The first time I fell in love was at a summer camp in 1965. My mother was increasingly unhappy ten months after a crippling stroke. She was only 39 years old. Each time I thought of her that summer I felt her mouth twisted to one side as my own sorrow and her curling brown hair that fell around her face now tangled and prematurely grey as despair. I was haunted by czárdás music she played with one hand while she wept at the grand piano in our living room. I spent time alone by the lake reading books and staring at the water. I didn’t know how to speak about what had happened. A boy who was dark haired and tall and also quiet, was fishing by himself. We shared our silence. One afternoon he caught a frog instead of a fish. I watched him try to save it. His eyes filled with tears. I carefully walked towards him and unhooked the frog’s one leg that was slightly injured and placed it back in the water. We sat side by side watching the frog gain momentum and swim away, making patterns on the surface of the lake. I was unable to heal my mother, but I helped to save the frog. My broken heart was useful. He and I became closest friends, never telling each other why we needed to be alone. Telling stories I have repaired thousands of damaged imaginations, or I hope that I have, putting them back in the water of their own confidence and joy. I never thought about this story as a tale of my first true love until today.
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it snowed for only a few minutes this evening in Manhattan. I missed the major snow last weekend, and have been longing to walk through city streets rendered quiet and white. I haven’t been in deep snow since walking in Northern Romania for a mile when my friend Ciprian and I abandoned his car, unable to drive further alongside a road with many other cars miles from Iasi. We plodded in snow as high as my head, laughing, to a peasant house owned by his grandfather. We sipped Polenka (corn vodka) while sucking on orange slices drenched in sugar. The house was a mosaic of memory and blazing heat. Ciprian’s grandfather had been saved by a Jewish merchant before the war. He had lived in this house through the Holocaust when the merchant was taken away. He stayed there to protect the house although he pretended to take it over! Later, when the old man returned, broken and sick, Ciprian’s grandfather slept on the floor by his bed so he would not die alone.
Stories shared for hours every morning with strong coffee and vodka, and at night with an endless meal are my most precious memory of the time. Words transformed the cold. Memories-turned-into-stories gave me the connection to my ancestors that I could not find in my grandmother’s birthplace of Dorohoi. When we left, ten days later, the old man’s wife gave me the rug that she wove for their wedding fifty years before. It hangs in my kitchen. The colors are vivid.
It is stories that connect us to places lost, and histories vanished. if the place itself or the events are unknown it is the imagined places that sustain. There we re-make meaning; melt sorrow into inspiration and fall laughing into snowbanks of meaning. For years I told stories about all kinds of love, love of romance, love of place, love of mystery, friendship, spiritual love, and family, passions for peace or war, love enduring and sudden surprises and meetings. Winter is that time when we need to stoke the fires of love and imagination in order to renew ourselves with connection and invisible images that come alive again. We prepare our inner world for the return of spring and light and melting snow; the endless possibility of new beginnings is practiced with imagination. Two weeks ago I heard the story of a friend’s sudden death. Diane Wolkstein a keeper of great tales and a friendship hard won over forty years of knowing each other. Our becoming good friends was a special love. A love based on forgiveness and liberation from fixation. Her leaving was startling. A bird taking flight. Beauty vanishing into sky.
This activity, co-opted by sound bite and media disguised as storytelling, is like none other. It is the depth of sharing and presence brought forth because of engagement that melts rigid borders between Them and Us; gives us back a sense of what we have lost in the outer-world but never need to lose within our own hearts. The sharing of words shaped into narrative and widened into reciprocity is infused with immediacy and intimacy, becomes an act of passion and restoration.