Secrecy is Part of the Problem

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I am searching for the engine or the nudge to bring the community into focus on an integrated strategy to meet the challenges of mental illness-mental health. But we have been difficult to move.

Many of us feel the limitation of isolated responses to the rootlessness and hopelessness that characterizes so much of contemporary life. We could do better by putting our best resources to work on a community response that maximizes already limited resources and create new and more imaginative strategies. We should be a nudge. We should be telling everyone we know.

We all know tragic stories. We are on the front line so to speak. We are trying to seize the opportunity to assume a community mind on our tragedies so we can deal with them better than in the isolation of our socially gated communities.

We begin by telling the stories. Confidentiality does not mean secrecy. Secrecy is part of the problem.

rabbi james stone goodman, st. louis

She wrote me a note before we did a community session on suicide. She was not in a place, she said, to come to the session but she wanted to make a contribution.

She gave me permission to use her words as a prompt for the participants to write about their experiences. The following is from the original piece she wrote to me, her words:

I am a survivor I suppose. I have attempted suicide several times in serious ways and I believe I am alive to share a few things I’ve learned. I feel some sort of purpose, I am always looking for that but here goes — I hope this helps someone.

People could listen more with their eyes as well as their ears. When you are contemplating suicide, you don’t conceptualize it. You may not express it.

Be observant. Don’t ignore anything. Take everything seriously. I wanted someone to hold my hand – I’m not going to leave you, God will not leave you, I’m with you, I will never leave you, that’s what I wanted to hear.

And most importantly: This feeling is going to pass. You don’t think it’s going to pass. You think it’s never going away. It feels permanent.

I wanted someone to say to me: I wish I could be there with you. Call me. Don’t be alone.

Addendum

Some time later I met with her at a coffee shop.

I’m starting to feel like I want to get out more, she said, to be of service to others. I often feel a terrible negative energy running through my being, but I think I can offer something. If I could help someone else, it would mean so much. Use my words, use them any way you can.

Commentary: I love this piece for the wisdom it contains and because it came from such a difficult place in this person’s life. This was not an easy piece to write.

She was at a low enough place in her struggle that she couldn’t make the session, still she felt the necessity to give away some of what she knew. She wanted to help someone else. Where does this kind of compassion come from? All she wanted was to give a little away what she had learned from her experience.

What she wanted most: to be of service to others. And she knew that because of her life she had some secret wisdom to give away: What it’s like to live with what she lives with, what it feels like from the inside, what she would have liked to hear from others, what someone else could have given her when she needed it most.

It think this is a remarkable document because it has a giving sensibility and because it has real wisdom about what it feels like when a person is struggling to stay alive, to find a way in the world when the inner world goes dark. To come back from the edge and describe what it felt like there.

It has strategies for living that come from the crucible of a person’s life. I think it’s a remarkable piece for all these reasons and every time I see the writer I remind her how much her piece has helped others because as she wrote: if I could help someone else, it would mean so much.

jsg

Extreme Gratitude, part 3

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That year he picked gratitude as the midah* to write about. Because in his walk he felt heavy in his feet, a slog through the mud. Because sometimes he got stuck in Sad.

Extreme Gratitude*
Part 3

Last summer on a visit to one of the high security institutions, one of the regulars was missing. Where’s S? I asked. In the hole.

The hole. I had never seen the hole, it’s a twenty four hour lock-up used to contain trouble within the institution.

I asked the chaplain if I could see S in the hole.

He deliberated for a moment, then: Sure, come on. Quick. We walked into the only building within the complex that was surrounded by an extra barrier of wire, the windows wired, we had to be buzzed in again through a metal door as we entered the complex referred to as the hole, a prison within a prison.

It looked like Alcatraz, what I’ve seen from the movies anyway. Two floors, one down one up, big heavy metal unpainted doors with one small window, two guys in a cell, a lot of yelling from behind the doors but I could not see faces until I stood right in front of the cell.

S was on the ground floor, I saw him through the window. He was delighted to see me. A lot of the guys I visit spend a good deal of time in the hole.

We talked through the window, hard to hear, a lot of hand signs and hollering.

I could see S’s work through the window behind him. He draws. He had been drawing. His work was displayed leaning against the bed in his room.

As I was leaving, he pounded on his window before I walked out of earshot. He was mouthing something.

I looked back and stood by the doorway just as the metal door slid open to let me out.

Rabbi, he was mouthing. Rabbi – I’m alive.

jsg.usa
*Midah means virtue or value
Turning 5777

Fifteen Years Later 9.11

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Ground Zero
December 11, 2001

I was invited to a conference in New York City to discuss the mental health implications of long term recovery from acts of terrorism. We were called together to discuss how to prepare, how to respond, how to plan for the unthinkable, convened by the Department of Health and Human Services.

I sat for two days listening and discussing a psychological and spiritual response plan for the state I represented. It was not a part of the conference to visit the World Trade Center site, it was only three months out and the site was still restricted, and although I was a subway ride away from Ground Zero I felt as if I could not miss seeing it.

Late on the last night I spent in New York City, I called my friend Todd who lived near the site, asking him if he would take me downtown to see it. It was almost midnight.

We took the subway to Fulton Street. They were still cleaning out the subway and fortifying its walls. It was dusty in the subway corridors and overhead I could discern the reinforcements in the ceiling and on the walls.

We walked up out onto Fulton Street and a short distance to the site. An opaque wooden fence concealed the site from view and approach. Though it was just past midnight, there were quite a few people in the area. On the site itself we could see the iron workers in the distance finishing up their welding for the night. The lumbering trucks did not cease moving the mountain of debris that remained of the World Trade Center and once in a while a gate in the wooden fence opened and out rolled a truck.

From a distance I could see the crude natural memorial of the terrible disaster: the piece left of the above-ground skeleton of the towers that I had heard New Yorkers call “the potato chip.” It didn’t look anything like a potato chip to me; it was two hundred feet tall and looked like the ruin of a holy place, stately and dignified, ruined and demeaned.

It reached out of the ruins and up towards the sky like a sign of both the horrific destruction and the heroic aftermath of inspiration and courage. It embodied both ruin and reach.

I was drawn to get a clearer look at this beautiful terrible remnant. We walked 360 degrees around the site, and on the west side, facing New Jersey, we stopped in front of one of the spontaneous shrines that appeared all around what once was the twin towers of the World Trade Center.

There was an old man kneeling in front of this particular shrine, reading the notes and pictures and stories that made up the altar on the wooden fence. We stood there next to him for a while, all of us reading the stories given in pictures and words, prayers from children to their parents, letters from parents to their children, lovers to lovers, friend to friend, each story an entire world.

It was then, that moment, in front of one of many spontaneous shrines that decorated the fence, that the tragedy of the World Trade Center ceased to be theoretical for me. I felt the weight of thousands of broken worlds times the number of intimates who do not forget, a circle of multiple thousands sitting in a circle around God.

Suddenly next to the shrine where we stood opened a section of the wooden fence, and out rolled one of the trucks laden with debris from the site. The gates remained open and we were granted one of the few clear visions into the Ground Zero site. We were all standing now, looking past the shrine, the stories, the pictures, the prayers, into the site of the ruins of the World Trade Center, Ground Zero, watching the dump trucks lumbering out loaded with debris. We sat in silence watching for ten minutes, then the old man said, “so began the age of fear.”

We continued to circle the site walking around it, from every angle entranced by the monument both heroic and horrific that loomed over us, reflecting the stadium lights that shined after dark, the truest symbol I had seen of the now altered sense of the world, the Age of Fear, a remnant in metal of what it felt like in the aftermath of disaster.

There was still a good number of people walking with us. No one was sightseeing. I felt like we were all on a holy pilgrimage, praying with our feet, circling the ruin that rose in the distance, the last remnant of the skeleton, a totem in the massive graveyard that the World Trade Center had become. It stuck in the site like a tombstone, a monument inspiring in me not vengeance, but awe, respect, quietude, determination, endurance, and hope.

It was close to three AM by the time we headed back. We had spent three hours in walking meditation, the smell that everyone talked about in the air. What was that smell? Was it acrid, was it sweet, was it something burning, but burning sweetly, a mix of Levitical incense? Was it the kabbalah of ruin and redemption, descent and ascent, the grotesque and the beautiful bound up, interpenetrated, the unholy and the holy, symbolized by the cathedral that had risen out of the ruins where there once was a building?

Addendum, September 11, 2016

I recall these feelings of mourning fifteen years later. I am familiar with the quality of brokenness when what is released from the ruins of the heart is something quiet and beautiful, strong and sure, the deep knowledge of both impermanence and permanence, to be drawn to the core and know that something good there endures.

James Stone Goodman
United States of America

Remembering 9.11

Remembering Nine Eleven
Thirty Six Stories

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Abbaye said, “there is not less than thirty six righteous persons in each
generation who receive the Shekhinah [the inner presence of Godliness].”
— Babylonian Talmud, Sanhedrin 97b

In every generation, there are a finite number of stories that authenticate, define
the generation. In every event of significance, every catastrophe, every jubilation,
there are a certain number of stories — thirty six, thirty, one, ten thousand, thirty
six stories — that define the catastrophe.

The defining story for me of 9/11 is the story of the fire fighters of New York
City, and a particular account of those fire fighters given by a Board member of
the Fallen Firefighters Foundation, Vena Drennan (sp?). Her husband Capt. John
Drennan was killed on the job in 1994.

She was interviewed by Noah Adams on All Things Considered just after 9/11, this is what I
heard listening to it on the radio (pardon mistakes, I transcribed it myself):

Mrs. Drennan: We went down to the firehouse which is below Fourteenth Street.
I went to the wake of one of the firefighters. They have a sense of optimism.
They had decided to pray to my husband who they feel still watches over them.
And they said, Capt. Drennan — show us where the eleven [missing] members
are. And one young one said, I knew just where to put my shovel. Ladder Five is
so comforted that they were able to find five of their own and return their bodies
to their families and honor their deaths in a proper and magnificent funeral.

ATC: Mrs. Drennan — are you saying that those on the scene believed that the
spirit of your late husband helped them to find those who were fallen?

Mrs. Drennan: Yes, you lose your religion after a large crisis but you sure get a
spirituality about it.

ATC: There’s a photograph of something you don’t often see in the magazines in
the recent US News and World Report, of firemen carrying a dead man, the
Reverend Mychal Judge fire department chaplain you know him, sixty eight
years old . . .

Mrs. Drennan: He was one of my best friends . . .

ATC: As you know he was administering last rites and was killed by falling
debris.

Then she told the story of Mychal Judge and how he had comforted her after the
death of her husband, and how he had remembered her on her anniversary
every year thereafter.

Mrs. Drennan: When he prayed, it was the most blessed thing,
you felt that his prayers were a direct hotline to God.

ATC: He was a Franciscan priest.

Mrs. Drennan: Mychal was administering last rites to a firefighter that had just
been hit by a body of a woman. People were falling out of those towers so they
wouldn’t burn.

In the midst of this here he is kneeling and giving last rites. The firefighters when
they realized he had perished they carried him up to St. Peters church and they
laid out his body on the altar and they put his rosaries in his hand and they
pinned on his fire department badge and they prayed over him. Later that night
they wouldn’t let his body go to the morgue.

They brought him to their firehouse and they laid him in the back room and the
friars across the street of St. Francis of Assisi came and they lit candles and said a
vigil.

He was beloved by every firefighter in the city and the fire department will
grieve many many years for the loss of his beautiful life.

There are a number of stories that define an event — thirty six, thirty, maybe one,
ten thousand — and one of them, one of those stories, may be the one that saves
us.

This is the story that is saving me.

rabbi james stone goodman

The Day You Had To Be In The Jail-house To Be Free

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Profound and Stupid

Or: the Jewish brothers and the Muslim brothers make the prayers together

The trip to the jail-house is a profound and stupid activity that I had devoted myself to though I had received almost no support and felt entirely on my own. I had no idea what I was doing but what I was learning cracked me open and brought me close to the reasons I was in this whole thing from the beginning.

I had made the two hour trip to the prison house where I had been assured [e-mail] that the auxiliary chaplain would meet me at the prison house since I had visited there only one time previously and did not yet know the set-up. I wasn’t sure I was approved to visit this particular prison, though I had e-mailed also the head chaplain in the capital.

I didn’t hear back but I made the trip anyway. When I arrived at the prison, I parked illegally and much closer than I did the first time I visited, having been advised by the heavily tattooed guard who buzzed me in and out. The staff at this prison house were extremely kind to me the first time I visited, there was a chaplain to meet me and he escorted me to the chapel, and the inmates themselves escorted me out and I had the sense they were protecting me, the reasons for which would clarify several years later.

This time there was no one to welcome me. The tattooed guard who buzzed me in didn’t recognize the name of the auxiliary chaplain. “There is no auxiliary chaplain,” she said definitively. “What is it with the Jews?” she asked me. “Used to be everyone wanted Islam, now they’re into Jews.” She buzzed me through. “Go upstairs and get your squawk box [personal alarm gizmo] and some keys. You’re on your own today.”

The prison is built like a camp out of depression era limestone that was mined from the area during the WPA, I believe. It has an interesting look from the outside, the textures of the wild limestone set within the formalism of brick, it is really quite beautiful from the outside anyway — a series of buildings surrounding a large open perpendicular space which is referred to as the yard.

I walked up the stairs to a window with bars and an opening on the bottom to push through the supplies from the room behind. In that room are alarms and radios and large circles of keys that open, I assumed, the various classic locks that kept muscular control over the structure.

I had my ID card that signified I was qualified to visit four prisons that had Jewish inmates who were eager to welcome me to their institutions. My ID is a plastic card with my picture and a clip that I put on my pocket and take off when I show it to the various gate-guards who must open several very heavy metal doors to get me into the depths of the institutions.

I stuck my head into the opening of the window with the bars and the sets of keys and squawk boxes, radios, etc. and said to the uniformed guard, “I’m going to the chapel.” I recalled that the chapel was at the far end of the yard because I remembered that the accompanied stroll back to the metal doors last visit was a long walk.

“You want keys?” the guard asked me. “Ok,” I said.

“You got tags?” he asked.

“No.” Tags were small metal cut-outs that you leave in the barred room in exchange for keys and radios and such.

“Go make a copy of your ID.”

I went walking down the hall until I saw a copy machine in an office and I walked in and made a copy of my ID card.

I returned and passed the copy of my ID card to the uniformed guard behind the bars and I saw him hang it on a hook and he passed through the hole in the bars a whole ring of keys, at least forty keys, and a squawk box.

“Thanks,” I walked away with the keys. I was on my own.

I exited out to the yard through one of the doors that move slowly and opened by showing my ID. I was alone in the yard. I stuffed the keys in one pocket of my jacket and the squawk box in the other.

I strode to the rear of the yard and walked into an open door where a group of men where taking off or putting on their clothes, I think it was a gym.

“Are you looking for the chapel?” I surely did not look like an inmate (they have uniforms and generally wear bright orange knit hats).

“Yes.”

A guy took me outside the locker room and pointed me to the building next door.

It was locked up tight but I had the keys. I started going through them one after another, this was a large door and I began with the largest keys. I opened it.

Inside I found a light. Every single room was locked inside. I found the room I was in the last time, a larger room with some tables and a chalkboard, some instruments and a little stage, obviously a place where several groups share prayer and study privileges. I found the key to that room too. Now I was inside and I was alone.

I had learned at another institution I visit that if I opened the door, people tended to wander in. I made sure the outer door was open and within a few minutes an inmate came in and sat next to me, staring straight ahead at the altar/platform in front of us.

“Mario,” he said by way of introduction.

“James,” I said.

He asked me who I was and I told him.

“Rabbi.”

He told me how he had discovered the Hebrew Bible in a cell when he was first incarcerated. He told me he read it through, cover to cover.

We talked some about that and I told him a story at the level of all-over-God, God everywhere.

“I’m with you,” he said.

He knew what a Rabbi was and he then told me his whole story, from the age of sixteen to the present, which I imagine was about fifteen years. It was a tender story, clear and full of details, well parsed for meaning and a good sense of where it would go when he left this institution. He wanted to return to the small town he came from and he planned to go to College and I believed him.

Another guy came in and he greeted me in a rather formal, well rehearsed way. “I won’t ask how you are doing – for that is a question and I may not know you well enough to ask you a question. I will not inquire what’s new as that is empty and meaningless and meant only to break the ice and engage in small talk. I will simply bless you in the way of my tradition. . .” and he switched to Arabic and quoted some of the holy Koran, which I was familiar with. I know some Arabic blessings and introductions, so I responded in kind. I will call him Yasin.

He didn’t seem to know Mario so I introduced them. One of the Jewish inmates saw the door open from across the yard and he joined us, he didn’t know Mario either or Yasin though he had seen them around. I introduced them.

We began to engage in a little circle of dialogue. Yasin left soon, and returned about five minutes later with a few other guys. “You’re the rabbi!” he said, “I should have known!” He must have asked around outside the chapel who is the guy with the not-orange hat in the chapel waiting for people to arrive.

There were two other individuals affiliated with the Jewish group who were present the first time I was there but absent this time. I asked about them.

“Transferred,” one of the Jewish guys, Jacob, told me.

“Transferred?”

“They were sent to a smaller camp.” It was in part their letters to me that brought me to that camp in the first place.

Now there weren’t enough of them left in this camp to meet on the Sabbath. The prison rule is that a religious group and its rights are defined by half a minyan — five members — since the two had been sent away they only had three by my count.

“The Muslim brothers will join your group,” Yasin said, “we’ll be here every Saturday and we’ll show you how to go about getting what you want.” Yasin knew a lot, it seemed, about working the prison system. “The Muslim brothers and the Jewish brothers will make the prayers together,” Yasin said, “you’ll have a group this Saturday and every Saturday.”

It was getting close to the time that I was supposed to leave. I asked the Jewish brothers and the Muslim brothers which way was east. Yasin showed me the corner where the Muslim brothers faced east.

“Come with me,” I said, “quick,” because there were some other people starting to come into the room looking as if they were the next group.

We went into the corner facing east and I opened up my hands and sung out pretty and slow the holy blessing from the Priests in the book of Numbers (6:23-27):

Ye-va-re-che-cha Adonai ve-yish-me-re-cha.
May God bless you and protect you.
Ya-eir Adonai pa-nav ei-le-cha vi-chu-ne-ka.
May God’s face shine to you and be gracious to you.
Yi-sa Adonai pa-nav ei-le-cha ve-ya-seim le-cha sha-lom.
May God’s face always be lifted to you and give you peace.

As I was singing, I explained there is no partial, no individual, no incomplete – every single instance opens up onto the universal, and every partial resolves in the whole — everywhere God dwells is whole, quoting the Zohar.

I said something about salaam, shalom, or shleimut, wholeness, integration. To bless is to dip below and reach above, the root below and the root above, the b’reikhah the pool of blessings — the wild chute that whisks you into the root above — to the All, shleimut, to be blessed with a sense of everything. Like Abraham our father in Genesis 24:1, to be blessed with everything and to live in a larger space than the separate self — the isolated, the un-integrated, the broken, the incomplete.

By this time the Christian brothers were coming in, they were the next group, the room was filling up behind us and some of them were watching us.

Their leader came over to me and asked, “what is that you are singing?”

I told him basically the same things I told the Jewish and the Muslim brothers. He was holding my picture on my ID card that I had copied to get the keys.

“You’re the rabbi,” he said, “you’re supposed to give me the keys.”

So I gave the Christian brother the ring of keys, he seemed to know what he was doing, and I asked him for my picture just in case they inquired on the way out.

The Jewish brothers and the Muslim brothers escorted me through the yard, on the way Yasin scribbled something on a piece of paper, we talked animatedly until I realized I was alone. There is a certain line they cannot pass and they were standing quietly on the other side until I turned around mid-thought and realized where they were.

I thanked them and told them I would be back in two weeks. “We’ll be here,” said the Muslim brothers, “all of us.” Yasin gave me the paper he was writing on.

This is what was written on the paper Yasin had given me:

Brother, your presence here is engulfed with the love of forgiveness. Please do what you can for all in this community.

It’s always a hard trip to the jail-house, profound and stupid and I could have missed it, I could have missed the whole thing. When no one would support the project, I could have pulled out. When I got to the jail-house I could have not taken those keys, I could have turned around and gone home. I could have returned the keys when there was no one to meet me, I could have missed the entire drama. Instead, I showed up, watched something profound and stupid unfold into something profound.

rabbi james stone goodman