Writing the Fire in the Distance

April 13, 2020 § 5 Comments

By Dina Elenbogen

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.

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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.

 

Chop Wood, Carry Water

November 10, 2016 § 83 Comments

14324288_10155236661220558_5376449924283212640_oWe woke up and everything was different. Maybe we woke in the middle of the night, tried not to check our phone, checked our phone anyway, and spent the hours before dawn in a bleak haze, waiting for the moment it was late enough to decently call someone. Maybe a call came—your mother has died. Or, it’s time to let the cat go. Or, our country has elected a demagogue.

Maybe we woke to the memory of yesterday, the doctor saying, Let’s discuss your options, our lover telling us they’ve found someone else—found her, in fact, months ago. All we want is to go back to sleep, back in time, to the moment before the disaster, the break-up, the crash, to the moment of sweet unknowing, when everything was still OK.

How can we write? How can we read?

How can we possibly address the page with our life, or our characters’ lives, so petty and small in the face of tragedy? How can what we do matter in the wake of the unchangeable?

We search online—who else feels this way? Is there a support group? Someone else we know this happened to? We click angry-sad-angry-sad-angry-sad. Grief comes in waves—an old photograph, the smell of a cast-off sweater, a yard sign we looked at on the way to work and thought, That’s all you know, superiority mingling with disgust.

We go through the motions. There is a place I am due every day at 9AM. My child must be fed. I’ve already paid for that class.

We watch faces—who else has lost their mother? Who is on the ex-lover’s side and who is still on ours?

My ex-husband’s mother dies suddenly. He flies across the country and gets her dog. In the piles of knickknacks and clothes, boxes of paperwork, lists of phone calls and appraisals, there is one constant, an animal that must be fed and walked and loved whether his capacity to love is intact or not. He drives a truck back, full of furniture and a fawn-colored pitbull mix, a dog that has grown up in Vegas and never seen grass. He posts on social media as the dog. The dog sees snow for the first time. The dog discovers kittens. The bottom of his world has still dropped out, but the dog is a bucket in which he can carry water. The dog is an axe with which he can chop wood. He carries her up and down the stairs until she learns, and each time he touches her he touches his old world, the world in which his mother is also alive and carrying the dog. The dog is a lifeline from a better past. The dog is the seed of a pearl.

We grieve, and we see others triumph. Our lover shows up to get his Playstation looking happy and well-fed. After a few days, the essay or the book or the poem we’ve put aside goes from horrifyingly irrelevant to merely unappetizing. We sit down again. We tinker. We find the rhythm, we find that yes, it matters to say something, anything, on the page. That we are not just artists but craftsmen, and craftsmen go to work. We have spent—or are spending—our lives sharpening our tools, and they are not just for fine days. Our tools—our words—matter not for how we use them when all is well, but how we use them to shore up the levee when the waters rise. The people whose stories need sharing, who are not craftsmen enough to write their own, who need to hear our story to know theirs is not singular, still need us. Our words connect them from a better past to a seed of hope, string them a lifeline to the future. Our words say, me too.

I call my equally devastated friend, who has also lost her mother or her cat or her country, and she tells me a parable.

The novice says to the master, “What does one do before enlightenment?”

“Chop wood. Carry water,” replies the master.

The novice asks, “What, then, does one do after enlightenment?”

“Chop wood. Carry water.”

We are awake in a new world, after the thing has come to pass. It is our quiet revolution, to show up to the page and insist our words still matter. Stories are not frivolous. They weave a slender thread of understanding and possibility, not only in reaction to tragedy, but in recognition of the stories still to tell and be told, the need for human connection that exists independent of our own grief. Stories are our valuable labor, reminding us we matter. The world matters. Reminding our readers they matter. Saying, I too chop wood. I too carry water.

 

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Allison K Williams is Brevity’s Social Media Editor.

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