Meditations in an Emergency
Writing Home to Kahramanmaraş— Loss from a great distance, and what writing it means.
You must think that something is happening with you, that life has not forgotten you, that it holds you in its hand; it will not let you fall— Rainer Maria Rilke
My last newsletter was titled ‘Towards Living in February’— which has become both a cruel irony and a personal reminder. I don’t have a newsletter this week so much as I have the account of an axe to the tree.
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Joan Didion laments the lack of warning for tragedy in the opening of ‘The Year of Magical Thinking’, writing: “Life changes fast. Life changes in the instant. You sit down to dinner and life as you know it ends.” I’ve had it on my shelf for a while now but have yet to read it. Instead, I’ve taken to carrying it this past week purely for the company. As Didion said, personal tragedy (or generational defining events) never come with warnings, though my baba’s phone ringing could have counted had it not been so typical. My parents were at my dorm visiting when the news came, and after that call we would spend the next twenty minutes making sure my grandmother was alive.
That was February 6th (the 5th, here). My father’s hometown of Kahramanmaraş has become the namesake of the 7.8 earthquake that’s killed over 46,000 people— our city was at the epicenter, and the New York Times has released a satellite map of the city as it stands today. Both the earthquake and the headlines are unfathomable, having been raised in California where Maraş was deeply obscure. It was purely the place where my family hailed, not something that could be pointed to on a map. I’ve been disoriented both by the news and by the apathy by which those around me are treating it. I’ve been surprised by silence from friends and incredible kindness from plain acquaintances. I’ve also been reminded of myself, Middle Eastern in a place where that means blurred faces and humanities, tragedies that seem to stretch on endlessly with little importance.
I’ve been surprised by silence from friends and incredible kindness from plain acquaintances. I’ve also been reminded of myself, middle eastern in a place where that means blurred faces and humanities, tragedies that seem to stretch on endlessly with little importance.
But mostly, I’ve been preoccupied by news and uncertainties— of family, my place in all this, and how to move forward. They call my condition (OCD) the doubting disease. The past two weeks, I’ve been even more consumed with it. Obsessions with morality, with consideration and over-consideration of my own place and what is right— to write and to do. There are too many considerations to work through, too many ethical questions, and too many ways in which I try and convince myself to be quieter.
Over the past weeks, I’ve had many things to consider:
Whose story do we get to tell? And whose story is it, in the first place? There’s an undeniable physical separation between me and the event, no matter how directly I am affected. Still, it belongs to me. This is my family— the place I was promised as my own, and the people that love me. And I keep oscillating between the two, though they coexist— the physical distance and the continual connection. I’m told this is normal— that I’m trying to figure out my role as a family member, as well as who I am as a person and a writer. Of course this is bothering you, you’re compassionate. This is not something you’d just shrug off. It’s very nice phrasing to say that since the earthquake, I’ve been disarranged and confused, hovering above the edge of a set feeling, a set role by which to participate in tragedy.
Does writing it down change anything? The difference between something being experienced and something being perceived is a question that’s always bothered me. Either the experiences are warped by imperfect words, or my own emotions are stretched and worn from being shared in some potentially voyeuristic way. I couldn’t write this in any sense in the literary world. I’d hate to submit it, hate to publish it, hate to promote it and let those vaguely curious read with apathy— not cruelly, of course, but bored and used to people like us being devastated, having seen us often from ads for charities.
And this unknowable change, does it limit my own connection to this event? If writing is a form of reaching towards something, what happens when you do it incorrectly? I’d be more lost within this, more unable to grasp the entirety of the earthquake and its meaning.
“Things aren't all so tangible and sayable as people would usually have us believe; most experiences are unsayable, they happen in a space that no word has ever entered, and more unsayable than all other things are works of art, those mysterious existences, whose life endures beside our own small, transitory life”— Rainer Maria Rilke
But otherwise, without writing it, how does this end? Reuters’ ‘worst natural disaster of the century’, my family’s and so many families’ own personal tragedy. Who can silently move on? This Friday, my friend Julia came over, insisting both on visiting and comforting me. We ordered Turkish food and she had me wear my nice dresses, took photos of me on the balcony. This is insensitive, I thought as I posed. Who could be happy? But I was. I was happy.
When thinking of this, I try and remember what my grandmother would be thinking. Of course I should be happy, she wants all her children to be happy. I think of her, and try to remember she would be grateful I was far away— that I am able to continue living my life peacefully. Of course, I would never ask.
She sent me her ring three years ago, too large for my hand but loved all the same. I kept it alongside everything else she’s sent me, the embroidered scarves, the special prayer beads, and all the jewelry. It’s occurred to me that having been forced to leave her home with only her purse, I may own more of her things than she does. Last week, I sent her two enamel pins with my baba, a hyacinth (for our family name) and a dark-haired girl reading (for me).
It’s still all in a fog. I wait for a notice, a time, that tells me it’s okay to move on from this feeling. There is no notice, of course. This will have happened forever.
There is no notice, of course. This will have happened forever.
I say my family’s ‘personal tragedy’, but despite it all we’ve been very lucky. Which is difficult to reconcile— that the best case scenario is to be alive and left without anything, rather than dead or having lost someone alongside losing everything else. But— thank God— my immediate family is all safe and well. And what’s more, we can help them. A week or so after the earthquake, my father flew over to do just that.
I was on a phone call, helping a friend prepare for an interview when I saw what they’re calling the defining photo of the earthquake. Sorry, I said, losing my place. I’m sorry, wait a second. It was a photo of Mesut Hancer holding his daughter Irmak’s hand, though she is dead. (Mesut meaning ‘fortunate, or happy one’, Irmak meaning ‘river’). I couldn’t stop thinking about it, told my baba when I saw him next that I was thinking of him. He said he saw the picture and thought of me, too, and how terrible it was. A father and daughter from Maraş, just like us, he’d said.
I’m sorry about your hometown, I told Baba as we were walking out from my dorm. We’d wrapped our arms around each other, even as we moved.
It’s your hometown, too, he told me.
My baba has always insisted I speak standard Istanbul Turkish, telling me to learn the proper way. My anne told me that upon arriving to school in Istanbul on scholarship, he’d been mocked for his accent, the dialect considered poor and uneducated. He’d learned standard Turkish quickly, and has always used it since, even with us. As such, I grew up saying seni seviyorum for ‘I love you’, instead of the way he grew up saying it. He would seldom say it differently, would tsk when I tried imitating it.
But when he hugged me goodbye before his flight, he said it seni seviyom— the Maraş way. I don’t think I could have helped it, either. Kissing him on the cheek, I said it the same.
Over the phone on his second day back in Türkiye, my baba told me that 35 relatives had died in the earthquake. He said it while looking away, and hung up the phone soon after. I was so surprised— unable to believe the news with how quickly it was delivered— I called my anne and asked. Yes, she’d said. That’s what he told me. I didn’t know any of them, nor do I know their names. I gave myself a stomach ache thinking about it, felt a fever and opened the windows even as the weather turned 40 degrees. I get hot just writing this, take off my sweater. I wonder if the beekeeper cousin of mine I’ve heard about a handful of times is okay.
I suppose I’m writing in order to learn how to properly be devastated, because there must be a right way. If it can be done correctly, then at least something can be set right.
I’m writing in order to learn how to properly be devastated, because there must be a right way. If it can be done correctly, then at least something can be set right.
A few years ago, my büyükanne refused to leave Kahramanmaraş, despite the urging of some of the family who wanted her in Izmir near them. I didn’t quite understand it at the time, but now that she’s finally moved, I’ve realized too late what it means. It’s occurred to me that however many centuries our family has lived in Maraş, it’s finally come to an end.
Right now my father is in Türkiye, seeing his hometown destroyed. His Maraş, like my mother’s Los Angeles, like my San Francisco— whose bridge I see when I look out the window. While I’ve been to Istanbul, Izmir, and some other coastal cities, I’ve never been to Maraş. Last summer, I got the chance, but couldn’t visit due to medical issues and college prep. And so, with the earthquake I’ve also lost the chance to see Maraş as it was— and as my family lived it.
It occurred to me that however many centuries our family has lived in Maraş, it’s finally come to an end.
Elif Shafak in a recent interview about the earthquake says it well:
It's - you know, I keep crying. I feel angry. I feel immense sorrow. I always find solace in poetry. It's very interesting. I mean, the fact that I'm physically not there doesn't mean emotionally, I'm disconnected. And I know this feeling will resonate with many people across the diaspora. You know, we do not forget our motherlands just because we happen to be away, you know? So it's just heartbreaking.
And that’s it, right? We just happen to be away.
The patron poem of this month for American Turks in crisis is Meditations In An Emergency by Cameron Awkward-Rich,
I wake up & it breaks my heart. I draw the blinds & the thrill of rain breaks my heart. I go outside. I ride the train, walk among the buildings, men in Monday suits. The flight of doves, the city of tents beneath the underpass, the huddled mass, old women hawking roses, & children all of them, break my heart. There’s a dream I have in which I love the world. I run from end to end like fingers through her hair. There are no borders, only wind. Like you, I was born. Like you, I was raised in the institution of dreaming. Hand on my heart. Hand on my stupid heart.
It’s very American, but in this beautiful way that kind of reminds you why our families converged here in the first place— even with the failures of the place that we’ve embraced as our own. Even as we are kept far away, turned back to look at the places that are a different kind of home to us.
The future enters into us, in order to transform itself in us, long before it happens—Rainer Maria Rilke
We are all going forward. None of us are going back— Richard Siken
I’m beginning to move forward now, too, or at least intending it. I have schoolwork to get to, writing to do, things ahead of me. Maybe I’ll regret sharing this. I’m often very worried that by sharing something I’ve somehow corrupted it. I imagine that’s the OCD, as well. But in the meantime, having written this today, I feel less burdened in a way I forgot writing could do. Not all the way, but enough for right now. Maybe enough to get to work tomorrow, write something and lighten a bit more.
I try and remember that there are always new things to come. Maybe next week something in me will turn over, and this uneasiness will fade in my sleep. Today, I’m reminded of what a teacher told me years ago— how I write for ‘the seeker’. More and more, I’ve discovered that I am the seeker, always looking for home. Hand on my heart. Hand on my stupid heart. I’ll keep looking.
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Important Update: the beekeeper is okay!! he is also my great-uncle, and I’ve heard about him for years. I thought the beekeeper was a separate being because no one used his name 😭