Saturday, January 07, 2012

Hanging With Dead People

For the last couple months or so I've been helping Maria, Ryan's daughter, go through his sister's journals and emails. We don't really have a method or a purpose other than wanting to organize what she left behind. Since she burned most of her writing and deleted a good deal of her emails, we both figured the stuff she left behind had some meaning we've yet to determine and that she left it deliberately for us to find.

It's fascinating reading until I remember how much I miss her and the confusion that made up the year we spent together as friends. Even now, after all this time, no one has come close to the pure honesty of our conversations. She had a way of putting things into words that was both a talent and a fierce determination to preserve the truth before it was polished into an acceptable memory. She had this eerie ability to stand outside a situation, look at it with the keen and brutal eye of the unvarnished observer, and lay it out in all its bare and hideous honesty.

I was often horrified at what I perceived at the time as her callous objectivity, and she was equally horrified at what she called my Pollyannish approach to the world. And yet, we both came to know the roots of those points of view and learned to respect their validity in each other. It makes reading her words now so much easier. I understand them more than if I didn't know what drove her to write them. And I know that when it came to altruism, Anna made Pollyanna seem like a self-centered little twit. My heart is a lot more open from knowing her and I thank her nearly every day for such a precious gift.

The emails Maria sent me today were mostly about her relationship with men, written in three different languages. Hard as they are to translate exactly, what comes through is that like so many intelligent women, she was absolutely stupid when it came to men. She preferred a certain type: intense, brilliant, and totally lacking in social skills. Of course, they made her miserable. Of course, she returned the favor. Of course, she believed if there was no passion, no pain, no remorse, it wasn't worth the effort. Of course, I understood this side of her completely.

For Anna, relating to anyone was a series of stripping away the dishonesty. I was always trying to get her to come to parties, to have dinner with a few close friends, to come dance or go see a play, anything to get her away from the dark world that had become her life. But she would see through everyone so completely with just a few email exchanges, a two minute phone call, a brief meeting in passing, that after a while I began to completely dislike everyone I knew. I had become friends with them through my heart and she forced me to look at them with my eyes. It wasn't always a pleasant awakening.

She had a tiny circle of trusted friends and an appreciation for what was then the forerunner of social media that was way before her time. This was 1989 into the early 90's. Instead of Facebook we had bulletin boards where we logged in and typed back and forth to each other. And email when we didn't want to make our conversations public with the other members of the community. And it all took so long and required so much patience and dedication.

She also had a wicked sense of humor and a chameleon like ability that allowed her to assume several personas and carry them all off credibly. One time she created two characters and had them relate first to everyone and then to each other in some weird sort of schizophrenic dialogue that as far as I know, no one figured out they were both her. There was no reason for it other than she could. And when I expressed some discomfort over it, she just shrugged and said there were far worse things to get upset about in the world, that it was a way for her to get to know what people were really like before she met them in person.

Anna would have loved Facebook. It was the world she imagined when she thought of the future, an online world community that was limited only by the individual desire to connect. Even with a computer that had less memory than a cheap calculator and a modem that screamed when it  finally connected with some duct-taped contraption in another part of the world, Anna was able to accomplish so much it is astonishing even now to read about it.

And reading her emails, the why of it all starts to make a strange sort of perfect sense. She had a focus that was driven by compassion. She truly cared about people and took an interest in the lives of people she would never meet but who touched her in some way. As she always told us, the electronic universe can be one helping big hand for humanity if you opened your heart.

And her hand helped so many. I am awestruck by how many people she was able to help. I always knew she gave away a very large fortune, but I never knew all the details of exactly what she did with the money. I know she paid my hospital bill even though she never admitted it. But other than that the pieces have had to wait years to fall into place so we could at least see some of the results. She never felt the need to explain or get any credit for it.

Somewhere in all the old diskettes that are being transferred over to online storage systems, there's probably a list of them all. She was that way. She would have kept track, if only to make sure there was a way to prove the recipient was entitled to the money and help. But for now, we can only guess until we find the actual files in the thousands that exist, or we find the occasional email we run across that explains how she was going to help the person writing to her, or the occasional legal document that spelled out the details. Few of the documents and letters are in English and so the process is more difficult to untangle. But Maria and I manage with our combined limited knowledge of several languages and some great online translators.

We know they were mostly women, mostly in countries that were at war or had been devastated by wars. She once told me everyone had their price, so she was able to accomplish things that were impossible because she used that uncanny ability to size people up to find whose palm to cross with some silver. There was always a palm and she had lots of silver. Ryan once joked that his sister helped enough people to populate her own village. I think even he would be surprised at what the final number will probably be.

The contrast between reading her emails and remembering her kindness and willingness to help those less fortunate, and the selfish rich and callous little asshats that are so prevalent today often leaves me bordering on extreme depression and anger. I find myself asking why more people can't be like her, why can't they set aside their selfish little needs and help someone, give to others, share what they have, and help make the world a better place. She was able to do it with an ancient modem and an antique computer. It was so simple and yet so effective.

The world now has so many more options and yet, even with something like Facebook that can be and is often used for good, it often seems that her efforts were somehow different, somehow larger and more sincere. Maybe because it was more difficult. Maybe because she had to log on to her computer instead of just moving the mouse. Maybe because it took time to communicate with someone in another country, to learn their language, their culture, what made them special and unique. Maybe because it wasn't so easy to see how much evil there was in the world and so the effort didn't seem so worthless. Maybe it was simply because she knew one woman acting from the sincerity of her heart, really could change the world.

And when I mention that evil in the world, if anyone knew about evil it was Anna. You can't spend the majority of your adult life as a therapist for war victims and not hate what passes for humanity in so many parts of the world. But as much evil as she saw and tried to heal, I think she would be appalled and disgusted at the utter meanness and selfishness that is so prevalent nowadays. And yet, she would be the first to say stand up to it, fight it, don't let it win because you are better than evil, you are better than selfishness. Don't let the mean people win. You are better than they are. Own it.

I know that for certain because I just read it in an email she wrote to me in early 1990. It's one she didn't delete so she expected me to find it. In her own amazing way, she somehow knew how important it would be for me to find it now just when I was starting to let myself get discouraged, just when I was starting to feel like the mean people were just too mean for me to take on anymore, that I was too old to do battle for the planet, that it was the realm of the young, the strong, that the future belongs to those who have one. Reading those words today let me know there's still a fire burning in this old soul and a whole lot of fight still left.


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