From What To Do Active Mental Health

From What To Do

And then sometimes he went only within. He didn’t go outside, he went inside and maybe you have to have been there, you have to have gone into a darkness within, if you have spent some time there you know that when you visit there, even briefly, something can happen. It’s not a well understood place and it’s not well lit, the overwhelming sense of futility and pain and helplessness, this least understood part of the most private world of especially sensitive people, you understand that to have been there you might not come back so easily.

You may not come back at all.

Sometimes even with help, family, friends, a community, you may not touch that darkness, sometimes it is something that cannot be penetrated and not easily dissipated and you understand that but that’s the way it is. It happens.

And for those of us who do understand, we have to start telling people what it’s like, help other people understand, let everyone know so we can treat each other with kindness, above all, kindness and gentleness and understanding and respect and without judgment, without judgment for these problems, and be easy on ourselves for not knowing for not having known for having done this or not done that, we have to treat ourselves with kindness and with mercy because it’s right and we need to heal. And we will only heal with mercy.


My wife Susan Talve and I have organized a series we call Shanda: There is None. We are devoted to lifting the shame curtain that surrounds these under-discussed subjects. All are meetings are open meetings, each one a series of teachings and talk. I wrote a pledge and I took it:

1) I pledge to bring someone in. If I light a candle, I will share the light.
2) I will be a reminder in every way I can to my family, friends, and community: we have these problems, they are difficult, but there is no shame attached to them. There is no one outside who cannot be brought within.
3) We can live with our problems.
4) I pledge to break the *shanda* barrier, which means:
5) Talk, talk, and more talk.
6) I pledge to remind my community that we are working our problems, that being secret may be part of the problem, therefore:
7) I will not practice aloneness. I will talk with somebody. I will pick up the phone.

*Shanda* means shame. There is none.

I’ve been using this pledge at all our sessions. It’s not sloganeering; it’s a raising of the curtain that hides our shame. Our shame is deadly when it keeps us from asking for help. The more we lift that curtain the more likely our most vulnerable ones will find their way to some help and relief.

Let’s get to work. Tell your leadership and your intimates and your trust-worthies that we are suffering and we need to crack our best effort to split the darkness. We need to be a community.

I think it’s the next frontier: the inner world when it goes dark.


On Suicide, from a longer piece

From Suicide and Other Difficult Subjects

In the group that I lead on Thursday nights, Shalvah (serenity in Hebrew) we are familiar with the subject of suicide and whenever it comes up it tends to take over the meeting.

The meeting is basically a teaching and a sharing, support in the simple sense that we show up for each other. We listen, we understand, we are understood. We get why we need each other. Also true: we need each other because we get each other. The first thing we learn in the group is to listen. From there we come to understand each other – to know and to be known — and that may be the most important element of our success.

I feel the proximity of laughter and tears at our meetings, they are right next to each other at the table of human responses to the challenges of living. Tears are sitting in one seat at the table, right next to tears is laughter and the distinction between the two is subtle. You might think you’re sitting in the tears spot and a moment later you’re cracking up and you realize you are in the next seat laughing. We are alternately serious and silly, sometimes at the same time, one eye laughing one eye crying.

Every suicide is a trigger for the discussion of the group, a kind of wrinkle in the cosmic order for all, because everyone around the table has stood at the crossroads of life and death and every person at the table has chosen life. And we all know people who have chosen otherwise.

But taking one’s own life is always a challenge, the breath of the beast rarely if ever that far behind us that we are immune. Everyone at the table is vigilant. Daily.

I didn’t know him but I knew him. I bet his interior was painfully soft and vulnerable, sometimes hidden and unknown. I look at his sweet face and I see his soul.

Our group has heart for the stranger because we are all strangers. We do not judge. We show up for each other. I really don’t know what was in that poor man’s heart but I do believe he died alone. At the moment before it became irreversible, he didn’t call someone. His beloveds will suffer from that for a long time.

We don’t have an antidote. We have each other. I think lives are saved around our tables but we have no certainty. We have the group. We do not practice aloneness, and we talk about a spiritual thing, not a religious thing. We have today, and that becomes enough.

james stone goodman, rabbi, human being

I Was Present for the First Tikkun

I Was Present at the First Tikkun Layl Shavuot

Note: all melodies are from Salonica

There is only one medieval text that mentions a tikkun layl Shavuot
Zohar – book of Illumination — classic text of Jewish mysticism
Parashat Emor (sefer Vayikra)
Zohar mentions Hasidim Rishonim
First Pious Ones
Who did not sleep in the night of Shavout
Occupying themselves with Torah.
Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai and his chaverim
Rabbi Shimon and his friends sat and studied Torah all night
As the bride about to be united with her beloved.

The Tikkun is not mentioned by the holy Yosef Caro himself
Not by the Rama
[Yes by the Magen Avraham, citing the Zohar],

Though it could be inferred from the yearning of the Shekhinah
For Tiferet for Hakadosh Barukh Hu
For Kenesset Yisrael the people of Israel
The anticipated meeting
The longed-for betrothal of G*d and Israel
The integrating notion the marriage of Israel and G*d on Shavuot
The cosmic coupling of Shekhinah and her love
Tiferet and Malkhut
Shekhinah and HaKadosh Barukh Hu
Amen v’amen.

The first certain tikkun
the first all night session of study in honor of the holy integration
Has been preserved in a secret letter
Iggeret Alkabetz
The letter of Shlomo haLevi Alkabetz.

I wrote the letter
I am the word merchant of Lekha Dodi
The wedding song welcoming every Friday night
Kallah the bride
As she comes looking for her beloved
HaKadosh Barukh Hu
K’nesset Yisrael
The community of Israel
On the occasions when we allow ourselves to be

I sing Lekha Dodi

In the secret letter
Mid sixteenth century
Circulated through Europe
Written by me
Rabbi Shlomo HaLevi Alkabetz
Recalling a Shavuot night in 1533
Salonica [now called Thessaloniki]
In the polyglot Ottomon world
Salonica — conquered by the Sultan Murad II a century earlier [1430] —
It would remain Muslim until 1912
And a good 1/5th Jewish until 1943
When its entire Jewish population was carried off to Auschwitz.

Between the Wars
Salonica was the only port on the Mediterranean
Closed on Shabbat.
Living in Salonica in 1533 were myself – Alkabetz —
And my teacher Rabbi Yosef Caro (HaMeChaber of the Shulkhan Arukh,
— the Well Set Table)
Who I refer to as He-Chasid
The Pious one
Caro Spanish for dear the dear one the pious one
He was already known for his first halakhic work Beit Yosef
He came to Salonica in 1530 and indulged his fascination with Che”N
Chokhmah nisteret, the hidden wisdom
Kabbalah –
Cagey Yosef Caro.

Caro would be visited for over fifty years
By a maggid
A spirit a voice that spoke through him
He read Mishnahs
Mishnah an anagram for neshamah
And through his being spoke a maggid
It was an angel that spoke through him
Sometimes masculine
Sometimes feminine
Sometimes masculine and feminine.

I sing Shalom Aleikhem

The darshan the kol the dibbur
The mishnah the Ima the Shekhinah
He/she was called all these names
This from the compiler of the central text of organizational halakhah
Masculine halakhist
Feminine kabbalist
Yosef Caro
Whose descendant is buried in the Chesed Shel Emeth Cemetery
White Road, Chesterfield Missouri,
Rabbi Stone Goodman buried him there himself in the year 2000.

I sing Shalom Aleikhem

When Yosef Caro spoke
The angels appeared in an invisible ring of fire around him.

Yosef Caro imagined himself as Moshe Rabbeinu
And myself Alkabetz 
I was his Aharon.

This is how I described the preparation
For the first Tikkun Leil Shavuot:

We agreed — the Hasid and I — to stay awake
Three days before the holiday
We immersed in the mikveh
We purified ourselves properly to accompany the bride.

We agreed not to stop learning for even one second
Thank G*d we were successful.

I prepared verses from the Torah
We chanted aloud in a spirit of great awe
With melody and verve
What happened next will not be believed.

After all the verses
We recited out loud all the Mishnahs of Zeraim
The first of the Six Orders
And then we started again
Learning it in the way of true learning
We completed two tractates.

At midnight
The Creator graced us
We heard a voice coming from Rabbi Caro:

Listen my beloved those who most glorify the Creator
My loved ones shalom aleikhem
Happy are you and happy those that bore you
Happy are you in this world
And happy you will be in the world to come
Because you took upon yourselves to crown Me on this night.

It has been many years since My crown has fallen
There has been no one to comfort Me
I have been cast to the dust embracing filth
But now
You have restored the crown.

I sing Lekha Dodi

Strengthen yourselves my dear ones
Forge ahead my beloved
Be joyous
Know that you are among the exalted
You approach the King’s palace
The voice of your Torah and breath of your mouths
Arose before G*d and pierced through the many firmaments
Until the messenger angels were quieted
And the fire angels hushed
And all G*d’s lofty retinue listened to your voices.

I am the Mishnah that advised humankind.
I have come to speak with you.
If only there were ten of you
You would have ascended even higher
Still you have elevated yourselves and those who bore you
I have been summoned this night through those gathered in this great city
You are not like those sleeping
You cleaved to the One and have pleased G*d
My children, strengthen yourselves and push forth in my love
My Torah
My awe.

With a loud voice as on Yom Kippur
Say with me
Barukh Shem Kevod Malchuto L’Olam Va’ed.
Sing it again in the melody of our Salonica
Sing it slowly
Close your eyes and sing it in a melody rescued from Our Salonica
Where I sit in 1533 with seven of the dear ones
Who sat and began the tikkun on this night 2,845 years since Sinai
The repair of our past
Take a deep breath and sing with me now
Barukh Shem Kevod Malchuto L’Olam Va’ed.

I sing melody from Ir Me Quero

We recited verses until daybreak
In the morning we went to immerse ourselves
As we had on the two previous days
And at the mikveh we met the three others
Who we had been waiting for —
Now We made the minyan.
They promised to join us on the second night of the chag.

On night two we did the same as the night before
Except this time we were ten
And the voice did not wait to begin at midnight
As it had the night before
But it made itself heard immediately
And it began to teach:
Listen my dear ones, those most glorifying G*d, arise and raise those who are
lying in dust, through the mystical secret of the dust from Above.

Many matters of wisdom were taught
And afterwards the Voice said
Happy are you my dear ones that raise me
How high you have been elevated now that you are ten
As is proper in all matters of holiness.
If permission were granted, your eyes would behold the fire
Surrounding this house.
Strengthen yourselves and do not break the bond with Above
Say aloud with me
Shema Yisrael Hashem Elokeinu Hashem Echad.
Barukh Shem Kevod Malchuto L’olam Va-ed.

We sing Melody Ir Me Quero

After another half an hour, we returned to studying the secrets of Torah
Exactly at midnight the Voice returned a second time
Teaching for over an hour and a half
It praised the learning and said:

See and hear this voice speaking?
Ask your elders and know that for hundreds of years
You are the only ones to merit such an experience
Be alert to help each other and to strengthen the weak
Hold yourselves as leaders
For you are the princes of the King’s palace
And you have merited to enter the hallway
Now come into the inner chamber
But do not forsake the entry
For one who leaves the gate
His blood is on his head/[is a dummy].

Behold the day is coming when men and women will abandon the Exile
And their silver and worldly pleasures their gods of gold and desires of wealth
And they will travel to the Holy Land
It is possible
You have merited what others
For many generations
Have not.

I sing last verse Shalom Aleikhem

On the following Shabbat
The Voice again came to my teacher Rabbi Caro
He again gathered the ten together
[I am one of the originals, Alkabetz]
Urging them to enter the inner palace
They agreed to set aside every desire
To refrain from meat and wine
And mourn the Exile of the Shekhinah.

We held the tikkun layl Shavuot the next year, 1534
A few months later plague broke out
Pious Yosef Caro lost his wife, two sons, and a daughter
The angel stopped speaking from his mouth
At the end of the year of mourning
He remarried and moved to Nikopol
On the banks of the Danube in Bulgaria.

Caro became ill
By 1536 he had declined so that I –
Alkabetz, his student,
came from Salonica
— To say goodbye.

When I arrived, Rabbi Yosef Caro revived.
He would live another forty years.
The voice from heaven returned
And on a Sabbath in February, 1536
The angel appeared in my presence
And asked that the two of us keep their oath.
I then wrote my famous letter
Recording the events of the Tikkun Leyl Shavuot in Salonica
That had taken place almost three years earlier.

In 1536, during the Hebrew month Elul,
Caro and myself, Alkabetz, sailed from the port of Constantinople
Ten days later we landed in Eretz Yisrael.
We set up residence in Safed
Rabbi Caro became the chief rabbi of Safed from 1546
To his death in 1575.

Safed — In the north
The holy city on the hill
So began the golden age of Kabbalah in Safed
The ascendance of the imaginative circle
Who gathered around the holy Ari
I would create Lekha Dodi
Become a teacher to my brother-in-law Cordovero.

Rabbi Yosef Caro and everyone in his circle
Honored the Voice of the maggid the rest of his years
His spirit would move through his ancestors
One whom Rabbi Stone Goodman buried
On an October day in St. Louis –

I feel the poets of the Diaspora speaking through me now
The halakhists and the kabbalists
The Caros and the Alkabetzes
All the dear pious ones –

When you open your mouth
Whose voice do you hear
When you open your mouth
Who speaks through you.

Be a mouthpiece
Be a poet
Be a prophet
Be a teaching
Be a vessel
Be a voice
Be a Torah
A maggid
A Mishnah
Be a neshamah
An anagram for the soul
Be a listener
Be nothing

An empty vessel for G*d


James Stone Goodman

Coming Soon

Maybe she will come to our town.

Who. The Shekhinah?



Or: Tracking the Language of the Sefat Emet

I learned to consult with the Sefat Emet while studying with Avivah Zornberg in Jerusalem. I was a regular attendee at one of her weekly classes on the portion of the week, especially the sessions at the New Age Yeshivah where I had become comfortable attending.

My friend Moshe lived just down the street from the Yeshivah, and that’s how I found it, one summer when I was staying with him and studying the oud.

Avivah was teaching at the New Age Yeshivah. She had acquired a good following and her teachings were always something wonderful. She handed out source sheets that were numbered, usually beginning with Rashi then some of the other classical commentators and often ending with one of the radical English psychoanalysts or Kafka or D.H. Lawrence and then the Sefat Emet. The Sefat Emet was near the culmination of the lesson and something equally surprising or exceeding Kafka or R.D. Laing as applied to Torah.

I figured I should get to know the Sefat Emet; I found the material that Avivah brought down of his stunning.

The Sefat Emet is actually the name of his book, it’s not uncommon to be known by the name of your book, this one the Language of Truth. Yehudah Leib Alter was the rebbe of Ger (near Warsaw). He died in 1905. Avivah had deepened herself in his work and his commentary often appeared in her teachings on the parashiot.

I also used to pray in the synagogue of the New Age Yeshivah on Shabbes, and there Avivah and I were accustomed to nod to each other. I don’t think we ever exchanged words, but we exchanged greetings as if we knew each other. It was a spirited minyan in those days, many of the tunes were tunes from the Shlomo nusach (melody style) that was excellent for the mix of voices in the room.

Avivah began to recognize me at her teachings as a regular, and one evening when her husband who usually took the money was not present she gave me the cash box and asked if I would collect the money.

So I sat at the front table and took the money. There were books for sale, and questions to respond to, and schedules of her teachings to quote. Of course I knew nothing but I scrambled around and figured it out. From that evening on and for the months remaining of my sabbatical in Jerusalem, I sat up front and took the money, sold the books, quoted her schedule. Are you related? Someone asked me. Well, yes, in an elected sort of sense.

Ten years or so passed. I had not been back to Jerusalem. Avivah had written another book. She was on a book tour of the States, and the rabbis in my town were invited for a private session with her as she came right from the airport. We were to meet on the campus of the University, at the Hillel house.

I wouldn’t have expected her to remember me, we had never even exchanged names. I arrived a little late at the Hillel. Just as I got out of my car, she got out of the car of whoever picked her up at the airport and so we were walking across the parking lot towards the building at the same time.

She stopped when she saw me, as if in amazement and said, what are you doing here?

I live here, I said.

She looked confused. I wondered what had happened to you, she said. You live here? Since when?

Twenty years.

This confused her even more.

There’s an expression in the Midrash, jumping the road, k’fitzat ha-derekh. The midrash is often a mythic literature, a character may jump the road as if the intervening time and space do not exist. I never did explain it to her. After all, we really didn’t know each other, but we knew each other. I offered to take the money at the Hillel house too, but they had someone for that. Her driver by the way was a big shot in our community who until that day had paid no attention to me in twenty years. I never explained it to him either.

Sefat Emet on Genesis

There’s a vocabulary in the Sefat Emet that he returns to throughout his work. It appears in the first portion of Genesis, in a teaching about the holy Sabbath, and quoting one of the Friday evening prayers — God spreads out the sukkat shalom, the sukkah of peace – over us. This verb for spreads out is elastic, pores, it can mean several things.

Everything has its root in heaven, the Sefat Emet opens with, then quotes a Midrash: there isn’t a blade of grass that doesn’t have a star in the sky that strikes it and says: grow (Genesis Rabbah 10:6).

This Midrash often appears in what I call my mind with the verse from Micah: what does God require of you but to do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with your God (Micah 6:8).

The Sefat Emet then quotes the verse, God separated the waters that were below the heavens from the waters that were above the heavens (Gen.1:7). The Sefat Emet is setting up a foundation of all mystical thought: there is a correspondence between here and There, so to speak, as it is among human beings, so it is in some cosmic sense.

Each creation below has a corresponding creation above. So on the holy Shabbat, the upper root descends and unites the two forces. This is the meaning of spreading the sukkat shalom, it is a unifying integrating concept, and so when we welcome the angels — the spiritual energies — we are awakening and integrating with the spiritual energies within and we are spreading that integrating notion not only horizontally all over the world, but vertically. As it is There, so it is here. Shalom, shleimut, wholeness in the sense of some grand spiritualized materialized integrative notion, the upper root and the lower root join in a spiritual sense, the upper nature and the lower nature join in a physical sense, and we have the celebration of integratives.

I love this language and it feels like the same notion that we encounter in the Raza deShabbat: the integrative power of upper and lower, the twos that find their way into One.

I wrote the following poem once I picked up the pieces of my mind and spent a while thinking through the implications of that idea.

Everywhere God Dwells Is Whole

I see the workers in the upper and lower waters

gathering the streams into their arms.

Once the divine integration was made in my presence,

delirious you said I love the world,

did you mean all of it or some of it?


I track the ascents and descents,

the upper root and the lower root will find each other

but don’t leave me alone. If the ends have been calculated,

I have not seen them. All my broken bones are whole,

my broken heart too, every shard complete.


I love the partial, the broken, individual, incomplete,

the fragment, the wounded,

I love the separate, you said,

because it integrates,

and even if not,

it is whole.










The Survivors


From the Survivors

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 our parents protected us 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 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, but I didn’t know them. There were hidden parts to their lives, I knew this. There was a hiddenness in our world that was different from other people.

Not long 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 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 her daughter 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.

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 a ghastly picture in my mind I have revisited many times since I saw it.

In this week’s Torah, the reading connected to 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) as survivors. 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 who existed because she went one way the girl next to her the other way and in spite of the burdens laid on her fragile life she endured.

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

More. I recall 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 as in if not for this if not for that, I would not have survived 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.






I was called to do a funeral for a young woman who died from an overdose and left an eight year old son. I had never met her but I should have met her. She did eight months at a local treatment-residential facility and someone should have referred her to me, me to her, but I never met her never heard about her and a couple of months out of the facility she died.

I was called to do the funeral because I get this thing, etc., but the frustration for me to come in at the end of a story to make words to remember and explain and try for a little healing is a worthy activity but too late.

Elegist. How much more would I have liked to spend some time with her, to try to get her to the meeting I know has given life to so many.

But the treatment game is like other games, with all the same limitations of professional turf and incompetence and ignorance and carelessness. She was somebody’s mother, somebody’s daughter, not the expert’s mother, not the expert’s daughter, not the referring agency’s kid. Up against all the limitations of everyone’s profession, including my own, when the human need recedes; how many times have my own colleagues neglected to make the right referral. I am stuffed with these stories.

I thought of her when I greeted a man new to the meeting, it was soon after she died. This man I never expected to see again. His story had been public, all over the newspaper, involving crime and weapons and prison time and a lot of years incarcerated. He introduced himself to me at the meeting, asking if I remembered him. Hello, he read the balloon over my head betraying me, of course I remember you and I’m surprised you’re alive it read out above my head.

He had ten days clean after so many years, a long history of treatments and prison and one hell of a mess of life. When he returns and comes for healing, he comes here.

Here. Still. Alive.


For Shalvah, Shalvah means Serenity,

working the borderline between substances and Substance


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.




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 twentieth 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 from 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 a small town in a rural part of our state, 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 home.

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 way to T’s nursing facility, 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.


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.






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.