Letter to an Undergraduate from Toni Dorfman

This issue’s contributor, Toni Dorfman, is a playwright and an associate professor of Theater Studies at Yale. Her plays include Family Wolf and Rounding Cassiopiea.

Dear Student,

Your heart is broken. The man you gave it to, the first adult you felt yourself a fellow adult alongside, turns out – is this possible? – not to love you.

Is this possible?

That someone to whom you gave everything you had and were and hoped, who heard your dream about the spool of thread turning, turning on its own; and the other dream about the white lotus floating down the polished onyx water to be bisected by the samurai’s sword blade; the only person you ever met who loved George Booth and George Eliot with the same wild joy you do; whose bare feet seemed familiar to you the first time you saw them; who understood your wildest most secret hope for yourself and encouraged you to go for it—

The human being the sight of whose cheek and/or nape and/or chipped tooth and the golden hairs around his knuckles twisted your stomach with fear and delight – my God! beauty!—

The person for whom you deceived parents about your itinerary, for whom you deserted early your grandmother’s 70th birthday party, for whom you hoarded your allowance to buy a luxurious present, for whom you postponed for a week your study trip to Paris, for whom you came back two weeks early from your study trip in Paris—

That person for whom every lovely thing you saw or heard or smelled, you turned into an imaginary secret gift; and to whom actually you sent CDs of Touré and Beck and a copy of Wallace Stevens’s poem “Esthétique du Mal” handwritten by you with a calligraphy pen and from whom you actually received a Xeroxed copy of W. S. Merwin’s “Whoever You Are” with a handwritten salutation ending with the first initial, capped, of his (not Merwin’s) name-

Because this person, this container of graces, mysteries, and genius, this dude of duende has now decided he doesn’t love you, or is not in love with you although he does love you, because he hasn’t gotten over the person he was with before who’s doing a year in Barcelona, or because that person’s come back, or because he was too overcome by you at first to mention that person; or because he’s not ready, because he has to sort some stuff out first and doesn’t want to put the sorting into a time-frame because he needs some space; or because he’s realized that you’re too good for him, way too good—well, as I say, because of this, your heart is broken.

This is the person who’s occupied your imagination and required your attention so that you would not overlook a single one of his graces and mysteries. The outside world – remember? That distraction throwing up like a prankster out-of-focus cacophonous phenomena that did not ostensibly include him? That fuzzy monochromatic background to the 3D Cinemascope Technicolor feature picture the title of which is his name?

(For the sake of the rest of this letter, I’m going to assume that in arranging to get back into the movie you have already had the charged conversation beginning with a controlled substance and ending in noisy, embarrassing, nose-running tears whether in public or in private.)

What do you do with a broken heart?

1) Read Padraic Colum’s poem “Shall I Go Bound and You Go Free?” often enough to memorize it and then whenever you feel really low mutter, “’Not so; The Brenny plains are wide/ And there are banners where I ride!”

2) Read Ralph Waldo Emerson’s poem “Give All to Love” often enough to memorize it and then whenever you feel really low mutter, “When half-gods go, the gods arrive.”

3) Read Henry James’s story “The Beast in the Jungle.”

4) Embark on a fitness program that requires you to jog or pedal an hour or so a day while listening to your songs and imagining he’s listening simultaneously to the same songs and every line of the lyrics, if there are lyrics, is being sung by him to you.

5) Support a political candidate who’s right about things and volunteer to work the phones during his/her local push for votes. If necessary get on a bus and go where the campaign needs you.

6) Put the lock of hair tied up with the feather and the little brass ring in a spot you don’t happen to see every day. Don’t throw it out though. (It’s too soon. You may want to look at it again later.)

7) Discover via counseling whether from a professional or a friend or a roommate to whom you’ve finally told if not the whole story at least the jagged horrible bones of the story that a person to whom you’ve given all and who doesn’t love you is, finally (and I use the technical psychoanalytic term here), a jerk.

8) Audition for the Bach Cantata Club even if you can’t read music but can carry a tune and throw yourself body and soul into rehearsals of the “Wachet Auf” cantata. Sing it at the concert at the end of the semester.

9) Keep a detailed diary, not only of how you feel but what you’re doing, seeing, tasting, reading, talking about, wearing, and working on; and of what other people you like are doing and saying and working on. This diary will come in handy later when you write the novel or play that tells the whole story.

10) Fall in love with somebody else.

My theory – and I use this in teaching theater as well as in writing letters – is that in order to know somebody else, you need to love them. It’s love that enables you to see them, see them round, see them deep. (“Fall in love, even provisionally, with your scene partner, please.”)

Even so, loving someone, with the raptest attention, you’ll still be mystified. Says Helena of Demetrius, on the May morning after the midsummer night’s dream (Shakespeare’s chronology being slapdash here), “And I have found Demetrius like a jewel,/ Mine own, and not mine own” (IV.1.190-191).

The person you fall in love with next will, I pray, love you.

Love is the most important thing in the world. (So said my grandmother Minnie Dorfman. She also said, “You can’t live on love alone. You eventually get a little weak in the knees.”)

In the meantime, there is one great gift that the jerk has given you. It’s yours to keep: Believing in your wildest most secret hope for yourself. He was right about it then and he’s right about it now.

Go for it.