Writing the Fire in the Distance
April 13, 2020 § 5 Comments
In the red notebook I kept in 2016, the page labeled Nov. 8th was initially blank. It wasn’t blank because nothing happened. It had been an eventful day: My husband, then-15-year-old son and I drove from our Evanston home to Bloomington, Indiana where our daughter was a freshman at the university. We came to celebrate her birthday, her first election as an eligible voter. We came to canvas for Democrats in a red state. After hours of knocking on doors, I visited a former professor who had been my mentor and teacher of Holocaust literature when I was a student at Indiana decades before. We spoke about the darkening sky, and our fears about election results and rising anti-Semitism.
Later, my family celebrated my daughter’s birthday but it was too early to celebrate what we hoped would be a Clinton victory. The results were inconclusive. We drove back to Chicago in the rain and fog while the radio spewed distortions. The numbers didn’t make sense. We got home, turned on the TV and sensed the world turning on its head. In my notebook, the place where poems and essays still begin, November 8th remained labeled yet blank. Too much had happened that day. I wrote the date but only silence followed.
The next entry in that notebook is dated November 22. It begins “On the last day of the old world, I sat in a chair, talking to my erstwhile professor in his office, where I once spent many hours as a young poet.” This would become the first sentence of The Fire in the Distance. But I didn’t know then that I was writing an essay. I was just beginning to find words to describe a new reality. I began to jot down all of the events and details of November 8th and onward as if I could discover how it happened. I urgently scribbled descriptions of protests including one at Trump Tower against the selection of white supremacist Bannon. I wrote with the desperate belief that this was a nightmare from which the country would soon awaken. I documented pieces of hope: that we’d get proof of Russian interference and this would be over, that the racist tweets of our president-elect would lead to his demise. This. Can’t. Be. I said to anyone who would listen. Very often the response was, But it is.
On December 7th, Pearl Harbor Day, I returned to Bloomington with my nonagenarian father to help my daughter move to a new room. I didn’t want to face, alone, the long Indiana highway, where I’d first felt the country change. The ugly underbelly of our country— haters and bigots—had been emerging since November 8th and I felt unsafe.
At my daughter’s a capella concert that night, as her group sang songs of peace in English, Hebrew and Arabic, the events of the past month and the scribbles that followed began to form a pattern in my brain. I flashed back to being a 19-year-old student when my professor introduced us to Moshe the Beadle, in Elie Wiesel’s Auschwitz memoir, Night, who had tried to speak to deaf ears of the death camps, of the fire he had seen in the distance. I thought about the previous week when at a protest, young Jews called themselves the Jewish Resistance. The words felt wrong in Chicago, 2016. In my memory I was brought back to the classroom again, discovering Emanuel Ringleblum’s Warsaw Diary and the writings of other resistance fighters. I thought of the words we first swallowed: Resistance. Third Reich. Fuhrer. I thought, too, of how when my professor had read one of my Holocaust poems back then, he had encouraged me to whisper rather than shout.
Now I wanted to shout more than ever. The blank page of Nov. 8th was filling with words. Time collapsed and the desperation of some of the characters I’d met in the literature of the Holocaust no longer felt so distant. Even if we weren’t living in those times, and our suffering could never be compared to theirs, we were moving into unprecedented times.
I was concerned about writing while things were still unraveling, more immersive memoir than the kind of reflection the passage of time allows for. Yet I knew I needed to tell the story of the month our country began to change. The burning words began to lead me into a cohesive narrative, and to make connections between past and present. Although I did not find answers, I found a way to shape a time that had felt chaotic, beyond language. The essay ends with the words, This. Can’t. Be. Even with the passage of three and a half years, when asked to describe life under this regime, I offer the same refrain.
From “The Fire in the Distance”
In the morning I bundle up against nineteen-degree winds and jog along the Jordan River that runs through campus, where decades ago my early poems fell into my lap as leaves tangled in my hair. A student whose face is covered in a winter mask runs towards me and I panic before realizing he is just late to class. I do not visit my professor this time because I don’t have much time and because suddenly it feels too painful. I still want to know why no one listened to Moshe the Beadle. I want to shout in my poems and conversations. My professor prefers whispers. I run faster and faster against these snowy paths, search for an image that will help me describe where I am today, one month after the world has begun to change. All I can find is my three-word refrain: This. Can’t. Be.
Dina Elenbogen is the author of the memoir, Drawn from Water: an American Poet, an Ethiopian Family, an Israeli Story(BKMKPress, University of Missouri Press) and the poetry collection, Apples of the Earth (Spuyten Duyvil, NY). Her work has appeared in numerous anthologies and magazines.
“The Fire in the Distance” first appeared in Lit Hub and is part of her newly completed essay collection, Eating and Drinking with Sages. Now the essay appears in Fury: Women’s Lived Experiences During the Trump Era.