the tongue of a wise wag

October 18, 2009

The tongue of a wise wag once wigged “The teeth are hard and fall out — the tongue is soft and remains.” Tell that, I wangle, to those tiny back triangles, those millions years old sharks’ teeth that keep washing up on Florida’s shores – with nary a tongue in sight. Ah, but sorry little teeth they be, teeth without bite, without jaw or gullet, with no use but to hang pathetic, in plastic baggies next to cash registers in museum shops around the world.

While we and I keep talking, wigging and wagging, telling the stories that lift and carry, and carry us with them, for good and for ill, stories of heros and villains, wise men and and war, lies, myths, and conundrums, stories that create and perpetuate war and violence, stories that transform and bring peace, words that cut to the core of our being and heal us and words that merely cut.

Tooth to tongue and tongue to tooth and tongue to tongue these words restless waft. The shark (I am told) can not stop swimming. If it does it dies; these words can not sit still, on the page, off the page, into the mouth the ear, the heart and mind, around us now hanging in the air.

Lying alone in my dusty bed, leafing through a book of Jewish tales, I read: “Words can draw nails from the heart.” Scrawled now on a slip of paper tacked to the wall above my million toothed 6×48 belt sander- words can draw nails from the heart- now hanging in this air, around our heads, entering our hearts, – words can draw nails from the heart.

A man, a singer, an archaeologist of words, finds, in a maritime museum, a tooth from a whale – a whale who met a horrible fate to keep the oil lamps of New England lit. The light is long extinguished, the oil spent, the carcass recycled into 10,000 beings, yet this tooth remains, because it is hard, and because a tongue-wagging, heart-flagging sailor took a knife, another kind of tooth, and scratched into it words. These words now discovered by the folklorist who merges them with the melodies from two old English hymns and sings them while another tooth scratches them into warm soft vinyl, a record purchased and played on my stereo, the words renewed, cut thru the air again.

While on the sea my days are spent in anxious care, oft discontent,
No social circles here are found, few friends to virtue here abound.
I think of home, sweet home denied, with her I love near by my side.

See hoisted high the flag of love, by heavenly breezes waved,
Here sailors stop and orders hear, obey and you’ll be saved.

When will kind fortune smile on me, that I might quit this boisterous sea?
I love my friends, I love the shore, I long to leave this ocean’s roar.
Then home, sweet home will be my pride, with her I love near by my side

See hoisted high the flag of love, by heavenly breezes waved,
Here sailors stop and orders hear, obey and you’ll be saved.

If I stand and pee in our upstairs bathroom and look up I see Jaimen’s handwritten sign quoting Jesus’ “Do to others as you want them to do to you.”

When I turn to wash my hands my eyes fall on the besplattered Mary Azarian “N is for Neighbor” print that is pinned into the wall just above the sink. A man and a woman conversing, smiling, standing on either side of a fence.

When I lie in bed and look up I see the sky and stars, the moon if the timing is right, and the condensation that has gotten trapped in the skylight, and water stains on the wood frame.

I don’t think much of religion anymore. I used to. I know that it has a powerful draw for many people and that that draw pulls from deep inside their being, or seems to. I know that it makes many promises, many claims, and that it shapes language and thought, and corrupts language and thought.

I was always trying to get to the core of things, which of course means that I thought things had cores, which I suppose is a religious idea.

The core that I finally found, dwelling as I was in the realm of Protestant Evangelical Christianity, is hanging over my toilet, and the teaching about loving your neighbor, and that your neighbor is, well, everyone. That was my holy of holies, that’s what I found when the veil was torn. My ticket off the magical mystical tour. My pass out of religion, into the world, into myself, my ordinary self and my actual surroundings. It didn’t make things any easier, but a lot less cluttered. It made things harder, since many of the consolations faded away as well. But more authentic, more real. And for me there are no greater consolations than those. That is certainly what it feels like.

It opens you into the lives of others, and into your own life. Into the life of your community, your society, your time, your world, our world.

It is a strategy, a theme, a posture, and a throw away line, a slogan pinned to a wall, that means less than nothing if you don’t actually try to do it, and think seriously about it. There are other “cores” out there, other strategies and themes, instincts, tendencies, many of which run fiercely counter to “love thy neighbor” and they are not trifles.

I’ll end with some words of Hillel, a famous teacher and contemporary of Jesus. They are on a notecard stuck in a folder somewhere in my office, it used to be up on my shop wall:

If I am not for myself, who will be for me?
If I only for myself, what am I?
If not now, when?


love bugs

June 5, 2009

male and female cucumber beetles
look exactly the same
(at least to me)
and do it incessantly
at the sweetest spot on my squash leaves
the base of the leaf, its wrist really
where the veins are thickest
crowded like ropes

they attach to each other at their rears
end to end, facing outward
like tiny foreign cars
that have gotten their bumpers stuck

one, whom I imagine to be female,
eats, quiet and still
her little mouth parts fastened deep into a swollen green vein
the other, I’ll call him male, doesn’t eat
but wags his little head back and forth
and from time to time rears up slightly
and waves his front legs in the air

I wish they wouldn’t do it there
it hurts the plant

of course the plants see it differently
they’re more concerned with me

I mean, the weeding and watering, is fine
it’s nice, greatly appreciated in fact–
but what’s it all for?
who is this guy
with the pant leg and the knife?
when will it be my turn?
and which part of me will he eat?


June 1, 2009

we do not live in an unredeemed world
if the world is not redeemed
then it is neither redeemed
nor unredeemed
it is simply what it is
the world

why confuse the issue by conjuring
this idea of redemption?
only if there is hope for redemption
can the world be seen as unredeemed
it is only salvation which makes
damnation possible

the psalmist: a dimly burning wick He will not quench
dw: but a roaring fire will be drenched
the pslamist: a bruised reed He will not break
dw: but the trunk of the strongest tree will be shattered

Jews and Jesus

March 29, 2009

talking about Jesus with A
asking him what the Jewish tradition says about Jesus
how he has been regarded by the rabbis over the years

A grows quiet
in his quietness I sense immediately a closer,
more vital and painful connection to Jesus than I could ever know

his silence,
and then his remark that commentary and teachings about Jesus
were dropped from Jewish writings
on account of the violence they inflamed in their neighboring Christians

his silence brought forward the deletions and excisions
somehow, behind his eyes, in the inflection of his voice,
I could see and hear the angry Christian priests, rulers, and mobs:

how dare you say anything about Jesus?
you can not have him unless you have him on our terms,
any other way is blasphemy

my loss of the sense of time, that this pressure, this self-censoring is now ingrained into the Jewish identity

A’s quietness, his eyes averting, his reluctance to speak, his knowledge that other Jews who spoke of Jesus were persecuted, even killed for their comments

reverence to their memory?


March 17, 2009

the throne was crushed polyester
fitted to the steps
bright lights, shiny lectern
it was walking up there
it was a man with a Bible
open in his left hand
supple, limp
the way leather bound thin-paged Bibles are
his right hand up in the air
a hand that cuts straight thru
to the bone, to the marrow
cutting life from death
truth from lie
good from evil
and now it lies flat
open on the pages
caressing, its middle finger riding the crease
the way a hand presses and rides on a woman’s
his voice earnest, pleading
this man who knows something
something that knows everything
demands everything offers everything
God Jesus Preacher Polyester

this is one throne
there are others
the rock on the hill where I prayed
afraid of my doubts but declaring them
the great starry heaven
the quietness
the counter at the shelter
the laying out and the sharing of food
the priest on Governors Island
the host, the wine

why that word “host”?
the wafer that plays host to the body of Christ?
no, already it is Christ
it isn’t host to Christ.
it is Christ in the oven
Christ in the field, bending in the wind
Christ in the soil, the muck and microbes
the sun earth and water
it need not become Christ
and Christ? what is he? is it?
the anointed one? the ointment?

many thrones I was saying, many altars
many times I give myself over
in bed each night
each morning
and the thrones draw closer
it is the soil I knead
the air, a space in the air three feet ahead of me
raised a bit above me

I have learned a new way of walking
I call it walking backwards
or “backing up”
it is interesting what one finds while backing up
walls and sometimes secret doors
I bumped into a wall
the wall was a door
I walked backwards into the room
I saw a man with a Bible
I saw a polyester altar
I saw a starry sky
I was inside myself
I was the room I had entered
I was the throne
I was the chair
I was the altar and I was on it
I had given myself to myself a thousand thousand times
only I could discover this and not until now
I alone am worthy to receive this
who kept me from knowing this?
who placed the throne three feet away in the air above my head?
who put in on the polyester?
on the hill in Jerusalem?
was it simply a matter of time? protection?

everything pretends to be a throne
we all sit in chairs
the air is expanding
we forget to breathe
the sky is light
everything is shining

am I at last worthy to receive this gift?
is it not the giving that makes me worthy?
to give myself to myself
a thousand thousand times,
only now do I receive

in this room are a thousand million tears
a thousand thousand prayers
my prayers, they are still here!
they never left the building
they never got thru the ceiling!
this room is filled with prayers
unheard, waylaid prayers
they merge into a great joyous shout:

You are the one.
You are the one we have been waiting for.
Come in. Welcome.

we decide to stand
the thrones vanish
the altars crumble
we move together
a flock of birds
a school of fish
our stillness and movement one
enough with the karate chop
with the earnest, the worthy, the polyester

turn around
spin as fast as you can
your eyes will see everything
knead the soil
watch the air expand
see it shine

the meaning of marriage

February 24, 2009

The Meaning of Marriage

At a certain point in the Seder someone rises and opens the door for Elijah. At that moment a thought, a dream, or a remembrance may pass through our minds and hearts but, at least in my limited experience, no shadow ever darkens the door. Not so with marriage. S_ and J_, when you go home from this place you will find a new companion going with you, someone or something far older than Elijah yet as fresh, young and unknown as your next breath.

The words you speak today will lift and pull you into a living tradition that from this day forward will embrace, attend, and, at times, exasperate you. You are not only committing yourselves to each other, you are committing yourselves to commitment. You are making a promise to a promise, pledging your words to a word.


And that word will stay with you, bless you, depend on you, and weigh on you. It will tie you down and free you up, it will free you into those things that only it offers. It will challenge and test you and require of you things that you don’t know you possess.

It is good. It is very good. It is good to have a companion and a mate. It is good to commit yourself to another’s well-being. It is sweet and priceless to receive such a vow. To become accountable to someone who loves you and has your best interest at heart, to face your frailties and flaws in the nakedness of your embrace, and to have a home and to make a home in the tenderness of that embrace. To be yourself with another, to grow and become yourselves together. To be dependable and have someone to depend on, to have a measure of certainty, to trust, to love. We are mortal. But while we are here we belong here, and we belong to each other. Our lives are with each other.

You are taking these words on today. And soon they will take you on. They are your words, your gestures, signs, and intentions, and yet they are not. What you are doing has been done thousands of millions of times before, and yet never in all of human existence, have you S_ and J_ been wed.

It is old and simple, new and difficult. It is worth it. It is a dance, and how you dance it will define marriage for those around you. You will become the meaning of marriage. You will soon be in its rhythms, you indeed already are. What else is this wedding? Dance, dance, high step it and spin. Have fun, grow with it, be humbled and stamp it with your smiles, your joys, your caring, your hopes, and effervescence. Be yourselves, be a couple, and show us how it’s done.

We bless you on this dancing day.