Waiting and Bleeding
May 21, 2020 § 4 Comments
Part of Brevity’s “how I wrote the essay” series from authors in the Fury anthology.
I am sitting in a hospital waiting room. I have washed my hands more than twenty times today, almost four hours into my husband’s brain surgery. I haven’t yet heard from my grandfather, who is 86 and has almost successfully beaten Trump’s European travel ban, but will return to O’Hare where lines to go through customs are six hours long. My sister is at an Airbnb not far from this hospital, watching my children, who are not allowed into the hospital at all. Quarantine restrictions are tight. There’s a chance I will not be allowed to return to them, having had to make a choice between advocating for my husband or caring for my young kids during a pandemic.
None of this has anything to do with my essay in “Fury: Women’s Lived Experiences in the Trump Era,” and yet it does. My story, “How I’m Teaching My Jewish Daughters About Donald Trump,” is about the horrific cross-section of vulnerabilities in my life both created and exacerbated by the Trump administration. Just as I am sitting to write this message in an atmosphere of justified fear, heightened risk, and borderline desperation, that is how I sat down to write my essay about gun violence and antisemitism, as a Jewish native of the Squirrel Hill neighborhood of Pittsburgh, and mother of three girls attending a Hebrew School that receives threats from strangers that Trump will “finish Hitler’s work.”
It feels like I am on the verge of burning into flames, and the Trump administration is throwing matches at me everywhere I step. Dismantling disability access, disbanding the pandemic response team, appointing white supremacists to the national security council, bending over backwards to the gun lobby, cozying up to genocidal dictators, assaulting and attacking the free press. As a woman, a Jew, a writer, a mother, a wife, a person living with mental illness, a rape survivor, and somebody with a family deeply vulnerable when it comes to access to healthcare, it never stops for me. Not a week has gone by of this administration when I haven’t felt the weight of some existential threat, when those threats have mostly existed in the background of my life. There is no background noise, now. There is only waiting for the next horror.
The light on the board listing my husband as a number instead of a name (a convention designed for his privacy but with the unintended side effect of terrorizing anyone with family who were lost in the Holocaust) has changed from green to pink- the surgery is ending. Also ending, the hospital’s policy of letting more than one family member stay in the hospital with their loved one. I am facing the reality of having to choose—stay with my husband in the aftermath of his brain surgery, or be with my children during a pandemic?
I am constantly making these choices, and an astounding number of them come down to the disastrous presidency of a single person.
In my essay I ask myself, is it better to be safe and silent, or to make yourself heard and empowered? Today I ask myself, whose safety is my primary duty? How am I supposed to justify any choice in these conditions? When asked, “Your husband or your children,” who am I supposed to choose?
There is no right answer, of course, aside from to have never put the reins of a fractured and divided global superpower into the hands of… well… we’ll let history decide what to call him.
There is an oft-misattributed quote I live by, which goes, “Writing is easy; you just open a vein and bleed.” As somebody who has been living in the shadow of brain cancer my entire adult life, I am used to bleeding. I am comfortable sitting in front of my keyboard and spilling out everything I have, ugly or beautiful. In the last three-and-a-half years, I have permitted myself to bleed into Google Docs, Scrivener, WordPress, and a constantly rotating stack of paper journals. But bleeding doesn’t always equate death. We also bleed when we bring new life into the world.
The future, the newness of things, the constant shifts in the stories we are all telling as we sit alone in our homes, these are things I cannot bring myself to speculate about. All I can do today is tell my story, scream into the void, and wait for a better moment to be born.
From “How I’m Teaching My Jewish Daughters About Donald Trump”
I realized I had spent the weekend teaching my children the two things they have to know to survive a Trump presidency. The first, to stand up and be seen, to demand to be treated with dignity and respect; and the second, that they must learn to hide, to be safe when the white nationalist tide Trump attempted to ride comes flooding toward our doors.
Lea Grover is a writer and speaker in Chicagoland. She freelances for a variety of parenting, women’s, and social issue magazines. She is the winner of numerous awards in writing and is a vocal activist for healthcare rights. She is a member of the RAINN Speakers Bureau, devoted wife and mother, and de-facto caretaker of two cats. Her essay, “How I’m Teaching My Jewish Daughters About Donald Trump,” appears in Fury: Women’s Lived Experiences During the Trump Era, now available from Regal House.
A Story Pulled From Storage
May 12, 2020 § 6 Comments
Part of Brevity’s “how I wrote the essay” series from authors in the Fury anthology.
Nonfiction writers are pack rats. Not in the “I-already-have-three-hundred-and-fifty-seven-ceramic-owl-figurines-but-I’m-going-to-go-ahead-and-get-this-one-too” kind of way (though when it comes to our books, that hoarding quality is real, and many of us have unwieldy stacks that overrun our shelves and are getting the better of our living spaces). Rather, nonfiction writers are mental pack rats. We have a certain way of being in the world—a hyper-attentiveness to what we see, hear, and experience—that compels us to collect many of the images, conversations, and stories we encounter and stack them on the shelves of our minds even if we don’t quite know what we plan to do with them. Sometimes they stay there for years, gathering dust, before we discover the shapes of their narratives and can finally bring them to the page.
This is exactly what happened with the story that became the basis for my essay, “The Biggest Hole Is Where the President’s Empathy Should Be” that found a home in the anthology, Fury: Women’s Lived Experiences During the Trump Era. In January of 2008, only twenty-four hours after a magnitude 7.1 earthquake had decimated the Caribbean nation of Haiti, I met Henry. He was an international student from Port-au-Prince enrolled in my Business Writing course at Northeastern University in Boston. It was the first night of class, and when he introduced himself and told us where he was from, I felt the rise and swell of the sadness that had gripped my chest all day as I’d watched one catastrophic image after another fill my television screen. Suddenly those images felt very close. “Is your family okay?” I couldn’t help but ask. And when Henry answered that he hadn’t been able to get in touch with anyone, my chest tightened even more. After class, I asked Henry to send me updates on his family’s status, and he did. His sister was missing. His other siblings and parents were digging through the rubble of her last known location round the clock hoping beyond hope to find her alive. After five painful days of searching, they found her body.
For weeks after Henry’s last message that told me this news, I couldn’t stop thinking about him, about his family. I couldn’t let go of the mental image of what the physical toll of digging for that long through bricks and dust and twisted metal and broken glass must have been on Henry’s family. I kept picturing their hands, and I kept trying to write about them. Nothing landed. I couldn’t figure out the meaning I was trying to unravel out of this account. I couldn’t find my way in. Eventually, I gave up. But not before tucking Henry and his family into the folds of my memory, hopeful that eventually I’d find a reason to tell his story.
And in 2018, only one day before the 10th anniversary of the earthquake in Haiti, that reason presented itself when, in a closed-door meeting with a group of lawmakers, Donald Trump wrote off immigrants of color, specifically from Haiti, El Salvador, and Africa, by reportedly referring to their nations of origin as “shithole countries.” His vile and racist comments marked a new low in a presidency that regularly showcased the deep flaws in Trump’s character. I felt the same outrage that reverberated around the world in the wake of his remarks, and I felt something else—a wave of grief for the people he dismissed so callously at a time when their remembered sorrow and shared loss were so raw. People like Henry. The President’s words and that wave of grief gave me the narrative in which to locate Henry’s story. I pulled it out of storage and the words I needed to do it justice finally came.
I’ve been thinking about how the evolution of this essay—specifically the idea of stories that wait for the right time to land—feels particularly resonant for our current moment. Like many others I know, I’m struggling to see past the fog of fear and uncertainty that hangs in the air. I’m caught up in the stories of Covid-19, in the accounts of so many lives indelibly changed by illness, by economic hardships, by inconceivable personal and collective losses. As a writer, I feel an instinctive pull to share these stories, a persistent responsibility to bring the faces on the other side of the staggering numbers into view, a deep longing to make sense of my own churning emotions in the midst of it all. And yet, though I keep trying to find them, the words won’t come.
Maybe this reminder of how much time passed between the events that defined Henry’s story and my ability to fully access it can help make the judgy stares of my blank screen and blinking cursor a little more bearable. Maybe it can tell me to afford myself a little grace. Let myself simply watch, listen and gather the stories of this time, trusting that somewhere on the road ahead is the glint of understanding I’ll need to spark them into being.
From “The Biggest Hole Is Where the President’s Empathy Should Be”
My evening plan to discuss the value of good writing in the workplace seemed so unimportant in the face of this personal crisis. I wanted to stop class there. Cancel it for the night, send everybody home, and let Henry go do what he had to do. But Henry was here in this classroom, his notebook open on his desk, ready to learn. Stoic. Poised. His demeanor spoke to a kind of resilience that I’d rarely encountered. One that says, Today, this is what I have to do. A resilience I needed to honor.
Melanie Brooks is the author of Writing Hard Stories: Celebrated Memoirists Who Shaped Art from Trauma (Beacon Press, 2017). Her work has appeared in Ms. Magazine, The Washington Post, The Huffington Post, Creative Nonfiction, and other notable journals. She teaches writing at Northeastern University and Merrimack College in Massachusetts and Nashua Community College in New Hampshire. She is completing a memoir about living with the ten-year secret of her father’s HIV disease before his death in 1995.
Fight Like Hell
April 30, 2020 § 2 Comments
By Sarah Mina Osman-Mikesell
Part of Brevity’s “how I wrote the essay” series from authors in the Fury anthology.
When I first read that Amy Roost was looking for contributors for Fury: Women’s Lived Experiences During the Trump Era, I knew that I had to submit an essay. Between teaching under Trump and having a Muslim father (who believes that Trump is akin to Hitler), I knew I had a lot to say on the topic. The struggle was where to begin.
I wasn’t entirely sure which direction to go in. Should I focus solely on my students, or should I focus solely on my father? How were the two interconnected?
I began by sifting through my memories.
The best way for me to approach writing about Trump was to begin with when he was first elected, as I had the strongest emotional tie to that time period. I broke down what I remembered happened in the first few days of his being elected:
- My husband’s blistering anger
- My fear and concern for my students
- Discussing the results with my students
- My father’s advice
- How I decided to fight
When I first remembered these moments, they did not appear in this order. I had to script it out chronologically to find the best order in which to tell others how to “fight like hell.” Then, I divided the memories into sections to help me shape my ideas on the topic. The sections turned into:
- When I first learned he had won
- First Day
- My Baba
- Fight like Hell
- Visiting Baba
- Constant Worry
I put memories of my students under “First Day.” The memories of my father went under “My Baba.” While this system wasn’t very creative, it did help with getting what I wanted to say onto the page, and with structuring the essay.
The next hurdle was considering how publishing my essay would affect the people who were written about. I wasn’t concerned about my students; none of them are directly named, and I painted them as revolutionaries fighting an unjust system. I felt the same about Baba, who inspired the title of the piece. But I was a bit concerned about my mother-in-law. Although she appears only briefly, she is not portrayed in the most flattering light, and I am still not sure how she will react to her portrayal. I chose to wear a hijab for a brief period, and she wasn’t angry with my decision, but she was bewildered—she questioned why I’d covered my hair, and if I was suddenly Muslim now. I decided to not remove her actions as I felt they reflected many Americans’ bewilderment and concern around hijabs.
The final struggle was naming the piece. I am not the best with titles, and often rely on an editor’s help when coming up with one. I felt that “Fight like Hell” worked for a few reasons:
- My father rarely swears, so for him to swear is a big deal. I didn’t show him swearing in the essay, but Trump is one of the few things he swears about.
- I liked the idea of it being a mantra of sorts. “Fight like Hell” sounds a bit like a war chant, and as we continue to battle Trump and his administration, we need a battle cry that reminds us to continue to fight for justice.
I am beyond flattered to be featured in Fury: Women’s Lived Experiences Under Trump alongside so many powerful and talented women. The book reminds me that although we are starting to become fatigued (especially with the latest crisis in the world) we cannot give up. It’s not just our current situation we are fighting for; we are fighting for those who will come after us, and we do not want to saddle them with an impossible mess to clean up. It continues to be time to fight like hell.
From “Fight Like Hell”
“How are you doing, Baba?” I asked, stuck in anxious L.A. traffic. […] “Are you going to leave?” I continued, concerned. “Do you want to move back to Egypt?”
“No,” he answered frankly. “This is my country too. I deserve to be here just as much as anyone else. I know a lot of your students are immigrants or have parents who are immigrants, so tell them that too. We have every right to be here. We’re American too.”
“So you’re not going to leave?”
“No. I’m going to stay here.” He yawned loudly. “Besides, Egypt has been through far worse, so this isn’t as bad as that. Be proud of who you are. Don’t start trying to hide your heritage because of these idiots.”
“What are you going to do?”
“I’m going to fight like hell. And I suggest you and your students do the same.”
Sarah Mina Osman-Mikesell is a writer and teacher living in Los Angeles. “Fight Like Hell” is featured in the anthology, Fury: Women’s Lived Experiences During the Trump Era. Sarah’s work has appeared in the Huffington Post, Matador Network, HelloGiggles, and Zora. When she’s not writing, she can be found belly dancing or traveling.
Rebuilding the Essay
April 16, 2020 § 1 Comment
I met writer/editor Amy Roost and immediately knew that I wanted to be part of any project she was putting together. We’d connected at the Southern California Writers Conference, where she told me about the idea for an anthology, which would become Fury: Women’s Lived Experiences During the Trump Era. She was also starting a podcast on the same subject, so I came to her studio to tell my story. We’d talked a little bit before about our shared experience of the five stages of grief, beginning on 11/9/16, but it became clear as we talked how much more we had in common; our conversation was wide-ranging, deep, and full of laughter. So I wrote a piece for the anthology, based on my podcast episode, about growing up a hippie kid in Venice in the 1960s with a peace activist mom, and how my own activism had sort of gone dormant in my adulthood, but had resurfaced once Trump was voted in.
Fast forward a few months to when the book, now called “Fury,” was sold to Regal House Publishing’s Pact Press imprint: we contributors were told that the editors felt too many of the pieces were, like mine, focused on the election and the immediate aftermath, rather than being put into a more universal context. Also, the editors wanted stories from a more diverse group of writers, including Latinx women. I was excited to take on that challenge—to write about what the current administration’s immigration policies looked like to me as a Mexican-American woman, and hopefully substitute that for my original essay. Amy couldn’t confirm that the editors would include it, so I had to simply write my truth and see what happened.
I began with a very short biography of growing up in California in a turbulent time, and how I had gotten away from my activist roots until Trump was elected and started demonizing migrants and (the final insult) separating families and putting kids in cages and all of that madness. I used the opening section from the previous essay but I changed it from being strictly about my nuclear family—my mom and my brothers—and brought in my Mexican grandmother. Nena came to Los Angeles from Mexico City as a small child, and her father, Cesar Ulysses Silva, was a philosopher, poet, writer and an activist of sorts; he wrote about being proud to be Mexican in Los Angeles, back when that was not a popular stance.
That cultural pride was passed down to my grandmother, who passed it down to us grandkids—she would say when anyone spoke of things that were Spanish, “We’re from Mexico, we’re not Spaniards, we’re Mexicans.” I focused my essay more on her and my forbears, shifting away from me as a hippie kid and more about me as a Latina. The more I looked back, writing about my feelings and experiences, the more I remembered. I even included the time, just a few years back, when a friend commented that I didn’t need to “bring up” my ethnicity, like it was something I would want to hide—I guess so I could pass for white.
I wrote quite a lot to start with, about 3000 words, then started cutting, keeping my eye on the new point of view. As an editor, I always tell my clients that with memoir (it is true of all writing, but memoir above all) the hard part is not deciding what to put in, but what to leave out. In “Viva La Raza,” a tangent about my grandmother’s name didn’t make the cut. She was named Edmee, but called Nena—“baby”—all her life. We grandkids called her Nena, not knowing the word’s meaning; it was basically the same as “Nana” to us. But the tangent wouldn’t mean much to anyone outside my family, so I cut it and just kept her name, Nena. I also went around in word-circles, trying to explain her wonderful immigrant family, with its songs and dances and parties and passion, before shortening to a “typical” immigrant family. Since every immigrant family is full of talents and brimming with love, one can be typical of them all.
I read the complete essay aloud again, listening for the through line, and trimmed some more, to about 1700 words. Once I’d reworked it to my own satisfaction, the editors at Pact had a couple of edits (including changing Nena to Nana, of course!) and they liked it. “Viva La Raza” made the cut for the final collection in Fury, which I’m extremely proud to be part of. I am particularly happy the book is coming out right now, as we turn to another national election, and I’m looking forward to seeing how it resonates with my “tribe” out there—especially women writers and activists of color. Viva!
From Viva La Raza!
Now I get that a lot of Americans are casually racist, in a mostly invisible and unacknowledged way. I’ve been told with a smile, “You don’t look Mexican, so why bring it up?” I even had one dear friend say to me, sincerely, that I wasn’t “really Mexican” so I couldn’t understand what real Mexicans are like. (To top that off, he told me, “California never belonged to Mexico.” I mean, Jesus Cristo, seriously?)
Jennifer Silva Redmond is a freelance editor and writing instructor. Formerly editor-in-chief at Sunbelt Publications, she is on the staff of the Southern California Writers Conference, teaches at San Diego Writers, Ink. Editor of Sea of Cortez Review, she was prose editor for A Year in Ink Vol 3. Her essays, articles, and fiction have been published in anthologies and national magazines, including Latinos in Lotusland, Books & Buzz, Sail, Cruising World, Science of Mind, and A Year in Ink, Vol 11. She lives in California on a sailboat with her artist-writer-teacher husband, Russel, and their dog, Ready.
“Viva la Raza!” appears in Fury: Women’s Lived Experiences During the Trump Era.
The Longer View
April 15, 2020 § 11 Comments
“Bring Back the Batakas: The Long View,” began writing itself en route to my hometown to join my daughter, best friend, and three nieces for an afternoon at a Rage Room. I was pumped. After all, it was two years ago and the fallout of 2016 had not yet settled into an aching ball of sludge lodged under what’s left of my gall bladder.
Lately, my internal organs are feeling spongy, sub-par. Have I mentioned that I know full well I will not lose an ounce of this dangerous belly fat until we get rid of Trump and his minions? Because anger increases cortisol and cortisol lays that waxy cholesterol down in your energy pathways like an efficient roof guy lays tar on your roof on a hot summer day. Toxic. Makes you eat potato chips and skip the gym. The inflammation screws with your metabolism like a slow death.
In “Batakas” I wrote backwards about the long view. Batakas are foam therapy bats we used back in the seventies, long out of favor in this new culture of mindfulness, where we are guided to some peaceful high road. The very concept of the rage room tapped into an old energy. Writing about our anger, what we did with it–it was downright intoxicating to let all you young’uns know about the days before rape culture even had its name. When you couldn’t get a vibrator without going into a porn shop. When we delighted ourselves with our anger. Oh what bad-asses we were, with our Take Back the Night marches and our Consciousness-Raising groups. Until I re-read the lines I’d written two years ago about our direct actions of 1980: “We weren’t angry; we had just changed the world.”
I slam shut the laptop and let the tears flow. Because, isn’t that part of the writing process? If it isn’t, I don’t want to know, because there’s cortisol in those tears. Tears of reckoning. I check back to the video they took of us in the rage room, me and the women in my life—my daughter beating up a Hoover with a baseball bat, my niece wielding a sledgehammer—and I feel a satisfaction. It feels powerful to write about it.
I light the Virgin of Guadalupe candles for all the women with no one else who’d listen. I write with a play list and a pile of notebooks and a special pen next to my laptop. My husband is one of the good guys but I can’t have him around when I’m blasting Four Non-Blondes’ “What’s Going On” or Talking Heads’ “Life During Wartime.” (Or is “Psycho Killer” a better choice, because, yeah don’t touch me, I’m a real live wire.)
I can’t let anyone know I check Facebook every ten seconds because I know someone will post something that will turn up the boil under my rapidly fatiguing resolve. I need those posts. Like the sign at the 2017 Women’s March, an old Jewish lesbian holding a big piece of cardboard saying “This old Jewish Lesbian CAN’T BELIEVE SHE’S STILL PROTESTING THIS SHIT.” Or that sometimes I watch soap operas instead of writing just so I can calm down with a script where good persists over evil. I don’t really want anyone besides the pets to know how I look flopping around in front of my laptop like a big-suited David Byrne or how many times a day I scream certain expletives when I read research on the lasting effects of trauma on the nervous systems of people who haven’t even been born yet.
So the process of writing unfolds. Angry scribbles on scraps of paper. Organize. Re-read. Yoga stretch. Stand in front of the refrigerator. Switch out the playlist. Go on Facebook. Write more angry notes. Send some to my senator or my candidate. Pledge to Planned Parenthood in the name of the vice-president. Get back to work. Think about the old days when feminism meant Judy Chicago and The Top-Free Seven and brick and mortar porn shops we could actually go into and get mad at. Think about how we were right about Reagan and right about deregulation and right about how we might never see a woman president in America in our lifetime.
There’s a call for submissions to a book on women’s rage and I say “Thank you Virgin of Guadalupe!” and hit send.
Surrender passionate words to the editor and hope no one deflates or misconstrues or says no thank you, not a good fit for this project but know that your passionate words were oh-so-carefully read. Just not angry enough. Or optimistic enough. But instead, here we are. Yay. Still protesting this shit.
We have our angry notes. Our voices. Our votes. If we’re lucky, we get to a Rage Room or its equivalent and smash this shit. And get to write about it.
From Bring Back the Batakas: The Long View
Our group also sought opportunities for “direct action,” which was fun, new, and provocative. Well, not always fun—in 1980 a local hospital organized a conference on rape and refused to allow us any time to present the new feminist perspective. The conference audience consisted of cops and social workers, professionals who had yet to view rape as assault. Trauma was not yet ubiquitous in our general vocabulary. We crashed the event and while most of the audience dispersed, we held fast to the microphone. A few attendees stayed back and thanked us for presenting the concept of rape as a violent act and symbolic of what would soon be known as rape culture. “You’re welcome,” we replied and went off to our next skirmish, likely filling the locks of the local porn theater with Super Glue, then situating ourselves across the street the next morning to watch them try to pry open the doors. We weren’t angry; we had just changed the world.
Nina Gaby is a writer, visual artist, and advanced practice nurse who specializes in addiction and psychiatry. Gaby has been working with words, clay, and people for five decades. Her essays, fiction, prose poetry, and articles have been published in numerous anthologies, journals and magazines, and her artwork is held in collections including the Renwick Gallery of the Smithsonian, Arizona State University and Rochester Institute of Technology. Her head explodes on a daily basis.
“Bring Back the Batakas” appears in Fury: Women’s Lived Experiences During the Trump Era.
Weaving the Essay: Vigil of Hope
April 14, 2020 § Leave a comment
“Vigil of Hope,” my essay included in Fury: Women’s Lived Experiences During the Trump Era, happened in much the same way that most of my writing comes to be. I captured snippets of conversation from my day, mixed them with family stories that helped define who I am in the world, and then I wrote and wrote.
Maybe something the kid said in the car on the way to school that reminded me of growing up in my big family. Or the way I offer reassurance to a client about the very thing that worries me, too. Writing is how I process my world; sometimes it’s how I arrive at what I believe about something. Most of my writing is just for me, but sometimes there’s an external push.
I’d been following the work of a local theater director ever since I’d performed in one of her shows. Eleanor O’Brien mostly focuses on creating sex-positive theater, but this time she was hosting an event called the Election Monologues. She solicited people to write about their experiences of the election of 45 and read them on the night of the inauguration, January 20, 2017.
Eleanor tried to host writing gatherings, so that not just the performance but the entire experience could happen in community. But it was winter in Portland and ice storms got in the way. I got one chance to join a few local writers, activists, and therapists and brainstorm ideas for our monologues. In Eleanor’s cozy, NE Portland house on a chilly winter day, on couches and at the kitchen table, we sipped warm tea and wrote to prompts she offered: The voting booth. A slogan I remember. Living in a bubble. What are my choices?
I took those initial thoughts to my weekly writing group and used the timed writes there to develop these ideas. I wrote about how my family talked about – or didn’t talk about – politics. I wrote about games I learned to play with my mother, and how those games might be seen as metaphors for her life.
Jacks: My mom showed me how to toss the eight metal asterisks on the floor in front of me and throw the bright red bouncy ball into the air. One bounce, swipe, clink. One at a time, then twos, threes. So many combinations for a total of eight. Eight. My mother raised eight kids. Five boys and three girls. Eight. The big kids and the younger ones. Six and two. Eight. The oldest, the middle boys, the babies. Three and three and two. Eight.
I wrote about my own vulnerability as a queer person in America, and about the layered ways the queer and trans clients in my counseling practice were especially at risk under a government led by this new president-elect.
On the night of the event, Portland community members shared their experiences. Some were similar to mine, like the teacher of social justice describing the days after the election as she supported her students through their shock and fear. Others were different, like the men of color worried for their livelihoods and their lives under this new administration.
Eleanor’s goal of creating community was successful that night. We witnessed one another sharing our stories, and many of us walked away from that event with new friends or allies.
When I saw Amy Roost’s call for stories about women’s experiences in the Trump era, I thought that my story from the Election Monologues would fit, and sent it off with the hope it would have another life in this anthology. And it worked!
As a memoirist, I’m always pulling bits of conversations or moments from my life and weaving them into the stories I write. It’s how my writing happens, how I stay true to myself on the page. I find it helpful to approach a writing assignment from different angles and in more than one venue, so having the chance to brainstorm this piece with Eleanor and then take it further at writing group helped me flesh out the story I needed to tell. Although writing is a solo practice for me, listening to other writers engage the prompts in different ways helps me approach my ideas with creativity. Watching which lines of my own fresh writing seem to land with writing group peers, and which don’t quite work, shows me what to edit. All of this supports me when I sit down to finish a piece in the solitude of my own writing practice.
We were halfway through this presidency when Pact Press took the anthology on and I was able to revise and update, expanding on the themes in my original essay to show that the initial fears I had about his term in office were playing out detrimentally in my communities.
As a writer of memoir, I relish the opportunity to experience my world more than once. I get to live it while it is happening, and then I get to create it on the page after the fact. And sometimes, just like stories that are told and retold through generations of families, I get to write and rewrite these stories of my own life more than once.
From “Vigil of Hope”
As the reality of the election set in, I wondered where I would find and create hope during the Trump years. I imagined I’d hear it in the sound of my ten-year-old composing songs on her electric keyboard, or I’d feel it in the deepening relationships with my siblings. I would find it in the vulnerable courage of my students and clients, in their reach to learn, to understand, and to bring their true voices to the world. I committed to nurturing that hope within my communities of artists, writers, creators, and visionaries. I vowed to lean into the hope of my own small family and the home we create together every day. My words, my strength, and my own vulnerability would become a vigil of hope for all of us.
Meg Weber writes memoir about sex, grief, love, identity, family, therapy, and tangled relationships. She writes about edges, about experiences and identities that hover at the perimeter. Her writing is featured in The Quotable, MUTHA Magazine, Manifest-Station, Rabble Lit, and HipMama, and in anthologies by Seal Press, Sincyr Publishing, and Pact Press. Her debut memoir, A Year of Mr. Lucky, is forthcoming in 2020 from Sincyr Publishing. “Vigil of Hope” is featured in Fury: Women’s Lived Experiences During the Trump Era.
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.