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Tradition & Innovation

Good Fortune

woman walking on train tracks with suitcase in hand

I came to the U.S. at the age of 16 as a refugee from the Soviet Union. "Good Fortune" is my contemplation of this experience. 


1. In Zoar

The sun was risen upon the earth when Lot entered into Zoar. …
But his wife looked back from behind him, and she became a pillar of salt.

Genesis

If you have ever been a refugee,

Even if decades have gone by,

Even if now
You are grateful
For your good fortune,
For your settled life
Under Zoar’s sunny skies,

You do not let yourself
Go soft.

You do not lose the skill
Of packing swiftly, with precision.

You do not trust the luxury
Of carrying anything
That’s not essential
To making it
Out …
Across …
Into a new land.

You do not forget the story of Lot’s wife.
You heed its warning:
Do not look back,
Do not allow your gaze to stray
To what you had to leave behind.

If you stumble upon

A Google Earth view
Of a courtyard
Shaded by two old trees,

There were twin maples.
In autumn
One would drop crimson leaves,
The other — lemon-yellow.

A photograph of a family celebration,

An impish, tousled child
Stands on the lap of an indulgent aunt
To pick a pastry from a platter:
Layers of creamy filling
Billowing between layers
Of flaky crumbs.

You do not say a word.

Your face impassive,
You stare straight ahead,
Rigid as a pillar of salt.

2. Survivor guilt

Paradoxically, the phenomenon is rarely defined and often poorly described.

Hutson, Hall & West, “Survivor Guilt: Analyzing the Concept and Its Contexts,” Advances in Nursing Science (2015).

One was destroyed.

Another — left alive
And whole enough
To heal, even to thrive.

What, for lack of a better word,
Is called “survivor guilt,”
Is not.

It is a feeling that’s not built
Upon a solid foundation
Of cause and effect:
“You acted wrongly;
Wrongly failed to act;
You won by cheating
In some vital contest.”

It is a phantom pain,
The non-existence of a contrast,
The absence of a difference
(Be it of substance or of context)
That would be relevant and plain,

That would, failing to justify,
At least explain …

3. Two turns of fate

… Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.

Emma Lazarus, “The New Colossus”

If you have never been a refugee

Do not say:
“I would not have been able to …”
Even if you mean it
To express admiration.

A refugee is not made
Of sterner stuff
Than your own
Soft, vulnerable core.

A refugee is you yourself,
Two turns of fate away
From where you are
Now.

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