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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 year 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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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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There is a woman preaching to the river. Standing on the sidewalk, next to the new blue Toyota, gospel music blaring from the car speakers and open doors, she holds her Bible high in the air yelling to the dolphins, the cranes, the pelicans, and any tree that may hear. Any flower that may be blooming. Anyone.

She is a revival of none with a tent of clouds, looking to redeem the river, an evangelist for the fish, witnessing to the water, which, already holy, laps at the shore, listening, leaving, returning, receding, in no need of being saved.

No one listens. A few look, perhaps wondering from where comes the music so disrupting the call of the gulls, susurration of trees, the sounds of creation.

In white sneakers, dungarees and T-shirt of bright red, she holds a meeting to the open space. On her shirt, bright white letters front and back tell anyone who looks she is a Christian Soldier. Her short afro bounces as she jumps up and down. She is buxom and not slight, waving her arms in the air – the bible, flashing back and forth, thrust now and then toward the waves, black and shiny, as though it is sweating, like her, is held at the bottom, upright, so tightly, or so often, one can see the wear at the edge. The curling. The discoloration. And the cross on the cover has begun to wear faint.

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Posted by on March 24, 2015 in Culture, Religion


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Original Spin

Yom Kippur has passed. Simcha Torah has come and gone and between those two days, the Torah starts over.

It gets rerolled from the end to the beginning. Again, he reading starts where all things begin, with Genesis. The words begin with the word and it was good. Or so the story goes in the translation many of us are most familiar with.

There are different translations, of course. And, even given the same translation, interpretations can differ. Such is the nature of the obscure, the unclear, the obtuse.

I must admit, I have some doubt regarding some of the parts. Rather a great deal of doubt, really, some of the bits and pieces actually occurred as reported As the Torah is being read, I am constantly reminded of how words can be spun to make a case, form an opinion, create a conclusion. I wonder how it really went down if down it went at all.

A prime example is the section just passed, the beginning of Genesis and the expulsion from The Garden of Eden. I have an idea, a deeply felt solid hunch, it was rather different. I think of the angels, the garden, the serpent and it looks to me like a set up. We’ve all heard the no cliché cry “Eve was Framed” but I think it’s true. And I think it happened like this.

●●●●● ●●●●● ●●●●● ●●●●●

“I just don’t see the answer. For God’s sake, would you get over here and help me with this?”

“Hey, you know how he feels about that. He’ll hear you.”

“Fine. Let him. Then maybe he can help us find some sorta way outta this. You know, I’m real tired of pulling his butt out of the fire. Fix this. Explain that. Make this problem disappear. Would you make that go away for me?” Flustered, he continued, “Michael, would you move yourself over here and look at these write-ups? It’s a freaking disaster.”

“Gabie, Gabie,” Michael responded, smiling calmly, assiduously, “How many times have I told you, your gonna give yourself a peptic. Relax. Let me see those”

Snapping several loose papers off the table from under Gabie’s nose, Michael shuffles them into order.

“So what’s the big deal here? The guy eats an apple. Snake tells him no, he does it anyway. What do you want from a kid?” exasperated Gabie, fists pounding his knees.

“Then what? Come on, Gabie, then what?”

“Well, let’s see here,” he exhaled, shuffling through the sheaf. “So, he gives some to the girl. She protests and he forces it on her. OK. Clearly not a nice kid.”

“You know how this is will look to the future? Think about it? He sure ain’t gonna be able to pull that whole infallibility thing off, least not for long, if stuff like this happens. He just won’t stand for it.”

But I tell you, it makes no difference. Infallibility. Free will. It doesn’t matter. Our job is to fix this. And, Gabie, this is an easy one. Pawn it off. Pass it on. Blame it on the minority.”

“Minority? We’re looking at three players here. The total population of the planet plus a snake. Three. You can count, right? One guy, one gal and a snake,” he yapped, with a shake of his head, thrusting his han€d out, palm nearly in his partner’s nose, with three fingers aloft. “And between you and me, amongst them, the snake’s the only one with a brain. That makes it a minority, sure, but still. Michael…”

“No, no, no.” Looking off into the distance, sweeping the air with his right arm, he breathed the words slowly. “Look at the long-range plan, man. What we do now has to fit into the big guy’s long-range.”

“Look,” Michael continued, “minorities have less to do with numbers than power. Whoever has the power down the road, they’re the same ones who need to have the power from the beginning. That’s how they get to justify it. History. It’s all neat. Always been that way, always gonna be that way. I tell ya, this is a blessing, boy. We can cement the power and blame right now and it will stick! It will stick like glue and this is golden. It really is. Just gold!”

With this, Michael glossed a self-satisfied face. He so enjoyed the creative process.

“I don’t follow,” exhaled Gabie.

“Nah,” puffed Michael, shaking his head, “you don’t look like you do. See here. A nearly catastrophic event. But the only ones who know anything about it were there. No witnesses. It’s contained. So we discredit the victim. It’s all we need to do. Who else would know? And when we’re done, no one who hears the story will think anything different than what we told ‘em to think. Best of all, He’s gonna love it!” He whispers, bending close to his workmate. “Gabie, do you see it now?”

And he did. The story was written. The big guy loved it just like his partner said he would. It was official: The snake told her to. Foolish girl she was, she listened – or so the story went. Then she forced it on the poor, beguiled, unsuspecting boy. It was wrong, but what can you expect from a girl? It was perfect. A done deal and iron-clad. It was the original spin.

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Posted by on October 23, 2006 in Religion, Social, Writing


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