What To Do

Don’t know what to do
I can’t decide right now
The meditation was

You’re about the same age as my
And it gives me hope to hear you

Thank you for the quiet

[He left a large space behind him
One time he held my hand
Through the whole meeting
I was having a bad day]

I’m really glad to be here

He couldn’t practice tough love, he said
he had so much to learn
About love first

Try to be a person that has
Something To go
He said

I’ve been happy since January 24, 2004

— December, 2011


For the miracles who sit around the tables
Thursday nights

Master of the Universe,

Having had a spiritual awakening as the result of these steps — [Step 12]
We are about to make tea. [Ex. 24:10-11]
Muse of rooted serenity and integration*
Let peace rise from the kitchen
Let us repair the world from our seats around the table.
Shall we save ourselves and not help others?
We want peace and we want it now
We are starving for it
For it and the living God
For everything that issues from Your mouth. [Deut.8:3]

We will receive each of us to our own capacity [Ex.16:21]
Along this journey of secret destinations
We who have sat long and alone
On deserts of our own and other’s making
Instruments of the working out of all things partial becoming whole
Schooled by nothing loftier than the poetry of our own lives
Our hearts unlocked because God entered through our wounds

The last place we expected.


* Wholeness, she-lei-mut, comes through the vehicle of blessing.
The power of the upper root descends. — Sefat Emet on Noach

james stone goodman

Truth that Mangy Dog

Another story from the Thursday night group.

Grief in Recovery
Or: Why the Truth is a Mangy Dog

Grief in the recovery process has as much to do about the future as it does about the past. It has to do with all the “supposed to bes” of our existence. We grieve the life that we do not have, the health, the success, the love, the dreams we held close to our hearts about what our future was supposed to look like. It didn’t happen that way.

Nothing has turned out the way I had imagined it. My expectations are showing and they are demanding, insatiable really, uncontrollable, I am a slave to my expectations. Nothing will satisfy me until I begin to master my expectations.

Sometimes that means grieving. Grieving the “supposed to bes” acknowledges how powerful they are, that they area important to us. Because they are our dreams, and no one should ever underestimate the power of a dream.

Dreams: this is the way I wanted my life to be. For better or worse, realistic or not, these dreams represent our vision of a tidy world and full of everything we love. Then reality begins to unfold and we are stuck with our mouths hanging open looking at the unedited version of our own lives as if it couldn’t be. Not my life.

We would rather not look. But reality forces us to look, sooner or later we have to take off our expectations and take a good, hard look at what we are and what has happened. It is at those times of insight, of vision, that we come to see how our expectations have hindered us.

“I wanted my dream so badly that I failed to look at what was really happening,” she says to the group. She tells them about her life, about the years spent shielding herself from dealing with what was really happening in her world. “I just couldn’t look at it,” she says, “because it is so different from what I wanted.” Your expectations are in the way now, someone says to her. They are not helpful anymore because they inhibit your ability to deal with reality. They sap your best strength. Only the truth will set you free. Only reality now. Only the truth can set you free now. Only reality will give you back your power.

The truth is a mangy dog, once it is unleashed it respects no boundaries. You cannot set it free on the streets of St. Louis and keep it out of Chicago. The truth will follow you everywhere. You cannot unleash it on your husband and muzzle it against yourself. The truth is a mangy dog, it goes everywhere with you, barking at your heels. You cannot turn it on your neighbor without turning it on yourself. The truth is a mangy dog, and it always comes home.

When we look hard at our expectations, when we grieve the “supposed to bes” that never were, we are accompanied by that lone servant, a human being’s best friend, truth. This is what my life is, not what it is supposed to be. Truth is there with me sniffing out the what it is. This is who I am, not who I am supposed to be.

Truth loves you, of course, just the way you are. You will come to love truth too. You will come to love truth because only truth will set you free from your expectations. When you relinquish the expectations, you relinquish control, and you enter that great cosmic float on the surface of the great sea which is reality. The way it really is is a great sea that ebbs and flows in some ineffable way that has nothing to do with what you do or what you want or how you think it is supposed to be. It just is. This is a sea you cannot swim, you float. When you learn to float, it is so beautiful you wonder how you ever did anything else.

Here we have come to the end of the story, I leave you here: floating on your back on the great sea, up and down the gentle cadence, reliable, infallible, beyond expectations, the beautiful rhythm of life’s ebb and flow, accompanied by that trusty beast, that mangy dog, Truth, who follows you everywhere.

jsg, usa

Teaching D To Ride

I promised the Thursday night group I would post the stories that I share with them at our meeting. Here’s one. Most of these stories I wrote some years ago for a publication in our town called Inside Recovery.

Teaching D to Ride

She’s certainly old enough for a two wheeler, though she never really went through a training wheel period. We had borrowed an old training wheeler bike that D never took to, now all her friends were riding free of training wheels and D wanted a bike, too, without training wheels. Why not, I thought, she’s ready.

We bought a beautiful teal bike, no training wheels, one hand brake in addition to foot brakes, no gears, a good beginning bike. We added a kick stand, you can kick it either forward or backward and there is no deficit either way.

I recalled the first thrill myself of riding on two wheels. I remembered my father running with me down the street, then I remembered casting off on my own down Norwood Street howling with delight and sailing on two wheels down the mighty concrete sidewalk. I remembered that first ride on two wheels, I remembered nothing about the training wheels and training period that led up to that first ride, but I remembered the ten seconds or so hurtling down Norwood street before the bike ran out of momentum and I tumbled onto Jamie Carson’s lawn.

I wasn’t thinking about that, however, as I took D on her new teal two wheeler over to the black top at the school. It was hot, I was frustrated. I had already failed at three major events that day.

My first failure was the hot water dispenser in our new state of the art kitchen that dripped dripped dripped itself into a steady stream, and I couldn’t fix it. I had callouses older than this piece of simple machinery upon which my morning coffee depends and I couldn’t make it work. As a matter of fact, I made it worse. What once was an experimental drip drip drip had turned into a current that would surely wear a geologic pathway through the stainless steel sink as if it were a rock formation along the mighty Colorado river. I imagined urban archaeologists in some future age digging up my kitchen and demonstrating by my lousy hot water dispenser the inexorable power of nature to wear itself through steel.

My second failure came after my brother informed me that my brake lights were not working on my Scandanavian automobile. There are three brake lights back there, two on the fins and one in the middle of the rear window, none of them worked. I made it worse because I removed a protective plastic cover over the middle brake light which I couldn’t for the life of me figure out how to replace. Then I had no brake lights and the guts of the brake light in the middle were exposed and hanging out, and everytime I glanced in the rear view mirror, I was granted a vison of my own incompetence.

The third thing I had failed at on that day had to do with the computer. I have a good mind, by all accounts. I bought a new hard drive for my computer from a company that promised effortless set-up and immediate use. So I tried to connect up my new hard drive that day. Not only didn’t it work, but I made it worse. I got confused about which peripheral was connected where and I couldn’t use my modem, though I could shred lettuce through the printer.

Here I was, a three time failure, pushing my seven year old on her first two wheeler over the hot hot black top, grumbling and beginning to feel like a fourth failure because there was no two wheeled sailing going on this afternoon. “Don’t let me go, Daddy,” D said to me.

“Maybe you need to go back to training wheels,” I heard myself say. There was impatience in my voice. “No, Daddy, I had training wheels.” I’m puff puffing up and down the black top, the teal bike wobbling under my touch and certain to go down if I let go. We need training wheels, I was thinking, and the next thing I heard was a specially created voice, not at all like my own, speaking words I did not at first recognize.

The voice was coming from me, but it was no longer impatient and a three time failure, this was the voice of a zen rider, a master teacher of wheeling, the grand rabbi of cruising paused and poised for the holy moment of breakthrough the first experience of free flight, making a memory for my daughter that some day will be as deep and as old for her as my memory of my first bike ride is for me. These are the words that the road rabbi the great zen master of momentum spoke, “find your center, keep your balance, stay in your center.”

Stay in your center. I said it over and over as I let go with one hand and held only the back of her seat with the other. Stay in your center. Then I heard D say, ever so quietly but firmly, “you can let go now.” I let go and there she was off on her maiden voyage, sailing down the black top on her first two wheeled bike ride, having found her center.

“I’m riding, I’m riding!” I heard her howling as I ran behind her. Later that night at dinner she motioned to the chair next to her, “I want to sit next to Daddy.”

Who had the greater experience? Me, no longer a three time failure, not a plumber, not a mechanic, not a computer technician, but a master zen rabbi, or D, who had conquered space for the first time and sailed down the black top on two wheels?

“I’m riding, I’m riding!” she cried. Everything is possible even for a three time loser who in a moment became a master mentor of flight, everything possible when in one moment a seven year old fledgling wobbling around on a teal bicycle finds her center and sails down the black top chasing the wind on her first voyage.

Everything is possible, even with the hard case scenario, the pure possibility of every difficult transformation. From one moment to the next might be concealed the transformation that is accessible to everyone. This means you never give up on anyone. This means that the possibilities for repair and reconciliation, transformation and reclamation, are always present. You never give up on anyone. Especially the hard case stories. I consider myself such a story. If I could get it, anybody could get it.

It’s about the possibilities inherent in each moment. Take D, for example. On the day she learned to ride, she found her center and settled there, sprouted wings, and began to fly. It is a day she will never forget.

jsg, usa

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

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

The Thirty Six Are Hidden

Almost A Great Funeral

On the sacred balance sheet something had to be corrected
a repair in the cosmic loam
an indignity done in the realm of memory, spirit
where God and soul
the mystery quantities
calculate in a Zoroastrian tug for the heart of the world.
As if the world turns on these corrections [which it does]
spins right around on the axis of Peter.

We buried Peter last week.

At one point I felt loaded into the catapult
and hurled into the sky where I exploded into a thousand sparks
light into light
drifting back to ground like Chinese fireworks.

There are so few of these moments nowadays.

When Peter died, I dreamed he could have saved the world
[his ruthlessness saving souls]
he went to the edge with people because he had been there himself
snatched them back as he had been
as if he made the necessary repairs
as if he were the true person of compassion
we have been waiting for every night to renew the next day
then the question: what if there are not enough of them
what then?
How many true persons of compassion does it take?

For a few minutes remembering Peter,
I felt him generous and vulnerable.
That’s when I took off, shot up into the overhead air and dissipated into the wind
around his grave.
If the priest had spent five minutes listening to his story
he could have taken the whole crowd there
gone with us anyway.

If the holy man had understood
how Peter restored himself and dozens of others
we could have explained to him that Peter might have cleaned up
all the mess
through the first person he snatched back
for to save one person is to save an entire world.

What a shame to have missed the whole story
when even a part of it
one person
one of many Peter saved
could have redeemed all of us.

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.