Thursday, November 17, 2011
In Memorium: Paul H Reitan, August 18, 1928-October 30, 2011
I don’t know if many people beyond my immediate family knew about my father’s capacity for silly dancing. He was a quiet man, reserved with his feelings—in many ways very classically Nordic in temperament. He was a college professor who looked and carried himself like a college professor, who spoke with a combination of careful deliberation and passion about topics that mattered to him. In later years, he was a wise elder statesman of sorts for the community of geoscientists devoted to making the geosciences relevant to contemporary social and environmental problems.
But I remember him dancing in the kitchen while we were washing dishes. It wasn’t quality dancing. And it wasn’t flamboyant. It was very deliberate, almost stately, but at the same time utterly absurd. He’d furrow his bushy brow and perform each move as if it were a thing of regal beauty, even though it was just…well, lifting one arm, then another, then a leg. Kind of a slow-motion hokey pokey.My parents would sometimes have parties that lasted well into the night: gatherings of well-travelled people with intellectual and artistic sensibilities who’d sit for hours around the dinner table talking energetically, laughing, eating, and drinking fine wines or imported beers (sometimes with Aquavit if it was a Norwegian smorgasbord featuring pickled herrings and smoked fish).
It wasn’t uncommon, in these gatherings, for some kind of silly dancing to erupt late into the evening. Once, when I was a child, I remember wandering downstairs because I heard something utterly uncharacteristic: the sound of an electric guitar playing on the stereo. My parents never listened to anything but classical music, usually classical vocal music. But on this evening they’d abruptly decided to put on an LP of Czech rock music—something they’d gotten as a gift from some friends who lived in Prague.As I came down the stairs, I saw my father dancing in a descending spiral, finally ending up in a heap on the carpet. What else could he do, when a drawn out electric guitar note was descending steadily down, down, down?
Another time, years later, I remember a line dance through the house to the tune of Hava Nagila (played by me on the violin).And, of course, there were the more traditional folk dances that we did around the Christmas tree every Christmas Eve without fail. My mother would play the piano (or, in later years, I’d play my violin). But my father always danced.
One of my great regrets is that I never got to do an Alternatives to Violence Project (AVP) workshop with him. AVP is an organization founded by a collaboration between prison inmates at Greenhaven Correctional Facility and the local Religious Society of Friends (Quakers). AVP runs experiential workshops—in prisons and in community settings—focusing on conflict resolution and communication skills, community-building, and cultivating the psychological/spiritual resources for living a more nonviolent life.Not long after I became an AVP workshop facilitator, I introduced my parents to the program. They both went through a basic workshop, but my father got hooked. He went on to become a facilitator himself, and after his retirement worked for about a decade coordinating the AVP program at Wende Correctional Center in upstate New York. I understand that he became something of a beloved grandfather for many of the inmates he worked with there.
One of the distinctive things about an AVP workshop is that, for all the seriousness of the skills and personal resources being cultivated, a spirit of play weaves its way through the whole. This comes out most clearly in what are called “Light and Livelies,” activities that are a bit like the ones that parents plan for their grade-schoolers’ birthday parties (except more fun). Intense discussions, deep sharings, thought-provoking activities—all are woven together by a spirit of play.After all, what is the point of passionate engagement with social issues, of intellectual inquiry and deep personal sharing, of learning nonviolent communication and conflict resolution skills? What is the point, if not to work towards a world where people can enjoy their lives together more richly, laugh more often, delight in one another more fully? What’s the purpose, if not to learn how to unburden ourselves of all the crud that we too often carry with us, especially in our intimate relationships, so that those relationships may become, more truly, a source of childlike joy?
It’s no wonder that my father was drawn to AVP in his retirement, or that he was such a good and well-loved facilitator. Because although he may have looked the role of a quiet elder statesman imparting wisdom with passion and clarity—although he was such a quiet elder statesman—there was always in his heart a spirit of play.My mother, in the days following my father’s death, expressed over and over her sense of privilege in the midst of loss: the privilege of being able to live 49 years with one of the best men she’d ever known. I had the privilege of being raised by him. And if there’s a personal basis for my staunch opposition to those exclusivist theologies that condemn to hellfire anyone who fails to embrace the doctrinal details and practices of their brand of faith, it lies in this: My father, an agnostic scientist, was one of the best men I’ve known. He could never share my Christian faith, but he was the first to treat it with respect. He could never see his way to believing beyond what his scientifically-trained mind saw as evidence. But he proudly bought up copies of my first book and mailed them to everyone he knew, include some very staunch atheists.
And the idea that he should be eternally rejected by the God of love because he couldn’t bring himself to believe this or that religious doctrine—well, the idea isn’t just absurd. It’s evil. It’s the kind of crud that keeps people apart, that stifles and truncates our capacity to find joy in each other, to love more fully and richly.If there’s something I’ve learned from my father, it’s that good, thoughtful people can and do see things differently—often because they can’t help it given their upbringing, their experiences, their inspirations and their loves. None of us can pay adequate attention to it all; none of us can draw all the right conclusions from what we do attend to with care. But we can learn from each other.
Sometimes I get passionate about things, and I debate vigorously with those who disagree. Sometimes I pursue causes in the knowledge that others stand opposed to me. In this I’m like my father. I only hope that, like my father, I can remain focused on what it’s all about. If my father cared so much about the environment, about war and violence, to become passionately engaged in debates and causes, it was for the sake of furthering the kind of community that AVP forges, of lifting the impediments to its spread, of helping to realize a world where everyone can dance.