The dinner party

I’ve been wondering all day what I would write about here. Several ideas. None worked. Too dark, too unresolved, too personal.

Then an unexpected and amazing dinner with two newish friends–or, rather, people I’ve known for a long time, but only recently discovered. We were on the same wavelength in every way–political, philosophical, ontological. We understood each other; one person’s idea sparked another’s. It was a balm.

There’s been a lot of societal handwringing, merited I suppose, about people living in their bubbles, never hearing other viewpoints. But today, for various reasons, I felt bombarded by other viewpoints. There are times when conflict is stimulating, even if it’s difficult; then there are times when conflict has exhausted you to the point of despair. Then comes a dinner like tonight.

S’s late husband grew up in Germany during the war. His father helped a Jewish family escape, and as a result had to wear a “friend of the Jews” shirt, lost his job and was made instead to sweep the streets. He lost his position, his wealth; his family became pariahs.

S’s grandfather was a New York assemblyman, who sided with the Iroquois in a land dispute with the state. He lost his Assembly seat, and much more. S asked her father, years later, if his father had ever regretted it. Of course not, he said; it was the right thing to do.

She’s telling this story decades later, to me. Stories live.


Somehow the movie WALL-E came up. M, S’s son, had seen it; S hadn’t. M and I both sang its praises. Not just a children’s movie, we said. Scarily accurate. And yet hopeful. Beautiful.

As we talked, I put pieces together I never had before: my children grew up with that movie. They were sensible enough to let it make them cry. Maybe it’s a very small part of why they now think about colonizing Mars, why they plan, matter-of-factly, for climate destruction, why they distrust large corporations that act as de facto governments.

I, on the other hand, grew up with The Jetsons. The future would be happy and orderly, with flying cars and automated food, but no accompanying changes in our relationships to the world, to each other–it was Fred and Wilma with robots.

These are just movies and TV shows, but things do work their way into our consciousness.

I’ve been thinking a lot about my upbringing, about messages and influences, about my education.

I’ve been thinking in particular of how much, how determinedly, the Holocaust was taught, what a presence it was even outside of school–in books, movies. I’d thought so much, at one point, about Anne Frank, and there was also a book called The Hiding Place, about Dutch Christians who had hidden Jews and been taken to the camps. I read that book over and over, and,I guess because I’m not Jewish, my thoughts were much more with them: would I have done that? What would I have done? What would I have done? Would I have been brave? I wasn’t sure. I was terrified that I would have been a coward.

Somehow, though, lately, things have shifted and solidified. I’ve been thinking about this for so long, in mental training, in a way, and now, I have more confidence that I would be brave. Of course I don’t know for sure. And I’m not saying I want to be tested. But I fear it–fear my own reflexive response–less than I once did.

After S spoke of her husband in Germany, and of her grandfather in New York, I mentioned the place that the Holocaust had held in my education, how I’d been asking myself those questions for years. S said you have to prepare yourself, you have to ask those rhetorical questions, so that when all at once you’re challenged–because how often do you actually get warning?–you know what you’ll do. You don’t have to think before you answer; you already know, and you speak.

That Holocaust teaching has been deep training. It’s an object lesson that’s on many people’s minds. Never forget has sunk into us.

M was thinking more long term. Together, we wondered if there really is a long arc of justice, or if the world is cyclical, if we are doomed to circle backwards periodically.

M wanted to know what I thought; he was very insistent. I allowed, finally, that there is such a thing as progress, but that it accrues very, very slowly. For instance, we are far better off now than we were in 1500; but better off than 1900? In some ways yes; in some no.

M said he used to volunteer with the Samaritans hotline, talking to people who were suicidal and desperate, convincing them there was hope. He said he had had to quit because he had run out of arguments.

Before he’d quit, though, he had talked to a girl who had tried to commit suicide and failed. She thought of herself as the ultimate loser. She had failed at suicide. There was no farther down she could go.

M told her that suicide was a negation; but since she’d failed at it, she’d negated that; and that if it were an algebraic equation, negating the negation meant that she was back to zero. Which wasn’t, in this case, nothingness, but rather a clear field, a chance to be newborn again.

Did it work? I said.

At the time, he said. But after that–there’s no way of knowing, is there?

M was sort of merrily bleak. S, the oldest of us, was circumspect–but still wondering, curious, still so open. I said I didn’t want hope to be facile, because then it wouldn’t hold up when you needed it–but that, when you come back to an individual, to individuals, we are each wondrous, and I keep coming back to that. There seems to be more hope available when you bring it down to a smaller scale.

At the end of the evening, S and I somehow began talking about Provincetown. I hadn’t known that a friend of ours had, until recently, been living in Stanley Kunitz’ old house, and I remembered a poem of his I’d read in high school. I looked it up for S, and sent it to her.

Back in high school–this would have been in tenth grade; I remember the cover of the poetry anthology, remember the classroom, the view out the window, the shape of the table, the words sinking in deep–I’d written the last verse of this poem on an index card, and taped it up in my locker. I still have it. It’s the dessert of the poem, which I suppose shows that I lack a certain discipline. We are all impatient. But to hold beauty in your hand–to keep it so long–to have it be durable? More, please. More, more, more.


The Round

Light splashed this morning
on the shell-pink anemones
swaying on their tall stems;
down blue-spiked veronica
light flowed in rivulets
over the humps of the honeybees;
this morning I saw light kiss
the silk of the roses
in their second flowering,
my late bloomers
flushed with their brandy.
A curious gladness shook me.

So I have shut the doors of my house,
so I have trudged downstairs to my cell,
so I am sitting in semi-dark
hunched over my desk
with nothing for a view
to tempt me
but a bloated compost heap,
steamy old stinkpile,
under my window;
and I pick my notebook up
and I start to read aloud
the still-wet words I scribbled
on the blotted page:
“Light splashed . . .”

I can scarcely wait till tomorrow
when a new life begins for me,
as it does each day,
as it does each day.

Copyright © 1995 by Stanley Kunitz. from Passing Through: The Later Poems, New and Selected (W. W. Norton, 1995)