04 October 2008

A Prism of Time

A few weeks ago I signed onto a website called classmates.com. On it are pages for high schools, colleges and other institutions (prisons? mental hospitals?). And, as the name implies, there are sub-pages for different graduating classes--including 1976 at Middletown Township High School in New Jersey.

Although I was very curious, I was hesitant to join at first. You might say that I was looking at the place, time and people in it through same the prism through which I saw them back in those days.

All right. I'll admit: That previous sentence isn't totally mine. It's something a very wise person told me.

And who was that sage? She was the first person to send me a message in response to what I posted on that site. Her name is Sue; back then I thought she was the "nicest" person in the school. It was the best word I --or nearly anyone else in that school--had for describing her. It's entirely accurate, but I think there was something else, too--which came out in the message she wrote to me.

What I think most of us meant by "nice"--in addition to her always-pleasant demeanor--was the fact that she was also the most non-judgmental person in that place. I take that back: She would tell us what we really needed to hear, but she did it in a way that you knew she was not judging your actions, much less you. Rather, she tried to show you things you didn't even know about yourself, and why you were doing what you did--and it was always helpful.

I used to think she could become the next Dear Abby, or someone like her.

Anyway, in her message, she congratulated me on my change (I wasn't expecting that of anybody!) and said, in essence, that high school can be a really tough time socially for some people like me, but that she thinks I'm very brave for doing what I've done.

To me, that's just stunning. I am thinking of her now as I saw her then: as someone I liked because she was, I believed, a much better human being than I could ever be, although she would never admit to such a thing about herself. Maybe I am brave--She's not the first person who has told me that--but on the way to becoming who I am, I have been monumentally cowardly, intensely angry and monstrously egocentric. Sometimes I still am those things. What's worse is that I have fought the impulse to be better than all of that, and forgetting the things that were done to me, because I didn't want to give someone else or another the gloating satisfaction that he or she got his or her way with me.

Some of that, of course, comes from looking at old experiences in the same way I saw them when I was experiencing them.

But it's still odd, at least for me, to think that anyone could call my doing what I needed to do for myself "bravery" or "courage" --or would say that in the first communication I've had with her, probably, since we graduated more than 30 years ago.

Speaking of the prism through which we see things: The person I was then would not have seen the person I am now as "brave" or "courageous." I would have hated her simply because I would have envied her too much. I take that back: I hated her because I envied her, and because I knew that she was keeping that young man alive then. Knowing that my dream, the one and only thing I really cared about, was to become Justine made me sad, angry and all sorts of other things because I didn't think I would do it because, well, I didn't have the courage.

It's kind of odd: Another person might have that person he or she always loved, that flame from youth that he or she never forgot. And sometimes that person and the old--and possibly unrequited, at the time--love reunite at a class reunion, after divorce from or the death of a spouse, or in a mid-life crisis. That old--sometimes first--love flickers, even seems to die, for many years until some void, or something, kindles that flame, or at least the memory of it. I think now of Miss Linde and Krogstad in A Doll's House. She married a man who could support her and her dying mother; he married a woman he never loved and, as he said, nothing else in his life worked, either. After the death of her husband, Linde comes to spend the holidays with the Helmers,when she sees Krogstad for the first time in many years. And, after they were catalysts, if unwittingly, of the Nora Helmer leaving Torvald and their children, Krogstad and Mrs. Linde decide to marry.

But for me, the person whom I always carried within me was the one I would embrace when after my attempts to embrace anybody and anything else fell apart: after Tammy (not the choreographer) was gone and others were long gone. I could never love them because I did not love myself. After the others were gone, there was only me--Justine. And she--I --was willing to love that person--Nick, the person who could not love her.

Some of us, I guess, are lucky enough to get second chances with first loves. Or even first friendships. That's what new prisms are for.

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