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Good Letters

Continued from yesterday and Tuesday.


In Hunger Mountain: A Field Guide to Mind and Landscape, David Hinton observes, “We tend to ignore the disappearing, the forgetfulness, but all day long, day in and day out, forgetfulness keeps us woven into dragon’s traceless transformations.”

The dragon, he explained earlier, is “China’s mythological embodiment of all creation and all destruction, the ten thousand hunger-driven things tumbling through their traceless transformations.

“Self, that center of identity,” Hinton continues, “is a denial of dragon and the empirical reality it represents: the generative female structure of consciousness and Cosmos. It is a denial of forgetfulness and of our actual moment-to-moment experience. That denial is part of dragon, of course, but it is dragon’s blindness to itself. And as the defining structure of the center, language is the medium of that blindness. It too is a denial of forgetfulness and Absence and the generative nature of things.”

Ch’an Buddhism and ancient Chinese philosophy, as it informs Hinton’s thinking, would have us direct our attention to, rather than ignore forgetfulness. Torah and the rabbis insist that we remember—remember our story, our stories—and that we act with those stories in mind.

I remember. As a kid growing up in a largely assimilated, Reform household in Cherry Hill, New Jersey, we lit candles and said kiddush some Friday nights, just before diving into a pepperoni pizza and hoagies.

For three years in my early-to-mid twenties, I said kiddush with friends in Kiryat Shemonah, Tzfat, and Jerusalem. Late twenties to mid-thirties, I said kiddush with a small Renewal community in Gainesville, Florida. Since my late thirties, I’ve been saying kiddush most Friday nights with a small group of very close, dear friends. I remember.

But I don’t remember, I haven’t kept a running tally of how many Friday nights over the course of my life up to now I’ve sung the kiddush.

Enough times to know it by heart, though I have to sing it in my head from the beginning to get to the phrase I want now: zikaron l’maaseih v’reishit: reminder of the work of creation. (Before the creation—or is it more accurate to say the invention?—of the index, one needed to remember a book—a scroll—in its entirety to be able to locate specific passages.)

The work of creation: Shabbat reminds us of the work of creation. How far back can one’s memory go? Can we somehow remember the creation of Earth about 4.5 billion years ago? Can we remember the creation of the physical universe about 13.8 billion years ago?

Do we remember its creation because we are in part created of the same stuff as the physical universe? Can we remember standing at Sinai and receiving Torah, which begins with B’reishit bara Elohim et hashamayim and v’et ha’aretz, In the beginning God created the heaven and earth? Maybe we’re only asked by the kiddush to remember back that far, about 3,300 years ago?

Creation of the physical universe: I wasn’t there. Creation of the Earth: I wasn’t there. Revelation of Torah: I was there. Or maybe I am there right now.

Maybe the work of creation is continuing to unfold before my eyes in my yard where first the rhododendron blooms, then the mountain laurel.

Maybe the work of creation is continuing to unfold in the vehicle I drive, a Prius engineered and fueled by ingenuity—which is also part of the ongoing work of creation—and the earth itself.

That I can see a yellow poplar, that I can hear ringing in my ears, that I can smell grilled salmon, that I can carry plates to the table, that I can intend, as I’m instructed, to let troubling thoughts that arise over the Sabbath pass as naturally as they arise, that I can eat, thirst for salted pistachios: these are all manifestations of the ongoing work of creation—of chemistry, neurology, biology, physiology, psychology.

Even that I can hear and take to heart two phrases in the Kiddush—zikaron l’maaseih v’reishit, zecher litziat Mitzrayim, remember creation and liberation—this experience of directing my attention to words that I have said so many times but have never heard this way before: this attentiveness, this awakening, too, is part of the unfolding work of creation.

So, which is it, which helps us to experience life most fully, remembering or forgetting?

I remember the frustration I felt just a few days ago of not being able to remember a name, in this case that of a band whose name my wife, also, couldn’t remember as she was telling me about a free concert that that group, you know, the one that won a Grammy, would be performing at Pack Square Park in downtown Asheville.

A day and half later, after repeated attempts to recall the band’s name, it simply came to me—as if out of the blue. Steep Canyon Rangers. The moment I remembered the name, I reached for my iPhone, opened the Notes app, and wrote it down.

I was relieved to recover something that had become, temporarily, lost. Not exactly lost. I believed the name was stored somewhere in my memory.

The frustration came from “knowing” I knew but not being able to retrieve what I knew. Frustration was part of my reaction to encountering a basic fact of my life, of human life itself: the body and mind change over time, the body and mind are limited.

I forget: I’m in Mitzrayim, the narrow place.
I remember: I’m free. I feel spacious.

Or is it this way?

I forget: I’m in the present moment, free of the past, free of language, free of conceptual thinking.

I remember: I’m in the narrow place of my story.

Perhaps both are true. Perhaps the practice is to develop the skills necessary to receive forgetting and remembering equally. And when we develop these skills, when we skillfully receive whatever arises, then we may feel whole.

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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.

Image above by Quinn Dombrowski, used under a Creative Commons license.

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