Handbook of Suffering – Lesson 1

Lesson 1  Earth Day, April, 1995

                                                      for G

1.  The one-armed girl

I was touching the dirty fingers of schoolchildren
who were holding loops of string
trying to weave them into patterns.
Teaching them tricks to reveal
Earth’s relation to the Universe,
I was moving among children,
from one cosmic fingertip
exploding I did it! to the next,
when the one-armed girl hugged me
because I kept making sure
she had a partner who could offer
a right hand to her left.

At the end I prayered my hand with hers
weaving the story out of the pattern
which is, I suppose,
one way of learning the Universe,
and at lunch her teacher said,
We’ll have to teach that girl
not to hug a stranger.
I was moving
from one moment to the next.
I said, By the time she hugged me
we were no longer strangers.

2.  The trick of memory

The trick of memory, like untying knots
from a loop of string, is to keep returning
until the knots are undone,
the last muscle in the throat loosens, and
the ragged cry rises like smoke
from the ashes of the heart
into the ear of the teacher
who did not want her student to hug me
because there is so much danger in this world.
As if danger had not already
claimed her arm, as if it does not always
         find us moving from one
moment to the next….

3.  The onset of grief

After school that April day my friend waited
in her book lined space
to tell me about the opening of grief
eighteen years after the fact. 
Her blessed sons had finally  talked
about living with their father’s loss

which was not as she thought so long ago
     a matter of getting over a bump
in the road without
              too much damage.
More like walking through hard
rain for eighteen years and you can’t
feel your hands or face getting wet.
You keep wanting to learn how
but every raindrop burns
like fire….
             The trick of memory
     like untying knots from a loop of string
is to keep returning
        until all the knots are undone.

4.  How rain is enough

A month from now my friend’s younger son
will die, a victim of memory,
all the knots in his body loosened.
But that April day we did not realize
the danger of return,
although driving home I said aloud

The Handbook of Suffering
is what needs to write itself next!
Because talking out loud while driving
is another way to stay alive
while the terrible things keep happening
until the last muscle in the throat loosens,
until the ragged cry rises like smoke
from the ashes of the heart
and the rain falls from the eyes.

And when all we have left of our loss
is the rain, that will be as the old rebbes
explained in that story about stories,*
that will be enough, if you understand
this is only the first lesson
in the Handbook of Suffering.

            *”that story about stories” —  “Once the Baal Shem Tov, Master of the Good Name, taught us how to reach the ear of God.  But we no longer know the place in the forest.  We no longer know how to pile the wood or light the fire.  We cannot remember the sacred words that opened the Gates of Heaven.  All we know is this story of Knowledge and Loss.  And telling this Story is enough…”

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