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Good Letters

What keeps me from you: a meeting with human resources.

What keeps me from you: I slept through the night to the dream of shopping. For a board. With wheels. Low to the ground. Lower than other boards. Lower to the ground than most kids. You can skate, you can roll, but you can’t fall. It’s almost impossible to lose your balance. Designed for an adult like me: stuck in a dream of youth. I slept all the way to the dream. Then I woke up. I was old. Where are you now?

What keeps me from you: Because my heart was imperfect, defective, birth-father. Because mother’s heart was protective, defensive. Because belief. Christian Science. You left us. I was two-months old. Now, on my meditation bench, with every out-breath I chase you into a city of angels, into oblivion. With every out-breath. Will we meet again—or at last—at the end of my final out-breath?

What keeps me from you, my rock, my redeemer?

What keeps me from you: you grow your way. Did it matter, how I nurtured you? Did it matter, my discipline, my lack of discipline, my consistency, my inconsistency when you were an infant, a toddler, a child, a teen? You grow your way, that’s the way it is, the way it always has been. Trying to impose my way on yours would certainly keep me from you. My way: worry. About this, about that. You are better off going your way.

One morning every five or eleven years, I wrapped tefillin and, in the customary ways, prayed to you. In a living room where I could be seen.  If anyone else in the house was awake, if anyone was moving. Did it matter that I prayed at home? It was convenient. It was my preference. To pray alone. I know you prefer a minyan, a minimum: ten Jewish adults. That’s what I’ve been told. That’s what I’ve heard. I’ve been stopped on a street in Jerusalem by a man needing a tenth Jew to form a minyan to say Kaddish, the mourner’s prayer. Come inside, he said. It’ll just take a few minutes of your time.

My time. When I think, my time, am I missing the obvious and in so doing keeping myself to myself when all the time you are right here, offering yourself to me, second by second, you who are time? And space. Every dimension.

What keeps me from you. Are you nourished by the prayers of one who prays alone?

Some days my heart is like a museum after hours, its art astonishing no one. I have been astonished, but the museum is closed now and I’m in a city far from it, alone, wrapped in leather straps, prayer book in my hands, calling to you, distant heart.

What keeps me from you: when I’m with you, I’m like Basho.

Even in Kyoto—
hearing the cuckoo’s cry—
I long for Kyoto.

(Trans. Robert Hass)

I’m with you. So why am I longing for you? I long for you. If, one day when I’m with you, I forget to long for you, will you then be mine, I, yours?

What keeps me from you: my name, my profile on social media, the hours I spend cultivating it, the hours. When there are no more hours, then, at last, will we be together?

What keeps me from you: traffic. I call and tell you, I’m coming, I’m on my way.

What keeps me: marriage.

What keeps me from you: I’m forbidden to be with you. Who wrote the story, passed down from family to family, tribe to tribe, generation to generation, congregation to congregation, nation to nation, age to age that says I’m forbidden to be with you?

What keeps me from you: the comfort zone.

What keeps me: hunger. It’s why I eat. Heat, cold. It’s why I dress for the weather. What keeps me: the body, with all its pleasures and pains, its weakness and strength. The body keeps me here now and here now and here now living within an acceptable range. But the body also keeps me from you who are there now and there now and there now.

What keeps me: you. Your distance, your elusiveness. Your resistance to me. Your indifference to me. Your refusal to meet me. Without you, I am incomplete. I know you are there, somewhere. I believe you are there, somewhere. You keep me turning, turning toward you. What do I find when I turn toward you? A sign that you had been there, that you have just departed: downtown, I back into the perfect parking space. Five minutes left on the meter. Perhaps If I turn away from you I will find you in my turning away.

When you are “free,” you are free to move in any direction. I’m bound by gravity. By gravity my movements are constrained.

What keeps me: the cycles, sun and moon; autumn, winter, spring, summer, and back to autumn again; the Torah scroll, unspooling from one stave and being rolled onto the other, Genesis to Deuteronomy,  B’reishit, “In a beginning,” to V’zot ha-B’rakha, “And there was no other prophet who arose like Moses,” then back to B’reishit again. Within these cycles, I live. Do they keep me from you, or do you move within the cycles, too? Are you the camelia’s white petals dropping to my leaf littered lawn? Are you twilight and dawn?

What keeps me from you: I am out of line. I am sentenced.

What keeps me from you: at my age, the pneumonia vaccine.

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 (University of Tampa Press 2017), Tekiah, Chair in the Desert, and Third Temple, all from University of Tampa Press. 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. He is also the Chair of UNC Asheville’s English Department. You can find more information at

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