Archive for the ‘Change and Continuity’ Category


October 12, 2005 14 comments

Finally, she rose by her tall orchestral harp. Freshmen rustled like aspen in the pews.

In the rushing tedium of Stanford’s Western Culture requirement, this had been a special day: we were off to Memorial Church to hear a harpist and singer perform someone’s idea of ancient Greek music, somber and eerie. Shafts of sunlight fell through clerestory windows from the hot afternoon. It was October, the month when all freshmen are immortal.

But now she was done. The freshmen’s rustle rose slowly to become dull applause. She stood. Her hawklike face assembled a reaperish smile.

Applause died back to rustle. Up popped the professor, beaming. Any questions?

Dust turned in the shafts of sun.

OK, then! We exhaled, clapped again, rose, turned to go, and froze.

The church was giggling.


But I project. It was I who heard the giggle, I who froze. Others felt other things, reacted otherwise. The prof looked startled, shouting with the sound off. The hawk woman plunged into a crouch. A matronly colleague walked sternly up the aisle, feet firm on the roiling floor, off to give the captain a piece of her mind.

Mouths were open, but all I heard was the giggle.

Later, I’d piece it together. Stanford is made of sandstone – a substance that somehow coheres into bricks but is still, to the touch and eye, unmistakably sand. This lightest of stones, what would it sound like if it rattled? If ten thousand bricks rattled together? Of course, it would be pure soprano, a tinkle, a giggle. It would sound like a heavenly event, not an earthly one. Only sensible people would run from a building at such a sound. No wonder I was the only one left, rapt, listening.

Then the bright popping sounds began. I looked: things were falling through clouds of dust. How did I finally arrive at “earthquake?” The sight of things falling? Specks of fast sand peppering my skin? A wooziness that might have been caused by the floor moving, six long feet below my floating brain?

Then I had the word — earthquake — and time came unstuck. Stand in a doorway! OK, there’s a 30-foot-high transept arch over there, so at once there I am, back to one wall, watching the great stones of the arch line-dancing above me. What’s that clatter? It’s those mosaics from the dome, now zillions of falling daggers slicing through the pews. Bright light! A dark stained-glass window has shattered, dropping a new sunshaft through the dust. The sudden bolt of light sweeps past me to anoint the topmost corner of the harp. I gaze dumbly at the harp on its swath of red carpet, now glowing like an apparition through the rain of dust and tile.

I do not think: “Cecil B. DeMille,” “fall of Rome,” “Ten Commandments,” or “cliché.” It seems I would rather die in dumbness than in irony.


For a glimpse of the Buddhist idea of enlightenment, consider the sudden cessation of sound: the barking dogs, screaming baby, partying neighbors who lull you to sleep and then wake you by falling silent. Surprise without noise: that, if you could stay there, is what enlightenment would feel like.

Perhaps death feels that way too. And indeed, in that moment, a door appeared in the clouds of dust, and (still not thinking ironically) I stepped through, out. No, not heaven, not bardo. The Quad.

Blasting heat. The prof and the matron were pallid, staring. Freshman women embraced and wept, but the young men giggled and tittered, immortally. The whiz-kid from Kansas walked up to me:

“That –” He puffed his chest out, constructed a snicker. “That was just a little one, right?”

“No, Bill, that was a big one. And for the rest of your life, there’ll be sandstone in your bones. Giggling.”

Written by Jarrett Walker of Creature of the Shade.


October 11, 2005 17 comments

In time I will soften

like old mushrooms –


cell by cell

plexus defenseless

bulwarks dissolved

into moat. I will

not will, won’t

quarrel with the moon

nor damn the tides.

I’ll acquiesce –

unmasked essence

afloat and rudderless.

Let the meltoff decide

on whose sands I maroon

or drift on alone

and after, evanesce.


Author’s note: deliquesce was the Word of the Day on September 20,
.Written by Leslee, of Third House Journal.


Categories: Change and Continuity Tags:


October 9, 2005 5 comments

Of course this Rosh Hashanah differs from every other. This year’s challah is a perfect snail-shell spiral; this year my oldest niece sat beside me in shul and sang every note of every prayer. Five years ago I read Mary Oliver under the turning trees. Ten years ago I served my housemates tsimmes and cornish hens in my grandmother’s memory. Five, ten, fifty years from now the holiday will be something else again.

But when my granddaughter places stones on my grave, marveling at the namesake she never knew, the new moon of Tishri will still be heralded with apples and honey, candles and wine. Repentance, prayer, and righteousness will still “avert the severity of the decree” and two Jews will still manifest three opinions on what “repentance,” “righteousness,” and “decree” mean. Every pomegranate seed will still bring blessing.

The spiral isn’t a circle, but neither is it a finite line. Change and continuity give each other meaning, like yin and yang, chesed and gevurah. They’re such skilled dance partners I can’t tell who’s leading and who’s doing all the steps backwards and in high heels. Revelation is constant; revelation is never the same.

The call of the shofar will reverberate through the spiralling horn of the galaxy long after earth-that-was is gone. Maybe we’ll migrate to planets we can’t now name, wandering writ large across heaven’s parchment. I like to think we’ll still stand before the cosmic throne, transparent before the mighty wind that breathes life into us and
distant nebulae alike, when the first new moons of autumn rise against those green or purple skies.

Author’s note: Chesed and gevurah are the divine qualities of lovingkindness and strength, considered by Jewish tradition to be complementary.

Written by Rachel Barenblat, of Velveteen Rabbi.

The First Red Leaf

October 7, 2005 13 comments

For me, as soon as the first leaf turns crimson and falls from a tree, we’re heading inexorably toward Thanksgiving. Not just the Thanksgiving of turkey dinners sharpened by tart red berries and anxiety-freighted or wonderful (or more often both) family gatherings.

No, for me, Thanksgiving is also the last day I saw my father alive. We had always promised that he would never have to go to a nursing home. It’s the kind of vow many families make, utterly believing it, but naively unaware of how complex and expensive illness can become. Complex enough that it cannot be managed at home. Expensive enough to be prohibitive. My father had a feeding tube and a problem with aspiration that required constant monitoring by a well-trained staff.

But this is not about the indignity or the occasional necessity of nursing home care. This is about that fall when an amazing and incredible thing happened to my father: He got sick and confused, and I took him to the hospital where he got more sick and confused. Then he was transferred briefly to the nursing home where he died.

It is, of course, the most common story in the world. But I–middle aged, and fancying myself fairly intelligent–never really understood it. Oh, I knew about death of course. I regularly read the obituary pages, mourned for the victims of the mass tragedies that regularly seize our collective consciousness. I had not reached the age of forty without losing some friends and distant family members. But until I saw my father’s uninhabited body, I never really knew.

When I visited him two days before his death, Dad was in a state of great excitement. “Great excitement” was a phrase that could also describe the way he lived much of his life, so the family was pleased to see him acting like himself. Though his mind was still confused, he was planning something big. He called all his grandchildren on the phone, and told them about it. “Everyone is coming,” he said, and there was going to be some kind of a parade. When it was over they would all go to my mother’s house.

“It’s our house, ” my mother interrupted, tugging on a sleeve. “Not mine.”

“No,” he insisted with great firmness. “It’s your house.” Those words would haunt her.

He struggled to remove his wedding band, and the medal he had worn since he was nineteen when he’d joined the Coast Guard.

“Take these,” he said, and turned away. When I tried to give them back, to remind him how important they were to him, his voice grew stronger. “Take them!”

Before we left, he asked us to wheel him to the doorway, but when we started for the front door, he shook his head in frustration. “Not this one. The back door.”

We laughed, still not understanding what he was telling us, but enjoying the return of his old enthusiasm, the strong will that had sometimes tyrannized us. “This is the door they’ll take me out,” he said matter of factly when we showed him the back exit.

In a September issue of the New York Times Magazine, Joan Didion writes movingly about the loss of her husband, John Gregory Dunne. In it, she refers to Philip Ares when she says that death: “gives advance notice of its arrival. Gawain is asked ‘Ah, good my lord, think you then so soon to die?’ Gawain answers ‘I tell you I will not live two days.’ Ares notes: ‘Only the dying man knows how much time he has left.'”

It’s your house,” my father said.

Yes, fall comes again, and that first leaf turns red. Soon it will be Thanksgiving and once again, I will think of my father as he was on his last day. They had dressed him up in someone else’s clothes. A pair of brown corduroy slacks, an attractive plaid shirt. Someone had brought in a TV set and he was watching “Rosie O’Donnell.”

I wanted to talk, of course, but he was pretty much done with that. He sat in a wheelchair in another man’s clothes, his hands clasped beside his head in a familiar pose, and waited with great peace for what would come next.

Written by Patry Francis, of The Marvelous Garden.

Meta-morphosis X (Primo)

October 6, 2005 12 comments

Two Finger Poems

October 5, 2005 9 comments

Each finger-bone pulled from the next
Splitting, hissing, in the loosening flame
Slowly unmaking the hands that have served so long,
Clutched so hard.

Each brittle word wrenched from the text
Crumbling, blurring, undoing each name
Slowly unwriting the poems that have masked the song,
Closed my heart.

Written by Dale Favier, of Mole.