The 92nd Street Y is a non-profit cultural and community Center located in New York City. Among the things that they do is present various discussions involving people in the public eye. So, I found myself watching a discussion on October 1 via streaming video at Congregation Adath Jeshurun involving Erik Kolbell, author of When Your Life is On Fire What Would You Save?; Fred Newman, “sound man” for Garrison Keillor; Alan Alda, actor most famously known for his portrayal of Hawkeye Pierce for 10 seasons on the iconic television sitcom M*A*S*H; and Jane Pauley long-time moderator of the Today Show.
The premise seemed to me to be a one-trick pony: If your house were burning down and those living things that are valuable to you were not affected what would you save? My immediate reaction was books are what I would save and I could spend a minute or so telling of my love for them and that was it. What do we do for the rest of the hour?
Once the discussion began I quickly realized how shallow my interpretation was. I could, indeed, save my books but I could also select an aspect of my thinking that was fundamental to my personality to save, which is what the three celebrities had done.
Fred Newman chose his ability to listen. Like the two other celebrities, he pointed to an epiphany of sorts to illustrate what he meant. Newman grew up in segregated La Grange, GA. There was only one place in that town where the races could mix, Fling’s Country Store. There, anyone could tell a story and all the others would listen. He remembers one instance where he became so absorbed in the story that his orange Popsicle melted in a puddle on the floor. He had listened.
Alan Alda would take from his burning house “hard, cold reality,” the way things are when life moves by you in ever-changing fragments of time. His epiphany came on the top of a mountain in Chile when he experienced a sharp pain that turned out to be the symptoms of a strangled intestine. He thought he was going to die and he calmly proceeded to set his house in order. He faced up to “hard, cold reality” and it helped him get through his “night of the dark soul.”
The most intriguing description, to me, was the reaction of Jane Pauley. She was interviewed by Kolbell at her house in front of a large picture window curtained to reveal alternating light and shadow. Pauley would take from her burning house the ability to live in both dark and shadow.
I took this to mean that she wanted to live a nuanced life not blinded by the light or obscured by the shadow. Instead, she spoke of her experience 14 years ago when she was diagnosed as bipolar. This was, she said, “a shock for someone from Indianapolis” which was her way of referring to her “normal, All-American” image. She reacted with two thoughts: “At least it isn’t cancer,” but, more fundamentally, “I don’t know who I am.” She has adjusted by living between the dark and the light and has learned to accept herself in that misty light.
I walked away from this program less smug than when I had arrived, not with a formula for living life but an insight into how I might make the effort. Kolbell’s book is for sale in the Adath Jeshurun Gift Shop.
Adath Jeshurun’s next Live from the 92nd Street Y interactive broadcase will be Sunday, November 9, at 7 p.m. Jack Miles, Susannah Heschel and Prof. David Blake will explore “Can Religion Be Defined?” This program is free and open to all. For more information, contact Deborah Slosberg, 458-5359 or firstname.lastname@example.org.