Aristotle talked about an ideal polis that extended the distance of a herald’s cry, a civic space not so large that people could no longer communicate face-to-face. In Zuccotti Park, a contained space only a block long and wide, the police allowed protesters, who were prevented from using loudspeakers, to communicate by repeating phrase by phrase, like a mass game of telephone, what public speakers said, so that everyone, as it were, spoke in one voice. As in any healthy city or town, the occupants did not in fact all agree about goals and dreams or about how to bring about political and social change, even while they shared the same space; and without a sustained and organized structure of governance, their spontaneous occupation inevitably came apart, even before it was invaded and dispersed by the police. That said, for a time Zuccotti became a physical manifestation of democratic impulses and hopes embedded, since the days of the agora, in the very notion of a public square.
We lose many things in our lives. But some losses are existential losses. They take away some part of what we are. After such a loss, we are in a new and unfamiliar world, in which the support on which we had depended – perhaps unknowingly – is no longer available. The loss of a parent, especially during one's early years, is a world-changing experience, and orphans are marked for life by this. The loss of a spouse can be equally traumatic, as is the loss of children, who take with them into the void all the most tender feelings of their parents. Such losses leave us helpless, and even if we find a way of healing the wounds that they make, the scars will remain.
“The Violet Hour” is Roiphe’s impassioned attempt to answer these questions, by way of forensic investigation into the final months of six writers: Susan Sontag, Sigmund Freud, John Updike, Dylan Thomas, Maurice Sendak and James Salter. “I’ve picked people,” she writes, “who are madly articulate, who have abundant and extraordinary imaginations or intellectual fierceness, who can put the confrontation with mortality into words — and in one case images — in a way that most of us can’t or won’t.”
“Everything has gone for me but the certainty of your goodness. I can’t go on spoiling your life any longer. I don’t think two people could have been happier than we have been.” So ends Virginia Woolf’s poignant suicide note, addressed to her husband, Leonard Woolf. It is a throbbing document, hauntingly beautiful, in which a decision is made to part with a rote anguish. I’ve read it dozens of times over the years with fascination, even obsession. I picture her writing these final words in a thin ring of lamplight at a worn desk; walking deliberately down the road’s mellow dust; bending to fill her coat pockets with smooth river stones; the crisp blue cold of the Ouse biting at her ankles. But I always return to the contents of the note: the impossible task of a writer attempting to explain herself—to say goodbye to both a companion and an existence—with words grown suddenly insensate, rebellious. “You see I can’t even write this,” it reads at one point, a line that has always seemed, to me, the most tragic part of a tragic letter—that the mind capable of crafting To the Lighthouse should recoil at its own halting articulation.
Now I see meatballs differently, and more broadly. Meatballs represent home and hearth and family generally speaking, and across cultures. I can imagine Vietnamese children savoring the indulgence of bó viên in a warm bowl of pho, and Swedes (or IKEA customers) finding respite from winter’s cold with hearty köttbullar in a thick, brown gravy. Even so, I still take comfort and pride in the knowledge that the meatball I know and love is a uniquely Italian-American blend, just like my family, and just like me.