Letter to Stephen Dunn

Dear Steve,

I’ve had to look away for most of three decades now—away from your work.

“Why.” That’s the title of a poem, a poem in your book Here and Now, I read this morning.

“Because you can be sure a part of yourself is always missing,” the poem begins.

When I read your poems now, like when I read them regularly decades ago, when, for a brief time, I was your student, your friend, I discover a part of myself that, if not exactly missing, had been nagging to be recognized, acknowledged, expressed.

“If the imagined woman makes the real woman / seem bare-boned, hardly existent…” you write in “The Imagined,” and I nod, no, not nod, exactly, but soften, warmed by the companionship of a poem that knows me better than most people do, a poem that says what I’ve experienced but would never, could never say aloud.

At thirty-six, Steve, I married. You know this. I visited you once before the wedding. I said, she doesn’t read poetry. We won’t have that to talk about. You can find plenty of people, you said, to talk poetry with.

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Hearing Voices

Let the words find you, you who have been hiding from them for so long.

That’s what I heard, that sentence.

Hear, O Israel: maybe because I’ve said those three words, Hear, O Israel, for as long as I can remember, I listened.

Maybe I was in the shower. Maybe I had just finished listening to a story on Weekend Edition, and I was turning, turning away, turning my attention but my attention hadn’t arrived at what it was seeking, hadn’t landed on what it would rest next. That’s when, in transition, I heard, Let the words find you, you who have been hiding from them for so long.

When I heard the words, I knew to write them down. I knew I would see if they would lead me to my next essay for “Good Letters.” As it turns out, they did. But not without frustrating me when, after a few lively and surprising exchanges between the voice that spoke the initial sentence and “my voice,” that first voice stopped speaking—stopped, I sensed, before our conversation had ended.

Stubborn, determined, impatient, I put words in its mouth. But when I did, I had nothing to say in return.

Finally, humbled, I waited and listened to the silence. Then, in its own words and, as it turns out, in its own good time, it spoke again.

Hear, O Israel. I’m listening. Where are you? Here I am.

And here, yes, here, is our conversation:

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Searching for a Rabbi

We’re searching for a rabbi.

We’re looking at the red tag rack at SteinMart, we’re pondering the pumpkin bagels—it’s the season!—and grumbling about the uniformity of American bagels—give me a Vilna bagel, misshapen and seasoned with salt and ash.

We’ve got a moment between a root canal and a routine cleaning to call, iPhone-to-iPhone, a cousin who has a cousin who knows a cousin of a promising young rabbi frozen in Butte, and we’re asking each other, when, at Trader Joe’s, we bump into each other (members of the tribe): Who is your favorite patriarch? What’s your least favorite intermarriage, Jew and Southern Baptist, Jew and Peruvian Catholic, Jew and Palestinian Muslim? We need to know, we need to be on the same scroll when we interview Rabbi Kevorkian who knows two things about the terminally ill, and Rabbi Rodman who we hear is looking to make a move, and Rabbi Herman, wee pisher of a rabbi, who might attract families with young children and repentant pedophiles (more welcoming of raucous children in the sanctuary than many of us) to the congregation.

This is our fifth search since I joined this shul late in the twentieth century. We’re getting good at this.

We drive down to Bee Tree Reservoir. See! The earth provides, earth and heaven provide, with a little tending by women and men—elected, appointed—earth and heaven and those who live among us provide so we can open the spigot and fill our bottle and tilt our head back and tip, without worrying, the bottle to our lips and quench our thirst with a mountain blessing. Let the clouds form, let the sky darken, let rabbis fill our rivers and flood our streets, and let us laugh as we run naked in a Western North Carolina rain of rabbis!

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A Baby and a Book Burning

broomI’ve always wanted to have class by the fireplace, she said.

Great, let’s do that. We can burn our books in the fire, I said. We can decorate the room with swastikas, I said.

It was the last day of classes.

It was a week past my stepdaughter’s due date.

The class was droopy. Then I suggested we burn books and adorn the hallowed walls of the Laurel Forum, home of the honors program, with banners bearing swastikas. Surprised, shocked—entertained—they perked up. Was that my Sarah Silverman moment?

You’re Jewish, she said. You can get away with saying that. [Read more...]

The Sabbath and Liberal Arts Education, Part 3

Presence to others: The sense of our presence to each other increased on the day the students in my freshman honors colloquium on the Sabbath observed a secular mini-Sabbath.  That day, designed by the whole class, included a number of Sabbath appropriate activities: no technology; natural and candle-light instead of fluorescent lighting; festive attire; food (bagels and cream cheese, of course!); song; private meditation; expressions of gratitude; and communal text study.

The text? This, by Wendell Berry, from A Timbered Choir: The Sabbath Poems 1979 – 1997:

I go among trees and sit still.
All my stirring becomes quiet
around me like circles on water.
My tasks lie in their places
where I left them, asleep like cattle.

Then what is afraid of me comes
and lives a while in my sight.
What it fears in me leaves me,
and the fear of me leaves it.
It sings, and I hear its song.

Then what I am afraid of comes.
I live for a while in its sight.
What I fear in it leaves it,
and the fear of it leaves me.
It sings, and I hear its song.

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