This is the first of the Kissing Frogs letters that reflect the downs and downs and downs of dating and searching. There’s a saying, I saw it on a greeting card once, I don’t know who said it: “If you don’t go in, you’ll never know…..”
The writer’s life is a public one, our lives splashed on the page, naked. Someone must tell the truth and be the mirror. I believe there is also a responsibility to kindness.
The names of all “the frogs” have been changed to protect their privacy. It is one thing for me to decide to tell my own story. The telling of the stories of other people requires discretion or at least, permission.
Published in; Coloring Book: An Eclectic Anthology of Fiction & Poetry by Multicultural Writers. Edited by boice-Terrel Allen. Rattlecat Press
The Tenacity of Love
-An essay disguised as a love letter
By Emma Rosenthal
Al riesco de parecer ridículo el revolucionario está animado por gran sentimientos de amor.
This is a love letter, though not the type of love letter a man would be afraid to receive after what between us was in most likelihood a one night stand. While nothing I do is shallow, some relationships aren’t meant to last longer than one night. I am not a clinging vine, although I used to be, afraid, more afraid to be alone than poorly matched. Today I know my own feet and my own soul and I no longer have to sew myself into the hem of my garment as I walk on broken glass. This is a revolutionary love letter, not a romantic one, not one meant to bind or lure, one meant to free, to liberate, to heal.
A friend of mine called me last night, late, past the calling hours, while INS was rounding up, arresting, detaining, cuffing, fingerprinting, holding without explanation people from his country. Another round of raids, and roundups and deportations, that started before my grandmother stepped on Ellis Island, and continue to this day. All our families know this terror, if not in this generation, in ones that came before us.
He and I have known each other for many years and we love each other, not romantically, not sexually, it is a different intimacy, the intimacy that comes when there is held between two friends the faith in the endurance and the integrity of the other, an understanding, an esteem for the history of the other and the work each is called to do.
I had called him that day, twice, his cell phone had been off, unusual, that I couldn’t reach him and I had left him two messages. It had been a simple question, it was a five-minute call at best. I needed to know if the sound system we had used in the park a few weeks ago could feed two mikes.
“Why are you calling me?” He was enraged.
These are hard times and I am seeing so many of us, those of us with vision, who feel what is happening around us, I see us, we are going mad. I went mad a few weeks ago and he had carried me through it, held the burden of my perception of the moment, the distortion of the situation, the delusion, the isolation my mind had latched itself to. Lately I have been praying (even revolutionaries pray) that when gripped by the fear and insanity, when grasped in the separation, when bitterness is hurled at my feet or thrown in my face, to be able to hold my people through, to carry their burden, staying, not running away from the anger.
My people; I am Jewish, yes, and they are my people and very, very mad. Genocide will make you so, but when I say my people I do not stop at blood and kinship. This friend, he is my people. All those who fight for justice, they are my people. In this sense you too, are my people.
His anger scared me. “Why are you calling me?” he demanded. He had never asked me this before.
“Because I am your friend.” I answered as if asking a question.
“What do you want? Why did you call?” He yelled at me. I wanted to yell back or run away. I stayed. It took more strength to stay than to strike back or leave.
“It’s not important now. What’s going on?” I asked.
“ You of all people should know what I am going through. I shouldn’t have to tell you.” As if in the not knowing I had betrayed him.
Was it a personal matter he had mentioned to me last week in passing? A situation that I had thought had greater significance in his life than the attention and intensity he was bringing to the telling.
“No it is not that.” He barked. “You do not understand, perhaps it is because we live in different worlds.”
Later in the conversation he would tell me that that was not what he said at all. He reminded me that all our conversations were probably taped and that perhaps we would have the opportunity to play it back one day. At that point I understood that we had passed through the trial of this conversation, survived the test and the battlefield, this insidious war that turns us on each other.
From the moment I met him we had been held in a deep kinship. Through all the years of friendship, this was the first time I had seen it, felt it, was imbedded in it; the wall, impenetrable. We live in different worlds. We are separate. The war was so imbedded in him that he was mad at me for loving him.
How could I know what was upsetting him? Not because of different worlds, but because he had never brought his pain to me before and because there was so much that could be the cause of his distress. I began to guess and was progressively wrong each time, right, then wrong. His anger and his fear knew no harbor.
Finally, I reminded him; “Don’t embrace the separation, I am your friend whatever you are carrying, tell me, I can carry it with you. Describe this world to me. I will enter it with you. It is what I do, why I am here on this earth.”
In the years I have known him, he has shared with me the loss of the revolution, the execution of his sister, his own imprisonment, the harbinger of defeat in the silence of the radio. All with calm self-possession. I left room but never forced the matter. I know trauma, too well. I know sometimes we can make statements so horrible with such dispassion because we have not touched the pain and it isn’t time. Other times, with such dispassion because we already know, we have fallen as far as the pain will take us and we have moved on. My trauma is of no consequence. I choose to love anyway, choose to fight, choose to seek out connection despite my wounds. I have let them heal. Perhaps his wounds had healed, or perhaps they had not and when the pain surged, it always surges, I would listen then.
This was the first time he had brought his pain to me and it was coming in a torrent of anger that needed to be held, not fought.
He and I are the most dangerous of revolutionaries, because we don’t throw bombs, because we love, across boundaries, across separation. “When can we talk?” he asked me, “I cannot have this conversation over the phone.”
“I can jump in a car right now if you need me to.” I said. It was the middle of the night with more than fifty miles between us.
“No, it’s not like that. It can wait.” He told me.
Friday I will know what world it is he says I do not live in. I have entered worlds like this before, stepped into lives and troubles I could have lived a lifetime and never known, suddenly connected to experiences and suffering more profound than marriage, more inextricable than divorce. This is what happens when we choose to love, the tenacity of love, when freedom is measured in humanity and the air we breathe instead of presidential platitudes. The worlds are joined anyway. Separation is illusion. Did so many Palestinians ever foresee their lives so intricately connected to the death camps of Europe? Suppose our grandparents, the world, collectively had refused the genocide of the Armenians, had entered that world, married that suffering, connected to that experience, stood up to generals and executioners. Such a stand perhaps would have changed the entire trajectory of history. The world we live in today would be very different from the experience of pain we all find ourselves in now.
William, last Friday night your anger scared me too. I am learning to tell myself words alone cannot hurt me and to endure, share the burdens we all carry living on this earth, especially those of us who know that freedom isn’t the right to go to the shopping mall. Justice doesn’t fly a flag from an SUV.
There I was, in your home, presenting possibilities, a crush now a reality. I don’t like pedestals, I tend to fall off and find no one there to catch me and there I was, and there you were pushing me off the pedestal you had propped me up on. I think you chose to insult me because you were afraid. I think I knew this at the time and so chose not to take your racist admonitions personally. “Why do we always need a Jewish savior?” you screamed at me, after repeatedly insulting the nose of the labor leader in the movie, and pointing to every rich, oppressive person and calling them a Jew. These were mean words, they were meant to hurt and they did. I shut you up by putting my tongue in your mouth. You were sweet again, on my tongue, your essence next to my skin, the scratchiness of your beard, the power of grip and grasp, the mingling of our dualities.
So why the need for a Jewish savior? Forget Jewish, forget that an entire civilization has been built on the image of a dead Jew on a stick, worn on gold chains around the necks of believers. Forget that all of Christendom has killed my people in the name of a Jewish savior. I do not know why you need a Jewish savior. I do not know why a Jewish savior captures the minds so vividly of those who would harm us so profoundly. You worship Jesus, not I. But that is not what you meant. It was just a clever way I could divert the conversation, could redirect your attack, deflect the blow, illuminate the bigotry that you were sending my way when all I was offering you was my warmth and the possibilities that can come when a man and a woman are drawn to each other, possibilities of connection, collaboration, transformation, the way that passion and vision intertwine, the nakedness of risk, the promise of endurance.
Jewish or not, we all need saviors. Very few books on Jewish history on your shelves, two or three, far fewer than the books of your people, on my shelves. I know your history much more intimately than you know mine. I am proud of Jewish labor leaders. I am proud of where my people have stood on the battlefield of human rights. I am proud of the risks we take and the love we make, daily with the world, passionately seeking deeper love and deeper justice.
Yes we make mistakes, bumble over patronizing conversation, err in cultural assumptions and misunderstandings, but we are there, risking the possibilities, allowing for the connections, breaking down the separations. Cross-cultural dialogue can be very difficult. And yet you condemned us for even being there, in the streets, in the factories, in the fields. “Why was Fred Ross Jewish? Why was Saul Alinsky Jewish?” You accused me as if we had injured you by desire alone. And yet you had invited me to dinner, had cooked for me, lit candles, chosen music. And in that evening, you could not even sit with me without insulting me, your guest, so difficult is this cross-cultural divide, so hard to cross.
And why didn’t I leave? Most women would have left with righteous dramatics, stormed out, broken something. I thought of leaving as I sat with you on your sofa, stunned by your anger and accusations but I felt in my soul that it wasn’t time to leave. There was the anticipation built up over the preceding weeks of telephone and email flirtations and innuendos, the mysteries built up in workplace exchanges that called within me for exploration, resolution. It was the man I first saw, the one who is so tender with children, the one who knows how to love the world, the adored teacher, the man who was drawn to me, not the one who offended me in his kitchen, but the man who invited me there. That was the man I wanted to kiss.
Beyond that, I have spent my life held in the rigid duality of right and wrong. I am dancing with the possibilities of dialectics, human dialectics, the changes we bring about in one another. I lived an angry life for many years. I know what it means to strike before struck, to hurt someone before I am hurt. I think that is what you were doing. Offending me to push me away. You said you were teasing. Perhaps, but these were jokes that require trust that hadn’t been earned without risking admonition.
I didn’t want to reproach your anger with anger. I wanted to leave on good terms, silly perhaps under the circumstances, and stranger yet with what manifested itself as good terms. Was I sleeping with the enemy when I joined myself with you? I don’t think so. I was dancing with the possibilities, with desire, with complexity; the understanding that each of us is more than we pretend to be. Beyond that, I was meeting you with abandon in a life of caution, fear and righteousness.
Venturing beyond your own people is not a skill you have honed, overwhelmed as you were by the prospects of one dinner with a woman from a different people. So be easy on us. There is no need to be cruel. No need to push me away. I understand you are wounded. I do not come pouring salt.
You want to go to Chiapas, you, an American, Chicano. You will be like a White boy there, stumbling over your desire to help, mixed with your assumptions, the barriers of language. Spanish in El Monte and Spanish in Chiapas are not the same, and then there are the languages of the region. You speak the language of the conqueror. None of this is simple.
Savior, why do any of us need a savior? On your bookshelf one of two books on my people, sat the book Schindler’s List. Schindler, our savior, an Austrian, womanizing, capitalist, Christian member of the Nazi Party, a slave holder, a manufacturer of war commodities and weapons. His Jews still call themselves to this day Schindler Jews. Do you remember how he saved them? He bought them. He owned them. Our savior, a slave holder, our savior, our master. I come from a people whose hair was made into rugs, our skin into lampshades and ladies purses, our ashes into the soap our murderers cleansed themselves with daily.
We all need saviors. We need saviors because we cannot endure without them, because we are not alone, we are not separate, we bleed the same, we love our children, our streets, the keys that fit into the doors of the places we call home. I do not need to be in your skin to know the pain that comes with negation, the fear that comes with marginalization. Gripped in that grip of humanity, we are inextricably joined together. When we think we are alone, that our humanity is more humane, that our suffering is greater, that our experience is incomprehensible, that we are too worthy for the support that salvation of someone else brings, then we too become dangerous.
We build monuments to our suffering and isolation. We construct walls of separation. We bring suffering upon our own image, our own community, our own blood. We do not recognize the reflection in the mirror. We find narrow solutions of self-preservation that are not preservation.
Not all Jews are labor leaders and revolutionaries. We do not all see and seek universal possibilities. Right now, so many of my people, the Jews, from ashes and lampshades, from round ups and numbers tattooed on arms, fight a war of isolation, forgetting our own skin, thinking we must be separate, forging unholy alliances with previous perpetrators in order to extract land and labor we are not entitled to, from those who never meant us harm. We are more alone than ever, more endangered than ever.
Do you want this for your people? Do you have to do it alone? Is this the road to freedom or the ghetto of the mind, the separation, the isolation posing for liberation? Justice requires unity, connection, revelry in diversity, a celebration of possibilities, the risk of connection, the adventure of love, real love, not pasty romantic love of shallow movies, not a president kissing his wife love, not the love the capitalist has for his money; propaganda; greed, not love.
Liberation requires the humility of both the savior and the saved. Truly we save each other, heal each other. These may very well be the worst of times. It is the strength we have to hold each other up that may very well be all that can get us through. We defend ourselves the most when we fight for someone else, knowing in the connection, that the possibility of a more just world is truly the only battle worthy of the fray.
I say to you at the risk of sounding ridiculous, the revolutionary is motivated by great sentiments of love.