06 December 2014

Hamkom Yimachem

I am on an airplane on my way to a funeral in New York. And I have been thinking about the body in death. When a person dies she is no more, but the body until burial remains. There is no consciousness of death in death; the dead do not know that they are dead. The dead do not know anything; they have once known but they no longer know; they do not even know that they have now become merely a body. The dead do not dream from which they will awaken. Once animate, the dead are no longer animated: the body is in death a slab of once-sentient flesh. Nuland writes that the living’s awareness of the death is immediate: all rigor disappears from the body, the skin turns grey, and, no longer warmed by the movement of blood, grows  soon cold and stiff. The body in death ceases to be anything but a body; once it was a person but is no more.
And yet . . . the respect shown the body (the met) in Jewish tradition astounds me. No final autopsy occurs because the body must not be defiled, though it has now become acceptable, even honorable to donate to others whatever organ remains viable and usable.  The body is carefully and ritually washed and dressed in a pure shroud and tallit and prepared for burial by a chevra kadisha, a holy group of people trained in the practice, without removing one iota of any material from the body: the body returns to the ground, even to God, as whole as the day it was born.
And finally, until the moment of burial, the body is never left alone. Over the course of the hours before internment shomrim sit with the body. These shomrim are guards, guardians, who keep the body company. Ah, I am certain that at one time this custom began in order to keep the vermin away from the dead: Jesus was placed in a cave that was then made impenetrable by a large rock. And though I know that in death there is no consciousness, I like to consider now that these shomrim serve to ease even the unknowing dead to its ultimate aloneness, remind the dead that it was (and remains) loved, and until it joins the minions of those who have died before, it will not be left alone. Or maybe, and with equal validity, these shomrim sit with the body for their own leave-takings and spiritual comforts.

I hope that when I come to die, the body will be cared for as if it were still me, and will be protected to its grave by a cadre of shomrim who loved me. Of course, if this occurs I will never know, but it is comforting in life to think that in death I remain cared for and loved though I, no longer I, will be ignorant of the thoughtfulness.

30 November 2014

A Thousand Acres

I’ve been trying to recall what so intrigued me late last evening in Chapter 18 of Jane Smiley’s novel, A Thousand Acres. Her story is a retelling of Shakespeare’s King Lear, and as Ruven and I have noted, I’d rather just read King Lear.
But there is something about Chapter 18, narrated by Ginny, the older of the story’s three sisters. She tells the story of the land: land worked hard not by big corporations, or huge landowners, but by “poor people who got lucky, who were sold a bill of goods by speculators and discovered they had received a gift of riches beyond the speculators’ wildest lies, land whose fertility surpassed hope.” Yes, they were lucky!
And the land was enriched by the generations upon generations of plants and animals whose bodies and scales, bones and feathers, seeds and leaves, settles to saturate the soil below. Ginny imagines the land unpeopled by all but the birds and the fish whose lives and deaths enriched the soil that the farmers would plant and from which they would receive great yield.
And she tells the history of how the land¾the thousand acres¾came into the possession of her family, “details to mull over but not to speak about.” There are secrets attached to all possession! And Ginny imagines the conversations and the negotiations by which one family’s land became the property of another family through purchase, through mismanagement, through failure and abandonment. There was not the sense that all was acquired through clean dealings untainted by pretense and hypocritical offers of succor. Ginny says, ‘But I now wonder if there was an element of shame to Daddy’s refusal ever to speak of [the means of the acquisition of the thousand acres!]. I wonder if it had really landed in his lap, or if there were moments of planning, of manipulation and using a man’s incompetence and poverty against him that soured the whole transaction.” It seems that the achievement of all material goods occurs amidst taint and some duplicity. Thoreau says somewhere that a man should be able to earn the bread for his table without having to oppress his fellow.  We have not followed this ethic with much concern.

And Ginny seems to acknowledge and accept this reality of life—maybe that is why the game of Monopoly figures so centrally in the narrative¾Monopoly is a game of acquisition, of bankrupting ones opponents by legally charging them for encroaching on their properties. And so as Ginny watches the tractor work the fields whose ownership she has been considering, she experiences a “feeling of forgiveness when I hadn’t consciously been harboring any annoyance.” And she considers that to accept what is, is just fine; this is the best of all possible worlds, although as she considers the flow of land from farmer to farmer and family to family, she considers with some concern the lesson “my father might say as the lands transfers ownership: a man gets what he deserves by creating his own good luck.” But of course, the entire notion of luck precludes intentionality—one becomes not lucky but clever and devious, and to assuage the guilty conscience one refers to the gain the result of luck. But it is not luck at all, I think: at its base it is the gains of exploitation and privilege. And in her heart I think Ginny understand this, and the novel will work this idea through to what I suspect (after Lear) must be a tragic end.

25 November 2014

Thanksgiving 2014

And now it becomes Thanksgiving. The day, perhaps once sacred (though I question its true sanctity given the eventual massacre of the hosts) that has now become somewhat profane. Thanksgiving marks the beginning of the Christmas buying season, and so, the feast on Thanksgiving, once interrupted by televised football games, now concludes with midnight excursions to the shopping malls. And this is called progress.
A vegetarian for almost 35 years, tomorrow I will with appetite and delight eat the traditional turkey. I will almost certainly eat more than I should and will suffer (not without some pleasure) from my surfeit for the next several days. I will in expiation go to the gym and try to exercise away the several pounds of excess I have consumed. After the meal we screen a movie on the wall of our home¾this year I have been forbidden to choose the film having in previous years made selections that were long¾very long, and sad¾very sad. The day will proceed with joy.
My girls return home. Well, they are my girls but they are women. And they are beautiful, and intelligent . . . and I consider now that I have moved into the status of a cliché: with pride I boast that my children have returned home for the Thanksgiving holiday, and I will sit at the table (almost in fancy dress) with interest and great pride and discuss with them their studies, their lives and their loves. I am an aging father and scholar; hopefully the two categories are not discreet. We will discuss¾with honored friends, of course,¾ the horrible news of the day and bemoan the Republican ascendancy and the democratic decline. (The lower case ‘d’ is intentional!) I probably will sit at the table’s head, though not as the head of the table.
When did I become this cliché? I swell (the Yiddish word is kvell) at the thought of my daughters holiday returning. I anticipate with great joy the heavy table at which is seated ourselves and our dear friends. I feel sympathy (and yes, a bit of horror) for the turkey I heartily consume. I will eat too much, too quickly. I will pour again the wine and empty the bottles. Is it somehow inevitable that to belong to community requires some participation in communal celebration?  But won’t I then be no different than all of those Republicans whom I despise? 

Isn’t the meal a form of communion? It is no body (except that of the poor turkey), nor blood I consume but the sense of belonging that I accept in the celebration of the day. I am sorry that shopping ends the Thanksgiving meal. There was a time (and what a time it was) when Thanksgiving did not partake of the mundane. But for me Thanksgiving retains its sacredness and I hope its reality achieves some part of my imaginings for it.

07 November 2014

Dylan: 6 November 2014

The woman sitting next to me asked if I had seen Dylan perform before. “A few times,” I said, but this wasn’t an honest response. I have been attending Dylan concerts with some consistency since 1965 and have been listening to him since 1962. He and I go back a long way. Last evening for his first encore he went back to the beginning and he sang ‘Blowin’ in the Wind.’ Probably I heard this sung first by Peter, Paul and Mary and the Chad Mitchell Trio, but soon I owned the original performed by its author. It was the first hymn I carried in my heart and the first protest song I knew. The rest of my life followed suit, and the next I knew was that “The Times They Were a’ Changin.” Bob Dylan changed my life, and over the past fifty something years has continued to offer my life new perspectives. Emerson says that      “ . . . we can only judge safely of a discipline, of a book, of a man, or other influence, by the frame of mind it induces, as whether that be large and serene, or dispiriting and degrading.” Bob Dylan has always enriched my life; I cannot imagine my life apart from his voice.
I didn’t think it was a great concert last evening, and I didn’t like the arrangement of “Blowin’ in the Wind.” I thought that if I had heard the song performed this way back then, I probably would not have held it to my heart. But I paid no mind because it was that he sang it and not the way he sang it that was important. I have always considered that Dylan didn’t talk to his audience but rather, sang to it, and that he had chosen that song to close the concerts spoke loudly to me despite the arrangement. We live in troublous times. He didn’t close with “Like a Rolling Stone” that focused on the individual, but with “Blowin’ in the Wind,” that focused on the communal.
But then to close the evening, Dylan sang a cover of a Frank Sinatra song: “Stay With Me,” and I thought, how much more open does the man have to be. Once, many years ago in his concerts with The Band he opened with “Most Likely You’ll Go Your Ways and I’ll Go Mine,” and I understood exactly what he meant in our relationship. Tonight he spoke differently, and I understood exactly what he meant dabout our relationship:
Should my heart not be humble, should my eyes fail to see,
Should my feet sometimes stumble on the way, stay with me.
Like the lamb that in springtime wanders far from fold,
Comes the darkness and the frost, I get lost, I grow cold.
I grow cold, I grow weary, and I know I have sinned,
And I go seeking shelter and I cry in the wind,
And though I grope and I blunder and I kneel and I'm wrong,
Though the rose buckles under where I walk, walk along
'Til I find to my wonder every task least to see,
Or that I can do it, pray, stay with me.
Stay with me.

This was a confession; this was an acknowledgement of a human life lived; this was the expression of a humility that recognized error but not mistake; frailty but not weakness, love but not dependency. Yes, this was the song of a man aging, who has recognized his vulnerability and weakness, the song of a man, I suspect, a bit tired. He did sing “Workingman’s Blues,” and he works harder than any performer I know. Dylan didn’t write the song¾itself an interesting comment on its position as encore¾ but it was his words he sang, and in the words he spoke of the life work in which I have trusted and from which I have learned.
Where else would I go? I’ll stay. 

04 November 2014

Election Day 2014

Another Election Day. And I will vote as I have for the past forty five years. When I began voting the legal age was twenty-one; it has since been lowered to eighteen—if you could die for your country at that age, you should at least have the right to vote for those who would send you to your death! I have great faith in democracy though over the years I have not voted for many who finally attained office, but this year, I maintain little hope in the discernment of the voters. Predictions are that the Republicans will gain control over the Senate and might even pick up further seats to increase their majority in the House. Were they intelligent; were they ethical; were they amenable to negotiation and compromise, I would be not content with their victories but at least not terrified at the prospect of their assumption of power. But the Republican denial of global warming, their attack on voting rights, on abortion rights, on raising the minimum wage, on health care and basic concern for the widow, the orphan and the stranger in our midst, deeply troubles me and portends a world not conducive to the ability of our children¾of my children¾ to continue to thrive or sometimes I think, to even survive. My parents promised me a world that would be better than theirs, and somehow they succeeded. Or I succeeded in a world they gave me—imperfect as that world might have been. But I cannot promise my children a better world: indeed, with the dire warnings concerning global warming I am not certain what world I will be able to deed to them.

We have lived a privileged life, I know. But I am not certain that the quality of that privilege will continue to offer the children security. The Republican majority and the greedy and corrupt money that lies behind it threatens the securities and freedoms I have enjoyed and my children may not experience. I was appalled at the election of Ronald Reagan; angered at the election of George W. Bush, and I am frightened to learn the results of today’s election process.