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Good Letters

Vacant Urban StreetWhen I come to the end of my days, what shall I say I know of life in this world?

And what shall God say, when the world comes to the end of days, that God has come to know of life in this one of all created worlds?

Carolina chickadee, Kafka, vocoder.   

I know fear that comes before the world opens its eyes, raises its hand not to welcome but to threaten.

I know fear that blazes in on a horse to torch the village of my bed: the pogrom of things-to-do that attacks and might attack again at any moment while I attempt, desperately, to sleep through night.

Fear, whose distant, dearest cousin is terror that flies on newsprint wings to my morning doorstep.

I know my investment in an actuarial table, my fear of the personal rate of return if I retire as a 65? 66? 67?-year-old white, Jewish male with such-and-such physical, emotional, and social health problems, weighing x and not getting any taller.

I think I know love.

Coal ash. Daesh.

What shall God say when the world comes to the end of days?

I know enough Hebrew to misunderstand the heart of prayer. My lips move while somewhere beyond the dim sanctuary a giant water bug poisons a frog, sucks its liquefied life out of its skin, abandons the empty sack of skin to float downstream.

There is still time, I hope, I pray, for me to know more about my one good wife of many years.

There is still time, I pray, for me to know more about serotonin, and the selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor my doctor-friend prescribed for me when I gave up trying to make anxiety my friend.

Will I, at the end, finally see clearly enough to sort out useless from useful knowledge?

Fish oil, functional magnetic resonance imaging.

I know lines and parts of lines of Dickinson, Justice, Stern, and Dunn: Will they do me any good if I’m greeted at the end by a terrorist’s gun?

The deaths I can imagine lack imagination. I know enough to know that.

I know where I come from, this passage from “Marked” by Mary Ruefle:

Because I finished my term on earth
and had no knowledge of either
fear nor care, no morning knowledge,
no knowledge of evening,
and those who came before
and those following after
had no more knowledge of me
than I had of them.

I’ve heard it said, and a few times I’ve said: My heart’s open. I can’t say when it will open again or what will be welcomed or released if it does.

Paris, San Bernardino, Charleston, Tel Aviv: a few cities I know.

My children, what will they look for in my last words? I’ve been giving away my secrets as I go.

Praying mantis, Kalashnikov.

What are the chances that anyone or anything will outlive God? I know some say God died long ago. God’s last words? According to some friends, my God, my God, why have you forsaken me? Others say God stopped broadcasting at Sinai, and for a few centuries after that addressed only a handful of individuals of his choosing who passed God’s ideas about good life onto the rest of us. But even that stopped ages ago, God knows why.

Why, God, why? Why slavery? Why the Holocaust? Why Trump? Is this why the world goes on and on, to give God the time God needs to figure out why? It’s unlikely I’ll be there at the end of days to find out what, if anything, God has come to know.

The Forest Unseen: A Year’s Watch in Nature, David George Haskell. Annie Dillard, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek.

God has come to know.

Is that why God’s here?

If so, then let’s welcome God the way we welcome every restless, curious one who joins us. Seeking to know. To know whatever there is to know in this world that, God willing, will grow, improving as it goes, always a little more justice, always a little more love, always a little more peace. Even if any one lifetime may not be long enough to measure a change for good.

Adult female lone star tick. The name, with me since birth: Rick.

The Image archive is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts.

Written by: Richard Chess

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.

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