I’ve been thinking a lot about my dear friend Ellen Levine, who lost her battle with cancer yesterday. I started rereading her emails, pulling out bits and pieces of her words, trying to recreate the essence of her--like people who catch the scent of a loved one they’ve lost in an old coat and just want to hang onto it.
Right before going to bed last night I looked at the stack of books at my bedside. On the top of the pile was Art and Fear. I hadn’t gotten around to reading it. For some crazy reason, I said, “Okay, Ellen,” and picked it up. I tend to be fearful whereas Ellen was fearless. The first thing I read was this:
“Life is short, art long, opportunity fleeting, experience treacherous, judgement difficult.”--Hippocrates (460-400 BC)
Life is short. Hippocrates only lived to be 40. Ellen was 70, which looks young to me these days. But art is long and yours, Ellen, will long outlive us.
Opportunity is fleeting but you, Ellen, knew how to grab it by the horns and run with it. And you knew, too, the treacherous nature of experience and were always ready and willing to pin it to the floor.
Oh my wise and scrappy Ellen!
When I questioned my judgement I always went to Ellen and she always made me see what I already knew but was reluctant to admit. When I asked her whether she thought I was foolish to speak out publicly about the sale of Marshal Cavendish to Amazon, for example, here is what she said:
"Those that disagree with the M/C sale can't hurt you any more than they already are by not carrying the book. You, George, Rachel, et al., may talk about stepping warily as you wade into political waters, but thank god you all never have. You're fighters and say what you think. Sure there are times when it's wise to be silent. My 2 cents is this ain't one of them."
And another time, when I was worrying over reviews:
"...listen, there's nada we can do to combat stupidity except to keep writing and speaking truth as we know it."
And here, when I was plagued by the thought of those who might question the authenticity of my work and my right to write it:
"Seems to me we spend way too much time in life locking ourselves and others in boxes that we think are important definitionally. But when I read My Name Is Not Easy, one thing so very moving to me was the way Luke talked and thought about his far north landscape. It's not mine; I don't look out on vast unhemmed in openness, a true bowl of a sky, etc etc, but I related and was deeply moved. It reminded me in a sense of my grandmother's kitchen, as it were -- i.e., that I have a landscape and it has meaning to me."
And this, when I asked her to write a blurb for the book:
"Meanwhile, my fine writer friend, why in hell do you want a quote from this NY urban Jewish radical woman..."
Ah, my dear Ellen, that’s an easy one. As it turns out I happen to love NY urban Jewish radical women….or at least one of them.
And her quote, part of which is on the cover of the book:
The line about love, betrayal, and above all, survival was used on the cover--but it's the last line that carries the essence of Ellen and the mark she's left."In My Name Is Not Easy, Debby Dahl Edwardson has given us an
extraordinary tale of love, betrayal, and above all, survival, as agroup of young Alaskan Natives are transplanted from their home
villages to a parochial boarding school in the Alaskan wilderness.
Through their stories, Edwardson reminds us that the landscape we see
is also the landscape of our soul, whether arctic tundra or urban canyons.This is a novel that, like landscape, marks a reader's soul forever."
PS--Her Books (some of them):
Darkness Over Denmark, the story of the Danish resistance that saved the Jews in Denmark during World War II
A Fence Away from Freedom, about internment of Japanese Americans in the 1940s
I Hate English, which has become a resource for ESL teachers.
Freedom's Children, the story of the young black civil rights activists of the 1960s, which the New York Times called, "nothing short of wonderful."
Henry's Freedom Box, the true story of a slave who mailed himself to freedom, a book which earned her a Caldecott Honor
Catch a Tiger by the Toe, of the MacCarthy era.
In Trouble, the story of two pregnant teenaged girls in the l950's, pre Roe vs Wade, written in a voice pitch perfect, which nails the era. I know; I was there. Much I had forgotten. Thanks to Ellen we will remember.
I am particularly fond of this line from Ellen’s introduction to Darkness over Denmark:
There were “good people” in countries throughout Europe who helped Jews during the Nazi period. But many more, when faced with the arrest and murder of their Jewish neighbors said, “What could we do?” For Danes, one additional word made all the difference: “What else could we do?”
The essence of Ellen Levine, her passion for social justice and her willingness to always act in its defense.
Go buy one of her books right now.