Poetry Friday: “Sabbath”: Dr. Rick Chess

Sabbath as beloved bride and queen: familiar tropes in Jewish liturgy and thought. Now, thanks to Dan Bellm’s “Sabbath,” a subtle poem of loss and longing, a promise and a vow, we have another metaphor: Sabbath as mother. The Sabbath, a fixed period of time, stands outside of time. Jews are commanded to keep and remember it, and these two commandments, according to Lekhah Dodi, Come, My Beloved, the mystical hymn sung on Friday evening to welcome Shabbat, were spoken in a single utterance. The Sabbath: an overcoming of apparent physical limitations, a confounding of ordinary distinctions. Not unlike what we experience in Bellm’s poem. Here we encounter a holy day and a mother, but they mostly seem to both at once. Here we encounter a mother and a presumably male child, though the adult-child becomes a kind of mother, bearing inside him, safeguarding the image, the memory of a mother, a Sabbath now gone. Woman gives birth to boy who as a man becomes a kind of woman. Creator becomes creation becomes creator becomes… Mother, child, Sabbath: without and within. Love, loss, and holiness. A powerful poem to help us receive and hold, hold and release, give birth to and be born this Sabbath and, God willing, many Sabbaths to come.

—Richard Chess


Sabbath

——   Then will I carry
you within me for as long
——   as I can: not a

——   consolation but
a promise, and not because
———I must: not as you

———carried me but to
be your keeper, a place where
———you remain the one

———bearing life: not as
a god or idol that I
———have made too small, but

———only blessing you
do I keep the blessing safe:
———infant image of

———the created one
I long to be, Sabbath-self
———concealed in the guise

———of ordinary
time, my life the covering
———that protects the vow.

My Luxury, My Privilege: Dr. Rick Chess

Sunday morning. I have the luxury of yoga pants and t-shirt and black tea and the Sunday Times. There’s only one route from my house on a hill to the supermarket, but I never need to think about being ambushed while on a quick bread, milk, and chocolate run.

A winter night, the trees bare and the cold air carries heavy sounds from tracks a few miles south of here to my bedroom window cracked open. I have the luxury of listening. I do not need to steal an hour of sleep while my abuser, my tormentor, is passed out in another room. I have the luxury of listening to the nineteenth century: romance transporting its cargo.

In high school, I didn’t ask for a hall pass. I didn’t need to. I was president.

Driving any American road with a speed gun aimed at me, I don’t neutralize my countenance. I don’t need to look innocent, but I am and I do.

I didn’t need to have the talk with my son before he went downtown on his own for the first time to shop for vinyl records, skinny jeans.

On skinny Avon beach (North Carolina’s Outer Banks), my luxury’s the sea all the way to the curved horizon. My luxury’s the annual ritual Atlantic immersion. I face in each of the four cardinal directions, and, four times, I let the ocean break over me. Suspended in fetal position underwater, I welcome the cold purification of body, heart, mind, and soul for as long as breath can hold.

On Sukkot, season of flimsy abundance in permeable booths, my luxury extends to the ripe moon, rich with light.

My luxury in February: Chilean grapes.

I don’t need to remember to adjust, in the restroom mirror, my whiteness—turn it up or down—before I return, hands clean, to the office party.

My luxury in four postures: lying down, rising up, standing still, and walking without fear by the way.

My luxury: the sun I own. I invite you to enjoy it, but remember the one to whom it belongs.

My luxury: I’m free. Is that because the judge is mine? Just like the teacher was mine? Even before the first quiz, she knew the best grade in class belonged to me.

I love my mortgage enough to take out a second one. What shall it be? Build up or out? A fitness room? A spa? My luxury is a room for each of my moods. The comforts of home.

Remember that innocent era between the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and 9/11? I remember: my luxury.

Your savior isn’t mine, your holiday isn’t mine, your hymnal isn’t mine. What luxury, what a privilege to set myself apart from the holly wreaths, holiday attire, assumptions and indulgences of neighbors on either side, across the street, and down the road all the way and all around me in the places where I work, shop, and play.

The luxury of mother’s love: shirt fresh from the dryer.

The campus police: I don’t know their names or the way they move around campus. I barely notice them at all: my luxury.

I can afford hours.

I can afford the luxury of poetry: a darkened room where mother, father, and child wait while, in their front yard, a few white men gather, a cross burns. “Incident,” Natasha Trethewey.

I imagine God. I imagine no god. My luxury: I create, I delete. What difference does it make to God? My luxury: I don’t need to make a difference.

It’s only a matter of time. Time is white. My time—growing up as an American middle-class 1950s and 60s assimilated Jew—is also sechel, what Jews got and goyim ain’t got. Brains, smarts, cleverness, common sense. That’s what I was told. Lucky me. Why question it? My luxury.

After a Thanksgiving Feast, by Dr. Rick Chess

December 7, 2015

I carry my failure with me. My embarrassment. My shame. It grows.

It sets me apart from men in my life, the hard man with the violin, the thin man with the flask. See them in the photo. They have enough, more than enough. If one day they leave a little, the next they put less on their plate.

My life? Apparently, the sustaining belief is this: never enough. Never enough sweetness. Never enough love. Never enough, so I surround myself with more. More than I’ll ever consume. Not enough hours in life to read as many pages as are packed onto floor-to-ceiling shelves. And if there were, what then?

I carry the day my birthfather drove away. I wasn’t more than eight-weeks-old. I haven’t stopped eating since then.

I forget: When did I finally understand that my art wasn’t art, not art enough to win recognition, awards? I must have eaten a fistful of pistachios that day. When did I discover what some in America knew from the day I was born: I am white? I think I ate cheese that night.

I am average. I am so average American male Jewish white. And at 62: overweight, not obese.

I bear what I can; I bear what I must.

The weight of fears I have been collecting as far back as memory goes.

The weight of spoon lifted from bowl to parted lips, and the weight of words withheld from those I’ve hated, those I’ve loved, and the weight of the reason I mostly withhold but sometimes blurt out. The weight of regret.

The weight of Jerusalem stone pissed on, kissed. The weight of palm frond fallen, Beverly Hills, and the weight of Philly pretzel mustard smeared on sleeve, and the weight of BA, MA, PhD, complete set of expensive degrees. Who is strong enough to keep the key to the universe?

The weight of palm on the crown of the head, the blessing, the ancient priestly blessing dropped onto the head of a son who indulges my belief and a daughter who honors it by challenging it.

I believe, but not exactly. Compared to the weight of those whose belief is the bone that broken mends, those who dutifully and daily proclaim belief in The Name, The Rock, the King, I am like a cocktail napkin that could be swept away in a summer breeze.

Then why this morning do I feel like I did last night, Thanksgiving, “the central ton of every place” (“The Heavy Bear That Goes with Me,” Delmore Schwartz)?

What do you see when you look at the family photo from my stepdaughter’s wedding?

I’m next to the last on the right. Suit jacket open, tie leaning slightly right. And what I know is there, what I carry with me everywhere, what bulges just above belt buckle, what is mostly hidden from view beneath the billowy shirt coming un-tucked at the waist.

When I lie down, when I rise up, when I sit (and loosen, loosen another notch the belt, and sometimes unbutton, sometimes unzip), and when I walk by the way: It’s there, the way they say my love of God should be there and God’s great love of me always is.

I carry the image with me: flat stomach.

I can see to the horizon but not, when standing, my feet.

I indulge myself but not, as in Donald Justice’s “The Thin Man,” “in rich refusals.”

Pecan, pumpkin: holy pies.

Because of my weight, my self-consciousness never sleeps. For this, at least, I’m thankful: I will never be alone.

And my generous wife: She loves me with her refusal to complain about what she sees when I take off my shirt, when the parade of me marches toward her in bed. For this, I’m thankful the most.

 

Richard Chess is the author of three books of poetry, Tekiah, Chair in the Desert, andThird Temple. Poems of his have appeared in Telling and Remembering: A Century of American Jewish Poetry, Bearing the Mystery: Twenty Years of IMAGE, and Best Spiritual Writing 2005. He is the Roy Carroll Professor of Honors Arts and Sciences at the University of North Carolina at Asheville. He is also the director of UNC Asheville’s Center for Jewish Studies.

“My Wish for My Students”, Dr. Rick Chess

Only this I wish for my students: this semester, I hope you will learn to care for each other.

I hope you will learn how to create conditions in which everyone present in the room feels welcome to speak. I hope you will learn how to discern which of two competing voices within you is worth acting on: the voice that cautions you against speaking lest you confirm, for yourself and others, what you suspect, that you are a fool, and the voice that encourages you to trust yourself, that your thoughts, your questions are worthy of being heard by others.

But if and when you succumb to the fear of speaking, my wish for you is that you will ask yourself this: How, without risking embarrassment by composing while speaking a thought or question, does your presence in the room encourage us to risk life? For that is my wish, my only wish for my students: to risk life, right here in the classroom.

And for those times when you choose just to listen, I hope you will learn how to be present without speaking, actively present in such a way that your presence in the room feeds the spirit of inquiry we are cultivating.

Those of you for whom words come readily—in writing and speech—my wish for you is this: that you will understand that words are like wealth. And we, all of us, are living on our inheritance.

There’s hardly a word in our vocabulary that we haven’t received from our ancestors. Follow them back, the words, as far as you can. Honor them, the ancestors, in the way you use what they’ve invested in you, and, when you must, redeem those words that have been used to abuse, mislead, discriminate, destroy. But, when you spend them for whatever reason—in search of truth, to prove your superiority—know this: Words are not the only currency by means of which knowledge is exchanged…or created in this room!

Dear students, my only wish for you is this: that your sleep, if you must sleep in class, will be bright and rich with dreams that, during the punishing hours of your indebted nights and days, seem far beyond your reach. My wish for you is this: that you will not miss, whether you are asleep or awake, a chance to love right here in this ordinary classroom where we, for a few moments, sit together.

If you can’t love each other, love this: “Salt…is a memory of water.”

Perhaps this is too small to love. Lacking a story, perhaps it doesn’t offer enough of itself to us in a way that arouses our curiosity, awakens our attention, calls on our basic goodness to care for the least among us. If you can’t love that short passage on its own, consider, then, this, the immediate context from it was drawn (from Darling: A Spiritual Autobiography, by Richard Rodriguez):

“Desert is the fossil of water. (Haim [Rodriguez’s tour guide in Israel’s Negev desert] has been at great pains to point this out—striations in mesas and the caverns water has bored through mountains of salt, and salt itself is a memory of water.) Is dogma a fossil of the living God—the shell of God’s passage—but God is otherwise or opposite?”

My only wish for you, this semester, dear students, is this: that you will learn to linger on that which challenges you—not turn away from it, not avoid it because from the outset you suspected it wouldn’t be of interest, of value to you. Because it wouldn’t affirm, it wouldn’t validate the way you think, the way you live, the way you aspire to live.

Or worse, because you thought, I already know this. I already know God. I know, I have always known that there is no God. Or maybe your reason was practical, prioritizing. What’s the likelihood that, of all the passages in Darling,this is the one that will be singled out for class discussion? And what’s more, God knows, you can succeed in this class without reading the text at all!

My only wish for you this semester is that you will let God know what God knows and attend to what you know and what your classmates know and what the writers of the assigned texts know and seek to know.

Direct your attention to each other and the texts, even those texts and those classmates you do not love. Because you can’t love every assigned reading. No more can you love every stranger or even, equally and at all times, every familiar person in your life, including at times the most familiar stranger of all: yourself.

Take care of yourself, that’s my wish for you this semester. Take care to consider yourself, the tender, the raw, and the calloused parts of yourself, the fierce and the receptive parts, the local and the foreign, the simple and the unfathomable, immeasurable parts of yourself.

My wish, my only wish for you this semester is this: that you will take care of each other so that each of you will feel supported in your effort to know what can be known for now and to approach and love what is now and may forever be just beyond the bounds of what you know.

Dr. Rick Chess: “Sonia Sanchez Made Me a Jewish Poet; Rhonda Magee Helped Make Me Whole”

soniasanchezBlack. Muslim. American. Woman. Poet.

The languages she spoke. The ground on which she stood, singing her suffering, power, anger, love. Between the painful past and the dreamed of future: her presence. That’s what I remember. More than the timber of her voice. Definitely more than the poems she read that Saturday afternoon.

Fall, 1977. McGlinchey’s, a restaurant and bar in downtown Philly. Having finished, for the time being, the life that had been programmed for me—I had recently graduated from Glassboro State College (now called Rowan University), I was discovering and inventing my identity in Kiryat Shemonah, Tzfat, Jerusalem—Israel! Then, eighteen months into my new life there, I was home (or was I away from home, visiting America?) for a short visit.

I was a poet, and I was becoming a poet. I was a brokenhearted man, and I was learning how to use a broken heart to get women. I was, not by choice, an American. That’s how I was seen in Israel. I was a Jew by birth, and I was becoming a Jew by choice.

As students at Glassboro, my poetry friends and I often went to McGlinchey’s. After scouring the poetry shelves at Middle Earth Books, we drank shots and beer and talked poetry.

Then, while we waited underground past midnight for the High Speed Line to carry us over the river to Jersey, we read poems to each other from books we had purchased that night, and sometimes we kissed and sometimes we roared and sometimes we dropped to our knees and pleaded with the universe to escort us home and sleep with us and rise in the morning to fried eggs and Ginsberg, Merwin, Bly, Kinnell.

Two poets read at McGlinchey’s that autumn afternoon. A poet whose name I don’t remember and Sonia Sanchez. The first poet was a big guy with a booming voice. He stood at the podium and belted out poems. But as commanding as he might have hoped his performance would be, dozens of conversations continued while he read, and pint glasses knocked when they were set down on table and bar.

Then Sonia Sanchez took the room. No podium for her, she stepped into the crowd, which parted and formed a circle around her, leaving enough space for her to breathe in life, breathe out poetry. She was, as I recall, a small woman, her voice soft. Yet, as she spoke her poems, not another sound could be heard: not a whisper or cough, not a glass or spoon. We were drawn into her circle, dropped and uplifted by her vision and voice.

Did she read “a chant for you / brothas & sistuhs”? Here’s an excerpt:

u brotha.
u sisthu.

listen to this drummen.

this sad / chant.

listen to the tears
flowen down my blk / face                                                      

listen to a
death / song being sung on thick/lips
by a blk / woman


A life in the language of her people, the language of the physical body, a song of addiction and love urging her people to “c’mon down from yo / wite / highs // and live.”

I don’t remember which poems she read. But I do remember listening to her read, chant, sing out of the matrix of identities into which she was born, identities which often, because of this nation, these people among whom she lives, are the very causes of her suffering.

Listening to her that afternoon, I saw myself once again as if for the first time: a Jew who should write poems as a Jew.

After her reading, I thanked her for her work, her very way of being that had transported me, for a moment, by means of her art, into her world, her suffering, her love, her challenges as a black, Muslim (for a few years she was a member of the Nation of Islam), American, woman poet. When I told her that I was Jewish and was home from Israel for a brief visit, she said this:

The only way you and I can meet is when you write out of your experiences as a Jew.

Sonia Sanchez made me a Jewish poet.

I’m thinking about this today because of a conference from which I just returned, the Association for Contemplative Mind in Higher Education’s annual conference, this year on the theme of “Building Just Communities.” Held at Howard University, the conference created an opportunity for participants to look deeply and honestly at how contemplative practices in higher education could be used in the urgent work of creating just communities on and off campus.

The conference challenged me in many ways. Not least was what came up for me during a contemplative exercise led, at the start of the second full day, by the organization’s president, Rhonda Magee, an African-American law professor whose work includes research on mindfulness and the pedagogy of race and social justice. Rhonda asked us to look inside and see what questions were coming up for us that morning.

I closed my eyes, let my mind settle a little. Before long, this question arose: Have I led, at work, in the community, at home and abroad, with my Jewish identity? Has that been a way to protect myself from having to see myself as what else I am: a white, American, man? Wherever I stand, those are in the room with me, too!

Suddenly, I saw my life exposed in a new, troubling light. But I also felt liberated and motivated to learn about the privileges that come from the identities into which I was born and to learn more, much more, about the experiences of those who have not been born with these privileges. What I may make of this late development in my life, I cannot say.

I pray, however, that I may find a way, however small, to add my effort to the efforts of those who have for many years been working to create a just, inclusive, loving world for all.

My Days of Awe, 5776, Dr. Rick Chess

September 28, 2015
Impatience. Anger. Wastefulness. Restlessness. Desire. Haughtiness. Greed. Judgement. Pride.§

I’ve been paying attention, especially the last few days. Now it’s getting serious. It’s the morning of the eve of Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement.

§

Yesterday, just after I walked into the house after ten-and-a-half hours at the university, before I dropped my heavy book bag on the floor, I spotted a bowl of chips and an open container of my favorite salsa. But before I was able to crack the first of forty chips in my mouth, my wife said, it arrived crushed.

She was on hold, forty-five minutes waiting for a customer service rep. The post office. How to file a claim. A box of wedding gifts.

Two weeks earlier: a daughter’s beautiful, complex, joyous, seemingly endless wedding. The festivities traveled from Asheville to New Orleans and drew guests from California, Texas, New York, South Africa, India, Nepal. The first two of three boxes of gifts that had been sent to our house were delivered by the USPS without a problem to my stepdaughter and her husband in New York. A few days later, the third box arrived. Crushed.

I knew you should have used UPS, not the USPS!

Yesterday was the eighth day of 5776, the new Jewish year. The ten days of awe were building toward the day of fierce devotion, the day of emptying out to see if you can see clearly the raw inclinations of heart and mind. The day when the promises of the previous year may be seen for what they always were, empty; the day when the evidence presented in your defense and pleas for mercy, forgiveness, will be seen, even by you, as unconvincing. If you are lucky, on Yom Kippur you’ll stand before God with nothing to offer but your trembling.

How I wanted to prove myself right—yet again! I told you so. How hard it was for me not to say it. What good would it do? The contents of the package were already destroyed. Our daughter the bride was unhappy. The mother of the bride, my wife, had to have been unhappy, too. Would my arrogance put the broken pieces back together? Would it, finally, get a customer rep on the line? Would she listen compassionately to my wife, say how sorry she was for this unfortunate incident, and promptly do whatever was possible to rectify it?

The smashed gifts: irreparable but not irreplaceable. The damage that would be done by my proclaiming I told you so? Not easy to repair, but Judaism teaches that it is possible, every moment of every day, and especially during these auspicious days, to be forgiven.

Dinner was served. Burgers. Baked beans. Potato salad. Some nights we sit side by side watching the news on television while we eat. Some nights we watch, for the umpteenth time, reruns of “Seinfeld.” Last night, I turned off the TV, rearranged our place settings so we would face each other. Like many nights, I could have devoured the food, paying no attention to the flavors and textures of what we were eating, a meal that, once again, my wife had lovingly prepared. That’s right, lovingly, even if for her it is a tedious chore, this cooking and cooking and cooking, night after night after night. Her cooking for us is love in action. Love isn’t only expressed with dreamy eyes and a kiss.

My day had had its ups and downs—one decent, one disappointing class. A few words of appreciation from colleagues for a poem I had written and read instead of a benediction as part of our new chancellor’s installation two days before. No acknowledgment, from a colleague, a friend whose opinion I most value, of my contribution to a threshold moment of the ceremony.

Now this: I told you so, I told you so—the effort of resisting the urge to just say it that kept coming and coming and coming. (Olam Ha’Ba: the world to come, in Hebrew. It can also be translated, as my teacher Danny Maseng says, “the world that keeps coming”—the world of justice, compassion, lovingkindness, peace—but we keep missing it!)

Halfway through my burger: next time you should use UPS. There, I said it. Without lifting my head to look at her, to soften with eyes my saying it. She didn’t respond. We continued our meal.

§

The days continue, until they don’t.

(Who by thirst, who by hunger, who will be born, who flourish, who wither. So we pray, so we wonder, so we plead for forgiveness, so we vow.)

§

Now it’s time for Kol Nidre, the prayer by which all vows we made from last year to this and all vows we will make this very day to change our life between this Yom Kippur and next are cancelled.

As the Yom Kippur fast begins, I have eaten a lovely dinner, but I am hungry. I have seen clearly, especially during tashlikh, the ceremony of casting sins symbolically in the form of pieces of bread into a living body of water, habits of my mind and heart that trouble me: impatience, anger, restlessness, desire, greed, judgement, pride.

I don’t have to look hard to see them. They keep coming and coming and coming, even here, in the sanctuary, on the holiest day of the year!

§

Now the twenty-six hour day is coming to a close, and I’ve been mostly agitated, disappointed, unable to open to the prayers, to open my heart.

The ark containing the Torah opens for the final time. The rabbi says, God has already forgiven you. Now, forgive yourself. Forgive yourself.

Ah, here it is, the heart. The final confession, the final plea for forgiveness? Tears. At the end of the days of awe, that’s all I have to offer my wife, my congregation, my rabbi, my God. The outcome of my investigations into myself this year: tears, human tears.

Richard Chess is the author of three books of poetry,Tekiah, Chair in the Desert, and Third Temple. Poems of his have appeared in Telling and Remembering: A Century of American Jewish Poetry, Bearing the Mystery: Twenty Years of IMAGE, and Best Spiritual Writing 2005. He is the Roy Carroll Professor of Honors Arts and Sciences at the University of North Carolina at Asheville. He is also the director of UNC Asheville’s Center for Jewish Studies.

For the Newlyweds, by Dr. Rick Chess

September 4, 2015

18428477633_f488b3dd41_zMay you have the courage to let go of everything you know about yourselves—everything you have learned about yourselves up to this moment—that you may discover and create, invent and define new selves, a new braided Self. Like Sabbath candles that, at the start of Shabbat, stand side by side, each its own brilliance, its own accomplishment, may you move toward each other until you become like the braided Havdalah candle, its individual wicks joined to create of several a single, strong flame that is lifted into the sky at the end of Sabbath.

If I were called upon to offer a toast to the newlyweds, this might be the toast I’d offer.

Who dresses in the costumes of their ancestors, who signs the ketubah with the broken healthcare system and the cruel economy and anti-immigrant culture as their witnesses, the groom who is delivered to the mandap in a horse-drawn carriage, the bride who is walked down the grass aisle by her father and mother, divorced and united in love as they deliver their daughter to the huppah, the bride and groom who stand under the huppah-mandap where they vow and circle, circle and are blessed, these newlyweds. These newlyweds whose courtship was complicated by religion and love, politics and love, history and love, America and India and love, personal convictions and love.

Mandap and huppah: these shelters, these temporary shelters, these decorated shelters under which bride meets groom, groom meets bride as if for the first time—no, for the first time for real! The first time they meet since their match was determined, before they were born, in heaven. The first time they meet in a long time without having to negotiate the ceremony: whose and which traditions are included. Whose will bends under the pressure of parents? These fragile, temporary shelters, raised for a moment to receive this groom, this bride who can live, for this moment, freed of the burden of the past and fear of the future. Suspended in time, supported by love, held by the promise marriage offers: the gradual dissolution of the neurotic impulses that divide one person from another, one heart from another heart.

And the witnesses, for the moment, lay down their experience of the near impossibility of fulfilling the promise of marriage. And the witnesses of the passing generation, for the moment, lay down the urge to shape the future by kneading the clay figures of their son and daughter, their niece and nephew, granddaughter and grandson to form the idols worshipped by the aging, the old: the unchanged, unchanging past. And the witnesses of the present generation, sister and brothers and friends, surprised by the power of connection to others in the present moment, forget the digital interconnectivity in their pockets, purses. And the small witnesses of the future generation are enthralled by the ceremony which to them swells and subsides like a sea, unfolds like a dream.

Everything is recorded, every flower, eye, breeze, plate, toast, gesture, dance…. To remember, to be remembered. But there is no device that can capture what transpires in the hearts of bride and groom, none that can detect the conception of a new heart that may grow and survive to hold them both, husband and wife. And what about the soul? Forget about it. Neither groom nor bride can make a convincing case for its presence or absence.

What will be said tomorrow? They are perfect for each other.

Don’t! Don’t say it! Don’t curse them with perfection!

Leave them alone with their imperfections, whatever theirs may be: stubbornness, ambition, inflexibility, measuring their worth against impossible standards…

The dream of marriage is not marriage. The wedding is held here on this earth, exactly where the marriage must dwell. Here is the key to the apartment, here is the bed where what can be said will be said and what cannot be said will be withheld. Here are their parents’ hopes and disappointments, here are their own dreams and fears, here their future children’s bruises and successes. Here are the phones, the car, the kitchen, the neighborhood supermarket, here are the complex negotiations that continue all day, all night to make a life, to make a life of love together.


Richard Chess is the author of three books of poetry, Tekiah, Chair in the Desert, and Third Temple. Poems of his have appeared in Telling and Remembering: A Century of American Jewish Poetry, Bearing the Mystery: Twenty Years of IMAGE, and Best Spiritual Writing 2005. He is the Roy Carroll Professor of Honors Arts and Sciences at the University of North Carolina at Asheville. He is also the director of UNC Asheville’s Center for Jewish Studies.

The Mystery and Terror of Retirement, Dr. Richard Chess

July 27, 2015

The day after I let my wife know that we had enough money to pay for our son’s college education—he was a sophomore at Carolina at the time—, she let me know she had decided to retire in the fall. Our daughter was pregnant. The baby was due in November. After retiring at the end of October, my wife would head to New York to be with our daughter for the final weeks of the pregnancy and the first weeks in the life of our first grandchild.

For a few years, she had been gathering information and planning for her eventual retirement. Still, we hadn’t discussed, after I told her we had college covered, whether this was the time for her to retire. To me it seemed that she left for work one morning, made her decision during the day, and came home and informed me of it. Done deal.

I don’t like change. I had figured her retirement was still a ways off—at least not until after our son had graduated from college. With that story, I protected myself from fear of the unknown. (Another story I have lived by: I won’t die.) Could we afford to live after she retired? Would I be able to work at home—a selfish thought, I know, but I have had the luxury of having the house entirely to myself during the workweek for as long as we have been together—with her in the house?

It’s now been almost two years since she retired. Since then, she has been happier, day by day, than she had been for the seven years before her retirement. For many reasons, her professional work, in the final “third” of her career, was no longer nourishing her.

The state agency for which she worked focuses on early childhood intervention for families and children, birth to three years, with special needs. A speech pathologist and therapist, my wife loves and understands children. She is expert at diagnosing speech problems and recognizing other developmental problems. More importantly, she knows how to get on the floor and play and, even with the most difficult kids, connect with them and get them to have fun forming sounds and articulating words.

Over the years, my wife has worked with children in filthy trailers, public housing projects, and nearly inaccessible backwoods houses. As unpleasant as the conditions often were, she was committed to helping a child or connecting parents to services that would provide crucial support for their children and themselves.

But back at the office, her professionalism and wisdom, gained over many years of experience, were often ignored if not undermined daily by less experienced, middle-management bureaucrats put in place to increase agency effectiveness and efficiency. In your report for a child’s record, these managers instructed their staff of professional occupational, physical, and speech therapists, you must communicate, in language that a third grader would understand. Don’t use terms that are shared and understood among the range of health care providers that will be serving the children.

At the end of the day, her work—sometimes rewarding, increasingly frustrating—ended. Then, she was free to lovingly turn her attention and intelligence away from work and toward what for her, I think, was and still is the most important part of her life: her family.

Despite her full schedule—work and family—she made time to serve our Jewish community, volunteer for political campaigns, and tutor, through the Buncombe County Literacy Council, adult students learning English as a second language. Since retiring, she has more time for this kind of community service.

This August, I will begin my 27th year at UNC Asheville. A professor, I teach creative writing, poetry, a couple of Jewish studies classes, and honors classes. I direct the Center for Jewish Studies, and, these days, I work with faculty and students exploring the use of contemplative practices in higher education. So far, my career has been immensely rewarding.

I’m not ready to retire. But, inspired by my wife, I am ready to reflect on the “third third,” as I’m calling it, of my career—how to shape it—and ready to look far enough ahead to the day when I will retire.

I couldn’t do either if I were not strong enough now—emotionally, spiritually—to live in my body, which means living with its mortal limits.

One day, I will die. There, I’ve said it. But, as I also said, I don’t like change. And I don’t like endings.

I don’t like finishing a box of cereal—a kind of ending—nor do I like the thought that, one day before too long, I will step down from my position of nearly 25 years as director of the Center for Jewish Studies and retire from work—teaching—that has challenged, stretched, surprised, and inspired me (my students, too, I hope!) for most of my adult life.

After shedding the roles that have defined me for so long, who will I be? What if I turn out to be no one . . . or, anyone? And what if we don’t have enough money to live the way we are accustomed to living as long as we live? Of course, others have gone before me—Asheville is thick with retirees—and I can prepare by learning from them.

However, the more immediate, the more productive question, I think, is this: how shall I work and live between now and the day I retire? Shall I continue, at work, following my nose, falling into one opportunity after another, the lucky beneficiary of the kindness and support of colleagues and students? Or, with an end in sight, shall I choose intentionally how to work, inviting, as I go, wherever I go—classroom, quad, conference room—all the years leading up to now and my mortality to sing what’s known and the mystery, terror, and necessity of what’s unknown?

Richard Chess is the author of three books of poetry, Tekiah, Chair in the Desert, andThird Temple. Poems of his have appeared in Telling and Remembering: A Century of American Jewish Poetry, Bearing the Mystery: Twenty Years of IMAGE, and Best Spiritual Writing 2005. He is the Roy Carroll Professor of Honors Arts and Sciences at the University of North Carolina at Asheville. He is also the director of UNC Asheville’s Center for Jewish Studies.

Morning Prayer and The New York Times, Dr. Rick Chess

July 7, 2015

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Summer morning routine: a cup of Awake tea, the Opinion page of The New York Times.

What am I looking for to get my day going? Information to spark the brain? A needle to inject righteous indignation into my sleepy heart?

The flag is coming down. You know which one. I read columnist Nicholas Kristof’s “Tearing Down the Confederate Flag Is Just a Start.”

“America’s greatest shame in 2015 is not a piece of cloth. It’s that a black boy has a life expectancy five years shorter than a white boy. It’s that the net worth of the average black household in 2011 was $6,314, compared with $110,500 for the average white household, according to census data. It’s that almost two-thirds of black children grow up in low-income families. It’s that more than one-third of inner-city black kids suffer lead poisoning (and thus often lifelong brain impairment), mostly from old lead paint in substandard housing. More consequential than that flag is…”

How many of these kids never even arrive at the moment in their lives when they must choose, say, between my university and another? When I take attendance on the first day of classes, I’m going to count at least four additional students missing from the circle of twenty white students facing me. These four will represent the roughly 20% of the North Carolina population who are African-American and who will not study poetry with me this fall.

A clear thought, a strong feeling, a wholesome intention: that’s what I was seeking. Now, as the day begins, I know that I am more than an aging body.

What comes before The New York Times? The traditional Jewish prayer said upon waking could come first: modeh ani lifanecha, melekh chai v’kayam, sh’hehazarti bi nishmati b’hemla, rabba emunatecha; I am grateful to you, living, enduring Sovereign, for restoring my soul (neshama) to me in compassion. You are faithful beyond measure.

But if I don’t feel it, I can’t say it. What do I often feel as I first become aware of myself in bed in the morning? Helplessness. Why can’t I get one night of uninterrupted, restorative sleep? Anger at myself. When it comes to sleep, I’m incompetent. Fear. How will I function, my brain lead, today? Modeh ani: grateful am I. Nope. I can’t make myself say what I don’t feel.

Oh, the luxury of slow, academic June mornings. The first day of fall semester still far enough in the distance, I’m free to choose how to spend the early waking hours of a Thursday.

I return to The New York Times and “Who’s Speaking Up for the American Worker,” written by Beth Macy. Not a topic that usually interests me. And it’s unlikely that I’m the American worker she has in mind. But I could use a few more words to continue the process of firing up my brain.

Now that the Senate has given President Obama the authority to fast-track negotiations on the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement, Macy wants to draw attention to those who have suffered from previous free trade agreements:

“Unfettered free trade has not only put the Henry County region near the top of Virginia’s unemployment rankings for more than a decade, but it has also ushered in an era of soaring food insecurity and Social Security disability claims.”

Writing about her presentations on tour for her book Factory Man: How One Furniture Maker Battled Offshoring, Stayed Local—and Helped Save an American Town, Macy shows the audience a black-and-white slide of “a ragamuffin girl, circa 1969. When the economy was good, her mother soldered airplane lights at a local factory. When it was bad, her mother picked up under-the-table jobs like waitressing and babysitting for other people’s kids.”

“That little girl, now 51,” Macy continues, “was the first in her family to go to college, and she threaded the needle of early trickle­down economics quite by luck: She came of age when it was still possible for a promising poor kid to go to college solely on Pell grants and other need-based financial aid.”

“That little girl in the picture is me, standing in the driveway of a ramshackle house in Urbana, Ohio. I did not grow up to become an economist spouting theories of creative destruction. But I’ve spent the past several years telling the tale of the people left behind, teetering in globalization’s wake.”

How many of my students, this fall, will be burdened by loans it might take them decades to repay? A poem can’t cancel their debts. Might it at least offer them, if only for a moment, the gift of intimate, honest connection to others in an environment where corporations have no say in who gets to speak and who is heard?

I will try to keep in heart and mind awareness of the forces that condition my students’ lives when I meet them this fall.

I am more than this body, more than the good fortune that enables to me to receive the daily New York Times. I receive the soul which God restores to me (by means of the newspaper?) in the morning. This morning, I understand the soul belongs personally—exclusively—neither to me nor you nor them. It belongs to the Divine. That, writes James Kugel in “The Double Agent,” his essay on Psalm 42, is one of the “sometimes ignored or misunderstood” meanings, in the Bible, of “soul.” We share it.

The modeh ani prayer concludes with these words: rabba emunatecha, You are faithful beyond measure. This morning I hear these words differently: great (rabba) is Your faith in me to act in a way that recognizes and respects that every living being shares the same soul, no matter what a divided and dividing society says.

Richard Chess is the author of three books of poetry,Tekiah, Chair in the Desert, and Third Temple. Poems of his have appeared in Telling and Remembering: A Century of American Jewish Poetry, Bearing the Mystery: Twenty Years of IMAGE, and Best Spiritual Writing 2005. He is the Roy Carroll Professor of Honors Arts and Sciences at the University of North Carolina at Asheville. He is also the director of UNC Asheville’s Center for Jewish Studies.

Self-Hating Jew: A Love Story, Part 1, by Dr. Rick Chess

May 26, 2015

In response to “Never Again: Netanyahu’s Holocaust Cliché,” a recent post of mine on Good Letters, an old girlfriend messaged me on Facebook.  “It was the first time in a while,” she wrote, “I felt proud to be an American…I wonder why the writers of our times don’t instead write about the speeches of some of the truly worrisome leaders of Iran, ISIS, Hamas, North Korea, etc.”

Then, this: “Self-hatred is so destructive.”

Am I self-hating Jew?

*

Lekh lekha.

For a few months in late summer of 1976, I spent five hours a day, six days a week in kitah aleph, beginner’s level Hebrew class. Along with seventy other volunteers in Sherut La’am (service to the people), I was learning Hebrew and preparing for my placement in a development town somewhere in Israel.

I had grown up as an assimilated middle class Jew in Cherry Hill, New Jersey. Until ’76, I had assumed that my Jewish education was over on Sunday morning, December 11, 1966, the day after I became a bar mitzvah.

The teacher who had helped me learn enough Hebrew to become a bar mitzvah urged me to continue studying Hebrew after my bar mitzvah because I was good at it. I listened to her politely, then walked out of the synagogue and into the mall.

I smoked pot, developed my own black and white film and printed artsy photographs in the darkroom I built in my home, played lead guitar in the Village Gates, read Kafka, and ached for oral sex. I fell in love with D. Then she broke my heart. I fell in love with T. Then she broke my heart.

Lekh lekha.

A decade later, I fell in love with a language—and a people and a place: Kiryat Shimona, a working-class town near Israel’s northern border with Lebanon, where what I thought would be my year in Israel began. Around the time I was there, an occasional bomb lobbed over the Lebanese border landed in Kiryat Shimona. But I wasn’t afraid. I was in love.

In love with the hike up hill into the Naftali mountains to the sanctuary-in-a-school where we welcomed Shabbat prayers and watched the sky explode into pastels as the sun, not visible, burned its way into the Mediterranean sea to the west of us. In love with the mercaz, the town center, where, on Saturday night after the end of Sabbath, male friends walked hand-in-hand with each other cruising for women, where kids with their parents enjoyed glida, ice cream, where Saturday night festivities ended not-too-late so everyone could get enough sleep to be ready the next day for work, school, morning prayers.

Lekh lekha.

That’s where it begins, the story of this people, the Jews, my people. God commands Avram to go forth from his land and from his birthplace and from his father’s house to the land God will show him.

The first time I remember hearing this passage from the Torah was in Ms. Tova’s class, kitah aleph, a month into my intensive Hebrew language studies. Lekh lekha: Ms. Tova said the words, and I, I understood, I understood, without having to translate I understood. This language was becoming my language, these words my words, this story my story.

*

Unlike the other Sherut La’am volunteers in my group, I hadn’t been involved in a Jewish youth group as a teen, I hadn’t been active in Hillel while I was in college, and I’d never before been to Israel. I wondered, as I sat during our orientation in the chapel at JFK airport across from the El Al terminal: What am I doing here in this place, with these people?

I didn’t have to listen deeply to hear it again, the voice within (my voice?) that had led me this far, the voice commanding me to leave my bi-coastal life (LA born, South Jersey raised), to leave my father’s plastic-wood sconces and paper work and my mother’s canned wax beans and her Temple Emanuel.

To leave and fly to Torah, to Genesis 12:1, to a government-issue mattress, sheet, pillow, blanket, and towel in an immigrant absorption center in Kiryat Shimona, to the modest apartment of my local “adoptive” family and to the east-facing balcony where my Israeli, temporary “father” described how on Yom Kippur 1973 he watched Syrian planes fly across the lush Hula Valley to deliver its bombs to his home town.

*

When my cohort of Sherut La’am volunteers arrived at the absorption center, we were asked to fill out an information card before we received the keys to our rooms. One question stumped me: profession. Profession? I had just graduated from what was then called Glassboro State College. My major: communications. My interests: creative writing, poetry in particular. Could I put down poet? Nah. So what should I say? I hesitated.

Then I realized that no one—not another volunteer in my group, not our group leaders, and certainly not the staff at the absorption center where I would spend the next three months learning Hebrew, getting acclimated to the Israel of the mid-to-late 1970s, making new friends, exploring the Galilee, attending for the first time in my life traditional Orthodox services—no one there knew me.

I was free. Free to invent myself anew! I put down this: educator. Little did I know then what I would stumble into (where I would be led?) just a few years from then.

*

Lekh lekha: “Go to yourself, to know yourself, to refine yourself.” That’s how the Zohar, the Book of Splendor, reads the phrase. Seeking self-hatred, I found love. So I’ll look again; I’ll look deeper. If I find it, I’ll refine it. But, dear readers, dear friends, you and I both will have to wait for a future post for that search to begin.

 

Richard Chess is the author of three books of poetry, Tekiah, Chair in the Desert,and Third Temple. Poems of his have appeared in Telling and Remembering: A Century of American Jewish Poetry, Bearing the Mystery: Twenty Years of IMAGE,and Best Spiritual Writing 2005. He is the Roy Carroll Professor of Honors Arts and Sciences at the University of North Carolina at Asheville. He is also the director of UNC Asheville’s Center for Jewish Studies.