the stones I cannot place

My mother’s ‘passing’  has crippled my writing.  And apparently that’s not all. It would be unfair to blame her, per se, because that would be rude.  But I’ve had a sneaking suspicion that she’s had a hand in it.  Some lesson left to teach.

I thought what would be fitting (I had this brilliant idea last spring, when it had to be submitted), would be to handle it as I handle all things I don’t understand (the ‘it’ in question being the writing paralysis, I suppose)—with academic distance and a sense of humor.

Ok, she stopped me cold. She stopped me flat. What was it she didn’t want me to say?

On Thursday I’ll be presenting my treatise on her miraculous exit from the physical world and ascension into something so clearly elevated, that it leaves me breathless (but hopefully not speechless).  I have been writing the piece.  It’s just still a little clunky. And this is Tuesday.The Annual Meetings of the American Anthropological Association are being held in my own beautiful City by the Bay, San Francisco this year, thank god. The conference starts tomorrow.

Our session is entitled The Boundaries of Consciousness: Visions, Delusions, Mind, and Brain.  And I named it such a) in keeping with the theme of the meetings (boundaries) and b) so that I could deal with my mother’s passing while surrounded by friends who might be looking at the same or similar phenomena.

It’s been a terrible year of death and dying, actually.

My wish had been that my mom’s departure (14 minutes into New Year’s Day) be the last death of the year.  That, apparently was way too much to ask for. As of today, not one, not two, but three friends and colleagues from the Anthropology of Consciousness have passed on into the vast nothingness of death (or if that’s wrong, wherever else they might find themselves). That would be: one terrible terrible suicide that I keep playing over in my head; one sudden heart attack and gone just-like-that, and one cancer of some sort.  Three very different ways to go.

My mom’s death feels like the only reasonable one.  She was, after all, on the near-side of 85. She grabbed that number by the hand and yanked it to her with all her might, celebrating that birthday a fortnight early. Her preemptive proclamation of 85 year old status needs to be credited to her account.  She was close, very close. Give it to her.  The quibble side of me, the side that likes precision and detail, says no.  The side of me that watched her go, says what the hell?

I’ve changed.

I let things go. I let them slip. I say, what do they matter?

I’m wondering what’s important and what’s not. I quit my job (but got called back again for one last emergency go). I’m lecturing without notes, without precision, sticking to the larger point, always the larger point.  I don’t care if they the students don’t remember detail. I can barely write them a decent exam, let alone grade it. I don’t care whether they use MLA or Chicago, or who gives a — I’ve let it go. I used to care.

And I’ve slowed down. I’m just not willing to speed from place to place. For anybody.

And I’ve sped up. There’re things I’d like to finish that have been left undone. That maybe matter for somebody.

Mrs Tzaddik has passed on.  I’ve sold her house to a family of Egyptians. Her objets d’art are distributed among hundreds, if not more, by now.  She’s blowing in the wind, blowing in the wind.

But here’s what I’ve held on to. The line I have not crossed.

A stone. A plaque. A something there. A marker for my parents’ graves. This, the hardest thing I’ve ever never done—as if the placement of that stone will hold them down and seal their tombs and fates, and keep them from ascending. Keep them from just rising back into my emptied life. They were large, those two. The holes in my heart are deeper than I thought could happen.  I thought this would be easy. Dr Efficiency, PhD.

My mom hated that side of me. Well now it’s gone. And because of that, she doesn’t have a stone.

But she’s not nagging, and neither is my dad. They’re not complaining. Yet.


I’ll hold somebody’s hand, and do the deed. I promise.

And what’s the fear?

That if it’s done I’ll never ever, ever-ever, see them live again.

They will not rise. They will not speak. They will not teach or argue.

But even then, I’ll probably handle it as I handle all things I don’t understand.

Probably write a paper about it. The ‘it’ in question being the completion of a ‘closure’ ritual, I suppose. With academic distance. And very likely no sense of humor at all.


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oh amy, how could you — a kaddish for amy smith

Amy in joy

My plan was that nobody else would die.  Ever.  My plan was to leave the death-and-dying biz to someone else; give someone else a turn.  My plan was that enough was enough. At least for this year. My plan was that only the elderly die, and that sometimes it’s a blessing and an end to pain.

But this kind of pain comes to all ages. How could I have forgotten that?  It’d been some years since I’d had a friend with suicidal ideation.  One of them was successful at it. And one of them suddenly snapped out of it, just like that. Awoke from the nightmare, and there he was—suddenly fully alive, vibrant, and whole.  With hope and joy in his heart instead of bitterness and despair. Finally.

But not Amy.

Yesterday she sent the terrible email.  Suicide note by email has the strange immediacy of someone hitting SEND and the word goes out, well, everywhere.  And hers began with an apology and said without flourish or beating around the bush simply that she was ‘gone.’  And spoke about her pain and what she had done.

Whatever she did—she had already done it.

We tried to find her. The police were slow.  Treated it as a ‘Missing Persons’ for a while. Facebook was slow (she’d posted an edited version of her email there)—because of the privacy issues involved.  The whole planet felt slow.  But a few hours later she was found. By the CA Park Service. By the rocks at Stinson Beach.

Amy was always meticulous. She was thorough. She got the job done. You could depend on her—but she did it her way. Whatever the task was, she could stick to it. Those are the qualities it takes to get a PhD in Anthropology or any other subject, for that matter.  They were also the qualities it took to put on our conferences for the Society for the Anthropology of Consciousness. To keep up our mailing lists. To remind us when it was time to vote (or run for office). Remind us to submit abstracts to present at conferences. Remind us to register.  She was good at herding cats.

Being meticulous is how Amy handled her own demise, too.  She was thorough. She made sure that these obligations were taken care of—without letting on that that’s what she was doing.  This time, procrastination might have served her better. But Amy, when she set her mind to it, she got things done.

She asked me to help put on next year’s spring conference—and I agreed—not to do it myself, but rather to help her with it. To do it together. But now I see, that wasn’t what she had in mind.

Last week she asked me to get together. We live, after all, not that far from each other. But each date didn’t seem to work for her. She was going away on vacation, she said. She wanted to see me before she left. I wanted to see her after. Only looking back can I see the urgency in her words. I missed it at the time. I wonder if she would have talked or listened if we had had that time together.

I would have told her about L who felt himself beyond hope, redemption, or any rehabilitation. He’d go to the Bridge, and the waters below the Golden Gate would open and invite him in. We kept a watch on him. Took turns bringing him food.  As long as that frig was full he wouldn’t be so wasteful as to jump into the icy water.  We kept him alive with a frig full of groceries. Perishables kept him from perishing.  One day at the bridge, when he looked down—the waters below had shut their gate. He was no longer invited in. No longer welcome. And that was it—after so many months, his suicidal episode was over.  He’d call us each year on the anniversary of that day. He was downright unrecognizable from the agony he had carried. He’d worked it out. Worked it through. Worked with it. Worked around it. I think the point may be that whatever it was, it worked.

I wish I could have told Amy about L, his pain, and his ultimate survival. For if L could find his way out of the wilderness, even Palestine has a chance of finding peace.

“I love you, honey!” Amy signed her penultimate message to me. However she may have meant that lovely salutation (formulaic or heartfelt), I’ll treasure it. I’ll keep it with me always. Thank you, Amy, for all your gifts. What can I say, but that you’re sorely missed.

For Amy, with the beautiful smile—a kaddish.

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guest kaddish: Gudrun Fossum Vang (16 June 1905–3 April 1972)

Dad wrote this remembrance of his mother on her Yahrtzeit in an email to the family last week, and he agreed with my suggestion to post it here. I wrote what little I could remember about her last November in daily kaddish: making lefse the way my grumpy gramma did. —Erin
I had to look up the date for Easter 1972 to come up with the date of death of my mother and your various sorts of grandmother.

In 1972, Easter Sunday came on April 2. We had gone to Glendive to have dinner and spend the day with the Selvig/Vogele side of the family. We got back home to Miles City in early evening. Later that night, my brother, Carl, phoned, saying they’d called several times during the day trying to contact us. Our mother had collapsed that day and went by ambulance to the hospital in Red Wing, where she was in a coma. He called again in the wee hours to report that she had died.

We (Mom and I) didn’t get much sleep the rest of the night as we tried to plan out what we needed to do before we could get ready to hit the road for Minnesota. I remember going into the office for a few hours to wrap up a stack of work while getting an oil change on the car half a block away. I recall that we were able to hit the road by late morning and we made it to Moorhead MN, where we spent the night before going on to Zumbrota the next day.

After seeing my mother’s death certificate later that week we understood that she had a cerebral hemorrhage that I viewed as a merciful end to a long, slow deterioration in her health, as the ravages of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (aka Lou Gehrig’s disease) gradually made her a prisoner of her own body.

It was a battle that she couldn’t win, though it wasn’t for lack of trying. She and Dad had made a round of doctor-shopping trying to find someone who could offer some hope. When that didn’t work they went to various preachers who billed themselves as healers.

Dad said they offered some hope “if they had faith.” With a sigh of resignation he’d say, “I guess we didn’t have enough faith.”

He had nothing to apologize for. He’d cared for her throughout her decline and they’d gotten to the point where her care would be more than he could handle. The end came at a good time.

Gudrun Fossum was the first child of Carl and Sophie Froyum Fossum. Her father was a farmer/businessman and evidently relatively prosperous, based on the house they’d built on the farm in about 1912.

She graduated from Wanamingo high school and put in a year of piano, organ and voice study at the old Red Wing Seminary, a Haugean Lutheran school later absorbed into St. Olaf College. She often maintained that St. Olaf bought out the Seminary to get their grand piano.

She returned home to the farm between Zumbrota and Wanamingo and made money teaching piano. She also told of playing piano and theater organ for silent movies at a local theater.

I never really heard any stories of how she and Henry Vang got together. It was likely inevitable from the standpoint of the social connections in the lutefisk ghetto of the area. Henry was a working fool, as he tried to accumulate enough money to start farming on his own, so worked for various farmers in the area. His sister, Ragnhild (Ragna) married a brother of Sophie Fossum, so the hookup of the spinster piano teacher and the Norwegian bachelor farmer was probably only logical.

They married in 1932 and moved onto a farm east of Wanamingo, where Carl was born in 1936. They later moved to another farm a little farther east, north of the little crossroads of Hader, and that’s where I was born in 1939.

In 1942, they came up with a down payment on a farm just north of Zumbrota and moved there, and that’s where Carl and I grew up. We went to a one-room country school a quarter mile away (seemed like a long walk back then), until we were able to transfer to “town school” in Zumbrota.

Music was a continuing theme in Gudrun’s life, as she continued to teach piano lessons to a never-ending line of kids with various degrees of musical talent. Some of the kids were pretty good (or so I thought) as they would be accompanists for musical groups at the high school. I was one of her failures, though she kept pushing one thing or another until I started playing horn in the summer between 6th and 7th grade (the transition period between country school and town school).

She would occasionally play the organ for church, though that wasn’t often. She often sang solos for funerals, with “Den Stor Vid Flok,” a traditional Norwegian dirge that’s still (in translation) in our Lutheran hymn book, a seeming favorite.

Besides music, she was hooked on whacko conservative political ideas, and faithfully listened to a bunch of right-wing commentators on the radio, the Joe McCarthy-era spiritual ancestors of Rush Limbaugh. In addition to her conservative politics she also (remarkably for a life-long Lutheran) would rail against the Lutheran church, and especially against Lutheran liturgy.

Back in the early 1970s, the church where I grew up, United Lutheran Church, went through a merger with the Lutheran church a block away, Redeemer Lutheran, to form United-Redeemer Lutheran church. She and Dad joined a splinter group that refused to go along with the merger and they were among the group of families that formed Our Savior’s Lutheran Church, a so-called “free” church.

That church was under construction during her last couple years and hers was the first funeral to be held in that church.

In spite of her right-wing views on politics, if she were around today she would have some fervent disagreements with some current conservative politicians. For one thing, she long felt that we should have socialized medicine in the U.S., as she thought the existing health care system was only good for lining doctors’ pockets. She would be aghast at the likes of Rick Santorum and his views on birth control. She really thought that big families were ridiculous and that some of these women who had one baby after another should think in terms of some Lorena Bobbitt-type solutions (and said so, too).

So, what did she think, then, of her second-born who went off to St. Olaf, became a Democrat and then started a career with that bastion of the hated New Deal, Social Security? She did once say something to the effect that that was better than if I’d become a Lutheran minister (at least in the establishment-type of Lutheran church).

So, there you have it, a look back at a person who would be just a fading memory for Kevin and Erin and totally unknown to the rest of you.

She was an intelligent, well-read person, with a lot of musical talent and some really strange political views. She died too young, at not quite age 67, even if it was a merciful end. We still have her piano, which came into our home the summer after her death. Incidentally, that wasn’t the piano I took lessons on. She got a new  piano after they built a new house after Dad retired from farming.

Requiascat in Pace (though she’d hate that papist Latin, too). That’s another good reason for living long past your parents—you can be a little insulting and there’s nothing they can do about it.

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occasional kaddish: for Josephine Selvig Anderson (11 April 1915– 22 January 2012)


My great-aunt Joad died a few days ago, of wicked old age. My family—the family on Mom’s side, at least—has a bit of a longevity problem, especially on her dad’s side. Great-grampa (Herman) Selvig didn’t get around to dying until he was 102. I’ll never forget the day we visited him at the nursing home (which he didn’t enter until the tender age of 99!). A nurse came by, all upset because she couldn’t get him to stop smoking his infernal cigars. “They’re bad for his health!”

My mom had the only sensible reply I can imagine:

“He’s a hundred years old! I don’t think they’re killing him. Besides, it’s one of the few pleasures he has left! Let him enjoy his cigars.”

“Hrrmmph. [Grumble, grumble.]” was the reply, as I recall.

His son, Mom’s dad, my Grampa (Morris H.) Selvig—my hero, my Tzaddik if you will—managed to die sooner, at 89, but that’s only because he was in line for the Parkinson’s that took Great-gramma (Martine) Selvig in her nineties, a good ten years after most of her marbles had gotten misplaced. Like her, he spent his last several years sensible only part-time, but he was still himself despite the increasing fogginess.

Joad was Grampa (Morris)‘s sister. She died this week at the age of 96, having been getting foggy and frail only for the last year or so. Survived by three generations, Joad was old but mighty. Her obituary reports that her great-grandkids referred to her not as “Great-gramma” but “Gramma the Great.” Sounds about right to me.

She was born in 1915, five years after her brother, my grampa, Morris. In a day when women didn’t tend to become something, she became something—as did another sister of theirs, Effie Selvig. Effie was a schoolteacher in the storybook’s one-room schoolhouse, and a bunch of other things in her long, varied, never-married life. (One of my real ancestors? Who knows? I’ve often wondered.)

Joad went off to college and had a career of sorts going when she…

…well, that’s when she got married and raised kids and did the stay-at-home mom thing. Until hubby died, and she was back to career woman.

I didn’t know her all that well, to tell the truth, but here’s what I know. She was smart, kind, and imperturbable. Tough in that understated Norwegian way—soft smile, reserved unsmile, quiet comment, that sort of thing. No creating ruckuses, raising eyebrows, going off in a temper tantrum about much of anything. That’s not the Nordic way. She was the type to stand sturdy through it all.

Picture the crooked, leaning trees that nevertheless grow tall and broad—they spend their whole lives buffeted by winds. They survive blizzards and floods and tornados and fires, and you know they’re not going anywhere. They’re not beautiful nor particularly impressive, and that crooked, bent-over strength is easy to underestimate. But there they are, shading your picnic. Keeping your fields from blowing away in a dustbowl. Holding the hill up off your road.

She didn’t say much, either, not that I remember, anyway. But like Grampa and everyone else I ever knew on that side of the family, when she did have something to say, it was worth listening. And if she got to telling a story, it was worth listening hard.

She was the last of her generation. Another one to miss.

I didn’t record a kaddish for her tonight. Instead, I recorded some traditional shofar calls. I just had a tutorial from Mira, using primary sources of course (you can find the damnedest things on YouTube now, you know), and in true brass-jock fashion I needed to demonstrate that I’d learned.

The four traditional calls—Tekiah , Shevarim, Teruah, Gadolah—are, in order, Awakening, Broken ones, Alarm, and the Great Awakening. I do each one a few times, then I cycle through all of them again.

I think Joad would approve—don’t mourn her, wake up and live, darn it!

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and death is so much closer than it was—a kaddish for rebecca fromer

The house is empty. I’m not sure what to do
and death is so much closer than it was—

The phone isn’t ringing
starting 5 AM
and every ten minutes or so thereafter

Even the delusions have stopped
having culminated in one final coup de gras

She ascended, ascended to Jerusalem.
I got calls from what they call the Holy Land
affirming her ascent

“She’s here! She said she’s here—“
her friend in Sefat affirmed
long distance
from the mystics’ town
above the Sea of Galilee

It’s quiet in the house. It’s palpable her absence.

But then there’s only stillness—
—still here to pay her bills
—still find them both a proper stone
—a million stills to figure out
—recite her tale to those who still don’t know

I’m alone for the first time in my life
with neither father nor mother
nor surrogate of any kind

It’s way too quiet here.

Quiet inside and outside—
Just quiet.
No demands and no delusions
No glaring fierceness in her words or silence
No words from him of guidance

She the poet of the wordless stare
Our Lady of Severity
Lest you forget
The Holocaust—

Seductive la Culevra de Aragon
La grande dame de Calle Sefardiyah
La reina in her castle
Villa Narcissus
it’s really called that
really really called that
and so is she

My mother’s gone and left me
—still here to pay the bills
—to answer phones
—to tell her lover she’s not home
—and this time she’s not lying.

And when the breezes reignite
And sounds return, and breathing
I’ll know she’s here, I’m not alone—
just more afraid of dying


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easy come easy go: a kaddish for adrienne cooper

I hadn’t thought about her since we were kids. Hadn’t thought about what might have become of her. What her contribution might be to the world. All I remember is that she was a prima donna when I met her. In 5th grade.  Unreachable. Unapproachable. Two years my senior, and yet we were in the same Hebrew School class. For years. Years and years. Years and years and years. And I don’t think we once shared a single conversation. Not a single sentence did we exchange.

But a video of her singing crossed my FB feed tonight. And I thought, Adrienne. Well, wow. Well done, Adrienne. There you are on stage and I feel exactly the same. Like a little bug in the distance watching the artiste. Would I ‘friend’ her? Would I, at long last, get to know the larger-than-life Adrienne Cooper?

I made some comment about how she didn’t seem to have changed a bit since we were kids.

And my friend who posted the video informed me about 10 seconds later that Adrienne Cooper died just a few hours earlier. On Christmas.

Not possible!

And I, little bug that I am, will never know her anymore than I already do.

Hebrew School at Temple Beth Abraham. Lessons with our beloved Rabbi Schulweiss. With debates on large, unanswerable questions. Adrienne always having a ready, articulate answer. And good posture.

And I, little bug that I am. Would think very hard. Slouch. And keep my mouth shut.

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nyt remembrances—a kaddish for departed strangers

Today’s online New York Times, front page and center has a spot reserved for readers to place a picture and their remembrances of those who died during the year. It’s an overwhelmingly simple tribute, moving to the core. Each photo is accompanied by a short paragraph. The pictures are from all stages of life, from childhood to the deathbed. And the paragraphs are candid and filled with love and idiosyncrasy. Check it out here.

The thing about newspapers, though, even online ‘papers,’ is that tomorrow—like those commemorated in the piece—it is all likely to be gone.  Still. Maybe that’s the way it’s supposed to be.

What struck me, looking at all those faces, lives, and tales, is how comforting it is—yes, comforting— to glimpse all those departed lives. Comforting in that each one is being remembered. Memorialized. In the New York Times, no less. For the whole world to remember them, and know them, if only for an instant.

A kaddish for all those departed strangers throughout this, our kaddish in two-part harmony year.

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guest kaddish from David Mohr—for Kimba

David and Kimba

This is for Kimba.

It might seem strange to have a kaddish for a dog, but she really was a part of the family. For more than 15 years, she was my companion. I lived with her longer than anyone except my mother and Kimba saw me through the heartache of three relationships as well as the death of both my parents and my former partner. For a dog that didn’t like to cuddle, she always knew when someone was down and would come to them for “pets” as if she knew that doing so would cheer them up. And it usually helped.

Kimba was a dignified “lady” – we would call her the Queen of the Backyard but woe to any rodent that crossed her path! I rescued her off the streets when she was just over six months old and it was clear that she’d survived on her own for some time as on our first walk, she brought down a duck! She’d been physically abused by her former owner, including two bullets in the chest, but after a short time together her fear of humans evaporated, replaced by separation anxiety when I’d leave the house! Meanwhile, as a puppy, she learned from the cat in the house and grew up with many cat-like tendencies, including the cold-shoulder when she was mad.

When she was about a year and a half, we moved to a new house which I encircled with a four foot fence to keep her in. The next week she showed me otherwise. I’d been entertaining and she scratched to get out. I did so and went back to my friends. Then over the din of the gathering, I could hear animals fighting on the side yard… I was concerned, as we had planted a vegetable garden and we were getting regular raids from the local raccoons; I was afraid my “creampuff” of a dog would be torn to shreds and I half-expected to find her with an eyeball hanging out. But she was nowhere in the yard! I got concerned and called and called to her, a little panicky — I know dogs hide when they are ready to die. Then I saw a large, white blur in the alleyway beyond the fence. I started and got ready to face some wild animal. Like a shot, Kimba (all 65 lbs) bounded to the TOP of the four foot fence and landed briefly on TOP of it with all four paws (like a cat) before bounding gracefully back down to the ground inside the yard. She had a content look on her face that said, “I’ve taken care of those silly raccoons, Dad. Oh, and that’s a nice fence; what’s it for?” She never hopped it again (that I knew of) though it was always clear that she could. Heck, she completely knew the property lines of that house and would walk JUST to the edge before turning back. Except for our friends across the way, if any of the neighbors (or their kids) would call her, she would walk to the boundary, look at them, and then look back at me as if to say “do they know the rules?”

Kimba responded to voice commands and I would often walk her off-leash where I could. Or we would race along with me on my bike and her running (and pulling me!), a throwback to her sledge-dog ancestry. She almost never barked and actually the first time I ever heard her it was when we had a burglar several years later. She was fierce but not combative; she’d play with dogs of any size, including a friend’s 100 lbs Rottweiler, but she’d never let herself lose. The closest she would come would be to just sit down and ignore the other dog. Invading rodents, however, were another matter and like a cat she’d leave “offerings” at the back door for me. A possum once surprised and scared my friend when in emerged from the wood pile. His scream brought Kimba the defender leaping to his rescue and with a single chomp she killed the beastie. She used to try to chase the cows on a friend’s property as well, although when we ran into the mountain lion, she was quiet.

For all her ferocity, she was amazingly patient with children and those afraid of dogs. When my godkids stayed with us for a month, they would pull her tail and ears, but the most she would do is yelp and run to hide behind my legs, even though her wagging tail was enough to topple them. She would stay with and almost guard the baby, licking him when he fell or was done eating (he was a messy eater 8-). If someone was afraid of dogs, she was quietly sit and watch them; a friend’s husband had been bitten as a child, but he learned to trust and even be comfortable about my “white lioness.” My mother used to really enjoy it when I brought her to the nursing home for a visit and the other residents would come to pet Kimba.

I have a million more stories because my Puppy Princess had such a personality. Her black-ringed brown eyes and serene look exuded an air of nobility, like an Egyptian pharaoh. If she were a person, she would be a Victorian aristocrat…that knew how to hunt, fight, and handle “the boys” but preferred to be demure. She hated the water and the only time she wouldn’t come when called was if I was in the pool. Yet when I would take my nephews to the lake, she would whine and watch us, coming as far in as her belly “in case we needed her.”

Kimba I will miss you. You will always have a place no other dog can share in my heart.


Kimba – November 1985 to November 19, 2011

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killing you loudly—a kaddish

This is the sound of me wailing. Again. Kaddish project’s over, but death does not just up and disappear. So. Here we are again. Only this time it’s a bit different.

They’re killing you as we speak.

They’re cutting you and hacking you. Albeit gently and with reverence. But still. Limb by limb. Loudly with power saws. Rosh and I sit here and watch. I photograph your demise.

Is it my fault you caught your dread and terminal disease? It’s gotta be, right? I mean, everything else is.

Someone somewhere said that it’s the arch epitome of narcissism to take responsibility for everything, good or bad. But, no matter that, I feel responsible.  I’ve nurtured you over the last 17 years. I knew one day that would come to an end, but I thought it would be my demise, not yours, that brought our relationship to an end.

My neighbor’s glad, you know. Glad you’re dying today.

She thinks you’re messy and overbearing. She’s wanted you dead for a long, long time. She’s wanted me to kill you. Grind you up and make you disappear. She was pretty clear about it over the years. You hang over her fence and there she is cleaning up your mess. Again. Well, after today, that’s all over.

Vlad, on the other hand, adores you. He loves climbing all over you, resting himself in your arms. Your arms—not many of them left at this point.

Listen to the power saws. It’s taking five big strong men to bring you to your knees.

The squirrels came a few months ago. Don’t know who told them that now’s the time to come. They too have been ecstatic in your arms. Eating your abundance. Zipping along your byways. Happy as puppies on a sunny day. I thought, well wow, we’ve got new neighbors. I’m gonna enjoy squirrels for the rest of my life. But , no—

What did the squirrels know that I didn’t know?

Did they know you were dying?

Did they come to worship while they could?

Or did they come to pick the goodies off before they all were dead? Just little scavengers, after all?

Seventeen years! Of tending you. Pruning you. Worrying about you. And sitting in your shade. Planting plants below you that could handle your voluminous and incessant needles. Could handle your acid.

You smell like Christmas as they take you down. I’ve never had that smell at home before. It’s what I recognize from Rockefeller Center on all those Winter visits. A festive smell. You smell so deliciously and seasonably treif. As you are dying.

But here’s the thing. And there’s no reason it should have taken me by surprise this way.

With you gone, I can see the sun again.

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anything, anything but a mystical experience

So. It’s the end of the semester. Students are giving presentations of the projects they’ve been working on all semester long. Or were supposed to be. I know that some of them had struggled mightily with this. Figuring out what to focus on. Figuring out sources, but not necessarily vigorously. Changing their minds. Procrastinating. I’ve reminded them on a number of occasions that this is a term project, not something that can be done at the last minute.  I’m really speaking to myself, of course. I’ve always pulled it all together at the very end. Been there. Done that.

So. The first talk is delightful and charming and heartfelt and filled with exuberance and insight. It’s taking the symbols inside the Tetragrammaton and looking at what happens to them when Catholicism inherits them. The paper revolves around the identity of the Shekhinah. And Mary Magdalene. He’s done his homework. And he’s having fun, too. My kind of presentation.

The name of the class is Jewish Mysticism, Magic, and Folklore. Did I mention that? You can check out the syllabus if you like, at my campus website.  So the whole Tetragrammaton thing went to the heart of what we covered over the last three months.

So. The second talk deals with the symbols inside (literally) the clothing worn by Chabad Lubovitcher men.  And he had problems getting sources, ’cause after all, San Jose State University is a little far from Crown Heights. Still, this too is a talk in which I get to learn something.

The third talk focuses on Tzfat, with slides of the mystical ancient city, and — well, you know the drill.

The fourth talk.

The student sits down at the front desk, and she bows her head.  What she’d wanted to do all along was to make up a little aleph-bet book to use with the elementary school kids so she could introduce them to new languages and scripts. Fine. She’s been working on it all semester. But it’s time to present and she seems empty-handed. Hmm.

The aleph-bet, or Hebrew alphabet is at the core of Jewish mysticism, magic, and not so much the folklore. We started with kabbalistic cosmology: the birth of the Hebrew letters of the aleph-bet from the explosion of sparks Divine light at the beginning of time.  We’ve worked on this. Every letter. The Mother Letters. The Fathers. The Double Letters. The Simple. Probably spent a month on this as well.

And at the core is also the PARDES / פרדס model, in which humans attempt to climb the Tree, starting at its base (פשט) which consists of concrete thinking, and working up to (סוד), the mystical domain beyond words and letters of the alphabet, and rational thinking.

She sits down and hangs her head before deciding how to proceed. She looks up and says, “my project went up in smoke. Literally. It’s all just ash.”

And she tells this amazing story, which involves a hairdryer and a kitty bowl of water, and hairspray. And the hairdryer fell in the water—

“And I got electrocuted,” she says.

“There were all these sparks. And my aleph-bet book went up and instantly turned to ash. Just like that. And I have no project to show. I’m thinking of doing it all over again. In the meantime—”

And she goes on.

And when she’s done, I just have to ask.

“Sparks?” Is all that needs saying. After all, how much time did we spend on those Divine sparks, the emergence of the aleph-bet, and the creation of the universe?

“I didn’t want to go there—” she responds. “I just wanted to stay pshat. Stay on the concrete level”

My student, let’s call her J, took a class in Jewish Mysticism, Magic, and Folklore and wanted to stay firmly rooted to the visible, physical world. And there she is, having to ponder her experience. And think about what it means. This unlikeliest of events. Sparks which ignite—and turn to ash—instantly the entire Hebrew aleph-bet. And there she was, witness to it, and hit by the sparks as well. And like Rabbi Akiva himself came back down from the PARDES and lived to tell the tale. She was unharmed.

“I’m going to have to deal with this, aren’t I?”

Yup. Or not at all.

Nobody needs to have a mystical experience. Or interpret a fluke or accident as such. And maybe I’m not telling it right—because what this tale really needs is the whole cosmology as background. The whole Big Bang of Hebrew letters, brought into the universe by that Divine spark. And then, like recombinant DNA, joining up and bringing us language.

Humans are meaning-junkies. We want to know why. Or, if something’s just a tad too weird, we shut down and say well just forget it. It’s too high on the Strangeness Curve. So, let’s close our eyes and pretend it didn’t happen.

I’m okay with Divine sparks. That’s not where my problem lies.

But what I really don’t understand is what on earth was her term project aleph-bet book—with its carefully hand-made paper, and painstakingly hand painted caligraphic letters—what was it doing in the bathroom adjacent  to that plugged in hairdryer and a kitty bowl full of water?



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