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Red Umbrella

June 13, 2007 5 comments

From 3rd House Journal, July 25, 2005

Red umbrella

Bright spot of shade
sanguine against the blue –
What does it hide?

My mother licks her dripping cone
blissfully oblivious.
Soon she’ll be whisked
from her beloved shores
carried away
as under a red balloon
kicking wildly, angry as Mars.

Meanwhile I veil myself
in vacant smiles
hold my breath, submersed
in blue, cold as Sedna
beneath an upended
red canoe.

by Leslee

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Facing Impermanence

June 11, 2007 3 comments

From Velveteen Rabbi, April 13, 2005

The call came as I was nursing a mug of tea. The woman on the other end of the phone — I’ll call her D — is a fellow congregant at CBI. We’re both poets, both interested in midrash, so we’ve moved in similar circles for years, though I wouldn’t call us close. She and her husband run our chevra kadisha, the group of volunteers which mindfully prepares the bodies of those who have died for burial. They’re always looking for volunteers, and at my first synagogue board meeting Jeff urged us to consider joining them. He observed that in our tradition this is the most sacred work one can do, a final act of respect towards someone who cannot conceivably repay it.

At the time, I was oddly tempted to volunteer. Though I’m comfortable with impermanence in theory, in practice it’s difficult for me, and meeting death face-to-face seems like a way of accustoming myself to the koan that lives end. What does it mean to be embodied, yet more than our bodies? What becomes of us when our bodies die? What does it mean to be holy in the face of finality and loss? These are some of the biggest questions I know, and serving on the chevra kadisha seemed like an opportunity to learn. But in the end, I didn’t offer my assistance. I wasn’t sure I was ready. I wasn’t sure I had time. I let my excuses get in the way.

Until yesterday morning, when the phone rang. An elderly lady in our congregation had died, and D was looking for volunteers to help prepare her body, at 5:30, right after work. No time to equivocate, no time to postpone. Help was needed that same day. I heard myself ask calmly how long the process usually takes; I reminded D that I’ve never done this before so I would need to be talked through it; and then I said I’d meet her at the funeral home. I hung up the phone not quite believing the conversation had been real. How on earth would I get any work done, knowing that at the end of my workday I was going to have my first encounter with death?


We’re in the middle of a pair of Torah portions which focus on questions of taharah and tumah. After D called I wondered whether God was chuckling at my earnest attempt to come to grips with these issues. “Nu, you want to delve into the nature of purity and impurity?” S/He seemed to be asking. “I’ll give you some taharah to wrestle with!” It’s one thing to contemplate why the Torah tells us that touching a corpse makes one tamei but the act of preparing a dead body for burial is the ultimate act of taharah; it’s another thing to face that reality in an embodied way.

I spent a while surfing the internet, reading the surprising number of essays written about performing taharah. My favorite was by Nancy Kalikow Maxwell, published in Reform Judaism in 2001. It’s called Final Touches, and it’s by turns funny and poignant. (Also excellent, though less personal and more intellectual, is Catherine Madsen’s Love Songs to the Dead, which uses the psalms and prayers recited during taharah as a jumping-off-point for exploring liturgy’s power and what it derives from.)

More than once, during the day, I felt glad that I had woken up early to davven the morning service. I began yesterday wrapped in my prayer shawl and tefillin, asserting my intention to spend the day mindful and thankful, awake and alive. It seemed likely that I would need that grounding as evening approached.

For a woman of thirty, I’m absurdly fortunate. I’ve lost grandparents, but I’ve never had to deal directly with death that came as a shock or seemed profoundly unfair. And until last fall, when my husband’s grandmother passed away, I had never actually seen a dead body. Jewish tradition teaches that the body of someone who has died must be treated like the sacred vessel that it has been, and pre-funeral practices grow out of the principle of kavod ha-meit, honoring the dead. The neshama, the soul, is believed to linger near the body until interment, and our process of taharah would prepare the body for burial and reassure the soul that its work here is done. Would I be able to face the shell which had once housed a human being?


When evening came, four volunteers were present. All of us are on the synagogue’s religion committee, so we’ve worked together before. We began in the funeral home parlor, perched on a pair of sofas, reading psalms to center ourselves. We prayed that we might see God reflected in the face of the meit, the person whose body we were about to prepare, and also in each others’ faces as we joined in this work. “I’m glad you’re here,” D said as we headed down the stairs to the workroom, and I felt a wash of gladness, too.

The steps of the process are simple. Wash hands (thrice each, as in any ritual hand-washing) and don gloves and aprons. Say a prayer asking the meit to forgive you for any inadvertant offenses or missteps committed during the taharah. Wash the body lovingly with warm cloths. De-glove. Ritually wash hands again, glove up again, and (since we have no mikveh to immerse her in) wash the body with a constant stream of poured water (nine kavim, or three buckets full), repeating, “tehorah hee” (“She is pure”) together. Dry her. Dress her in handstitched white linen: trousers, an undershirt, an overshirt, a tie around the waist. Sprinkle sand from the Mount of Olives on her eyes, then don the facecloth and bonnet. Tie every set of strings so that the loops form a letter shin, representing Shaddai, a name of God. Place her in a simple pine box, on a white linen sheet, and wrap the sheet over her before closing the box.

I felt strangely calm throughout. It was strange, seeing a body with no soul in it; stranger still to wash her, an act that seemed impossibly intimate; but I was okay. I felt an outpouring of tenderness, occasionally giving in to the impulse to stroke her hair or her arm, thinking, “it’s okay, dear. We’re here. You’re okay.” Now and again my mind supplied me with moments of irreverence, as when I glanced into the coffin (which must contain nothing artificial, so it was lined with fine curly wood shavings) and thought of the straw nests in which etrogim
are shipped from Israel. The four of us moved around the steel gurney like a team of surgeons, handing each other washcloths and towels, turning her body to wash and dry what we couldn’t easily reach. Her hands were clenched but her feet were beautiful, and her round belly. I wondered if she had borne children.

Jewish burial garments are the same for everyone, a reflection of our fundamental equality in the eyes of God. The trousers are sewn shut at the bottom, so they concealed her feet; the sleeves of the shirts were long enough to wrap over the tips of her fingers. The sand we trickled onto her eyelids was pale and golden, and somehow that was the moment when the irreversibility of the process hit me. It reminded me of the morning blessing praising God Who removes sleep from our eyes and slumber from our eyelids. Some say the Jerusalem sand is used so that the first thing she “sees” in the World to Come will be the soil of the holy land, but to me it felt like we were providing the flipside to that morning blessing. In this embodied life we thank God for opening our eyes; now we were marking the closing of her physical eyes. Maybe her neshama no longer needed eyes to see.

We placed a linen cloth over her face, and tied the bonnet on, and then she was a bundled white human-shaped figure: no features, no distinguishing marks, only legs and arms, a torso and a head, a small still white figure. A little awkwardly we lifted her and placed her atop the white sheet we had laid over the plain pine box, and wrapped the sheet over her, and then, suddenly, out of the blue, I was shaking with silent tears. I leaned on the edge of the coffin of a woman I had never known, and understood what we had done for her, and wept and wept.

My three chevre clustered around me and hugged me. We maintained the silence we had held throughout (we spoke only when we needed cues for lifting or moving her, and when we were taking turns pouring the unceasing stream of water that sufficed in place of mikvah immersion), and after a few minutes I stood straight and peeled off my gloves and apron, and we closed the box, and we hugged again, and then we walked away.

Tying the special shin-shaped knot was tricky (only one of we four had any facility with it). As we left the funeral home, one of my fellow chevra members — a young great-grandmother, but older than me by a long shot — turned to me and said, “When it’s me on that table, don’t worry about the knots!” We laughed, then, all four of us, and even though my face was still wet I felt good. Amazingly it was still light out when we left the funeral home (only an hour and a half had passed) and I felt dazed, a little giddy, as I headed towards my car. The evening was still and luminous, just barely warm enough for birdsong.


I can’t say I came away understanding life and death. I can’t say it was easy. But it seems right that we do this for one another. At Jewish funerals, mourners cast at least a symbolic handful of dirt onto the coffin: a final task we can perform for each other, a way of showing that we take care of our own, a way of reaching closure. Being a part of the chevra kadisha is like that, just a lot more intense. We rely on each other, in the end.

Incarnation is a mystery. What we are, how we can be simultaneously holy-and-embodied (I thank God every morning for the miracle of my body) and holy-beyond-our-bodies (I thank God every morning for my neshama, my soul, calling it pure in the exact same words the members of a chevra kadisha will someday use to sanctify my body), is not something I can intellectually understand. But I know that I want to honor the whole journey, and that birth and death are points of contact with this great thing I cannot entirely grasp.

Death scares me. Not that I will someday die, but that those I love will die, that I will lose access to the people who shape my world. And I will. We all do. And that’s okay, it’s the rules of the game. Even now people mourn the woman whose body I washed and dressed and blessed last night, and in performing this mitzvah I connected myself with all of her mourners. With everyone doing those tasks all around the world. With the people who washed and shrouded the bodies of my ancestors, and the people who will sanctify the bodies of my children.

As a poet I fear the lapse from sentiment into sentimentality, and I’m not sure how to talk about this without sliding into cliché. Clearly this had a strong impact on me; I dreamed last night that I was back in the basement room of the funeral home again today, preparing to do this duty again. (The dream depicted an impossible situation: a mixed-gender chevra, which included a young male Buddhist monk in burgundy and saffron robes. Make of that what you will.) But here’s what I know: there is nothing scary about touching a dead body. Doing so is human, and comforting, and sad.

It’s good that D’s call came out of the blue. I didn’t have time to dream up excuses, or to second-guess my assent. I was needed, and I stepped up, and the experience was deep enough that it kept me in the moment. And now I know that I can do this. It’s strange and difficult, but it’s also powerful. We’re a small community; we celebrate a lot more simchas than we do losses. But I’m a part of my synagogue’s chevra kadisha now. It’s like being on a volunteer fire department. I don’t have to be there every week, it’s not a regular part of my life. But next time the need arises, they can call on me. And now when I pray the words of the amidah which praise God Who keeps faith with us beyond life and beyond death, they’ll mean something new to me. I’m not sure I understand them, but that’s okay.

by Rachel Barenblat


June 9, 2007 2 comments

From Marja-Leena Rathje, January 25, 2006


Yesterday I had the urge for some creative play so I gathered several small objects – a piece of ammonite, a dried piece of root or lichen, curled bark, shells, dried flowers, and dried pomegranates. I placed an object on my scanner and covered it with either a black or cream cloth, selected a high resolution and magnification and scanned away. The results were very exciting, with good depth of field and great detail. The ones with dark cloth remind me of old Dutch paintings.

Above is one with a piece of root or lichen, a bit smaller than the palm of my hand, that I’d picked off a beach long ago. Isn’t it amazing? Of course you can’t see it here very well in this low resolution and small size, but when I looked at it full screen size, guess what I discovered there: a tiny dead but fully intact insect with its wings spread out. I’ve cut out that portion and blown it up some more. Can you see it in the image below?


I had fun and felt a surge of creative energy – and even learned some new scanning tricks. Sometime I may post some more of these scans. I may never use these images in my art work, but you never know. The mind processes these experiences and images over a long time and they may appear much later, perhaps incorporated in a new way in new work. What was that saying by Picasso about being open to everything one sees and feels and that may become a painting… or something like that?

by Marja-Leena Rathje

Vibing with Abbey Lincoln

June 7, 2007 1 comment

A night with the Abbey Lincoln Quintet at the Blue Note, September 4, 2004

From Koranteng’s Toli, September 8, 2004

So my cousin, Tei, and I were vibing with Abbey Lincoln Saturday night – so blissed out afterwards that the two of us didn’t seek out any additional after-midnight New York joints and capped the night with a couple of shwarmas topped with pepper sauce, going out on a high as it were. It was a three part epic:

1. Serendipity

It was a spur of the moment thing, really: heading to the Blue Note in the Village to hear Abbey Lincoln. The long lines at PS-1, the dance show at the MOMA earlier that night, didn’t augur well for much fun but when in New York, you have options. It seemed a little late for the US Open so we took the long shot and headed to the East Village. No line at the Blue Note – a good sign. We’d timed it well, arriving just as they were seating the second show. We forked out our $20 for bar seats, ordered our drinks and got ready for some jazz from the living legend.

Now mind you there was a little trepidation: when you start calling someone “living legend,” you are subconsciously wondering just how much longer she’ll be living. We saw Nina Simone (Tei’s favourite) on her last tour the year before she died, and that was prime Diva-in-twilight stuff: raucous and rousing but sadly short. Abbey Lincoln is not that old, but she was one of the great jazz voices in the fifties and that says a lot – do the math.

I’ve seen her twice before at Scullers in Cambridge over the years, and have most of her albums. She always puts on a good show. There really should have been a third time but that turned out to be the abortive Valentine’s Day date – months before “The Girlfriend” became “The Girlfriend.” The first time was simply perfect. The second time was good but you began to worry – she was forgetting a few lyrics…

She now has a quintet. James Spauling is a welcome addition on saxophone and flute – fiery stuff. Marc Cary lays down the sensitive accompaniments on the piano. Michael Bowie lays down hard bop bass and Jaz Sawyer is the drum wizard. What I like about them is that they aren’t overly respectful of her; they learn from her but also challenge her every night.

She comes onto the stage with her trademark porkpie hat (echoes of Lester Young) and starts messing with the beat – a habit she shares with Billie Holiday. She works around the beat, slowing down or picking up the pace as her fancy takes her. She’s never on the beat like these metronomic nouveau singers. If overdone it would be jarring, instead her artful manner excites your ear and keeps you alert. By the end she brings you back to where you expect and you’re elated.

There’s a grit to her voice these days. It’s there even when she laughs at, or with, the over-awed audience. If it was painful for some to contemplate Lady Day in her late period, with the damage of hard living showing in her voice, Abbey in autumn is a different affair. She has aged gracefully (like Sarah Vaughan) and the timbre of her voice suits the personal and almost political songs she writes. When she began writing the essential soundtrack to the civil rights movement in the 60s, she was pigeon-holed as a “difficult” artist and her career suffered accordingly. These days, though, her blues are comforting; we pretend all those issues have been resolved and are nostalgic for the good old days.

A diva at peace with her legacy, she sings the numerous standards that she wrote for herself and others, including Hey Lordy Mama which she gave to Nina Simone.

Hey Lordy Mama
I Heard You Wasn’t Feeling’ Good
They’re Spreadin’ Dirty Rumors
All Around The Neighborhood
They Say You’re Mean And Evil
And Don’t Know What To Do
That’s The Reason That He’s Gone
And Left You Black And Blue
Hey Yeah
Tell Me What You Gonna Do Now

Looking back, it is clear that she and other artists “made” joints like the Blue Note and the Village Vanguard famous, not to mention all of those prestigious record labels they spawned. It is clear that the club owners and audiences owe her the reverence that we see. At the same time, places like the Blue Note were the proving grounds for jazz musicians – the places that made her the artist she is. And so there is this fondness flowing in both directions and a sense of playfulness and looseness with the band. But there is also a sense of electricity because she feels the need to be at her best at the Blue Note; she and the band have put on their game face.

2. The Let-down

After an hour though, the hinges start coming off.

First she forgets a lyric, looks around furtively and asks the pianist to remind her where she was. She recovers quickly though. For the next song, the band begins to build a furious groove. She begins to join in, a little tentative at first, but then says out loud: “That didn’t work!” and calls for another song.

Two songs later she seems to be getting back into it but something isn’t quite right, she isn’t feeling it like the rest of us. And so:

“Thank you folks. I’m tired.”

And she walks off the stage.

And so that was that: the temperamental diva syndrome again. Still, it was a good hour of solid if not great jazz by someone we love.

3. Redemption and Ecstasy

Or so we thought.

Ten minutes later, who should come up to the bar and sit next to us but Miss Abbey Lincoln. And that’s when the vibing began as we drank and chatted for the next hour (cognac for her). With hindsight, I think we were a great combination of drinking partners. I was the music lover who would pose obscure questions trying to show I had taste and knew the musicians’ musicians. Tei was his usual argumentative self, prodding, teasing and flirting without commitment. Crucially, he made it clear upfront that Nina Simone was his thing, so there was no question of adulation – something stars get too much of anyway.

Now let me tell you a few things about our close friend, Abbey Lincoln.

  • She was the 10th of 12 children.
  • Her father midwived the last 6 children at home
  • Her “real name is Anna Marie” (Woodridge). Abbey Lincoln is a stage name.
  • She was raised on a farm in Michigan. They “didn’t have much growing up.. It was a hard life” (read: the family was dirt poor).
  • Her parents didn’t get on towards the end. “Maybe they shouldn’t have married.”

And then there was the fierce discussion of marriage and human relationships.

  • “A man should have his own house.”
  • “So should a woman.”
  • She’s not a big fan of marriage.

“We don’t need marriage.”

  • She didn’t think she’d take any more lovers.

“I don’t need the jealousy… Why should I be worrying about you? asking ‘Where have you been? I want you to do this or do that’… Have your own place! You’ll be better off.”

And then there was the musical discussion:

  • I teased her that the last time I saw her, she was talking down Lena Horne. She bristled that Lena Horne was a shining star on the stage and that she would never speak ill of her. Shirley Horn on the other hand…
  • Nina Simone didn’t look like a pin-up but was an outsized talent and good friend.

“And it had the same musicians!”

  • Clifford Brown died too young and Max Roach (her first husband) with whom Cliffie made legendary albums was completely devastated by the loss of his friend
  • Mal Waldron, Billie Holiday’s accompanist, was one of the most sensitive men she knew. And she treasured the time they spent together and the musical lessons learned
  • Ben Webster played the most lyrical saxophone although she dug Pres more (Lester Young). Not to mention that Pres was the sharper dresser and wore the same hat as her
  • “I wasn’t a peer of some of these guys [Duke, Ella, Sassy, Count Basie], but I knew them, played with them and carry their legacy… We made a joyful sound you know”
  • She identified a Stan Getz tune playing on the club sound system after barely 2 bars. “Stan Getz was a true friend. We were that close…” She later added, “We didn’t screw you know… that was a good thing – a pure friendship”

We talked of the hard times for jazz artists and black artists in general and those who were forced to leave the US: Bud Powell, Sidney Bechet, Ben Webster, Dexter Gordon, Josephine Baker, Nina Simone.

“And Abbey Lincoln, you know.

It was hard. My patrons were French. They’re the only ones who ask you ‘What do you feel like doing this time, Abbey?'”

On aging, and seeing her friends pass away one after the other:

“I don’t want to be the last one… It’s getting lonely, you know.”

It turns out that the reason she cut the set short was that it had been too cold. They hadn’t turned the air conditionning off a half hour before she came on and so she was uncomfortable and couldn’t give it her all.

We also saw the perils of celebrity: the star-struck fans coming up periodically, the guys wanting advice on how to get a record deal and clasping cameraphones for the obligatory photo, the tourist: “We came all the way from France to see you. We love you Abbey. Je t’aime.”

The woman from Boston who wrote a song after hearing her in Boston three years ago and who insisted on singing her vapid tune for three unbearably long minutes. Not to mention the obsequious and sycophantic club owners next to her trying to pump her up so that she would return the next night. “You’re the greatest. Everything you do is success and pleasure enough. You’re so wonderful.” I guess the reason she liked us was that we weren’t yes-men stroking her ego.

She wanted to talk about how new artists were being led astray, especially this one, Alexis something-or-other, who had been around her house and whose manager was this dirty old man. It took me almost an hour to figure out that she meant Alicia Keys.

“Oh yes, Alicia Keys. With that old man! her manager or something… He’s a dinosaur! Why’s he making her sing about ‘A Woman’s Worth’? What does she know about struggle? When has she ever experienced loss? She’s so pretty you know. Beautiful even. That man is ruining her. Let her sing what she knows.”

Alicia, are you listening?

But then she concluded by leaning forward conspiratorially and said, “I think she (Alicia) did her hair in braids after meeting me.”

Anyway, we had our drinks and got “drunk as a skunk” over the hour, having ourselves a good old time. As we left, she hugged both of us tightly and whispered:

“Go give it to them. Go kick ’em in the ass. You guys. Really… Be strong, and go give it to them… Kick ’em in the ass.”

With pleasure, Abbey. With pleasure.

by Koranteng Ofosu-Amaah


June 5, 2007 2 comments

From this too, May 14, 2006


The Capoeiristas were in Trafalgar Square when we came out of the National Gallery on the first day of wrinkled teeshirts and bare arms blinking in the sunshine and temptation to idleness. Young and multi-ethnic, enviably limber and energetic, they stood round in a circle drumming while two and two and two came forward to perform their teasing acrobatic duets. We watched them for a long time, lulled by warmth and flesh and rhythm, drawn into the shapes and patterns of their strength and playfulness.









by Jean Morris

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The Silverberg Variations

June 3, 2007 7 comments

A story in twelve movements

From the vernacular body [no longer online], September 16-18, 2004

I: Chaconne

This story starts, as do so many stories in my life, with music. For many years, I have placed the chaconne from Bach’s second partita for solo violin on a peak all its own. This massive virtuoso piece is one of those musical creations that always makes my pulse race and my heart feel like breaking. Even thinking about the piece puts me in a strange sorrowful mood.

The chaconne and its closely related musical form the passacaglia are of, I think, ancient Italian origin. The forms were popular in Baroque times. They build a series of variations on a repeated or implied bass line. The theme is often stated at the beginning of the piece, and is then transmuted several times. This repetition, filtered through changes of tempo, melody and register, gives a chaconne an inexorable quality. Chaconnes are emotional and ecstatic, and their power comes precisely from the limits imposed on them, which stretch composers to be as creative as they can be. In the hands of masters like Marais, Forqueray or Bach, the chaconne or passacaglia becomes a truly astonishing thing, music that makes you jump out of your seat, music that changes your world. Brahms used the form to wondrous effect in the final movement of his fourth symphony. But, long before that, Bach had scaled the heights of the variations-on-a-theme challenge in not one but three works: a broody passacaglia in C minor for organ, the famous Goldberg Variations for keyboards, and the violin chaconne in D minor.

I once had a splendid recording of the Bach partitas for solo violin. It was a performance on Sony Classics, played by a sixteen year-old girl called Hilary Hahn. I later gave the recording away, and for long afterwards, I had the sarabande, the gigue and the chaconne from the second partita playing in my head. I heard other recordings of the work: Milstein, Heifetz, Perlman, Szeryng. But none of these great and famous violinists played with either the heart or the technical ability of the prodigiously gifted Miss Hahn. So, when I saw two weeks ago, at Tower Records, Hilary Hahn’s performance of the solo Bach pieces for sale at a substantial discount (eight dollars), I snapped up a copy quickly. I must have listened to the chaconne movement, which is eighteen minutes long, right through some five times since then.

Once at least my eyes have brimmed with tears.

II: Numbers

On the way to the hospital, we’re caught in afternoon traffic. The driver of the gypsy cab is listening to a baseball game on the radio. Yankees.

I try reading Robert Graves’s memoir Goodbye to All That, which I’ve brought with me, but I give up after a while, and listen to two men call a game on the radio.

I don’t know anything about baseball, but I do know that baseball-talk is full of statistics. I listen to the game for five minutes, keeping track only of how often they talk numbers. The commentators seem to be straining for a repeated “wow”, with all their percentages and RBIs and narrowly-defined records. Everything is made to seem remarkable, and the commentators don’t seem to be able to halt their numbers talk for even ten seconds. The game seems to be more about the numerical detritus of the game than it is about the game itself as a physical activity.

It’s hot. I find the obsession with statistics childish, and peculiarly American. I am mildly irritated, but I’m also thinking about how I will write about the heat and statistics and irritation in my blog.

The hospital emerges in the sun.

III: “There’s a lot of love in that room.”

For a few hours every Thursday evening, I help at the desk, answering phones, and assisting some other volunteers in serving food to family members of the patients. I have a good rapport with the nurse aides, the registered nurses and the doctors. There are twelve rooms on the ward, and in each one, someone is dying. At the desk, people fill in charts and answer queries. There’s always laughter at the desk; there’s acerbic humor and kindness; barbs fly. This is how they get through the days. I’ve only seen momentary silence at the desk when a body, shrouded in black polythene, is wheeled out by men from the morgue.

Maria, a nurse aide, says in her lilting accent, her Jamaican English that is like singing, Oh, there’s so much love in that room, so much love in that room, why I can’t find a love like that? She looks genuinely upset. Errol, the registered nurse, who’s quite fat and, depending on his mood, either very nice or very surly, says, What, in room 712? He goes over, takes a peek, comes back.

Lordy, that’s a lot of love. There’s some banter over at the desk. Errol says, She love him. You know he been a dog before, but she love him now. Hmm, mm.

There’s a comatose man in room 712, and sitting next to him is a woman, his wife. She’s holding his hand, talking to him, loving him through the threshold to the other world.

Maria still looks miffed, almost petulant, almost bewildered. I can’t believe it, she sings, why I cannot find a love like that, uh?

IV: A woman kissing a man’s hand

I have gone to room 712 out of curiosity, but my pretext is to find out if Mrs Silverberg needs anything, some apple juice, perhaps, or a glass of water.

He lies on the bed, comatose, and next to him, she sits in a chair and holds his right hand. She raises his hand, lowers her head, kisses his hand. I love you, she says, why did this happen to you? You wonderful man. I love you. She kisses his hand again. His breathing is raspy but calm. His mouth is wide open, his eyes almost closed. His chest rises and falls with each labored breath but he is otherwise immobile. To his left and to his right, he is attached to tubes and clear bags of fluids. The tubes are connected to his arms. He looks like Gulliver on the Lilliputan shore.

My poor baby, she says, I love you.

Then she turns around and notices me standing there. And who are you? she asks. I introduce myself. She squints at my ID, and says, oh, and turns back to her husband. I ask if she wants anything, some apple juice, perhaps, or a glass of water. No, she says, I still have apple juice. I tell her that it’s wonderful that she’s talking to him. He can’t talk back, I say, but he can hear you.

He’s a wonderful man, look at him, she says, wonderful man, so full of life but look at him now. You are wonderful, she says to him, and lowers her head and kisses his hand.

There’s nowhere for me to sit. I kneel down between the bed and the chair, and Mrs Silverberg begins to talk to me.

V: The wife’s tale

I have been married to him for forty-eight years. I love him. After he came to hospital, the dog used to sleep by his bed every night. Missed him terribly. So did I.

She holds his hand adoringly. The grief is heavy on her. Elsa Silverberg tells me that her husband is a violin teacher. Mr Silverberg taught in the Bronx public schools for more than thirty years.

She’s very hard of hearing, so I have to lean close if I want to say something. I enunciate into her ear: I love music.

Oh, says she, classical music? I nod and smile.

(She shows me a driver’s license which says “David Silverberg”. He is a burly and cheerful-looking man, an image hard to connect with the one who lies before me, this silent one, pale, unshaven and with that look of permanent surprise that you see in the faces of the old: white eyebrows, gaping mouth).

Well, she says, when he was young David studied with Samuel Rifkind, who was a great teacher, and this man told my husband that if he had wanted he could have had a brilliant career as a performer.

Once, about sometime in the early 1960s, David played a solo concert at Carnegie Hall. Can you believe that? He had a wonderful talent.

He played the Bach chaconne.

Do you know it?

VI: Chaconne

The chaconne from Johann Sebastian Bach’s partita no. 2 in D minor, BWV 1004.

VII: Children

a: We have two children. Our son lives in New York, with his wonderful wife and their eight-year old son. Aaron, our son, he’s into computers. And when he was a boy, he sang beautifully. He was in the boys choir at St John’s Church. The best singer they had at that time. But when they did high masses, he couldn’t sing with them because of his religion. St John’s is an Episcopalian church.

a: What? You’re going to have to speak a little louder.

a: Of course, Jewish. Anyway, his voice broke, and then he stopped singing. He went to NYU. His father was so happy when he said he was getting married. Have you met our son? He comes here often, to visit his father.

a: Our daughter lives in Maine. They lost her medical records, these idiots. Now she can’t get her medicaid. She’s thirty-five, and she has fibromyalgia. She has a huge dog that helps her get around, you know, one of those service dogs.

a: We send her money. What can we do? We have no money, but we have to send her money. Because someone lost her medical charts.

a: She would like to come see her father, but there’s no money.

VIII: Accidents

One of our dogs, and we’ve had many, one of our dogs bit off David’s little finger. It was a dumb dog. Anyway, the finger was reattached, and can you believe this man, he learned how to play violin all over again. We had the dog put down.

We got into an accident last October. He was driving. We hit a tree.

They made us wait so long in the emergency room. He hurt his shoulder, I hurt my arm. That was all. But then, when they did a scan, they found out that he had cancer in his stomach.

They’ve had to take out all his insides. There’s nothing left inside him now.

Can you believe what one of the doctors said to us? That David is seventy-eight, that that isn’t such a bad time to die. Can you believe the nerve of these doctors? If they had taken better care of him, he wouldn’t be here like this right now.

Mr Silverberg agitates slightly. His wife starts, but he calms down quickly, and so does she.

She kisses his hand.

People live to be ninety, she says, why is this happening to him? I’m not ready to let him go, he has been a wonderful man. Yes, he had a bit of a temper sometimes, but he was a wonderful man.

I kneel closer to her. She inclines her head.

I say, he can’t speak, Mrs Silverberg, but he can hear you. He can receive all this love you are sending his way.

Mrs Silverberg nods and falls quiet.

It is very late afternoon now. I have been in this room with the Silverbergs for an hour. I can see the skyline of the city from this seventh floor window. There are trains in the distance, bridges, a river. It is impossible to describe the air, and the beautiful light which is just out of reach of words. Light and air are the opposite of dying. Of all the free and joyful things, I think, light and air come first. And yet, at the appointed time, one ends up with air from a tube, light from a fluorescent tube, and no hope of ever going outside again.

How strange that the same chaconne I was humming earlier in the day is the foundational piece of this man’s life. I wish I could bring the disc, play it for him. Or would that tie his spirit down? Bind him too closely to the world that his body is already trying to escape?

Night begins to fall. The air and the light take on darker hues.

I break the silence after a few minutes.

Thank you, Mrs Silverberg, I say, holding her hand. She looks surprised. Why are you thanking me? I should be thanking you.

Because you’ve shared your story with me, I say, and because you have such a love for this man.

Thank you, she says, squeezing my hand tight and holding it in the squeeze, thank you. God bless you.

God bless you too, Mrs Silverberg.

Her eyes are glassy. Eventually, she releases my hand and I leave the room.

I return to my seat at the nurses’ station, musing on this interaction.

I am completely unprepared for what happens next.

IX: Unfathomable

The Chaconne is the most wonderful, unfathomable piece of music. On one stave, for a small instrument, the man writes a whole world of the deepest thoughts and most powerful feelings. If I imagined that I could have created, even conceived the piece, I am quite certain that the excess of excitement and earth shattering experience would have driven me out of my mind.
–Johannes Brahms

X: The nurse’s tale

a: She’s drunk, you know.

a: No, I’m telling you she’s an alchoholic, and she’s drunk right now.

a: Yes, I understand that, you talked with her for an hour. But do you know some people are at their most lucid when they are intoxicated? She’s been drinking all day. That’s why she was talking so much.

a: Believe.

a: Well, everything has a reason. And it’s all in Silverberg’s chart: her alchoholism, his abuse.

a: Beat her. Pretty badly but it’s hard to tell now, isn’t it?

a: It’s pretty certain. What’s not quite as certain is whether the allegations by the daughter are true.

a: Sexual abuse.

a: Yes, way.

a: She brought a big court case against her father in the early nineties. There was no legal resolution, but they became estranged. This was all before she got fibromyalgia. He got a PhD from Columbia, you know, in musicology, and he was a brilliant violinist. But what good is all that?

a: Probably why his wife took to drink.

a: Apparently, the daughter converted out of Judaism and became a born-again Christian in the late nineties, and that is what has allowed her to begin to forgive her parents, and make peace.

a: We don’t know if she’ll make it out. She was trying to arrange a flight to see him before he dies. There are some cheap flights on Jet Blue.

a: That’s right, you wouldn’t know it from the way Mrs Silverberg’s carrying on in 712. Medical professionals are human beings too. Sure we make mistakes. But we are not to blame for her husband’s illness. She needs to realize that.

a: You got it. When it’s time to go, it’s time to go.

XI: Morimur

It is 3am on a Saturday morning as I write these words. I can’t sleep. Hunger. Heat. Humidity. Thoughts.

Certain scholars believe that the chaconne has mystical and even cabalistic properties. The piece was written in 1720 after the death of Maria Barbara, the first wife of J.S. Bach, as an epitaph to her. The variations of the chaconne contain themes from some of Bach’s other choral preludes, each of which deals with the subject of death.

Even without the codes, the music is moody, intense and, as Brahms says, unfathomable.

I rise in the small hours and begin to sing it to myself.

XII: Resignation

I left the hospital at 7pm that evening.

Mrs Silverberg stayed by the bed until midnight, and then, according to the nurse, she reluctantly went home.

Mr Silverberg breathed his last some two hours later, at 2am on the morning of September 10.

The widow is in a bad way, and her health has taken a sudden turn for the worse. She is getting help from the bereavement counselors from the hospice.

Albert Schweitzer writes, of the chaconne: Out of a single theme, Bach conjures up a whole world. We seem to hear sorrow contending with pain until at the last they blend in a mood of profound resignation.

I’m not sure I completely understand. All I do is watch like an astonished child as the universe does what it does.

I’m going back to sleep.

by Teju Cole

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Responding to Poverty

June 1, 2007 3 comments

From Parmanu, January 30, 2005


The morning after I land in Bangalore, I go for a walk in my neighbourhood. My parents live in a residential area in the old part of town, and their apartment faces a small but busy road. Next to the apartment complex is a general-store, and a colourful STD-ISD booth stands out in one corner. Outside the store a man is sitting on a stool with his sewing machine, adding a few stitches to what looks like a salwar while two young girls stand next to him, waiting. When he finishes, one of them gives him a five-rupee note and collects the dress. The tailor pockets the note, shifts his position a little, and looks around to see if the next customer is approaching.

The smallness of that transaction – five rupees – makes me wonder how many such clients he gets each day. Five, on a good day? And how much would he earn each day, on the average? Surely not more than thirty rupees. That makes it around nine hundred a month, if he worked every day. How many mouths did he have to feed? And what if he had a loan on the sewing machine?

I walk further, crossing people on their way to work early morning. Most are from the lower middle-class – the kind who commute using local buses, work in small offices or shops and earn not more than a few thousand rupees a month. The vehicles on the road are mostly bicycles, two-wheelers and auto rickshaws; occasionally, an old Maruti 800 or an Ambassador passes by. There is the sabji-wallah with his assortment of vegetables clinging precariously to baskets tied all around his bicycle; there is the paper-wallah, also on the bicycle with his load of newspapers, who stops at every gate and throws the morning edition over it; there is the doodh-wallah, returning after his morning round of milk-delivery, with large, empty aluminium cans that make a klang each time his bicycle goes over a bump or into a pothole.

The scene brings me back to reality. The image of Bangalore I have been carrying is restricted to IT parks swarming with software engineers who drive in their newly acquired Ford or Honda and who visit, after work or on weekends, the shopping districts and spend their wealth on designer labels and international brands and, through their spending, create the consumer society that generates more wealth for people in different layers of the economic continuum that spans an urban population. This image, as I see it now, is a very limited one. It is not that I expected most of the city to be transformed; a better explanation is that my focus on a small section of the upper middle-class made me forget the others who occupy most of the city. And what I now see in this scene also indicates that change in India is slow, which, among other reasons, is due to the large number of people involved.

The road slopes down a little, and soon I am at an intersection where a few autos stand in line. Across the road, in a small vacant plot of land, there is a tent with a tarpaulin exterior. A little away from the tent I see a woman squatting on the ground stirring a pot balanced on a few thin logs of wood. A trail of smoke lifts from the fire beneath the pot into the woman’s face, and she uses the end of her saree to wipe away her smoke-induced tears while continuing to stir the pot with her other hand. At a corner of the plot, next to a gutter that runs along the road, two small boys in their underwear are cleaning their teeth with fingers. They take turns to spit into the gutter and to rinse their mouth using the glass of water they are sharing. There is no sign of the father; he is either asleep inside the tent, or is away looking for a suitable spot to answer nature’s call.

I stand there for a while looking at this family preparing for yet another day; slowly my thoughts turn philosophical (as they usually do when I’m confronted with images of stark poverty). It seems plainly unfair that someone like me has a life of luxury while others like them receive such a raw deal. I turn this thought over a few times, and finding no immediate resolution, I continue walking.


Some weeks later I watch Swades. In the movie, a Non-Resident Indian (NRI) visiting India has a similar experience when he encounters the depth of poverty in rural India. He then goes on to empower a village with power-generating capability through a scheme that harnesses electricity from a tiny waterfall. At the end of the movie he is back in India for good, with the intention of helping the poor.

I know I cannot follow the NRI’s footsteps; I console myself that such responses are limited to the celluloid. But my own responses have been unsteady and inconsistent. I remember the night in college many years ago when I read about the reaction of a nineteenth-century tribal who comes to a city and is shocked by the disparity between rich and the poor, between those who move about in elegant horse-driven carriages and those who sit begging. He asks his friend – a city dweller – how people in the city could live like this, without caring for “one of their own kind”. For the tribal, his tribe is his family, and he cannot imagine not taking care of one of them. In the city each one is a stranger, isolated from the rest.

I remember that that innocent remark by the tribal had kept me awake for half the night, a night when I repeatedly asked myself how we had let humanity reach a state of such callousness. Something must be done about it, I told myself that night. And then, as life in college wore on, the message of this episode slowly faded into obscurity.


On one of my last days at Bangalore, I am reminded of a conversation I had with a German colleague some years ago. After looking at some impressive pictures of our Bangalore office, and he asked me how we felt when we went out from such a plush workplace into a city that had so many poor people on the road. I thought for a while and replied that I had never looked at things that way, and perhaps living in such surroundings over a long period had numbed my senses to an extent I no longer noticed them. The surrounding poverty was part of our landscape, integral to it and one that gave it an identity. It needed a foreigner’s eye to notice the contrast, and it was they who pondered over this duality that was common in cities of developing nations.

I am walking in my neighbourhood as I think about this conversation. It is four weeks since I arrived in Bangalore, and when I look around people in the street appear normal: they do not stand out in my line of vision. I have crossed a while ago the intersection where that tent stood, and I do not remember giving it a glance or sparing a few thoughts. It is now yet another memory, like the tribal I had read about long ago.

by Parmanu

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