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Good Letters

The first gift: a stone that nests in my palm. Turned by sea until the sea delivered it to shore, this oblong, ash-colored stone I lifted, held, and slid into my pocket. A year ago, I took it from Whidbey Island. This offering, this theft. I keep it now by my meditation bench and stack of siddurim, prayerbooks. In the middle of night, while I was lying on my firm bed, it was delivered to me again, not as a comforting weight in my palm but in my mind’s eye, appearing during a guided visualization. But just the same as when I hold and lightly rub its worn, subtly textured surface and rounded edges, when I visualize it the stone grounds, soothes, calms me.

The second gift: a ceramic bowl, matte-finish, filled to the brim with spring water. I received the bowl in my upturned hands and, careful not to spill a drop, held it, extended it before me as an offering. To whom, to what: I did not know. Just that holding it like that, I was steady, balanced, grounded, at ease.

The third gift: a book of blank pages, never to bear the scar of ink, the burden of word and world. For a reader, this reader, to flip through and behold, be held by the textured pleasure and relief of clean, fine paper.

Three gifts, each received on a different night. But from whom?

I was told to travel to the “most calming and healing place I’d ever been.” I was told by my guide to enter The Healing Temple located there and once inside to make my way to the altar. I was told that a luminous being would appear and approach me and take from their robe a gift for me and place it on the altar. I listened to the guided visualization. After a few nights of following the instructions and considering several places—Big Sur, Jerusalem, Edisto Island—I settled on a calming place. But no matter how much I’ve searched, I haven’t yet found the temple or the luminous being. Still, somehow I received the gifts.

This practice, one of three guided meditations for self-healing led by Jack Kornfield. I’ve been listening to them, spoken gently through my AirPods, for the last few weeks as I lay in bed at 4:39 a.m., 3:47 a.m., 5:13 a.m., awakened by I know not what. Awake and struggling, wrestling with the demon (the angel?) of mind, frantic to subdue it.

Born to a Jewish mother and Christian Scientist father, I didn’t receive a Hebrew name at birth. I never experienced this as a problem, as something I lacked, until I moved to Israel for a few years in the late 1970s. There, I introduced myself to Israelis as Rick, and when they had trouble with that name I offered my full name, Richard. That, too, caused them pause, so they asked for my Hebrew name, the name by which I was called to the Torah. I didn’t have a Hebrew name, I’d tell them. Rafael, they’d say. That’s your Hebrew name. It felt arbitrary to me, derived from only the thinnest connection of a single phoneme to my real name. Rick, I’d insist. After all, they could pronounce the name, even if it seemed alien to them.

A decade later, on the eve of my being hooded, having earned my PhD, I had a naming ceremony as a special part of a Friday night Shabbat service in my alternative Jewish spiritual community in Gainesville, Florida. Ya’akov, Jacob. That’s the name that chose me. I had written a poem–a year earlier–spoken by a man recalling his days as a high school wrestler. I was surprised, when I came to the concluding lines, to discover that the speaker of the poem all along was Jacob, the biblical Jacob, come back to life in the late 20th Century. 

Rick. Richard. Dr. Richard Chess. Ya’akov.

Ya’akov: the one who wrestled a mysterious being, finally subduing it just before dawn, demanding a new name before releasing the being. The new name he received, Yisrael, one who struggles, wrestles with God. 

Yet another night, as dawn neared, I struggled with mind, my mind. I wanted it to be quiet. I wanted the perseverating over this thing and that—unfinished business—to stop. I wanted the self-judgment—I disappointed her, I let him down, I’m a bad person—to stop. Before it was too late, I wanted to fall back to sleep. Give me another hour or two, enough to allow me at least six hours total, the minimum, I knew from experience, I’d need to function that day. I wanted a new name: good sleeper.

Rafael: God heals.

But how? When? Where?

The most calming and healing place I’ve ever been? A beach. Not the wide, white band of deep, scorching sand but the surf-slicked, glistening-dark, firm, cool, ragged edge where ocean now and then sweeps in and washes over the tops of my feet before being drawn back toward the depths beyond the shelf. The time of day: early morning, low-tide, before wagons loaded with gear scrape across the width of the beach, before umbrellas are screwed into sand, beach chairs arranged, towels snapped open and allowed to float to the smoothed out ground.

I was there. In the middle of the night, on my side of the firm bed, an arm’s length from my wife on her side, 300 miles from the nearest beach, I was there at the beach, calmed by the quiet morning light and coolness of surf-soaked sand entering through my heels and traveling up my body. On packed firm sand, giving only a little with each step, feeling secure, I walked along the beach.

The fourth gift: railroad tracks, a bend in the section of tracks I have been given, a short stretch in woods. Miraculously, I’m content not knowing what’s before or beyond the bend. No train now, but knowing that wheels roll securely over the tracks reassures comforts me. My bones, too, connected securely, bending easily at the joints: the train tracks somehow point me to my skeleton. 

What I’ve been given: a stone, a bowl filled with water, a book of blank pages, a bend in the railroad tracks, sand and ocean, and bones, my own bones. Calm, steady, grounded, balanced, connected, secure.

I haven’t yet found The Healing Temple. I haven’t yet met the luminous being.

But this:

Rafael: God heals. I sleep.

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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 (University of Tampa Press 2017), <1>Tekiah, Chair in the Desert, and Third Temple. His work has been included in 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. Find more at

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