Reading Love Nailed to the Doorpost

If you want to be submerged in the depths of Jewish spirituality, this is the book to read: Love Nailed to the Doorpost, by Richard Chess.

No, not “read”: at least not “read” in the way you would read an email or a newspaper or a novel. The poems and prose-poems collected in this book draw you beneath reading to a meditation, a pause, a reflection, another pause….

And not really “Jewish spirituality”: for Chess’s spirituality, while deeply Jewish, is more deeply his own particular living of Judaism.

Take “Mezuzah,” the poem in which the book’s title appears. It looks deceptively straightforward on the page. But starting right from the epigraphs, we have to be engaged.

From Emily Dickinson we’re given “Tell all the truth but—”; followed by Deuteronomy 6:5, “You shall love…” In both cases we’re expected to fill in the blanks ourselves. We know that “tell it slant” completes the Dickinson line. And we know that Deuteronomy 6:5 continues with “the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might” (NRSV).

But if we read further in the Deuteronomy passage we come to God’s command to “Keep these words in your heart…and write them on the doorposts of your house” (6:6-9).

This is the commandment for the mezuzah that’s nailed slant on the doorpost of every Jewish home. Chess’s poem then follows: [Read more…]

Traveling Through These Days of Awe

Rick Chess photoI’m in a plane ascending to 37,000 feet.

How restless have I been this year? How easily distractible?

Already on this flight, from the time of boarding the plane until now, I’ve jumped from e-mail to Facebook to FiveThirtyEight to Jane Hirshfield on Basho to Mishkan Hanefesh, Sanctuary of the Soul, the Reform movement’s new high holiday prayer book. Already I’ve skipped from skimming to sinking to expanding to avoiding: I don’t want to look at that e-mail right now. It can wait.

We boarded at around 4 p.m. and maybe it’s around 4:50 p.m. now, and in that brief span of time I’ve registered for a free online course on The Science of Meditation, knowing full well that next week, when the webinar is live, I will have no time to participate but I must participate because I just offered to teach on my own “The Art and Science of Meditation,” a course that I’ve taught with three other colleagues, including a neuroscientist, for the past two spring semesters, and I am going to need all the help I can get with the science part of the course this spring. [Read more…]

Getting Close to You, God: A Meditation During the Month of Elul

by-david-bergin-emmett-and-elliott-on-flickr“You are my light and my help / Whom should I fear?” Thus begins Norman Fischer’s Zen-inspired translation of Psalm 27.

Right now, at this very moment, Shabbat morning, the 14th of Elul, 5776; Sept. 17, 2016, these verses don’t resonate with me. Fear: yes, I am afraid, afraid, at the moment, that I won’t finish this essay by the deadline, two days from now, for my next contribution to “Good Letters.”

Whom do I fear? The “Good Letters” editor, a kind woman and talented writer who generously works with a group of writers for the blog? The editor-in-chief of Image, the extraordinary journal that is at the heart of an equally extraordinary community of writers, artists, musicians whose work engages, one way or another, ultimate questions of “art, faith, and mystery”?

What about the Divine, YHVH, whose commandment to observe the Shabbat I am breaking by writing this piece this morning, is that who I fear? Or is it some internal judge who took up residence within me, probably so early in my life that I can’t remember when. [Read more…]

The Dragon and the Yahrzeit Candle: On Forgetting and Remembering, Part 3

8407335830_6cda2c94c5_zContinued from yesterday and Tuesday.

In Hunger Mountain: A Field Guide to Mind and Landscape, David Hinton observes, “We tend to ignore the disappearing, the forgetfulness, but all day long, day in and day out, forgetfulness keeps us woven into dragon’s traceless transformations.”

The dragon, he explained earlier, is “China’s mythological embodiment of all creation and all destruction, the ten thousand hunger-driven things tumbling through their traceless transformations.

“Self, that center of identity,” Hinton continues, “is a denial of dragon and the empirical reality it represents: the generative female structure of consciousness and Cosmos. It is a denial of forgetfulness and of our actual moment-to-moment experience. That denial is part of dragon, of course, but it is dragon’s blindness to itself. And as the defining structure of the center, language is the medium of that blindness. It too is a denial of forgetfulness and Absence and the generative nature of things.” [Read more…]

The Dragon and the Yahrzeit Candle: On Forgetting and Remembering, Part 2

12798592043_af6641e703_zContinued from yesterday. 

I dive into the pool. My body remembers water. My body remembers how to swim. My arm swings overhead, my arm follows through, my hand plunges into the water, pushing water, propelling my body forward down the lane.

It seems to happen naturally, automatically. I don’t need to think to swim. I don’t need to remember how to swim, what to do next with my arm, my legs, my breathing.

Even when I try, I can’t catch the intention, if there is an intention, that precedes stroke, stroke, flutter-kick. “I” don’t swim. I am swimming.

I think I learned to swim when I was around five. I don’t remember exactly when. I’m pretty sure I learned in Aunt Cis and Uncle Gene’s pool, luxury behind their home in Cheviot Hills, West L.A. I remember Cheviot Hills. I remember the pool. [Read more…]