Egherman

"Let people be different"

Tag: #amwriting

The Rhythm of Tragedy

When I was little I fell in love with the stories of Isaac Bashevis Singer, rereading our copy of Zlateh the Goat dozens of times. Poor Zlateh was getting too old to give milk and the family that kept her was flailing financially. They needed to eat. A decision was made to sell Zlateh to the butcher so that the family could survive the winter. On the way to town a snowstorm trapped the goat and the young boy taking her to the butcher. Zlateh kept the boy warm through the storm and provided milk.

Spoiler alert: they survived the storm and turned back to the house where Zlateh lived out her life as a valued member of the family.

Don’t Let Me Read Miss Understood

When I needed more stories, I reached for the adult novels of Mark Twain, Sholem Aleichem, and Isaac Bashevis Singer. I under-understood them, like so many of the other books I read as a child. I wasn’t ready for the layers of plot and emotion and character. I wasn’t ready for the way that the comic became tragic. I wasn’t ready for demons that weren’t harmless. What I was ready for was the rhythm of the sentences and the shape of the words. And that’s what I read for.

There is a rhythm to tragedy—especially Jewish tragedy—that feels comic. It begins with a set-up and ends with a punchline. This is the way that we pass our lore through the generations and relate our horrors to children without traumatizing them. The stories are four-dimensional, beginning with humor. With time, the stories unfold, revealing a new dimension of pain and tragedy. The stories unfold again, warning of coming harm and providing hints for survival. They unfold again, and the humor feels fresh and sparkling.

The imp in the novel I am writing is desperate to warn of coming harm. But does anyone listen? Of course not. Who listens to warnings? Not even the characters in my stories listen. See:

 “We’ve had it up to here with the warnings. Everything is a warning with you. And nothing can be changed. Fires come when they come. Hunger comes when it comes. Sickness comes to the hail. We run and run and run and still Death finds us all. Who knows what to do with warnings?”

If fictional characters won’t listen, who will?

An Epitaph

Everything I come across during the research for the novel makes me wish to be a small part of a big community that can make the world laugh.  On my worst days, I am afraid that humor numbs us and keeps us from acting or taking danger seriously. On those days I treat myself to a few episodes of Brooklyn 99, and then I go back to the work of trying to repair the tiniest cracks in the world. I remind myself that there are other ways to communicate and that humor renews us.

This brings me to Sholem Aleichem’s grave and the epitaph he composed for himself:

Do ligt a Id a pashutier – Here lies a Jew a simple-one,
Geschrieben Idish-Daitch fur weiber – Wrote Yiddish-German (translations) for women
Un faren prosten falk hot er gewein a humorist a schreiber
– and for the regular folk, was a writer of humor
Die ganze lieben umgelozt geschlogen mit der welt kapures
-His whole life he slaughtered ritual chickens together with the crowd,
(He didn’t care too much for this world)
Die ganze welt hot gutt gemacht – the whole world does good,
Un ehr – ohoy vey – gewehn oif zuress – and he, oh my, is in trouble.
Un davka de mohl gewehn der oilom hot gelacht
– but exactly when the world is laughing
gecklutched un flegg zich flehen – clapping and hitting their lap,
Dought er gekrenkt dos weis nor gott – he cries – only God knows this
Besod, az keyner zohl nit zeiyen – in secret, so no-one sees.

Oh how fortunate he was to have died before the world burned.

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Big announcement: I am writing a novel

Well, it’s about time, right? It’s not as though I haven’t wanted to write a novel since I first took pen to paper way back when I was seven years old. So what’s taken me so long? Where do I even begin to answer that question? Maybe with this list:

  • I started so many novels just because I had good ideas, but they lacked heart, and I lacked the perseverance to muddle through
  • I didn’t trust myself enough
  • I was never compelled to write the way others are: now the demand is greater
  • Every word I typed was like drawing blood.

So what changed? Essentially, I changed. The biggest part of me that changed was the corniest part, the part realists will laugh at, and that is this: I finally allowed my ancestors to start helping me. It’s not like we hadn’t been in conversation for decades. We had been. We’d been talking, quietly, since I was four.

When I was four and my great-grandmother died, my mother explained that people live on in our memories. I was a completely literal child and took that to mean that I was responsible for remembering my ancestors, even if I didn’t know them. From that day on, I began a memory project with imagined ancestors. I imagined the grandfather who died when I was two as Colonel Sanders. I imagined my great-grandmother the way she was photographed in a hat and wool coat. I imagined people I knew and people I didn’t. I still feel responsible for the memories of the dead and now there is a cacophony of voices in my head. It includes friends and loved ones who died of cancer and car accidents, old age and heart disease, suddenly and slowly. They all live in me. They are me.

At a low point not too long ago, I was talking to a friend who sensed that I wasn’t paying attention to my ancestors. He counseled me to light a candle and ask for help. I did.

Yeah, yeah I know half of you think this is ridiculous. I used to be you and that was exactly my problem. I no longer see any value at all in denying a connection to the past or in silencing a kind of genetic memory that has been undeniably part of me since childhood. I wonder now why I did so much work to suppress my connection to the past. Who did I impress by rejecting the magic inside me? Who benefited?

I’m done with that part of my life.  And now I’m writing. I will be blogging about the process here. If you’d like to be part of the conversation, sign up for the newsletter:

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