Latency Period: Shehechiyanu

Editor Daniel Elder, Editor's Choice, November 29th, 2016

"It feels like something has passed, irrevocably ... This is a death."

anton krasnikov photograph of feather
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Our monthly column “Latency Period” is made up of reflections on the gaps in our lives–whether between life and death, between perception and reality, or between one human being and another–and trying to bridge those gaps with words. Written by Daniel Elder, for NAILED.

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Devastated.

It’s the word I keep coming back to, when people reach out and prod into my uncharacteristic silence and ask me, inevitably, how I’m holding up.

Not well.

I’m devastated.

On election night, I didn’t wait to hear the official words: that Donald J. Trump was the President-Elect of the United States of America. He was on his way. It was a fait accompli. Instead I wiped my eyes, drank a tall glass of water, slipped into bed beside my cat, and picked up a collection of essays by Mary Ruefle about the power of poetry that I had picked up at Wordstock, Portland’s annual literary festival, the prior weekend.

And in the best of all possible lives, that beginning and that end are the same: in poem after poem I encountered words that mark the first something made out of language that we hear as children repeated night after night, like a refrain: I love you. I am here with you. Don’t be afraid. Go to sleep now.

And sleep took me: comfortable, familiar, close. It wasn’t even midnight.

When I say the word devastation, I imagine the detritus of events like hurricanes and tsunamis and bombings. Things we only really process as an aftermath. But the events themselves unfold with a torturous slowness for the people on the ground. It took hours for the devastation to truly set in.

I woke up and turned my phone off airplane mode. A text from my friend Laurence in Pennsylvania, one of those vital battleground states: ‘There it is. President Trump. Good night.’

So it wasn’t a dream. It was just a nightmare.

What I’ve felt over the last several days, for as shocking as the event that spurred it on, is an all too familiar grief. It erupts again and again like a dormant volcano stirring to life. I haven’t felt this way, haven’t known this kind of sadness and loss, since my friend Margaret died seven years ago. But the similarities are unmistakable. The way it comes in waves, sometimes better, then much, much worse, as if the largest blobs of lava even now, a week later, haven’t yet been fully spewed forth.

It feels like something has passed, irrevocably, and with that feeling comes the knowledge that there is no escape from the reality of its passing.

This is a death.

The difference between this and Margaret’s death, though, is that I never knew I cared this much about my country and its direction.

I’ve sobbed at yoga. I’ve wept in the bulk food aisle at New Seasons. Just the other day I broke down crying in the science fiction section of Powell’s Books, slipping to one knee, face in hand, clutching a collection of short stories by Robert Sheckley. The fantastical in my fingers but closer to reality as ever. I’ve walked the early morning streets of Northeast Portland in a daze. I’ve stared at the wall for hours.

It’s like I’ve been sitting shiva.

Shiva lasts a week, and we’re coming up on that mark. And this morning, as I write these words, it does feel like something has turned, like my grief is finding a way to live in my muscles and bones, sinking down deeper than my skin where for a time it burned like a rash. My grief no longer overruns me, it stitches itself into me instead. Weaving itself into the palimpsest of my life.

I’ll never be rid of it.

But since it’s gone, it’s making room for something else to take its place.

I was bicycling home the other night. It was around 9 p.m., and with Daylight Savings Time having knocked our clocks back, the night was a rich dark. I’ve moved to a leafy, more suburb-esque neighborhood of Portland, and streetlights are fewer and farther between. Climbing the long hill at Regents Drive, I wasn’t thinking of the slog, wasn’t thinking of my calves and thighs, wasn’t on the hill at all. I was thinking how glad I was to be in Portland, someplace I felt safe. All across the country friends of mine — queer friends, trans friends, people of color — were shivering with uncertainty.

But as I crested the hill, I felt something well up in me. It was an old beast, a slumbering thing, an organism much older than any grief I’ve known in my lifetime. And perhaps it was at the core of this deep sadness shaking me all week. I crested the hill, the ground evening out and my pedaling less desperate, and I felt it waking. It had slithered down through genetic centuries, through pogroms and pillaging, through my Grandmother’s bones as she cowered under Nazi bombers, in my mother’s hair as she walked the anti-Semitic streets of her Soviet Union, and for most of my life it had never had too great a reason to work itself out of the deeps. But I felt it then, rising to the first layer of my skin, prickling.

I’d followed Trump’s campaign with a granular lens. Following the Twitter accounts of reporters who tracked his every move and word, his every rally. I knew all about the dog-whistles employed by his campaign, the subtle and not-so-subtle references to the Elder Protocols of Zion and to popular mimetic imagery in the rancid underworld of the neo-Nazi cyberverse. The Daily Stormer. Weev. David Duke. Steve Bannon. The KKK.

I have to tell you: I love my new home. We have two fireplaces. Two. I don’t know that I’ve ever felt more at home anywhere, aside from the apartment I grew up in, back in New York City. This home is a sanctuary, and I wake every day happy for my housemates and for the community we are creating. But such a sadness welled up in me the other night, as I biked the last ten or fifteen blocks past the hill, and the oaks and ashes and alders and the pines, typically so regal and glorious lining the streets, seemed like they held a few too many shadows now. I thought of the reports I’d seen from earlier this summer of a Portland rabbi harassed, and just over the weekend after the election, swastikas and other racist graffiti at Reed College.

I’ve been googling the word “swastika” each day, watching as local newspapers across the country report more and more instances of hate crimes.

As my grief sinks below my epidermis, something else is taking its place. Fear is the mindkiller, I know. And there are those who say fear doesn’t serve us, and that Love Always Wins. Love is vital. But I’m not sure that love is enough. And fear? Fear is what tells the sheep that the wolf is not licking its lips simply because they’re chapped.

Fear can be a powerful motivator. Fear, properly managed, kept my ancestors alive.

Where do we go from here? I’m thinking about my ancestors. I’m thinking about my great grandparents and my grandmother, pinned between Nazis on one side and systematic hate of Jews on the other, damned if they did, damned if they didn’t. I’m thinking of my mother and yes, even of my estranged father. Both of them grew to adulthood in oppressive regimes, and both of them rebelled, and for their rebellion, they had to flee.

I always thought of my parents as immigrants, but only this last year in the shadow of the Syrian crisis did I come to understand that they were more than immigrants: they were refugees. And today I find my concept of who they are shifting once more to embrace something else. They weren’t just refugees. They were refugees because they were dissenters.

A few years ago I learned a song in Hebrew. I sing it in ayahuasca ceremonies. The prayer is called the Shehechiyanu. And though it sings of God, a concept that doesn’t quite resonate with my agnostic mind, I love the sound of it and especially the sentiment. It’s a song of gratitude at a time of change. It expresses thanks for all that has given us life, and carried us through to this, the present moment in time. The song serves as a challenge to me, to find gratitude in even the darkest times.

When I got home from my bike ride, I walked into my wonderful home, went to my room and picked up an object gifted to me by one of my housemates. He thought I might like it. It’s a menorah made out of bicycle parts. Very Portland, you know.

I parted the curtains of my window, and set it on the windowsill. The Shehechyanu is a prayer one might say when lighting the first candle of Hanukkah. I stood for a while watching the moon beyond the menorah, hanging up in the sky, a queer Jew, letting my grief sink a little deeper and knowing that it was time to put my tears behind me and to begin to light a flame instead.

I thought about the art I’d soaked up recently. The power of Selma, a film that drove home for me that some people had fought and died for the opportunity to vote. The words of Rebecca Solnit, in A Paradise Built in Hell, about how catastrophe and disaster don’t bring out the worst in survivors but rather the best; how extraordinary communities arise from the ashes.

I opened my lips and I began to sing.

The words flowed out. My voice more tremulous than usual, each syllable clutching tentatively to the tip of my tongue before being tossed into the night. A song fueled by everything I felt. My sadness. My fear. And my rage.

And the song was a prayer, and a prayer is a poem, and it held me like Mary Ruefle said it would.

Saying, I love you. I am here with you. Don’t be afraid. Go to sleep now.

Tomorrow, you’ll need to wake up.

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To read the last installment of Latency Period, “Attachment Fragments,” go here.

Header image courtesy of Anton Krasnikov. To view his photo essay on NAILED, go here

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Daniel Elder

Daniel Elder is a New York City native who now calls Portland home. He is the author of a self-published collection of essays and is currently revising a novella. He lives in an attic with his cat, Terence.