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
I Can’t Get No Sa-tis-fac-tion
A human being does not live by bread only, but by everything that issues from the mouth of God does a human being live (Deut.8:3).
There is an emptiness inside of me, a cavern, it will not be filled with bread, with stuff, there is not enough substances to fill that space, this space is vacant for want of depth, spirit, this space is not hungry for bread this space is hungry for meaning, for significance. The real deal.
A human being doesn’t live for bread only; a human being lives for Everything. Only Everything is everything (Marvin Gaye). That’s the danger with this kind of hunger, we think we can stuff ourselves with some thing.
Drugs won’t do it, booze won’t do it, sex won’t do it, money won’t do it, food won’t do it, only HaKol, Everything. Not the Dow, only the Tao.
I got a monkey in my soul. The I is a thief, said the Kotzker, it snatches the partial and mistakes it for the whole. Only Everything is everything. What we have here is a model for addiction and its root in spiritual, intensely inner matters.
To the suffering addict, booze is everything, drugs are everything, she is everything, he is everything, sex is everything, food is everything, work is everything, success is everything.
Into that emptiness we stuff the partial, we drink into that emptiness, we drug into that emptiness, we work into that emptiness, we love into that emptiness, we eat into that emptiness. Never enough. Only Everything is everything. Not by bread alone do human beings live, but by everything that issues from the mouth of God do human beings live.
You can’t eat enough, you can’t drink enough, you can’t love enough to satisfy a hunger that isn’t physical. My soul thirsts for God, the living God (Psalm 42:3). That’s the only remedy, the enduring remedy, the perennial wisdom: the One.
What I mean is: You can get some sa-tis-fac-tion.
“You will eat but you will be satisfied only when you bless . . .” (Deut. 8:10).
We marched to the County Government Center. In addition to the Prosecutor’s office the jailhouse is there. I do a prison project and visit the jailhouse right there every Wednesday afternoon. I couldn’t go today. They closed it up to outsiders today because of the protests. I couldn’t get in. There I was on the street right under the side with the obscured windows. I know the prisoners are up there.
That’s another side of this story. Up above us as we stood hollering on the street are the forgotten ones who have fallen out of the system entirely hidden away behind those windows. I’m down below thinking about them up above wondering if they’re watching us. Hey there’s the rabbi! He’s preaching!
Well I wasn’t preaching I was praying for peace. Up above the angels behind the windows took my prayers and relayed them to heaven. People think there’s a hardening of the hearts out here, they should only know what happens up there.
Several days after a man waving a knife was shot four miles from Ferguson, inside the city limits. The mayor of the city of St. Louis sent an aide to the site where it went down and the young men hanging around there said: we need some jobs.
So they offered job training and signed up a bunch of young men. I’m going to take this as a sign of things to come, a clue that something good can come out of this terrible chapter.
It’s a story of race and class. Race and class. We need a job. We need a living wage. We need to be known. We need to be listened to, we need to be heard. We need to be treated with respect. We are America too, one America, hey we want some America too.
a year later
August 2, 2015
I have been visiting weekly at the jailhouse in the County which I believe was intended to be a temporary holding facility, adjacent to the courthouse, etc., but it holds inmates for longer lengths of time. Everyone is in transition in the system, all the time, and that seems to include the County jailhouse.
One of the fellows I am visiting now has been there almost a year. The last guy who was waiting for a federal link was there over a year; sometimes they are here a while and often when they leave I find out only on the next week’s visit. I arrive and make it up to the floor and they’ve gone. It’s strange for me that way I admit. I can get to know someone in a year’s time and though there is not an abundance of sentimentality associated with being in prison, there’s still that thing of closure and when someone is gone without notice, transferred and sometimes without foreknowledge, well it’s hard to get used to. For me. I don’t like to admit that – I’m not the one in prison.
Not everyone in the system hangs on the passing of time, so to speak. How long you been in? Not everyone can rattle off the numbers as if counting is a primary preoccupation. Most of the people I visit walk through it without an excessive attention given over to time, time spent, time left. Doing time.
Doing time is a good phrase, I don’t hear it that much excluding movies but it’s a good description of the attitude to time I pick up talking with inmates. Doing time, in the sense of not counting time, not that sense of waiting, sitting, held by an inexorable passing of time, the image from the movies and cartoons of a guy sitting in a cell marking off days and years scratching on a wall. Not that.
Doing time in the sense of putting one foot in front of the other and doing what’s in front of you today. Then tomorrow, the next day, etc. It seems more like that. Otherwise you would go nuts.
It happened with the fellow from Federal who was one of my most serious students and it happened with a guy recently for whom I had secured a few books and some other materials. I got up to the floor and – gone. Transferred.
Last week I had a nice book I had found on the internet for him. He had been transferred, so I held onto the book and asked for the next guy. I was on the segregated custody floor, the hole, where guys are there either for disciplinary infractions or for their own safety. There were two guys I had been visiting in the hole for some months now.
On that floor I can visit with them, but it has to be one on one. In other institutions I can hold a kind of class; with these guys it’s individual instruction. They put me in the room where lawyers and psychologists and others who have occasional time with the inmates generally meet. It’s a small room, open to where the corrections officers sit so they can see me at all times. They ask me to sit in the doorway. It’s a better location to meet, the door isn’t locked, all the locking of doors and enclosed spaces is still a little difficult for me and this space has an open door where I sit. Again — big deal. There is an official looking computer and a screen and a corner of table between myself and the person I am speaking with so we can lay out some papers or a book.
I asked for the fellow I have been visiting for about six months now and the corrections officer said, sure but he’ll have to be cuffed. He came out with handcuffs on; there had been some disciplinary business with him though I can’t imagine what; he is so well behaved with me. Polite. I didn’t ask.
While we were sitting and talking another fellow was brought out of the same unit (the hole) also cuffed but not nearly as compliant. There were twenty corrections officers assisting with his transfer from one section of the floor to another and he was hollering. First he went limp on the floor so it was difficult to pick him up. He’s a pretty big man. A few more officers came up from other floors and he became more agitated and let out a soliloquy of intelligible complaints about his treatment and his life behind bars. He covered a lot of subjects.
By this time he scurried and was dragged just outside the open door where we were sitting. We continued talking about the material we were discussing from the book between us even though he was making a major fuss less than ten feet away. You get used to this here, said the fellow I was speaking with, then he described in more detail that guy making all the noise.
He’s mentally ill, he said, and he filled in for me some of the things he did back on the floor. He’s in the hole, which means he’s alone in a cell, but he makes a lot of noise. He’s been incarcerated off and on since he was a teen-ager and he looked to be in his late thirties. He had many tattoos, some of which ran up his neck almost to his face.
A lot of the guys in here are mentally ill, said the fellow I was speaking with — the book of Torah spread on the table between us, the guy hollering on the floor just outside the door — still we continued our conversation. I would say about a third of the guys here are mentally ill, a third are criminals, and a third like me. He has a pretty accurate and un-rosy view of himself. What do mean like you? I asked him. I could be helped if they would take the time. He laughed.
There’s no help here, he said, if I’m not careful I’ll become a criminal. Or crazy. Like that guy.
I looked at the guy who was now even closer to me. They had picked him up finally and strapped him into some kind of mobile restraining chair. Let me talk to the psychologist he hollered. He assumed I was a psychologist, sitting in that room, and he started to laugh and holler a kind of mad explosion of sound. I could see him close enough now to read one of his tattoos, the one on his neck.
It read: Hard to kill.
Mental Illness On The Fringe
We’ve been running programs for substance abuse as well as introductory sessions on mental illness-mental health.
We’ve scheduled a fourth session in a series called Shanda: There is None for Sunday, August 16, Jewish Federation building. This is our mental health-mental illness opening. I call these sessions an opening because we are square one on this subject. I thought we were further along. We are not.
We also meet twice a week in support and teaching sessions called Shalvah on Addictions. Shalvah means serenity.
Of course the distinction between substance abuse and mental illness is elusive, false really, almost everyone in the addiction groups struggle with some form or another of mental illness and surely someone who has been taking drugs or drinking for some years will present as if he/she has a mental illness. Dual diagnosis. Almost everyone comes into the meetings with dual diagnosis or co-occurring disorders; a mood disorder and a problem with substances.
Also there has been the anecdotal increase in tragedies associated with mental illness, those of us who are working the front lines know that. The statistics that we care about are people. We all know individuals who went down suffering with depression, other forms of challenges — the inner world when it goes dark. And the increase in use of heroin and other dangerous drugs in our neighborhoods and communities have multiplied; we know those stories too, we don’t have to cite figures from the NIMH.
We are under-prepared, under-educated, under-equipped. We are still laboring under the shanda curtain of shame. Some of us took on the shame barrier with drug and alcohol abuse starting in 1981 (see SLICHA), we are now turning our attention to the next hurdle which I believe is mental illness. We all have the experience in our families, some of us more hidden than others. We begin by talking about it; let’s talk about mental illness.
What to do, that’s always the question. Start with talk and more talk, real talk about real problems. 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.
Here’s the pledge again. 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 phone.
*Shanda* means shame. There is none.
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.
Our problems are serious, deep, numerous. Our problems are lucky to have us. Our devotion to them endless. Let’s get to work. Spend some time listening and talking, tell your leadership and your intimates and your trustables that we are suffering and we need to crack our best effort to split the darkness. We need to be a community.
Next session: Sunday, August 16, Jewish Federation of St. Louis. At 1 PM, strategies for professionals and organizers, amateurs and activists. We’ll begin the discussion: what to do. As a community.
At 2 PM, preparation for the Days of Awe.
Don’t respect the silence. Then push.
james stone goodman
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