Monday, September 03, 2007

Letter to a Friend

If the death of children one is close to doesn't make you question the rightness of things, well. And with my own child in the womb your story can only fill me with terror and dread. And yet I know—is this a spirituality?—that we tell ourselves the meaning of what happens to us. And meaning can be created and has been created out of the most awful personal and historical events.

My late mother, as you may recall, was the child of Holocaust survivors, and was really a survivor herself: born in 1942 in fascist Budapest, preserved by chance in the ghetto while the Jews in the countryside were rounded up and exterminated. Her own parents, my grandparents, both went to Auschwitz, and both miraculously survived. My grandfather told me the story, the night she died, of how he worked in the camp barber shop (he was a hairdresser in Queens after the war, also a taxi driver) cutting the hair of the SS officers. Can you imagine? So she grew up obsessed with that past that her parents so rarely spoke about, and as a consequence I grew up with it too. At a young age—far too young—I had her books down off the shelf, paging through the ghastly pictures and even ghastlier accounts of dehumanization and mass murder. There's one story I've never forgotten: a father and young son, both naked, waiting for their turn to be shot and their bodies thrown in a ditch. The boy is crying; the father is stroking his hair and pointing to the sky, telling him about heaven. Can you imagine. The story went through me like a spear, and remains there still. I remember feeling rage—not at the Nazis, but at the father for telling his little boy such lies. Now I feel a kind of hopeless compassion for him. Almost a father myself, I understand better the impulse to shield your child at the moment such shielding is most impossible.

How do we go on? For me it's partly just obeying the impulse of my fortunate biology: I've always understood Gramsci's maxim "Pessimism of the spirit, optimism of the will" as my own creed. My hope springs from some source I don't fully understand, even as my knowledge of the pitilessness of the world increases. Mostly I believe that the only way to be here on earth is to really BE here, as fully as you can, and not to submit to the urge to escape—at least not too often. My life has been a long process of submitting to the necessity of being. When I was young, I felt myself an outsider and compensated by holding myself aloof from others, even from my own body and its desires. Gradually I began to experiment with permitting myself more being, as it began to seem possible for me to find a home with others: poets have been one tribe, D&D players (believe it or not) another, and lately I'm feeling more Jewish and more ready to join hands with my fellow Jews. Meeting Emily was a gigantic step forward—committing to her I committed more to myself and also to the community in Ithaca that she was a part of. Then we got married—another commitment. And now we're having a child together, a hostage to fortune as they say, and that invests me more deeply in the earth than I've ever felt myself to be before. I suspect having a family will imbricate me ever more deeply in the web of being--may lead to my being more active politically, for example, as I try in at least local ways to make a better world for my child, and to teach him or her to become someone with the same commitment to Being Here. And I may lose this fight—in fact, it's certain that I will. But I don't see an alternative. And while the fight goes on, I'm more alive than I ever was when I stood aloof and mistrustful and uncertain.

I hope you permit yourself the full range of feelings—that you cry, and shake your fists, and let this great darkness move through you, rather than trying to stand apart from it or let it fester. I hope you are able, eventually, to make some kind of meaning, to maybe discover some new resource of the will in what you've seen. If nothing else, you must be more alive now to your own profound powers of compassion and empathy, and let me tell you: we earthlings need those powers desperately.

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