Five years ago, my first college reunion, the 25th anniversary of the graduation of the Yale Class of 1982, changed my life. You've read about that.
This weekend, I returned for the next one, the 30th Reunion. A smaller affair — the 25th is always The Big One — this was more intimate, less dramatic; less Homecoming, more coming home.
Lux et Veritas — et haimish.
I Close My Eyes.
This morning, after — at last — a full night of sleep, I press closed my eyes and I can see my classmates at the table. I can see the young students, earning a few summer dollars sitting sentry at the gates of Davenport College. I can feel the walks on Hillhouse Avenue on my feet.
I can still hear the lectures: on George Kennan, on The Ancients and Flourishing, on Twelfth Night and Godot. Kennan was the central architect in bringing down the Soviet Union by developing containment 40 years earlier. His grand strategy was based neither on political science, nor on the ready choice between appeasement or war. His design was founded on Tolstoy and Dostoevsky; they had taught him the Russian heart and he understood that heart would reject its transplant into the Soviet rib cage. (Forgive the professor; that was not his metaphor.) The professor's conclusion: rather than the grim pre-professional training today's parents seek for their children, it is the classic liberal arts education that lights the way to true understanding and the path for civilization.
Now, at my table at home, I can see Atul's sharp eyes, feel Elizabeth's hand lightly touch my arm, hear Peter's comic dismay — all of you, so many of you, I can smell your sweet breath as we spoke so closely. My hearing isn't what it used to be. Perhaps it never was. But that gave me license to lean closer to you, near enough to kiss you on the cheek, as we exchanged something more.
With the normal self-esteem of an average Ohioan, I was unbearably shy during my college years — even if I appeared the opposite then, I can prove it to you now — so I grasped the opportunity to smile into the beautiful faces I remember so well.
The Obligation of Memory
At the 25th I said something funny on a panel. It made me memorable to many who had not met me during our bright college years.
The entire experience of the 25th Reunion changed my life — readers here have heard quite enough about that. It inspired a few love letters — mass love letters, if that can be — thanking my classmates and encouraging them to return for the 30th. (Here is the latest.)
Because I entertained in 2007, five years later I was handed another assignment. A very different assignment.
I flew to the east coast, reading a book on Buddhism. The chapter that morning was on the impermanence of everything.
When I landed, I found that Toby, the Class Secretary, had texted me, asking me to read — aloud, at the closing dinner — the names of our deceased classmates.
The Class Necrology
Some of the innovations of our 30th Reunion were based on our advancing age. We tried things that we'd never tried at earlier reunions. Like serving wine at lunch.
Wine at lunch? What were they thinking? I asked the bartenders. They smiled, "The older the class, the earlier the bar opens." I hope to live long enough to see the mimosas at breakfast. Though I still might not start quite that early.
Another new activity for us: the reading of the necrology. Only now were we old enough. The class was ready to be split into survivors and mourned. At 30 years out, "necrology" has replaced "dean's list."
I accepted the invitation as an honor. An honor that came with fear of incompetence (how to pronounce names of those I've never met) and the dread of superstition (might someone die, even as we sit together?).
When the time came, the Class and Reunion Officers were making their joyous announcements: the Class Gift, attendance records, awards for service to Yale. I sat in the shadows, nearby, but outside the festival dinner tent. I held a list of 34 names. Someone had written at the top of the page: "1982 Deceased List."
I recognized a few of the names, but had met only one of the people. Michael Harms, a sweet kid, acted with me in Ah, Wilderness in the Davenport Common Room. We played brothers, forcing us into a brotherly relationship — easy to do with Michael. Within months he was dead, killed on a summer job, driving a truck, never to return for his senior year at Yale.
I saw Michael's name on the list and I remembered. I remembered receiving Ann's call that summer. "Michael is dead." I had been his brother on stage, but I knew — dammit, I knew — I had hardly come to know him. I cried my first tears for the dead, those tears that are really for the living, as we realize that promise of our continuing relationship has been broken. Michael's smile haunts my heart to this day.
I calculated: 34 = 2.5% of the class. Most everyone will have known someone on this list. This won't be about that poor bastard. This is going to be personal. This is going to be about us. We poor bastards.
I sat quietly, outside the tent, beside a Development staff member. She was there to hear the announcement of the class gift, a victory. Her list is so different from mine. The necrology is a list of people who will never write another check to Yale.
I held the paper in my hands. I meditated on the thought I think when I am beneath my tallit, preparing for worship. Danny Maseng, my teacher, says that — during that moment of solitude — he reminds himself that he is in the community for communal reasons: "Not for me, but for them."
The sun had set. It was cloudy, but there were more than three stars above that tent. Shabbat was over.
The Jewish calendar is so old, it is full of holy days. It was now Shavuot, the anniversary of Moses presenting the law — traditionally, one of two experiences we have all shared. We were all together there, at the foot of Mt. Sinai, just as we had earlier been together at the Red Sea, leaving bondage. Shavuot is traditionally observed by an all-night study of text.
An academic all-nighter. How appropriate. This group, under the tent, have all taken their turns studying all night — during college and even now, from time to time, when the worthy material meets the honorable motivation. It is so ordinary an experience among Yalies that we don't even know that 99% of Americans have never done it and would dismiss it as masochistic.
Earlier in the day, I saw drama students in an open rehearsal, working on a scene from Waiting For Godot. They had demonstrated the power of silence and I'd been thinking about silence all day. All year, in my Vistage work, I've been learning, as Susan Scott teaches, to "let silence do the heavy lifting."
I knew that my job wasn't the pronunciation of the names. That was the output, not the outcome. The outcome was to walk with my classmates into a moment of solemnity and respect. To foster dignity for all of us, dead or alive.
During the day, my friends and I had joked about how I could best be "Mr. Necrology." After all, everyone had once been voted (at least by Admissions, if not the high school faculty) most likely to succeed. But who is voted most likely to read the list of the dead? Not I.
At lunch, I had suggested that I might ask for people to hold their applause until the end. I was kidding, but Steve made it funny: "Please hold your silence until the end." That's funny. And unusable.
Steve knew I wouldn't say such a thing, but I struggled for something to say. I sat, listening to the dinner crowd talk over the speakers. The announcements were festive, so it made sense that some listened, some applauded, some maintained their meaningful conversations under the tent.
I knew this: if anyone talked over the reading of the list in my hands, they would regret it. The tent would have changed from dinner to church and they would have been the ones talking out loud with a glass of wine in their hands. Afterwards, they would have been sad about it.
I had to quiet the tent.
I didn't do much. Joking aside, we hadn't talked much about how to introduce the subject. I'm glad that Ed, a Reunion Co-chair, took the minimalist approach, "It's my pleasure to introduce Artie Isaac." Those words didn't change — one way or the other — the ambient noise in the tent.
"Hello. Good evening," I said. Still, the noise in the tent. After all, that's why we had come together. To make that wonderful music of conversation. Not to hear about class gifts and awards. And certainly not to say Kaddish.
I mumbled something that seemed funny, a little funny, but was not. "Of all of the moments of this evening, this is the moment you will wish you had not been talking." It was an awkward, stumbling sentence, and I hadn't thought it through. After a day of thinking of so many things to say in introduction, this came out unconsciously.
I paused for a new "beat" (as they say in the Drama School.) "It is our obligation to review the list of names of our deceased classmates. I have a list of 34 names. Here they are."
I heard the silence. My classmates were completely silent. Hundreds of us — amid a grand meal in the most beloved of places, a courtyard where I became an adult, a small lawn where I am rooted forever as both flower and weed — silent.
I read the names.
I read them as slowly as I could. I pronounced as best I could. I paused to comment on Michael Harms' name, for he was chronologically the first. And on George Vitelli's name; he had died only weeks ago.
I added a blessing: "May their names remain a blessing to all of us who knew and loved them."
(I hadn't thought of the obvious gesture: to ask everyone to raise a glass in a toast. It never occurred to me. Now that it does, I'm glad I didn't. I understand drinking in memory. I guess it's just not my nature.)
I didn't hear it, but several told me later: it wasn't completely silent throughout the tent. There was the sound of several, softly crying.
I closed by softly mumbling, "Thank you." What I meant was, "I love you." For those reading now, please know it: I love you. That is what I meant, but could not say.
After I left the microphone, throughout the evening, classmates came to me with additional names. The name of a classmate who committed suicide during our senior year had been omitted. Another, the victim of a flash flood. And another. I realized that I am, for now anyway, the holder of the list, so I jotted down their names and will send them to Toby.
And now, one more.
Not for the class of 1982, but the class of 2012, this beautiful young lady: graduated just last week, Marina Keegan died during this weekend's reunion dinner. A car accident near Dennis, Massachusetts. Here is an essay she presented to her classmates, "The Opposite of Loneliness." She writes as meaningfully as anyone could about the power of reunion, though she will never experience one.
I have cried twice this morning for Marina, a woman I never met until her death illustrated that we are woven of the same blue threads. I know her name will be read at her 30th Yale Reunion. People will still cry for her. May "Marina Keegan" remain a blessing for all who knew and loved her.
What Is Yale In Me?
I'd returned to New Haven with a goal, to try to figure out the end of this riddle:
My hands work in Ohio.
My heart beats wherever my beloved rests.
My imagination refuels in New York City. My soul is rooted in the Negev. My breath is fullest on the Bright Angel Trail.
What of New Haven? My __________ lives here.
While I was back in New Haven, I filled in the blank: "daring." Yale gives me the courage to be increasingly authentic.
Who gave you courage? May you remember them on this Memorial Day.