10 October, 2017

from 'Different Seasons' by Stephen King,

“The most important things are the hardest to say. They are the things you get ashamed of, because words diminish them — words shrink things that seemed limitless when they were in your head to no more than living size when they’re brought out. But it’s more than that, isn’t it? The most important things lie too close to wherever your secret heart is buried, like landmarks to a treasure your enemies would love to steal away. And you may make revelations that cost you dearly only to have people look at you in a funny way, not understanding what you’ve said at all, or why you thought it was so important that you almost cried while you were saying it. That’s the worst, I think. When the secret stays locked within not for want of a teller but for want of an understanding ear.” 

—Stephen King

© Nick Bantock

09 October, 2017

"I wish... I know"

     In 6th grade when asked by our middle school music teacher to bring in a CD of our favorite music, everyone else brought in Ace of Base, Boyz II Men and Mariah Carey, I? Brought in the 1989 Original Cast Recording of Into The Woods.
That’s right.
I brought in Stephen Sondheim.

I was obviously very popular, and by “popular” I mean I was not popular. But I didn’t care, because even at eleven, I could appreciate a 6/8 time signature, internal rhyming, all things Robert Westenberg, and poignant social parallels.

Into the Woods with music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim and a book James Lapine is a masterpiece of the musical theatre about the inner-lives and backstories of the world’s most famous (an infamous) fairy tale characters.  We are fortunate as a culture to have the original production preserved not only on audio recording, but in a beautifully filmed live video of the stage performance. I grew up devouring both.

A Narrator guides us through the first act of familiar stories: Cinderella and her Prince, Jack and his beanstalk, Rapunzel, Little Red Riding Hood, and some new characters such as a Witch, a childless Baker and his Wife, all criss-crossing and influencing one another in ways our children’s stories were never privy to.

The curtain rises, and the audience is welcomed by the Narrator (incidentally, played originally by Tom Aldridge, who also plays Mr. Gutmann in What About Bob, thus, making him a god among men) who says:

“Once Upon a Time…” followed by a now-celebrated and utterly identifiable series of chords, and lights up on the characters we are about to meet. The first is Cinderella. She sings a phrase that is to become the haunting theme of the evening:

    “I wish…”

Every one of our characters has a wish— to go to the festival, to have a child, for fortune, wealth, security, beauty. They wish. For things. They want.

How fascinating and fun.  By the end of the stream-lined first act, every character has achieved their well-known conclusions, and we celebrate with them in a rollicking Act One Finale celebrating Happily “Ever After!”

And then the curtain rises on a complicated second act.

Cinderella’s prince is unfaithful; life in luxury, unfulfilling.
The Baker and His Wife have their child, and they are ill-content.
With the wolf dead, Little Red fakes confidence in the shadow of her attack.
The Witch has lost not only her daughter Rapunzel, but her magic powers in exchange for physical beauty.
And above all, Jack has murdered the giant in the sky, and angered his wife, who now threatens to destroy their kingdom if she can not take her revenge on her husband’s killer.

Slowly, over the course of the incredibly difficult second Act, it is not an exaggeration to say that nearly everyone suffers in the wake of the Giant.

This musical opened on Broadway in 1989, at the very height of the AIDS epidemic, and as a child born in the middle of the crisis, I suppose I only now realize that the actors in the original production were suffering losses every day, of their friends, family, members of their communities. Mind-obliterating, countless, losses, daily fear— all of it, lacking in any kind of reason. ‘The Giant’ had ravaged their kingdom.

Into the Woods is a piece I have never truly seen myself inside of—somewhat unusual for an actor, as we tend to see where we would, or would like to, fit inside a story. But with “Into the Woods,” I’ve always been in the audience, seeing the whole picture, never precisely identifying with any individual story-arc.

Until now.

In the final few moments of the play, the too-old-to-be-babied, and to-young-to-be-ready Little Red Riding Hood, sits in shock. She is already vulnerable, traumatized from her experience with the wolf in Act 1, yet, in this moment she cannot move in the wake of losing her entire family. Her face is strained, still, but dry (and truly, the raw emotion on actress Danielle Ferland's face is a masterclass in trusting stillness and vulnerability). She realizes slowly, that she is alone in the world— a child, with nothing but a wolf-skin coat on her back.

Beside her, is Cinderella. She is dressed in rags once more, and having left the Prince, on her own again to face the world a stronger and smarter, woman than before.

Dreams shattered. Lives forever altered, the two women sit there. And from the depths of Little Red’s viscera, comes the musical phrase we know from what seems like forever ago, a cry from her soul so straightforward, so true, yet so painful she can barely utter it:

    “I wish…

Cinderella looks at her. Not with pity. Cinderella cannot grant this wish. No one can. The kingdom has been annihilated. People are dead. Life will never be the same. The pain, unutterable. Her childhood, ended. With great respect, Cinderella responds:

    “…I know.

Four words.
Yet this brief exchange is the summation of my entire life.

Four words that capture the essence of both versions of myself, of where I sit today as I write these words upon the page, looking back to “once upon a time,” exactly half my life ago. Before the Giant ravaged my kingdom; took all but my heartbeat.

Little Red, my eighteen-year-old self, and Cinderella, the self of today.  Would that I could look that brave young eighteen year old girl—who had already faced so much— straight in the eye, as Cinderella does for Little Red. Tell her that she is absolutely right, this is the bottom of the well of human pain. That her innocence is indeed, shattered, her childhood at its end. It will not get better, darling girl, I would say, it will only grow familiar and thus less harrowing; that there will never be anything deeper or more painful to wish for, ever again.

But now? Now she has earned her passage to the human race. She may now arrive upon its shores as the inextinguishable woman she is destined to become. That this exact tragedy, in time, if she allows it, will make her soul the richer; escort her to her highest self.

30 September, 2017

When I Heard the Learn’d Astronomer by Walt Whitman

When I heard the learn’d astronomer,
When the proofs, the figures, were ranged in columns before me,
When I was shown the charts and diagrams, to add, divide, and measure them,
When I sitting heard the astronomer where he lectured with much applause in the lecture-room,
How soon unaccountable I became tired and sick,
Till rising and gliding out I wander’d off by myself,
In the mystical moist night-air, and from time to time,
Look’d up in perfect silence at the stars.

25 September, 2017

Coulda-been-ku 11


I should have loved you 
better. Not The One. 
But the best I knew. 

The hurt is nothing 
nowturned to gratitude and
sentiment. All one.

You get three stanzas.
For in the end, Im proud of 
us. Im proud of us.

24 September, 2017

Coulda-been-ku 10


You showed us how to 
love harder.  First rebellion.
The first, everything.

23 September, 2017

[The Real] Rabbi Syme

    As many of you out there are reading After Anatevka, you might be surprised to know that one of the leading questions I get is whether or not Rabbi Syme (Perchik's teacher and advocate) is based on a real person. The answer: of course he is. Rabbi Syme was indeed so influential, that I felt he had to be memorialized in After Anatevka for he was my first spiritual advocate.

    Fictional Rabbi Syme is based very loosely upon the real-life Rabbi Syme—loosely because my description in the novel is not so much a literal, but more of an evocative recollection and honoring of his influence. Real-life Rabbi Syme and I only spent a collection of minutes together in 2001, but they were crucial minutes. He gave me the gift of delivering the eulogy at my father's funeral service, as well as bearing witness to it when he lead the funeral service, and above all, he gave me an hour of his time months later, reminding me of what was eternal, and chartering a map toward the beauty, strength and individuality my faith. Irreplaceable gifts one can never forget.

    The influence of Rabbi Syme proves another true-to-life maxim: that we never know the depth of the influence we have upon one another. A fleeting moment to one, might bear a lifetime of profundity to another, for better and for worse. So it is in these tiny actions that we must recognize that our influence on earth is vast, has meaning, and should never be taken for granted.

    I include this story from my memory (also included in my upcoming memoir) in today's post because the prayer Rabbi Syme references, the Shema' Koleinu, is not only a prayer that is part of the Amidah (the core of every worship service), but especially significant on the High Holy Days, which are currently upon us.

    L'Shana Tova, one and all. May your new years be filled with positive influence that you both give and receive. Here's to a brighter and more peaceful world.


    Two months after the funeral I went to see Rabbi Syme.

    In the Jewish community, a rabbi is viewed as more than just a life cycle overseer, administrator, Bible reciter, or spiritual leader; but also as a counselor, a true community role model, and above all, an educator. The word Rabbi, in fact, translates as “teacher." At the time I’d be willing to admit that I required all of the above from good ol’ Rabbi Syme, a man I’d known for approximately 2 hours. I walked into Temple Bel El ready to order up the “super size me” platter of spiritual needs. Plus, I felt inexplicably close to him, compelled beyond logic to spend time in the company of the sweet, wise man who had, in such a brief collection of minutes, given me the ultimate gift—the eulogy. He had been the cartographer of the map that chartered the rest of my life.

    By the time I got to his office at Temple Beth El I realized, of course, that I barely knew him, and was suddenly embarrassed at my presence there. I knew so little of Judaism, had (unjustly) railed so harshly against it for, up until then, I had only ever associated it with my horrible grandparents.  Still, I entered and sat across from him. Two almost-strangers in two tiny chairs.

    “So. How are you doing?”

What was I supposed to say?

    “Fine, thank you Rabbi.”

I wanted to tell him about everything.

    “How is your family?”

Well well well, Rabbi Syme this is all getting a bit personal! I usually wait ’til the third date to list my favorite Mandy Patinkin roles in order of sexiness, craziness, intensity, beard length, let alone discuss my batshit-bonkers family, but I suppose I can make an exception. How. To. Respond. How can a person respond when “One time, grandma kidnapped me” is, say, the sixth most dysfunctional story?

    “I… don’t really know.”

Rabbi Syme sat up in his chair and nodded.

    “I sensed as much. They were… unusual.”

Rabbi Syme’s Spidey-skills: for the win.

    We talked for a long while that day, Rabbi Syme and I, or at least what felt like it.  It was an odd discovery, but Rabbi Syme was more than my first spiritual advisor, in many ways he was the first adult who, even in the mere three hours clocked together, was more interested in my cultivation of wisdom than of knowledge. I knew that the word Rabbi translated as “teacher” in Hebrew, but this exceeded reciting the periodic table. Knowledge is information—a collection of facts. Wisdom is the poetry inside those facts. Wisdom relies on evocation more than description. It is the difference between two photographs: one that looks exactly the way it looked in the moment, the other that looks exactly the way it felt. Memory through a lens.

    “Do you know the Shema' Koleinu” he asked, as if I actually might?
    “Rabbi, I wasn’t invited to the Bar Mitzvahs or the quinceañeras if you catch my drift.”
    “I ...do not.”
    “I’m kind of a Cashew.” He stared at me blankly. “A Catholic-Jew? An interfaith secularization situation?”
    “That’s very clever.”
    “Thank you.” I continued, nervously, “Well technically I was invited to both the Steinman kids parties and for what it’s worth I played Golde in Fiddler sophomore year of high school—”
    “I—” he stopped me, kind but swift, “I understand.”

    He went on.
    “The Shema' Koleinu is the sixteenth paragraph of a central prayer of Judaism, called the Amidah, which is the core of every Jewish worship service.

    It reads:

אָב הָרַחֲמָן, שְׁמַע קולֵנוּ, ה' אֱלהֵינוּ, חוּס וְרַחֵם עָלֵינו, וְקַבֵּל בְּרַחֲמִים וּבְרָצון אֶת ‘תְּפִלָּתֵנוּ, כִּי אֵל שׁומֵעַ תְּפִלּות וְתַחֲנוּנִים אָתָּה, וּמִלְּפָנֶיךָ מַלְכֵּנוּ. רֵיקָם אַל תְּשִׁיבֵנוּ.

    "Hear our voice, O Lord our God; spare us and have mercy upon us, and accept our prayer in mercy and favor.Hear Our Voice is the essence of this prayer—and I sense that your voice has always been heard, both of the spoken and the sung variety. The eulogy proves that.”
    “Really?” I replied, not entirely understanding where he was leading me, all I knew was that I was willing to follow. 
    “Well I believe so. What do you think?”

     No one had ever asked me anything remotely like this, and I grew hot and uneasy fearing I would offend him, or say the wrong thing.

    “I really don’t know how to respond.”
    “There is no right or wrong here, Alexandra,” the Rabbi pacified, “it’s just a simple question. One of the beauties of Judaism is this ancient tradition of the dialogic process. Of discussion! Jews recognizing that understanding comes from meaningful exchanges, from challenges, not only with one another but with God Himself.”
    “Oh! Like in Fiddler how Tevye has a kind of dialogue with God!”
    “Exactly like that. God and Tevye have a very personal relationship.”
    “I really like that.”
    “So do I,” he smiled. “So? What do you think of ‘Hear Our Voice?’”
    “We all… want to be heard.”
    “And we all struggle to listen?”
    “I think so.” He leaned in. “Hear Our Voice is a very simple request, but it indicates that we want to engage beyond ourselves. It acknowledges the desire to be heard, and the validity of that desire.”
    “Wow,” I gasped. The thought took my breath away.
    “That’s why you are here today, isn’t it? To be heard?”

It certainly was. I nodded.    
He continued.

    “The prayer continues a few lines on: ‘Renew our days, as of old.’ Almost as if the speaker  is a little skeptical: Alexandra, do you think it is possible to recover the days of the past? And I’m not saying it isn’t.”
    “No but…” And then I saw.

    If prayers were only knowledge, prayers would fail. As wisdom, the prayer was true as anything. My father was dead. That was the fact. But the poetry of that fact could continue for the rest of my life if I turned these days of pain into lessons. Yes, the past indeed is truly “passed,” it is unrecoverable, and none of us can truly live there. But the wisdom gained by reflection upon that past is why we are alive. To make meaning. To understand better.  I looked at Rabbi Syme and said as much.
    “Do you believe, Alexandra?”
    “I believe you.”

I did—it wasn’t an evasion.

    “You know what I’m asking.”
    “I do. I can’t believe I’m saying it but I do. I believe in something.”
    “Well, good. ‘Something’ is possibility. ‘Something’ is something.”

    I thanked Rabbi Syme and left him that day, never to see him in person again. But his impact would be ever-with me, his name etched upon my heart, and, forever synonymous with integrity. 

22 September, 2017

Coulda-been-ku 9


While they got married,
You showed me I could, still, fly. 
Ill never forget.

21 September, 2017

Coulda-been-ku 8


Oh, the agony 
of being seen. Dark chapter. 
I loved you. Too much.

19 September, 2017

Coulda-been-ku 7


Ill never know why
your paint and my music cant 
exist together. 

Time and space are cruel.
But you wrote that already. 
You call, and I sing.

17 September, 2017

Coulda-been-ku 6


I, available,
Open. You at a crossroads. 
Story of my life. 

15 September, 2017

Coulda-been-ku 5


Mussels and moonlight: 
And poems, I remember 
You, deeply, reading.

13 September, 2017

Coulda-been-ku 4


Not a Tsar. But you
showed me I could love again. 
Thank you. Love, Sunny.


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