Face-to-Face: Conversations Across the Decades

Face-to-Face: Conversations Across the Decades

Before there were bffs, there were best friends. And while I am too old to consider my roommate and oldest dear friend Louisa Kasdon ’72 a bff, our friendship that began in the amber New England fall of 1968 still feels fresh and quite some distance from “forever.”

In 40 years, rarely has more than a week or two passed without a phone conversation. While Wellesley made the introduction, Louisa and I have diligently curated our friendship. As time and technology progress, email and text augment and punctuate our continuous conversations with real time commentary and images of lives changing.

The conversation started back at Wellesley. We’d talk about the world for hours on end. Cambodia and Vietnam were our global conflicts, despite our having been conceived in the embers and aftershock of World War II. Conversation and discussion permeated our process for decision-making—on big issues and small ones. “I don’t know what I think until it comes out of my mouth!” Louisa once said. Discussions have encouraged nuance; without them we are prone to simply react. A slew of decades offers time to reflect. Few major life events, heartwarming or heartbreaking, have escaped our continuous observations, analysis, and conversations. It all began in the shadows of the Well, Quad, and the President’s private box in Alumnae Hall.

Louisa and I were both “townies” raised near Wellesley: she, a sophisticated city girl; I from a suburb south of Boston. My family was Catholic; Louisa’s family is Jewish. I had the good fortune to expand my parochial beginnings by getting into Wellesley and being absorbed by Louisa’s fabulous family. My penchant for work with Jewish-affiliated organizations is rooted in my earliest framework for social justice and change—hours of conversations at her family table and notorious Cambridge watering holes.

In the spring of senior year, I met and married a young man who had grown up in Syria. A Palestinian by birth, he was recruited by a wealthy State Department patron to attend college in the United States—a process which required he adopt the official status of “stateless refugee.” We met in Harvard Square. Back then, academia was a melting pot and such a union would not have appeared unusual. Another roommate married an MIT grad student from Persia. Louisa was my maid of honor, and a short time later we celebrated her marriage to a brilliant pre-med she had met while at Wellesley. Life was a big tent, an imperfect one, but few, if any, were excluded because of who they were, or what they believed.

Talk then centered on a shared passion for relevance, changing the world, and infusing meaning into our young lives. Today, we share the accumulated thrill of our children’s successes and rapture over the fun of having grandchildren. We are surprised to find ourselves changed by our time in the world. It tempers our joy with the loss of loved ones, sickness, and the fear of becoming dependent in old age. Life touches us all.

But the important questions remain for us. How can we better touch life? How can these touches help make this world safer? Why do we worry so much? Why do we cry so frequently when we watch the news? Do conversations matter? How do we change some of the more awful and dangerous conversations happening right now? Why do we care so much?

Louisa’s children are residing in Paris and California, but are living with the conflicts and consequences of European anti-Semitism and rising religious extremism. My son, living in the American West, tired of the innuendo, anti-Arab jokes, and random T.S.A. searches, still surprised me a few years ago by changing his Arabic-sounding surname. In today’s climate, I am sure his new wife is just as glad as I am. On my cell phone are photos my daughter sent of the SWAT team outside her window as she and her baby huddled, awaiting the apprehension of the Boston Marathon bomber during the shootout taking place in her usually quiet neighborhood.

That’s just a thumbnail of our stories. There is so much to think and say right now. We are still connected in our caring and deepening worry over the state of the world we leave to those whose lives also will be changed—changes so many of us fear.

In the bff world, anyone instantly can connect anywhere, anytime, with anything—from sex to extremist ideology. Potential bff’s line up along the intersecting paths of social media—fomented, powered, and herded by billions of instantaneous “likes” and shares. The content of conversation is measured and judged successful by click throughs and open rates. Likes, comments, and shares—the ways people show they care—offer only semblance of reflection. We are living in a meteoric news cycle, but what does it all mean?

What can we do to revive the discussion, the passion, and the pleasure of engagement that supports the courage to speak up or take an action? Some recent polls, tweets, and voter focus groups suggest that this presidential election season has unleashed a moment of truth in conversation. Just as many see an unrivaled torrent of hate, making comparisons to the rise of Nazi ideology. But one thing is true, unless we change this conversation, it has the power to change us.

Here’s how it might play out in my life if I were entering Wellesley today.

I might not have gotten into Wellesley these days, but let’s assume I did. Louisa and I might be texting in Political Science 101—comparing notes on reactions to things said and commenting on those around us. We’d be searching for PC emojis, and playing Words With Friends, with our eyes downcast and postures in peril. We would not have met up in the library much. Our devices would have preceded our face-to-face conversations. I’d have a lot more friends on Facebook. I’d definitely be “part of” a much larger world—but would I? Today, my husband might not be allowed into the United States, and my beloved children and grandchildren might not be born.

While writing this, I had the honor of meeting the grandson of Martha and Waitstill Sharp, two residents of the town of Wellesley who did what few Americans may ever do. In 1939, the Sharps chose to leave their own children to travel to Prague and Southern France to help rescue those who needed to flee the Nazis. They focused on both relief and emigration assistance for six years, doing everything from registering refugees, to securing  releases from prisons, to arranging travel to safer nations. Thanks to the tireless work of their grandson, the couple’s story has been preserved and will live on to inspire millions. Just imagine how many descendants will be born of those who were rescued because of the Sharps’ selfless courage.

Imagine what would happen today. If the Sharps had been communicating via email and text, would it have been just a little easier to turn one’s back on the plight of the refugees? I am certain that the couple would have acted heroically at any moment in history because of their values and uncommon desire to serve. But I am less sure about us more ordinary individuals who can barely keep up with email, Facebook notifications, and our news feeds. Our world is as dangerous as can be. Starting a conversation is a small thing, but changing a global one can start with each of us.

This year, can we put down our devices and speak more frequently face to face? Can we learn a little more about our similarities than our differences? Can we become more courageous in our quest to be human? Can we commit to deeper conversations, enduring friendships, and shared, honest emotions? If we do these things, I know from experience that we can change the conversation.

Lorna Miles ’72 is the chief marketing officer at the United States Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C.

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