more than once this week, i’ve felt shivers run my spine. more than once this week, i felt myself suspended in some holy sort of hammock. i’ve giggled. and more than once, i’ve wanted to dash to the telephone, to call my blessed friend. and then, stopped cold, i remembered phone lines don’t go to where she is. wherever she is.
my friend died not two weeks ago.
but that didn’t stop me from feeling her as close to me this week as if we were, as we so often were, huddled on the couch, under the buffalo-check blanket that might belong in a horse barn, but kept us warm through many a long winter’s afternoon when, curled up with mugs of tea and bowls of clementines, we coursed across the landscape of our lives, our hearts, our souls.
death when it’s new can be like that. out of the blue you bump into the reality — a cement-block wall, almost — that the someone you want to reach for, the someone you’ve always reached for, isn’t there. it’s as if your mind is playing tricks with you, taunting, teasing, playing hide-and-seek. maybe it’s just me, but i push my imagination as far and deep as it will go, all but see and hear the someone right before my eyes. convince myself one day the phone will ring, and the someone will be there, and at last i’ll hear, “trick’s up. i was only hiding.”
but in moments when i wasn’t playing mind games, when i’ve been going about the business at hand, i’ve suddenly had a certain sense that something, some holy force, had slipped beneath me, inside me, and propelled me or the world around me in inexplicable ways. well, i’ve an explanation, but it defies logic, and laws of physics.
take, for instance, the fact that all summer i’ve been drudgingly tapping keys on my keyboard, slowly uprooting words from deep down underground. i’d type my way to the end of sentences, but really, i was all but lost. form was formless, and all swirled foggily around me. i was trying to find the words, the shape, the essence of some elusive book. i knew what i wanted it to be, but somehow i couldn’t find the path. i’d get distracted, spend long spells away from the keyboard. i started to think nothing would ever come. i thought a bit about my capacities for swirling foam in coffee at the local barista bar. maybe, after all, that was better use of my waking hours.
but then, this week, once again i sat down. opened up a document, one that had no name, and suddenly — slowly at first, but building in speed and force — i’d renamed it “chapter 1.” it’s finished now, and sits waiting on my computer. it’s been followed, swiftly, by chapters 2 and 3, now almost written down to the very last period.
where’d that slipstream come from, i wondered? i didn’t think too hard to pounce upon my answer.
and in another breathtaking moment of serendipity, a fellow i love, a post-college living-in-a-new-city sort of fellow, he was out and about recently, and struck up animated conversation with a lovely lass. they weren’t too deep into conversation before it was revealed that, out of all the souls who inhabit this giant metropolis, they both just happened to share in common a deep love for our beloved friend who had just died. the fellow had known and loved our friend his whole life long, called her his “spiritual godmother”; the lass was one of her devoted students, one of the very few she’d tucked tightly under her wing, imparting the intricacies of her craft even as her cancer spread and spread. the meeting of the two — the fellow and the lass — could not have been more random, impossibly so. and the depth of their first conversation was, apparently, the sort that glimmers on the prairie.
now i can’t claim to be one of those folks who frankly believes that angels have wings and hover over us. but i do believe in souls that never really fade, and i do believe in forces of holiness and miracle. i’ve spent decades trying to figure out just what happens when someone you love dearly dies. what happens after the last breath comes, and stillness fills the room? i promise to let you know when i nail that one. but until then, i’ll side with the folks who believe that holiness is a force of life abundantly present, and animating all the hours of our day. maybe the work to be done is on our side, maybe it’s about opening ourselves through a particular level of prayerfulness, maybe it’s about a soul so porous we’re a filter, a catch basin, for all that’s good and beautiful and buoyant. maybe thinking aloud about all this is the dumbest thing i’ve ever done. or maybe, in putting words to wondering, we might — together — stumble on some truth, some shimmering shard of wonder, of heaven tumbled down to earth.
i can only hope. and pray. and keep watch for the gentle brilliant touch of my beloved slipped-away friend.
as is so often the case, i had no intention to write a word of this. but the words came anyway. so here we are. i’d been thinking that i was so intent on getting back to chapter 3 and 4, i’d just post the latest edition of my chicago tribune roundup of books for the soul. that might have been the safer, wiser bet. or maybe not. a short bit of one of the reviews was cut for space, so i’ll post the link to the latest roundup here, and down below, i’ll include the unedited version of the first review, the glorious, The Grammar of God: A Journey into the Words and Worlds of the Bible, by Aviyah Kushner, which i loved.
The Grammar of God: A Journey into the Words and Worlds of the Bible
By Aviya Kushner, Spiegel & Grau, 272 pages, $27
The highest praise for a book, perhaps, is tucking it into a slot on your bookshelf where you’ll always be able to effortlessly slide it out, lay it across your lap, and soak it up for a minute or a long afternoon’s absorption. The Grammar of God: A Journey into the Words and Worlds of the Bible, Aviyah Kushner’s poetic and powerful plumbing of both the Hebrew and English translations of the Bible, now rests in just such an easy-to-grab spot in my library.
In a word, it’s brilliant. And beautiful.
Kushner, a poet and journalist who grew up in a Hebrew-speaking home where dinner-hour debate often pivoted on the meaning of the Bible’s original Hebrew text, went off to the Iowa Writers’ Workshop back in the summer of 2002, and found herself in novelist Marilynne Robinson’s class, parsing the Old Testament. Kushner barely recognized the text in English translation.
Therein was launched a trek into language and belief that took Kushner around the globe. She draws on grammarians and lexicographers across the millennia to lay out this roadmap into the depths of sacred text. Not lost is her insistence that much is lost in translation, and even if you’ve no interest in religion, the linguistic excursion here is not to be missed.
Most essentially, Kushner lifts the veil for all of us who don’t know ancient Biblical Hebrew. She pulls us deep inside etymology and history and meaning. And as a Kirkus review so aptly put it, Kushner’s first book is, in the end, “a paean, in a way, to the rigors and frustrations — and ultimate joys — of trying to comprehend the unfathomable.”
how have you brushed up against the holiness of someone you’ve loved, no longer right here among us?