Notes from the Road:

An Afterward Moving Forward

I never imagined that when I wrote first one word and then another in the wake of the sudden loss of my husband that I was beginning the process of writing a memoir, let alone a memoir that would make its way into the world and connect me to so many people and stories. Braced by my writing hand on the dining room table, I felt I was literally making sounds, not even words, one by one, until they became fragments, then sentences, and then something whole that told me not what I was feeling but rather what was happening, at the most basic level. “The earth will hold me,” I would remind myself as I wrote between sentences I was alive and I was a mother, and I could think and breathe and write, even as I felt the earth had been swept out from beneath me. Such was the state in which I began The Light of the World. When I finished it — after sharing it with my sons, for I would not have put it forth in the world without their assent — I did not feel it had been cathartic, as many quite reasonably asked me. But I knew I had written my way through a stretch in the road of my life, and that each word was a necessary step forward to the next station, the next stage, brief poet’s chapter by brief chapter.

When the book was first excerpted in The New Yorker a deluge of email began to come to me which continued a few months later when the book was published and then again as I set out on the road. The book seemed to ask for a tour that was a little bit different from the usual. As much as The Light of the World is a love story that begins with two people and tells a particular story about a particular man, and family, I wanted those particulars to radiate outward and be meaningful in ever-widening circles. For loss is our common denominator. None of us will escape it. None of us will outrun death. What do we do in the space between that is our lives? What is the quality and richness of our lives? How do we move through struggle and let community hold us when we have been laid low? This book had to live someplace outside of the sound of my own voice, to paraphrase the poet Sekou Sundiata, another dear one gone too soon. It had to be larger than me and my individual love.

Many things happened on the road that were profound. I might have expected to connect with other widows who read the book and connected because of demographic commonalities. But I found the human connections far exceeded that boundary. In Los Angeles, I did a reading with a group called “Inside/Out Writing” that creates writing workshops for incarcerated young people and then continues that writing practice when they are released, both as an anti-recidivism method and also to continue to build community. I read with some of those young people who shared stories that they wrote through. Two of them interviewed me with tremendous care and closed the interview by thanking me in their languages — Tagalog and Korean — recasting Ficre’s polyglot mantra that I described in the book: What could be more important than saying thank you in someone’s original language? A young man who joined the program while a teenager in prison gave me a bag filled with glitter in which was a tiny glass bottle with a cork plug. The plug was a computer drive, and his own poems jumped up on my screen when I plugged it in, a life in verse, someone else who was moving forward with writing.

And some connections took me beyond Ficre and were merely moving, or uncanny. Among the moving: the man who came up to me and told me he was so happy to have found me because it connected him to my father, who was a childhood playmate of his. Their parents had been united in the wish for justice and connection between blacks and Jews, and he inherited my father’s childhood wooden boat, a picture of which he brought me; his own grandchildren now play with it. Ficre would have loved that, and so I showed my father a picture of a beloved childhood toy he had not laid eyes on in 70 years. Stories carry memory, and connect.

Or the Haitian poet who spoke to me of the many commonalities and of the figure of the horseman that Ficre was painting at the time of his passing being a harbinger of death. I will never know if Ficre had foreknowledge of his passing — nor would I wonder, nor would it matter, given the intractable fact of his death — but I am stirred by the idea that from another culture, someone saw symbol and ritual and meaning and was moved by it.

A colleague, a classicist, after hearing me read in New Haven wrote to me:

When I read your achingly lyrical account of Ficre’s last days and the hawk, taken as an omen, that prompted the acrostic and lottery tickets, it made me imagine that, somehow, feelingly, at a subconscious level your husband had an intuition of disquiet and danger ahead. And I find it very moving that he responded by trying to turn the apparition into a propitious omen for his family (the urge to win the lottery for you on page 24). Now whenever I read passages where Homeric warriors prophesy on the cusp of death I will think of your book and of its hero, Ficre.

I received this interpretation of the Jewish Kabbalah poems I heard of hearing in the minutes before Ficre died:

I believe that what we are uniquely given, as humans, windows into the infinity of God. We are also given the remarkable ability to open our windows wider, to stretch our view into the infinite — worship, beckoning, weeping, joy, bearing, birth, banjo, love, poetry, astrophysics, term papers, painting, a hawk devouring a squirrel. To me, this is what you describe in your story, the stretching of your world, the ability to see and experience and love more deeply as you built a life together with Ficre and your sons, to join your windows from such different worlds together so you could all peer more deeply into the infinite.
But you are never going to get all the way there — because that is the nature of infinity. You were never going to have your husband and lover forever, no one can. What you were and are able to do, and what you express so beautifully, is to deeply appreciate the additional depths and dimensions you were able to reach because of the time you had with him, and the sons you had together, and the new windows into the infinite that opened for you.
and he saw —
windows without number and end.

As a writer, it is so very rare to have someone tell you what they see in your work and expand it into a different world. Sometimes — oftentimes — our writing has meaning in it that we didn’t even put there. “The poem is smarter than the poet,” we poets often say, which is to note: we dredge so much from the subconscious for our work that we cannot even be aware or sure of all we put in it. So the gift, rarely glimpsed, is what others see there, and thus what was and is within us.

On the book tour and in the letters I have had the privilege of receiving, people/readers have shared with me very, very intimate stories, each of which I have held like treasures, of loss, and family, and its simultaneous strength and vulnerability. The strength of human connection gets us through this life, but we are also, in moments of profound loss, reminded of how fragile this life is. How do you start again and carry the past within you? Why is it important to carry that with us? What remains when the body is no longer here? I have been privileged on this journey to be able to contemplate and respond those questions. My readers and audiences have helped me.

Writer after writer has talked about how we are connected by stories, that what makes us human or where we measure our humanness is in a long chain of stories. Word to word, word as piece of soul, soul to soul. I believe that now as never before.

I found that first-generation Americans connected with the story of what I had not previously thought of as a mixed marriage, American and immigrant. And that they saw in Ficre’s life story not the tragedy of his passing, but a wonderful way to make a new life in America, to work hard and aspire to be not just a doctor or an engineer as so many hard-working parents would wish for their children but rather, an artist, someone uniquely positioned to tell the tale and exemplify their life of cross-culture. To tell the tale of what happens when you come from one place and make something new in glorious combination in America.

At every reading, someone of course would ask, how are the boys? Solo and Simon were twelve and thirteen when they lost their father; when this paperback comes out, four years after Ficre’s passing, they will be almost seventeen and eighteen. Solo will have just graduated high school and Simon will be commencing his senior year. I am truly in awe of their courage, and every day is graced by their even-headedness, sense of purpose, and hilarity. They are joyful young people. Their father is with them and with us but I think that having survived tragedy, they have realized that they and we are strong enough to weather it, and that the world is lit by a million exciting things every day. I see their father in them physically, and also my father and their uncles on both sides. Mostly, they are themselves.

It is not easy to go back to the site of a book like this and write about it. Writing in the very wake of my husband’s sudden passing was writing in a zone. The language there was raw and true and lit; there was urgency. I knew as I wrote that I would not be the same person on the other side. The Rilke I quoted in the book continues to resonate for me: “No feeling is final.” Never have I so clearly understood life and the road to be walked. And while I write in the book of hearing “Mahalia Jackson as though for the first time,” I also hear anew “Will the Circle be Unbroken,” for so many circles have been drawn in the life of this book, a life that is certainly bigger than mine or even that of the mighty, beautiful, soulful Ficre, the most beautiful person anyone ever knew. This book was not a conjurer’s wand to bring him back to life. But he lives in its pages, and like other heroes of literature, he teaches us something about how to live our days in detail. Every day can have beauty and tenderness, at the simplest level of the meal and a flower in a garden. Every day can contain some small pleasure. Every act can have integrity, be courageous, and be guided by kindness. Over and over again as I met people who themselves had been refugees or suffered political consequences in different countries, I think of the courage to start anew, and the miracle of positivity and light.

In simplicity is such guiding truth. I turn again to the spirituals. “This little light of mine, I’m gonna let it shine” could also be an epigraph to this book, if it were not understood as being simply a merry exhortation. It was, after all, best known as an anthem during the mighty struggles of the civil rights movement. That beautifully repeated let it shine, let it shine, let it shine performs the will to live in the context of mighty, life-and-death struggle. The word “shine” is bright radiance itself.

This book existed in my own body and now it connects and continues to connect with others, making an ever-widening human circle. Our individual lights are small compared to all the light in the world. More light. More light.

Excerpted from THE LIGHT OF THE WORLD paperback version by Elizabeth Alexander published by Grand Central Publishing. Copyright © 2016 Elizabeth Alexander.

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