it. As she used her arms to illustrate a point she radiated youthful energy. The minister told me later that he had long years of experience and when he expected the audience to become restless, there was total absorption. He wrote to his fellow ministers across the country: "She made the greatest single impression on me and my life." (p.193)
A friend of ours heard her and said she spoke Bahai teachings. A college girl said she was sure Peace was a Christian Scientist because what she spoke was Christian Science. At least two young men, after hearing her in college classes, said she spoke what Eastern religions teach. This is a typical reaction she received whether she was speaking in a Jewish synagogue, a Moslem temple or a Christian Church. It is the reaction we receive from many who read her books they write that her message is the same as their religion teaches.
I remember her speaking once at a Friends Meeting - a small outdoor gathering of adults and children of all ages sitting on the rocky edge of a beach. Afterwards, John said to her, "What you say is what the saints have said down through the ages." She answered, "I know there is nothing new in my message, just the practice of it."
That practice was extraordinary. Peace Pilgrim was an extraordinary human being. Her legacy is clear and practical and compelling. She left us this wisdom:
I wish to thank the INSTITUTE FOR THE STUDY OF ADVANCED DEVELOPMENT, 1452 Marion Street, Denver, Colorado 80218, for granting us permission to reprint this article that appeared in the Volume 4, January, 1992 issue of ADVANCED DEVELOPMENT.
I also want to express my thanks to Elizabeth Maxwell, guest editor of this issue, who asked me to write this article and made many valuable suggestions.
Ann Rush, Hemet, CA, August, 1992
Page revised 07/04/2010