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Tag: power of story

year upon year, truth upon truth…

14th-century rendering of the plagues of egypt

we are tellers and re-tellers of story, a people long bound by the unspooling of truths told in text or in verse, around table or hearth, under moon and star or plaster and beam.

in the geometry of time, there lies both wisdom and instruction in the unfurling of the year, an unfurling that might feel like a circle but that i see as a spiral. year after year, we return to texts––familiar texts––that draw us in more and more deeply, the more closely we pay attention. 

so it is––as i fill my house with matzo and shred it of breadcrumbs, as i shop for both lamb and shank bone, as i steam mounds and mounds of asparagus––that once again we come to this holy stretch of time endowed with foundational story, ancient stories both christian and jewish. the story of a savior who wept in a garden, and soon was betrayed, then flogged and stripped and pierced with a crown of thorns. a humiliation as severe as any i’ve ever read. certainly more than any i’ve ever known. and at the same time in this house, we read and retell the story of the enslaved jews finding their way out of bondage, crossing an isthmus, a sand bar in a sea of reeds, but not before witnessing the scourge of ten plagues. 

the beauty of these texts, and any text meant for endless curiosity––these texts, as if prisms we hold to the light, turning and turning for the making of new rainbows––is that each year some new fragment may catch our attention. new rainbows might scatter against the walls of our soul. 

so it is that this year i am thinking anew of the plagues: water turning to blood, frogs, lice, flies, livestock pestilence, boils, hail, locusts, darkness, and the killing of firstborn children.

i remember how at the long seder table where my boys grew up, the table would be scattered with wee plastic frogs and broad-winged bugs; ping pong balls would serve as hail. and red food dye would be splattered on plates. the detail was never lost. 

and only this year––a year when both those boys who once squirmed at the bugs and squealed at the blood will be hundred of miles away––only this year have i come to pay closer attention to what the plagues might have meant to the story we’re commanded to tell. 

according to a wise, wise rabbi whose wisdom i found myself reading the other day, the plagues are “commonly read as punishments levied against the egyptian people for the terrible suffering they forced upon the israelites,” writes sharon brous, the senior rabbi and founder of IKAR, a jewish congregation in los angeles, a rabbi who calls it her life’s work to re-animate religion. oh, that we animate it, this vein in our lives that seems to either be bent to fit particular agendas, or shoved to the side altogether. 

but, writes rabbi brous, there is another way to interpret the plagues, and God’s intent therein (and here’s where i buckle my seatbelt, and begin my own homegrown rocket ride): what if the plagues, the sufferings, are meant not to punish but rather to tender the heart. to grow compassion. to breathe and breed empathies. 

we need turn to the 16th and 17th centuries, to the wisdom of a venetian scholar and rabbi named obadiah ben jacob sforno, to find the seeds of this thinking: sforno argued in his commentary on the text of exodus that the plagues were actually brought to awaken the conscience of the oppressor, “to increase the chances that pharaoh would finally see the light and become a genuine penitent.” 

“in other words,” writes brous, “what God desired was a true change of heart. God wanted pharaoh and his people to take responsibility for the injustices they committed. tell the truth. make amends. offer reparations. chart a new course, together with the israelites.”

in a world as plagued as ours currently is––war and pillage, pandemic and pestilence, fire and flood and drought––in a world where it’s too too easy to turn our backs on the sacred, to point to the suffering and insist there’s no God so hard-hearted to look the other way so therefore there must be no God, in a world as replete with reasons not to believe, what if the radical notion, the one that’s hardest to come by, is the dawning idea that with each and every suffering we grow more and more tender. 

there’s the crux, the hard part: to allow the suffering to tender us, not to harden. not to let horrors metastasize, not to let hurt spread like a cancer, nor turn us into walking, talking cess pools of resentment, to leave us every morning, noon, and night with the afterburn of bitterness there on our tongues. 

imagine ten of your own plagues: the time you were double-crossed; the time you discovered a terrible truth, a truth that was crushing; the dying and death of someone you loved. the remembering and never forgetting of a time you caused the suffering. the lie you let grow. the cruel innuendo that crossed your own lips. count your own ten.

now, consider the pain that you felt. how it awoke you in the night. how it haunted you by the day. how it felt like a nest of hornets let loose in your soul. 

now imagine that the pain didn’t harden. imagine it worked to loosen the loam of your soul. allowed room for new seeds to be planted there. tender sproutlings of purer compassion. how, ever after, you knew what it meant to grieve in a bottomless way. how, ever after, you knew how tempting it was to turn away and never turn back. how, ever after, you knew the muscularity demanded to rise up and out from the darkness. 

consider how those plagues pushed you––not without ache, not without wishing you could wish it away––toward a deeper, broader understanding of and connection with the suffering all around.

imagine if the resonance of your own hours of suffering allowed you to look upon the sins and the suffering all around and find common ground, feel your heart open not close.

imagine if the world’s suffering was meant to do the same. imagine if all this is an exercise in tendering our holiest vessel: the one heart made as a chamber for the sacred to dwell. 

what if, instead of growing bitter and hard over time, we grow softer and sweeter? what if we return to the text––the suffering and crucifixion of the one born to teach and live love, the freeing of an oppressed people made to witness hardship upon hardship, ten plagues in all––what if we return to the text and find, for the very first time, a wisdom to carry us on? into a world that never seems to pause in its inflicting of pain.

what if, in feeling the pain, we are moved to be the agent of balm, of healing, of lifting the other out of a pain we know all too well? tikkun olam. “repair the world.” mend the tatters. reimagine the whole.

there must be wisdom, must be reason we circle again and again to the same lines of text, as if we’re meant to meet it again with whomever we are one year to the next. this year the lines that most drew me in were the ones that ask why in the world would ours be a God who not only allows but inflicts plague upon plague, hurt upon hurt.

my knowing next year might differ. but this year i’ve come to dwell on the thought that no one escapes a life stitched with sufferings. and if the sufferings come, how might they make of us souls that pulse with compassion. communion, after all, is the holiness we seek. oneness. with God, with ourselves, and the whole of humanity circling this earth in this long, dark hour.

what plagues move you to compassion? (a question to answer deep in your soul in these entwined holy hours ahead….)

i cannot let this day pass without remembering my beautiful mother-in-law whom i last saw on this day, her birthday, a year ago. we keep her flame alive, very much alive, in the telling and re-telling of her stories. may they never end…..

*the question of the israelites and the plagues––whether they witnessed them or endured them––was a question that prompted much discussion at dinner last night. one of those rabbit holes into which we fall at our house because one of us––either the jew or the catholic––is always fairly new (or newer) to a story, and wonders about it in ways that have never quite struck the one to whom it is more familiar. i’d assumed––wrongly, it turns out––that to be in egypt at the time of the plagues meant to endure them but a closer read of the story made clear that, according to Exodus, for at least some of the plagues, the israelites were protected. certainly, i knew that the whole point of the “passover” was that Jews were to mark the doorways to their home with the blood of a sacrificed lamb, and the angel of death would know to pass over, sparing the firstborn son. i hadn’t realized––nor had my tablemate––that plagues one through three seem to have been endured by all, and four through ten were endured only by the egyptians, except for those who were penitent and thus spared the wrath.

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night after night, we took our places, however many of us happened to be home. we all had our props, tea mugs or ice cream alongside iterations of screens, small, smaller and smallest. as the night blackened outside the windows, one shared rectangle glowed: for the last two weeks, our portrait of the american family has been the four of us huddled around the modern-day campfire that is the tv blaring the national conventions, both of them. we take religion and politics in two flavors in this house, so we are by definition bi-partisan. because we watch knowing there is more than one brand of lens in this house (it’s the college kid who went off to school emphatically one way, came home another), we train our ears and our minds and our hearts on common ground.

it makes for truly compelling watching. no knee-jerk reactions allowed. and civility, doled out in carefully thought words, honestly asked questions, is the one abiding premise. fact-checking has become a family sport.

what compelled me the most, what i can’t get enough of, can’t stop thinking about was the oration. the power to put breath to words and bellow them across the seas of cheering (or jeering) souls in the seats of the arenas, both the Q in cleveland and the wells fargo center in philly. i found myself as rapt by the voices clearly not used to the national stage as i was by some of the ones whose road to glory and office was paved by the power to put heart and soul into political story.

IMG_7933i admit to tears — tears when the muslim immigrant father pulled his shiny copy of the Constitution from the pocket beneath his impeccably-pressed suit jacket. tears when his hajib-shrouded wife, the gold star mother of their fallen soldier son, stood by his side, without saying a word, looking as if this stage might be the last place in the world she wanted to be, except that deep in her heart she had a son whose story she would not let be silenced. the goosebumps began when the father, in his halting english, tinged with middle-east lilt, recounted how immediately after migrating to the u.s. from the united arab emirates he’d taken his three sons to visit the jefferson memorial. the father recited the words, the ones etched in white Georgia marble, jefferson’s words swearing “hostility against every form of tyranny over the mind of man,” that so spoke to his son, whose name was Humayun, the son who had grown up to be a soldier and who died in iraq, an army captain who charged into death to save his soldiers. on june 8, 2004, when an explosives-laced taxi barreled through the gate of the army base he was there to protect, Capt. Humayun Khan told his soldiers to hit the dirt while he ran 10 steps toward the taxi, 10 steps before the car bomb exploded. the son, who had dreamed of becoming a military lawyer, is now buried, with bronze star and purple heart, in arlington national cemetery.

in case you missed the father’s words, and the moment he pulled out his pocket-edition of the Constitution, i’ve saved it for you here.

i was covered in a whole other kind of goosebumps when michelle obama took the high road, when she spoke through the lens of a mother, a mother teaching her daughters grace and grit in equal measure, it seems. and joe biden. oh, joe! and the president, as he so often has, had me in tears, streaming-down tears.

night after night, i felt my soul rise, and my heart pick up its pace. the voices and stories, the hands trembling, even the clearing of one history-making throat, all of it drew me in, gave me reason to hope. made me think — in the recounting of deeply intimate stories from mothers of slain sons and daughters, in the rising crescendo of preachers soaked in their own perspiration — that deep in the heart of all of this is a religion not bound by party or nation. it’s the majestic, indomitable, sometimes suffering human spirit, the one that given half a chance will reach for the light, will shimmy toward the crack where the air comes in.

it’s the stories of forgiveness, it’s the stories of wives and children kissing their daddy goodbye one last time, not knowing it was the last, not till later when some terrible knock came to the door, it’s the words pinned to those unforgettable moments, those moments when the human spirit stands to be crushed, but somehow, some way, it’s not. it catches some updraft, finds courage and voice, and rises again. rises to heights it hadn’t imagined.

for the last two weeks, we’ve heard story tumbled atop story. we’ve seen glimpses of the human spirit at its most soaring, and we’ve heard visions that make us tremble in fear. it’s the quadrennial amalgam of hope and awakening. now what we need is plenty of prayer.

which voices, which stories, which moments, are the ones that linger for you? 

(and a point of clarification: the kid who went off to college as president of the new trier young democrats and came home otherwise is not, repeat not, a backer of the republican presidential nominee. the kid is all about reasoned discourse, and deeply held founding principles. his respect is reserved — on both side of the aisle — for those rare few who abide by those immutable pillars of democracy.) 

and, finally, yes i note the irony in just last week saying i don’t write about politics here; i’m trying to thread a very fine needle here, and divine the sacred thread of human triumph and suffering and courage and grace when it’s thrust on a national stage — yes, the national political stage. it’s a belief that beneath the bluster there is something deeply, powerfully human that must be paid serious attention. and i abstain from divisiveness.

photo credits: (top) Josh Haner for the New York Times; (parents of Capt. Humayun Khan) Damon Winter for the New York Times

the pigeon man of lincoln square

the police called me last night. a few times.

they were calling because an old man, an old bent-over man, one with a black canvas satchel slung over his shoulders, too-big janitor’s pants held up by suspenders, was shuffling along on a sidewalk, beside a busy city street, on a cold december tuesday, yesterday, at 2:15 in the afternoon.

probably, he was headed off to the fire hydrant, the red one, just by the bank at lawrence and western, where the pigeons, for years now, have counted him one of their flock.

the old man was walking, past a bank parking lot, when another old man, one driving a chevy van, pulled out of the lot. must not have seen him. the man in the van hit the one with the satchel.

the old man died.

the old man was joe zeman. but most everyone called him the pigeon man of lincoln square. cops couldn’t tell who it was. except for a newspaper story, one laminated, tucked in the satchel, one with a little rectangular label up in the corner, scribbled with the words, “for who ever.”

except for that story, one that showed him, in color, feathered with pigeons, one that told his story, the cops and the doctors who pronounced him dead at the hospital had no clue who he was.

the pigeon man’s life was like that. barely a soul had a clue who he was. mostly, only the pigeons.

that’s why the cops called me. they knew i knew a bit of his story. i wrote the one they found in his satchel. two years and three months later, almost to the day, and he still carried it–maybe half a dozen laminated copies of it–wherever he went.

the cops needed someone to call. needed to know if there was a soul in the world who might care to know what happened to joe.

there was no one, save for the pigeons. and me.

here’s just a bit of the pigeon man’s story, the one he carried till he fell down and died:

“except for the lips, you would think he was made out of stone, the man who sits, hours on end, on the red fire hydrant on western avenue, just north of lawrence, pigeons by the dozens perched on him.

“pigeons on his head. pigeons on his shoulders and right down his arms. pigeons poised on each palm. pigeons clinging to his chest. pigeons on his lap. pigeons on his thighs. pigeons, of course, perched on each foot.

“the pigeons peck and coo, occasionally flutter their wings. sometimes even scatter. but not the man, the man is motionless. you might mistake him for a statue.

“joseph zeman,” 77 when he died, “can sit for hours, barely flinching a muscle,” i wrote. “except for those lips.”

i wrote how he cooed right back to the birds. how he kissed them, right on their iridescent necks, flat on the point of their sharp little beaks. how he nuzzled them, rubbed his nose in their wings, the herringbone of feathers all black and charcoal and pewter and white. how he called them by name, his favorites. how he worried when one was missing in action.

i wrote how up in the attic where he lived a few blocks from the hydrant he kept track, in a neat little ledger, of whatever dollar bills might have been slipped in his hand, dropped by the side of his hydrant.

how he used the money for his pigeon supplies, the unpopped popcorn kernels, the bags of white rice, the loaves of deerfield farms enriched white bread, the maurice lenell oatmeal cookies, the plain old birdseed that comes in 50-pound sacks, which he broke down, each night, into zip-top plastic bags.

i wrote too, because he took me up to his attic, because he was proud to show off his deeply-thought method, of the old baby food jars he filled, each morning and night, with rice or popcorn, seven jars in all, and tucked in his satchel, each time he shuffled off to the hydrant.

twice a day, at least, once in the morning, once in the late afternoon, the pigeon man returned to his roost.

but the part of the story that’s stayed with me all these years was the part where he explained why he was drawn to the pigeons.

“all my life i had so much backstabbing at home, real problems there. i got to love the animals more, so trustworthy. fifty years, all i heard was ‘shut up, shut up.’ i needed help at home ‘cause i was handicapped. they took advantage of me. epileptic fits since the day i was born.

“because i had so much trouble at home, i learned not to say nothing, keep to myself. so they came up to me [the pigeons]; i appreciated the friendship out of a bird more than a person. they’re wordless. they come up with pure appreciation.”

zeman, who for 47 years ran a newsstand downtown, said that he considered sitting on the hydrant the most important work he had ever done.

“i’m really advertising to the public how easy it is to be good without an attitude; it’s just as easy to show decency as it is to hate today.”

zeman, a man without much schooling, understood how when he took to the hydrant, raised both his arms, palms upward–the veneration pose, really–as thousands of cars and trucks and smoke-spewing city buses rumbled by, drivers craning their necks to take in the sight of the stooped little man covered in pigeons, he really did resemble a modern-day st. francis of a city.

matter of fact, up in his little attic, he had boxes and boxes of st. francis postcards, each one printed with the peacemaker’s prayer: “lord, make me an instrument of your peace. where there is hatred, let me sow love…”

matter of fact, zeman once grabbed a stack of the postcards, maybe a hundred or so, and gave them to me. i tucked them all in the drawer of my desk, here where i do all my typing. i keep them, right there, to remind me of the wisdom of the lost soul who found his peace with the pigeons.

just yesterday afternoon, before the phone rang, before any cops called to ask what i knew, i had reached in my drawer for a calculator, and my hand ran into the stack, spilled and scattered, making a mess in the old pine rectangular drawer.

i started to shove the cards back into a stack, but then, for some reason, i picked up the top one, and i read it through to the very last line, which just happens to be, “and it is in dying that we are born to eternal life.”

thinking back on the day, i know that the clock ticking beside me had to have been just after two in the afternoon.

that was the hour when the pigeon man of lincoln square breathed his last breath.

that was the hour the great gray raincloud of pigeons, the ones who for nearly 10 years had kept watch on the hydrant, had fluttered down as soon as a little stooped man slid off his satchel, settled onto his cold metal roost, raised both his arms, palms upward–the pose of st. francis–that was the hour the birds must have let out a most mournful coo.

this morning, for almost the first time in a decade, the hydrant is empty. the pigeons are perched. but the little man with the gentlest heart is not coming.

not ever again, amen.

oh, goodness. i’m back from my respite. and thank heaven there’s a place where i could tell joe zeman’s story. carry it close to your heart, maybe. scatter some seed for the birds today. think of the man who found solace only in the birds of the city, birds often shooed and thought to be pests. the picture above is my desk drawer. i too had a laminated copy of the newspaper story, one the pigeon man gave me. i keep it off in another drawer. but last night, i nestled it next to the prayers of st. francis. seemed the right thing to do, as i remembered the man who taught me so much.

i’m thinking i’ll pull up a chair, meander, at least every wednesday, smack dab in the thick of the workweek. but as happened today, what i thought i would write got nudged to the side so i could tell the pigeon man’s story. that means i’ll be back friday to tell the one i intended to tell today. we’ll find a flow here, as we settle into a rhythm that’s new. till then, just wander back when you can, you might find something waiting.

oh, and one other thing, thank you so much for the beautiful thoughts you spilled as the chair wrapped up its whole long first year. i am touched. deeply.