Monday, February 8, 2010

Suburbs of Our Discontent

I met R. in Israel during the summer of 1998. I was doing research for my dissertation; she was studying Hebrew just for fun. From there, she planned to go to Bali.

We became fast friends. Because of her I actually left my computer to travel around Israel. I followed her through the West Bank and to Tiberias. We picnicked in the Golan Heights. On my birthday we ate St. Peter’s fish by the Sea of Galilee, and she presented me with a magnet: “Falafel: Israel’s National Snack!” She said things like “Everybody should admit they need love.” Always these unselfconscious bits of wisdom and truth.

A year later she came to my wedding even though she didn’t know a soul. She wore a floor-length strapless gown and graciously danced with some of my aesthetically challenged relatives.

Over the last year I assumed that R. was keeping an eye on me (or at least on my profile picture). It’s not just that I thought she was alive. She was alive. Smiling, bikini-clad R. romping in the surf. Then I visited her page a couple of days ago, intending to send her a message. At first glance, everything seemed normal: pictures, posts, groups. But then I see that these are no longer maintained by her. They’re a living memorial maintained by friends and family since her death almost a full year ago.

I keep thinking about what one of my students said during our discussion of King Lear last week. She remarked that we hear about Gloucester’s death long after the fact so that we feel as surprised and disoriented as the characters in the play.

Is this one of the consequences of the Facebook age? Virtual friends are there for you even if they’re gone?

Some people think Facebook’s impersonal; I think it’s weirdly intimate. The simulation of closeness makes the discovery of absence and loss that much more shocking. I would say that this Facebook experience has made me feel helpless, but there’s no excuse for feelings of helplessness on Facebook where you can always find some form of expression. I joined the Facebook group to honor R’s life, but I may start one called People Who Only Recently Found Out about R. and Feel Really Screwed Up About That.

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