thinking about the world we will leave our children. In the wake of what is
happening with the COVID-19 pandemic, there are many people mourning the
inability to return to a world as we knew it, yet this may be the only world
that today’s youth will have any memory of.
line; fissure; an inability to reason with the past.
The instinct of a
new writer might be to create drama in a piece—at least that was what I found
when teaching. Some teachers I had forbid us to kill anyone in a poem or story
because we felt the need to create stakes by doing so. To make people care. A
professor of mine once said that all poems must have conflict, but that
conflict might be as subtle as the way the light falls across the road. I want
to believe him, to value that, to be able to sit still, but, when I am called
to write, the ghosts ascend, the sky falls, and I can only see what is down the
dark tunnel in my mind.
written from a place of risk: what do I need to say? Why is that? Is the dramatic
situation complicated in an interesting way? Do I recognize the difference
between melodrama and drama? Why am I attracted to poems where the stakes are
high? Must every poem be about death, somehow, some way?
What I learned
through this crisis is that I have trouble writing a quietly complicated moment
because I have not had time to appreciate those moments in my life in a great
while. Right now, I swing between the inability to get out of bed (inertia) and
being overly productive as my two coping mechanisms. I’m not sure which is less
effective. Yet, crises have come in waves over the last few years, whether in
the form of catastrophic weather (hurricanes on the Gulf coast where I was
living), or gun control, or money problems, or health issues, or the deaths of
loved ones. How can anyone be expected to write about the light falling across
the road when all around us worlds are falling? On the other hand, I read
Tranströmer, for example, and understand that both are possible at once.
[The site of
resistance as the body]—
My father died when I was nine. I’ve written about that incident a lot. I’ve resisted calling it trauma. Yet, right now, children are experiencing trauma in a new way that feels much like that event: something that they won’t realize is traumatic until years from now. I’m trying to stay hopeful that the lives children dream of will one day be possible. I worry that, much like many of our ancestors, there will not be a place beyond struggle to reach for—which brings me back to my question: what world will we leave our children?
“Rabbi Meir said, anyone who engages in Torah study for its own sake (‘lishma’) merits many things”
We are always torn apart. Behind the face we present to the world, there is a fracture. Two rudiments in our nature spar: the craving for control, and the dread of disorder. These opposing states, so closely linked, cause us no small misery, but the dynamic is so much a part of our ingrained habit of thinking that we constantly try, though with little success, to smother it with all manner of distractions.
We frequently wake up early in the morning with a crashing, dawn-clarity in the form of the question: What can I do about some awful problem? What we are really asking above and behind this question, is “can this problem be contained or controlled?” And if not – if the problem can’t be mended – how do we live with our sense that by not resolving this difficulty, and by allowing it to stand shamelessly unresolved, life’s great promise of joy will unravel from its spool? Further refined, we can distill the question to its rock hard core: How do I live with pain, grief, anguish?
We have all encountered such moments. But nothing distresses the quest for control more than a crisis of health. The body lurks, waiting; it conceals sickness under skin, tissue and bone. Beneath the veil of our physical stability, a system bubbles toward disorder. My own crock boiled over when I was twenty-nine and diagnosed with cancer. At a time of life when people typically view mortality though a long lens, my death seemed more immediate. I had no resources to deal with the reality of death: therefore my responses were limited. My mind contracted under the idea of death. My notions were hedged by binary postures: fight, win, move on, or fight, lose, die.
Pressed in this vice, I ultimately found it most reassuring to learn to abandon the notion of continued life. This brought a measure of peace. Death is the ultimate negation – a blunt, inescapable fact. Somewhere on a cosmic script, the conclusion is written in indelible ink: you will die. So by embracing death, by laying down at its feet, I let go of the struggle against its oppressive strain. I was still bound to life, to be certain, but only by sheer threads.
In the first few years after surgeries and treatments, I devalued existence. This attitude worked under a certain set of narrow conditions. But as I expanded my horizons after the disease, this stance evolved into a crisis of conscience. How can we live without embracing life? Clinging to death is a poor long term-solution, for even after the cancer was in remission, there was still the fact that I might die at any moment. Death simmers inside of us. My unbending cheapening of life did not solve the problem of death – it merely postponed it. I had driven myself to the verge of an existential cliff. In order to continue to live, I had to change the mental formula that had been useful since I was diagnosed with cancer – because the thin gruel of indifference to life cannot sustain a flea.
If we face suffering, sickness, depression and death, we can turn to something well beyond us: religion. In the years following a great crisis, I turned to Judaism. But my reason for this move, I believe, veers very far from the common expectation. Religion did not provide me comfort. A Jewish life did not offer me hope of a healthy body as a reward for my virtuous actions, or the recompense of an enchanted afterlife beyond a bodily existence marked by pain and suffering; nor did I seek the protection of a powerful and providential deity who could answer my prayers.
On the contrary, Jewish practice catapulted me beyond the bounds of reward and punishment to a real “space” where my deeds are free from the expectation of reward. This is a crucial point: by practicing Judaism, I can relinquish control to the realm of pure Jewish action. In the language of Judaism I perform the mitzvoth, the Jewish religious requirements, not for any payoff, but, as is said in Hebrew lishma, for and in themselves. This perspective has steered my apathy and indifference into more disciplined channels.
I practice Judaism to practice it. This sounds like an echo, but the seeds of this practice produce sturdy foliage. With Jewish ritual practice detached from reward, I can pursue a goal without the restraints of expectation. My mind and heart practice Judaism’s ritual demands with detachment. Detachment, of course, has pejorative implications – a lack of caring, a stance of aloofness – but it can also emancipate; and in a paradoxical turn, the freedom of detachment can transform our indifference into a more vital, lasting form of care. And the practice of lishma, of doing a deed in and for itself, can be exercised everywhere. By living life lishma, the mind is freed from the stark habit of thinking that the two rudiments in our nature spar: the craving for control and the dread of disorder.
In lishma, we transcend the need to control the events of our lives. Order happens, disorder happens – they are states that come and go and we have no control over either. But no matter what happens, we perform our duty and live life. Our imperative to action is action itself. With patience and practice, even life’s gravest challenges and abrupt transformations become shaded in different hues. Events take on the color of the moment, rather than the stain of our anxiety for specious stability. When we are no longer distracted about the issue of control, we are able to free ourselves from the slavery of expectations. And by doing so, we are able to see ourselves in the light of the singular, precious instant.
In a stupor of grief and dread
Have we not fingered the foulest wounds
And let them unhealed by our hands?
“Why Is This Age Worse…?”
–1919 Anna Akhmatova (trans. Stanley Kunitz)
It seems a long time since the picture of a drowned 3-year old Aylan went viral in September 2015. Much was made of the dangling “Velcro straps on his sneakers”, that Aylan was dressed like any child going to a playground in a red T-shirt and blue knee-length shorts – the Turkish guard who picked up the tiny body looked away as he carried the child. How hard it would be to look. And he must have looked when he first picked up the drowned boy. It seems a long time because there have been so many bodies since, and so many of them children. There have been meetings and discussions in various parliaments in Austria, Denmark, Hungary, Germany, and of course Brussels, and some horrid policies have passed through them like Denmark’s law (passed in January) in which the government is now allowed to seize assets of “asylum seekers on arrival in the country and confiscate any non-essential items worth more than 10,000 kroner (£1,000) that have no sentimental value to their owner.” One wonders who decides on what is or isn’t “non-essential” or of “sentimental value”. Similar laws are now in place in Switzerland and southern Germany.
To be a refugee means the refuge of what once provided the rituals of stability, like home and shelter, no longer exist, that larger threats than those of the risks of being a refugee are being fled. “I don’t want to touch that one” says a friend, “too heavy”, “too complicated” – what will happen if we let ourselves touch the bodies being washed up like the Turkish guard who lifted the dead Aylan from the sand, if we help the luckier to dry land? They will touch us too, the pain and mess of these displaced lives will be real and, especially, there will be names and faces connected to their tragedies. I am about to say something to a friend and warn her that it is unpleasant, and she says, “are you sure you want to tell me” and really means “I’m not sure I want to know” because once told, she cannot, as she tells me “unknow it”; phrases like “the immigrant crisis”, “the Greek debt crisis” desensitize, the particulars are conflated, the faces and names lost. It is more efficient that way, apparently, when dealing with numbers (think of pyramid schemes of debt, think how all the added 0s of the billions lent, and the billions now owed in the Greek financial crisis that are not being addressed in “real terms”; i.e. the IMF – imagine even the IMF – is calling it unsustainable, that the debt cannot be paid back when the economy itself is being cannibalized though there are very real people starving on the streets and homeless as a result); so the question is what are we, or what is “Europe” trying to be efficient about. History has given us some very dark examples of the efficiencies of regimes wishing to keep themselves untouched by groups considered threats to an idea of citizenry and/or belonging. Giorgio Agamben in Homo Sacer, Sovereign Power and Bare Life theorizes the biopolitics of “The Camp as Paradigm” in a chapter that addresses the separation between “humanitarianism and politics” as “the extreme phrase of the separation of the rights of man and the rights of the citizen.” I want to say what Clarice Lispector says in The Passion According to G.H. that “till yesterday” there was a way of “fitting into a system.” That now that system is broken and the privileged do not want to “use an unprotected heart.” Perhaps Europe has lost its heart.
Sebastian Kurz, Austria’s foreign minister, says “the distinction between protection and the right to a better life has got blurred” having been part of a renegade contingency of Central European and West Balkan countries, including Hungary, to react to the immigrant crisis by being among the first countries to close its borders to refugees (and so removing themselves from the Schengen agreement of an open border system – that founding European Union dream that promised the free flow of populations). To Angela Merkel’s credit who, initially anyway, sought a joint EU solution for the crisis, responded that “When someone starts to define limitations [to immigration], others have to suffer. That is not my Europe.”
As we entered the port for an activity session with some of the refugee children, we all noticed that there were twice as many tents as there had had a week ago; before the borders closed a lot of the volunteer work involved giving activity kits and baby carriers to mothers on their way north. Once they closed hundreds, and in the case of Idomeni, thousands were now stuck (read Phoebe Ramsay’s updates “On the Ground” on her Facebook page). Tents were everywhere, on any open space of pavement or grass, “Welcome to Europe” Alicia said. “Look at this….” Yes, look at this. Look at the woman using cardboard to sweep away the banana peel, cigarette stubs, and used tea bags from the space around her tent. Look at the children quietly returning crayons after doing their drawings, giving their drawings of houses and homes to those of us who sat with them, look at the boy who shows me there’s a hole in one of the sheets at the shelter and would like to know if there are any sheets not torn that he could have. Listen to the teacher from Aleppo who asks if we could bring some white board markers for the lessons she’s giving in the shelter, look at the fact that the toilets are overrun, that someone has thrown out a doll that looks perfectly fine, look at the boy who is downloading music on his phone, tell me where the border might be between them and us, or you and I?