Translate/List

Rifling through yet another box of old books, I became suddenly and violently wistful when I came upon my 18-year-old copy of The Selected Poetry of Rainer Maria Rilke. It’s a serious book of serious poetry, with the original German published alongside English translations by poet Stephen Mitchell. In case you want to compare the two. The book is yellowed and dogeared and coffee-dappled. Quite literally bent out of shape by time and sloppy packing. I’d honestly thought that I’d lost it in a previous move.

But there it was, shoved in the middle of a couple of dozen other books I could have sworn I’d sold or donated or given away at some distant point in the past. I picked it up, and flipped to my favorite poem, and the wist became almost overwhelming, like someone tickling you until it leaves marks.

I flipped around further, and revealed two unexpected artifacts:

1) The invitation to the rehearsal dinner of a close friend’s wedding from 2007, and

2) A single piece of loose leaf notebook paper, neatly folded twice over. On one side, a hand-scribbled German-to-English translation of the poem “The Dwarf’s Song,” on the other side “Going Blind.”

Not my handwriting. I’ve never had anything more than the most rudimentary knowledge of the language, I wouldn’t have known where to begin. Besides, if I’d wanted an English translation, I’d have simply read those already provided.  It belonged to my friend Iva, who was German by birth and also had little patience for poets, or their loose translations of the German Masters. She just couldn’t abide by poetic license when linguistic accuracy was on the line. And so, one autumn evening in 1999, we sat on the steps of the Chapel on North Campus and I patiently waited while she worked out a more literal (and less lyrical) translation of Rilke’s words. It took a good half hour, and I sat and scribbled some probably brilliant/easily forgettable notes in my journal, which I was never without. When she was done, she handed me the sweet (if fussy) gift, and I tucked it into the book, where it has lived for nearly twenty years.

This type of thing was typical of Iva. She was bull-headed, and loud, and abrasive, and argumentative, and we were fast and loyal friends. She ended up dating my best friend McClain for a couple of years (oddly enough, the invitation found in the book was to his rehearsal dinner).

I think I assumed at the age of 19 that my friendships were set in concrete, because the people I had befriended were decent and kind and funny, and I couldn’t imagine not being friends with them. We wrote long letters to each other and wandered around town in the autumn, shuffling through leaves on the sidewalks until late at night. We drank tequila and sang on the floor of our dorm rooms, and held each other’s hair back when we puked. And, oh, how we puked, and oh, what magnificent hair we had.

I haven’t spoken to Iva in well over a decade. I do not know where she is currently, or much of what’s become of her. Nothing calamitous happened between us. It just ended and she skipped town and that was that. The only evidence of our friendship is a couple of mixed tapes and a stack of old photos and this single loose leaf sheet of earnestly translated German poetry.

+++

There are a number things that we find stressful as we plan our way forward. There are emails and texts to venues and caterers and our Mothers. There are dresses to try on and cakes to consider. There are parties upon parties and registries and dances to plan and details, God, details, I’m not a detail person, I am having a minor panic attack even typing this paragraph oh God.

Did you know that when you get married, you’re expected to invite people to it? Yes, so did I! But I never really gave it too much thought, because- until recently- it was always something of an academic issue. It was a thing to worry about at some far distant point in the future that could only be seen clearly through the telescopic lense of a hopeful mother’s imagination.

But given my recently altered situation, it has become very suddenly a present matter. And so I am forced to think long and hard about the people I know and love.

For many years, I thought it a blessing to have such a large and close family and many friends whom I knew intimately and loved. It meant that you never had to struggle alone, it meant that you could depend on people and could be depended upon in return. It meant you had drinking buddies and shoulders to cry on and hands to hold and backs to pat and babies to hold and meals to share and oh my God what a wonderful world! A world filled with love! I may be a salty son of a bitch, but I’m not a monster. I love people. Some of them I love very much.

So far in this life, I have considered myself very lucky.

But in order to properly plan a wedding, you have to know how many people are coming before you make any other decisions. And for that, you have to start making lists. And almost immediately, shit gets hairy. You have to make unsavory distinctions between people that you like.

Because we love our families, and they in return love us, we have to invite them. No question. There is no one on my family list that I couldn’t invite to my wedding. I would hate myself. And would likely find myself on the business end of some very effective blackmail (both the literal and emotional varieties.)

Between our two families, the total creeps up to 100 people. That number alone was somewhat daunting. We sat in bed, clutching our morning coffee, staring at the spreadsheet. (There are spreadsheets! Nothing says “love” or “celebrate” like Microsoft Excel!) We decided, as an exercise, to just add on everyone we wanted to have at our wedding. And of course, almost immediately, the size of the list became absurd.

And so we had to pare it down.

But how? How in the living shit do you do that? (Spoiler alert: as of this entry, we have not completed this task. So if you’re looking for definitive answers on how to do this yourself, go check out the Knot or some shit.)

So. If you know me, I’ve categorized you. Beyond just “close friend” or “casual acquaintance.”

Among categories:

-“Old Friends Who I still interact with on Facebook”

-“Old Friends Who ask me for favors even after that really unsettling political argument in 2004”

-“Old Friends who I still speak to because they married better Old Friends”

-“People whom I feel professional but little personal obligation to”

-“Formal Acquaintances”

-“People who see I regularly but have no deep emotional attachment to”

-“People with whom I will have a series of awkward encounters with if I do not invite them”

-“Friends of Friends who I think maybe are also my Friends now”

-“Friends of Friends who think I am a Friend”

-“People I wished liked me as much as they liked my fiancee”

There are more. Many more. And if you know me personally, you have to know: I have been thinking about you. A lot. Obsessively, in fact. Sometimes in a passing daydream while I sit in afternoon traffic. Sometimes, early in the morning. Or watching Downton Abbey (halfway through season four, currently.) When I think of you, I break into a sweat. My heart races. I fidget, and pace, and scream into pillows over the thought of you. I picture you in my head. Hear your voice in my dreams. I stare at your name on a spreadsheet. Judging the weight of our friendship. Considering how to categorize you. Wondering how you feel about me. And also, maybe, wondering how the hell I am going to avoid you for the next 13 months.

More later, one supposes.

2 thoughts on “Translate/List

  1. How can you do this to ME? How can you not think about me, and not break into sweat at the sound of my name echoing in your brains, just because you don’t know me at all???
    I feel left out.

    Like

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