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.
I’m going to tell you what
And I want you to
Everyone you know.
First stop and listen.
Do not assume.
Don’t get all your information
From common sources
Figure it out yourself
Go and listen
Write through the most difficult stuff.
Be more thoughtful.
Respect the differences you have
What they call these days a
Someone else has a different
Look for hooks on which
You can hang
Can’t find any hooks?
Go somewhere else.
You will recognize the hooks
On which you may hang
You must make
When you don’t know what to say
Find your quiet
The harder it is
The more it is
Always close with optimism
Don’t toss around in bed at night
Never relinquish your
Of a better future
Take this Note To Self
Put it in your pocket and
Until it is
The Mystery Tale of The Sarajevo Haggadah in Dm — Bb
I am a book a telling
I am called the telling, the tale, the story
— this, then, the telling of the telling
distinguished I am by illuminations
drawn onto sienna red background
blue foreground, blue borders
I am the tale that begins with Creation
ending with the present
I am called Haggadah
which means a telling
the most celebrated Haggadah in the world
one of the most famous books in the world
— I am known as the Sarajevo Haggadah.
I was created for a wealthy Castilian family in Barcelona
It is assumed I left Spain with the expulsion in 1492
and went to Italy.
How I crossed the Adriatic to Bosnia Hercegovina
is a mystery.
I am 107 pages long hand written on vellum [calf skin]
similar to a Sefer Torah, the holy Bible
the first 34 pages are miniature paintings
painted on one side only
to prevent bleeding through
my colors are bold blues sienna reds bright copper
the other 58 pages are hand written text
songs, poems, Biblical passages
the story the story
that we tell on Passover.
From marginal notations added to the text
I reveal that I was sold in northern Italy in August, 1510
then examined by an Italian ecclesiastical censor in 1609.
I crossed the Adriatic some time between then and 1894 —
when I was sold by the Jozef Kohen family to the Sarajevo National Museum
for $7,000 —
In 1991 it was estimated I am worth $700 million.
In World War II, the Nazis came looking for me.
First they carried off 80 percent of Sarajevo’s 12,000 Jews
then they came looking for its soul —
The Catholic director of the National Museum deceived them
a Croat Jozo Petricevic
and a Muslim librarian Dervis Korkut hid me on a mountain
they buried me under an apple tree
I am I am I am one of the most beautiful books
in the world.
I am beautiful because I am colorful
I am old
I am beautiful also
because I am an unlikely survivor.
I survived with part of my story
the telling of the telling is somewhat known.
There is nothing as dear
to me as survival.
I am the tale – without the telling, I am nothing
with the telling – I am everything
I am the secret of survival
the telling of the telling
freedom of freedom in freedom.
I have a hand-drawn quality
my words inscribed in a bold Mediterranean posture
I am 650 years old more or less
my story however begins with Genesis
I conclude with the present —
I am everything
that is, the whole story.
During the Bosnian War of 1990s
I was hidden then too
an explosion flooded a basement next to my hiding place
— again I was saved.
I am presently kept in a bank vault in Sarajevo
I am wrapped in white tissue
I am in a sealed blue metal lock box.
In 2003, I was revealed to the public for the first time
in a secure climate controlled room
with documents — from the Bosnian Orthodox
from the Muslims from Catholic Bosnia —
a project of hope sponsored by the United Nations.
Jakob Finci, president of the Jewish community of Bosnia-Herzegovina
in Sarajevo said this:
we can live together
we used to live together
let’s hope we can live together in the centuries ahead of us.
This country is divided in so many ways
only the opening of this room
brought them all together with one idea.
I am a symbol
from the first Golden Age in Spain
I survived into a 2nd Golden Age
the little Jerusalem of Bosnia
I am a much more important story
than the world knows –
With this, I have given you
the telling of the telling
now you know.
Now you have the story of the telling
among all the mystery tales of my text
A la una yo naci
I was born at 1 o’clock
a las dos m’engrandeci
at two I grew up
a las tres tomi amante
at three I took a lover
y a las cuatro me cazi
at 4 I married
alma vida y carason
soul, life, and heart
alma vida y carason
soul, life, and heart
alma vida y carason
soul, life, and heart
The future belongs to the future
what to make of the past
tearful triumphant romantic
a whole life told in hours
an entire world told in stories
and always the great story
told in this story
every thing contained in some thing
an entire life told in hours
an entire culture in stories.
One thousand Jews today in Bosnia
When the Jews leave a city,
the city is finally dead
— Bosnian proverb.
The remnant – O God
preserve the remnant
so that no one will ever say
these holy prayers have perished
the ones who spoke them
Songs [at beginning]:
Shomeir Yisrael, O guardian of Israel
Project them, preserve the remnant
Alma Vida y Corazon
A La Una Yo Naci
The Story of Passover
I learned something new this year something to add to what I had already learned years before. We were discussing the mystery root in Torah n-g-d when those two guys walked down the outer walkway on Saturday morning. They were speaking Aramaic; who speaks Aramaic anymore.
They had been parsing the name of the place we could hear them as they were walking up: neve in Hebrew, from the couple of verses in Isaiah where it appears, a place for animals a kind of sanctuary like an oasis.
Then when we were studying inside later that morning we went on about that n-g-d root. We were in the book of Exodus, Yitro, they mentioned one of the visitors did that when we are eating together in verse 12 — before G*d — that when we are eating with heavies the glow of the Shekhinah is present. He was quoting a story from the Talmud, I looked it up it’s Brakhot 64a that Rashi was referring to and I was getting a little suspicious of these guys how they knew so much Rashi.
Don’t you love the changes that are happening in this story he asked to no one in particular because one listens to the other, hears something right, takes it home takes it inside and changes everything? I do, I do love that, I said.
And look the other one said, we have these verbs in chapter 19, verse two, the root n-g-d for the word in the next verse: this is what you will tell to the rest of them. The same root in Haggadah, n-g-d, from to be across from, or corresponding to, as if in the telling is always the correspondence between language and the thing itself, but it’s the story, it’s the word it’s not the thing itself so the root is n-g-d in the telling making the correspondence between what you say and what it is.
There is always that space that distance between language — all language — and symbol and the thing itself what is symbol-ed we are trying to make that correspondence and that’s why our language is so elastic. Don’t you love it? I said I do, I do love it.
Some time later I was studying with S but I was dreaming about telling the story and when it’s told the necessity to be understood, especially the holy telling of the Haggadah and the Maggid section in the Haggadah the telling and the n-g-d root that is lurking within both those words, that sense that there is a story and then there is what the story is about.
Then on Thursday night we were talking about the telling of our own stories and every time we tell it we squeeze it for more what it means. There is the story and there is the telling and with every telling there is more truth, more truth squeezed through the telling, the telling and the thing itself. The more we tell it the more we know of what the story is about, the thing itself, so the root is somewhat dual in that sense of corresponding to: n-g-d, and I am loving this root for its essential correspondence of one thing to another and its hiddenness within every story the thing that the story is about and they are not the same they correspond and we tell it and tell it to coax out the deeper reality(ies).
One night when we were playing music we made that groove where I started talking about my aunt who was married to a gangster and she was the funniest person I had known. Until I met her sister who was living up in the Catskills, and she was the funniest person I knew and by then I was grown up, almost thirty, so my sense of funny had changed I suppose and every time I visited her it was like I was the audience sitting on her divan and she did twenty minutes that was so hysterical I could hardly sit but this was just the way she talked. Maybe she didn’t have anybody to talk to; she lived alone after all in a tiny little place in Monsey.
I told her I thought she was now the funniest person I had every met, funnier than my aunt (she wasn’t my blood aunt but I called her my aunt and she didn’t have much that kind of family) and her sister who I never called my aunt said you think I’m funny wait ‘til you meet my son. I didn’t want to meet her son because he was a professional comedian in what was left up there of the borscht belt and I figured it was just a lot of shtick and it would be embarrassing.
On one of my trips up that way she made a call and said he’ll be right over. Oh my God, she called her son and he was coming over to meet me and I didn’t look forward to it at all I’m going to have to sit here and listen to his routines and pretend that it’s entertaining that old shtick and he came over nice looking guy about twenty years older than me and he did about twenty minutes that was even funnier than his mother and way funnier than his aunt (who I called my aunt) and I was laughing so hard I could hardly stand it. Maybe this is the way they talk to each other all the time I had never heard such funny stuff in my life.
Some years passed and the gangster (who I took to calling my uncle as he was married to who I called my aunt and he was not connected so well to his own people) died and my aunt moved back to Detroit to be with her son (he wasn’t actually her son) and I had heard that she was ill and in a nursing home of some kind so I went to find her.
It was Detroit and some time in May I think still in the interminable winter that seized Detroit every year in those days cold and dark nothing growing no organic matter at all as far as I could tell but I did find a lone crocus grown in Canada at the corner grocery and I bought it and went searching for my aunt.
She was sharing a room with another lady and I swear I stared at them both and couldn’t tell which one was my aunt she had diminished so. They both were asleep I guess they call it and no doubt full of the drugs of quietude. It was her hair that gave her away to me. I never in my memory identified anybody by their hair this way but she was so different looking that it was her hair that gave her away.
I sat next to her bedside and she woke up and started talking to me in Yiddish. She thought I was my father and she kept calling me Harry and speaking to me in Yiddish and it was delicious being my father for a while as he had passed some years before.
I was my father for as long as she stayed awake and we talked about all the old people that she was remembering from when she was married the first time to Henry and had a store and so did my Dad and when she went back to sleep I left. I stayed somewhere near over night and came back for the last visit and she awakened again and spoke to me as my Dad and the crocus I had left there had bloomed. I kissed her on her head and said goodbye.
I told this story as we settled into the groove when we were playing music because her next husband – who my mother called a gangster — his name was another word for teaching in our language and that made the crazy segue to the last piece that S had taught this year something new that tied everything together and came from Onkelos who translated all the Hebrew into Aramaic and made the translation of the n-g-d verb into the Aramaic for teaching.
It wasn’t enough to tell it you had to tell the story in such a way that taught it so if you told it and it wasn’t understood it was not enough or if you told it in a different language it was not enough it had to be taught it had to be understood it had to be a teaching with real dialogue.
That was new to me and pulled it all together and after I had finished telling the story of visiting my aunt and all of them of so many years ago I felt a great satisfaction pulling it all together as I was about to make my freedom trip so I talked this piece out loud then I wrote it and we settled deeper into the music as throughout all this telling I had not stopped playing quietly on my instrument as if everyone were visiting me in my living room though it wasn’t.
In the end I mentioned that my uncle who was a gangster, his name means teaching, that’s the part that pulls it all together and why I called this piece the story of Passover and it’s important somehow in the deeper sense and I won’t say any more as who knows the Feds may still be interested as they swept down on my aunt after her husband died trying to track his untraceable assets and it took me ten years to tell the story at all much less mention any names. So I won’t. Besides, I’m not so clean myself if you know what I mean.