'Why Can't We?'
I'm up to Lesson Number Four, which should come as something of a relief, as it concerns friendship. People often ask me how I avoid getting so depressed in writing about mass graves and mass death that I give up. There are two answers. One, which I've already mentioned, is baseball. (If the Red Sox can win the World Series, anything--literally anything--can be turned around.) But the other, far more reliable and durable route to emotional health is friendship. In 1993, when I went to Bosnia, I developed friendships with my fellow war correspondents that will last a lifetime. These friendships constitute a literal life support to me today. We were kids then--all in our 20s. Some of us have stayed in journalism. The Christian Science Monitor correspondent, the lone guy in the group, is now a hot shot New York Times correspondent. The then-contributor to Harper's Magazine, who is the bravest woman I know, spends most of her days reporting for The New York Times Magazine from Afghanistan and Iraq. But most of the rest of us have left full-time journalism. Time magazine's stringer in Bosnia went to University of San Francisco law school and is now a public defender in the Bronx. The ex-Newsweek stringer trains journalists in the developing world. The former Financial Times reporter writes books on conflict resolution and is the mother of three divine children. She made the mistake of making me the godmother of one this spring. And the ex-correspondent for the British Independent is expecting her second child and has just joined Human Rights Watch...
During the Bosnia war, none of us could have predicted where we would end up. Nor that, twelve years later, we would still be drinking together, laughing our heads off together and nursing one another through personal disappointment and loss. Each of us in our own small way is trying to make the world a teeny-weeny bit better, but I can't think of the last time any of us has discussed war, justice or politics with one another. We discuss books, baseball and boys. We cry together when it is warranted, but mainly we laugh. My, how we laugh...
I'm not sure who among us developed what will sound like a pretty warped standard for love. But one among us asked of a man she was seeing, "If I had to become a refugee, could I do it with him?" In my friend's case, the guy flunked and was given the boot. But that question, that standard, has remained with me. If you lost your creature comforts, if Katrina struck your neighborhood, who could make you laugh, care for you, remain curious about you and retain your curiosity? Each of my family members and my closest friends passes this morbid but telling test with a resounding yes. Lesson Number Four, then, is that when it comes to fighting the good fight, there is no fuel like friendship.
And even a fleeting friendship can be transformative. I was reminded recently of Anna Ahmatova's 1957 long poem "Requiem 1935-1940," so I dug it up. In a prose section before the poem, entitled "Instead of a Preface," Ahmatova describes how she spent seventeen months waiting in long lines outside one of Stalin's prisons in order to visit a loved one. One day when she was standing in the visitors' line, she was recognized as the world-famous poet she was. A woman who was waiting beside her approached. Ahmatova recalled the encounter:
She asked me in a
Whisper (everyone spoke only in a whisper there):
"Can you describe this?"
And I answered: "Yes, I can."
Then something like a smile glided
Fleetingly over what had once been her face.
What a power each of us has to give voice to the voiceless, to offer warmth in the chill and to supply the taste of friendship to those who desperately need it.