Sunday, February 14, 2010

Journeys With No End

One of my favorite shots from St. Petersburg. Angels gazing from St. Isaacs on the twists and turns of our lives, holding a book of wisdom, calm in their knowledge of what is to come, content in the wings that will carry them over the abysses of our world... a man, and his shadow dazedly seek the route to travel back to dust...

One of the great allotments of riding is the time it gives me to reflect. Though significantly harder in a city where death awaits round every corner, usually in shape of a yellow cab with gentleman at the helm who is under the impression that driving rules are the same here as they are in Jakarta; but every so often death is equipped with sirens and flashing lights, more concerned with where they are going than over whom they may run over while getting there.
never-the-less the road often offers me precious time for reflection, of the quality that only a shower or toilet can match. This week I have been thinking of the past, my dream of writing, the rejection with which it has met, twice, but I am not wholly deterred, though certainly cautious. So here I shall post it; something many of you have read i know, but I must begin somewhere and I am compelled to begin with this. This is from a collection, it is in fact the introduction, of stories not yet completed, poems not yet revised, thoughts not yet edited, but I hope you will enjoy:

From the Masses
This story, my story, the story of my people: a generation unto itself; a self contained entity of immigrants and refugees. Disparate from other immigrant groups in our verisimilitude of confinement in race and time, but in truth possessing within ourselves the very definition of what it means to be a refugee.

What is a refugee? When asked this, images come to mind of: camps, people walking in herds with their possessions reduced to what can be easily carried (or put on a mule), tents, tents, tens. Communities of tents always contained within barbed wire; tents for sleeping, tents for eating from enormous pots of gruel and mush, tents with outhouses, the few and far between tents for children and hospitals. Volunteers, red cross, soldiers, havoc, disorder, chaos, tears, fights, death, hope. Old people carted about like the young, young men in protest - of what they are not sure. The tearing apart, tearing away, something always tearing, like life itself coming apart at the seams. African, Albanian, south Asian, Chinese, Vietnamese, Russian, Jewish… all these faces you know, or think you know. You recognize them from something, a billboard, a commercial, a telethon, a magazine article… but this is not what a refugee is; it is not what you see, it is precisely what you don’t see that makes being one so…amazing! Amazingly difficult, amazingly angry, amazingly inconsistent, amazingly dissociated, amazingly…unique. The fires contained within our souls, the unquenchable thirst in our throat, the turbulent imbalance in our brains… these things cannot be seen, cannot be spoken about, cannot have funds raised for them, cannot be mended, will not die out! We can only hope that the generations to follow will find peace, will find their place, will find a balance.

Circumstantially things have changed, the world as we found it having landed in an airport and disembarked from a jet, is quite different from the one found by those who landed in Ellis Island or at South Street Sea Port and disembarked from a steamer. Ironically the challenges have remained the same in spite of advances in technologies, communication, social awareness and social programming. Because the greatest challenges were not contained in the physical realm of the tenements, ghetto’s, sweat shops, mills, factories, street corners, pizza parlors, kitchens, living-rooms, retirement homes, oil stained handyman trucks, sweat drenched movers trucks, pizza funk infested delivery trucks. No, the greatest challenges were in fact contained within the hearts and minds of the doctors, professors, engineers, musicians, scientists, writers, psychologists, artists, pilots… who worked these jobs and were placed in section 8 housing in neighborhoods which ranked only slightly higher than the slums of our native lands. We were “welcomed” with crossed arms into communities where what we were mattered not, for we did not speak the language of the land. This seemed to be the definition of whether one is worthy of kindness and graciousness and respect. Neither our post-doctoral degrees in nuclear physics nor the characters chiseled from years of hard struggle and making daily miracles from nothing so as to bring happiness to our loved ones mattered. No, we were judged by whether we pronounced “please” as “pleeze”, “birthday” as “biorzday” or compounded “I would like” as “ please I have for me”.

Retention of values? Retention of traditions? Retention of pride? What for? To what end? They have no place here. Our identity, our quality as people is now held within the parameters of how well we pass for Americans. To this end many forsake our roots and ignore the history of our ancestry. America welcomes refugees with mores, rules, predispositions, prejudices, hatred, anger. Because it does not know, it does not see, the TV did not say, who we are. It could not, it chose to not, there probably was no way it would be able, to see and understand us for what we were, what we’re worth and what we brought to the table.

We sought: freedom, rights, choices and options, opportunities, open doors, the fertile soil of a free society. We sought liberty, open mindedness, respect… we sought all this because, though taken for granted here, from where we came these things, these seemingly natural and unalienable rights, did not exist - not for everyone and certainly not for us. From where we came we needed to forsake ourselves, our religion, our rights, our hopes and dreams. Forsake our very life; forsake it all for the sake of staying alive. There is not a thing, person, god, or place that is worth, that deserves, that has the right, that has a claim on your life, and yet there we were in such a place. But within that place we came to define ourselves. From there we grew and identified, acculturated and accepted… became a part of, regardless of the opposition, Russia. We became citizens and contributing members of society; we adopted traditions and style, we adopted all that is best and some of what’s worst. We rose in the ranks, regardless of glass ceilings, pogroms, outright denial of rights and passage, we rose. We, some holding fast, others balancing, and yet others who completely disregarded our Jewish selves, rose to the top of the sciences, the visual and performing arts, music, medicine and literature. Does all this sound familiar? Does Germany from the turn to the middle of the century sound familiar? Is all this not the repeating story of Jews everywhere? One little difference though, we did not stay. We did not blindly stay when the door of opportunity was opened, when the chance came to escape, we did not wait for the return of pogroms and executions, mass murders and mass defamation, we did not wait. We, stripped of our belongings, stripped of our citizenship, stripped of everything but our pride, were shipped to a foreign land with no claim to any place on earth. And there we waited, bated breath, waited and waited, in the arms of pity extended by Italy, for America to take us in. Some waited a month, some waited a few, others a year and still others never made it and were taken in by Israel. We huddled week in and week out for a sign that America realized that we had nowhere to go, that we were not comfortably home at tea waiting for the approval of a visa, that we were the “huddled masses” desperately praying for acceptance.

The changes! How immense the alteration! What we knew to be real was gone, what we thought was truth was no longer so, whom we considered friends were left behind, that which made sense was a world away, the tongue which we spoke no longer native and no longer understood. Now we are unable to express ourselves, our pain and suffering, our hopes and striving, now we are unable to contain our anger, now we have formed into something as strange as the land where we now live, as the tongue we don’t yet speak. Where did we go? If everything outside of us has changed should we at least contain within ourselves…ourselves? Is this not how we are going to survive? Alas, it’s not. The anchors of acculturation sink deeper and deeper, detached from our understanding. Every day we have less and less which makes sense, every day we become someone we do not recognize. If before we had friends to whom we could turn for help, for a shoulder, for an ear, for a hand, for a song, for a bowl of soup, for a walk… they are no longer here. If before we had a job that brought us no money but a great deal of satisfaction because of the great barriers we had crossed to obtain it, the education that qualified us, the experience that now defined us… it is not longer here. If there was a soul, a spirit with which we could identify, as it embodied the place where we lived, as it contained its history that we shared, as it gave meaning to stone and street, bench and tree, symphony and hall, as it gave light and color to our pathetic little life… we are no longer in contact with it, we no longer sense it, if one even exists where we now live. This dis-identification, dissociation, societal and cultural dismemberment, disembodiment…is with what we are left. This is now what defines us. Now we are told to make our way in the world, and good luck! What? Really? But, how? The answers shall never come. Some of us will strive, others will remain irrelevant and mediocre, others will die of desperation, others will take their own lives, still others will turn to drugs and crime and hate. But in the end we will be redefined; in the end we will, as we did in Germany, Russia, Spain, Italy, Africa, Persia and the east… become a part.

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