A fifth-grade bully, a blossoming romance, a late-night crash
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Someday, perhaps, I’ll stop picking up the office phone every time it rings or looking at every piece of mail. It’s a wise editor who delegates authority; logically, someone else could do these tasks. The thing is, they rarely seem to me like tasks; it would be like asking someone else to take my morning run or eat the sandwich I brought for lunch. True, there are days when I’m too busy to run or eat, when the phone is an annoyance and the mail just another chore. But those days are rare. Running and eating invigorate and nourish me, and so do these daily reminders that readers are individuals and not an “audience,” abstract and remote. I’m taught again and again how unpredictably different we are and how stunningly alike; it’s a reminder I cherish nearly as much as the magazine itself.
I got two phone calls recently, uncannily similar calls only a week apart: calls from my past, like birds flying in pairs from some hidden nest. One was from someone I’d gone to college with more than twenty years ago, the other from a man who grew up with me in Brooklyn. They’d both just discovered The Sun.
Neither had been an especially close friend, but hearing from them delighted me. How often people or places from the past call to us with unexpected poignancy, become important in a way they weren’t back then; symbols now, almost like symbols in a dream, they evoke forgotten memories, other places, other faces.
Yet not only did these calls turn my thoughts to the past — a past I’ve often mourned, bitterly and without much forgiveness — they also awakened in me a different mood about those days, a mood more accepting and forgiving, and oddly celebratory.
A successful psychologist now, Brian recently subscribed after seeing my name on a brochure describing The Sun. He remembered me as editor of the Queens College newspaper. The Phoenix was my passion then; when I should have been in class, I was at the office, opening mail, answering calls. Brian worked in student government down the hall. As an idealistic and earnest young journalist, I was leery of campus politicians; they seemed to be more concerned with cultivating the art of compromise than with standing up for what was right. But we joined forces when the college administration banned a Communist from speaking; in protest, we staged a student strike. I reminisced about the strike in The Sun a few months ago; since I admitted that I’d forgotten how the protest turned out, Brian called — down the hallway of years and improbable distances — to let me know we’d won.
We talked about college days, and college friends who had stayed true to their consciences, kept alive the sense of moral indignation and high purpose kindled in us then. Brian had kept in touch with people I could barely remember — names that have taken leave of me like clouds moving swiftly toward the horizon, breaking up, changing, becoming wisps. But a few names were familiar; I was especially pleased to hear about one classmate, now a lawyer dedicated to social justice, working for the disenfranchised and the poor. I remembered how he and I had, as students, conspired to remake America. We were the real patriots, I had thought, who would restore to the country its revolutionary zeal, honor what was best in the past and in ourselves. Perhaps we were naive and self-righteous; perhaps our politics were flawed. For a moment, none of that mattered. Drawn out of myself — away from my crowded desk, my busy day, my isolation — I felt a wave of pride for those of us who had followed our own paths yet remained joined by a politics of heart and vision. For some, the emphasis was on inner change; for others, on changes in society. What mattered was what hadn’t changed: we’d remained true to ourselves.
Bill, who had also seen my name on a brochure, called a few days later; his call was even more surprising, as was the unexpected depth and tenderness of our talk. We’d both grown up in the Flatbush section of Brooklyn, our homes on opposite sides of Kings Highway. It was a road on which there was always some traffic, even in the middle of the night; the whoosh of cars was a sound as natural to me then as the droning of insects in summer or the wind through leaves. Separated now by hundreds of miles and by the immeasurable moments that have made us what we are, Bill and I joked about how the highway had come between us, kept us from becoming closer friends.
Yet how unaccountably close I felt to him now. We had been through so many similar ups and downs, known the tearing away of illusions, the searching through the rubble of ourselves for some clues to who we were. I didn’t need to hear all the details of his life to know this; I heard it in his voice, in the pauses and in the laughter, in what was, and wasn’t, said.
Bill, like Brian, had become a psychologist; he had learned to cry and to listen to others cry, to make an instrument of healing out of his own vulnerable self. Had I made my peace with my past? he asked. I told him in some ways, but not really — there were still wounds I had no name for, days my sky would darken with scorn and accusation, my loneliness a shield I’d learned to use too well. And what about him, I asked, expecting an answer no less qualified. I was surprised when he said that finally, after many years and much hard work, he’d made his peace with the past, and wished nothing less for me than that I discover that peace within myself.
Said less kindly, that might have sounded like boasting, or arrogance. But it didn’t. I could feel the caring in his voice, and the humility. It touched the grief in me, the grief that can sometimes feel endless. Yet I knew, as surely as I could hear the mercy in his voice, that mercy was also endless. In my quarrels with myself there could be no winner — only ceaseless struggle, or forgiveness.
The phone calls were a beginning. Like the first notes of a song, they struck a mood, suggested a melody that ran like a refrain through the next few weeks, haunting and bittersweet.
I went to see Woody Allen’s new movie, “Radio Days.” Allen’s movies have always seemed poignant to me, his childhood scenes often reminding me of my own (he grew up in Brooklyn, too). In “Radio Days” there are the recognizable stereotypes — the coarse, loud, emotionally overwrought parents, and cousins and uncles and aunts — but in this movie Allen seems more accepting and forgiving than he has in the past. He endows his characters with a more generous spirit; the angst is there, but so is some warmth and compassion. In one of the film’s funniest scenes, the young hero — who has used the money he’s collected for Palestine to buy a Masked Avenger ring — is hauled before the rabbi by his father. The boy is wonderfully insolent, and the rabbi and the father take turns slapping him on the head, all the while arguing over which one has the right to hit him. If that sounds like child abuse rather than humor, the genius of the scene is that it’s both.
I left the theater reminded of something important: that the choice we face in reclaiming the past isn’t just between confronting our pain or denying it. We can acknowledge our pain, and embrace it lovingly; we can laugh at ourselves without forgetting how to cry.
All I knew about David was that he was a workshop leader at the Esalen Institute in California where, for the past fourteen years, he’d taught people about “self-acceptance, personal integrity, and taking risks.” Since a friend of mine thought highly of him, and he was in Chapel Hill to give a workshop, I decided to find out what all those high-sounding phrases meant.
What I found out, in the first few minutes of our conversation, was that we’d grown up in the same neighborhood, gone to the same high school. . . .
What struck me the most about David (my interview with him will appear next month) was how genuinely he was himself, embracing his own paradoxes without apology, a caring and sensitive man who wasn’t ashamed that he got tired and cranky and fed up. This kind of honesty, when it’s accompanied by a big heart, is refreshing and profoundly healing; it means so much more than the well-intentioned but false spirituality that denies the full range of our humanity, that tries to cover up — with white robes and white lies — our lust and anger and boredom, our naked selves.
So here was yet another man with whom I shared a deep and abiding connection, someone with whom I could be fully myself in the present, and who was a living symbol of my past. Surely, the Brooklyn of my youth wasn’t as barren as I’d imagined if it grew souls like this.
What was it Carl Jung said? “We meet ourselves, time and again, in a thousand disguises on the path of life.” These coincidences — what are they? They lead me back to who I was and, in the process, I’m changed. I follow the signs. I learn no great truths, but feel something new emerging. Each chance meeting touches me deeply, giving life to something buried. Maybe it’s just the spring. Maybe it’s the heart in its season of turning.
I’m being encouraged, it seems, to take a more generous view: of my parents; of the city; of everything I’ve been too quick, perhaps, to disdain.
I was walking in the woods with my daughters. Mara pointed to some footprints she said looked unusual. I knew what she was thinking; my wife, who wasn’t with us, insists there are bobcats on our land. “What is it?” Mara asked. I peered, uncomprehending. “How would I know?” I shrugged. “I’m from New York.” “Oh Dad,” she scowled. I knew, instantly, I shouldn’t have been a wise guy. It was one thing not to be able to answer her, but my self-deprecating style was tiresome, and missed the point of her wonder. I felt ashamed.
I realized, too, why I’d felt embarrassed. Fifteen years ago, inspired by the back-to-the-land movement, I came to North Carolina. I wanted to live in a rural commune, but the commune failed. Since then, whenever I’m in the woods or in the garden and do something clumsy, or don’t know the answer, I feel again as if I’ve failed. I blame my childhood. I blame the city. Mostly, I blame myself.
The country commune movement embroidered upon a well-established American theme: the romanticizing of the primitive, the idea that the city is man’s work and Nature is God’s. To find yourself, you have to get away from all that humanity, from a culture built on history and commerce and words and law, and back to Nature, to eternal rhythms. Oh, I loved the vision; the problem was, I made it one more reason to hate myself, to deny what was unquestionably no less godly in me: my origins, my familiarity not with trees and plants but with streets and buildings and people, with the inheritance of generations that makes a city, with vain and lovely human dreams.
From down the hall, from down the block, friends call; joy and sorrow call; the past calls. . . . I’ve learned a thousand ways to say no, to doubt, to argue with life — until I hear nothing but my own denials. There’s no love in that, surely there’s no peace. I stutter now, learning a new reply.