Tuesday, April 15, 2014

7 Practical Passover Lessons

1. Seltzer is more than a drink.  This bubbly is perfect for getting wine stains out that clumsy --slightly drunk --relatives leave on your best white tablecloth.

 Most importantly, substitute seltzer for water in your knedlach-matzah ball recipe--so guests will say: "These are so light." It doesn't do anything for brisket.

2. TV series are a guide for religious practice. Game of Thrones opening episode cautioned--"Watch out for the person who pours wine into your kiddush cup." And now that Man Men is back for its final season we are  reminded what mishap can happen when you have four full cups of alcohol at one meal. Anyone have that good of a time?

Downtown Abbey: Set up and clean up is much easier
if you are Cora, The Countess of Grantham, hosting seder. According to Jonathan Sarna, Cora , the daughter of Isidore Levinson, may well be Jewish.

3. Margarine spreads better than butter. Matzah cracks less when you spread it with margarine instead of butter. This is no time to watch calories, carbs, salt, sugars, alcohol intake or anything else having to do with health. It is a wonder our people have survived--seders.

4. Taxes are a Passover ritual. Taxes, if not the Haggadah, teach freedom comes at a price. Is it only a coincidence that tax day and seder always overlap?

5. Supermarkets are a Jewish community finder.  Supermarkets are big brother watching where the Jews live. Markets in non-Jewish neighborhoods have four boxes of matzah on a shelf in some far off corner. On the other hand, rows of kosher for Passover food are in the supermarkets where Jews live. Who's job is at Super Fresh to be mapping where Jews live? So when moving to a new neighborhood and if you care, use supermarket shelves to be your Jewish GPS.

6. Ovens and refrigerators need their yearly holiday. Only because of Passover do I pull out all the drawers and shelves of the refrigerator and the racks in the oven. These appliances religiously appreciate their yearly scrubbing and celebrate the hope of not becoming a fully developed science project.

7.  Put the ing in your Spring.  To get the winter cobwebs out of your head and body get ready for seder. They don't make themselves. Seder requires shopping, chopping, washing, scrapping, roasting, mixing, and cleaning. And that is only for the seder plate.

After this winter we need all the spr-ing we can get.
Chag sa-me-ach

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Wires Crossed By Heaven's Hand?

“I have a gun and its cocked.” My sister and I regularly shouted that phrase when we passed our huge unlit living room. We were sure a bad something or other was lurking ready to attack. Our pretend gun would protect. We’re grown now. I’ve learned to believe in what I see. That is, until reminders of a power beyond appear.

This past Saturday, my friend Lynnda had a hankering for Shabbat services. The buzz in the neighborhood is that Adath is a good place to go. “Sure,” I said after trying to coax her into brunch at Parc on Rittenhouse Square or a long walk around the river. I’ve broken my 20- year habit of weekly services and haven’t gotten it back.

Sometimes you just do what a friend wants to do.

Adath was the synagogue of my youth. This is where I was confirmed (top right). 
Rabbi Berkowitz gave us speeches to memorize and deliver.  My sister was confirmed here too (top row, second from the end) 

The gallery of confirmation class photos line the walls to the social hall where I got a first kiss or two in the days of extravagant bar mitzvah dances.

This is the bimah of my growing up. 

The weird combination of colors and metal framed High Holiday memories, my white-gowned confirmation and my longer white-gowned wedding. As a kid this mass of metal wasn’t very attractive or spiritual, but on this Saturday it was a comforting blanket of memory.

 “We’re tearing it down in June,” said a congregant who I knew. “We’ve had a very successful capital campaign and this has been the same since the 50’s. ”

 “What will you do with all the materials?”

 “I guess throw it away.”

Lynnda and I joined in the Kiddush lunch. People couldn’t have been kinder. I said yes to the shot of whisky for my coffee too.
One more stop before we left: The wall that holds my mother’s name on the memorial board. She was beautiful and good, and loving, and she was my mother. My Mommy (never got to call her Mom), Rosalie, died suddenly from a disease that today could be cured. She was only 42. She missed half her life and most of mine.

It is the custom on the anniversary of a death to light the light net to the deceased’s name. My mother had died in January. I walked over to the memorial board that I hadn’t seen in years. There was her name. And next to it, in the month of April, her light was lit. (does not correlate to the Jewish calendar either)

How could this be? Was this my imagination-- from walking past a big dark empty room? Or were the wires crossed by Heaven's Hand?

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

I Don't Speak to My Son

My first urge was to resist the chat coming from the man who sat next to me on the train yesterday. I wanted my own space to read Shai Held's book on Heschel which begins by identifying the callousness of modern man because of technology. Heschel says I am in a state of looking out for my need and missing wonder in the world, which has me missing out on appreciation, and service, then anchoring myself in history so I can know transcendence. Ok, I put the book down and gave my attention to the man who clearly wanted to talk.

He started with the movie Noah-- reviewed in the morning paper. My commentary "It is hard for me to accept Russell Crowe in the role of Noah. Noah is supposed to be a righteous man, and that actor doesn't seem quite right. On the other hand, according to the Bible, he is righteous in his age, which means he doesn't have to be so perfect, just better than the others around him."

From there he carried the conversation to his daughter's 21st birthday where some of the girls got so very drunk that they were doing things that they would be very embarrassed about. "I told my wife, don't repeat those stories." "Yes, there is a teaching that once you let the feathers go from a pillow you can't gather them up again, just like gossip, once you say it, those words can't be taken back."

 Was it the Heschel or something about this man with glasses, and a nose that said he had spent a good deal of time drinking, that made me go preacher?

 Lee, I learned, was planning a celebration for his 25th wedding anniversary. He had the minister and 50 guests coming as a  surprise for his wife. He planned for them to enact their wedding vows.  "Should I bring her wedding dress which is sealed and have her change into it there? One of my sisters says, yes, and the other says, no. What do you think?" " Really she can fit into it?" asking with amazement, because I'm not sure I could get my right arm into my own wedding dress. "Yes, the same 105 pounds as when I married her."

Lee quickly went from celebration to heartache. He had already told me he had made a lot of money in computer software, lived in a 5 bedroom house, and in the summer went to their shore house. Then: "I don't speak to my son."

"Anyone who knows me, knows I'm all about family. My son was my everything. He's my oldest. My son is handsome and athletic. I went to every game he ever played. After he graduated college he thought I'd still be his scholarship, you know what I mean, pay for everything. That was two years ago. And last year I had to do tough love. He didn't want to work, just take. I haven't spoken to him in months. He won't pick up the phone or answer my email."

Back to celebration. "My son won't be at our anniversary celebration. I know how hard that will be for my wife."

"Did you invite him?"


In great detail he described how he missed his son. His son also "blamed everything" on him. He knew he was doing the right thing, yet wasn't sure. "I heard he has two jobs now to pay his rent in San Francisco."

"Can I offer some advice?" Hey, he had already asked me about the dress. With his permission:
"Can you write him a letter? A handwritten letter that says:
I love you.
I'm sorry for the pain.
I miss you.
Mom and I are celebrating our anniversary in two weeks.
Our twenty five years together has been through difficult and good times. That's love.
It won't be the same without you.
I will send you a ticket if you can come.

And this man who had, during a short ride, given me the accounting of his life, listing fifty guests, twenty-five years of marriage, five bedrooms, three children, two houses and a lost  relationship with one son, started to cry.

"You would send the letter without the expectation that your son will respond or come. Just send it so in his time of figuring this out he'll know, you love him. That's all. Every boy has to do his struggle to become a man. Eventually, forgiveness comes. That might be in a month or a year or five years. But it will come."

"I can do that. A handwritten letter."

Lee had a ticket for the Acela yesterday morning and mistakenly got on the regional rail. When he left he said it was meant to be that we had sat next to each other. He wished me many blessings. One more parting, he added,"God bless you."   Is this what Heschel was talking about?

Thursday, March 27, 2014

Heschel, the First Fifty Pages

On May 8, at our yearly gathering of the Coalition we will learn with Rabbi Shai Held the author of Abraham Joshua Heschel: The Call to Transcendence. Shai, a Jewish celebrity these days, is the co-founder of Mechon Hadar and as everyone tells me "an amazing teacher." All sixty congregations will receive a copy of his book. My assignment: Read it first. Second assignment: Understand it.

Moving from thumbs scanning text messages and mind numbing news headlines to reading a book of deep thought requires adjustment.  I have to quiet down and focus. So I'm trying to use my usually silent train ride to read a real book that has pages that actually turn. No swipe. Steep. Making my assignments more difficult is the man sitting next to me who hasn't stopped talking to his female colleague across the aisle. She hasn't stopped chanting: "Right," "I know," "Ok." (Really men, is that all you want to hear? Apparently).

I realize I'm actively participating in the very technology deafening-leave-me-alone so I-can-do what-I-want existence addressed by Heschel in the first 50 pages of the book. We live in a time, he wrote decades ago, where technology leads to us to live with "callousness."

 As a Jewish educator, I'm reading the book guided by the question: In what ways will The Call to Transcendence revive my soul and my work with children and families?

As if speaking directly to me, I can imagine, while he pushes up his glasses that are as au currant as his answer: "there is no education for the sublime. We teach the children how to measure, how to weigh. We fail to teach them how to revere, how to sense wonder and awe." (p. 43)

Yes, I want to say, we know how to teach them to recite, to engage in activities but for what purpose?

He responds, "the task of religion [religious education]is to instill a sense of "perpetual surprise, a willingness to encounter the world, again and again as if for the first time." (p. 30)

Without wonder, according to Heschel, we are consumed with self and then we are a "beast.. an animal" concerned only with self satisfaction. We somehow got in our minds that the techno world, the space on the train, and even God, is here to serve my need. According to Heschel, technology has led us believe "the only criterion of value is what is useful for the fulfillment of my own desires and aspirations." (p. 39)

The logic I hear from the first 50 that Shai has revealed to us is that technology and routinization lead to us to take the world for granted and say, "The world is my toolbox." The remedy for this stance that leads us to turn so inward  that we lose connection to others is --wonder.

 With wonder, we have a sense of indebtedness. "In receiving a pleasure, we must return a prayer; in attaining a success, we radiate compassion." (p.37& 29).

Our educational purpose could be to release a will to  wonder, which enables gratitude/indebtedness which can lead to faith. "What we lack is not a will to believe, but a will to wonder...we can will ourselves to wonder." (p. 52)

What will we do differently if our work is to release a will to wonder?

What is the learning that moves us from "self enclosure" to a "deeper sense of compassion and empathy for others."

What is the learning that intensifies our search "for meanings that somehow lie just beyond sensory appearances" (Fuller, p. 51) and overcomes "the exclusive realty to the stubbornly selfish 'I'?" (Held, p. 51)

What learning might help me respond differently to the noise, no I mean people sitting next to me?

What  do you recommend? Let me see if the answer is in the next 50 pages.

Saturday, March 22, 2014

I Asked for Wonder: Two Lives and a Funeral

 The notices came across my email 15 minutes apart.

The first notice, Eddie, the father of a college-aged son, beloved husband, and professor at Temple law, had died. Most didn’t know he was ill.  His synagogue community, who thought of him as much a constant as the amidah, was shocked. He had just led Shacharit two weeks before, how was this possible?

I can see Eddie, one of those rare people who stay in vivid memory, even when you haven’t seen him for a while, standing on the left side of the sanctuary with his large black and white tallit draped over his small frame. His tallit moved with his steps to the bimah, with the rhythm of his davenning, and with his right and left  turn greeting every adult or child who Eddie knew and those he didn’t know --yet. His tzeet tzeet rose and fell with his reaching out with a hardy “yasher koach,” to each person who entered this-his prayer space.

Baruch t’hi yeh, is what you say to someone who has said  yasher koach to you,” Eddie had explained to 50 children and parents. For years, Eddie led Shabbat family services. The other day, a dad emailed me a poem their family had written to thank Eddie for inviting them in with joy to  a world of prayer. 

An excerpt: “You teach us how to put on a tallit. Then Rishon leads Ma tovu and builds tents, what a feat. You lead us in song with your beautiful voice. Hallelujah, kol Hanishama, done in rounds is our first choice. Then its Shema, sung like our friend from Uganada. The melody was strange at first, but of it we’ve grown fonder. Then we say Yotzer Or with all those motions with our hands. Sometimes minyan seems like aerobics sit and stand, sit and stand!”

Last Sunday, the sanctuary of Eddie’s synagogue was filled with people who remembered his movement, his joy and his wonder.

Fifteen minutes after the notice of Eddie’s passing came the notice of the death of one of my dearest friend’s father. Mr. P. as he was affectionately called had died at the age of 97. Shelly, my friend, said her father had davened mincha maariv, found the right battery for the clock in the basement, changed the battery, changed his clothes, said Shema and went to bed. His wife, his angel, as he called her, heard a sound and stood over him as he took his final breath.

Last Sunday, since you can’t be at two funerals at once, I drove to Baltimore for Mr. P’s funeral.  Finding a seat in the funeral home’s sanctuary was difficult. Many people stood to hear the story of the man who regularly walked to synagogue into his 90’s. We listened to the rabbi describe how Shelly’s father had led services two weeks before his death.

“He was a little slow, maybe because of his age. And you know, sometimes when people lead services slowly, people get antsy and leave. But no one moved.” They knew whom they were standing with in prayer.

Purim was coming and it is the custom, I learned, not to give an extended eulogy, the rabbi said, and “Louis would have wanted us to follow this halacha.” But the rabbi couldn’t help sharing the breath and depth of a man who was loved by family and friends, was dedicated to Jewish community, and was respected by all in business and in friendship.  This man with a small frame, who lived humbly, was a man of integrity, grounded in the Judaism that survived his days in Germany.

The pallbearers lifted Mr. P's casket. Each man holding the plain pine box had the responsibility to lower it into the ground with only the help of black canvas straps. Each person standing on the muddy grass had the responsibility to shovel some dirt until the casket was fully covered.

Two lives, and a funeral that remind “To pray means to bring God back into the world, to establish God’s sovereignty for a second at least." (Abraham Joshua Heschel, I Asked for Wonder

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Banking on Strategies for Synagogues

“The train is crowded, mind if I sit here?” My usual “don’t sit next to me on the train,” strategy of coughing or eating smelly food like a banana didn’t deter this twenty some young woman. 

She parked herself, her winter coat, her tote and package right next to me. “The commute has been wild with all the snow, hasn’t it?” Oh boy I was in for a talker. Usually on the Amtrak reserved train folks keep up their Northeast reserve. The rule is, you simply open your electronic device and act as if there weren’t another human within miles. However, this blond with the bubble in her voice hadn’t read the manual. As someone who is trying to figure out how to change Jewish organizations to meet today’s challenges, I’m sure glad she didn’t.

“I do this commute four days a week, Philadelphia to New York. I’ve never seen the schedules so off.” Attention. I had to put my device down to talk because that’s my story too. As the conversation went from slippery sidewalks to how to re create the work of a traditional organization, I asked, “Do you mind if I take notes?”

This is what I learned from the Wharton graduate who works for innovative products at American Express. Was she talking about banks or synagogues? 

“People don’t want to interact with banks the way they used to, the way their parents did.
It used to be that people built a history and trust over time with the bank. The bank was a constant in the community. People physically walked in. They had credentials, birth certificates and documentation and a longstanding relationship with the bank.”

"But what’s going on now, is that the demographics are changing. From our research, we learned that 30 million people are out there who can’t get a traditional account. And, we learned they don’t want one.Today people want it their own way."

“So I work on creating new products that help people connect with banks. I used to work for Citi bank. They are big...so big they don’t really care what customers want or what new products they need. But at American Express they need to care.”

She explained a lot of her work is soliciting feedback. "We have to be asking enough questions to hear what people need.”

People are getting their banking needs (wow spiritual /religious needs) in other non traditional places. “People are turning to google, pay pal because they are listening to what people want. There are no hoops to jump through.  There is a low barrier to entry.”

She explained how the banks now offer different levels of accounts. So if you don’t want to sign up or answer a lot of questions, you can still get a service. People don’t want to hear that a minimum balance is required or that you are only open certain hours. They value technology. They move fast. “When I worked at Citi bank they moved really slowly. We couldn’t move fast because there were so many committees.”

“At American Express we have enterprise, we have to survive. We know people are saying, ‘I like my coffee this way and they get it. So they are also saying ‘I want my banking this way.’”

“How do you figure out what products to test market?” I asked. (Hey, I once took a course at Wharton).

“We work closely with partners. Walmart, Target, gaming, Zynga and travel services. The best partnerships are when you combine. Positioning is very important. Where do you fit in the customers mind? (GREAT QUESTION..don’t love the answer that come to my mind.) Where is my position in the market? How can we combine ourselves in the consumers mind, Target and American Express? With partners you say, “What do I bring and what do you bring to the table? And does this meet our goals?”

And that leads you to “try different things. And we get an immense amount of feedback.”

“We try something new every two weeks. We see we’ve had to invest in the emotional part of the product. We think about what the experience will look like, and then we get ten people off the street to go through the experience and, ask what do you think?”

Then my train companion wanted to tell me about her upcoming wedding at the Kimmel Center. Her dress was gorgeous and wow what a handsome groom. 

But, I wanted to spend the time before we hit 30th street getting her advice on how to create ways for people to connect with synagogues. I also know people who want it their way- not the way their parents wanted it, and who can get it from other sources and get it on their own terms.

She had given me advice right?
*Try lots of things ..like every two weeks.
*Work with partners-bring what you have and what they have to meet your goals.
*Ask, and ask again, get lots of feedback.
*Hit the emotional connection.
*Be flexible. 
*Don’t get caught in committee. 
*Lower the barrier to entry.
*Listen for what people really need

What else?

*Let go of your Northeast reserve once in a while.
*Look up from your electronic device.
Something worthwhile is right in front of you.

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Still Life

Kate Michaels wanted to run away. The need to escape had made a home in her throat long before this time spent waiting for her husband to walk through the front door. She stopped counting at five the hours Mark was late. Now she moved to counting six panties, three warm sweaters, two pairs of pants, a toothbrush, a tube of hand cream, and one photo of her teenage daughter, Willa. She wondered if she should rifle through her sweater drawer for the rosary that although she hadn’t touched for years tethered her to task.

All of these items would fit in a brown shopping bag that Kate could easily carry out of the apartment building without sparking neighbors’ questions. Wouldn’t she look silly, a woman her age with a suitcase in hand responding, “I don’t know,” to the question, “Where are you going?”

If she counted the pair of underwear she was wearing, plus the six in the paper bag, she could do wash just on Sundays and hold on to a shadow of luxury: a different pair of underwear for each day of the week.

Luxury had once meant security. Security wasn’t about thugs or thieves. It was about walking into a grocery store to buy whatever looked ripe, or red or imported with no thought of the cashier’s scowl forcing her to say, “So sorry, I’ll put those things back.”  

Three years had passed since Kate had handed over the keys to her brick colonial with White House like pillars to a sheriff yet she still tucked her chin when entering this honeycomb for divorcee-, living-on-a pension, still-in-graduate-school apartment building.

Last Sunday Mark, unshaven as usual, called “I’m taking the boat from the marina to Annapolis, solo. I’ll be back in a week, by noon.” Once a vascular surgeon, now making a gas station attendant’s salary doing something or other for insurance companies, held on to his sailboat, the Lily Bijoux, a remnant of an existence he had killed with his own hands. As he walked out the door, Kate called “I’ll see you at noon,” while pushing down the scream, “I hope you drown.” What else would you yell at a man who had used the craft of his profession to cut each of his fingers from tip to wrist bone, excising during the procedure, all the tendons that held life together?

“He’s stuck in traffic,” sounded as plausible as “he threw himself overboard.” Was it really possible that her prayer for his fate had determined his present whereabouts? When Willa called from college, would she have to say, “Dad did it this time, honey. He’s finally a success.” This salty tone had been born before Willa was old enough to walk, when Mark chose work and women over her, but she kept it from her daughter like a secret, letting it seep out slowly and clearly.

The hours passed and the evening light coming through the narrow living room window stirred a yearning in Kate for a little pill. One round pill with letters pressed into it. Doctor’s orders to close her eyes and dip right below the line of consciousness was all she asked. Not a permanent altered state.  That was for cowards. Just a few hours, when she didn’t have to wonder if her secret prayer had been answered or if she’d have to face the hour when it wasn’t. Her prescription bottle was empty. She didn’t really want Mark dead, just erased.

Kate had loved broad-shouldered Mark Michaels once upon a time. He was going to be a doctor. His name sounded like a designer. Big hands trained to sooth and a voice poised for comfort beckoned her. “Coffee, please.” He’d say, ‘please’ real gentle, never calling her babe, just patiently waiting for her to stroll over to his table with her pad and pencil. His arms resting on a stack of books topped off by his gold watch created the only bright spot in that dingy burger joint. Kate wanted to say, “Order me. Make it take out.” He wore golf course green and canary-island yellow shirts with an alligator on the upper left side. The alligator was his personal symbol, a coat of arms announcing “Suburban royalty.” To a twenty-year old living in a yelling-hitting house, working long hours, cleaning up people’s napkins after they blew their nose and spit their chew, the headlines to find yourself in the promise of a burning bra and a career was chatter, piling up with the rest of the world’s debris. Marry a doctor was the answer.

The doorbell rang.

The police, she thought for sure, were standing on the other side of the door. Again, like the time before when Mark hadn’t come home and the hours passed, she’d open the door to the detective in a crumpled suit and a trained look of sincerity, saying “Mrs. Michaels? We found your husband. But this time he can’t be stitched.  He’s like a deflated blowfish at the bottom of the sea.” She felt sickened by her relief.

Kate banged her knee against the ottoman. Jordan, the wavy-haired graduate student who lived one floor up, next to old Mrs. Donovan, stood in the hall. Kate took meals to Mrs. Donovan and had gotten in the habit of packing a portion for Jordan. “I haven’t cooked today, Jordan.  It’s not a good time.” She put a hand on his navy blazer to gently push him out the door, and he pushed back.

“Kate, please, I’ve got some bad news.” She lost her footing.  Word of Mark’s death would come from someone she knew. That was unbearable. His caring eyes looked down on her as they had during exchanges in the hall when he’d talk about his research on the Italian painters of the 1500’s. She liked when he pronounced names like Jacopo Bassano. Jordan could talk about color and God and nudity all in one sentence. Now he’d talk about death.

“I’m sorry. Mrs. Donovan died. They took her away this morning.”

At the unexpected intersection of expectation and reality, Kate cried uncontrollably. 

Jordan offered his shoulder. “She went peacefully.” He ran his hand down Kate’s hair once and then again. His arms reached around her petite frame challenging her trained response to post fences and retreat. 

“Kate, come with me,” he said.  She followed him up the stairs, seeing through blurry eyes his naked feet in leather loafers. “Mrs. Donovan left us each a package. The super put them in my place.”

Their apartments were the same size, but there the similarities ended. Kate’s apartment looked like a furniture store along a dusty country road.  Overstuffed chintz sofas and big mahogany end tables, from seasons passed, squeezed into a small space. Clutter from a closet needing sorting out. Jordan’s place was more a visit to the public library. It was well accented with poster art by the masters.  Books stacked in cases so neatly created the suspicion the Dewey Decimal System was at work.  His furniture was lean and light as if it had walked all the way from Sweden.

“Tea, Kate? It’ll do you good.”  Uffizi was scrawled across the mug.

What must Jordan be thinking? Instead of this hausfrau floral she should have been wearing something more flattering. Why hadn’t she worn her calf-length black skirt?  She wished she had worn her other eyelids too, the ones that hadn’t started drooping. But, Kate lost them when Willa had left for college. She reproached herself. Even if she could staple her lids to her forehead she wouldn’t be appealing to a thirty-year old man. Embarrassed by her hidden thoughts, Kate tried to read the word on the mug, “U-fee-zee?”

“A museum in Florence. You’d love it.” He didn’t correct her pronunciation. “It is like walking down corridors lined with man’s highest hopes.”

She had never heard a man talk about such things. Mark’s conversations were more like reports centered on the day’s events. “Anybody call?”  “What’d the mechanic say?” Occasionally he’d inquire, “What’s up with Willa?”  Only when Mark talked about his old sailboat did his tone change. Mark saved passion for his escape routes. A long time ago she had been one of his escape routes.

“I must look like a scarecrow. Or as we’d say when I was a kid, death warmed over.” It wasn’t funny. Mrs. Donovan was dead.

“I found her,” Jordan said. 

It had been Kate’s idea for Jordan, on pretense of not having a coffee maker, to let himself into Mrs. Donovan’s and make them both a morning cup. Gladly, Mrs. Donavan gave Jordan a key. She knew what they were up to: the deathwatch.

Nightly, Kate took her shift after cleaning up her single dinner plate.  She’d let the steamy shower run over her and then dress with a fresh shirt as if the day were beginning at 9:00 p.m. Through the building’s halls humming with televisions, she’d climbed up eighteen steps, counting one by one, left foot, then right, until she reached Mrs. Donovan’s apartment.

 “Never saw a dead person before,” said Jordan. “The old girl looked rather beautiful. I saw her sitting, slumping a bit, in the high-back chair. The rectangular window framed her. A morning ray, touching her cheek, highlighted her face, and left her body in shadow. Perfect still life.”

They both sat silently. The smell of Jean Nate toilet water must still be in Mrs. Donavan’s rooms, but she wasn’t there to say, “Sweet Kate, what would I do without you?” Her crusty voice etched by years of Camels swinging on her lower lip would no longer tell her tales. “Sit with me. I’ll tell you about my first husband. I’ll tell you about my second, and if you want, my third.”

Jordan’s phrase “still life” moved through Kate.  “A perfect still life.”  There was something inconsistent in those words. What was that called?  She tried to remember. The word that describes a phrase that is contradictory? Like white chocolate.

The lady sinner, Mrs. Donovan, with the unusual combination of dimples and wrinkles was gone. Mrs. Donovan had earned both kinds of marks on her face, never one replacing the other. The curable cancer that devoured her only daughter was shared alongside her strip tease performance at the Blue Rose Burlesque House.

“I dreaded going to the hospital to see my daughter eaten away in that bed” she told Kate. “But once I got myself to peer around the curtain I could sing a melody to her. I’m sure she heard me.” And that story just rolled into “And I stuck my naked leg out on that stage I swear it was shaking from the fear, but after enough whistles my thigh knew how to shake the house down.”  She wasn’t confused. In Mrs. Donovan’s memory both curtains were the same.

Salt and sugar were laid out on Mrs. Donovan’s table, mixing one granule with the other, indistinguishable. A ruby cross, as large as a hand, designed for a plunging neckline, rested on her chest, pointing attention to God and to a once full bosom. Body and spirit, wine and wafer mingled.

She must have inhaled, but not exhaled. Or was it the other way around for the last one?  Kate took a deep breath, so deep that it generated a gasp that broke the silence, and she didn’t let it go. Her chest expanded, her head rolled back and she held her breath. And held it. Kate had done a lifetime study of breathing. Her conclusion: It wasn’t all it was cracked up to be.  Like the short, short, short and long breaths used for childbirth. They did absolutely nothing for the pain. Blow. Mark knew it. He hadn’t practiced because it was a waste of time.

Once she knew breathless breaths. Mark had taught her how to let her auburn hair fall across her face and straddle him till they both breathed in rhythmic abandon. Those breaths, too quickly, became cruel reminders of how, in the daylight hours, their breathing was out of sync.

The long slow holding breaths meant to relieve emptiness were another not so funny joke. Kate had tried them while thinking of moving clouds and rushing water. You can fill your lungs and remain empty when you’ve counted on someone else to fill you. 

Breathing in the black of night was no easier. Kate slept on her well-worn side of the bed with a pillow between her knees listening to noisy clumsy breaths from someone very far away. Today Mrs. Donovan taught that breathing kept one promise.

When it stopped, you were dead.

Kate held her breath until Jordan shook her.

“What the hell are you doing?”

She exploded.  Her breath leaving her body sounded vulgar.

“Kate you all right? Hey, come on. Let’s see what the old girl left us. Maybe a couple of round trip tickets to Firenze.” He laughed and reached for two boxes, the size of egg cartons. “Don’t look so confused. Firenze, you know, Florence. Maybe she sent us on a trip.”

Was Jordan thinking moonlit strolls? Had he spent all the time talking to her because he was in need too? Was her passport still good? That too would go in the brown paper bag. Or, now she could carry a suitcase because she had a place to go and someone to go with.

“What would you do there, in Firen…you know Florence?”

“Besides sipping divine wine, smearing hard bread in olive oil, I’d go back to the very place where my world split open. On second thought maybe I wouldn’t dare go back. It wouldn’t be the same.”

“Tell me what happened.”

“Forget it Kate.”

“Tell me, really.” She saw his hesitation.  “Look no more tears, no more turning blue, I’m fine. I’m a good listener. Talk to me. Please.” How desperate did she sound?

During after school hours with Willa, she had developed skills of attentive listening. Wanting to be a cheery mom raising a daughter in a house decorated with normalcy nouveau, she’d smile intently, applauding Willa’s every comment. “Mom, do you think Barbie knows how to spell? Do you think Barbie wants to be President?” Kate mastered the art of looking interested, nodding to her daughter’s inflections while she imagined Mark sticking his tongue in that red head from the tennis club or the patient who was  so very grateful. She hoped Jordan didn’t want to talk to her like a mother and child over cookies.

Kate didn’t need to prove her listening skills.  Jordan quickly accepted her invitation to talk.  Florence was the place where he had discovered the high renaissance. Where balance, a principle of design, was manifested in its most exquisite form. Balance refers to the way the elements of art are arranged to create a feeling of stability, he explained. High renaissance explored the harmonious arrangement of parts in a composition to a degree that had never been reached before or since. Jordan moved a matchbook, the tea mug and a large fruit bowl on the coffee table to demonstrate the point that portions of a composition can be described as taking on a measurable weight, a dominance, yet can be arranged so that they appear to be in balance. “Balance can be symmetrical or formal or it can be asymmetrical or informal. It can also be radial.” It all meant something to him.

Would Jordan encourage her to speak?  He could start by asking the simple question a lover or a handsome neighbor might ask: “How did you get to be such a twisted soul who doesn’t care if your husband is dead or alive?” Did he want to know more than she lived in 6B and cooked a pretty good shepherd's pie? It didn’t matter. Even if he’d ask, she had no voice for telling her story. Like when you’re standing under a shooting star all you can say is “wow” without being able to describe a single detail. Or when you’ve been in a car accident you just repeat over and over again, “He came out of nowhere.” Again she admonished herself. A man whose apartment was in such order could have no ear for listening to such things.

“I’m not sounding like a professor, am I?  Let me show you a painting I saw at the OO-Fee-tzee in Florence.” Realizing now she had said the name of the museum wrong when Jordan had given her the mug, she winced. She didn’t belong here either. From the bookcase, Jordan pulled a large volume to his lap. The title of the book was visible, Paintings of the Italian Renaissance.

“My world changed forever when I stood in front of a small tempera in wood The Gypsy Girl by Boccaccio Boccaccino.” The name rolled off his tongue like someone else would say ‘coffee please.’ “Amidst the hanging portraits of Madonna, Jesus and the gods was a simple girl. Her blue eyes, like no other painting I’d seen held all time’s desire and all time’s restraint.” He opened the book and Kate listened to him describe what was on the page. “Her head was wrapped in cerulean fabric, her shoulders bound by scarlet cloth, and her throat tied by a necklace, a cross resting on her chest. Her breast was the size of a cupped hand. It was draped in fabric that could have been gossamer or silk. You’d have to touch it to be sure.”

A tinge of excitement erupted
between her legs, something that usually came only from her own great effort.

“She was encased, yet reaching out and knowing she’d soon be on her way. Desire and restraint, blues and reds, need and duty.”

That’s not what Kate saw in the painting, but she hadn’t studied art.

“Do you want to know why she hangs on the wall in the museum? She was there to remind me, that like her, that one brief moment of equilibrium is possible. With the weight of life and the lift of possibility.” From art history to self-revelation, as if there were no boundary, Jordan confessed. “This gypsy girl from the Renaissance gave me the courage to come out to my parents. She said to me, be a son and be gay. You can be bound and be free.“ He added, “My parents hang up when I call.”

With a big inhale and only a slight exhale Kate said, “I’m sorry.” Where did the extra air go?

“Don’t be. I’m on my way.” He went on to explain how the composition, with the careful placement of horizontal and vertical lines established a sense of balance. “ Do you see what I mean? Can you see it in the painting?”

“I don’t understand.”

Jordan had held Kate close enough for to hear his heart beat. But she couldn’t see him. Between his comments on balance and color she had imagined herself throwing coins in a fountain with this man.  She was reminded again that she knew nothing. Except for one thing.  The gypsy girl wasn’t bound by clothing or by vertical lines. Well-educated Jordan had missed it. Jordan was like Willa calling from the kitchen for her mom to tell her where the ketchup was.  Kate would say “On the third shelf to the left.” Willa couldn’t see it although she was staring right at it. Jordan hadn’t seen what was right in front of him. That small gypsy girl hadn’t moved for hundreds of years because in her eyes was the same
look that reflected back to Kate every morning.

 fear and exhaling blame was Kate's life-sustaining ecosystem, like photosynthesis. She struggled to swallow the tea coming back up her mouth. 

“Forget the gypsy, Kate. The suspense is driving me crazy. Open Mrs. Donovan's package.”

Kate motioned for Jordan to start.  He read the note written by the corrugated veined hand of Mrs. Donovan. “To Jordan: I leave you all my earthly possessions.”
He tore the newsprint to reveal a Sunshine Farms Grade A extra large egg carton. “Kate. Do you think she was a closeted millionaire?” He counted ten, one-thousand-dollar bills. Being so happy hours after Mrs. Donovan’s death felt wrong, but Jordan couldn’t help himself. 
“Now you. Ten thousand for you too?”

“I don’t think so. You have her earthly possessions. I’d say Mrs. Donovan left me something else. Jordan, you mind terribly if I open mine alone?”

Down the eighteen steps holding on to the walls she made her way to 6B.  No light came peering from the bottom of her apartment door.

Mark had never come home. A storm had come up quickly and he couldn’t make it to the harbor. No time to grab the life vest or call for help. He tried to drop sail with his awkward scarred fingers, but he was too slow for the wind that rocked the boat. Only the lightening crashing across the dirty sky through the pelting rain saw him go down.

Or, Mark had come home and left his bag by the front door. He hadn’t noticed she was gone until he had to get his own dinner. So he took a piece of meatloaf and a plate of mashed potatoes from the refrigerator. Ate them cold, threw his fishy clothes on the floor, switched the light off and was snoring with no thought he had kept her waiting.

She wouldn’t go in to find out which was true, not now. It could wait a little longer.

Instead, she walked in to the cold night air along the rows of magenta and persimmon impatiens blowing in the fall wind because they had survived the hot dry summer. They knew the season that was coming.  Clothed only in her cotton dress, Kate knelt under the street lamp to read Mrs. Donovan’s note. The light revealed the words: “To Kate, I leave you my heavenly possession.”  Mrs. Donovan’s gift, worn on her chest as an anchor and as a sail would be no surprise.

After a pause, Kate rose to move from the edges that had framed her existence. There was still life.

Cyd Weissman, spiritual fiction (c) copyright