Saturday, August 22, 2009
What would you do?
Today is one that never passes without bitter, painful memories for a good friend of mine in Eastern Europe. It doesn't matter if she was from Poland or the Soviet Union, from Hungary, Czechoslovakia or the German Democratic Republic, East Germany. The same despicable thing occurred in all of them. She remembers the date easily because it was the day after, and the day before, two uniquely signicant occasions in her life. The birth of her first nephew. And the day of her own wedding. Something between twenty and thirty years ago. She is not one of my closest friends but we've had a longtime friendship and have shared some deep conversations and a few wild adventures. She told me this story not long after it happened, a bold move on her part as the dangers implicit were still at hand. It grieves me every time I think of this. She's given me permission to relate it so long as there are no distinguishing characteristics. Because she still is a little bit afraid. Amidst the last minute preparations for her wedding -- a civil ceremony at the town registrar's office followed by a party, a reception, if you will, at a lovely restaurant -- she was stopped in the florist's shop by a woman in the serious, ugly, ill-fitting wool suit of a bureaucrat and directed to come along to an office some blocks away. It was a time when very few people had cars and so, of course, they walked. In silence. Through the busy streets. Until the frumpy henna-haired official opened a door and pointed up the stairs. It was a dark and narrow stairway, behind a facade that was so nondescript one never noticed it. A small office with grungy yellowed walls awaited and behind a desk sat a stern doughy-faced and rolypoly man in a cheap black suit. She remembers noticing a flimsy metal chair opposite his and a lamp on the desk and flickering overhead lights that buzzed slightly. The details of the conversation that followed are so painful she has never found the nerve to speak of them except in generalities. She was asked questions about members of her family, and her family-to-be. She was asked about two of her former colleagues. She was given information that was intended to intimidate, to frighten her, with awareness that she and these friends and family had been under surveillance. The man in the black suit and the henna-haired woman suggested to her that embarrassing information could come to light in ways that would be damaging to her own career and that of these others. She was offered a choice. Compromise. Blackmail. Intimidation. It was excruciating. The stakes were not small. What would you do? Of course, I think, from the luxury of my world far away from hers, I would never give in. I would never allow myself to be coopted, to be bought. Nor would I succumb to the threat of humiliation, the loss of career. Oh, no. I think, I would be strong. Really? Am I sure? They offered her time to consider their 'offer.' She told me she felt cold dread come over her like a shroud. She alternately felt feverish. She began to shake, her entire body was shaking. She remembers it as an out-of-body experience, looking down at herself, so small, so scared, sitting in a battered metal chair. She turned her hands over and over again. And then she looked up. And, still feeling as though she was on the outside looking in at herself, she stood, still shaking, and squared her face into a firm grimace, looked at her two inquisitors, and said, "no." She turned and walked down the stairs and out the door. She didn't dare to stop and lean against any of the nearby doorways so she moved back across the streets of her town and walked for a half hour or so, faster and faster, until she felt she had begun to reinhabit her body again and was regaining control of herself. She went back to the florist, apologized for the interruption and completed her purchase of big blossoms for the reception. She carried on with the rest of her errands, went home, said not a word to anyone, and got up the next morning, put on her wedding clothes and was a beautiful bride. I'd known her for some time before she told me this story and it did not surprise me at all. By then, her character was clearly before me and she oozed integrity. Other choices she'd made were consistent with this one, if not so dramatic. Her courage took my breath away. Later in my life, I came to see that we too, even here, in not such a grim place or circumstance, are presented with difficult dilemmas, to compromise, to let ourselves be bought off. To tell secrets, to keep secrets, to give in to threats of blackmail. What I learned from my far-away friend is that such decisions have far-reaching consequences. She was free -- Free! -- to move through her life lightly. She was far less fearful than others I know, in a similar time and circumstance, who gave in. She never looked over her shoulder. And, not entirely surprisingly, none of the dire outcomes that were threatened ever came to pass. She is still a strong person of great resolve and integrity, well-respected and constantly creative. And a lot of fun! Complicity corrodes one's character. And undermines the good. It brings great harm to many people. I remember this on days like today, when I think of her, her wedding anniversary tomorrow, and her unflagging determination to do what is right. Happy anniversary, my friend!