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Good Letters

I am alive.

I am alive.

I am alive.



Who is this aliveness I am?

What is this aliveness I am?

How is this aliveness I am?


We sing, we chant. Our leader, Rabbi Jeff Roth. The words: a teaching from Rabbi Menachem Nachum of Chernobyl, a student of the Ba’al Shem Tov (circa 1700-1760), the founder of Hasidic Judaism. The melody, the chords: composed by the twentieth century Rabbi Dovid Zeller (may his memory be for a blessing).


Where to begin seeking answers, my answers, to these questions? How about here, right here at this table where even while this aliveness I am is seated in place it is at the same time in another place.

The room I’m sitting in? It’s not really a room. It’s the main floor of our house, an open space organized as a kitchen, an everyday dining area, and a living room. The table? Breakfast’s over, the two daily newspapers we take—the Asheville Citizen Times and the New York Times—are folded and stacked beside the computer.

The other room I’m in? It’s not merely a room. It’s a space crowded with faces of students and colleagues; and literary works of many periods and cultures, some read and remembered, many read and forgotten, most unread, undelivered to me but indifferent: they don’t need me. The lives of unread books are fulfilled without me. The room contains keyboards and screens, and tens of thousands of unopened emails, very few of which interest me, some of which frighten or disappoint or annoy or pressure or please me.

As you have figured out by now, this room is an office, my office, yet it’s not only an office. For somehow, along with what you might expect to find there, the room is also alive with other faces and voices, those of physicians and rabbis, a wife, two stepdaughters and their partners and children, a son, a mother and father, two brothers, a pharmacist, a banker, a few car mechanics, one former lover, two or twenty-two fantasies, UPS delivery men and women, a therapist who has sometimes been my shadow and for whom, I imagine, I’ve sometimes been her shadow.

The room oscillates with longings and disappointments, pride, regret, dissembling, hours badly spent, and dreams and visions and realization of some of those dreams and visions.

In this room, I’ve been nourished and choked, connected and cut off, satisfied, inspired, terrified. When my arms stretch overhead, as if to petition or praise, my fingertips graze the ceiling. When I extend my arms left and right, my fingertips meet the walls. It’s a room so compact I can barely squeeze into it, but I do. A room the walls of which have enclosed me for decades wherever I roam or rest. Even when I think I’ve left and locked the door behind me, it goes where I go.

Even now, at sixty-three, as I begin to inch my way down a dimly lit corridor away from the room, the room encloses me. I don’t know how long this corridor is or when I will arrive at the next door or whether that door will have my name on it or just a space for the name of the next one to occupy it, to fill it with a breathing emptiness, an anxious gaze…


The name on the door of the room I inhabit: Rick. I’m Rick.

When I finally reach the agent at Verizon, and she asks me who she is speaking to, I don’t answer, I am “Alive.” I say, “Rick.” When I send an email message that in an instant appears in an inbox down the hall, across town, across the country, or across the world, I’m not, “Alive,” I’m “rchess”, the sender, and, no matter where I am when I hit send, I’m located @unca (the University of North Carolina Asheville).

The walls of the university where I have spent nearly three decades surround me in a hotel in Seattle, a Mazda 6 on Route 66 in Arizona, on line outside the Uffizi in Florence where a group slowly assembles for a scheduled tour. Yours, I close each message, Rick.


Is this what my aliveness is, Rick? Or is Rick just a name assigned to my aliveness? Am I a Rick?

A: what a difference an article makes! A one-letter word that opens not a little space between “I am” and “Rick” but an enormous distance, such spaciousness that suddenly I can breathe, I can see: the name itself, its four letters, are walls within which I have felt confined and by which I am defined. But a name is merely a convention, a way of distinguishing, setting apart one being from another.

Yes, my name, my good name, precedes me and opens some doors for me, and for that I am thankful. Still, my name is just one feature of this aliveness I am. It is not the fullness of my being. My name is just a name.

So, too, the walls that have defined, confined, sustained, constrained, and, yes, freed me, are just walls. If I feel like they are still surrounding me, even closing in on me as I begin my journey away from them, when I’m in my right mind, my spacious mind and heart, I know they are just walls, just part of the aliveness I am.

“Who is this aliveness I am?” asks Rabbi Menachem Nachum. His answer: “Is it not the Holy Blessed One?”

A name is just a name; walls are just walls. That’s not how I experience them all the time. But when I do, I experience something else, too: being flowing through its many shapes and forms. So what should we call that? How about the “Holy Blessed One”?

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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 four books of poetry, Love Nailed to the Doorpost, Tekiah, Chair in the De-sert, and Third Temple, all from University of Tampa Press. Poems of his have appeared in Telling and Remembering: A Century of American Jewish Poet-ry, Bearing the Mystery: Twenty Years of IMAGE, and Best Spir-itual 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. He is also the Chair of UNC Asheville's English Department. You can find more information at

Above image by foundin_a_attic, used with permission under a Creative Commons License.

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