The Jewish Book Council is delighted to launch a new blog series in partnership with Ask Big Questions, an initiative out of Hillel International aimed at getting people to talk about issues of heart, soul and community. Each month, Ask Big Questions will feature a JBC author on their blog, shared here on the JBC ProsenPeople blog page, and in campus programming reaching over 10,000 college and graduate students.
Miriam Karmel is an award-winning short story writer. She is currently touring through the 2014-2015 JBC Network with her first novel, Being Esther.
Recently, my town’s Selectmen gave a small-time developer the go-ahead to build a very large gas station on a pristine piece of land.
The land abuts a rocky river at the southern gateway to the Berkshires. Tourists flock to the Berkshires for the woods, the hills, the clean air, the small town charm. The place is a haven for city folk, a balm for the spirit when the city becomes too much. Now, the Selectmen, all three of them, have let the city in. Coming soon: a round-the-clock gas station with eight pumps, a separate fueling area for diesel trucks, plus a Subway on the side. Or perhaps a Dunkin Donuts. Welcome to the Berkshires!
The Selectmen are elected to represent our town’s citizens. To represent means to speak or act for another. Yet when they voted to allow a developer to set up shop in our wilderness, they did not speak or act for me. “Tax dollars,” they said, to those who protested. “We need a gas station.” Both may be true. The town is strapped for money. Yet why does this feel like selling one’s soul to the Devil? And we haven’t had a gas station since a runaway truck took out the single pump that had been here forever. The truck destroyed the adjacent country store, too.
There must be a name for this phenomenon, for the feeling that your elected representatives do not represent you. Let’s call it helplessness. It’s the feeling you get when you see the train wreck coming and there isn’t a thing you can do to stop it. I did what I could. I wrote opinion pieces for our local paper condemning the plan. I spoke up at town meetings. It was like howling in the wind.
Our town will survive. Yes, the landscape will be altered, though perhaps not forever. Detroit, I have read, is becoming a haven for foxes. The critters are moving into downtown Detroit, into places where people once lived. Woodland and prairie are blooming where houses once stood. “Nature heals the cuts that we’ve made,” a fox researcher said. I should take heart in that.
Still, I feel helpless. I dread the coming of the mega-station. The fast food joint.
Lately, at times like this, I find myself turning to Esther Lustig and wondering: What would Esther do? Esther is an 85-year-old widow who lives alone in an apartment in Chicago. She is the protagonist of my novel Being Esther.
Esther has good reason to feel helpless. She is active and bright. Her life is full. Yet her daughter Ceely wants her to move to Cedar Shores, an assisted living residence.
After Marty died, Ceely started placing glossy brochures on Esther’s coffee table, her nightstand, and even tucked between the pages of her latest book. The other day, she held one open and pointed to the pictures. “Look, Ma. You’ll have your own room.”
Disparagingly, Esther calls the place Bingoville. Esther intends to stay put.
“Thank you very much,” she told Ceely, as she handed back the brochure. “I’m happy just where I am.
Ceely is relentless. She is her mother’s self-appointed representative. She buys groceries for her mother, though Esther has explained how much she enjoys her outings to the supermarket. Ceely buys the wrong things. At one point, deaf to Esther’s preference for Lucky Charms, Ceely pulls a box of All-Bran from a grocery bag, as delighted as a magician plucking a rabbit from a hat.
Ceely pours the All-Bran into Esther’s favorite blue bowl, and as she slices banana on top she lectures her mother on the benefits of potassium.
Then she sets the bowl in front of her mother. After Ceely leaves, Esther dumps the cereal into the garbage and rinses out the bowl.
This is a small act of defiance. Yet in it Esther has asserted control over her life. Though she does not say so in the book, I can hear her telling Ceely: Thank you very much, but I can represent myself.
Some things, though, are beyond our control. I can’t stop the gas station. And Esther can’t stop the aging process. At some point she may end up at Cedar Shores.
So what would Esther say? She might say that as long as we are alive, we can represent ourselves by waging small acts of defiance. For Esther, that means staying in her own apartment. It means chucking the All-Bran and eating Lucky Charms.
Me? I’ll continue to speak out. And I’ll be on the lookout for moments of grace. For now, that includes finding comfort in the image of foxes taking up residence in a hollowed-out city. I’m holding on to the notion that nature heals the cuts we make.
Miriam Karmel's writing has appeared in numerous publications including Bellevue Literary Review, The Talking Stick, Pearl, Dust & Fire, Passager, Jewish Women's Literary Annual, and Water~Stone Review. She is the recipient of Minnesota Monthly's 2002 Tamarack Award, the Kate Braverman Short Story Prize, and the Arthur Edelstein Prize for Short Fiction. Her story "The King of Marvin Gardens" was anthologized in Milkweed Edition's Fiction on a Stick. Being Esther is her first novel.