Sunday, October 25, 2009

My High School Reunion: Identity and Faith on Saturday

By Saturday morning of my high school reunion, I was pretty darn full of...myself. The previous evening I'd heard, "you look exactly like you did in high school" a zillion times. (Really? Gray roots were showing back then?)

I was also feeling rather perky thanks to a powerful combination of achieving Internet connectivity and getting a good night's sleep. Thus fortified, I drove to the high school for nearly six hours of schmoozing. Identity and faith continued to be a central topic but not because I was so darn busy fulfilling Matthew 28:18-20. I had other stuff to do.

This other stuff included but was not limited to paying off a bet I'd made with one of the reunion organizers. (He won a jar of macadamia nuts.) I also wanted to find out for myself if a former football player who scared the snot out of me really does now study with a guru for months at a time in India. (He does.) And, I wanted some quality time with Peter Balakian.

I've always felt a special affection for and affinity with Peter. This, I believe, is because my mother made sure two things happened by the time I entered fifth grade. First, I was taught how to play the string bass. Second, I was shown documentary footage of Nazi death camps being liberated by Allied forces. As a result, I spent several formative years standing behind Peter while he played cello in the elementary school orchestra and to this day I consider genocide a clear and present danger. By genocide, I'm thinking Rwanda and Darfur, not...oh never mind.

Don't know if he still plays cello, but Peter has become a poet known for his prize-winning memoir, Black Dog of Fate and work about the Armenian genocide.

In Black Dog of Fate, Peter captures perfectly what it was like to grow up where we did and at a time when no one thought twice about making comments like, "You're eating like a starving Armenian" and "Don't try to Jew down the price." Peter's memoir revealed how I wasn't the only one whose childhood was shaped by a collective unconscious memory of diaspora.

While tucking into lunch, I learned that Peter is currently teaching a course in "Genocide" at Colgate University. ("Mom! Dad! I got an A in genocide!!") We chatted about antisemitism; the first century and Constantine. This proved to be perfect prelude to conversations throughout the day during which I was asked, "Why Catholic?" in the most thoughtful and thought-provoking ways.

Exactly the question I've been pondering lately, but one I put on hold to enter the embrace of Vigil Mass at Our Lady of Mount Carmel that evening before reconvening for the gala dinner.


  1. I have read this about 3 times now - really good post. Your friend Peter is interesting and that book looks fascinating.

    Thanks for this- not sure what else to say, but thank you.

  2. My childhood too, Meredith, introduced me to questions I would seek answers to the rest of my life, particularly WWII German history.

    My questions did not specifically involve diaspora. The question, which I was given many times in TV broadcasts was, "How could so many people have allowed that to happen?" How, indeed. I have looked for the answers ever since. Unhappily I have found some of them.

    What short memories we have.


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