"Wednesday I was sitting in a tram, basking in Stalinist glee – I'd actually found a seat – and during rush hour! Around four. But the tram stopped and refused to start up again. Suddenly a voice called out, 'Everybody off! Demonstration!'
I got off and could barely find the demo. It turned out to be maybe ten kids from 9 to 14, one holding a Czechoslovak flag, another two holding a sign that said, 'Free Vaclav Havel.' Kids. Skinny, small girls in net stockings and sneakers and hennaed hair and khaki jackets. Some boys: fat, horribly skinny and dorky, pimply, fresh-faced with that skin that looks like it has never been touched. Moving the way kids move – loping, giggling, punching each other, self conscious of their bodies. We marched to the square, where the crowd grew thicker. We marched to a lovely old house on the Maly Rynek where we chanted against General Fatty. We marched to perhaps a police headquarters? Where suddenly everyone ran."
Vaclav Havel had been arrested in January, 1989, for attempting to lay flowers in Prague's Wenceslas Square. He went to the site where, twenty years before, Czech student Jan Palach had set himself on fire to protest the Soviet Bloc crushing of the 1968 Prague Spring.
I love those Polish kids from 1989 who understood, and who acted.
Those Polish kids understood – this isn't just about Poland, or Poles. We are part of a bigger story. When the police arrest the Czech playwright Vaclav Havel, that is a skirmish in our struggle; that is something we must respond to.
Those Polish kids understood – we must take action. We must be the ones to make the change. We can't sit back whining and complaining and waiting for someone else to act.
Those Polish kids understood – we aren't just about celebrating famous dead generals. We must champion intellectuals – writers – playwrights! And people who aren't yet celebrities on the world stage. (Back then, most people didn't know who Vaclav Havel was. NPR broadcasters regularly mispronounced his name.)
Those Polish kids, with their dedication to a Czech playwright who wasn't particularly famous, and others liked them, brought down a system – Soviet Communism – that many thought unconquerable.
I mention Vaclav Havel in the essay, "The Illusion of Protection: Two Travelers Speak of Home." In this essay, I use the work of two Czech writers, Vaclav Havel and Milan Kundera, to understand my life as a traveler.
"In 'The Book of Laughter and Forgetting,' Milan Kundera talks about 'poetic memory.' It's a precious commodity. Poetic memory is made up of the memories that touch us—and—here's the essence of it, its gift, its challenge—these memories must be shared. My home is built of poetic memory; physically homeless, I am hostage to its fate. I'm more careful, certainly more anxious, about with whom I build up stores of poetic memory than with whom I share bodily fluids. You can get the divorce, take the Twelve Steps, never call again, throw away the reject's letters, but no matter how thorough the split, the closure, the final decree, if you are human, someday you'll find yourself laughing over a joke that only he would understand, or crying over something that she once shared with you. No lawyer nor daytime talk show shrink can rescue you from poetic memory.
The other day I was reading Vaclav Havel's letters from prison. There was a line that compelled me, after years of awkward silence, to call Eric, who had once been my closest American neighbor in Peace Corps Nepal. The village where I taught English and the one where he taught math were, on sunny days, visible to each other; we were only a day's walk, and about ten thousand feet, apart.
Eric and I had inhabited an exquisitely endangered ecosystem: a tiny bubble in the Himalaya, which we created because we were the only speakers of English. Not only was he not in his culture and I not in mine, we weren't of each other's. Puget Sound Eric was Nordic, majestic, blonde, a high school and college swim team star. I'd come from a coast much closer to Ellis Island, and had worked my way through school as a nurse's aid.
Quarantined by shared affliction, besieged by language, Eric and I frantically invented a new culture for our nation of two. We became zealots at using poetic memory with each other, to bind, to wound, to raise a laugh, to drive home a point; he could deploy it as other men, jealous, resort to physical strength. If a man were flirting with me, all Eric had to do was sidle behind and recite an excerpt from our canon of poetic memory and I was his, irrevocably; the flirt before me transformed into an interloper. Dinners, proposals, even another man's love poems, could not survive one strategic reference from Eric. 'Goska, remember that time that you and...'
At our posts in Nepal, the only pens available to us had been Chinese ballpoint pens. Halfway through each of our letters to each other there was always a big blob of ink, or a disappearing line, an apology, and a curse. 'Damn these Chinese pens!'
The other day, I was reading imprisoned Vaclav Havel pleading with his wife Olga to send him more Chinese ballpoint pens, so much better than the Soviet ones. I laughed out loud. No one in the room understood. Who would understand but Eric, terribly distant in space and class, terribly intimate in my poetic memory?"