I Have Found My People Here

If someone starts up a competitor for facebook, I think they should call it “The Woods.”  Because facebook is like a forest where you meet up with people you used to know who may or may not remember you. And then, because you are older perhaps, or because time has proven to you that whether these people like you or not isn’t really going to change anything, you are more honest with them than you ever were before.

I recently reconnected with another old friend, in the woods. I didn’t know her very well then, even if I thought I did, but we had shared something formative.  We were in a play together about children in a concentration camp called I Never Saw Another Butterfly.

Ronald Reagan once said that he had helped to liberate a concentration camp, but he had only done it in a movie. That’s kind of sad, but I also understand it.  I sometimes feel like I was there too, and I still empathize with the characters we pretended we were.

“Hi Honza, it’s Raja,” she says, using our character’s names.

“Raja,” I say back. “How have you been?”

And after 35 years, we’re talking about that play, what it did for us and how we still feel about it.

I am surprised to find out that she, who was always so quiet, was the black sheep of her family. She went to “City As,” an alternative school in New York, for troubled kids, at least that’s what I always thought it was.  Even so it sounded so much better than real school to me.  I just wasn’t screwed up enough to go there.

And she was in a drug program before she was 16 (this would have been after I saw her last).

She tells me she was probably too young for that play and it manifested in wacky ways back at home.  She’s now an herbalist living an ordinary life, by her own account, and I’m an accountant, writing on the side, I tell her, and trying to be un-ordinary.

She asks me if I have a blog.

“As a matter of fact I do.”

I’ve even got some poetry on there, I feel compelled to tell her.

I sometimes tell people that I think I write good poetry, an irrational conceit, really, because I don’t even particularly like poetry.

Then it dawns on me where I picked up what love I do have for it.  In Terezin.  I Never Saw Another Butterfly was a poem before it was a play.  It is a play about children who drew pictures and wrote poems on contraband pieces of paper which they then buried so the Nazis wouldn’t find them.  I get to wondering to what extent my poetry was influenced by theirs.  One of mine:

It’s my winter now
Cold so long my toes feel numb
My head swims in blood thick
And my bones have frozen
I keep thinking about my toes
And then I dream
About friends who don’t remember me
And wake to work done at a desk
My thick blooded head
and stiff neck and shoulders
Move in shudders only and yawns
And I can’t get warm

One of theirs:

He doesn’t know the world at all
Who stays in his nest and doesn’t go out.
He doesn’t know what birds know best
Nor what I want to sing about,
That the world is full of loveliness.

When dewdrops sparkle in the grass
And earth’s aflood with morning light,
A blackbird sings upon a bush
To greet the dawning after night.
Then I know how fine it is to live.

Hey, try to open up your heart
To beauty; go to the woods someday
And weave a wreath of memory there.
Then if the tears obscure your way
You’ll know how wonderful it is
To be alive.

–Anonymous 1941

Isn’t it interesting that mine is kind of down and theirs is so uplifting?  Shouldn’t it be the other way around?  Makes me feel ashamed for writing stuff that’s so depressing.

She tells me that she appreciates the honesty and candor in my writing.   But I often think that I am not as honest as I should be.

Years after we performed that play, I read Elie Wiesel’s Night, and I remember being struck by how free he really was after it was over.  He had lost everyone, including his father only at the very end.  This was freedom to the extreme.  You wouldn’t have to worry about who you might hurt by anything you could possibly say, because everyone you cared about was dead.

“Goodbye,” Raja said in the play.  “It should have been posted at the entrance instead of that lie that greeted newcomers, ‘work makes us free.’  It was goodbye, not work that made us free.  What did we have to fear when we had said goodbye to everyone we had ever loved.”

I didn’t have to look that up.

This one I did:

For seven weeks I have lived here
Penned up inside this ghetto
But I have found my people here
The dandelions call to me
And the white chestnut candles in the court
Only I never saw another butterfly

Pavel Friedman 1942 died 1944 at Auschwitz.

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3 thoughts on “I Have Found My People Here

  1. “Then I know how fine it is to live.”
    I want to learn to be a whole lot more grateful for everything I have–not because I “should,” but because it will make my life lovelier.
    It was wonderful you posted these. It’s no wonder they stayed with you.
    g.

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  2. I spent every schoolday with that girl for 3 years. And I was focused on her because she was the object of my adolescent affections., though I never admitted it to anyone back then, even her.

    But I’ve been in theatre productions too, and there is a bond formed among the cast and crew that is intimate and special and lifelong. I’ll admit to being a little jealous sitting in the audience back then, and even a liittle bit today!
    But I’m so glad you have reconnected with her too, and that we share this. I know this has nothing to do with concentration camps or poetry, but it’s what popped into my heart reading your piece. 🙂

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  3. You know she’s going to see this, right Pete? (actually she’s already read it, so she might not). The funny thing is that you are right about bonds between people who act together. I always understood those actors and actresses who got married because they were in a movie together and then divorced when the movie was over, because you can get carried away by the roles you are playing. But that was a weird time for me in which I was conflicted between acting and drumming and it was a difficult play in many ways also because of the subject matter, not so much “fun” as moving. And as I described her as “quiet” I have to say that although I played her love interest, we did not bond the way one often does in those situations at the time. And yet the play affected us all in deep and lasting ways, and we all have that in common even now. So it was actually great to reconnect with her and bond more personally, finally. She was also younger than me, three grades below, which is more significant the younger you are, so that may have made it a little awkward for me to play her love interest back then.

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