Alma vida y Corazon: Tall John pt.1

Preparing for the Days of Awe

Tall John, part 1
It’s about forgiveness

I fell asleep on the couch. Didn’t feel too good the entire night. Tired out. Fell asleep in my clothes on the top of my bed, boots and all. Ordinarily I love falling asleep with my boots on, like sleeping on the prairie, but Saturday night I just fell asleep. Unreconciled. Unforgiven. Disappointed. Vague but present feelings of inadequacy. Unreconciled is the word. Unreconciled is the world.

I dreamed that I couldn’t find my way, missed all my connections, alone and wandering, lost in a strange location, adrift on a dangerous sea in a rudderless boat. Woke up Sunday morning early, same feelings. Like my boots, I awoke with the same feelings I had on when I went to sleep. Unreconciled. Unforgiven. Disappointed. Had a meeting at nine A.M. was running the track at eight A.M. writing the residue that the dream had left in me. Unsettling unreconciled abandoned even.

Running the track at eight A.M. a little pocket notebook and a pen around my neck. Stop and write. It’s about forgiveness I write. Sure a little angst this time of year is entirely appropriate I am thinking (summertime, just before the holidays, Elul to be precise). It’s about forgiveness. That’s right. Forgiveness? I am searching my memory for something I have done that begs forgiveness.*

Some time earlier, I was asked to perform a wedding in a park. Dancing and storytelling, a little music. A tall man with an interesting face hovering over the rest of the crowd riveted by the ceremony totally present. I am introduced to him, tall John, we exchange pleasantries. He withholds his wisdom but I see it on his face. I knew he had something to say, something important, but we never got to it. I regretted it standing there against a metal rail, staring at the crowd, silent. Too shy, I.

Two years later I am performing another ceremony. I am granted the rare second chance. Tall John present again, hovering over the crowd, completely present, beautifully engaged. This time I intend to mine his wisdom. I know he has it. I wander over to him after the ceremony. Everyone else is congratulating bride and groom, tall John and I snatch a few moments of conversation. He is a poet and is telling me about one of the most powerful religious experiences of his life. “It’s about forgiveness,” he said to me. “It’s all about forgiveness. I asked for it. I prayed for it. I felt it. What a ceremony. . .”

I had not forgotten tall John nor his message. So Sunday morning I’m running the track at eight A.M. after being abandoned in my dream, I am writing in my little notebook to make sense of the dream residue. It’s about forgiveness I write. It’s the cargo of forgiveness rolling through me that I am feeling, bad dream, lousy sleep, I am unreconciled, unforgiven, disappointed.

Whose forgiving whom? There’s one other runner on the track. He’s walking the track, earphones, black socks. I pass him. It’s tall John.

“Remember me?” I say to him. “Sure I remember you,” tall John says. “How are you?”

“I’m fine,” I say.
“Some dream you had last night,” he says.
“Yeah,” I say, feeling invaded.
“You know,” he says, “it’s all about forgiveness. Forgiveness is at the center.”
“Yeah,” I say, “but who’s forgiving whom, who’s being forgiven? Am I forgiving? Am I forgiven? Do I forgive myself?” Tell me, tall John, you’re the one who brought it to me in the first place, I am thinking, more annoyed than awe-struck.
“I wish I could tell you,” tall John says. “But I’ve been sworn to secrecy.”
“By whom?”
“By the society of poets. They sent me. It’s not a God thing, it’s a poetry thing. People often call the poetry thing a God thing, people confuse us with angels which delights us poets to no end but the society of poets is a secret society. If I were an angel instead of a poet, I would tell you what to do. Poets will never tell you. It takes a lot of discipline to remain secret,” he says.
“Discipline?”
“Discipline,” he says. “There’s so many temptations to go public. Our meeting, for example, at the wedding is as public as we get.”

I’m trying to sort all the things I thought were God things that were actually poetry things, all the poetry things that were actually God things, understanding now the source of most theological confusion.

“Find someone you want to ask forgiveness from, something unfinished, something unsaid, some hurt something intentional or unintentional,” tall John says. “Ask them for forgiveness,” tall John says. “Say — ‘I am sorry please forgive me for anything I have done to hurt you,’ ” tall John says. “We are not reconciled, with ourselves or with God, until we have made peace with one another.”

“When you have done that,” said tall John, smiling, “then you speak to God, to the God of your understanding. Say it out loud ‘I screwed up — forgive me.’ Just say it, with your moon roof open driving down Ladue Road at night, in the shower with the hot water splashing on your face, say it. Out loud. ‘I messed up, forgive me.’ And you are forgiven, when you have spoken. Isn’t it wonderful?”

Was it an angel speaking to me, or a poet?

Boom boom boom boom I’m running the track again.

jsg, usa

*Fugitabowdit

Alma vida y Corazon: Tall John pt.2

Preparing for the Days of Awe

Tall John 2
It’s about forgiveness

“It’s about forgiveness” the poet said, forgiveness of whom?

“Say a prayer to the God of your understanding,” I heard a voice saying, is it the poet, is it an angel? “Say it in whatever form is necessary. Say it in whatever form is helpful,” I heard.

Jazzy the chinchilla died two days before Yom Kippur. It lived in D’s room. She fell apart. “I should have looked at her this morning,” she said wailing, “I didn’t even look at her. If only I would have looked at her, maybe I would have seen she was sick, I could have taken her to the vet earlier. . .”

“D,” I said, “it’s not your fault. You took care of Jazzy like a mother. It’s not your fault.”

“No,” wailing, “I could have done better.”

Her friend Lizzie in the car with her after burying Jazzie turns to her and says, “D, that’s teshuvah. It’s not your fault. You’re forgiven. It’s teshuvah, say a prayer and you’re forgiven. That’s how it works.”

We are taught by the sages and by ten year olds that God is forgiving, it’s the heart of God to forgive. Am I forgiving? My inner poet is asking: have you forgiven yourself? For all the lost trails, for the journey that calls me back to itself, for the roads that have gone into mourning every time I’ve neglected my way, for the errors of omission for the sins of commission for the sin that I have committed in deed, in thought, in speech, for the sin committed willingly, for the error done unaware, for all these things, I forgive, for the sins done to me by omission or commission, aware, unaware, in thought, deed, speech, I forgive, I forgive them all, I forgive, I forgive them all.

“God,” I say, “forgive me for my sins, my errors, my shortcomings what I have done what I didn’t do, forgive me for not forgiving myself, forgive me for the sins against you the sin of not loving you the sin of not loving life the sin of not loving myself created in your image. . .” and from somewhere on the track I hear “you are forgiven, as you have spoken.” Is it a God thing or a poetry thing?

Like my ancestor Jacob (Genesis 32:30), the experience is not enough for me, I have to know. “Tell me your name,” I say in an ultimate kind of mind.

“Yah — who is it?” I hear. Is this the holy name of God, is it God answering the door, is it the poet answering my question with another question, is it God calling to me like to Adam (Genesis 3:9)?

Are you poet are you angel are you God — is this the voice of the secret society of poets, “Yah who is it?” Is it my friend Marlon being silly hugging a tree in a field? Of course I want to know. I want to believe this is God’s holy name. I want to fall on my face and say blessed is God’s most secret unknowable most holy glorious name forever and ever, but no, it is surely the secret society of poets calling me to respond. Yah — who is it? Hello?

james stone goodman
united states of america

Alma vida y Corazon

Preparing for the Days of Awe

Yalla means Let’s Get On With It

I had a dream. God was sitting in front of the Big Book, figuring who was to be inscribed for a good year, etc., chewing on the end of a pencil. I heard a voice, a specially created voice, unlike other voices yet the words clear. God asked me one and only one question: “what * are * you * going * to * do?”
“About what?” I said.
“About everything,” God said.
“What can I do?” I said.
In my dream, I was laying on my couch in front of the television. I switched on the tube. I was expecting Charlie Rose, but it was Rabbi Tarphon, in robes and sandals. He was sitting at Charlie Rose’s big table and he explained to me: you do not have to do everything, but you do have to do something.
“What can I possibly do by myself?”
The great Hillel was now staring at me from channel nine; he was nineteen inches long and he answered, “in a place where there are no human beings, strive to be a human being.”
“Leave me alone,” I muttered and I headed for the all-night grocery store for a little late night shop. The lot was almost full, as usual, only this time the doors of the store did not open. This store is never closed.
In the cars I saw all the great teachers, looking at me, smiling and waving.
“All right already,” I said to them. “So what am I supposed to do?” Hillel got out of a tan Mitsubishi and said, “love peace, pursue peace. Love human beings, and draw them near. . .” He was holding a basketball and wearing pump Nikes. Rabbi Tarphon stuck his head out of a Ford 4 X 4 and said “the day is short, the work is great, the laborers are sluggish, the reward is much, and the Master is pressing. Yalla, let’s get on with it.”
“Sha!” Hillel said. He looked so funny holding a basketball. “Sha! Don’t separate yourself from your community.”
Sitting in the car with Tarphon was my daughter D as a little girl, she got out of a Jeep Cherokee and Rabbi Tarphon gently helped her to the ground. She came over to me. She was holding a turquoise blue bubble gum cigar that had written on it “it’s a boy.”
“Where did you get that cigar?” I asked D.
“One of the guys gave it to me,” D said. “He gave me a message for you, if you can’t do everything, do something. A good something.”
“Yalla,” she said, “do you know what that means Daddy?”
“Yes,” I said. They all started their engines and raced off, heading east.
We went home. I was thinking about something is worth everything when we believe in it. Hope.
“Daddy, are you afraid of the future?” D asked me. “Do you have hope?”
“No, and yes.”
“Then, yalla, let’s get on with it.”
Having picked up a little street Arabic from Rabbi Tarphon, we headed home.

I awoke with a feeling of clarity — hopeful, confident. We assume hope is about the future. We are, all of us, the hope of the past.

Rabbi James Stone Goodman
United States of America

Alma vida y Corazon

Boom Boom Boom

Rake the muck this way, that way it will always be muck. In the time I am brooding, I could be stringing pearls for the delight of heaven
— The Rebbe of Ger

A friend of mine came to me with a story. It was a difficult story, with many years of hurt in it. It was summertime some years ago. I listened and when he was done I told him it was my story, too. He even spoke a sentence that I remember saying myself, but several months before our meeting. He said, “I couldn’t find the blessing in it.” He was talking about his suffering, his hurt, he couldn’t find the blessing in it.

I’ve been there, I said untheoretically. As a matter of fact, I entered that place that summer, the summer of our meeting, and I was still crawling out I told him. I spent that summer boom boom boom bouncing the basketball on the black top near my house, shooting baskets. All my common activities, the ones I loved, I couldn’t apply myself to. I could hardly practice the guitar, I couldn’t write, I couldn’t read. I couldn’t sleep much, I couldn’t eat.

What I could do was exercise. Early in the morning and late at night, I was present on the black top near my house, boom boom boom bouncing the ball, shooting baskets and trying to find the blessing in it.

I had gotten trapped, my thoughts spiraling into negativity. I had always been attached to the notion that a change is gonna come, a change could happen in a moment, as it says in the Zohar b’shaita chada, in a single moment. I thought I had the facility to steel myself against circumstance and rise above whatever challenges faced me. That summer I couldn’t find that place, I couldn’t get there. My mojo wasn’t working for me anymore; I got stuck for a while and I couldn’t find the blessing in it.

All I had was boom boom boom the basketball on the blacktop and then another song, “a change is gonna come, oh yes it will,” over and over, all summer long, eight in the morning and eight later at night, boom boom boom and that song. All summer long. Where’s the blessing in it? I asked myself.

One day I found the blessing, I found a little piece of it anyway, I found enough to attach myself to. It may have been a phone call or a call for help in the hospital or somebody sick on the phone — it was someone else’s suffering that I remember — and I listened quietly sharing the heart of suffering with that person. I became the heart of suffering. This is what I remember: I had nowhere to go, I didn’t care when I had to get home, how long the person wanted to talk, how hot it was outside, how hungry I was, what I had to do, what I wanted to do, I didn’t want to do anything but be there in the heart of suffering. I found the blessing in it.

That is what I shared with my friend at lunch that day. He is a guy who likes answers, wanted my wisdom, what did I have? Nothing: boom boom boom and a bit of the blessing that had eluded him. I was finding it, a little at a time and I gave him that, and listened, and joined him there in the heart of suffering, not judging him, not wondering why he can’t get up and out, just the boom boom boom of the ball beginning to quiet in my ears and the willingness to be nowhere else at that moment but there, his black top. Can’t find the blessing? I threw him the ball. His ball now. Boom boom boom.

jsg, usa

In Jail

We have a program through the synagogue called Shalvah. Shalvah means serenity in Hebrew. It’s a support group for people whose lives have been altered by alcoholism and/or drug addiction. We meet weekly. It’s an inspirational meeting, that’s the right word, inspirational. It’s what we need to overcome our complacency: inspiration. Just that, to hear or see or learn something that moves us off our seat, out of our skin a little bit, something that strikes deep deep. Inspiration — a dip into the well of blessing.

At our most recent meeting, I read the following story. It had appeared in our town’s newspaper several years ago. It inspired a wonderful meeting, both from people who had been in jail, whose lives had been altered in an unexpected way by the prison experience, from those whose children were in jail, from those who have never been in jail but who know what it means to carry jail around with them. Jail, freedom, prison, recovery — it’s an inside job.

In Jail

I went to the jail to visit someone. A former drug user, recalled to jail for a warrant from another state. In jail, you wait and you wait and you wait. Even when you are visiting, you wait. The people who work at the jail, I noticed, move very slowly. What’s the hurry? It’s jail.

The rooms are unpleasant, even for guests. Everything is dirty, half the light fixtures are out and unreplaced. The chairs are all loose at the joints. They have all kinds of stuff stuck to them. Every surface has a filmy coating. It’s jail.

As I moved through the labyrinth of the jail to make my supervised visit, I glanced through the window of one of the doors and I saw the lock-up. There was a man in an orange suit standing in it. It was the same orange that the Buddhist monks of southeast Asia wear.

As I looked into the cell, I felt myself gulp a breath. How could you breathe in there, I thought, caged up that way?

I waited in a room with a half a dozen partitions, heavy glass, and phones like you see in the movies. I waited another twenty minutes. The person I was visiting came and sat down at the other side of the thick glass. He picked up the phone. He was also wearing an orange Buddhist monk costume.

I hope you’re not here to help me like every other hypocrite #%&*$* I’ve met, he said by way of introduction.

I didn’t know what he meant. The hypocrites I have known have never tried to help anyone. We started to talk about the difference between ceasing to drug or drink and sobriety. I told him I believed that addiction is not about substances, it’s about personalities that become attached to substances. It’s about the emptiness within, it’s about the space into which we drink, it’s about the emptiness into which we stuff drugs.

When we stop drinking, when we stop taking drugs, then we encounter the problem staring back at us in the mirror that we are now free to repair. It’s about the personality that became attached to drugs and alcohol. That’s the big difference between not taking drugs and being sober. Sobriety you have to work for, it’s hard work, because it’s about the personality that became attached to the substance.

It’s about attachment. We talked about attachment and the freedom of the personality liberated from such attachments, the freedom to work ourselves well, and sure enough, we began to sound like two Buddhists although only one of us was dressed appropriately. There in jail we began to hover over the thick glass which separated us. Somewhere above the dirt we met and spoke the truth clearly and unjudgmentally to each other. I liked him, he liked me, but he’s in there and I’m out here.

What’s it like to be in there? I asked.

He began to tell me. Not so bad. . .really, you get used to it. You carry your jail around with you, right?

That’s what we had been talking about all along, some of us are out here but we carry our prison with us wherever we go, and likewise our freedom, because it’s an inside job, jail, freedom, like sobriety, the work is inner. It’s an inside job — sobriety, freedom, prison — we get what we work, we are our struggles. We are the freedom we seek. Or we are not.

jsg