The Story of Passover

The Story of Passover

We were discussing the mystery root in Torah n-g-d when those two guys walked down the outer walkway on Saturday morning. They were speaking Aramaic; who speaks Aramaic anymore.

They had been parsing the name of the place we could hear them as they were walking up: neve in Hebrew, from the couple of verses in Isaiah where it appears, a place for animals a kind of sanctuary like an oasis.

Then when we were studying inside later that morning we went on about that n-g-d root. We were in the book of Exodus, Yitro, they mentioned (one of the visitors did) that when we are eating together in verse 12 — before G*d — that when we are eating with heavies the glow of the Shekhinah is present. He was quoting a story from the Talmud, I looked it up it’s Brakhot 64a that Rashi was referring to, and I was getting a little suspicious of these guys how they knew so much Rashi.

Don’t you love the changes that are happening in this story? he asked to no one in particular, because one listens to the other, hears something right, takes it home, takes it inside, and changes everything? I do, I do love that, I said.

And look the other one said, we have these verbs in chapter 19, verse two, the root n-g-d for the word in the next verse: this is what you will tell to the rest of them. The same root in Haggadah, n-g-d, from to be across from, or corresponding to, as if in the telling is always the correspondence between language and the thing itself, but it’s the story, it’s the word it’s not the thing itself so the root is n-g-d in the telling, making the correspondence between what you say and what it is.

There is always that space, that distance between language — all language — and symbol and the thing itself what is symbol-ed we are trying to make that correspondence and that’s why our language is so elastic. Don’t you love it? I said I do, I do love it.

Some time later I was studying with S but I was dreaming about telling the story and when it’s told the necessity to be understood, especially the holy telling of the Haggadah and the Maggid section in the Haggadah the telling and the n-g-d root that is lurking within both those words, that sense that there is a story and then there is what the story is about.

Then on Thursday night we were talking about the telling of our own stories and every time we tell it we squeeze it for more of what it means. There is the story and there is the telling and with every telling there is more truth, more truth squeezed through the telling, the telling and the thing itself. The more we tell it the more we know of what the story is about, the thing itself, so the root is somewhat dual in that sense of corresponding to: n-g-d, and I am loving this root for its essential correspondence of one thing to another and its hiddenness within every story the thing that the story is about and they are not the same. They correspond and we tell it and tell it to coax out the deeper reality(ies).

One night when we were playing music we made that groove where I started talking about my aunt who was married to a gangster and she was the funniest person I knew. Until I met her sister who was living up in the Catskills, and she was the funniest person I knew and by then I was grown up, almost thirty, so my sense of funny had changed I suppose and every time I visited her it was like I was the audience sitting on her divan and she did twenty minutes that was so hysterical I could hardly sit but this was just the way she talked. Maybe she didn’t have anybody to talk to; she lived alone after all in a tiny little place in Monsey.

I told her I thought she was now the funniest person I had every met, funnier than her sister my aunt (she wasn’t my blood aunt but I called her my aunt and she didn’t have much that kind of family) and her sister who I never called my aunt said you think I’m funny wait ‘til you meet my son. I didn’t want to meet her son because he was a professional comedian in what was left up there of the borscht belt and I figured he was just a lot of shtick and it would be embarrassing.

On one of my trips up that way she made a call and said he’ll be right over. Oh my God, she called her son and he was coming over to meet me and I didn’t look forward to it at all. I’m going to have to sit here and listen to his routines and pretend that it’s entertaining that old shtick and he came over — nice looking guy about ten fifteen years older than me — and he did about twenty minutes that was even funnier than his mother and way funnier than his aunt (who I called my aunt) and I was laughing so hard I could hardly stand it. Maybe this is the way they talk to each other all the time I had never heard such funny stuff in my life.

Some years passed and the gangster (who I took to calling my uncle as he was married to who I called my aunt and he was not connected so well to his own people) died and my aunt moved back to Detroit to be with her son (he wasn’t actually her son) and I had heard that she was ill and in a nursing home of some kind in a suburb so I went to find her.

It was Detroit and some time in May I think still in the interminable winter that seized Detroit every year in those days; cold and dark nothing growing no organic matter at all as far as I could tell but I did find a lone crocus at the corner grocery from a hothouse in Canada and I bought it and went searching for my aunt.

She was sharing a room with another lady and I swear I stared at them both for five minutes and couldn’t tell which one was my aunt she had diminished so. They were asleep I guess they call it and no doubt full of the drugs of quietude. It was her hair that gave her away to me; I never in my memory identified anybody by their hair this way but she was so different looking that it was her hair that gave her away.

I sat next to her bedside and she woke up and started talking to me in Yiddish. She thought I was my father and she kept calling me Harry and speaking to me in Yiddish and it was delicious being my father for a while as he had passed some years before.

I was my father for as long as she stayed awake and we talked about all the old people that she was remembering from when she was married the first time to Henry and had a store and so did my Dad and when she went back to sleep I left. I stayed somewhere near over night and came back for the last visit and she awakened again and spoke to me as my Dad and the crocus I had left there had bloomed. I kissed her on her head and said goodbye.

I told this story as we settled into the groove when we were playing music because her next husband – who my mother called a gangster — his name was another word for teaching in our language and that made the crazy segue to the last piece that S had taught this year, something new that tied everything together and came from Onkelos who translated all the Hebrew into Aramaic and made the translation of the n-g-d verb into the Aramaic for teaching.

It wasn’t enough to tell it you had to tell the story in such a way that taught it, so if you told it and it wasn’t understood it was not enough or if you told it in a different language it was not enough; it had to be taught it had to be understood it had to be a teaching with real dialogue. This from Onkelos’s translation into Aramaic.

Because the telling is not enough, you can tell it over and again but if you don’t squeeze it for all it means and it means differently when you squeeze it good then you are not getting at it all the way. You have to teach it as well as tell it, it has to be understood especially by the teller who understands more the more it is squeezed and parsed and examined and turned every which way to release meaning. You have to coax out all the secrets from their hiding places. You have to teach it over and above tell it.

That was new to me and pulled it all together and after I had finished telling the story of visiting my aunt and all of them of so many years ago I felt a great satisfaction pulling it all together as I was about to make my freedom trip so I talked this piece out loud then I wrote it and we settled deeper into the music as throughout all this telling I had not stopped playing quietly on my instrument as if everyone were visiting me in my living room though it wasn’t.

In the end I mentioned that my uncle who was a gangster, his name means teaching, that’s the part that pulls it all together and why I called this piece the story of Passover and it’s important somehow in the deeper sense and I won’t say any more as who knows the Feds may still be interested in my uncle as they swept down on my aunt after her husband died trying to track his untraceable assets and it took me ten years to tell the story at all much less mention any names. So I won’t. Besides, I’m not so clean myself if you know what I mean.

Eight Nights Hanukkah Concert at Off Broadway

Brothers Lazaroff 2nd Annual Hanukkah Hullabaloo Featuring and Rabbi James Stone Goodman

by Rabbi James Stone Goodman

It’s an unlikely collaboration, I suppose, a group of Indie folk-rockers, some klezmorim, and myself waxing poetically on Eight Nights (actually nine) based on Hanukkah themes. It began last year at this time when David Lazaroff of the band Brothers Lazaroff showed up at one of my concerts carrying a guitar. He asked if he could sit in.

The next time I heard from him he asked me to make a late night Hanukkah gig at a club called Off Broadway in Soulard.

I made it down on the designated night to Off Broadway, not a location on my schedule of stops. With a stage full of musicians and latke makers, I was singing and reading poetry I had written around the themes of the Hanukkah holiday. The series is called Eight Nights, with an attached ninth night (edgy).

The evening was so ascendant we decided to go into the studio and record it. A week later we laid down nine pieces of poetry over deconstructed Jewish-Klezmer music and everyone in the studio knew we had something special. Even the rough recording, without mixing, sounded great.

The whole thing happened in the space of two – three weeks. Last year Brothers Lazaroff dedicated all proceeds to the Harvey Kornblum Jewish Food Pantry. We sold downloads at bandcamp.com at a hearty clip, and were even in the Top 5 on the site for over three weeks with over $6,500 raised for the food pantry. It felt like a phenomenon. I was along for the ride and exulting in every moment.

This year Brothers Lazaroff suggested we make the donations to a project I run: One Life – Whole World Project. It includes three programs: Jewish Prison Outreach, Jewish Attention to Mental Illness, and Shalvah Outreach on Addictions. All three programs serve many more than Jewish people. All of the participants feel like forgotten people; still at almost every meeting I hear “this meeting is saving my life” in one form or another.

Now we’re preparing for round two (called “Brothers Lazaroff 2nd Annual Hanukkah Hullabaloo”) again at Off Broadway on the first night of Hanukkah Saturday, December 8th, beginning at 9 PM. We’ll be performing Eight Nights in its entirety and a whole lot more. We will have hard copies of the CD for sale.

The concert will feature myself (Rabbi James Stone Goodman), Will Soll’s Klezmer Conspiracy, The Vaad (Ben Kaplan’s brain-child), DJ Goldie frying latkes and spinning select chosen tracks, Brothers Lazaroff who will be performing with some special guests that recently did tracks for the remix of their most recent album Science Won, and many more fun surprises.

You can get a taste on YouTube:

(http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=k46GCnPi5Js&feature=share).

And you can hear the entire recording of Eight Nights at: http://eightnights.bandcamp.com/album/eight-nights.

Here’s what it is:

Brothers Lazaroff 2nd Annual Hanukkah Hullaballoo: Saturday, December 8, at Off Broadway (www.offbroadwaystl.com), 3509 Lemp Avenue, 63118, in the historic Cherokee Lemp District.

This year the proceeds from the concert will go to One Life – Whole World Project of Congregation Neve Shalom: Jewish Prison Outreach, Jewish Attention to Mental Illness, and Shalvah Outreach on Addictions.

Advance tickets can be had online at : www.ticketweb.com/snl/VenueListings.action?venueId=18478

Physical tickets can be had at: Central Reform Congregation Front Office, Shaare Zedek Front Office, B’nai Amoona Front Office, Washington University Hillel.

General admission tickets are $8 each.
Hope to see you there.

Ten pieces ten days no. 3

Today

I went to visit my daughter in first grade. On the blackboard in her room was the following poem, entitled “Today.”

“Today. Today is Thursday, September 13. It is cloudy and cool.”

I spoke it under my breath. Several times. I went outside with my daughter for recess. She had been a little fearful about school that year.

I spent some time every day at school in those days. I felt like the mother bird that built a nest in our front yard. She flew in and out of the nest dozens of times a day. Flying out, flying back — most of the time without food in her mouth — just I imagine checking her nestlings. There was something soothing in this practice for me.

That’s what I was doing at school that day as I stood on the playground reciting the poem that had become my mantra: today is Thursday, September 13, it is cloudy and cool, feeling the kinship with the bird who had built a nest in my front yard. It is cloudy and cool. It was the “and” in the poem that grabbed me — it is cloudy and cool. It might have been written it is cloudy but cool implying some kind of value, like it’s a shame that it’s cloudy — but it’s cool — and what a relief the cool is after the interminable heat of August.

I began to appreciate the acceptance in that conjunction “and.” It is cloudy and cool. Who would have thought a couple of weeks ago, in the thick of the heat, the daily inexorable sun and the humidity, that soon it would be cool. It is cloudy and cool. That’s what I loved about the “and” — there’s no value at all in the poem. It was cloudy and cool, which is simply the way the day was.

I began then to appreciate the beauty in that acceptance. Not only is it what it is, but it is beautiful that way. I could play basketball that day without sunglasses — because it was cloudy and cool. It was a lousy day if you wanted to go swimming, but the days for swimming were over anyway. It was cloudy and cool. The days of swimming were past, new days now: cloudy and cool. Wonderful days to spend in the library reading, but not at the pool swimming. The swimming days were past; now it’s these days — different not better not worse — just is.

I loved the poem “Today.” I went home with my new mantra, speaking it to myself all day long.

The next day I took my daughter to school. An hour later, I was on my way to a meeting and I stopped in at school to check on my nestlings. I sat down in one of the little chairs next to her desk, and I remembered my mantra from yesterday.

I said, under my breath, “Today. Today is Thursday, September 13. It is cloudy and cool.” My daughter heard me and laughed. “No, Daddy,” she said. “It’s Friday. Look –” and she motioned to the blackboard.

It read, “Today. Today is Friday, September 14. It is sunny and cool.”

I forgot: that day was Friday, not Thursday, and on the board was a new poem. I began to speak it. “Today. Today is Friday, September 14. It is sunny and cool.”

“Isn’t it beautiful?” I said out loud, “it’s sunny and cool!” But not so different really. Another day – that day it was sunny while the day before was cloudy — not better not worse, just the beautiful Is-ness of that day.

“Yes,” she said, “it’s beautiful. And so was yesterday.”

jsg,usa

Raza the Secret of Purim

The Secret of One and Many
Confirmed and accepted,
Esther 9:27

A day like Purim
is Yom Kippur,
all our prayers are given in we,
the communal atonement.

On Purim,
we removed the obstacles,
became masters of the masks,
the surfaces released
and God appeared everywhere,
the unexpressed everything.

We are one with each other,
this is our joy.

Because of what happened to us,
we confirmed and accepted,
kimu v’kiblu*
singular and plural.

That’s why Yom Kippur is a day like Purim.
On Yom Kippur we diminished it,
on Purim,
we increased our joy
by becoming one,
with each other.

Soon –
we will become one
with ourselves.

jsg, usa

Trying to Make Sense, part 3

Trying To Make Sense, part 3
A matter of Responses, not Answers
Or: I Tried To Bring My Whole Heart

I have written in two previous pieces about the challenges occasioned by the death of my friend and the response of his brother in rising out of the mess of violence and pushing beyond his own borders. In his doing, so did I. I was brought into the story and found my own participation exceeding any expectation (see “Trying to Make Sense, parts 1 and 2).

For me, I felt myself thinking it through. It was challenging to me, being a part of it to the extent I was drawn in by my love for my friend and his (deceased) brother. For my friend, the brother of the deceased, I think he was following instinct and a few basic principles guiding him in his own life, in a non-theoretical way, that has prepared him in ways he did not imagine to face the most difficult challenges that have been laid in his lap.

For me, I was sometimes confidante, sometimes rabbi to this Catholic family, sometimes officiante, mostly friend.

As I was writing these pieces, I met with my friend and we discussed the ideas I was tracking with words. My assumptions were basically correct: my friend was working on instinct, what it felt like to do the right thing when he wasn’t sure what to do at all. “It just felt right,” I often heard him say, and one action led to another action until there was a sequence of events that led to what felt to me a startling and challenging shape of story.

The newspapers and such picked up some of the story as it was well known in my town, but I felt the story was larger than the treatments I had read and I wanted it told correctly. It felt like a big story to me.

For my friend, he was rising out of the mess of the tragedy of his brother’s death and creating a memorial in character that honored his brother and cleansed himself of something of the residue of senseless death. He had also given a boy who made irreversible mistakes another chance at life. Whether the boy takes it or not only time will tell. As for the boy’s family, also willing to burrow deeper into the story, they have a chance to create something out of this tragedy that may some day do more good than they know. Much unimagined reclamation, repair, possibilities were emerging out of the simple act of – what do I do next? It feels right.

Was it right? I was asking myself. Was it right for my friend to invite the family of the perpetrator to the memorial at the site of his brother’s death, so fresh, by a tree in the parking lot at the coffee shop where he was run down? This was such a hard question for me at the time, too hard to answer, so I didn’t. I went with my instinct too. If my friend felt it was right, that was good enough for me. I tried to bring my whole heart into the events.

Later I would think through: was it right? I was looking for that answer and I realized that the expectation was wrong. The answer wasn’t clear so I gave up on the notion of answer entirely, and I came to the notion of response.

As a response, my friend’s acts of magnanimity, openness, willingness, largesse of spirit, release of negativity, his unburdening felt like a darn good response to an awful situation. I had entered the realm of responses, good responses, a much more shaded and intuited and gradated realm than the simplified ultimatism of answers.

I learned a story a long time ago from a book of classic stories. I read the story in Zen Flesh, Zen Bones, by Paul Reps, first published in 1957.

One of my favorite stories in that book begins with a man being chased by a tiger. The tiger pursues the man off the edge of a cliff. The man hangs on to a ridge just below the edge. Above him is the tiger, below the rocks and the sea. “What does he do?” the master asks.

The students offer all the standard, that is obvious, answers. He takes his chances with the tiger, he climbs down the cliff, he jumps into the sea, he distracts the tiger, all to which the master shakes his head. Negative.

“He is hanging on a ledge by his fingertips,” the master says. “He looks next to him where a vine is growing out of the rock. On the vine is a strawberry. He picks the strawberry and he eats it.” End of story.

I told this story for years before I understood it myself. At first hearing, it seemed to be about living radically in the present, but that seemed too obvious, and not satisfying to me.

One day I was telling this story and someone in the group interrupted with, “what the heck does that mean!?” I couldn’t answer. After having told the story myself dozens of times, I could not articulate clearly what it meant to me.

I knew the story was powerful for me. I knew it the first time I heard it. I knew it meant something large, but I couldn’t say what it was. The story moved deep inside me and there it lurked for years without definition. Now I wanted it out, I thought about it for weeks, I waited, I wrote about it, and it came.

I will now violate a principle taught to me a long time ago about explaining stories. You can say too much, especially about great stories. The world’s great stories are big enough for people to enter and find their own way around, but I am going to identify some of the ideas that moved me through this story.

Firstly, we are not likely to answer the master’s question because we are inhibited by our own thinking. We have been set up to think about the tiger, the cliff, the sea, etc., but not about vines growing out of the side of the cliff, and surely not about strawberries. We are thinking about the tiger and the sea. There are other possibilities.

Secondly, what the master suggests is not an answer at all, not in the way we are accustomed to thinking about answers anyway, but it is a response. Responses are different from answers. Could it have been another response? It could have been. The problem, of course, in some sense still exists: the tiger above, the sea below. Or does it? Perhaps the problem has been transformed by a response. What the master offers is a response.

There may be no answer. Or: the answer may be so elusive and difficult that we cannot locate it just then. How difficult it is to be moved away from answers and given to responses, how hard to be stripped of solutions and given to strategies, to be led away from arrivals and onto journeys, from “supposed to be” to “what is,” from linear to lateral, from being there to getting there, from goals to process, from answers to darn good responses.

Find your response, the story taught me. Make it a good one. Think differently than you are accustomed to thinking. Make your response informed and careful. It may be exceedingly lateral, that is, not obvious, like learning something new, growing beyond your complacency, something unexpected and challenging. Whatever it is, it is a sacred gift back to the world. And so individual.

Your response may be political, it may be entirely personal, the push beyond the present limits of your self where you used to feel right but no longer. You do not have to do everything, said the master (Rabbi Tarfon, Pirkei Avot 2:16), you only have to do something. A darn good something: your holy response.

Changing the world, one person at a time. When it feels right, good, you just have to move your feet and grow. I understood this from a story about strawberries, from the crucible of life, from the experience with my friend, from a terrible death and its aftermath of grief and recovery, from the poetry of existence–nothing loftier than the stories of our own lives.

jsg, usa

Trying To Make Sense, part 2

Trying To Make Sense
Part 2: Sources

I wrote the story of my friend who was killed outside a coffee shop, run down by the thief who was fleeing in a getaway car. My friend had stood in line behind the perpetrator at the coffee shop, saw the boy take the less than ten bucks from the tip jar, followed the boy outside and was run over, sustained serious head trauma, died several days later in the hospital (see “Trying to Make Sense” part 1).
I accompanied his brother (also my good friend) through the next days, spoke his eulogy at the big Church at the funeral, attended the memorials at the site of his death (the coffee shop), accompanied my friend during his meeting with the perpetrator and his father when the boy was released from jail.

After having written as much of the story as I was willing to tell at the time, I thought it through more as I received many messages, comments, inquiries in the days and weeks since I had written and published the story in a variety of places.

I thought more about living through, that is beyond, one’s negativity; the possibility to release what we carry around within that we all know is poison. It’s not about whether we are justified in our anger, or vengeance even, it’s about living larger, expanding beyond the greatest challenge which is justified anger.

I may have every reason on earth to be mad, to be sad, to be frustrated, to be inconsolable – that is the worst – because I can make a good case for it. The question becomes more a measure of peace-making: how to make peace, if not with others, certainly with myself. Or: with others as a result of making it with myself.

I recall the story Swami told about the dog’s curly tail. You will not straighten out the dog’s curly tail, he said, but in the course of trying, you may straighten out yourself.

I am a source-text-go to the library-search out a book-tease out a little wisdom kind of guy. Every once in a while, I find myself acting like a find my silence-let the truth rise before me kind of guy, but this time it was the library.

I found my text and a good source for the wisdom I felt was being practiced, on me anyway, when inspired by the magnanimous gestures of my friend in growing up out of the terrible mess of the death of his brother.

In the holy Torah, the book of Genesis, after Joseph disclosed himself to his brothers, who had sold him out but still did not recognize him until that moment as the viceroy in Egypt he had become. He then sent them off with gifts to return to Jacob and the rest of the family in the land of Canaan, tell their father he was alive, and bring them all back to Egypt.

Joseph’s last words to his brothers were “. . .do not become agitated on the way” (Genesis 45:24). They have a caravan of goods, their brother had become a holy man, (“it was not you who sent me here, but God,” Joseph in Genesis 45:8), and they were going home to reunite their family. What did they have to become agitated about?

Rashi the poet (11thc.) offered three interpretations:

1) do not occupy yourselves with a matter of halakha (law),
2) do not take long steps,
3) do not quarrel along the way about the matter of his (Joseph’s) sale.

Rashi called this the pshat (the plain sense of the text).

That’s an interesting Rashi, I thought. This is how I have come to understand Rashi the poet, what he has taught me out of the past, and what I have come to know as a visionary plan for peace-making:

1) Don’t get theoretical. Stay away from general principles. Make peace out of relationships, person to person, not theory to theory.

2) Take small steps, one at a time, make peace manageable. Peace will take time. Start with something: a meeting between persons, between factions, a talk, a treaty. Start with a cessation of hostilities: no more hurt.

3) Peace starts now. Stay out of the past, out of guilt, recriminations, who did what to whom, begin the peace now. Stay away from blame and shame. Let the peace begin.

So it was I continued to write the story that my friends, out of their tragedy, had drawn me into and forced me to ask myself some of the most difficult questions I have asked.

Another one of my favorite teachings, perhaps another article, has to do with the difference between answers and responses. Here I will close with these responses, not characterized as answers. Answers — too elusive, too difficult for most of the situations that are this challenging — I will settle for responses.

Let them be good responses, thoughtful, rooted, unburdening.

james stone goodman, united states of america

Hard Story

Trying To Make Sense
By Rabbi James Stone Goodman

Part 1: Aftermath

It was before I could make sense so I didn’t write about it. I wasn’t ready. Write to make sense, I knew. Still, I didn’t write about it.
Since the tragedy in Tucson there is much talk about heroes, shifting from the tragedies to stories of heroism at the site of the killing. I am wondering if this is a media-inspired lightening for the audience, because we want to depart from these stories with a residue that doesn’t over-burden. I so distrust the public place of ideas these days.

There was also a shadow story of the tragedy in Tucson, the family members of some of the victims meeting or not meeting with the family members of the alleged perpetrator, it brought up so much for me.

I know a heroic story that emerged out of tragedy. I wasn’t ready to tell it as it was happening. It is a well known story in my town, was in the newspapers and on TV, and I can tell some of the story but not all of the story in respect to the participants themselves. It was too difficult a story to tell until it became The Story. So maybe it’s time to tell it now.

A friend of mine was killed in my town trying to break up a petty robbery at a coffee shop. He was run over by a car driven by the thief.

The deceased’s brother is an even closer friend of mine. I was asked to do the funeral though no one in this story is Jewish. It was a horrible story. The kid who was responsible for the death was twenty years old and a lost boy, it was a stupid senseless tragedy.
We sat at the hospital for the few days my friend’s brother held on, then he passed. We buried him, large funeral, big Church. He had many, many friends.

My friend, his brother, decided to memorialize his brother best at the site of the killing, a coffee shop. We planned an informal gathering at the coffee shop. My friend planted a tree in memory of his brother at the very site where his brother was killed.
The day of the planting ceremony, my friend attended the sentencing for the boy who was convicted of the crime of involuntary manslaughter and several other crimes. The boy’s family also attended and my friend and the boy’s father entered into conversation. My friend invited the father to the ceremony. He came with his small family from a large city southeast of us.

There we were together, relatives and friends of victim and relatives of victimizer. It was hard, there were so many complex feelings flying about, but my friend, the brother of the deceased, felt this was the right thing to do. I don’t think it was a particularly measured response by him. They walked out of Court together and my friend invited the father of the victimizer to the memorial that day. It just felt right.

It’s been several years now and the story has deepened. When the boy who drove the car was released from jail, my friend, brother of the deceased, asked me if I would accompany him in a meeting with the boy and his father before they returned to their town. Again, my friend felt it was the right thing to do, not only to give this kid another chance at life through an acknowledgment of mistakes done with devastating irreversible consequences, but the necessity for my friend himself to move beyond recrimination and vengeance as if to say: in this story, let there be no more hurt.

We met in a lobby of a hotel. Again, my feelings were complex but I felt as if this wasn’t my story, it was my friend’s story — and his family, and the perpetrator and his family — and the deceased. The meeting was hard, but we all talked honestly, not avoiding anything, never minimizing, there was talk and tears and a good deal of silence. It wasn’t simple and it wasn’t comfortable, it was just true.

I saw my friend, in the ruins of his mourning over his brother, lift himself out of his sadness and claim life not only for himself but for the victimizer/kid and his family sitting across from him. He gave this kid another chance at life. He also moved through the shreds of his own grief and proclaimed (to himself mostly) I am going to live honorably and beyond my former borders, in memory of my brother. I am going to rise up and out of this mess, and make not-mess.

I had become part of the story, too, I suppose, because being present at these events of forgiveness and heroism pushed me beyond my own uncertainty. I arrived at a new place, brought there somewhat reluctantly by the heroic forgiving nature of my friend who insists on living his life from a higher place than events had placed him.

Every time I tell this story, I thank him for including me.

Address to the Class

To the class of 2010

Thank you for the opportunity to address the graduating class of 2010. It is a privilege to be the guest speaker after having spent so many years sitting in the audiences of my own children’s graduations. Every parent is proud of the accomplishments of their children, but every parent is also a citizen with an eye to the future entrusted to the next generation, hopeful for good citizens, good leadership.

I have listened to dozens of these addresses over the years, not only my own children’s graduations but the graduations of friends and family, all eager to witness their seedlings grow into the sprouted and rooted plantings we dream of when preparing them for the future.

Generally the message at these events is basic in a variety of forms and styles: begin with an anecdote, a joke, the best a personal remembrance, follow with the charge which is either change the world or be good human beings in consonance with other human beings, world peace, etc. I am most partial to the change the world scripts.

You probably won’t change the world much. Forget that Margaret Mead quote, it’s prosaic and will one day be disheartening. My generation thought we would change the world too. Save yourselves. Do something honest, gather up a nest egg of money and don’t let the news depress you. All the expressly powerful and most of the famous are nincompoops. Do not pay any attention to them, don’t pay any attention at all.

If you must distinguish yourself, become a good criminal. An old school criminal. The criminals nowadays are generally faceless, nameless, and now untraceable.

Our elections are in the pockets of the secret donors who have planned their future security around the takeover of our beloved political process through privately financed groups, mystery backers — generally the corporations motivated by power and profits and idiot self preservationist fringe philosophies — protected by tax-code provisions that do not require disclosure of donors. Now that our Supreme Court has opened the door to the unabashed manipulation of the democracy through anonymous — that is, secret – funding, our crooks are mostly hidden. That is where we have arrived in our noble country: welcome to your future.

Save yourselves. I want to make a case for a return to honest crime. The kind of crime I grew up with. Now those guys were criminals. They smoked cigars and they insulated themselves with payoffs and graft and they barely bothered to hide it. They enjoyed their work.

Get into drugs, prostitution, smuggle knock-offs over the borders, intimidate business persons to buy your protection, surround yourself with strong, secure, ruthless people. Protect your community from a store front that serves great espresso, do favors for people for favors in return. Create a parallel world where your word rules. Never forget a good turn or don’t miss the opportunities for revenge. Be a good criminal. Let people know what you stand for. Do it publicly and without guile. Smoke a cigar now and again.

Infiltrate honestly. Be a citizen and make the expressed and unexpressed powers answer to you. Don’t let the politicians become so important. Don’t respect their secrecy. Let the corporations know you are not afraid of them. Speak truth to power, as we used to say. Be bold. Reclaim optimism through crime. It will be a great gift.

I would like to close with a prayer that has come to mean much for me as I have witnessed my culture’s slide into irrelevance, consumerism, greed, and cyncisim. It has been a source of strength for me.

God –
Grant me the serenity to accept the persons I cannot change
The courage to change the persons I can
And the wisdom to know it’s me.

Thank you, and congratulations to the class of 2010.

james stone goodman, united states of america

Our Tulsa Adventure

Our Tulsa Adventure

We skipped Chicago and headed for Tulsa. Equidistant we are approximately – Chi or Tulsa – never been to Tulsa and it might be an adventure.

Hurtling on the oblique heart-line through the center of America, the omphalos, the belly button, we traverse our state in five hours. Enter Oklahoma and the air is clean, a horse culture all around, I am wearing a large hat, hope to purchase a larger one to remember our adventure.

We pass through the Cherokee nation, originally settled by the Creek tribes.

I rent two rooms, one for my sidekick Will one for myself, in three and a half stars by Hotline downtown. Downtown is spread horizontally, some old architecture, many empty spaces no doubt from the dis-appearance of old architecture now deceased.
This city built from oil, the bidness of oil having moved to Houston and left this lonesome city once, once, once ascendant.
A port near Tulsa, the most inland river port in the United States that once fed international commerce from intra-national waters. Catoosa.

Some reclamation downtown in a modest way. We dine in the location of former glory no doubt, Blue Dome Diner, empty when we enter at 6 PM. We order: a little fried okra, lentil soup (the vegetables are crisp and lentils al dente, subtle spicing just a touch of kick), Greek salad with a home made balsamic that is one of the best I have had, everything excellent. “I love this place,” I say to the ceiling fans, to my sidekick Will, to marlene our waitress blonde haired with streaking.

Popular spot for travelers, Route 66. Home of Western Swing, Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys. We walk down Bob Wills Avenue, we pass a small club where there is punk music and kids standing out front. Next door very fine looking violin maker’s shop. Closed.

We see sign Cain’s Ballroom Dancing, 1924, inside a small sign over the stage: the home of Bob Wills. The ballroom spring-loaded wooden floor reclaimed, ballroom outfitted for lights and sound, the pictures of Bob Wills, Kitty Wells, Hank Williams line the walls.

I sit on the wooden bench along the wall. My back hurts so the chairs are not pleasant. I am wearing the largest hat in the place.
Richard Thompson begins precisely at 8 PM. He doesn’t speak much, non-verbal smile and nods to his co-players acknowledging the pleasure and mysticism of playing in this the home of Bob Wills, Oklahoma, “one of two states I have never played” says R.T.
He launches into a stunning set with an engine that does not abate. First set the latest album. Second set selections from over forty years of gigs.

We eat chocolates from a fine chocolatier around the corner. Very fine French chocolates. We talk to the Tulsans.

Hurtling home the next day retracing the oblique heart-line traversing our state. Stopping at Waffle House (currently my second favorite restaurant) in Joplin for the perfect waffle dual eggies and raisin toast (hash browns ‘cuz I’m wearing thin I am), we are listening to R.T. and B.D. on the car box.

I missed the Oklahoma hat having many larger hats at home.

We had a real adventure and in my traveling bag – a sack of fine fine superfine French chocolates.

jsg, usa