Self-Help for Fellow Refugees

“Self-Help for Fellow Refugees”

If your name suggests a country where bells

might have been used for entertainment


or to announce the entrances and exits of the seasons

or the birthdays of gods and demons,


it’s probably best to dress in plain clothes

when you arrive in the United States,

and try not to talk too loud.


If you happen to have watched armed men

beat and drag your father

out the front door of your house

and into the back of an idling truck


before your mother jerked you from the threshold

and buried your face in her skirt folds,

try not to judge your mother too harshly.


Don’t ask her what she thought she was doing

turning a child’s eyes

away from history

and toward that place all human aching starts.


And if you meet someone

in your adopted country,

and think you see in the other’s face

an open sky, some promise of a new beginning,

it probably means you’re standing too far.


Or if you think you read in the other, as in a book

whose first and last pages are missing,

the story of your own birthplace,

a country twice erased,

once by fire, once by forgetfulness,

it probably means you’re standing too close.


In any case, try not to let another carry

the burden of your own nostalgia or hope.


And if you’re one of those

whose left side of the face doesn’t match

the right, it might be a clue


looking the other way was a habit

your predecessors found useful for survival.

Don’t lament not being beautiful.


Get used to seeing while not seeing.

Get busy remembering while forgetting.

Dying to live while not wanting to go on.


Very likely, your ancestors decorated

their bells of every shape and size

with elaborate calendars

and diagrams of distant star systems,

but with no maps for scattered descendants.


And I bet you can’t say what language

your father spoke when he shouted to your mother

from the back of the truck, “Let the boy see!”


Maybe it wasn’t the language you used at home.

Maybe it was a forbidden language.

Or maybe there was too much screaming

and weeping and thenoise of guns in the streets.


It doesn’t matter. What matters is this:

The kingdom of heaven is good.

But heaven on earth is better.


Thinking is good.

But living is better.


Alone in your favorite chair

with a book you enjoy

is fine. But spooning

is even better.


Leave a Comment