A million years ago, I used to own a bookstore. The community had asked for it and even put up much of the money. In return, they’d receive a return on their investments when the store turned a profit and would have a local store that carried the things they wanted. All Lee and I did was to quit our jobs, invest our time and money and pour our hearts and souls into it. They gave us a list of the sorts of things they wanted, we stocked them and they pointed their browsers at Amazon to buy the books and drove to Wal-Mart to buy the candles and soon we were out of business and they could not quite figure out why.
We were in Gainesville, Florida, at the end of Sixth Street, where it met 441 at an acute angle just past the north-side of town. Our building was an old gas station built in 1906. It had the original brick foundation holding up the original cedar beams holding up the original pine tongue and groove floors holding up the original pine tongue and groove walls in which were held the original windows. Nearly one hundred years old the entire building was and it creaked and groaned and loved every step made inside.
The building had two main rooms. The front, the salesroom, was twenty by twenty and windows all around except for the front door on the south wall perpendicular to the street, and the door leading to the second room, right in the middle of the west wall with a large pane of glass, door to wall, on either side. The second room, twenty by forty, was solid wall on the north and east. Separated by glass from the front room and, on the south side, made of century old wood, plaster and glass. Mostly glass.
The windows were high and wide with broad sills. In the second room, three of them stretched from the front to the back. As one looked to the lower edges of any of the windows, as one looked to the grass below through the bottom of the pane, the world stretched, became bulbous, swirly. If you put your hand on the glass, you could feel it thicken as one got closer to the sill. Thin at top and thick at the bottom. Old poured glass windows – a super viscous liquid that slowly, over nearly one hundred years, poured towards its own bottom. Kids would love to sit there and stare though the bottom and watch the world wiggle, fatten, and wave. So did I.
This was the room we used for classes and workshops. Around its perimeter, it held rugs and t-shirts, dresses and scarves as well as other textiles, folded on tables, hung from frames, and tacked to the walls. So large, it was, we never had to move anything much for a workshop or fair.
We had bands too, and we’d serve coffee. We’d be open until eleven and many of the coffee drinkers would not purchase anything, so we figured the coffee would pay for the electric that evening, at the least. The coffee was in the small kitchen area off the large room and it was self serve as we were neither set up nor licensed for food service.
At first it was by donation. When we found the donation can with little money but filling fast with empty sugar packets and gum wrappers, we decided the honor system wasn’t working and charged a dollar for the cup. Not the coffee. Just the cup. All our mugs went behind the front counter. Folks could ask for one, pay their buck and drink all night if they wanted. On an average night we should have made thirty to fifty bucks from the folks who, otherwise, would not have spent a cent. Folks who came in and bought books and such, we’d happily hand a cup to. Everyone gets to do their share.
It wasn’t long before I started seeing people walking around with coffee in vessels I had never seen before. Little ones. Big ones, Even stainless steel thermoses and double-size travel cups. I’d ask for the buck for the night’s coffee and they’d show me their one quart mason jar, telling me they had brought it from home so no need to hand any cash over to me. I suggested, along with the cup, next time they should bring their own coffee, too. Late nights at the bookstore ended soon after that.
But the workshops continued. Authors, therapists, artists. Booktalks, dances, songfests. I taught a few myself, on occasion.
I had, over the few years prior, been doing a workshop on chants from the Kabala. I had been doing them, recently, at the local Unitarian Universalist Fellowship, at churches as far away as Greensboro, North Carolina, in the forests of Ohio and even in a hot tubs. So why not do one at my own store?
The night was set and we had a very nice turnout of over thirty people. Someone volunteered to watch the register and I set to work. Three rules only. These rules, along with the chants themselves, were taught to me by Rabbi Shelly Isenberg who was the Chair of the University of Florida Department of Religion. They seemed to work for him and they work for me.
Three rules. Everyone stands who is able to stand. I’m tired is not a reason for not standing. We always lose a few at this one. People walk out in a huff because they aren’t going to be able to sit and chant. No full breaths from a full body while sitting curled in a chair. Everyone singing. No gawkers. We always lose a few more at that. When I tell them we’ll be chanting for an hour or so, still more leave. I tell them it won’t feel like an hour. That they will wonder where the time went but people want fast, instant results and they want them easy. They want to slouch in a chair and attain enlightenment from watching other people sing for five minutes. Good luck.
The last rule is everyone comes to the center. I set up four chairs in the middle of what will be our circle and, at some point, each person comes to the center to sit and have the rest of us sing around them, letting them feel the sound, the vibration, the harmony. I often have a person help me make sure everyone gets their chance. I joke that I call her my shill. I tell them, at some point, I’ll be going to the center as well and, please, please, they should not stop chanting just because I have. Always people laugh at this. The twenty or so people who remained did exactly that – laughed. The group had been culled and we were ready to start.
The chants are short and simple. We learned the first one by listening to me say it once, then the group repeating after me. Then saying it with me. Then I sing it on my own and we sing it once together. That’s it. No lengthy process. Nothing written on paper until the end of the workshop. The first time I taught this I passed out the chants, with their translations, on paper before we started. Then, with the chants written down, people read them over and over instead of singing, looking at the paper the entire time.
People worried about losing the words. They always do. Don’t worry, I tell them. There is power in the tune itself. Hum, tone, sing dai de dai like we have all heard rabbis do. The tunes have lasted a thousand years. Two thousand years. There is power in the sound. Never worry about the words.
We sang our first chant, all in our circle, four times. It was practice, it was invocation, it was lovely.
Hineyni / osah (oseh) et atzmi / Merkavah l’Sh’kinah / Merkavah l’Sh’kinah
Hineni is “here I am.” Oseh (Osah for the guys in the group) et atzmi is “I make myself become.” Sh’kinah is, literally, the Presence, but a distinctly feminine manifestation of the divine presence, so “Goddess” is a good translation. But not a particular Goddess and definitely not, however, the word for small-g goddesses. That’s what Craig R. Smith told me, at least. And I believe him.
Here’s how Shelly translated it: Here I am! / I make myself / A chariot for the Goddess. I like that. That’s how I translated it then. That’s how I translate it now.
We learned the next chant.
Ana / El na’/ R’fa na lah. That simple. I sing it once through before telling them what it means. Please / Strong One, Oh Please / Heal The World (all)(Nature) Please.
Here is what Craig R. Smith says about it.
Ana and na’ both mean “please,” loosely. It’s somewhere between begging and pleading and a demand, so it’s closer to “oh please, NOW!” El means strong one. It’s the same root as other strong words. For example, the word “ayil” is a ram (strong one of the flock), “ayal” is a stag (strong one of the forest) and “eyal” is strength. R’fa is heal. Tradition teaches prayer need not be lengthy or elaborate. This is the earliest known Jewish prayer for healing, uttered by Moses as a petition on behalf of his sister, Miriam: “El na, refa na lah, God, please heal her, please.” ‘Lah’ is ‘her’ and the Kabalists say this is to be expanded to all nature.
It is done four times, steady, rising, steady, falling, then starts over again, again, again, again, again. Ten minutes, twenty minutes. An hour. Voices rise and fall. Voices high and low. Melding, separating, harmonizing, combining into overtones no single voice creates. A circle of sound as, one by one, two by two, people come to the center, sit, vibrate throughout, breathe, heal. And all the while, a sound around it all, a tone at once over the overtone and under the lowest voice. It permeates and surrounds and whence it comes we’ve no idea.
An hour. An hour and a quarter. An hour and a half and the chant slows, quiets, takes longer breaths, then ends all at once as if by a cue, unheard and unseen. Silence.
What did you experience? I saw the colour blue everywhere. I could not stop singing. It was not my voice. I felt waves. I was connected. My body sang as I stood. I felt calm. Calm. No time passed.
Water passes around. Some sit, some pace. Some wonder what the sound was, that sound over the sound, that sound under the sound.
I walk to the far window, the window toward the back, for some space. To look out, to look down and see the grass wave through the thick glass and notice something new. Powder. Flakes. Chips on the wood sill. The caulking around the window is loose. The window, vibrating in the frame has loosed the old glazing. The window, vibrating in the frame, sang.
We gather again to say goodbye. A short chant only, easy to learn and in English. We make two lines facing each other, close to each other, holding hands with the person to my right, holding hands with the person to my left, close enough to hug the person I am facing, each line joining hands at each end. We are a circle pressed to a double line. We look into each other’s eyes and chant, then move to the right, look into another set of eyes, sing, move to the right.
Come let us light up our hearts.
Come let us light up our homes.
And breath out
Making circles of love.
Oh, come, let us light up the world.
Move to the right, look into those eyes, sing, move, look, sing. Her eyes, his eyes, my eyes.
Full circle. No one ends. We go round again. All is quiet. All is done.
The next day we came to the store a little before nine in the morning to discover the phone wasn’t working. In the very back of the building was a large room, concrete floored, with a separate entrance. It appeared to be a machine shop from the old gas station days and one could not get to it from the inside. I walked there now, through the front room, through the large workshop area, past the small office in the back we rented to a fledgling acupuncturist, out the back door and around to the right. I knocked on the door. This was the landlord’s office.
Michael Rose owned the building and the house next door. Actually, it was one property with two buildings. He also owned a new age store not far from us. On top of these ventures, he was the U.S. importer for Blue Pearl Incense. When he was in town he was a good landlord and a more than decent person. Usually, however, he was out of town. Often at an ashram in Sarasota or India or who knows. Today was unusual and he was in his office. But his phone was not working either. Together we walked around the building to look at the lines.
It was a calm summer. There was no storm the night before. And so we were quite surprised to see, before we ever got to the phone lines, a thick black wire hanging from the tall utility pole a few feet from our building lying slack from the roof.
The wires were intact leading to the house on the property, parallel to our store, so Michael knocked on the door to use their phone. The line from their roof was still attached to the poll. It was not long before a gentleman from the phone company arrived.
It didn’t take him long to fix it though he had to run a new, longer line. That seemed a bit strange. Why not just attach the old one? Would making it longer keep it from breaking?
When I asked, with Michael looking up at the new line, the repairman just shook his head. He said the building had shifted nearly two inches and that had put enough strain on the line to pull it off. How it shifted, he’d no idea. He’d seen this after floods or, more rarely, large storms. Our area is not known for tremors and, if there had been one, certainly there’d been more lines pulled off than just ours.
He left. Michael shook his head. Tall, heavyset, usually smiling, he stared concerned up at the roof. I told him I thought I might know what happened and asked if he would come inside and look at a window.
I lead him to it and he immediately saw the flaked glazing and the powder on the sill.
“We had a chant workshop last night. We wondered what the buzzing was.”
He breathed in heavily and out again, aiming at the window sill and blowing the powder into the air. He was more than familiar with chanting, with sound and with vibration. He also had been invited to participate. But, still I had not expected him to actually be happy.
But happy he was. His eyes squinted and his smile grew wide and he laughed.
“Fantastic. I wonder what other damage you guys did. Other than moving the building. Can you break it?” Can you break the window?”
“I have no idea. Why would I?”
“Do it. Break the window next time. I’ll replace it. It’ll be worth it if you can do it. I want to see.”
And so the next workshop was set but this time we called everyone we knew who would be the slightest bit interested. When they hesitated, I’d tell them the goal.
No, no charge. Just show up. Show up and sing.
Never underestimate the power of promised destruction. People came just for the opportunity to sing a window broken. People brought people. Small folk and thin folk with voices high and piercing. Big folk and squat folk with voices booming and deep.
More than forty people were there, in that room. We were not crowded and had space between us as we stood in one large oval. Four chairs were set in the middle. We were going to do this right.
Dusk came. Held in the air, a red thread could not be told from a blue one and so it was deemed night and we sang our invocation. It was livelier than usual but the invocation quieted the spirits and settled the energy.
Then, on to the chant. Many had been to the last workshop and knew the chant but we taught it from scratch. Why not? It doesn’t take long and I wanted everyone to get as much out of this workshop as possible. If we didn’t break a window, we should still all leave with something we learned and a story to tell.
Ana / El na’/ R’fa na lah. Ana / El na’/ R’fa na lah. Ana / El na’/ R’fa na lah. Ana / El na’/ R’fa na lah. Down low. Ascending. Up high. Descending. Down low. Ascending. Up high. Descending. Voices mixed, changed, created other voices. Forty felt like fifty, like eighty, sounded like a hundred. The space felt vast, the room felt small, people walked to the center, vibrated visibly, found harmonies. The pictures on the walls clattered. The hum was evident. Obvious. It was loud and came in waves, different this time. Higher, oscillating, changing. Was it one of the windows? Was it one of the two large panes of glass separating the rooms? Was it something else? No matter, we continued and continued and the sound gloried in its being sung.
Time past unnoticed, the ineffable cue was felt and we slowed, quieted, stopped. We sang our last chant, each looking into the eyes of the person across in a double serpentine bent at the walls. Again, it was quiet.
So quiet. We just stood there. No one wanting to talk. I asked no one to tell what they saw, felt, heard. I asked no one to share their experience. The silence told the story.
No one rushed to the windows.
But after a while I walked to the front window to look out and see the moon rising. I looked up to see it over the trees, bright and beautiful. I stood, staring through the window.
And what was this? In the high left corner, small small, a crack. Visible if one looked but nothing terribly noticeable. Still, a crack. We had done it. We broke the window. Not shattered, not busted, but broken nonetheless. In the end, I’m glad it was small. The perfect result in all ways. We did what we set out to do but the window could stay, as it had, for nearly a century. We could still see the grass wave, convoluted, from the thickened bottom. The glass, as originally placed, would continue on. Of that, too, I was glad.
Because, if you get very close, if you listen very carefully and very near, on a quiet quiet day, you can hear the recorded hundred years – the rumbling cars and trucks, shoes on raised wood floors, thunder and pelting rain, laughter, the harmony in the broken glass.