- Eighteen Reasons to Write Poetry, by Reuven Goldfarb
- Blessing Barry, the Master of Blessing, by Rolinda Schonwald
- The Roses Ask For You, by Jerry Ratch
- In the Lap of an Angel, by Naomi Rose
To open your heart
to tell the truth
to be surprised by your own words
to discover your own secrets
to name things as they really are
to extol the G*d of the Universe
to praise greatness in small things
to identify iotas of perfection in great things
to deftly yet mercilessly critique venerable icons
to undermine power and dignify powerlessness
to create a lasting image
to persuade someone to love you
to apologize for a dreadful slight
to lose your mind in words
to mind your words
to create beautiful formal structures
to reconstruct reality
to transform suffering into ecstasy
Barry has big blue eyes and a wide smile. Ever since I've known him, he's been a big guy with a big belly. He gives the best bear hugs and blessings in the world. In fact, a few years ago he was ordained as a "BA'AL BRACHA" - a "Master of Blessing."
When he blesses you, he always tunes into what you need and want in life and blesses you with it. Your soul sends tears of recognition on hearing his words of affirmation.
Barry has a huge heart. He'll jump out of his car at an intersection and run across the street to give money to a beggar before the light changes. He'll bless him, too, then dash back to his car just before the guy behind him starts honking.
In recent years, Barry used to fall asleep all the time. One day we found out why. His heart was blocked. Not enough oxygen was being pumped through his body to keep him awake.
When the doctor told him he'd need surgery, he asked for some time to think about it.
"You don't understand," the doctor said. "There isn't a whole lot of time."
He insisted he needed a few moments to talk to God about what was happening.
It wasn't his first near-brush with death. As a young man, he was in a car accident. Then, he was told it wasn't yet his time.
This time, he makes a deal with God. If he has this operation, the Master of the Universe has to promise that he'll find the wherewithal for him to continue his work.
After the bypass surgery, he returns home. One day Debby, his wife, sees pus oozing and calls the doctor. There's a massive infection beneath his sternum.
Back at the hospital, they reopen his chest and put him into an artificial coma while the infection drains. She looks inside and sees his heart beating, healthy and red. A few days later, they sew him back up and send him home again.
"What did you learn from your ordeal?" I ask him a few months later. We are taking a walk. His pace is remarkably brisk.
"G*d is my friend," Barry replies. "I'm much closer to him now. There's a reason I was spared, that I'm still here. I have a purpose in my life - to usher in an era of elders who are champions. They are champion material."
I know he's not talking about wheelchair Olympics and walker marathons. The "Way of the Champion", for Barry, is about honoring our elders in their "saging" years.
Barry and Debby's Live Oak Project has been quietly impacting elder care for the past 25 years. Until recently, they ran an old-age home that served as a pilot for their work empowering and acknowledging the people they cared for.
Barry was invited to apply for a prestigious Ashoka Foundation grant. When he got it - seed money for the next three years - he knew his discussion with the Aybishter had borne fruit.
On my last visit to California, I invite Barry to walk with me up to the track where I used to run when I was in college. It's up in the Berkeley hills, above the old School for the Blind and Deaf, which has now moved to make room for dorms.
Barry paces himself on the incline. Huffing, he stops to catch his breath.
"Are you sure this is okay?" I worry. "We could just walk around the neighborhood."
"No, let's go for it," Barry plugs on. We arrive at the track and begin to circle it, walking, not jogging. At the western edge, we gaze at San Francisco, glittering like a box of jewels in a sapphire sea.
We return every morning after that, early in the day, when the rising sun kisses the blossoming trees awake. Each day he huffs and puffs less and walks a lap more. Then he begins to walk down and up the hill between each lap.
Barry, Master of Blessing, has embodied the "Way of the Champion" and become one himself in his body and in his pioneering work in elder care.
He was always a master of compassion and loving-kindness. Now he's in training as a master trail blazer. His morning hikes build endurance and strength for all he still wishes to accomplish in life.
Oh, and he's not so big any more. He's faithfully following a diet that enabled him to shed fifty pounds. Champions, after all, watch what they eat. That's how they get to the gold.
The roses ask for you when I sniff them.
They say they remember your touch more than
others. They can't bear it when you're gone,
and wonder when you'll be returning.
I am beginning to do the same.
I no longer go outdoors to be with them
because the whispering of their names,
when you bent over to say things
into their sweet ears, has grown loud.
I think the neighbors hear them.
The roses are planted in a row along the
fence. I don't have the heart to go out,
pulling weeds among them. They're too red.
I can't go past without them catching my
coat. They need pruning. You did that.
Now they hang down their faces and look
abandoned. Come back. I don't have the same
touch. Take one more round with them.
Things will never be the same as before you
left, but they will revive, I know it.
When I was in second grade, to my great surprise and secret delight, I was the teacher's pet. It had never happened before, and it never happened since; but slowly it dawned on me, an immensely shy child whose way with words was halting and slow, that the woman who sat up in front of the room, teaching lessons, liked me specially.
There must have been lead-ups to this, must have been kind glances, inviting inquiries, patience as, I fumbled to bring words to what had until then been a blank, uncomprehending response. There must have been a wide range of smiles, fond to streaming, radiant, enchanted, all slowly letting me know that for some unknown reason, this woman loved me. But the scene that I actually remember, the location of this love, was sitting on Miss Marhoffer's lap.
Every day, or so it now seems, there was a time in our schedule when I sat on my teacher's lap, up in front of the class, facing my peers from the tent of her warm bosom and enwrapping arms, and we would recite things. It was the custom, in the New York City public schools of the early 1950s, to recite things, to learn things "by heart." Poems that aided memorizing by their meter and rhyme, pledges that had meter going for them and were said so often they made grooves inside my mindñthese and other recitations took place over and over, from within the sweet shelter of her soft and pliant lap. The sounds were slightly muffled in there, and as I dutifully and willingly repeated every word, with the distant sound of the same thing happening outside from my peers in their seats, the words and the scent of her dress and the comfort of her massive wattled arms came together to make deeply pleasant, to sanctify, whatever it was we were saying. For somehow, I was given this public display of private love, a mother-like lap and cadenced words, an extension of the body-wrapped lullabies my mother had long since stopped singing.
It was in the time when the schools had not yet been mandated to separate "church" and state. And so every day, from Miss Marhoffer's great lush lap, I repeated the 23rd psalm along with her: "The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want/ He maketh me to lie down in green pastures...." Day after day, I recited this with her. "He leadeth me beside the still waters, He restoreth my soul ...." I had no sense of the meaning, no knowledge of the Bible; we were atheists in my family (I would later find out), and the words "Lord" and "soul" had no reference. But from within the tent of Miss Marhoffer's lap, I could see and feel this place we were reciting, the place of the still waters, where the calm cadence of the saying of this had something to do with "restoring"; I could conjure up a feasting table where I sat resplendent and loved, though my enemies sat near me, and where-that strange and engaging act-my head was "anointed with oil."
So many worlds were mysteriously brought together within the tent of Miss Marhoffer's lap: what was to her a Christian prayer, which she simply and kindly assumed fit every child present; my own total absence of religion in my household, or the sense that there was something other than ourselves, in our unhappiness, on which to depend; and the great streaming exoticism of the images of this psalm, things found nowhere in a New York City world: "rod," "staff," "comfort," "Thy." My family was so self-invented in the New World that we had a Christmas tree and presents for many years, and no mention of religion of any kind, including Jewish; nor was there much in the way of comfort, peace.
"The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want...."
A shepherd with a crook on billowy mounds of green pasture herds his sheep gently, and this somehow had to do with me....
"Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for Thou art with me."
In her arms, I saw only a valley in shadows. Death was a word. In her arms, I memorized, though I did not understand, "I will fear no evil, for Thou art with me" and "The valley of the shadow of death...."
She rocked me gently, as we recited. There was so much warmth in that atmosphere, those few cubic inches of her lap, that every word of the 23rd psalm was infused with her warmth, and her choosing me. Hidden by her arms, my head toward her bosom, I rested on her and closed my eyes, and let these words become as much part of me as had the songs my grandfather sung in Yiddish, when he had taken me on his lap and chanted the wordless melodies from his own, renounced, religious childhood. And then reciting time was over, and I returned to my seat.
# # #
I never told my parents about my place in Miss Marhoffer's affections and lap, or
the fact that we recited the 23rd psalm every day. Perhaps, on the second count, I sensed they would be angry, and that their anger would be a wedge into my close connection with my daily lap-love. "What?" they could have cried. "She's teaching you psalms? How dare she? If we wanted you to learn religion, we would have taught it to you ourselves!" Perhaps, on the first count, I feared that I would be asked to renounce her lap, her affections, the surprising sweetness available to me outside my home.
But over the many years, when I had long forgotten "The Midnight Ride of Paul Revere," and had long ceased being willing to say "The Pledge of Allegiance" in school assemblies, I kept the 23rd psalm inside me, remembering it word for word. It stayed in there indelibly, even rising up, phrase by phrase, when needed, during my most difficult and atheist times. Even as I walked down the street and a huge barking dog would approach me, the psalm would emerge to comfort me: "Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil...." and that "valley of the shadow of death," though not remotely understood in a conscious way, would stick with me, the very question of its meaning would protect me as, breath held in, I skirted round the barking dog.
# # #
Since that time, many dogs have barked at me, most of them from within myself. And sometimes I have not recognized the barking as internal right away, and have been scared, and have felt as if there were never a loving lap to hold me, never a kind and cadenced word. And eventually, somethingña prayer, a chant, my own commitment, sheer graceñbrought me to a different understanding, brought me to the place where God is present, waiting for me to come back. And even now, sometimes it is the 23rd psalm that spontaneously arises, a rod, a staff, a still water from a still time, to bring me back. A table, inside, is prepared for me in the presence of the parts of myself I have turned into enemies. My head is no longer buzzing with thought, but caressed, moistened with oil. My emptiness and poverty disappear in a wink, and my cup runneth over.
And the more so because this is the psalm that is in me, like milk from the mother's breast is in the nursing child.
This ordinary woman, my second-grade teacher, in her sing-song way, while sitting me on her lap for that magical period that never came in that form again, gave me something so precious that it upheld me all my life, even though I knew nothing of its origin or context or how it fit into my own religion. It was a direct transmission, soul to soul, irrespective, I now see, of the particulars of our roles, ages, and religions or non-religions. She was my messenger of the truth, my angel for that year and forever in my memory. She was, that middle-aged woman with sensible shoes and turkey-wattled upper arms, my personal experience of the Shechina.
Naomi Rose is a professional writer and the creator of the Writing from the Deeper Self approach to writing. She is currently in private practice as a book developer, helping people write publishable books and learn to love the process, even if they have never written a book before. She can be contacted at , or (510) 465-3935. Her website is: www.essentialwriting.com