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The quest for knowledge is what makes humans survive, even if it hurts.” I have trouble imagining that this éminence grise was once a sixteen-year-old Hungarian boy in a death camp. “There’s a troublesome verse from Ecclesiastes about this,” he tells me. “It says that the more we know, the more pain we have. But because we are human beings, this must be. Otherwise we become objects rather than subjects.” He pauses for a moment to let this sink in. “Of course, it hurts when we see pictures of people throwing themselves out of windows, children who are orphaned, the widows,” Wiesel says. “But there is no way out of what we’ve seen.” “And how do we live with what we know?” I ask “How can we live with not knowing?

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Reinvention is my philosophy, if you want to call it that,” he says, looking out the window. “Imagination is the key to creating a life that is ever new.” Stanley turns his eyes to me. “We are each of us a changeling person,” he says. “We are not going to be the same decade after decade. Wisdom results from confronting not only one’s desires and capacities but also one’s limitations.” “The Layers,” one of Stanley’s best-loved poems, is his crystallization of this wisdom. I have walked through many lives, some of them my own, and I am not who I was, though some principle of being abides from which I struggle not to stray. When I look behind, as I am compelled to look before I can gather strength to proceed on my journey, I see the milestones dwindling toward the horizon and the slow fires trailing from the abandoned camp-sites, over which scavenger angels wheel on heavy wings. Oh, I have made myself a tribe out of my true affections, and my tribe is scattered! How shall the heart be reconciled to its feast of losses? In a rising wind the manic dust of my friends, those who fell along the way, bitterly stings my face. Yet I turn, I turn, exulting somewhat, with my will intact to go wherever I need to go, and every stone on the road is precious to me. In my darkest night, when the moon was covered and I roamed through wreckage, a nimbus-clouded voice directed me: “Live in the layers, not on the litter.” Though I lack the art to decipher it, no doubt the next chapter in my book of transformations is already written. I am not done with my changes.

~ Mark Matousek