"There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you."
Every time I read that quote, I think about the concentration camp survivors we hosted during a Holocaust presentation at Rogue Community College in Grants Pass, Oregon. Most of them were quite old and they’d just begun to tell the stories they’d kept inside. I was horrified and I was mesmerized by their words, by their courage and humility. One man, over dinner at our kitchen table, said something I will never forget. When asked how his life had been changed by his years in a concentration camp where he lost his entire family, he replied. “It made me more kind.”
Stories are our conscience. They teach truth and a respect for the past. Stories are like our connective tissue, they link us to the lives of others. If we keep telling and writing them, perhaps they will keep us human. Anne Frank was a thirteen-year-old child who wrote a diary while hiding in an attic. She didn’t survive, but her words did—inspiring and haunting us for generations.
After hosting those Holocaust survivors and hearing their stories, I needed to write something—to connect in a heartfelt way—to add my voice and speak for the ones who'd died and were not heard. I needed to imagine myself as someone who'd experienced at least something of the horror. This poem came out of that need.
All night I stood waiting
for sun to fill the room’s small window,
the glass still black where I paused
looking out as if for a signal
and remembering how dawn
releases the trees, mountains and each
fence from its shadow.
Still holding the nightfall between my hands
I whisper, “It will come.”
The dark yields slowly and this day
might have traveled here from the other side
of the earth, an avenue in Warsaw and a house
where a man has paced since midnight
the musty stillness of his attic, thinking
each time a board creaked that soldiers
moved on the stairs and imagining
that these would be his last moments.
Words like moths kicked up
from the tall grass could
trace his story back to its ink.
He knows the meaning of all time is words--
those small, unstoppable sounds
that fold, finger by finger,
across our bodies.
He would understand morning
is a kind of reprieve, its slow coming
the affirmation of everything night
called into question, and he might believe
that light passes from country to country,
one man to another, a sharing
that becomes personal like the space
between the living and the dead--
that otherness inside us we never touch
no matter how far down our hands might reach.
Time has passed since we housed those Holocaust survivors. We now have a granddaughter, Shenoa, who is the age you were when you wrote your diary. I think of her, I think of you. I salute your courage, Anne Frank. The way you left a message, a legacy, a poignant reminder of what it means to be human. I pray Shenoa will be brave like you. That she will have the courage to speak her truth, that she will never lose faith in mankind. That she will always believe in the goodness of the human heart.
I’ve been exploring some of the reasons we write and read stories. And why they have so much power over our lives. In many ways, we live for stories. They keep us from feeling alone and allow us to experience other lives and other places. Stories comfort, excite, and touch our hearts. They record our histories and give our experiences shape and meaning.
Stories allow us to spend time with the living and the dead. In the acts of telling, reading and writing them, we discover truth and meaning--things we didn't know we knew. I’m often surprised by where the words and memories take me. I write to discover my life and share it with others. Sometimes a poem or story will connect two, seemingly disconnected events and bring new insights. The following is a story poem about my favorite aunt She is an old lady now, but each time I read this poem she grows young and beautiful again. My dead brother is brought back to life. This poem rose out of an exercise to make a list of "off the bell curve" characters we'd known, choose one, and remember a specific moment in time. When I began to write this story poem, I had no idea it would lead me to my brother and the heroin addiction that killed him.
IN MY FAVORITE EASTER MEMORY OF LILLIAN NEL
I am ten years old and she, perhaps thirty,
Chanel #5 and whiskey.
She leans against the basement pool table,
Strikes a sultry pose, like Lauren Bacall,
Cigarette balanced in her right hand.
Her long, autumn-leafed hair brushes
Against the yellow collar of her shirtwaist,
Cinched in with a grass-colored belt,
Matching stiletto heels,
A purse the size of Portugal.
Lillian Nel inhales. Her cigarette
Glows ruby-colored gems,
Birthstone rings on every finger.
My brother’s dazzling smile,
Humphrey Bogart eyes, lures her to his game.
As white smoke curls into the light,
Hovers above her, a vaporous halo,
She takes her cue, looks up at me through
Spider-leg lashes and shoots—the white ball
Clacks against a triangle
Bright as Easter eggs dyed last night
Because Jesus rose from the dead.
As balls dart out, sink into felted pockets
And disappear, my brother raises a toast to
Our favorite aunt, for whom no rules apply.
Behind the bar, Patsy Cline falls to pieces,
And my father, his Hamm’s beer sign flashing
Blue neon on his hair, pours his sister another.
Upstairs, my mother, who doesn’t approve of women
Who smoke, play pool, and drink whiskey sours,
Fries our aunt’s favorite buttermilk-battered chicken
In a cast-iron skillet. Though she longs for glamour,
Lillian Nel can’t escape her Appalachian past
Any more than my brother, his school photos
Still smiling above the knots in the pine paneling,
Will dodge a future where the god of heroin waits--
A gaping black pocket
Where brightness disappears.