Shaar HaRachamim/Gate of Compassion
It’s two gates
The gate of compassion next to the gate of teshuvah*
Teshuvah a turning-return-response
Both gates are bricked up
If we open onto teshuvah*
We might push through the gate of compassion
We might have to open it up that way.
With Rav that’s the way to open the gates
Everyone will have to make the Changes
We will have to stand in our suffering
Cry the world well
I’m crying every day all day
In the silent inner way I have cultivated.
The gate of teshuvah* is on the north side
Where the wind blew
Through David’s singing harp
In the palace of the King.
Make the Changes delight in the north wind
When the north wind is slight.
Standing with my beloveds
At the Gate of Compassion
Bricked up since the 15th century
We’re fixing to storm that gate –
Make the changes
Sing it open
Swing it open
Weep it open.
A northern wind blew on David’s harp and it played
— BT Berakhot 3b
The northern wind Ruach HaTzeFoNit is the ruach haTzaFuN (the hidden spirit) in a person’s heart – this is the ruach/wind/spirit of life.
— R. Nachman, Likkutei Moharan, #8
Tzafon [North] is lacking
— BT Baba Batra 25b
Rav said, all the ends have passed, and the matter depends only on teshuvah* and good deeds.
But Shmuel says, it is enough for the mourner to stand in mourning.
– BT Sanhedrin 97b
— Couple watching lunar eclipse, Brooklyn, NY. Photo Todd Weinstein
Hidden to Full
Make a tekia on the moon with the shofar
when it [the moon] is hidden/bakesse
toward the day of our chag [full moon Sukkot] — Psalm 81:4
The moon is the image
growth arc this time of year.
Begin with Rosh Hashanah
new moon of Tishrei
barely discerned –
we draw down
every Rosh Hashanah
something entirely new.
hidden on Rosh Hashanah
until Sukkot moon
fully plumped —
the higher light
When the moon is full
tell me what you’ve learned
this year* how you’ve learned.
*5776 super moon lunar eclipse
The verse is re-figured, I think the holy Zohar reads it this way. Bakesse the word here it is taken to mean hidden, like the new moon. [ed. Through the agency of teshuvah and sound of the shofar does the moon shine and it does not shine until the tenth day]. The tenth day is Yom Kippur. On that day the Supernal Mother gives its light to the moon. Yom Kippurim (pl.) two lights illuminating, the higher lighting up the lower. The higher spiritual light, the Supernal mother, not the sun. – Maxwell
The moon is the growth-image. On the new moon, what is new that is drawn into the world remains hidden (like the moon). By Yom Kippur, what I am learning begins to articulate, on Yom Kippur it is revealed in the higher realms. On the full moon of Sukkot, it is at the level of makif, a kind of surrounding wisdom but not internalized, not digested so to speak. Only at the end, the eighth day, Shmini Atzeres, does it enter the inner realm, penimi, it burrows itself into my kishkes. I heard this from my Grandfather of blessed memory who brought it down from the fifth Lubavitcher Rebbe I think. – Perle
It’s the light and soul of the whole year! This is how the light is drawn down from Ein Sof to ignite the other worlds. – Billie
For me it hangs on the preposition – l’yom in the Psalm verse – the sense of movement toward the holiday, that sense of awareness plumping with the moon, from hidden to revealed. – Gracie
Where did you learn this? – Fred
A northern wind came and blew through David’s singing harp in the palace of the King. – ed.
Sweet. — Fred
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, G*d 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.
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.
What to do, where to start.
I felt some urgency in bringing these stories out, we have been too secret with our stories of ascendance and recovery, and our stories of descent and tragedy, we have been too secret all around. I felt that lives were at stake and I searched out ways to reach more people, to lift the shame curtain on our addictions and our depression and our imprisonments and our secret illnesses when the inner world goes dark.
I felt that our spiritual and our social institutions were like gated communities behind which stories are kept for ourselves. I think we could work better together to serve our communities with more intelligent strategies. It’s a matter of saving lives, the first step: tell the stories.
Some of the stories are triumphant, some difficult. All are true. Though the stories are stripped of details, names, identifying qualities, almost all the individuals mentioned are heroic meaning they value the necessity to serve. They want to turn their experience into benefit for someone else. Confidentiality does not mean secrecy. Secrecy is part of the problem.
Thus this series: These Are The Stories.
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, this is what I heard listening to it on the radio:
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.
That is the defining story for me, a story of such piety and beauty that I know we are going to be all right. There were many such stories, this is the one for me. There are a number of stories that define an event, and one of them, one of those stories, may be the one that saves us, this is the story that is saving me.
How will the world be saved? Not by this, not by that, but through hope and poetry, beauty and piety, story.
What is Marabout?
I think it has to do with cement.
Yeah. He is here on business. Cement I think is what he said.
Is that his business suit?
I laughed. Jake was referring to his long golden patterned robe that the almost seven foot tall African man was wearing, that attracted our attention in the first place. Jake and I were sitting in the airport. The tall man was with another man. The other man had brought him to the check-in, airport New York, but was not accompanying him on the trip.
The tall African man, shaved head, did not speak English. The other man was translating for him and walking him through the check-in ritual at the gate.
That’s when I stepped up.
Look, I said to the English speaking man, I am on the same flight to Baltimore. If I can be of any help, I speak French. I thought I had heard them speaking French, in addition to another language I didn’t recognize.
As I was leaving, I found a small Pakistani man to escort the tall African man to the baggage to retrieve his luggage and find his way out of the airport once he reached Chicago, which was his destination, not mine. We were on a one-stop, through Baltimore to St. Louis. The African man – through Baltimore to Chicago.
As we got on the airplane, we sat near each other but the roar of the plane was too loud to talk. I helped him get an apple juice and I watched him go through the ninety nine names of God with a string of silver prayer beads he had in his briefcase.
We arrived in Baltimore and my son and I got bumped from our plane to St. Louis and onto the same Chicago flight that our African friend was on. We explained this to him and to our Pakistani helper, who did not seem to understand much more English than the African man.
We checked in and sat down near the gate. I introduced myself to the African man, using a familiar form of my name that seems to register easier with non-English speakers. We had a few minutes until the next flight. He introduced himself to me, Idrissa.
Idrissa. I wrote it out. No, he said, I write in Arabic. I wrote it out in Arabic, and he corrected a mistake. Good, he said, you write Arabic?
Write your name, he asked me.
I wrote out my name in Arabic, and he looked at it for a while. Then he took out a piece of paper from his briefcase, wrote his name and my name in proximity, and made a series of jottings, pictures and calculations with lines and numbers underneath our names.
What is this? I asked.
What is Marabout?
Maybe your wife has left you. She has gone away somewhere. You have a problem. You come to me. I give you certain sacrifices and do certain calculations, your wife, she comes back to you.
I was wondering whether I understood him correctly, particularly the part about sacrifices.
My son was watching all this from a seat across the aisle from us.
Marabout is not about cement, I said to him.
Sacrifices, I said slowly, is it something psychological?
Sacrifices, I said, is it something spiritual?
No. Sacrifices. Offerings.
My son strung some beads for Idrissa. Do you have a wife, I asked Idrissa?
Does she have holes in her ears?
Here, these are a gift.
Thank you, he said, and he put the earrings into his briefcase. He had a high pitched cartoon laugh that did not match his appearance.
He had finished his calculations and he began to tell me my future. Some of it I can repeat, some I cannot. I am about to change professions. I will make a load of money. My son will marry and raise up many children. He also will have a lot of money. Maybe my money, I forgot to ask that.
Then he described the sacrifices that my son and I are required to make in order for these things to happen. They must be made soon. Mine will be rough.
What is he saying, my son asked.
You are going to have a bunch of kids. I am about to change professions. Lots of money all around.
That’s good, Jake said.
One other thing, good news — your sacrifice does not involve animals.
Sacrifice? What is my sacrifice?
Too holy to tell you now, I will tell you later when I can give it some respect.
Yes, that is what he prescribes. Sacrifices. It has something to do with Marabout.
Idrissa gave me his card, it read clearly, marabout.
Later I looked up Marabout.
It comes from the Arabic, Murabit, which means “one who is garrisoned,” because it referred originally to a member of a Muslim religious community that lived in a ribat, a fortified holy place. Marabout is a Muslim holy man. When Islam came to western Africa in the 12th century, its proponents became known as al-Murabitum (Almoravids), and every missionary who organized a community was known as a murabit. In the 14th century, when the Sufis came to the Maghreb, northern Africa, any organizer of a Sufi fraternity became known as a murabit, or a marabout. A marabout is a Muslim holy man, a mystic, a Sufi.
Who is this priest, this Kohen who was prescribing sacrifices for me in an airport waiting room in Baltimore? I realized who I was meeting here: Myself. My Levitical progenitors. The sons of Aaron, the priests and Levites of the Holy Temple, dealing in sacrifices though we did not call them sacrifices, they were not something psychological or something spiritual, they were what they were, the avenue of approach, korbanot, coming closer to God. They were not like anything, they were what they were.
Be like the sons of Aaron, seek peace and pursue it (Avot 1:12). Is this what he was doing? Seeking peace in the Levitical way, the prescribed peace offerings? He seemed so certain about their efficacy.
Are you Muslim? he asked.
Ah. So close he said. I never met you before.
We are close and far, I said.
Yes, we will both have to make sacrifices. We will each have to give away something we think is dear. I am working on it. Truth and justice, peace, he said, and he winked.
We began to discuss the names of God that are cognates in our holy languages: Rachman, Rahim, Rahmana, HaRahaman, for example, the Compassionate One, giving, without restraint, and those that are not. We sat there in the waiting room, moving through the beads, praying the names of God that are common in our holy languages.
We got on the plane and flew to Chicago with Idrissa. I found the Pakistani guy and in Chicago they went off together towards the baggage claim.
Before he left, Idrissa held me, asked me to write down my phone number and address. “I will be calling you,” he said to me in French, I think, I am not sure which language he was speaking.
Dad, what is the deal with your new friend? Jake asked.
Muslim holy man, I said. He knows the future, and as far as I can tell, we’re going to be ok.
We left Idrissa in Chicago and during the short leg from Chicago to St. Louis, Jake and I got to frame the story in a way it should be remembered.
You know, Jake, I said, we were praying together. When we were going through his beads? We were speaking a common language. It was the one language we truly shared, the names of God. That’s a good sign for the future.
Jake and I agreed that we had experienced a secret glimpse into the future, like Abraham, we ascended to the top of the chariot of Ezekiel, from which place we saw and understood everything. We received a glimpse into the future and we saw the possibility of peace, real peace, deep peace, holy peace. Maybe through us, maybe through our children, maybe that’s why it was Jake and me meeting Idrissa, making our sacrifices.
There was something broken in the generation of the parents that only their children could repair, this from the Zohar. Something broken in the generation of Abraham that only the children of Abraham, Isaac and Ishmael, and all the Isaac and Ishmaels of the future, could repair.
Several days later, I came home from work and my daughter said, somebody called for you. No English. I couldn’t understand him.
Did he say anything about sacrifices?
Sacrifices? Yeah, I think he did.
He has been calling frequently, every few days, chattering away with me about sacrifices, about the future, about the necessity to give your overflow away, because when you have as much as I am going to have, you have to give it away in order to keep it. I think that is what he said, I’m not sure because the truth is he wasn’t speaking French, I’m not sure what language he was speaking but I have made a friend and if I understand anything of what we have been talking about, I will receive just what I am willing to give away.
Great sacrifices will be required of us all, but if we have the courage to let loose of what we think we own, what we think we are, we will receive whatever it is we want, even peace. Peace above all.
Seek peace, he said (I think), pursue it.
James Stone Goodman
St. Louis, MO.
Rashi:1040 – 1105, Troyes
I was reading about taking the first fruits in gratitude and respect to the priestliness.
Of the seven species associated with the Land of Israel, see Deut. 8:8, “a land of wheat, barley, grape, fig, and pomegranate, a land of oil-olives and honey.” I noted in passing that it’s oil olives, not olives (also not olive oil), and Rashi explains that the honey is not bee honey, but date honey.
Here Rashi is specific about the kind of olive oil the Torah is referring to; was Rashi also an olive oiler an olea-ist as well as a vintner? I believe he was too far north to cultivate the good olive tree grove, but he may have had contacts on the Italian peninsula, where the elevated olive has been prized for many centuries.
I wondered why Rashi bothered so with the specifics of olive oil, so I asked him.
JSG: I notice in your commentary that you get quite specific about olive oil, its production, the kinds of olives, the sediment, etc.
Rashi: Yes, of course. You know I myself live French, but we all know that the Italians have the finest cuisine. They get the food concept. Way ahead of the French.
JSG: I think so too.
Rashi: I am a vintner, so I know the sacred grape, the making of the fine wine. Italy has wine that is consumed within several miles of its production, never exported, that you would die for.
JSG: I probably would die for it. I’m not a drinker.
Rashi: I am also an aficionado of the olive as you have picked up in my commentary. The olive grows only where winters are temperate, I’m a little far north for a good olive, but I often summer south, what you call Italy, where the oils in the southern provinces are heavy, in the northern areas, the oils are milder. Of course, olio extra vergine di oliva in Tuscany is, well, beaucoup beautiful.
JSG: Liquid gold.
JSG: I also love the oil from Umbria, especially from around Spello.
Rashi: Not familiar with that. Don’t get to travel much in the eleventh century.
JSG: Fresh fava beans with a soft pecorino cheese, and bread to sop up the olio.
JSG: The domestication of the olive comes from our homeland, not Europe, but the Middle East, around 6000 BCE. The olive tree has the capacity to regenerate and yield fruit in the arid, stony soils around the Mediterranean.
Rashi: So, you’re a poet. I have heard that there is a tree in the Maremma near the Tyrrhenian coast that is supposed to be 3500 years old, counting back from your time. That would mean it not only preceded the Greeks, but the Etruscans. Of course it was the Romans who developed the commerce of the olives and created the classification system. Then, of course, the Benedictines took over its care after the fall of the Empire.
JSG: Extra vergine, is it purer than vergine? How can you be more virgin than virgin? Isn’t virgin kind of an absolute condition?
Rashi: It’s a much abused system of classification. Extra vergine simply means that the oil must be extracted from the first pressing of olives by mechanical means only, no chemicals, and must contain less than 1 percent of oleic acid. Vergine, same means of extraction, less than 2 percent acid. But first pressed oils are often blended with lesser types while staying within the 1 percent limit. As a aficionado of fine cuisine and general excellence in all things, this troubles me.
JSG: It’s the olive oil that’s one of the seven species, not the olive. Isn’t that great? As the midrash points out, the olive releases its best qualities when squeezed. Don’t you love that?
Rashi: I do. The Italians have a wonderful expression, I will translate for you: the great olive oil must suffer.
JSG: Oh, that’s so Jewish.
Rashi: You know the secret of the Jewish-Italian connection, don’t you?
JSG: Yes, I do.
Ki Tavo (Deut.26:1): Get up Off Of That Thing
Last week we left, when we ki teitzei’d left our expectations, etc., we were free to come this week, last week we left singular it always feels singular when you make that break with expectations. You think you’re if not the first certainly the only one to have to push on that way in your courageousness you have to go this alone, this leaving that we all have to strike in order to make freedom.
This week we join with a great mess of similar pilgrims, they all had to ki teitzei they all had to leave their expectations their complacency behind they had to get up off that thing and get on with it – you did – you got up off that thing and got on with it and when you did you arrived at this week in the great swirl the movement of time the flow you entered the flow and you ki tavo’d you came into, you came somewhere, and when you are telling your story to the priestliness you became plural, came into a place you could not have predicted you did not expect you could not have imagined because you were bold and went ki teitzei’d by yourself and once you did you become a part of the great freedom walk of human beings you all ki tavo’d and came into something. You arrived somewhere.
O human being, you are strong-strong by your getting up off that thing and you believed for a while maybe a long while you could not do it but you could and you did and once you did – you have a whole jam joining you in that journey and you came into something.
Here we all are this week, we became plural in a week’s time and don’t you dare think for a moment that it is not significant. Why I have been told by the smartest people I know that if they had stayed singular they would have stayed dumb. If they had remained singular they would have remained sad and alone in the rathskeller of the spirit where individuals stew in their uniqueness in desperate and insoluble places, people begin to stink there from their own listlessness and inability to get up off that thing and be someone different than destiny.
Hell, I have been told by the boldest person I know that there is no destiny. Get up off that thing and make it happen, I have been told.
Get up out of that cellar, it’ll take you a good week, you can make that trip from when you leave singular to when you come into something, you become plural get up off that thing and get on with it.
This is what the Torah says.
I Live On A Bench (I Used to Live In A Tree)
I hadn’t noticed my neighborhood until I walked it. I waited for the hottest days suited up sound in my ears bandana to protect a delicate pate. Good shoes. Hot hot. Sweat good.
Boom boom boom I am walking the route, the geography of my neighborhood clarifies as I walk. I’ve lived here for thirty years.
I live on a hill, thus a dry basement and other perquisites of elevation. I am closer to the heavens.
I live by a park. The park is in a valley adjacent to the hill on which I live. Boom boom boom I am walking the pathways of the park. The volleyball sand courts have been moved since I once did concerts under the shelter on the north end of the park.
I pass the education office center next to the high school where my kids went. The politics and geo-demographics clarify for me as I walk. A new plaza is in construction in front of the high school expressing a local large corporate presence in our little town. I am immediately suspicious of this.
Of all the consciousness raising installations between the education center and the high school my town elevates its corporate presence. What is that? I ask to no one in particular (I am alone).
It smells like sh** all around There is mulch or compost or black gold preparing the space adjacent to the corporate square. You can’t make this stuff up, one of my friends often says. The odor is so strong I can’t discern where it is coming from; it may be coming from the apartments across the street that are well groomed with mulch. I meditate on proximity: corporate sponsors, education, consciousness, sh** and continue walking.
I narrate in my head as I walk because that’s what I do. Someone may read it someday and ask me about publishing but it doesn’t happen that way. Though it did once.
The complexity of social organization clarifies for me as I cross over the trafficked street to a neighborhood of residential charm. There is a sculpture in metal of two poets, by a local favorite, I know his son full disclosure I love him and I stop and contemplate the sculpture for a moment.
Why two poets? I love the two poets because the truth is tossed between the two and the implied third synthesis: The listener, the reader, the audience, me. Two poets is right. With two poets you approach truth and the implied third is standing and listening and searching within and actively waiting for truth to rise. That’s what we need in front of the high school: two poets, a loop singing poetry as students enter and exit the school not a moment coming or going from learning that is not accompanied by poetry.
I make the turn and enter the ascent of the hill that leads back to my little town. Boom boom boom on my right another modest elegant house bull-dozed for modern construction, some sort of faux Roman column thing favored when the curbs change to granite.
The curbs change to granite once I enter my little town, except on one street where I notice the curbs preserve an egalitarian one-suits-all concept. The curbs are the same and only a sign indicates having left my little town and entered the town to the north. The curbs, by the way, were the subject of the one aldermanic meeting I attended years ago. Though they are elevated in my town, the granite curbs will destroy your tires.
Billy Bob Thornton is standing on the street corner waiting for the light to change as I return to my neighborhood.
Boom boom boom I pause as I assume my customary seat at my beloved bench where I sit and write. In front of me: the jail house where I spend a part of every week.
It is a thousand miles away from where I sit.
I Live On A Bench
August 13, 2015
I didn’t feel too much like going to the jail-house today but I went. I was tired. So what. I got to exercise that morning, led a meeting at noon, ate lunch when I wanted to eat lunch, ate a salad as a matter of fact and it was good, so I didn’t feel like going to the jail-house — get over yourself, I said to no one in particular. I was alone.
The jail-house is by the way within walking distance of my home so give me a break my good self said to my bad self.
I walked over. I was sporting a tasty white seer sucker suit with an elegantine silk blue pocket kerchief for that splash of color I was taught to cultivate, white on white with intersecting textures of interest to the attentive eye and that blue pocket kerchief, an unexpected undeserved gift, a straw fedora that promised to protect my pate from the sun so said the sales person in San Diego where I purchased it. I can also fold the fedora inside a suitcase. Hey. I was a little depressed today full disclosure so I dressed up it works for me.
I had three guys to visit at the jail-house. Three different floors. I made small talk with my friend at the desk who I know from the Children’s Hospital a long time ago which means we are bonded in a deep way, packed my phone, hat, pocket stuff into the locker, retrieved my id card and headed up onto the top floor, the hole, where one of my guys was located. They opened up the gates for me, it’s easier for me to go inside so to speak rather than sit in a cubicle separated by that thick glass. If I don’t go inside, I can visit from the other side but that makes it more difficult to sit with books, etc., and those phones and the little cubicles it’s all an extra measure of disheartening.
So I prefer to go inside but once I get up to the floors, there are only a few rooms available and often there are other occupants of the rooms. There is one little room I described in an earlier entry that is modest and small, I think there is one on every floor, where a psychologist or a lawyer or a rabbi can sit one on one. The door stays open and it’s just more pleasant for conversation and study. I find even as a visitor I crave an open door. Some sort of spacial privilege.
Every room was taken on the first two floors I visited. I couldn’t see the guys on those floors. I started on top and came down. When I got to the last choice, fourth floor, there was an open room. I grabbed it and the CO (corrections’ officer) got the guy out for me.
We sat in front of a big window with lots of reinforcement that faces north and you can see some life happening below. Basically a parking lot of the County governing center. On that day the view was significant. We heard and saw an accident in the parking lot down below and a lot of little people running around trying not to kill each other over a mistake in a turn on the black top. While we were talking. We could hear it behind the windows, way up where we were sitting, and we were both gazing out talking hardly interrupting our conversation maybe mid-sentence with: hey there’s an accident. Back to the conversation.
By the time of the accident the conversation had ascended to a negligible level of bullsh**. Hardly registered at all on the bullsh** scale by that time so the accident was of little interest to us. We were deep into conversation of significance.
A half an hour before, when we began this conversation, I’d say the bullsh** scale was reading up around 97-98%. The man I was visiting was winding out a lengthy story of victimhood and resentment toward everyone who had been a part of his life since he ended up in the jail-house about three months ago. About five minutes in if someone had interrupted the conversation and hooked me up to the bullsh** detector I’m sure it would have registered up around 98%.
I sat quietly, the two other guys were lost to me and I had some time, so the man let out more line like a fisherman and I sat and listened. About ten minutes in I would say the bullsh** scale would still have registered upward of 90%.
About twenty minutes in, the conversation began to slide into another place, it wasn’t a swift movement it was an evolution, in the arc from 90 plus percent bullsh** to a gradient down toward truth-telling and at the time of the accident if we would have paused in conversation and hooked me up I bet it would have registered at 2% maybe even less, maybe undetectable bullsh**. We had arrived at truth-telling. How did that happen?
Later that night I was telling the story of the conversation. Of course it was patience that we practiced in riding the conversation from such a high level of bullsh** to that place of almost complete truth-telling, raw and revelational. Patience, an active waiting for the truth to rise so to speak.
He was telling me how he had come to accept responsibility for being in that place and however long he had to stay there he was going to work it for what it means to his life. What a waste he said to have to endure this experience and not squeeze it for what it means. To do time like this and not learn from it is like doing double time he said. I kept saying yes. Yes.
I wonder. Does every conversation, even the ones that begin and rest at the level of 90-95% bullsh** have the pull to move toward truth-telling if given the time if practicing enough patience does every conversation move naturally toward such evolutionary integrity? Is that all it takes? Patience. To sit and listen and let someone wind out a story until the slack is let out and what’s left is taut and true. And the movement so natural you hardly noticed how you got there you just arrived.
I felt good good as I was leaving. I took the elevator downstairs to retrieve my stuff from the locker and turn in my badge and my friend behind the desk did something she had never done before. I have been there making small talk with her many times in the years I’ve been visiting that jail-house and for the first time, that day, today, she asked me: How did it go?
It went great I said, really wonderful. Thanks. I thanked her a few times and I may have been a little overly enthusiastic with my language but I think she knows. That’s how I read her question, I think she knows that sometimes – in that place, places like that – it can really be spectacular.
There’s a lot of news these days. Where I live, trauma is a part of the story, substance abuse is a part of the story, mental health and illness a big part of the story. The story is difficult, subtle and nuanced, many layered.
In the group that I lead on Monday and Thursday nights, Shalvah (serenity in Hebrew) outreach on addictions, we are familiar with these subjects in an intensely personal way, especially suicide and other self-defeating behaviors, 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 – 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.
But taking one’s own life is always a challenge around our tables, the breath of the beast rarely if ever that far behind us that we are immune. Everyone at the table 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.
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. 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.
I wrote the above piece in another form just after the death of Robin Williams. I think it was a good piece, it led to much conversation. In it I made no great claim to understand what happened to him, only I knew this for certain: he died alone. From that came a strategy: basically, talk talk more talk.
Not long after I wrote that piece, we did a community teaching on mental illness, mental health, suicide and other difficult subjects that we may not talk about easily. 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 trauma 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:
I pledge to bring someone in. If I light a candle, I will share the light.
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.
We can live with our problems.
I pledge to break the *shanda* barrier, which means:
Talk, talk, and more talk.
I pledge to remind my community that we are working our problems, that being secret may be part of the problem, therefore:
I will not practice aloneness. I will talk with somebody. I will pick up the phone.
I’ve been using this pledge at all our sessions. It’s not sloganeering; It’s a raising of the curtain that hides our shame. Our shame is deadly when it keeps us from asking for help. The more we lift that curtain the more likely our most vulnerable ones will find their way to some help and some relief.
Let’s get to work. Spend some time listening and talking, tell your leadership and your intimates and your trustables about this kind of suffering and we need to crack our best effort to split the darkness. We need to be a community. I’m starting with my little community, we are devoted to breaking the shanda barrier.
Next session: Sunday, August 16.
The 1 PM session is dedicated to strategies for professionals and organizers, amateurs and activists. We’ll begin the discussion: what to do. As a community.
At 2 PM, we offer up some preparation for the Days of Awe.
Don’t respect the silence. Then push.
*shanda* means shame. There is none.
Rabbi James Stone Goodman