Dismantling Youth

“Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins.  My sin. My soul.  Lo-lee-ta: the tip of the tongue taking a trip of three steps down the palate to tap, at three, on the teeth.  Lo. Lee. Ta.”

When I was 20, maybe 21, signing up for yet another semester of Humanities at the local community college, adulthood perpetually as imminent as the red button, the Cold War was unknowingly about to end.  In a desperate ploy to hang on to childish things, to look cool in the eyes of others, I graffiti’d a pair of white Vans with titles of Vladimir Nabokov novels in red magic marker.  Save for that  stunning opening paragraph that even now astounds me by its physical lyricism, I hardly knew who Nabokov was, much less Stanley Kubrick or James Mason, who together brought Lolita to the screen.  Smitten as I was with the younger intellectual skateboarding boys on campus – with their long hair and side-parts, lanky surfer bodies and West Coast fantasies – I scrawled ‘Bend Sinister’ across the left shoe and ‘Invitation To A Beheading’ across the right, in true contrarian embrace-the-enemy fashion.  What’s that mean? they’d ask, as we’d hang out in concrete basement bars, pretending we were old enough to be there, but not so grown up to be confused with the proletariat drinking their dollar and a half draughts during dusky happy hours.

God forbid our fraud should slip.

While Michael, boyishly cute and charming and the one I had the maddest crush on, played aloof, I did my wiliest to mirror his nonchalance (therefore showing him how much he really wanted me) and instead tried impressing his friends with arcane Soviet trivia.  When I found them gawking over stacks of nudie magazines one afternoon after class, I casually mentioned Nabokov’s penchant for getting published in Playboy, proving that yes, men really did read it for the articles and they should, too.  Were any of us planning on graduating and growing up at some point?

We never saw that our restless energy was held in check by end-of-the-world-as-we-knew-it propaganda.  What young adult wanted to stake claim in an era of Reagan and Gorbachev and the crisis of missiles?  We did as we were told:  good little Communist-haters, except that we weren’t.  We were too naive, still, to really understand anything, so we played on both sides of the rail, never knowing when the train was going to race down the tracks and split everything in two.

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Meanwhile, I taught them to play chess, (the Russians were masters, right?) and we’d plot moves until dawn, taking rooks and pawns and they taught me to say “Prost!” as we toasted with cheap vodka;  it wasn’t until I went to Germany years later did I realize that I didn’t have a trademark on affectation.  In time, our attempts to dazzle each other with bluster and bloc fizzled, but as the breezes of destiny blew, it turned out we all just really loved being together.  Especially Michael and I.  Ultimately, we paired off, whirling around in a magical wonderland with passionate abandon, leaving the group behind.  For months, we were intoxicated by the blindness of bliss, closing our eyes and diving deep enough inside to feel lo. lee. ta.  in each other’s mouths.

Eventually, the other boys all said goodbye, scattering off to four-year universities or low-paying jobs in nearby towns.  Michael and I remained, still partly caught in the stickiness of our infatuation, but somehow sensing a shift in the wind.  That fall, with legs entwined, curled up in front of the TV, we watched the Berlin Wall come down, governments toppling like dominos, the only world we ever knew crumbling, and we tried to imagine life without impending nuclear catastrophe and its fear we unwittingly swallowed. The structures that had defined us were no longer.  Where do you go when you can go anywhere?

As we planned our escape to California, as far from New York as we could  imagine, tragedy struck.  There was an accident and his brother died.  All spells broke.  The world had changed;  nothing would ever be the same.

The stranglehold of the eighties loosened and catapulted us into our futures.  The cocoon of youth dissolved.

He left for Hollywood, alone.  I never saw him again.

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Welcome Back, Obama. Yes, We CAN Be Better.

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Tragedy.  It shocks us into this very moment – which is truly all we ever have. This moment, right now.  When we find ourselves here, and now, we have Beginner’s Mind, a place of openness, without defenses or preconception.

Tragedy also has the power to bring out the best in us.  I recall those days after September 11th, walking around New York City and its citizens had one big pulsing heartbeat.  Unity was ubiquitous and kindness pervasive.

Listening to Obama’s Tucson speech this morning, I not only mourned for the lives lost and injured in Saturday’s shooting but also… I was filled with gratitude, humility, inspiration.  Here is the Obama that shines, who lifts us up and holds us to a higher standard.  He calls upon us to be better citizens ~ more compassionate and civil human beings.  I will heed his call.  I implore you to do the same.

With my beginner’s mind, I eagerly allow myself to be lifted up and carried.  To  intently carry and uplift, with all the resources and skills I have.

I will abide by my President’s words:  I will expand my moral imagination, I will use my words to heal and not to wound, I will align my priorities with my actions, and I will commit to forging an America that lives up to the expectations of our country’s children.

I will take responsibility for the immense privilege I have to call this great country my own.

Nominated For Nobel Peace Prize: Adolf Hitler, 1939

It’s true.  It was rescinded soon after, by E.C.G. Brandt, a member of Swedish parliament.  Stalin, too, was nominated – twice – in 1945 and 1948.  However, Gandhi, high priest of non-violence, never won, although he was nominated many times.

"Truisms" by Jenny Holzer, Portland Museum of Art

I wonder about awards in general and their purposes.   Are they just meaningless arbiters of politics determined by the richest and most privileged?  Are they meant to draw attention to an issue or project, to rev its momentum?  Or does their importance come at the end, as a formal  acknowledgement of effort, dedication and perseverance?  Maybe they are just arrogant declarations of self-importance, at least until you do something foolish like nominate a genocidal madman.  Malcolm Gladwell, author of Blink and Outliers, asked after the 2009 winner was announced, “Is the goal of the Nobel Peace Prize committee to reward progress of an individual or to encourage the progress of society?”

Maybe this venerable prize is a bow in recognition to humanity’s pursuit for the dignity of all of us.  When Barack Obama won last year, what I learned about myself was revelatory.  In some ways for the first time, I saw myself as a global citizen.  Although I have traveled and lived abroad, including China, up until that time I defined myself foremost as an American, sometimes proudly and sometimes with  weighty shame.  I felt an affinity with many people I met along the way, yet I never realized the strong nationalistic perspective I wore like a second skin, despite not always agreeing with the administration.  America is number one! – that was a given.  The men who’ve led our country have all rung that bell, until it reverberated in our textbooks and movies and in the dreams of disadvantaged people around the globe.

While people around the country debated the merits of Obama’s new medal, my attention gradually turned inward.  I stopped pushing up against the government and media fear-mongering.  Although I was still mourning the loss of personal freedoms, I began to feel relief.  I felt lighter and freer.  I felt… safe.  Anti-nuclear negotiations and signed peace treaties are undeniably significant, but they never changed how I walked in the world, how I carried myself.  This did, however.  Possibility expanded, optimism exploded, humility and a sense of civil responsibility took root.  No longer was I going to live in the shadow of darkness and arrogance, although who among us doesn’t have fear or hatred somewhere along the spectrum from seed to sprout?  We can’t deny the Hitler inside, any more than we can deny our inner Mother Teresa.  Every emotion exists within us all;  rather it’s the one we call upon in response to an injustice that defines us.  Will we rise above?  Or sink to our base tendencies?  I’ve done both, and undoubtedly, so have you.

This year’s prizewinner, imprisoned Chinese dissident and longtime human rights activist, Liu Xiaobo, has said, “The greatness of non-violent resistance is that even as man is faced with forceful tyranny and the resulting suffering, the victim responds to hate with love, to prejudice with tolerance, to arrogance with humility, to humiliation with dignity, and to violence with reason.”  These are great and true words, but to stand in the face of oppression takes monumental courage and fortitude.

There are many ways to consider tyranny, for it is ever-present.  It lies within ourselves – the tyranny of addiction;  in our families – the tyranny of secrets and abuse;  in our institutions – the tyranny of hierarchy, of exploitation.  We are immersed in it.  How will we navigate our escape from suffering?  How can we take our cue from Liu Xiaobo?  By remembering we are equally immersed in love, too.

At this week’s TedWomen Conference in Washington, D.C., a transforming and inspiring story was shared.  Aicha El-Wafi and Phyliss Rodriguez, two mothers whose lives are forever intertwined told their tale of forgiveness – Ms. Rodriguez lost her son in the towers on 9/11, and Ms. El-Wafi’s son, whom she hasn’t seen since long before, was convicted of conspiracy in connection with the attacks, and is serving a life sentence.  They met each other because of the tragedy, and formed a friendship in spite of it.  That’s the transformative power of forgiveness.  It liberates us, brings peace in place of strife.

It is not the first time forgiveness has overcome something so horrific, and it is but one of innumerable messages of peace in today’s otherwise dreary soundscape.  Indeed, there are bulletins of hopefulness and reports of spiritual stamina in the face of seemingly insurmountable obstacles springing up in all corners of the world, even in the unlikeliest of places.    By merely looking for them, you will find them everywhere – gaining in velocity and magnitude.  You are an example yourself, for we all have the seeds of kindness and compassion germinating and blossoming, too.

I have pursued freedom my whole life, in all its forms.  In fact, it has been in the driver’s seat most of the way.  I am exceedingly fortunate that I live in a country and an era where I can do so, for at no other time in history would I be able to live my life as I choose.  That there are still places in the world, in the United States, and in our very communities where the need for people like Muhammad Yunus, Wangari Muta Maathai and Liu Xiaobo to sow their seeds of change means that we are all called to choose paths of forgiveness ~ paths of compassionate action ~ paths of tolerance and acceptance.  Nothing less will do.

Together, we will define global culture.  Our conscious responses to conflicts both large and small will move us forward, away from atrocities and  trespasses and grudges.  Understanding will replace fear.  We will protect each other.  We will all wear medals of peace.

Sculpture by Robert Indiana, Farnsworth Museum of Art

 

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