A Story of New Orleans

 

A Story of New Orleans

Do you know what it means to miss New Orleans — Louis

I had never been to New Orleans, until recently. Don’t go there, friends told me, you’ll never come back.

It was some years after “the storm;” Katrina, 2005. New Orleans was still in an expansion, clean-up mode, and until the proud Times-Picayune retreated to three days a week, I think most New Orleanians were feeling good about their revival. The Times-Picayune downsize was a step back, I could feel that. I was all eyes and ears on my first trip.

Almost all the musicians I met on the street had a similar story: I left after the storm, went to ________ for a few years. I came back.

I was first attracted by the street music. I heard wonderful music on the street, not at all the kind of music I was accustomed to hearing on the streets of our city. I spent three, four hours every day listening to music on the streets of the French Quarter.

All the instruments were suited for such performing, which meant light on the amplification heavy on the brass and simple percussion contraptions. Bass generally covered in brass, intersecting lines woven through other reed and brass configurations. A singer singing in higher registers, generally a woman, over the top. The acoustic guitars were mostly of the gypsy, swing jazz variety or simple electric with battery powered amplifiers, that chordal chunk chunk swing style I first heard articulated by Charlie Christian on records of Benny Goodman’s and Count Basie’s bands.

One afternoon, I took the advice of a friend who visited New Orleans frequently and suggested, I think somewhat fancifully, that I make a pilgrimage to the park named in honor of Louis Armstrong to a place colloquially called Congo Square, once called Place de Negres, so called because it was the site of a slave trading and a certain celebrational dance and music style that was practiced and continued there after it became a part of the Louisiana Purchase in 1803.

I walked to the park one morning to make my pilgrimage. It is on the edge of the Treme, just on the other side of Rampart Street from the French Quarter. I spent some time in the Square, sang a few tunes there, paid my respects to the statue of Louis Armstrong who hailed from the area and to whom I traced the impact of New Orleans music as it traveled up the rivers of the heart-line, United States of America, and into my hands in the river towns where I was born and have lived.

After making my pilgrimage, I continued to walk around the Treme, blissfully unaware of where I was or how far I was wandering away from where I was staying near Bourbon Street, an environment unsuitable for me that I tried to avoid at all costs.

On the edge of the Treme I spied a True Value hardware store that was outfitted as cleanly as well appointed as any hardware store I have ever visited. I am an aficionado of hardware stores. On the second floor of the hardware store a display of utensils and coffee makers bean grinders espresso makers everything outfitted for the tastefully appointed kitchen.

I know everything about coffee making and we discussed that. I also sought an eight-dollar water infuser so I could make coffee in my hotel room. They did not have the coil infuser but we began a conversation over coffee and other subjects I know about of no consequence.

Would you like to sample our local brew? They asked me. They had some of the recently ground bean ready and made me an espresso then a cup of regular Joe from the local bean. Both were excellent and I explained to them why I thought so. We were not talking wine; we were talking coffee, though we could have been talking wine. It was a tender meeting over sophisticated irrelevant standards of noblesse oblige, the stuff we love when nothing more pressing is heavy on us.

I continued into the Treme and walked, looking everywhere for the spirits of the iconic stories I knew that were birthed from that place. There was some day activity, some repair, much construction in the entire city and I felt the past speaking to me out of the modest streets I clopped clopped on through my wandering.

I wandered a little too far and began to lose my bearings; back towards the French Quarter, nearer again to Rampart Street, out came a group of four, five men dressed as women just as I was passing their house. They were dressed in the most dramatic fashion, several of them were six inches taller than me, they wore decorated hose and boutique skirts, several with bustier type contraptions around their chest, a couple with long blonde wigs (I think) and very tasty cowboy hats.

I looked at them as they came down the walk from what I imagined was their lodging on a street at the edge of the Treme. I’m sure I looked a little surprised and maybe ambushed. They opened with, “What are you doing here?” as if I was some sort of stranger.

What the heck — I told them. I told them about my pilgrimage to the Louis Armstrong site, that I had never been to New Orleans before, that I was a musician who takes his roots seriously and I made this holy pilgrimage to the Source on that day and now I was exploring semi-lost in the neighborhood of an old dream. That seemed to open everything to them. They got serious with me and expressed their understanding and complete appreciation of my pilgrimage, once they realized I was for real.

I walked with them down the street. Where are you going? I asked them. Honey, we’re going to work. As we walked into the French Quarter chattering away, tourists (I assume) stopped, got out of the their cars or interrupted their strolls, to take their pictures. Does that bother you? I asked them.

Not in the least. It’s part of our job, another added: life, job. We were strolling like old friends. They got a tremendous kick when I told them my profession. For everyone who stopped and snapped their picture, they posed and feigned some silliness but by this time we had developed a seriousness between us. On the corner where they directed me one way and they were off another, one of them asked, will you bless me? Yes, they all chimed in, will you bless me, me too?

I’ve never been blessed by a rabbi.

Sure I said, and they all moved closer together into the circle we had made on the corner at the edge of the French Quarter and I sang-chanted slow and mellow the three-fold priestly blessing, pretty and slow the holy blessing from the Priests in the book of Numbers (6:23-27):

Ye-va-re-che-cha Adonai ve-yish-me-re-cha.

May God bless you and protect you.

Ya-eir Adonai pa-nav ei-le-cha vi-chu-ne-ka.

May God’s face shine for you and be gracious to you.

Yi-sa Adonai pa-nav ei-le-cha ve-ya-seim le-cha sha-lom.

May God’s face always be lifted to you and give you peace.

First I sang it in Hebrew, then in English, then in Hebrew again. I did not hurry it. The first time I chanted it with my eyes closed, then I opened them and everyone’s eyes in the circle were closed, then they all opened and I chanted the last verse again with all eyes open boring into our interiors.

That was real, somebody said. Thank you thank you went all around and we stood for a moment kind of hushed on the corner of those streets, they then went their way and I went mine, and I’m thinking maybe none of us will forget those moments.

Later that night, I hopped on a streetcar on Canal Street. Most of the streetcars were not operating that day, so it was crowded crowded on the one I caught. I sat down. There was an older woman across from me holding onto a strap and I offered her my seat. She declined.

Next to me was sitting a man in disarray. First he spoke loudly to his girlfriend on his cell phone, to whom he pledged he would go to jail for her just as he had gone to jail for his last woman. He ended his phone conversation and by this time the car was packed.

The man sitting next to me started hollering at (I thought) the driver. “RT! What you letting so many people on this car. Too crowded. I can’t see where I’m going. RT! You paying attention?” He kept hollering and there was real tension in the car.

The woman standing in front of me watched him and when there was a pause in the noise she said quietly and forcefully: “You need to keep quiet.” He made his way up to the front to get off the car.

When he passed the driver he said to him, “how come you didn’t answer me?”

“You didn’t say my name,” said the driver.

“I don’t know your name!” and he got down out of the car.

The tension had evaporated and everyone within earshot exploded into laughter. I think RT stood for Rapid Transit. It was that moment that the mask that covers New Orleans came off and I saw the every day underneath, the real face, of this beautiful city.

Until that day, New Orleans presented to me as a confused, loud, forbidding place. Many people lingering in doorways, a lot of scams, scammers, hustlers, fraternity boy drunkenness and occasionally a truly sinister seediness. The curtain parted for me that day on New Orleans and I saw the same things I see every day: you don’t know my name, talk to me, I respect your pilgrimage, the desire to know and be known, etc.

That was a moment, the parting of the curtain.

Just before my visit I had begun a food regimen that kept me from enjoying the fabled New Orleans cuisine. My brother said you’re the only person I know who went to New Orleans and couldn’t find a decent meal.

The best meal I had was a pizza from a place my daughter’s friend owned in a Bywater neighborhood that was spectacular. It had kale on it.

Everything seemed to be in motion in this city, swinging, expanding. A stranger myself, I felt welcomed by strangers. No one outside the camp, I thought, who cannot be brought within. No one a stranger, or we are all strangers.

Some of the people in these tales were black some of them white. Some of them old some young. Some were men some were women; some a combination of the two (there are so many more than two possibilities).

It was the turn of a new year. I spent it in a hotel room, I couldn’t bear to navigate the streets in the area I was staying. I can abide sinister but public drunkenness is difficult for me, and when they carried a guy out of the restaurant where I was having a civilized dinner, I opted for a quieter welcome of the New Year.

Then I moved to New Orleans.

 

jsg

 

In Praise of Ambiguity and Respect for Tools

In Praise of Ambiguity or Respect for Tools

T’s desk was built for a telegraph office sometime around the turn of the century. The telegraph agent stood behind such a desk; it was a standing desk, not fashionable until many years later. T had acquired a tall stool so he could sit behind it; it was T’s style, this lofty perch peering over the top at whomever came into the room.

T wrote at that desk. He wrote longhand with fountain pens, big fat Sheaffer pens with stub nose nibs which left trails of broad, black ink on the white legal pads he filled with words. The pen was the Sheaffer PFM, Pen For Men, because it was big and hefty and in its day it was the most complicated fountain pen made, basically a variation of a simple mechanism.

The pen that T preferred was the all American Sheaffer, with what is called a stub nib. Stub nibs are flat across the end and rounded at the corners, so you get a good thick line and some variation in horizontal and vertical strokes. He always used black ink, Sheaffer ink because it had a little detergent element in it to keep the pen lubricated so to speak and the ink flowing a river of words.

T prized the Sheaffer PFM pens. They were introduced in 1959 and Sheaffer made them for about ten years in five models. They were hefty, wagging in your hand like a stubby finger, and came with a variety of nibs. T had a half dozen of them, different pieces, all with the same stub nose nibs, none of which you could buy anymore. At the time there was one man in town, Mr. Froelich, who owned a notions and gift store with a pen counter and had the tools and materials to adjust and make repairs. He was the only one in town who could repair T’s beloved Sheaffer PFM pens, and they often needed adjustment.

I saw old Mr. Froelich’s pen work bench once in the back of his store and it was magic.

T introduced me to these pens when I was still writing with old Parkers and whatever else I could get my hands on. I had already fallen into fountain pens so I was a willing student, manifesting a fondness for the word written black and broad on white paper. I have a respect for tools. I have a similar feel for the fountain pen that I do for the classical guitar, I like the tactile feel of ink on paper as I prefer the feel of finger and fingernail on nylon strings. I like to plunge my hands into mud too.

I wanted one of those Sheaffer PFM pens with the stub nib and as I fell under T’s influence he promised one day in a moment of atypical sentimentality – he may have been drunk — that he would give me one of his blessed fire writing sky drawing pens. But he never coughed it over. Whenever I was visiting with him, he sitting high behind his telegraph operator’s desk myself meekly in front like a Dickens office scene Bob Cratchit and Scrooge at work, I would follow his hand into his pocket and return with that stumpy sixth finger and watch every movement as he uncapped it — the flash of the fine gold nib the flat stub nib — I followed every movement as hand and pen applied the black gold to the white paper.

This was not only a matter of tools, it was a matter of competence. He was a wonderful writer. He wrote sermons as if Faulkner had fallen on and off on and off the wagon and took to religion, he wrote about his childhood home in a near southern former coal mining region in a coal mining state that he had survived by earning a basketball scholarship to a noble southern University. He was tall.

He was a mentor to me in many ways. He had skills that no one else I knew had, and I felt that if I paid close enough attention, I had the potential to acquire some of those skills. So I watched him and emblematic of our relationship and the transfer of skills was that pen. I wanted one of those pens.

I happened to be at his place of work one Sunday morning when he was not prepared or not fit to deliver the sermon and he asked me to step in and I spontaneously arose to the occasion and from the pulpit reminded him in front of his church full of witnesses that he had promised me the fire writing pen but had never delivered and no doubt due to the public nature of the challenge he marched into his office and brought back a fine version of the Sheaffer PFM stub nose pen, one of about a half a dozen in his collection, a working man’s pen this no collector’s item and I pocketed it in front of everyone and made a hasty exit before he came to his senses and asked for it back.

He would later ask for it back but I was careful never to appear in his presence with that pen in my pocket though I used it often and prized it as if it were the holy grail or the magic bat Wonderboy. I also wrote with that pen.

I would like to say that our relationship, teacher to student myself the student, continued and I acquired the skills from him I wanted in addition to the noble tool he had given me, a symbol of the giving over of energies skills talents as it were that I wanted and I knew he had. It was not meant to be.

There came a time in our relationship that I made a clumsy attempt to adjust our relation, I thought I was doing something good for him, but sometimes that works out sometimes it doesn’t. In this story, it did not. He kicked me out of his life, I challenged him on something he would not allow challenge and our friendship was over. But not the tutelage.

Every time I put my hand into my pocket and drew out the Sheaffer PFM stub nose fountain pen I thought of him, and when I put black gold onto white paper I often thought of him as well, though I think that in the passage of years student exceeded master and I felt more competent in ways that I could not have learned for him. He may have contributed to my beginning but I had exceeded my teacher. Still I owed him. I thought of him. I always remembered him.

We had one friend in common, his secretary I guess I would call her, though she was more than that. H took care of him, understood him, typed up his beautiful longhand missives, kept his files, etc., kept his work life together for the time she was with him she had to run a lot of interference because he didn’t always behave so well with people. He drove people away and she brought people close. She was invaluable to his life and I’m not sure how many people knew that.

H died in June, 2014. I had kept up a friendship with her through the years, T had disappeared from my life. I actually thought at one time he was dead, or living with one of his children in a spare bedroom out of town, I hadn’t heard from him or about him in many years. I was not accustomed to hearing from him, but I ceased hearing about him.

When H died in Hermann Missouri, her family home, I drove out there on a Saturday in the summer of 2014 and went to her Memorial at the local church. At the Memorial was T’s first wife, who I chatted with. I asked her if she knew where he was and he was in a facility I visited at least once a week. I had no idea he was there. You should go see him, she said, but don’t expect much.

T was hardly mentioned at the memorial and I thought that was an odd omission, H figured so large in his life, he so large in hers. I knew this and I’m sure other people knew this but T had faded from everyone’s consciousness it seemed over the years; I determined to go see him when I returned to St. Louis.

The next week was Tisha B’Av, the nadir of the Jewish year and the deepest dip in the Jewish spiritual trip. I scheduled nothing for that day. I fasted though because I take medicine I am not required to but I appreciate the visions and insights and proximity to the sea of God that fasting encourages. I went to Starbuck’s on the corner of Lindbergh and Clayton Road, my favorite Starbuck’s at the time, and sat in a comfy chair facing the door with a book and my papers and computer and one of the pens in my pocket that T had introduced me to, intending to go visit him. I felt a little timid; I was working myself into it.

Walked in one of my pals who looked at me and asked, how you doing? Fine fine, we chatted. Another pal wandered in whom I am closer to, how you doing, he asked me, fine fine. No you’re not, he said, and I told him briefly the story of T and I was working up to visit him. Go visit him, he said, get up and on with it.

I got up and went. I found him at the facility down a corridor that was locked because there was a virus on the floor and I had to gown up to go in but I came and I did. He was in his room. He said hi as if we had chatted each other up last week, he was watching some God Hour preacher from Texas on TV and he had a pretty nice room for such places. He also had a silly hat, a good sign, he always had a big silly hat that added as much to his mystique as that big desk and in much the same way. A matter of scale.

I sat down in a wheel chair by the bed. He couldn’t walk by himself. Want to go for a ride, I asked, I saw there’s a door outside at the end of the corridor. We could go outside, it’s nice out. Sure.

I helped him into the wheel chair and pushed him down the hall. He teased all the women who work the floor even patting some of them as we passed. So far: the same old guy.

We went outside and sat in the sun. It wasn’t that hot that day. We started talking about folks we knew from the days when we hung out together, especially our friend H who just died. He told me some things about her he shouldn’t have but that was always his way. He talked about his childhood in that dying coal mountain town and I asked him questions about where he went from there and what it was like in all the places he had been and we chatted away for two hours as if it were twenty years earlier maybe twenty five before our separation. It was as if he had never kicked me out of his life and we picked up where we were and I became his student again though I had exceeded what he had given me a long time ago. Still, I am loyal to my beginnings.

And who knows I may be there one day myself and someone may come visit me who learned something from me and far exceeded my sense of influence in their lives. Whatever it was it was delicious. I had my friend and mentor back as if nothing had come between us. I even had one of the pens with me and I drew it out of my pocket and shined it in his direction. Ah – the Sheaffer, he said, the cheap one. This was a later knock-off of the original PFM that Sheaffer made and he introduced me to that one too. Of course I would not bring the original though I still have it, he might snatch it back from me.

He was completely present the two plus hours I spent with him. And every time I’ve been back – clear and present. He was depressed but he’s always been depressed and he knew it. He told me right away he was waiting to die.

I went to see him almost every week. He only wanted hard candy so I brought him hard candy. Hard candy is not as popular as it used to be by the way. I took him outside or sometimes I sat with him in his room and watched TV, sometimes we talked about old folks from back then or when he did this did that and sometimes I just sat there with him.

He’s not remembered much among people I know, but he is one of the great preaching gesticulating wild man dramatic hollering gifted southern drunks that howled at the gates of hell asking either to get in or get out, gifted and driven and sometimes crazy and always a presence that owned a room when he walked into it. An original.

I know I am him, if not for this if not for that, and whatever happened to him could have happened to me, it didn’t but our roads run off in unexpected directions over thirty or forty years and you cannot imagine where they will take you unless you’re a good writer and a thinker and a hollering crazy man then you might have known something that others didn’t and you may have made more of a mark on those around you than you realize even those you pushed away even individuals you kicked out of your life, not knowing they were watching you and in some ways you launched them and though you didn’t linger to see what became of them you set them off on their course and they owe you they remember you they write about you they honor you.

There are some relationships in life that are authenticating, not the category of love exactly, some other thing that is central and authenticating. You may have had only a few of them in your life but when they are deep and when you learn from them and when they spin you off on your way in a certain direction they are like love, they are central like love, they may not be love but they are crucial and you have one two three such relations in your life and they are so deep so inspiring so directional that’s all you need. That’s all you can manage. That’s enough. Maybe it is love, some kind of goofy love.

You may even get kicked out of someone’s life and that doesn’t diminish the centrality of that relation. It was crucial. It came at what you now know to be the right time. It wasn’t a love thing exactly, it may not have even been a respect thing exactly, it was something else. It was life and it was necessary and it was rare and you celebrate the one or two or three of those stories in their magnificent ambiguity.

What are you to each other? Ambiguous.

jsg

T died on May 12, 2017.

A Story of Old Israel

Feeling All Right I’m Not Feeling Too Good Myself

A Story of Old Israel

 

I fell out of my chair one night at the end of a particularly delicious evening of conversation with my Israeli friends Ahuva, her daughter Meeli, her husband Ronen and their three daughters Adi, Ayelet, Maya, Ayelet’s boyfriend Ilan who we just met and my wife Susie. I sat in my chair at the head of the table where Eliezer of blessed memory, Ahuva’s husband, once sat. I am always aware of that when I sit there. I made a mental note of it and sat down.

Eliezer was one of the pioneering generation and a founding member of the kibbutz. He built Israel. He once shared a room with Hannah Senesh, poet, paratrooper, who left from that kibbutz in 1944 on a secret mission to save Hungarian Jews from death in Auschwitz. She was captured, tortured, and murdered. Her museum is a sweet remembrance of her brief and brilliant life on the kibbutz where we visit and where Susie has deep roots.

That night I had my oud in my lap. I played a little, made up a song in Hebrew involving all of us and some of the occurrences of the last several days, the mysterious appearance of tomatoes outside in the kalnoit [electric cart] etc. and then I sat in the chair for hours listening and talking, clutching the oud to my chest. I felt entirely comfortable and engaged in conversation so I didn’t move at all for two, three hours.

When it was time for me to move, I got up and I think my leg was asleep because my ankle buckled under my feet and I went crashing to the floor, upsetting the items on a small nearby table but saving my [borrowed, expensive] oud from hitting the ground. I must have turned my ankle completely but I didn’t feel it so I surmised the whole south-eastern region of my body was asleep.

Man I went down hard and my ankle began to swell up immediately though it didn’t hurt that much. I iced it all day and the next day it was worse.

I went swimming in the Sea and we all imagined that the Sea had healed me.

I wrapped it up and the next day it was worse. The rest of the group had been delayed in Philadelphia so we had an extra day so to speak to rest. We packed up our things, I bought a heavier brace for my ankle, and went to my oud lesson in Tel Aviv where I didn’t play well. I had played really well in the first lesson but I think I was distracted by my ankle and I was too much up in my head and not enough in my hands.

We met up with the rest of the group and Miri, our madrichah’guide and old friend, thought it best that we get it checked out before the rest of the group arrived and it might be more complex. So at the end of the evening, Miri Susie and I headed for the emergency room (mi-yun) in Haifa. Rambam Hospital. We were about 20 kilometers south of Haifa. We got on the road about 10:30 at night.

Miri is my kind of girl; smart, funny, independent, interested in many things, honest, neurotic and somewhat of a hypochondriac. She once had a blood clot underneath bruising such as was taking over my foot and she thought it best to check it out at the mi-yun in Haifa.

When we arrived we had to choose who was to go with me into the emergency waiting room, we decided Miri would be best because she could translate if I needed it. Susie waited in the outside waiting room and tried the best she could to disguise her angst. She sat next to a criminal in handcuffs and leg braces and a Druze woman.

Inside, Miri and I waited. I was seen first by a nurse from Rocky Horror Picture Show dressed in scrubs. He spoke in a barely discernible voice, had his hair darkened and tastefully tied up into a bun on the top of his head, some nice piercings and a delicate series of bracelets on his wrist.

What happened to you? I think he asked in a soprano and breathy whisper. It was hard to hear him so I am not sure what he said. I fell. When. Two days ago. Why did you wait two days to come in. Take this and wait for the Orthopod, room seven.

Miri and I waited outside room seven, the Orthopod was within, then disappeared and didn’t return for over an hour. There were three or four other patients in the hallway outside the room, some young girls dressed in garish faux leopard tops and stretchy pants way too tight for their shapes, etc., making lots of noise and other personages now including the guy with handcuffs whose finger looked to be broken and with whom the she-cop, one of two who brought him in, seemed to be flirting. She was a blonde Russian woman, this cop, matched with a meek-looking dreamy partner.

It was getting to be close to 2 AM. Finally the Orthopod called my name and he asked what happened. I explained. He looked. Roentgen, he said, x-rays. They took x-rays down the hall. I returned and in about a half an hour he said, not broken. Sprain. Don’t walk on it too much and wrap it.

Poor Miri was I am sure dog tired, it’s hot here and every day takes a lot out of you no matter what you are doing and Miri works hard. It was now past 2 AM and we headed back to where we were staying on the Sea south of Haifa. We gathered Susie up in the outside waiting room and found our car.

Generally I would sleep waiting through such events, but this had been much too interesting for me to sleep. No one of course noticed me at all. I had my nose in everybody’s business and it was as if I was invisible.

On the way home, there was the most curious combination of tunes on the Israeli radio station. I heard Mississippi John Hurt, I explained to Miri who Mississippi John Hurt was, some strange sexy hip hop music, and then a version of a song with the chorus “I’m Feeling All Right I’m Not Feeling Too Good Myself.” I kept thinking about that coming from the hospital.

How are you doing? I’m feeling all right I’m not feeling too good myself. Are you all right or not feeling too good yourself? Both. The ambiguity in that, but here at the Rambam Beit Cholim, house of the sick, in Haifa there was no ambiguity as there is generally around existence. What did you do. When. Why did you wait. Sit over there. Go home.

I thought about the Rambam, Maimonides, Rabbi Moshe ben Maimon the great 12th c. rabbi scholar philosopher healer physician merchant covert writer but what I experienced at your hospital in Haifa was your kind of disguised healing all the ambiguities intact. Rambam, physician your hospital here is wonderful, in the 12th century to make the trek from Cordoba to Fez then Cairo, reinterred according to your yearning and buried in Tiberias. Your hospital is lively. Saving lives every night.

Rambam, not only a hospital but a street in every town in the Land where you are buried. In the future you an Orthopod, or a nurse, a guy with a tasteful bun on top of your head. I saw you holy Rambam – so preoccupied with heavenly matters that you could hardly drip words, barely giving them enough heft to be heard.

There you are passing in the hall, the Rambam, the bracelets announcing your approach. Now you’re gone. Back. How are you feeling, asked the Rambam.

I’m feeling all right I’m not feeling too good myself.

Yes, said the Rambam, that’s the way it is.

 

 

jsg

 

 

Death Row

Death Row

Or the Wall of No

Part 1

This institution is the location of Death Row in my state. That sentence is an attention getter but I found out when I visited the first time that Death Row is integrated into the rest of the prison. I was told it’s the only Death Row in America that is not segregated, so to speak.

You mean the guys who are on death row are in your, uh, living area? I asked the inmate sitting across from me in the visiting room. I didn’t have the language I was so surprised. Yeah, the next guy to go is right below me. I saw him this morning. As a matter of fact, he was just outside the door there. He refused a visit this morning.

He refused a visit? Why?

I don’t know. Just now.

Maybe it was his lawyer.

There was a guy I walked in with who was a lawyer, he had a carrying case and a rolling filebox full of documents and I offered to help him (he was older than I am) but he told me he can bench press more than these bags and he does this all the time. In the hallway later as we were walking in together he opened with an irrelevant story about coming into the institution once with riding boots and how difficult it was to take them off, etc., I suppose a way of trying to roll off the rudeness with which he rejected my offer. So it goes.

How many on death row would you say? I asked the fellow I was visiting. This was the first time I had met him and the first time I was given entry inside this institution.

About twenty eight, I think. Lately they’ve been going down about one a month [this piece was first written in 2015].

We were well into our conversation when death row came up, 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 are of calm demeanor. I look behind the calm demeanor and I can read through their eyes. I knew from his letters that he describes his prison life well.

Later 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 later became governor, challenged and executions were resumed in 2007, and until 2015 it did seem that the frequency approximated one 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 happened with more frequency with the previous governor than under the prior two governors before him, 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.

Last year however, 2016, there was only one execution in Missouri, most of the individuals awaiting execution now have pending appeals.

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 their stories. I come to teach and listen and teach and talk and teach mostly and if the story rises I listen. There is always what to do for me when I come to prison, but since this was my first visit 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 as 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 is his story – though there is much in his story that is all story – still it is 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 here and there 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 framed my experience for me. He said, in prison you live in a reduced world, it’s a small space. Then you came into it, sat and listened to someone who gave over his expertise. It’s what he knows about. You listened.

Part 2

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 go 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 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.

Part 3

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 another 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.

The next day I am writing 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? My friend said, ask him what sustains him. I bet he’ll tell you.

I think I know but I’ll ask.

Part 4

I did ask. Not when I was sitting with him, the next time I visited 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 (the 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 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. There are no pictures in prison but they got permission.

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.

It’s not a different response that I hear from almost everyone I know living in extreme conditions and/or high states of consciousness. It’s the perennial wisdom, a necessary adjustment reaction: I have today, I make it count.

jsg

From the Hidden Tales of Stone

 

Holocaust from holokaustus or holokautus (Gr.) meaning completely burned up, as in an offering in Leviticus, as translated into Septuagint Greek

I had no intention to tell a Holocaust story. I used to think I didn’t feel up to it because I experienced it one generation removed. I don’t feel that way any more.

Trauma, I feel it and the older I get the more the trauma I feel. It was passed to me in a more oblique way.

I come from a generation in which my parents protected me from that story. There were many survivors in my neighborhood when I was growing up; we knew they were different, we knew they had a story but we didn’t know what it was. It would not clarify until much later in life.

There was a seriousness and a sadness about the survivors that I knew in my neighborhood. I felt as if I knew them well, but I didn’t know them well. There were hidden parts to their lives, I knew this. There was a hiddenness in our world that was different from other people.

About two weeks ago I helped a family bury their mother who was a survivor of Auschwitz. I didn’t know her, didn’t know her daughter or any of the family, all who had relocated out of my town in recent years. The mother was to be buried here so I volunteered to help them out.

In telling me about her mother, her daughter described a scene that her mother often talked about. As a young girl her mother had been in the selection line at Auschwitz and she told me how her mother had described the dreaded Mengele standing at the head of the line making the selection. What was most chilling was non-verbal in the description, the daughter made gestures with her hands that were precise and I am sure just as her mother had communicated them.

The gestures were more horrifying than verbal language. They were simple gestures, obscene in simplicity and obdurate judgment. The picture of Mengele making gestures that signified this one lives this one dies was abhorrent. It sowed and planted the ugliest picture in my mind I have revisited many times since I saw it.

In last week’s Torah, the reading just before the events that we schedule around the Nazi horror memorials, after the death of Aaron’s sons Nadav and Avihu, Moses refers to the surviving sons Elazar and Itamar (Lev.10:12). That word survivors, I never noticed it before this year, ha-no-ta-rim. It’s used twice in that verse, once to refer to the sons and once to refer to the remains of the offerings made by fire. This is the book of Leviticus.

There is much written about the clumsy application of fire language and offerings’ language associated with the Nazi horror, thus the controversy over the word Holocaust. This year when I heard the story of the woman I buried, how inadequate the word survivor felt to me. It felt too passive for what this woman lived through; sitting with these people these lives these strangers that existed because she went one way the girl next to her the other way and in spite of the burdens laid on her frail life she endured.

She endured and these people her daughter kids grandkids a great grand kid are ha-no-ta-rim, alive they thrive out of the devastation of her early life. It seemed to me that’s more than surviving.

Then there was my beloved teacher who walked out of Berlin just before the War and his response always to the perfunctory: How are you? Sur-vi-ving, in three sing-song syllables that even if you knew nothing about him you recognized a depth of story and triumph and ascent in that three syllabled response. Arbitrary and victorious, sur-vi-ving and if not for this if not for that, I would not have and with a bow to those who didn’t.

Now this Torah, this word applied both to the remnant of the offering burnt by fire, and the two brothers alive ha-no-ta-rim, as against the other two who were not (they brought strange fire in Lev.10:2). Fire and survival, what is that link and what the danger what the aftermath?

And who gets through? Ha-no-ta-rim — we the survivors, the remnant, the rest of us. From the root yud-tav-resh that also gives extra, something from without, something acquired from an unexpected place, something brought in from without so to speak, or something that remains, remnant as if remnant was something inviolable and ascendant.

Ha-no-ta-rim, this year it has a necessity that transcends surviving. It’s a persistence about existence: What continues. What remains. What endures. What thrives.

jsg

 

Four Other Questions Five

Four Other Questions

For prisoners, incorrigibles, activists, shut-ins, singers, students, poets, etc.

  

Every Passover, the Haggadah says, I should feel as if I, personally, were being liberated from Egypt. That is always the point of the liberation saga: it is my story. I am getting free. I ask myself four questions.

First question: Free from what?

The Hebrew for Egypt is Mitzrayim, which is a pun. It means narrow place. Each year at Passover time, I get a little more free, each year I leave that narrow place which is too small for me now. It’s a different place each year, because I’m in a different place each year. Mitzrayim, the narrow place, is also meant to conjure the birth narrows. Freedom is always a birth experience, a re-birth, renewal.

Second question: When does my freedom begin?

Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev asked this question: when does my freedom begin? I might think it begins with leaving Egypt. The koan of the question puts my memory to work on my own life, trying to discern the influences, who said what to me when that gave me strength, that planted a seed, that snuck the message by the guardians of my equanimity, the way the soul eludes the intellect and speaks directly to the heart. Who taught me to resist the easier, softer way, to get up out of complacency, who taught me that I could transform, be transformed, that I could be free? Who was it? What teacher? What voice? Who is part of my freedom chain? Who made it possible for me to get free?

Third question: What is freedom?

It is written that the Torah was given in the third month after leaving Egypt, the Midrash plays with the pun for the word month which in Hebrew is related to the word for something new (chodesh/chidush). That’s the form that my freedom takes every year, I move into something new, a place I haven’t been yet. How do I know I have achieved some measure of freedom? Not because I have crossed the state line and passed out of Egypt into the Wilderness, but because I have learned something new.

Asking the two questions, when does freedom begin, and how do I know I have acquired freedom re-fashions the liberation concept, re-formulating my notion of freedom from something that I have or don’t have, to the process; re-thinking freedom from a matter of arrival to the matter of the journey, re-envisioning the liberation saga from a matter of achievement to a matter of being on the road. It’s not about arrivals, but about process, not about goal but about journey, not about there but all about here. Radically here, on my own freedom trail. A link in my own freedom chain.

Fourth question: What interferes with the freedom journey?

I put out the chometz, all the leavened food, from my life for this journey. What is this chometz that I remove from my life during Pesach? The chometz is anything inflatable, all the inflatable aspects of self that interferes with the presence of God. The inflatable sense of self aggrandizement, the inflatable narcissism of self — this is chometz, and this is what I take out of my life during Passover. There is no room for God in a person too full of self (Baal Shem Tov). I get, in a word, humble.

We call humility bittul which means little, here a suppression of self. Less self, more other, less self more Other–this is the emerging Jewish spirituality. When I eat matzah, that substance of no chometz, I am reminded that chometz takes me away from God.

Fifth Question (in Chassidus, there is a hidden fifth concept): So — what is my response to the gift of freedom?

Gratitude, because it was a gift. Humility, because I didn’t make it happen.

jsg

Night of Conscious Watching 2017

The Night of Conscious Watching

Forget your perfect offering/There is a crack in everything/That’s how the light gets in

— L. Cohen

It was some time in the days just before Pesach that year that the Congregation was going broke. Someone said maybe we should pray for sustenance. That was not an unusual idea to me, because I suppose that is what I was doing. I was confident, in some fanciful way, that everything would turn out all right because it just felt so good at the shul. The music, the teachings, the study circles, everything felt so good to me. We did not have two nickels but we had a load of soul. It is no shame to be poor (no honor either), but I did not know what to do about the money problem, so I did nothing. Or maybe I was praying for help.

We did not have a lot of kids in the school, but the ones we did have were learning well. The kids in my class loved Hebrew school so much I actually heard a parent say these words: “if you don’t behave yourself, I won’t take you to Hebrew school next week.” Imagine that.

The music and prayers on Friday night and Saturday morning had continued to grow more beautiful and more poignant. My musical partner Will’s presence had grown into a rich musical and personal association, and was inspiring me to deeper levels of musicianship. The spiritual approach to music that I had pursued was clarifying for me by the week; I felt an accelerated sense of learning and accomplishment in music, in teaching, in writing, in all ways. This is certainly the highest reach of the synagogue and my profession that I have yet experienced, I thought.

Still, we were broke.

At the Board meeting before Pesach, the financial news was so bleak that my paycheck was delayed several weeks because we did not have the cash in hand to cover it. I left the Board meeting early. It made me sad, but I did not know what to do about it, so I did nothing. Or perhaps I prayed about it. Everything was going to be all right, this I often say to myself.

The night after the depressing Board meeting was Shabbat HaGadol, the Great Shabbat that falls before Pesach. I went over to the synagogue, there was a small group that night but as usual the feeling was strong.

My friend Todd’s father had passed away in Detroit, and it was on my mind to speak the Kaddish on his behalf.

In the tradition, Shabbat HaGadol is one of the few times a year that the rabbi gives a formal discourse, usually on matters concerning Pesach. I had a hundred wonderful ideas percolating in my head about Pesach, but as soon as Will arrived, I launched into the music and it held me in its arms for several tunes without letting go.

The first tune was the stately melody for Yigdal that I made up, maybe found in a book, I am not sure anymore, the melody that also works so elegantly for Adon Olam. I had been enjoying singing it lately to Yigdal because Yigdal is one of those texts that I find interesting precisely because it is clumsy in its reach for dogma in a culture that resists such efforts, and because the melody is unmatched to the text.

I played through all the early melodies of our minhag with an uncharacteristic lid on. I rarely play this way, I usually play out, beyond my capabilities really, reaching for something I am not quite ready to achieve musically, but not that night. That night, I played within my abilities, tight, disciplined, with better tone and attack than I usually achieve though sacrificing some of my reach. It sounded beautiful to me.

There was something else happening that night that I wanted to share with my friends, the holy fellowship of prayer who accompanied me that night, but I could not speak. I wanted to speak but I could not. I could not stand either, I played with the same steady burn throughout the service, but I could not speak, so I sat and played and sang. I prayed.

My father Harry died during Pesach twelve years before. I thought of him often, talked of him on occasion, but I had never descended into the depth of my sadness over his death. My daughter was in the hospital at the same time that my father was struggling for his life, so I was flying back and forth between hospitals in St. Louis and Detroit, and when Harry died, I was not there.

I miss him most that time of year, but that night, Shabbat HaGadol, I not only felt the ache of his absence, I felt his presence.

As a young man, my father was a wonderful musician. He had an opportunity to study at a conservatory, but for this, but for that, it did not work out. He ended up in another life. Still, he loved music, played beautiful records around the house (Mahler on Sundays), and paid close attention to the many sounds that I brought home.

When he died, I had not yet found my own entirely personal sound. I have it now.

That night, Shabbat Hagadol, twelve years after his death, I felt that I was playing for him, as if I was saying: this is my sound, I found it. I want you to hear it. It was the resolution of something left undone: here, I am sharing my sound with you. It was as if I was unpacking my music and playing for him, discussing it with him, turning it over for him and him alone; an intimate share with Harry over something he loved the most, music. Something of him had returned to me that night, and something I had I was able to give to him. Something that had been undone got done. I honored him with music.

I was playing for him that night, of that much I am sure. The more I played, the more intimate we became. There were times I could hardly sing my voice my breath overwhelmed by emotion, some quiet tears, but beneath it all was his gentle, decent, attentive presence. I felt him listening. He was always such a good listener.

At the first seder, I was telling two friends across the table about this experience. I wondered what your father was like, my friend said to me. A little sad, beautiful, delicate, lofty, a bit distracted, sweet, mysterious, I said. I was never certain I knew the inside person, though when he opened to me, he opened in depth and in beauty.

As I described my experience of Shabbat HaGadol to my friends at the seder, it was a story. I did not sense Harry’s presence at the seder. Later that night, much later, almost morning, I wrote this story.

There is a night described in Torah, the night before we left Egypt, when we paused. We knew we were leaving by morning, but the night before we paused in our preparations. It is called leil shimurim, hard to translate, “the night of conscious watching” I prefer. The word shimurim is used only in this verse, twice, but only here in the entire Hebrew Bible:

“It was at the end of four hundred and thirty years, and it was on that very day that all the legions of God left the land of Egypt. It is a night of conscious watching of God to take them out of the land of Egypt, this was the night for God; a conscious watching for all the children of Israel for their generations” (Exodus 12: 41 – 42).

What did we do the night before we became free? Knowing we were leaving in the morning, what did we do the night before, when we paused, this night of conscious watching, what is it? A conscious watching, reciprocal, for God for us, a spirtual intimacy, something that was left undone, done?

The sense that though there is uncertainty and even danger, everything is going to be all right. We are vigilant and confident.

It is used twice in that verse; maybe this is what happened on Shabbat HaGadol that year, maybe this was my night of conscious watching for Harry, maybe it was Harry’s night of conscious watching for me. In addition to everything else.

jsg

2001

epilog:

In early 2016, baby Harry was born in St. Louis Missouri to my son and daughter in law, the first grandchild to my wife and myself. There is not a sentence I utter that is not poetry when I mention his name.

jsg

2017

I Was A Detective

 

 

I was a Detective

 

It leaked out I mentioned it in passing last night that I once worked for a detective it was a long time ago from a colorful I suppose part of my story I don’t often revisit not a past dweller and I couldn’t remember his name I hadn’t visited that part of my life for so long but I dropped that detail it got everyone’s attention in the room and I felt I should explain but I didn’t like I ought to explain put it in context integrate it talk about it more often so I don’t freak people out who think they know me as the quiet poetry loving shy person I am. Inward, to be kind.

 

It’s also you think you know somebody but you may not know and that is a common thought for me when knowing you. I often wonder what’s underneath the tissue so to speak what do you have there in your story that might be curious to me when I look at you I am thinking that because under the tissue over here might surprise.

 

The way in which the story popped out last night also significant: I was recounting how the day before I followed someone because I thought I was doing someone else a favor and I know how to follow people without being noticed. Uh oh already I am deeper into my own story than I intended to go. You know how to follow people I could read in the eyes who were listening to me in the room. What does that mean emphasis on that.

 

It may be unseemly to think of me creeping around my neighborhood hiding behind a tree (that’s not how) for how long did you follow this person? All that I wasn’t thinking before I kind of hiccupped it out.

 

I worked a year or two for a detective agency and I learned how to follow people. It doesn’t seem creepy to me though it was a long time ago. Already deeper into my tale than I intended to go I saw around the room some were interested some may have not believed me some were just confused not sure they heard me correctly.

 

A little crisis erupted inside at that moment so I shut my mouth. I felt embarrassment also some surprise at my own lack of self awareness, that this detail might elicit surprise to people who thought they knew me never occurred to me before the hiccup.

 

Someone else started talking and I wrote notes to myself, my detective bossman’s name (I blanked), where we met, how long did that episode last, the name of his sidekick (yeah he had a sidekick), the name of the agency (so fanciful it’s not believable), the before and after of the story more believable because it’s unimaginable but too real to feel fictional, and some shame I was feeling in dropping this detail as if it was a high school I attended temporarily then forgotten. It was a part of my life. It lasted for two years at a crossroads time for me; I ultimately chose the path I am still following but just then I could not have.

 

In other words, I’m not typical. In another sense, entirely typical but in a sense hardly anyone knows about, not typical. Who cares. I hardly care and it’s my life.

 

Also at the moment the story slipped out I couldn’t remember some of the details I hadn’t visited this chapter in so long. I hadn’t told this part of my story in a long time even my bossman detective’s name eluded me I knew it would return but last night it flew away. That offered me a way to frame it I hadn’t thought of: maybe it didn’t happen. I could choose that. But I knew the name would come back to me, there are several significant details found in his name and I knew it all would clarify.

 

I could have even continued the story last night but I didn’t, I waited until this morning, the next day. I was talking to myself now. Integrating my own story. Tap tap tapping on the keyboard trying to make sense.

 

I often follow a principle I learned from the book of Exodus (24:3 ff.) about story telling and writing: I tell the story first, in the telling it acquires some shape, then I go home and write it, then I read it (sometimes out loud) or I find a print medium for it, then I rewrite it again. In each step the story shapes itself so to speak and I am always surprised the form it takes.

 

Part of the story as it slipped out last night is that I was making an offering to the person to whom I am closest to, my beloved, I followed someone who was doing something in our back yard that bothered her it didn’t really bother me but it bothered her and I wanted to stop it. So I told her I saw the guy who was doing this thing in our yard (he has a little dog) thinking I could either knock on his door and tell him to stop or make the same deposits in his own garbage can that he leaves in ours. That’s why I followed him home.

 

As I was telling my beloved the story that I had followed this guy and unraveled the mystery that had been bothering her for several years I could see in her eyes something I hadn’t anticipated: you’ve got some thug in you don’t you. Maybe she saw underneath the tissue and I regretted the whole thing.

 

In addition there was the excuse I heard coming out my mouth that I imagine being grilled under oath and opening with: I did it for her. How much suspect behavior opens with the sentiment that I did it for her and I imagined Joseph Cotton as he was led away to the jailhouse muttering to his captors, I did it for her. I did it for her, how many hapless idiot men in the movies of my youth explained their behavior with that excuse that holds in melodrama; this was my life still it felt like a script.

 

Then I had to put the question to myself: did I really do it for her or did I trot out my secret thug, it lingers within waiting for the opportunity to return. I did it because I’m barely a citizen playing a fool’s game and almost always I con everybody.

 

I also recalled how much I enjoyed following people when it was a job. We got wrapped up in dramas that were way deeper than we anticipated and I still enjoyed it, until that night crawling across the desert someone we were following took a shot at me. And I was carrying a gun, full disclosure, another detail I had forgotten until I inadvertently disclosed something of what I have come to see as my secret past. There’s a reason I don’t visit there often, too much explanation.

 

Well I’m not that person anymore. Or if I am it is because I am continuous in body but have traversed space in spirit. Yes, I said to my beloved as I wove the story out to her, I’ve got some thug in me.

 

jsg

 

The Great Olive Oil

It Will Need Some Lift:

 

And you shall command the children of Israel, and they shall take to you pure olive oil, crushed for lighting, to kindle the lamps continually.

— Exodus 27: 20

Of the seven species associated with Israel, land of wheat, barley, grape, fig, and pomegranate, a land of olive oil and honey, I note in passing that it’s olive oil, not olives, one of the seven species.

Here Rashi is specific about the kind of olive oil the Torah is referring to; was Rashi also an olive oiler as well as a vintner? 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, there are gradations: which oil is used to lift up the light of the menorah, that’s the one without sediment, the one that rises. First squeeze as it were. Cold pressed. Then the one with sediment, that one can be used for meal offerings. Don’t you love the language though? You have to lift up a light in your holy place. It has to have some lift, your spirit life, like your words, without lift you are failing. You know how it feels when your light has no lift, and your words are too heavy?

JSG: I do, I do know.

Rashi: The light will rise by itself, so to speak. I pick this out of the Talmud. You know what I’m talking about? The light rises by itself? It’s natural, get out of the way. Learn listening get quiet find your silence pay attention, the light will rise. Love that image.

JSG: Oh man, I know, I do know. That’s not easy. It’s not so much what you do but how to get out of the way, make room for the light to rise so to speak.

Rashi: Yes, of course. You know I am speaking French, but it’s the same. That lift. Be careful about dull language in your holy places, words with no lift, light that does not rise by itself, but let’s get back to the oil. It’s making me hungry. 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: In addition to the grape, 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 winter 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.

Rashi: Exactement.

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 a crusty bread to sop up the olio.

Rashi: Perfecto.

JSG: I have learned maybe from you that the domestication of the olive comes from our homeland, not Europe, but the Middle East, around 6000 BCE.

Rashi: 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. It was the Romans who developed the commerce of the olives and created the classification system. Then the Benedictines took over its care after the fall of the Empire.

JSG: Extra vergine, is it purer than vergine?

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, cold pressed, 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. In the Torah, no blending. Now we have returned to spiritual subjects. Of course the separations are an illusion, it’s all spirit, all over.

JSG: I suppose you mean that when we are speaking in a physical sense, it has spiritual implications. I get that. It’s the olive oil not the olive that’s one of the seven species. 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. The physical-spiritual continuum.

Rashi: You know the secret of the Jewish-Italian connection, don’t you?

JSG: Yes, I do.

 

jsg

 

 

 

 

 

Confession

The Problem of Addiction

jsg organizes Shalvah, Outreach on Addiction

 

The deaths of celebrities always bring the secret back into discussion. Those of us who live in and around addiction daily are not mystified by these stories, we are saddened like everybody but we understand it. I know dozens of good, talented people who struggled mightily with an addiction, a dependency of one kind or anther, who did not make it.

It’s hard to watch the news because it’s clear from the information sources that so little is understood about addiction — how a person with a number of years clean time could die that way, why couldn’t he just stop, didn’t she have enough help — all these shadow questions that are the wrong questions.

It could happen, it does happen, because addiction is insidious, patient, when you have it bad you usually have it for life and it likewise requires daily vigilance, every day, and generally never alone. Few go this road to recovery alone, that’s the first truth, you can’t run and you can’t hide.

You can’t run and you can’t hide from a problem — a hunger, a need — that isn’t entirely physical. An addict has an emptiness within, a hole in the soul, a space inside that we stuff with substances; with booze, with drugs, with sex, with food, with – some thing. Drugs become everything, drink becomes everything, something becomes everything to the addict.

The perennial wisdom of the recovery model is we face the real problem of addiction every morning when we gaze into the mirror. The problem is within. You meet the real problem of addiction in the mirror, a kind of idolatry located in the self.

At the deepest level, the only dependable antidote is what we call a program, a plan for living, a deeper dive into the inner world where we fill that emptiness within with something more nutritious and sustaining. We become individuals with lives of value and purpose, we call this a spiritual program, and every recovery model that I know of that helps to change lives changes them from the inside out, so to speak, and we call this kind of thoroughgoing inward transformation a spiritual change. This is old wisdom. Perennial wisdom.

Dr. Carl Jung, an early influence on the treatment of alcoholism and chemical dependency, loved the use of the word spirits to indicate substances. The problem has a physical component and it has a spiritual component. Some people are physically predisposed, as it were, and all of us are spiritually predisposed. We are getting better with new strategies to encounter the physical need; we have the oldest wisdom on the planet to grow the spiritual response.

It begins with a person taking responsibility. This is my problem and I have to do such and such to begin my recovery. There is plenty of help once one realizes that no one can do this for me, and no amount of help will do this for me, and sometimes people who live with and around addicts make this harder for the addict by trying to do for him what she has to do for herself.

You can do too much for the suffering addict, and when you do, you are contributing to the problem by taking away the very thing the addict has to learn: Responsibility. This is my problem, my responsibility, I have to take action. This is my problem, not yours, mine. There is what to do when you live around addicts that will help the addict come to that place; but the person must take action him herself.

I am sorry for every loss through the dizzy decline into drugs and alcohol, especially those I have known, have worked with, have been on that hard road with. Everyone should understand that recovery from a serious drug and alcohol dependency is one of the hardest inner journeys a person takes in life. It is thoroughgoing and demanding; what we say is: All you have to do is not drink, not take drugs and change your entire life.

Change your whole life. Does that help to understand drug and alcohol dependency? To make the hole, whole, so to speak.

I am making a Kaddish in my heart for every loss, in the John Donne sense: Every person’s death diminishes all of us. And my heart aches in the Deuteronomic sense too: Not by bread alone do human beings live, but by Everything do human beings live [see Deut. 8:3].

Only Everything is everything.

 

jsg