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Empty Chairs

It is coming onto to Passover. A month ago I invited people over to share seder with us. The first time in ten years. More years. The first time I have celebrated passover since Lee died. The first time I have written died instead of left. The anniversary of my first year in my new house.

I asked Lisa if she wanted to have Passover in our new home. She said yes. She was excited. That was all I needed.

We used to have a house full of people. In the haggadah, the book that has the order of the seder, the Passover celebratory supper, it says we recline on this night. It is one of the four questions asked by the youngest child. Mah nishtanah, ha-laylah ha-zeh,mi-kol ha-leylot. Why is tonight different from all other nights? Why do we recline tonight when all other nights we sit straight? We recline to represent our freedom, the freedom from bondage. In our house there was no choice but to recline. Forty-two people in one very small house left us sitting, reclining, leaning and otherwise enjoying the story of Passover on the floor, leaning against the sofa, on the sofa, at makeshift tables, draped over each other, waiting for the Angel of Death to pass us over..

Each we did this, and people would come. Students who could not get home would hear about it through Hillel, the Jewish student group, at UF. From Santa Fe Community College. Neighbours. Friends.Jews, Christians, Pagans, Buddhists. Everyone brings something. We tell the story of Spring, of rebirth and renewal, because passover is, at the root, a Spring holy-day. We tell of release from bondage, real and metaphoric, and how those who have been slaves but are now free must then reach down to others, extend a hand, to help lift them to freedom. How those who have been freed must never enslave another. A holy-day of social action, equality, and freedom.

I’d even take red streamer paper and cover the outside doorposts and lentice-piece, as the old story says they were painted with the blood of the sacrificed lamb, to tell the Angel of Death to pass over our home. There would be no death here tonight.

Some days earlier we had met Joyce. And she was invited. Her first time in our home for the woman with whom we had become instant fast-friends, and not even a place to sit. There would be no death here tonight.

Sef and I baked matzah, the unleavened bread, the bread of haste, and prepared the house. The seder plate was set. People arrived. We told stories, sang songs, ate bitter herbs, broke matzah, tasted salt water, enjoyed charoset, tolerated horseradish on, and those of use who did not like it, made fun of those of us who enjoyed the gefilte fish. We hid the afikomen (a small piece of matzah) for the children to find, for there were many children there, including our own, and we left a cup of wine for Elijah, in case he should arrive at our door. For Elijah, and all those who are missing, being missed, absent. Metaphoric. Abstract.
This year we have invited people. Most have not responded. One person said she understood this was an honor, and, with appreciation, told me she would be away. Others just said they’d see. They don’t understand – it isn’t game-night. It isn’t just a friendly invitation to come over for a drink. It’s Passover. It’s a different world, it feels like. I don’t know how they don’t get it. But, also, I don’t know how to explain it and have no real desire to.

I know the right people will be there. Lisa. Arlene. Family. That is family. They are family. The nextdoor neighbours will be there. The children are far away. Anyone else, it seems not. There will be no need to recline this Passover.

But there are people who would be there. And for them, the empty places are no longer metaphor. No longer abstract, but painfully, concretely, empty.

Joyce will not be there. She is dying. Close to death. Close enough that she has been visited by Lee, who sits with her. Two empty chairs.

The Angel of Death is a myth. Or, if not, certainly being able to protect loved ones from its grasp is most certainly. Nothing painted over the door will work. No feng shui mirror will reflect it. No prayers will avert it. Death comes.

This Passover, as we are celebrating freedom, I’ll be noticing the empty chairs. And I’ll be thinking, while we are alive, do something with that freedom. We must. Because nothing will protect us. Nothing will stop death. Old age is never guaranteed, only death, at any time.

This is what I’ll be telling myself so I can, the best I can, turn the empty chairs into something more meaningful than symbols of loss, vacuity, grief. Because I suspect there will be many more empty chairs for me to get used to. More cups of wine to pour that will not be sipped. More memories to step around, to not become lost in, as I open my eyes for each coming dawn, go about my days, close my eyes in the dark nights.

Or maybe I’ll be an empty chair, a cup of wine, a quiet moment.

This Passover I will not be covering the doorposts. There is no need. The Angel doesn’t care. Come or go, we’ll celebrate. With life and death, we’ll celebrate. With love, we’ll celebrate, while we can. And lift our glasses to each and every empty chair and know there is one thing the Angel of Death cannot kill.

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Posted by on April 10, 2019 in Culture, Family, philosophy, Religion

 

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I can Hear the Angles

I can hear the angels
Sing songs only the angels
Sing songs of being
Neither here nor there
Angels and those
Close to death
Sing songs often sweetly
Sing songs below hearing
For all those
Neither here nor there
Hearing the songs of
Angels and those
Near to being angels
Sing songs I hear
Everywhere.

 
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Posted by on November 20, 2017 in philosophy, Poetry, psychology, Religion

 

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James 2:14-26

 

Praying is what you do
When you pick up the shovel
and plant a tree,
Surrounding the roots with mulch,
Dirt under your fingers.

Prayer is what you have
When you cook a meal for someone
Who is ill. Give respite to a
Caretaker. Take on a task
Someone else would usually do.

Praying is visiting hospice
When you are tired of death.

Prayer is cleaning a toilet that isn’t yours,
Building a house you won’t ever live in.
Sow seeds for food you will never eat.
It is the knock on the door,
The letter in the mail,
The call on the phone.
Marching in the street.
Chaining to the door.

Praying is holding someone else’s hand,
Listening to someone else’s story,
Holding space after they have left.

 
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Posted by on November 17, 2017 in philosophy, Poetry, Religion, Social

 

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Once Upon a Time, on a Board

This is a small story. It so happened that, for a short time, my wife (I still can’t say “late wife” and suspect I never will) and I were on the board of The Jewish Federation of Brevard and Indian River Counties. My wife and I. That makes this an ancient story as well.

For a short period of time, Lee and I fit that stereotype the world often holds, and holds against, Jews – we were professionals who had our own business and were, seemingly, doing well for ourselves. A stereotype held by much of the non-Jewish world and, in my experience, held onto by many American Jews as well. As a child, in a temple in Charleston, South Carolina, a city with the oldest reform temple in the United States, there too, not fitting the stereotype, we were reminded, constantly, even I, a student of ten years old, that we were not really members – we were there by the grace of the board and my father laboured weekends on the grounds, on the building, to gain entrance for my brother and I to Hebrew school, and for our tickets to the High Holy Days. But, now, now were were in. We were courted. We were voted onto the board. It didn’t last long.

This came to mind as I was party to a conversation regarding a menorah lighting, for Chanukah, in Viera. It could not be held where it has been for the last few years. In a large rotunda in the middle of a shopping area, two hundred people would be too many. It is a hazard. The Christmas tree lighting, we were told, only attracted sixty-five. Maybe that’s because Christmas trees are everywhere. Christmas is ubiquitous. But one has to strain ones neck, squint ones eyes, ask for field glasses to find a menorah.

That same area has a Night of Lights parade, or called some such thing, that blocks the traffic in several directions, detours people over four miles, results in congestion and accidents. I know this as I was stuck in that traffic, detoured, and crawled past the accidents. They have this every year.

And so someone asked if there was not a Jewish Federation which could speak to this. Perhaps talk to the powers that be and ask them to look at this fairly and logically. Here was my reply.

Brevard and Indian River. Jewish Federation. Unfortunately, that group, and their board, are as filled with hate as many other groups. I used to be on their board and eventually resigned in protest.

Here is that story.

We did much, while were were there, and maybe we were on the board for a year, to build the food pantry and make it accessible to everyone. And to promote the yearly Jewish Festival. After, a visible, welcoming group, a group that opens the door to understanding, even if it chooses to hold on to traditions, is less frightening, less mysterious. Create your own narrative so others don’t create it for you.

Then, at one meeting, charity came up, as it often did. This was after a long discussion about how to make the Federation into something that more people would want to join, and donate yearly, to. Yearly memberships were down. I suggested this was because people felt the Federation wasn’t doing anything for them, was not something that benefited their lives or that they could see benefited the lives of others. What were we doing so that people could see their money was being used well?

The discussion moved from that to making calls to past members, instead of just letters. That would do it, was the thought. That would increase donations.

Then, charity. A request to have a fundraiser for a charity in Israel. An open ended charity. No specific plan for the money. They would do with it as they saw fit when the need arose.

I asked if there was not at least a focus for the charity. Medical? Educational? Why did I want to know?

Why? I wanted to make sure the charity, our money, wasn’t going to be building houses in the West bank, or buying ammunition. I wanted to make sure it wasn’t going to be used to shoot Palestinians.

I recall there were twelve people on the board. I recall being stated at intensely, quizzically, unbelieving, by at least four. Then, a reply. “Why? It’s not like they’re people.”

I do not recall what Lee said. (Here I am tempted to say, “She of blessed memory,” as is cuswakemeuptom, but I do not want her laughing at me.) I do not recall because I was shocked and collecting my own thoughts but I remember she spoke at length, angrily, with heart, and tore into them in a way, considering their faces, they were not accustomed. We resigned that night.

At the core, here, I believe is a problem with what it means to be Jewish. And not just for me, but what it really means. Chosen. Not chosen because we are better. Not chosen to hold our noses high. Chosen by God, if you believe in such a thing, because we can do the hard work of bringing Tikkun to the world. Tikkun Olam. To make a heaven of Earth. To collect the shards of kindness into which the world has been shattered and bring them back together to recreate the vessel of heaven. Right action, Buddhists call it. Repair the world. Which is why a Jew should stand up for everyone. Which is why Jews were at the forefront of civil rights, why there are six Jews listed among the dead on the Civil Rights Memorial in Montgomery. Freedom Riders. Which is why Rabbi Heschel marched to Selma right next to Martin Luther King. Which is why we should not be for war. Which is why we should stand against poverty, against violence, disenfranchisement, and hate of all kinds, against all people. Tikkun is worth giving your life for.

This stand, and such is the pity, does not make me welcome in many temples. It often leaves me feeling lonely not just as a Jew in the United States, but also among my own tribe. And while I do not necessarily believe in God, or a god, I hold that concept in my heart. Tukkun Olam.

And that is a story from ancient history.

 
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Posted by on December 17, 2016 in Culture, philosophy, Religion, Social

 

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Letter of Resignation

Letter of Resignation
(On my third reading of Siddhartha by Hermann Hesse)

 
Vasudeva,
Is it really necessary
We live in this hut together?

Isn’t it enough
I gave you my clothes
For the privilege of tending oar?

Can I only find myself
In the eternal now of the river
Always flowing, but never the same?

Must I sit under that tree
For an entire week to find myself?
After a week, I should have found my navel by now.

Must I sit there to
Defeat my demons? Afterall, they are
At my heels no matter where I happen to be.

The lotus
Grows from mud, I know,
But I want a bath and clean soft towels.

Why can’t I find myself
In a club somewhere,
Meditating in the beat and the groove?

What about the
Constant flow of people and machines,
The never-ending now of the ever-changing traffic?

Why can’t I
Subdue my demons
Over a great meal or between olive thighs?

I resign.
Besides, Vasudeva,
You snore horribly.

 
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Posted by on February 22, 2016 in Culture, philosophy, psychology, Religion

 

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20 Things You Can Do with Your Meditation Cushion (Since We Both Know You Aren’t Using it For Meditation)

The Mountain Seat Zafu and Zabuton Brochure

This is what I have. The Zabuton is very impressive and excellent at keeping the draft from coming under the door. The zafu makes a great hassock for little people or a tiny table for pretend tea parties.

Some time ago, I purchased a set of meditation cushions. A zafu and a zabuton. The zafu is a small puff-shaped cushion to sit on. The zabuton is like a small futon on which the zafu sits so your legs and feet are off the floor for better circulation, and for cold seasons. This makes meditation much easier. These are used largely by Zen practitioners, but in the Western culture where there is a synthesis of Buddhist traditions creating what is often called the Fourth Wave or Engaged Buddhism, it is not uncommon to see them used by many practitioners whether or not they identify as Zen.

I got these from The Monastery Store, a Buddhist gift and supply company that sells mainly through a catalogue. The Zafu is half kapok, very soft, and half buckwheat hulls, formable but solid, separated side by side, one half each. I sit half the time cross legged, leaning against the solid side and my more tender parts over the soft portion. The other half of the time I sit seiza, on my knees, basically, supported by the zafu, the zabuton making a soft place for my knees and ankles.  

That means I have sat each way twice.

Last year, for my birthday, I bought a burnt orange cover for it.  It looks great. In my office, where I sit next to it working.

I live alone. I have no excuses. I do meditate. I just never go and sit on it. I never use it.  But it isn’t like it sits unused, No.

My dog loves it and gets much more use out of it than I do.

This is not an unusual story. My dear friend Lisa has one too, given to her by a close friend. It is well used. Just never for meditation.

It sits in the corner of her bedroom.  Her cat gets much more use out of it than she does.

It seems silly not to use the zafu and zabuton. And it is possible you may have one as well, so, since it is also possible, if you do, that yours isn’t being used for meditation either, here are some other great uses for that meditation cushion.

  1. It makes a great dog bed. Your cat might like it as well. I don’t know. It’s a cat.
  2. Do you play darts? Put it on the floor under the dart board. That way, if the darts fall, they won’t damage the floor. Or, if a tile floor, it protects the darts.
  3. GIANT PIN CUSHION.
  4. A great addition to the children’s table at holiday family dinners. No more phone-books.
  5. Couch bottomed out? Not any more.
  6. Those pesky winter drafts won’t be a problem anymore. Nothing will get under the door with a meditation cushion shoved under it.
  7. Cold floor? Don’t like slippers or socks? Put it in front of your chair to keep your tootsies warm.
  8. Likewise, if you are short, that is “concentrated,” like me, placing it in front of your chair may enable your feet to touch the floor. Wouldn’t that be nice?
  9. Lumbar support. Fold it over and place it behind you. This also might help your feet to reach the floor
  10. Bunch it up under your knees when lying on the couch, or in bed, to alleviate that pain in your lower back.
  11. For the ladies, fold it over and move it back a bit, under your backside or under your stomach for a bit of elevation. Might want an extra cover on it though. Bottoms up!
  12. Cuddle pillow. Just in case there isn’t anyone right now to try number 11 with.
  13. Pillow fight. It’s unfair, but one strike and done. Have aspirins available. And some ice.
  14. Massage bolster. Double it up, and get to work.
  15. Build a fort. Use it for a soft floor. You know you want to.
  16. Feel like life has you banging your head against the wall? Anger management classes not working? With a heavy duty stapler or double back tape, attach your zabuton to the wall and you have a perfect cushion for your kepi. Feel like punching it instead? No problem. Wail away, Rocky.
  17. Got some stairs? Lay this down and slide to the bottom. You can toboggan any time of the year now. Have a neck-brace handy.
  18. Eat curds and whey on it. You can finally show the kids what a tuffet looks like.
  19. Lap desk. Use it in bed to hold a tray or book on.
  20. Have a small car and little kids? Use it in the way-back for a tiny bed. No, not while you are driving. What, do you think this is the 60’s?

Or you could just use it for meditation. I know. Stop laughing.

 
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Posted by on February 3, 2016 in Culture, Religion

 

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The Photograph

I remember a photograph
I never took.
I remember.
I remember taking it.
I remember taking this photograph
Of three Tibetan monks at Chanukah
Smiling over candles we had just lit.
Lee said the prayer,
The kids watched,
I looked on,
The monks beamed.

Staying with us, eight monks
Touring the United States
Making sand mandalas
Here and there. A week spent
tapping, rasping ground stone,
Rainbows into patterns intricate
And sharp, fine and beautiful,
Complex and ephemeral.
Done, and one prayer,
A sweep of the hands
Across the surface from
The four corners in and
Gone.
The candles lit,
One asked, as well as he could,
To say their own prayers.
Chanting, grinning,
They blessed the candles, our home,
and the time we have.

There were small presents.
For the kids,
Trinkets and such,
For the monks,
Halva, dreidels,
Latkas and applesauce and a
Chocolate coin for each one.
For Lee they had a kata
White and light and flowing.
For me, a bracelet of skulls
Made of the bones of a water buffalo,
Dead of old age,
Alive on my wrist,
Whispering to me, always,
This ends. This ends. This ends.

More about Hanukkah?  Or Chanukah? More about Monks?
A New Set of Malas
Chanukah
Skeleton Dance

 
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Posted by on December 16, 2015 in Culture, Family, Poetry, Religion

 

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