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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
If I were standing there with you
In the physical sense
I wouldn’t speak a word
I would sit in the dirt
I would cry in that inside silent way
I would leave the spigot onto tears
I would sit there and make the holiest prayer of the heart.
I would offer it up.
I would not speak to a single news person
I would wear a big Bucharan kipah* on my head
Indicating humility in the presence of G*d
And respect respect respect.
I would wrap myself in an oversize talit with the proper fringes.**
I would clutch the fringes to my heart-line.
I would repeat the name of your beautiful church
Like a mantra of grief for the lives lost there
And the lives found there:
G*d is among us
G*d is among us —
I would say it and say it
Until I believed it
Until I felt it,
Then I would say it to the persons
Sitting next to me
On the right side
On the left side
Just that one complex word
I would say it until I felt it the way
Isaiah used it
With confidence and trust —
*Jewish headdress, colorful, large
To the class of 2015
Be A Writer
Thank you for the opportunity to address the graduating class of 2015. It is a privilege to be the guest speaker after having spent so many years sitting in the audiences of my own children’s graduations. Every parent is proud of the accomplishments of their children, but every parent is also a citizen with an eye to the future entrusted to the next generation, hopeful for good citizens, good leadership.
I have listened to dozens of these addresses over the years, not only my own children’s graduations but the graduations of friends and family, all eager to witness their seedlings grow into the sprouted and rooted plantings we dream of when preparing them for the future.
Generally the message at these events is basic in a variety of forms and styles: begin with an anecdote, a joke, the best a personal remembrance, end with the charge which is either change the world or be good human beings in consonance with other human beings, world peace, etc. I am most partial to the change the world scripts.
Graduates of 2015, you probably won’t change the world much. Forget that Margaret Mead quote, or rewrite it as poetry. My generation thought we would change the world too. Save yourselves. Do something honest, gather up a nest egg of money and don’t let the news depress you. All the expressly powerful and most of the famous are nincompoops. Do not pay any attention to them, don’t pay any attention to them at all.
If you must distinguish yourself, become a good criminal. An old school criminal. The criminals nowadays are generally faceless, nameless, and now untraceable.
Our elections are in the pockets of the secret donors who have planned their future security around the takeover of our beloved political process through privately financed groups, mystery backers — generally the corporations motivated by power and profits and idiot self preservationist fringe philosophies — protected by tax-code provisions that do not require disclosure of donors. Now that our Supreme Court has opened the door to the unabashed manipulation of the democracy through anonymous — that is, secret – funding, our crooks are mostly hidden. That is where we have arrived in our noble country: welcome to your future.
Class of 2015, save yourselves. I want to make a case for a return to honest crime. The kind of crime I grew up with. Now those guys were criminals. They smoked cigars and they insulated themselves with payoffs and graft and they barely bothered to hide it. They enjoyed their work.
Smuggle goods over borders, be intimidating as if it’s an exercise in acting class, surround yourself with strong, secure, ruthless people. Protect your community from a storefront that serves great espresso, do favors for people for favors in return. Value friendship and loyalty above all. Create a parallel world where your word rules. Never forget a good turn or don’t miss the opportunities for revenge. Be a good criminal. Let people know what you stand for. Do it publicly and without guile. Smoke a cigar now and again.
Infiltrate honestly. Be a citizen and make the expressed and unexpressed powers answer to you. Don’t let the politicians become too important. They’re the phoniest of all, cowards too fragile to value truth over re-election. Don’t respect their secrecy.
Most of your co-students will become corporate cogs. They will eat well and be completely co-opted by a system everyone knows is driven by self sustenance and self aggrandizement. Let the corporations know you are not afraid of them. Speak truth to power, as we used to say. Be bold. Reclaim optimism through crime. It will be a great gift.
If you can’t be a crook, be a writer. There’s so much inspiration these days as our culture has slid into irrelevance, consumerism, greed, and cynicism. Everyone is so ridiculous you won’t have to make up a thing. When you meet the famous and powerful you will ask yourself the question: Who did they know to get where they are? And: Can you introduce me?
Thank you, and congratulations to the class of 2015.
james stone goodman, united states of america
On Suicide and Other Difficult Subjects
Next Community Forum: Shanda [shame]: there is none. Sunday, June 7th, 1 PM, Kopolow Jewish Federation Building.
Written after the death of Robin Williams
In the group that I lead on Monday and Thursday nights, Shalvah (serenity in Hebrew) outreach on addictions, we are familiar with the subject of suicide and whenever it comes up it tends to take over the meeting.
The meeting is basically a teaching and a sharing, support in the simple sense that we show up for each other. We listen, we understand, we are understood. We get why we need each other. Also true: we need each other because we get each other. The first thing we learn in the group is to listen. From there we come to understand each other – to know and to be known — and that may be the most important element of our success.
I feel the proximity of laughter and tears at our meetings, they are right next to each other at our table of human responses to the challenges of living. Tears are sitting in one seat at the table, right next to tears is laughter 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. We are alternately serious and silly, sometimes at the same time, one eye laughing one eye crying.
Every suicide is a trigger for the discussion of the group, a kind of wrinkle in the cosmic order for all, because everyone around the table has stood at the crossroads of life and death and every person at the table has chosen life. And we all know people who have chosen otherwise. We know that the descent into drug or alcohol abuse is a trip toward death.
But taking one’s own life is always a challenge, the breath of the beast rarely if ever that far behind us that we are immune. Everyone at the table, no matter how much sobriety a person has, is vigilant. Daily. We call it a daily reprieve.
I suppose it’s well known that drugs and alcohol were part of Robin Williams’ story, depression was part of his story, and celebrity was part of his story. Depression is present in almost all addiction, and celebrity is an added obstacle to working oneself well.
I didn’t know him but I knew him. I bet his interior was painfully soft and vulnerable, sometimes hidden and unknown. I look at his sweet face and I see his soul.
Our group has heart for the stranger because we are all strangers. We do not judge. We show up for each other. I really don’t know what was in that poor man’s heart but I do believe he died alone. At the moment before it became irreversible, he didn’t call someone. His beloveds will suffer from that for a long time.
We don’t have an antidote. We have a program. We have each other. Yes, I think lives are saved around our tables but we have no certainty. We have the group. We do not practice aloneness, and we talk about a higher power. It’s a spiritual thing, not a religious thing. We have a daily reprieve based on our spiritual condition. We have today, and that becomes enough.
Rabbi James Stone Goodman
Congregation Neve Shalom and Shalvah
Not long after I wrote this piece, we did a community teaching on suicide. In that teaching, I offered up this pledge.
What to do, that’s always the question. Start with talk and more talk, real talk about real problems. We did that with drug addiction starting over thirty years ago, we need to do that with depression and suicide and the other challenges to life that dwell within, the inner world when it goes dark. Take up a candle, light it, give that light to someone else. Don’t let nobody go dark on our watch.
I wrote this pledge, and I took it:
1) I pledge to bring someone in. If I light a candle, I will share the light.
2) I will be a reminder in every way I can to my family, friends, and community: we have these problems, they are difficult, but there is no shame attached to them and we live in a Big Tent.
3) We can live with our problems.
4) I pledge to break the *shanda* barrier, which means:
5) Talk, talk, and more talk.
6) I pledge to remind my community that we are working our problems, that being secret may be part of the problem, therefore:
7) I will not practice aloneness. I will talk with somebody. I will pick up the telephone. I will try and detach from outcomes.
*shanda* means shame
there is none
Well I did ask. Not when I was sitting with him, there was a power outage and I had to leave mid-conversation. It was frustrating but not for the usual reasons. In prison I have learned there are no usual reasons. It was frustrating not because the power went out — I was told this happens frequently (emergency generator kicked on) — it was frustrating because I was about to ask what sustains you with so much no and I didn’t get the chance. So I went home, wrote the story, and later scribbled out a note and I asked him. I stuck the note in the mail.
Three weeks later I got a letter back. His handwriting, script, is meticulous, small and precise. At first it looks likes a form of micro-orthography, but it’s just a fastidious handwriting style. His language is similar. There is no economy to the language he writes in, but I’m not teaching him writing so I haven’t mentioned that.
Almost all the guys I teach in prison are hesitant to write at all. They are reluctant to commit anything to paper. Several times when I have brought it up, they told me why. Prison is an extreme environment and it manifests in no-trust, so they do not like to leave a written trail.
On the other hand, they love to be written about. They feel as if they are the forgotten people. They encourage me to write their stories. When a journalist offered to accompany me inside, I checked with them first and they were unanimously enthusiastic. They even wanted pictures included in her article.
In his letter back to me, in answer to my question about what sustains was a long and intricate narrative about himself and some of the others he is incarcerated with, but he did answer my question and basically it was simple: I stay in the day. I try to keep it here, in front of me, I try not to drift too far away and over-think the moment. Now is everything inside here, and to keep my sanity I try to live in the present. That was his response, it took him some pages coming there, but that is where he arrived.
From the Prison Journal of jsg
We were well into our conversation when death row came up, but I was fascinated by the subject and in my head the picture from the movies I had of a separate unit, somber and isolated, etc., was all wrong. Everything is all wrong when it comes to my expectations about prison.
No, they are right here with the rest of us, he told me. You can see it behind their eyes, if you know what I mean. Every person is different, but most of them have a calm demeanor. I look behind the calm demeanor and I can read through their eyes.
I looked it up. There was a challenge to the death penalty in my state in 2006, on the grounds that the lethal injection protocol violated the Eighth Amendment (cruel and unusual punishment) because the instructions, the protocols around lethal injection were too vague, and were not administered by a qualified anesthesiologist.
The attorney general then, who is now governor, challenged and executions were resumed in 2007, and the frequency approximates one person a month. I don’t know if this is deliberate but it was mentioned by the man I was visiting as if it was.
I could see that executions happen with more frequency than under the last two governors, but more frequency three and four governors ago, during the last decade of the twentieth century. The last decade of the twentieth century: more frequency of executions, anyone could see this with a simple search.
I didn’t want to dwell on the death row aspect of the institution, I had talked to this man several times on the phone but this was our first meeting. He had a lot to say.
He launched into his story though I don’t ask about stories. I come to teach and listen and teach and talk and teach mostly and if the story rises I listen, if it doesn’t it doesn’t. It usually doesn’t. There is always what to do for me when I come to prison, but since this was my first visit to this institution and I wasn’t approved for a class here, I could bring no materials with me. He had plenty to talk about and I listened and we talked a few things through — about the complexity of identities that he is working through, about what goes on inside himself and the institution, what it’s like for him, what he is looking to for the future — there were no silences and we sat head to head for several hours.
The details are rich in this man’s story but I am reluctant to reveal too much though it is interesting and relevant and right in the middle of the review of prison life and societal approaches to incarceration and justice, justice, justice, but it’s his story – though there is much in his story that is all story – still it’s his story and I’ll keep it to myself unless there comes a time I can be of service to him and others like him who are living within walls this way.
On the drive back I was thinking about what sustains, I often go there in my mind when I come out of the prison. The guys I speak to run into the wall of no so often I think: could I run into the wall of no that often and keep coming back? I run into small obstacles of no and I can barely manage that, could I run into the wall of no as consistently as they do and still manage to sit with quiet and hope and possibility? Not sure. What sustains?
I was telling someone I know who has been in prison and he said, in prison you live in a reduced world, it’s a small space and you come into it sit and listen to someone who gives over his expertise, it’s what he knows about. You listened.
The next night I went to a meeting and there was a speaker who told a difficult story without any details. Everyone in the room understood where this guy was going but there were no hooks in his story, there wasn’t a place to hang sentimentality onto so at first the tale rolled out raw and abrupt and unapproachable. It wasn’t a story. It was something else, like an algebra of truth-telling. It was not a familiar approach.
It was a confrontation without the expectation of entertainment. This was no TED talk. It was raw, without details, no entertainment value, it was not rehearsed. It was delivered in a room with about thirty people and everyone was uncomfortable at first because it felt as if the speaker was looking into your eyes and saying: listen to this, I hope you get it because it’s as real as I can be but I will not carry you. You know what I’m talking about you’ve been there you recognize what I’m saying and if you don’t – so what? It’s not about me it’s not about you it’s about these set of ideas I’m am plucking out of the space over our heads where we meet if we rise to it.
I get up in the morning in prayer, he said, I have breakfast in prayer. I got to work I prayer. I spend the day working in prayer. I go home in prayer. That’s my day, every day.
It was a challenge listening to him at first. I rose to it. So did the people on either side of me. I was talking about it later and someone said to me, yeah we’re all looking for a new voice. We love the crap coming out of our own mouths. You were intrigued by that — we all are — and you advanced along the full of sh** scale because this guy broke all the rules and it worked for you. We are all seduced by our own stories.
Now – I didn’t expect to write about this evening’s event in proximity to the prison visit the day before, didn’t connect them not even in time — so much happened that day and the day before since I had been to the prison house — but here I am with my hands my heart and my head following with the story of this guy in the prison house where he derives his resolve to push on and this guy speaking a story without details no entertainment value unless the truth as it is plucked out of the air is kicks for you, for me there is no relation outside of time. Or so I thought before I started writing.
One day next day I am writing on a third day and the glue is there: it’s true it’s uncomfortable it’s hard as hell. It’s life inside and out. I was telling a friend of mine about it. That guy in the jail house? Ask him what sustains him. I bet he’ll tell you. I think I know but I’ll ask. Maybe I should call this piece: All that sustains is unseen.