Vision

Blake

Vision

R. Gamaliel, R. Eliezer b. Azariah, R. Yehoshua, and R. Akiva
came to the Temple Mount
they saw a fox coming out of the Holy of Holies,
they all burst into tears, except Akiva
Akiva laughed. [Makkot 24b]

I saw the foxes on the narrow dirt roads of the lower Galilee inching my way along in a Spanish-built car directioning myself by intuition and finding my way to my destination. But I saw the foxes, it was the week before Tisha B’Av and there was nothing in the obvious associations lost on me. The foxes were small, beautiful, car savvy, easily outrunning me on the car/foot/bike path darting in and out of openings in the foliage at the side of the road where they no doubt lived and thrived. Little foxes.

I felt neither the inclination to burst into tears or to have a particularly optimistic read on the future, though the Akiva laugh is always most meaningful to me as an invocation of neither via postiva or via negativa, just via ambiguosa. Who the hell knows what the foxes prefigure: you may as well laugh. They thought it was desolate, Akiva thought it was funny, George Moon thought it was desolate and funny. I think when presented with the sensory information, one may as well laugh.

I also feel the proximity between laughing and tears, to me they are right next to each other on the spectrum of human responses to existence when it is not a linear notion but a circular notion. Tears are sitting in one spot on the circle, right next to the tears the funny man and the distinction between the two is subtle. You might think you’re sitting in the tears spot and a moment later you’re cracking up and you realize you are in the next seat, laughing. I spend a good deal of every day in both seats as do most of the people I love.

I recall the description of Bar Yochai, Akiva’s student: one eye smiling, one eye crying.

Akiva, I am sure, knew the prophecy from Zechariah 8:4ff, Old men and old women shall sit again in the streets of Jerusalem, each one with his staff in his hand because of great age. The streets of the city shall be full of boys and girls playing in its streets.

If so, don’t take this prefiguring of the foxes too seriously; better days are coming. Akiva of the long look.

Or perhaps what Akiva had was a real vision. He actually saw into the future and saw what Zechariah described happening; it wasn’t a matter of attitude or posture, it was Akiva gazing into the future and seeing so much restoration that the implication of the ruin brought by the foxes meant nothing to him. He might have been laughing at everybody else’s limited imaginations. Behold the foxes; here’s the story of the foxes, drawn in a homiletically limited way, Akiva saw beyond that — eschewed homiletics entirely — had confidence in the future and knew God provides. Relax, said Akiva, I saw it and quit making sermons. You’re boring me with your tears drawn from those cute little foxes.

Secret: every so often — what we have here – is a real vision.

I was in Israel when I wrote this and the second or third evening after I arrived, I twisted my ankle in a rather dramatic and frightening way. I saw this at least a week before I came. I didn’t tell anyone I saw it coming because I didn’t believe it myself, it was just a dreamy imagining that I hurt my ankle when I came to the Land and I couldn’t do much. I had myself a vision, I also didn’t want my friends and family to think I’m crazy. It’s just not comfortable.

I’ve had visions before and they are not induced by drugs (sometimes by dreams) and some I pay attention to, some I don’t, some have changed or authenticated the course of my life. They are not acid flashbacks. I came of age in the Sixties but I bet I smoked less grass than my high school teachers and I was lead singer in a great band and couldn’t get a girl for the life of me. No, not any of that. I lived across the street from the MC5 and I spent all my free time in the library. I’m not bragging; this hasn’t as a matter of fact paid off much in my life until about a year ago. There’s just a door that opens once in a while in my head and I look through or out. That’s what I saw about two weeks before, as I was preparing to leave the States: an injury, a foot or leg injury in Israel, myself laid up.

What I didn’t see was the virus that followed, one I assume I picked up while visiting the holy Rambam at the hospital in Haifa that really laid me out, drove up a fever that crashed the bell over my head and made me delirious for at least one night and achy and stomachy and prepared for a clean colonoscopy by day two of said Vee-roos [Heb.]. No visions however, just hurt.

My handlers drove me to Jerusalem and dropped me in a hotel room by myself for two days with no food. But it was good; I felt like I was a street addict detoxing except I was overlooking the Old City. So much romance I could hardly stand it.

Blake saw God outside his window when he was five. I don’t doubt this at all. Read Blake. My own son picked out angels when he was just beginning to speak, his first word was “light,” and don’t think you know where those angels are congregating. It’s more like Wings of Desire; in the expressed environments of such spirits – not a trace. I checked many times, returning to the wisdom of Exodus 25:8, build it and I will dwell within them. Them, not it. All the clues are in the holy Torah. We have to think like Holmes.

As I wrote this, I was coming to my senses, having not left my hotel room overlooking the Old City of Jerusalem for two days. The hotel staff was very kind, they knew something was wrong in there but didn’t ask. I was there to do some teaching, most of which I had to reneg on, and to study with my music master with whom I met enough to acquire my pieces that I diligently worked. I had a load of books and the Wifi and figured out foreign access to Netflix. I had a very tasty borrowed Turkish style oud and a lovely German guitar I purchased in Prague and keep in Israel because I have been studying there every summer with my musical muse. I didn’t speak to anyone for days.

I don’t have that much to teach anyway. I have entered the listening learning curve of my life, having moved through the talking teaching curve as a young man when I had the hubris to think I knew something. I am on the less is more track, find your silence, give it give it give it all away, etc. track. I love it here.

I was high enough overlooking the valley Kidron that the breezes obviated the need for air conditioning, which was wonderful. The air and light of Jerusalem during the various changes of the day was one of the great pleasures of being there.

I sent healing from Jerusalem, the place I am born and born and born.

Epilog:

I passed away in Jerusalem. It was some kind of strange Kawangee fever that I picked up over the African Asian rift where germs wander when they are bent on revenge.

Until my death, I never once believed in the germ theory.

When found I was laid out on a pallet on the floor of a hotel room cradling a tasty Turkish oud in my arms with a look of such ecstasy on my face that the room keepers thought I was sleeping for two days. Then they decided I was dead.

They wrapped me in a sheet and went about looking for who I was. I left few clues.

They held my funeral between two groves of olive trees. The officiant was a blind holy man, perhaps a woman (“there are so many more than two possibilities,” s/he said when asked), who was called Tiresias, an irony in the Land but just right for the essential ambiguity of the way I experienced life in the sacred and ridiculous.

Tiresias described me as light and sound; my soul a luminescent blue, my sound the humm of insects at night.

Of course I wasn’t dead. I revived. I only seemed to be dead.

jsg, usa

America the Beautiful part 2

020111       Brian Leddy Navajo radio personality Harrison Dehiya broadcasts from Ellis Tanner in Gallup on Tuesday. Dehiya is well known for is Navajo language broadcasts
020111 Brian Leddy
Navajo radio personality Harrison Dehiya broadcasts from Ellis Tanner in Gallup on Tuesday. Dehiya is well known for is Navajo language broadcasts

My friend gave me an elaborate wrist silver bracelet with turquoise and agate and several bear claws with an incidental watch set into the silver. “You’re the only person I know who would wear this,” she said. She bought it for her father, as far as I understand, and when he passed it sat in a drawer. She has excellent taste and I knew that if she bought it, bought it for her father, it was an object dear and I took it as that. Now that she had passed too I wanted to wear it.

The watch must be replaced, however, and I haven’t found a suitable replacement. It’s a size of watch that is not much in fashion anymore, plus I think it should be a good mechanical watch so I won’t have to replace the battery every few years. It’s not simple to take the watch out of its silver setting.

I carried it around in my bag at home and every so often when I would pass a jewelry store with a few minutes I would look for a watch. I haven’t found a suitable watch as yet.

Just before I left for this road trip, I took the watch out of my bag. “I’ll get at this when I return,” I thought.

On the way across southwestern America, I have talked to a dozen people who could have told me everything about that bracelet. I described the bracelet and the kind artisans asked me a dozen questions I couldn’t answer; I didn’t have the piece and didn’t know much its history. There is history to such pieces.

I stopped in Gallup, New Mexico, an interesting town almost to the border with Arizona; I was told by merchants along the way that all their Native goods came from Gallup.

In Gallup, I entered a store called Ellis Tanner trading company. The name intrigued me. It’s a trading post, dealing in jewelry, rugs, Native medicines (I saw buffalo parts ground for heart ailments, love potions, etc.), new artists, and pawned goods. It also works much like a pawn shop.

Everyone in the cavernous barn-like trading post was a Native person it seemed to me. The owner of the trading post is the fourth generation of his family. He first came West with Brigham Young and settled the area. The Native name given to him had to do with “great bear.”

I walked into the trading post and stopped stunned, under my breath I said quietly to my son, “Jake, what is this place.” I stood there for a few moments assimilating the vibe. What is this place.

Individuals who worked behind the many counters were dealing quietly with other individuals who had brought pieces in for them to look at, evaluate, deal. I wandered over to a counter with display cases loaded with turquoise and silver pieces, some of them looked to be quite old. A very heavy-looking dude came over and asked in the most gentle upper register voice, “what are you looking at?”

What is this place? I whispered to no one in particular, still stunned by the vibrational setting. These are out of pawn, I think he said, myself still somewhat stunned by an environment I had never experienced before, in other words they were pieces that people pawned and never reclaimed.

There are a lot of stories here, I said again under my breath. Oh yes, said the heavy dude, many stories, in the pieces and the people who brought them here. He was kind and his voice gentle and he seemed to have as much time for me as I was willing to take.

Jake and I were the only non-Native persons in the place. I was wearing a nice pair of gringo boots for rock ‘n rollers that could be mistaken for the real thing, a nylon ventilated floppy sun hat that I shaped into cowpoke form, old jeans, a very tasty Larry Mahan cowboy shirt with mother of pearl snap buttons, and carrying a carved walking cane I bought from one of the stores down the road that has both a hygenic advantage lifting weight from my sore ankle and a serious fashion affectation I may never give up. So maybe I didn’t look like, you know, who I am, a person native to an area 7,000 miles around the world.

Or maybe they looked inside and perceived my awe and interest and respected whatever experience I was having in their trading post. I had never seen a place like this. It was not like a jewelry store, though it was full of jewels and metal and bead work. It was more like a saddlery, with saw-dusty floors and display cases bulging with goods. A thousand stories, some I am sure of the high art of investing handiwork with spirit, and a thousand others of suffering and decline and the necessity to unload the jewelry for a few bucks to pay for what.

Everybody I talked to in the trading post engaged me absolutely and though the place was occupied with activities, there was not a person I spoke with that I felt any sense of being distracted from their business.

A woman came in and the heavy dude I was speaking with clearly knew her and he said to her in the gentlest, quietest way: Hello Carol. He said it with an intonation I hope I never forget so I am closing with this: Hello Carol, he said, breathy, soprano, respect, who was Carol could have been another worker in the trading post he sees every day, could be his cousin, could be someone off the desert who often traded her goods there, I had no sense of who Carol was to him but he greeted her in a way that I will greet the Sabbath Bride tonight with my first offering.

Hello Kallah, Shekhinah, Bride, Malkhut, welcome; I am preparing for the next chapter.

I’m a writer, I said to another of the individuals working the trading post. I would like to come back here spend a week and stand around and listen to the stories of this place.

That would be good, the man said. There are stories here.

jsg,usa

Remembering Reuven Gold

Organ grinder large

Remembering Reuven Gold

I met Reuven in a boys’ school of the Old South, among rickety wooden dormitories in the hills of East Tennessee. I write stories, I had gone there to hear stories spoken. It was a storytellers’ conference, early Eighties.

I flew into the Tri-cities airport, not one city of which I recognized, so all three at one airport was no insight. I took a bus to the nearest town. I felt far away from home. I found someone to give me a lift to the conference site.

It was May, and already warm.

I arrived late in the registration day. I expected the luck of the draw for a roommate, but what was to happen was not luck, it was what we call beshert. Behsert is what is meant to be. The invisible fibers of relationship that are not seen but when you bump up against them, your recognize beshert. This was meant to be.

When I registered, a girl from the environs looked at her sheet and said, there is only one room left. You can share it with Roo-vane. I felt the tug of invisible fibers. Reuven is a name my people have been giving their children since Jacob and Leah gave it to their firstborn son in Genesis 29:32.

Reuven? my eyebrows went up. Perhaps I had misunderstood her.

She directed me to a dormitory at the rear of the campus. I found my way, climbed up a wide staircase into a big porch, past the porch and through a tattered screen door and into the stale smell of closed rooms.

I stood in the doorway and adjusted to the dimness of the light within. I walked through and I passed into a bedroom with two beds, and on one of the beds I looked onto the following topography:

The souls of large, bare, white, veiny feet. In the distance the swell of a round belly in a dashiki style blouse, in the far distance an exuberant furry gray beard – that is what I saw as I stared into the room. Boys school. East Tennessee.

This, I assumed, was Reuven. And in that moment in the doorway, I knew that this was indeed the variety of Reuven I had anticipated, and as automatically as if I had passed similar feet, beard, and belly on a gravel road in Minsk, I said sholom aleichem a traditional greeting among Jews.

And just as immediately I heard a scratchy Yiddish-inflected voice say, who speaks loshon koidesh [the holy language] in Tennessee? Aleichem sholom! he roared and he leaped from the bed. Reuven, in a shirt someone sewed out of paisley prints, an aging hippie Chassid with a large Yemenite kipah on his head, a beautiful unmanageable beard: Reuven Gold, storyteller from Chicago, who had also traveled to East Tennessee to share stories. Here we were, bound up together by the invisible fibers of beshert.

We became friends that weekend. He was troubled by asthma, and a hot weekend in non air-conditioned Tennessee was difficult for him. I helped him around the campus, as did many others. I helped him get his food in the cafeteria line, I made sure he took his medicine.

Every morning he stood in the cafeteria line with the rest of us for breakfast. He moved up and down the line giving everyone a hug. It’s my morning mitzvah, he cackled. Some of these people haven’t been hugged in years! He hugged deeply, making a meditative noise like ummmmmmmm. Some people liked it, some didn’t.

Then came Saturday night. Saturday night was performance night. Reuven was introduced about time half through the program and he came walking in from the back of the room, waiving his hands in an open gesture of acceptance as if he were passing through rows of admiring chassidim. People began to clap. Even before he began to speak, they began to clap.

Spontaneously, to the rhythm of his slow stroll through the room, erupted the sound of people clapping. His presence, his gestures, his face, his smile, his shirt, the great unmanageability of his beard, they began to clap for Reuven even before he opened up on stories and he walked through the room in a silent dance. They loved him just looking at him.

I have been in the Chassidic shtiebeles [small synagogues] where the tale erupts spontaneously from one of the Masters. I have been in the small shuls where the holy tales were spoken on a Saturday night around a tisch [table] with the songs and the stories that so delighted the Sabbath bride that she delayed her departure. We call this melaveh malkah, accompanyng the Queen, the Queen is the presence of the Sabbath, imagined as the bride or queen or the inner presence of Godliness.

The old gym in the boys’ school in East Tennessee bloomed into a shtiebele and Reuven began to spin what is called the mayseh, the story. The mayseh is a spiritual tale, an elevation of the story to a place of holy consequence, designed to teach to delight to preserve to inspire to transform. That’s what Reuven delighted in telling, the mayseh.

I sat in East Tennessee, Ukraine, listening to Reuven tell the stories of the great Chassidic masters. When Reuven told a story, he often began to cry during the telling, sometimes a quaking cry. At first it frightened people. Or he would begin to laugh loudly, looking around to see if anyone shared the joke with him. But most often he would cry.

He was a big hit at the storytelling conference. People loved him that night in the gym shtiebele. I felt myself again in the presence of the God-intoxicated masters of Chassidus, spirits and ghosts, an experience I have had enough times during the telling of the authentic mayseh to recognize it when I see it.

One of the traditions of such stories is that they are always given in the name of the person who may have originated them. We give the teaching or sing the song in the name of the ones who have passed it down, because to tell a story of a master or to sing a song of a master is to invoke his or her presence.

I remember many of the stories that Reuven told, perhaps the best tribute to him, and every once in a while I unpack one and tell it. Whenever I tell one of Reuven’s stories, the introduction, the chain of transmission, overpowers the story itself. I always begin by describing my meeting with Reuven and our time together. I came to understand Reuven’s story as the hidden tale within the tale, the place where the laughter came from, the tears.

Reuven came to my town several times after the Spring we met. Once he told stories at the coffee house I ran, another time for a conference at one of the Universities. He always stayed at our house. He opened to us the inside Reuven, and I came to know the place where the tears came from.

One Sunday morning early in March, 1989, I came across a small journal and was glancing through it when I saw mentioned that Reuven had passed away. The person memorializing Reuven knew only that he died some time over the winter.

I am sorry that I did not know the time or place or circumstances of Reuven’s death. Our tradition teaches that one may rescind the invisible fibers of connection that bind lives together, but one cannot rescind the fibers of connection that bind souls together. His soul is bound up with the souls of the living. Forever.

I offer this memory as a tribute to Reuven Gold, storyteller, human being, whose memory is a blessing. Now that he has been gathered to the bosom of his ancestors, I pray that his rest is a rest of peace.

James Stone Goodman
St. Louis, MO.

Serenity Prayer

Sufi in boat

Serenity Prayer

She sat outside the meeting once or twice and eavesdropped. You can come into the meeting you know, I told her. Everyone would welcome you. No no, she said, I’ll wait here until you’re done.

She didn’t drive at night by then and after the meeting I drove her home. The meeting always begins and ends the same way: the serenity prayer, the most common form the following:

God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
The courage to change the things I can,
And the wisdom to know the difference.

The prayer is often attributed to American theologian Reinhold Niebuhr. It was embraced by one of the founders of Alcoholics Anonymous, Bill W., and became part of the opening or closing to Anonymous meetings since the 1940s.

B sat outside our meeting, she sat in the other room, she listened.

One day as I was taking her home, she said to me: you know I love that prayer that you say at your meeting.

What prayer is that?

You know, this one:

God, grant me the serenity
To accept the persons I cannot change
The courage to change the persons I can,
And the wisdom to know it’s me.

Yeah, I said, that’s good.

B has passed now, but her version of the prayer has stayed with me. The standard it sets is more demanding than the common version. In the common version, I might think that what another person does or thinks or how a person lives might be something I can manage. In B’s version, I might have the serenity, wisdom, and courage to know that ultimately being me is full time and I have the power to change that and maybe that only, and through my life, my behavior, my being I might have an influence on someone else. That may be the most powerful influence I have on others, to be better bigger stronger more alive myself. To the extent I might effect change in the world is the extent to which I model change.

It brings me back to the physician’s motto: first, do no harm. I used to think this was such a diminished standard, to do no harm. Certainly the healer aspires to more than that. Now I realize that to do no harm is a decent standard, that the soft interior of a human being is sacred and inviolable and the way is difficult and often the best we can do is not to mess with that, the softness of the interior world, the vulnerability we all have in the deepest recesses where our growth plates are.

At the meeting, someone said: it’s difficult enough being me, to know what’s right for someone else is way above my pay grade. On the other hand, what a great teacher I might be by walking in the world in such and such a way. By being. To have something to offer. Yes, said the person sitting on the other side of the table, if somebody wants it. You can’t give anything to someone who doesn’t want what you might have to offer.

The wisdom to know it’s me, somebody repeated that line and a half a dozen heads bobbed up and down in agreement, sympathy, understanding. That’s a tall order.

james stone goodman

From a Eulogy for Frank at Two Years

From: a Eulogy for Frank
Tuesday, July 9, 2013

We love a good story. How is it that there’s a funeral today and there are people pouring out of this place and onto the street to honor Frank and tell Frank’s story? Some of the story anyway.

We love a good tale. We love life and we love a person who lived his life and squeezed it for a little more, maybe someone who got more than a life maybe a life and a half. We love it that someone touched that/this many people and — started off a little naughty in life. That’s how his sisters described him, a mischievous little boy.

He learned better things through the course of his abbreviated life.

We love stories of transformation, to begin this way to move into that way, to become another way.

We are that person we were, but we are not only that. We are more than who we were, we are who we become, some of us, and some of us become more than how we started. We move way beyond our skin, so to speak.

So it was with Frank.

Frank’s story is a short story, he was too young, we will celebrate the victories of his life but everyone knows it was too short and he had a lot more to do in his life, but you know what is known about a good short story, don’t you, you can pack a novel into it.

His sister said another beautiful thing about Frank: he was always a good person, but he became a much better person. He taught me a lot about how to live, she said, especially in how he died.

I know a lot of people who make life-changing transformations and about their life before there is generally not a lot to say. That’s not so with Frank; but if you knew Frank before and after you were privileged to witness the blooming of a human flower. He had a life before; he had more life after.

Something happened for Frank; he moved beyond his skin and came to understand what it means to live a life of service and honesty and integrity.

He knew a lot of people. He knew how to connect with people, people from his childhood, people he met along the way, people who fixed his cars or people he went to bat for – he went to bat for a lot of people — or people he helped out along the way. It was hard to go to the grocery store with him, he knew someone in every aisle. And he knew how to work a room.

Frank became an integrated person. And he knew it. I had a good ride, he said, even in his illness.

There was nothing he regretted more through this illness than the interruption of his life with his family. But I want to say it and say it again: there is always sadness associated with death but there is also a relation that we make when we love someone so deeply that the bond of love is never broken never rescinded never interrupted, even by death, it is a permanent relation and that is what you will have all the days of your life and beyond, it’s a permanent energy this love and it survives all of us like other energies survive and in the prayers I will chant in a few minutes I will lift up that relation at the level of the deepest love the kind that we all live for it animates our life it is what we live for and Frank lived a load of it with you and you will keep that and give it to those who will survive you.

In years to come you will tell your children who Frank was and the beautiful glorious victory story of his life and you will cry and be proud and grateful that you are not just his kid his wife his family his friend you are him — and you will tell your beloveds in the future just how that works.

And Debbie. Blessed is Frank to have Debbie in his life. I heard this beautiful poem more than once in the last several days: Everyone should have a Debbie in their life.

No one here will forget the lighter side of Frank. Smirk, his smile, humor, how he told a story (don’t rush him) he had a whole way of telling a tale or presiding over a family dinner.

Frank also knew how to show up and not say anything. He knew that being there for someone was the highest privilege, he knew how to be present. To sit and not say anything, he knew how to do that too.

He did a lot for a lot of people. If he would have lived, he would done a lot more for a lot more people and it is a huge loss to be deprived of all the good that Frank was able and would have been able to accomplish.

But he did not feel cheated and he did not feel ungrateful and he was wildly accomplished in his life. Don’t let anybody say I’m not a lucky guy, he said. He made the most of every single day, a day at a time he lived life until he died.

I have buried many people in the years I have lived here who have been accompanied into death by the caring community of similarly experienced souls who grew beyond their own limitations and learned how to give without cease to fellow travelers on the road to happy destiny. This secret conventicle of hearts purified in the crucible of fire to earn honestly a life of service and gratitude and humility. We are all, every one of us, miracles of the highest order and we express that by living right, quiet and loyal to the few basic principles that guide our lives. That’s the way Frank lived.

Here’s how it works. Listen to these words human beings and love life, squeeze it for every ounce of meaning and significance and joy, as Frank did. We were created to be happy joyous and free. Frank, we honor you with these words. You have honored us with your life.

jsg

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