I didn’t have the holiest of Rosh Hashanahs but I have spent some time in this week of repentance in contemplation of myself as a person and thinking about things I could improve. I’ve made a lot of changes in my lifetime, but somehow, I think, we all encounter the same issues whenever we think about changing ourselves. It’s the same each year: I won’t be so judgey! I won’t be so irritable! I’ll be nicer to people! And then, somehow, you’re just the same. I wondered what it does take to make change in one’s life and then, strangely, I was presented with a huge example.
Last week, when my team was here, folks sat in this one chair I have, and I meant to tell them the Story of the Chair, which I always do when someone sits in it. I think I do this, even though it happened over twenty years ago, because it still baffles and amazes me that it happened at all. At my college (the original one, not my grad school), you were kicked out of university housing after your freshman year and mostly left to your own devices to secure a place to live for the next three years. My friends and I arranged to rent a rowhouse near campus, but our lease didn’t start until late summer which left the matter of where to store some of our belongings until we moved in. One of the libraries, a grand old “reading room” was being redone and they sold all their furniture to students on the cheap. It was a fun sight watching the frat guys walk away with the long tables previously used for study – presumably to a new and different future. I bought one chair, a deep dark wood with black leather padding at the back and seat, to use as my future desk chair. But I couldn’t take it home to NY for the summer and my future roommates had things of this nature as well. Another friend, I’ll call him J., was moving into his new place immediately and offered to hold all our things until then.
I should talk a minute about my connection with J. here. We were extremely close. We came from the same county and had mutual friends from high school. We lived across the hall from each other and occasionally when my roommate had a gentleman caller and his roommate was with his significant other, I’d sleep over completely platonically. We even shared the same birthday, which we celebrated together. And he was a real confidant to me. So it was completely natural for him to make this nice offer and we stuck our library purchases and a few other things in J’s new basement.
Fast forward to the day I went to pick up my stuff and I went down with J. to the basement to get my chair and the other things. Except, J. insisted that the chair was his. At first I thought he was kidding. It’s hard to remember exactly, but I think there was another slightly different chair that he claimed was mine. “Mine has scratches on the back right leg,” I remember saying and sure enough, the one I claimed was mine did have that. But he insisted I was mistaken. There was a certain point in the argument where I think he knew he had made a mistake originally but did not want to admit it so just kept going. It was surreal. Why the hell would anyone lie about a $10 chair? Especially between two good friends? Finally, he grandly said that it was his but I could have it. I didn’t bother to fight this and just took it and left. But our friendship was really over. We barely spoke for a year and it was only probably the last year of school where we had friendly, superficial conversations.
As I’ve said, I still have that chair, even though it matches nothing in my home and is, of course, ancient. I keep it both to remind me of that library where I spent so much time and because I fought so hard for it – how could I let it go? But I think it’s that I also never understood what really happened or why. Last year, I friended him on Facebook. We had so many mutual friends and I had photos of my college years that I wanted to post which included him. We exchanged a couple of polite notes about our lives and then our Facebook relationship proceeded on like many: we never communicate but stay updated.
Last weekend, I was busy with my team but afterwards, when I checked Facebook, I saw that many people had written sympathetic things on his wall on 9/11 and that he had thanked them. It also linked to a page for a foundation. When I checked that out and Googled, I found that his brother had died in the Towers. I was stunned that in nine years I had never known that, but more than that was the fact that his entire family had transformed their lives to be dedicated to their son’s memory. That they had set up a foundation which I won’t identify here but that does amazing work. His parents who would probably be retired now, spend their lives in good deeds, done in their son’s name. Their message is simple: out of great evil can come great good. The message to me was, we are not who we were twenty years ago or even last year or last month. We constantly change and learn and grow. We always have the capability of making change in ourselves and in the world.
So as I go into Yom Kippur which begins tonight at sunset, I am inspired by my friend’s family. It is time to not just let change happen but to consciously take action and make positive change. May you have a meaningful Yom Kippur and a wonderful, happy, and healthy year.