As a child, a Jewish child no less, December was always a bit difficult. We had Channukah, which no Jew would dare claim grew solely to compete with Christmas, although we all knew that was precisely what had happened.
The problem was Christmas, but had nothing to do with Jesus, or the church or even its historical teachings about the supposed role we Jews played in that story, a role for which we had been paying for two millennia.
The problem was far more basic, and all you needed to do was drive down virtually any street in any city and it would be at once apparent. Christmas-celebrating homes were decked out in all colors of lights, while Jewish homes, those few who competed, were left with a palate of white and blue, or up to nine candles, and that was a guaranteed for sure last place finish in the December game.
Cheever was having a bad day, that much was immediately obvious. Perhaps it was the two martini’s in town before lunch, but he says it only made him giddy. We all know better and by late afternoon his mood has soured completely, his emotions have slipped back into turmoil. He says a few cocktails will cure him, or at least make him bearable. He will soon consider AA again, drinking dry the liquor cabinet in the consideration. Elsewhere and in another time, Borges reminds us, an Irish poet, held prisoner in the last days of the Irish civil war, knows he will be executed in the morning, and so slips out of the house that serves as his prison, and into the water icy, frigid, now hating the Barrow river. He swims as best he can, promising that if the river god allows him to live he will present her with two swans. He does live, he does place two swans onto the river the following spring, and he dreams one day of visiting Coole.
Only in a French movie does a girl stand on a bridge threatening to jump or not and weave a story that so draws us in that by the end, when the couple is together, she now pulling him from the same brink we almost forget that the movie was in a language neither of us speak.
The waiter we know so well tells tonight’s server that we are poets and she should ask us to order in iambic pentameter. We write him a limerick, which she delivers with a smile before returning with our wine and a pad to take our order. She seems somewhat sad when our order lacks rhythm and I explain that vegetarian just will not be iambic. she smiles and says until the meal is done one night only can’t you just be vegan even if dessert must be dactylic.
When did we stop being of the soil and begin to fear it, to tell our children not to touch the ground, it is dirty where once it was only dirt, and we put in our mouths, from time to time if only to drive our mothers crazy. She says if you are going to plant wear gloves, and when she walks away I pull them off my hands and plunge fingers into the turned and dampened soil. This, I am convinced, is how it is supposed to be, how nature intended, before designer dyed mulch, rubber mulch before we became the robots our parents’ sci-fi writers anticipated. Later, in the shower, scraping the dirt from beneath fingernails, I watch as it flows reluctantly down the drain I bid farewell to that bit of my childhood but I swear I won’t deny my grandchildren.
I am honored that this poem was just published in the Fall/Winter Issue of the Atlanta Review,
I had dinner the other night with Rav Hillel in a small Chinese place just off Mott Street. I asked him what it was like in the afterlife, after all the years. It gets a bit boring, he said, now that old Shammai has lost his edge, just last month for each Chanukah night he lit four candles from the center out in each direction. I told him the steamed pork buns were beyond belief, he said try the shrimp dumplings even better if you eat them standing on one foot. I asked him how he spent his days and he only smiled, most days I search for Van Gogh’s ear though that alte cocker Shammai says it was Theo’s ear that Vincent lopped off, although Vincent wore a bandage around his head. It’s really not so bad he said, there’s even a lovely sculpture just inside the garden gate that bears a striking resemblance to old Lot’s wife, not that she was ever capable of sitting still all that long. He bid me farewell and though I looked for a fiery chariot, he climbed into his ’91 Taurus with the hanging bumper and rust spots, and drove slowly off. Thanks for dinner, he shouted, as I footed the bill yet again.
He sits, suited in black, with 88 keys at his command, and we fall silent. He opens the lock of joy, the lock of sadness, the lock of elation, the lock of tears, the lock of laughter, the lock of darkness, the lock of light, the lock of surprise, the lock of compassion, the lock of love, and we peer through each door, unable to enter fully unable to turn away. As we walk out, we know we have tasted Buddha’s promise truth and we go off in search of the 63,999 remaining Dharma doors.