Some journeys take you forward along the path of life, while others take you back, helping to form a different and better version of yourself, now somehow forever changed. The three days in Atlanta, whether reading my poem or just spending time with my mom and cousin Linda, did both: moving me forward, while at the same time circling me back upon myself. The experience helped blunt the edges of some painful memories, overlaying them with better ones.
There are times when words are just inadequate; simply not powerful enough to describe the indescribable, the inexplicable, the transcendental nature of a particular experience. To repeat what I said when introducing my poem: “There are no words. There will never be words. But still, we try.”
There are many memories I’ll look back on fondly from my time in Atlanta (including the many conversations and meals with my mom and cousin Linda, a fantastic afternoon with longtime family friend Felicia, and the tour of the William Breman Jewish Heritage Museum), but there are two that will likely stay with me the longest: The look of pride on my mom’s face and the responsive reading of my poem with Holocaust survivors and their families.
There is something inherently satisfying and soul-warming to set a goal and reach it. In this case, I’d made a commitment to get back to writing for myself, and not just for business clients. It didn’t matter what I’d write–this blog, poetry, short fiction, an eventual novel–I just wanted to recover one of the most important parts of me that I’d placed in a drawer for far too many years.
A good friend (and great writer) said, “You’d been my favorite non-practicing poet for a couple decades.” But I never really thought of myself as a poet. I do tend to put my thoughts down as fragments, which lend themselves to poetry or prose, depending upon my mood and my intent. “Unless You Know” was always going to be a poem, as it relies on tight imagery, marching momentum, and a defiant refrain to get its point across. The prose version would just look like so many other Holocaust stories already written.
Now that I’m editing poetry for FutureCycle Press and know good poetry when I see it, I really don’t consider myself a poet. Yet it was a poem that I wrote that played a part in the Yom HaShoah Commemoration in Atlanta. So, what should I call myself?
The people who greeted me at Greenwood Cemetery that warm Sunday morning called me “poet.” As in, “So you’re the poet! We’ve read your poem about a million times.” And, “I’m so thrilled to finally meet the poet behind this wonderful poem.” And also, from the podium, “We are so pleased to welcome the poet herself here to read her poem.” Are we defined by how we see ourselves, or by the way that others perceive us?
I never thought that I’d ever publicly read one of my own poems. I’d never have believed that I’d write a poem, post it to this blog, and get asked by the representative of a museum for permission to make my poem part of a Holocaust commemoration ceremony. I could never have predicted that I’d fly down to Atlanta, with my mom, to read that poem, publicly, at that same Holocaust commemoration. And I could never have imagined that I’d have Holocaust survivors and their families reading my words along with me–MY words, which I’d written to try to explain how I felt two generations removed from the Holocaust, being read by people who had lived through the Holocaust.
Just consider how crazy and amazing that is for a moment.
Then to be thanked for my words, to be told I captured the emotions of a generation, to have my hand squeezed by the survivor sitting next to me. I felt that I’d somehow gone back to where I began, closing a gap in my soul that had long needed to be closed.
As for the ceremony, I was moved beyond words to watch the survivors light their candles, to hear the speaker tell his story, and to watch an unexpected butterfly fly over the memorial twice and then disappear. Even the rain held off until the ceremony was over, at which point the sky gave up its deluge of tears. The whole commemoration, and the whole experience, was beautiful. It even more beautiful because I shared it with my mother. My mother who never stopped beaming. “You must be so proud of her,” they told her. “I am,” she replied.
Validation is a powerful thing. For me, Atlanta was validation of myself as a writer. It was also validation, and acceptance on my part, that I am no more and no less of a Jew, regardless of my personal beliefs on God and religion. And, of course, there was that validation of finally being the child that my parents bragged about, if only for a little while.
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