The dates had been set for a trip for Lee and I to New York City. A drive up with the remainder of my daughter’s boxes, sixteen of them in varying sizes and weights, two portfolios, two pictures carefully wrapped in blankets, one tool set and a two by six by eight inch stone signed by fellow students from the inaugural class at The America Hebrew Academy in Greensboro, NC. The dates were changed from later in the month to earlier - her work schedule changed and, always overprotective, she worried about us traipsing around NYC by ourselves. On our end, work became heavy and, heading into summer, we were reticent to tell patients they could not have appointments.
It had been months since we'd seen her. Too long for me. But, in the end, though I missed her enough to bother her by phone nearly every day, it seemed a trip destined for difficulty. I felt we were pushing it somehow - the fast drive up and back, the shuffling of patients, the challenge in accommodations as she had, as yet, no couch or blow-up bed and I was not looking forward to arriving in NYC and immediately dropping a few hundred on a sleeper sofa.
Lee suggested Alek go along instead. We made the plans but, at the last minute, he felt it was a bad idea. Not just for him, but for anyone. In the end, it seemed he was right and we canceled. But I still needed a day or two away and Lee suggested Gainesville.
I had shied away from Gainesville. But, now settled into a home I like, visiting the place I considered my home for so long no longer seemed melancholy and bittersweet. I could go to my favorite gardens, walk the trails, climb the sinkhole, sit downtown, stay up late at my favorite coffeehouse, spend the afternoon at museums. And I can get from here to there well before a single MP3 disk runs out.
I asked Alek if he wanted to go – to get away with me and leave Lee the house to herself for a couple of days. Happily, surprisingly, he said yes.
This might have something to do with my having invited his girlfriend too.
Jessica is a sweet kid. A smart kid. We have made it a point to include her in the household whenever we can. She’ll watch TV with us, have dinner with us, go out with us. We want her to feel welcome and to know that she is. This is no chore - she's fun to have around.
A week ago, Alek took her to South Florida to visit my father and brother, my in-laws. She learned quite a bit about the family and, yet, she stayed. So why not take her to Gainesville and show her some old haunts and tell her some odd stories. Let her see where Alek was born, where we lived, learn a bit about his parents.
Besides, Alek is quiet, Jessica talks. She and I will sing in the car while he sits. When we go out, he is worried about which one of us will embarrass him more. In short, it’s fun to have her along and it makes Alek happy. So why not?
The day was set. We leave Thursday. An easy trip. One night there. Gardens, sinkholes, museums, flea markets, thrift stores, retro clothing, coffeehouses. Maybe I’ll look up some people I know. Maybe not. I post a status message on Facebook. “Anything musical, festival, artful, eventful, funful or playful going on in Gainesville this Thursday of Friday?” I should have known not to, I did know not to, and I did it anyway.
Wednesday night I got this reply as a message on Facebook. It is from Tori, a friend of fourteen years. Tori thinks it is longer and I don’t tell her any different. The subject was “The Wild Young Zikr, Poetry Jam and Potluck”
I had gotten an invitation to this a month or so back but, since it was in Gainesville and I am in Palm Bay, three hours away, I said no. That and the fact it was a potluck which means there will be food and people which means eating food and talking to people. Actually, that was the only reason I said no.
The entire body of the email was two words. “Come by.”
People who know me, who spend time with me, come to understand that somehow, often somewhat uncomfortably, often somewhat frequently, they are in for new experiences. Tori, later, Victoria, later Murshida, always Tori to me, is like that as well. Having seen the comfort-stretching, learning and experiencing my friends tend to endure when around me, I knew what I had to do.
I had to say no. I had to say it quickly and before it was too late.
Why did I not use the word no? I walked right into it. I said “My dear Dear, It is a party. That means I will be struck with near paralyzing fear, cold with sweat, and wanting to crawl into any hole I can. Then I'll cling to anyone I actually know and then worry about having done that. How’s THAT for a confession and knowing myself?” I added, “Besides, I won't have been able to have cooked anything.”
There. That would be that. Done. Over. Crisis averted. After all, I promised no more forcing myself into social situations. I didn’t need them, didn’t like them, didn’t want them. And I can lie to myself as well as the next guy.
On the occasions I have needed a psychotherapist, and I assure you I have and do, I have not seen one. Why? Pack of idiots. Pulling out their tricks and counting on their common logic. I know their tricks and can out-logic them half asleep. Too smart for my own good, I am told, I have never found them to be effective. In psychotherapy, a good therapist has to get past your mind, past tricks and leave you with no place to go but in the direction of discovery, experience and growth, of finding or leaving. Tori is a psychotherapist. I should have known better. I should have just said no.
It's not a party-- it's a ceremony-- does the invite say party? That was a student's oversight.
Come at 8:30 to eat and for Zikr-- helping clean the dishes as your contribution to the meal will help manage your social anxiety between the eating and the invocation-- bring a couple of dark chocolate bars to add to dessert-- you can break them up and arrange them on a plate once you get here-- another activity to manage social anxiety...did I tell you I was almost paralyzed by this for years... covered it up because I am an actor. It sucks. My heart to you! I love you.
And Zikr... Zikr is... Zikr is...
5,000 years of Dervish Divine Magic. 130,000 prophets in the room, Illumined Teachers in the room, music beyond what is being sung... such beauty.
During the height of the Moorish Empire when our ancestors lived in the Iberian Peninsula enjoying what is sometimes referred to as The Golden Age of the Jews, there were seven generations of Jewish Sufi Sheiks. And you, my dear, area Dervish to the core. So... if you don't come I won't be insulted for a moment, but what a thing to pass up... eh?!!! ♥ ♥ ♥
Damn. She did exactly what I would have done. The sidestep. She deflected my issues, piqued my curiosity, spoke to my longing and left me nowhere to go but discovery and experience and growth. She left me nowhere to go but her house on Thursday evening.
Hmm... social interaction and food. Nothing like dropping myself directly into the lion's den.
But, if it is religious as well, it would probably be interesting to Alek, soooo...
Mind you, my newest poetry is not printed out so all I have is some older things. I mean, I have the new stuff on Internet access and on the computer, but not on paper. So if I read it might be something you have heard before.
Eight-thirty, eh? Dark chocolate, eh?
You know, if I'm on stage, I'm fine. If it is my job, I'm great. But I have even stopped going to contra dances for fear I won't get asked, or, if I ask, I'll be turned down. I never am but I know, next time... next time… so I don't go. I just stopped forcing myself.
So what's the dress code?
Why was I asking her that? Was I actually going? I asked the kids to see if they might say they’d not want to go. I prodded. I suggested.
“Sounds interesting,” they said. Damn.
Tori’s reply to my queries and misgiving?
Dress code is comfortable. Alek is welcome of course. Lots of young people. Not a place for performing actually. But what comes through comes through... you'll see. Someone will be holding your hand most of the time and guiding you through... I promise that! lol. ♥ VA ♥
I wrote back. “Guiding me through? I'll have Alek's main squeeze with me to. Guiding me through?”
Notice the sidestep here. “Awesome... ,” she answers. “The Path of Love Loves Lovers... yep yep yep ♥”
“Damn, it looks like you are giving me something to write about. CRAP!”
I have not written much in the last two months. It’s not that I have nothing to write about. I am working on a revision of a book coming back into print, on a novel, on a series of vignettes, on promotional material for the office. I have things I could write about. Maybe too many. A friend joked the other day that my problem was I had so much to write about that I don’t know where to start. I said “I need assignments. Write about this event. Write that story. Even better, maybe someone will give me an adventure. Wouldn’t it be great if there was a something interesting I could go to, less than a day away, that I could write about.” Make sure you really want something before you ask for it.
So Thursday morning we set off.
It is a three hour ride and we arrive in town with plenty of time. I take the kids on a tour, showing Jessica the house we lived in that we bought because of the live oak tree (age three), where the Lubavicher rabbi, one Shabbos eve, got Alek drunk on vodka and he spit up all over the rabbi in return (age four), where I died in my orange VW bus after a head-on collision with a blue truck, laying across Alek keeping him safe (also age four for him), his elementary school, Littlewood (ages five to nine), the old cooperative school we started out in the woods (ages who knows), Civic Media Center, where I got my start reading poetry at a clothing optional event (age who knows again), the bookstore we owned (age seven to nine) which now sells cigarettes and beer, and the house he was born in (not age four).
We pass the houses of people we know and decide to not stop in. Many we have made attempts to keep up with and most of the friendships fell apart from disuse as the distance and time grew. Some I email and some I call and from none do I get replies. That evening, I clean out my phonebook.
We explore downtown a bit and stop in at Flashbacks, a retro consignment shop. We buy a dress for Jessica and some cool whacked-out multi-coloured skater shoes for me (women’s size ten) and a great, magnificent find - a plaidish wool fedora. Neither appear to have been worn at all. Ever. Divesting myself of fewer than twenty-five dollars and feeling well on the upper-side of the bargain, we set off for lunch.
El Indio. It is not hard to find it and we have a great lunch of Mexican food under the trees on Gainesville’s main street, which is not Main Street, but 13th Street, US Highway 441. From there we walk a block to Mother Earth and buy three bars of dark chocolate. Green & Black's Organic 85% Cocoa Dark Chocolate.
There is a whole lot of tired going on. We head back to the West Side, near Archer Road, and look for a hotel. Classes let out for the summer a week ago and rooms are plentiful and inexpensive. We settle in, me in one room and Alek and Jessica in another. We will rest and, in an hour and a half, at quarter ‘til seven, leave for Tori’s.
Out Hawthorn Road, in the Southeast region of the town, down towards the lakes, in a hidden area of small to medium, iconoclastic adobe, A-frame, tin-roof, shack, balcony, geodesic houses, each more improbably different than the next, we wind around dirt roads until we find Tori’s home as described, notice the many people sitting, standing on the wide front porch. I had hoped we’d arrive before most of the people and I feel my heart rise in my throat.
It is difficult to find a place to park and we squeeze past the cars on the narrow lane, turn around at the end, at the bank of Calf Pond, and squeeze past them again to park by the top of the street, unblocked and unblockable by any car obeying even the rudiments of the spirits of logic and the traffic laws. I have planned my escape.
The kids exit the passenger side. I left not quite enough room for me to get out and I step into the vines and loam, smoothing my way against the side, compressing myself over the hood. Down the road, up the short path, two steps up to the porch.
“Adam!” She rushes toward me, slams into me, hugs me. It takes me a moment to process the voice, now buried in my shoulder. Kat. Katey. “Katey!”
In her mid-twenties, tall and thin, other than a sporadic picture on-line, I have not seen her for nearly ten years. Long among my daughter's best friends, even when distant. For years we saw her nearly every day.
I introduce the kids. Alek, of course, she knows though he has changed much since his age was in the single digits.
She takes my hand and brings me, around the people, inside. A small house. An adorable house. Different coloured walls, arches, stucco, sashes and prayer flags over doorways, devotional items on the walls, a fireplace to the left on the front outside wall as soon as one enters, and a table at the far end covered with food. A floor. The floor looks like people. Pillows and people. A sea of people between the front door and the table. A sea of people wearing shorts, t-shirts, sarongs, tank tops, less, more. I step around, over, through.
Really, it is not that crowded, but I don’t look down. There are many people but I don’t look down as that is where they are, sitting. Katey tells me her mother is busy talking with someone and points to a door through which I assume Tori is. And she must go as well. “Wait a moment.” I reach into my backpack and hand her three large bars of the 85% cacao chocolate. “For the desert table.”
We stand. It must be a few minutes or maybe a few seconds. I look at Alek and say softly, “I’m going to go outside where I’ll be less conspicuous.” I am not thinking about the fact that I am dressed in a button-down, albeit flowered, forest green shirt and dungarees which is as comfortable as I get when I don’t know the people. No, I am thinking about my mere presence and palpable, I am sure to everyone, discomfort.
And from some part of the room I hear, "be less conspicuous?" And so confirmed becomes my belief, my self-fulfilling prophecy, that people notice me, laugh at me, talk about me. I walk out the door again. Across the porch, down the steps, to the road and walk to the left, the right, one end, the other.
Out comes Tori. Tall, bright, nearly buzzed white hair, dressed in white, flowing inside and out, she hugs me. And I do so adore her. Always have. And miss her. Always do. She senses the discomfort even as I melt. She tells me how good it is to see me. She takes my hand, leads me around, introduces me to people, tells them she knows me much longer than she does. I don't argue. "Want to take a walk to the pond? We have a dock that goes out into it."
We walk down the road, onto the narrow, single file, wooden dock. In the water baby gators swim by.
"I swim in there," Tori tells me and a few other people who have followed us, met on the way, or were already there. "I just listen to my instincts."
It's time to go back to the house. Time to eat. Back up the lane, inside. Tori walks to the table, gathers people around, points to the dishes and tells us what is what, what's in it, who brought it. Time for a blessing and we all gather in a large circle squashed by the walls. Someone is missing. Tori's mom. I'll get her, says someone and leaves the room. A few moments later, her mom, thin and white, sitting in a chair, is slid into the room, chair legs across the tile floor.
The last time I saw her mom she spoke. The last time I saw her mom, she walked. Last time I saw her mom... I want to go over and say hello. She smiles. People talk to her. I can't. My lack. It has not been long since my mother died and it feels like that. Far too much like that. Far too soon. And immediately I feel badly for my inability to communicate with her, my desire to distance, the feeling, if I walk over, I will begin to cry and see my mother, again, cold, dry, dead. My last image of her and I can't do that now.
It is my lack. But I choose to be kind to myself. As kind as I can be while still dishing self-reproach.
The blessing begins. Tori leads it, blessing the food, our gathering, that we have come together to share this meal, this love, this precious time together and our reaching out to one another in union, in expansiveness, in joy. That we all move toward the one and the one moves within us all, each a ripple or wave in a single expansive sea.
And we eat. I wait, as always, not wanting to be seen eating, that someone might say, "he's fat but he's eating?" knowing, as I do, I am the only one who begrudges me food. But I wait, regardless, until the line is down, 'til seconds have been had, 'til cleanup has commenced, 'til most are busy talking, or laughing, or walking in the warm night.
I grab a plate and find the food is gone. This was my hope, of course. My son tried to get me to eat. I told him I would. But if the food is gone, what's to be done?
There is half a slice of bread left, made by Tori, spelt and seeds and dense and delicious. There is a handful of cucumbers and a few fork-fulls of salad. I eat. Beside me is a conversation about massage therapy and sore legs. One woman has shin pain and wants to know how to stretch to alleviate it. It is a chance to help and I apologize, ask if I might make a suggestion, and, with leave, do. She is a massage therapist, not a student as I thought, and I think they might believe me to be egoistic. But it is information she did not have and seems happy for it. And I back out off the conversation before I have worn thin my welcome.
I bring my plate into the kitchen and, among three other people, wash my dish. Then other dishes on the counter, then gather other things to wash, happy to have a chore - doing something that allows me to face away from others and with no expectation of socializing. When there are no more dishes to wash, I walk outside. The kids are sitting on a set of steps.
Jessica is feeling uncomfortable. Her stomach hurts. She feels somewhat nauseous. Part of me wants her to want to leave and I will, of course, concede. part of me wants her to come in. We've come this far, why not go all the way? Tori comes over, crouches, speaks with her, assures her no one will ask her to do anything she feels unable to. She agrees to come in and give it a try. I am heartened. I am undone. My mind, my will, divided, opposed to itself, gets what it does and does not want.
Then, we are called back into the living-room and asked to take seats upon the floor. There are pillows. I refuse one, knowing, within ten minutes, my legs will be asleep. People push in, Tori askes we get closer. "Smush. Smush." My son to my right, Jessica beside him. To my left, a young lady who's name I do not know. I do not know anyone's name save my son, Jessica, Kat and Tori. She wears a green dress and sits on a pillow. Everyone has a pillow and she leans forward and grabs one of the few remaining, piled in the middle of the room, and insists I take it. She has a Spanish accent, South American. Argentina, I am nearly sure. I refuse the pillow. I refuse the kindness.
"Smush Smush." We do, I am pressed against Alek and he sits tightly. I try not to impose on his space. Ms. Argentina is pressed against me and I try to move to give her room, but there is no where to go. She sits cross legged and lets her legs fall to the sides, her right leg resting on my lap. I thank her for the excellent suggestion of the pillow, taking it from behind her and popping it under me. Newly elevated as I am, her leg still drapes over mine, resting on my thigh. I have no choice but to melt and breath.
Tori lays a sheepskin down in front of the fireplace and sits. "This (drawing a large circle in the air) is Islam. This (drawing a large circle slightly intersecting the other) is Sufism. This little space where they come together is Islamic Sufism but the rest of this circle is Sufism too. A long time ago, Mohamed welcomed the mystics, persecuted elsewhere, into his protection. Everyone was welcomed. Muslims, Jews, all the mystics. And they sat on sheepskins, or 'sufs.' So they were called Sufis."
Zikr. It means to remember, to praise, to celebrate, to devote. It is movement and a spiritual state. It is to occupy ones body and mind, simultaneously, with the act of devotion so there is no space, no thing within that is not involved in devotion, not filled with celebration, not engaged in remembering, not suffused with love. The entire being becomes a celebration of all that is within and without and, soon, cannot tell one from the other. All things are divine and nothing is not the ground of creation. Zikr. Dhikr. Daven. Sway, rock, recite, repeat, praise, sing, move, move move.
She speaks about recognizing each other. Sufi's, those on the path, mystics, though not all alike, recognize each other, as she recognizes us tonight.
There is further, but brief, explanation. Some chants will be in Aramaic, some in other languages, but all will be translated and all are here to bring us toward the one, toward unity, to ecstasy, out of our bodies and out of our minds to expansion past our skin-encapsulated egos, and into the ocean of being. We will be soaked, drenched in the one. We shall be drowned, encompassed without, filled within, by the love of all that is.
"Allah hu. Hu Allah." A name of the one and the universal sound, a breath. We chant. I was taught a similar chant by Rabbi Isenberg, now the Chairman of the Department of Religion at the University of Florida. We would breath, chanting fast, bowing our heads. " Sh'ma Yis'ra'eil / Adonai Eloheinu / Adonai echad." Three bows each time, one for each part. Fast, faster, breathless. Ten minutes, twenty minutes, half an hour. Shaya would gather the Jews of a mystical bent and the Muslims of a mystical bent and have evenings he called "Jufi Dancing" to prayers and songs and chants. The Dances of Universal Peace. On Sundays, often, we'd play soccer, the Jews against the Muslims, no one keeping score. A name for oneness is a name for oneness.
Yet, I have trouble as the chant takes hold around the circle. First I sing not at all, then quietly, barely moving my lips. Then, as time passes, the chant starts singing itself and I feel no choice.
Words have meaning, rhythm and sound. Their power comes from the vibration of these three. But we don't need to understand the words. Sometimes the words are lost. Sometimes we can't pronounce them. The rhythm and sound are all that is needed as these impart their own meaning.
A rabbi taught me , if I don’t know the words, hum. There is power in the tune, in the rhythm and sound. Some chants come and go. Some, though, have power in their tunes, power in their sounds. They last. "Allah Hu."
So I sing. And Tori begins to twirl. She spins and spins and spins in the little space there is within the circle. She bends down and grabs someone's hands and they spin together. She lets go and that person grabs someone's hand and they spin. We chant, we breath, they spin. With each choosing of a new partner, I wish simultaneously to be chosen and overlooked. We sing we sing we sing, they whirl, they whirl, they whirl. Faster and faster and then, as though by cue, we slow and breath and slow and slow and stop.
We had all pulled our legs in, to make more room, to not get our feet spun upon, and Ms. Argentina and I are now rather nestled into each other. And it is time for the next chant.
We count off into ones and two. Hold hands. Ones turn to the left first, then right. Twos to the opposite. Say "I don't exist." Turn. "You exist." Turn. "I don't exist." Turn. "You exist." Again. Again. Look in the eyes. Repeat. Again and again Ms. Argentina and I look into each others' eyes, tell each other "I don't exist." Alek and Jessica are doing the same. Alternately, I turn to Alek, tell him "You exist." Back to Ms. Argentina. "I don't exist." People are snickering, some laughing, some looking down, some follow through, more and more, look around, smile, radiate, expand, glow.
We rise and learn a song. Umbay alahay alahay alaho / Umbay alahay alahay alaho / (Rise an octave.) Umbay alahay alahay alaho / (Drop and octave.) Umbay alahay alaho. We sing. We sing. The circle breaks and the beginning of the line moves, sways, walks, dances. We become a snake, moving, swaying walking, around the house, into the kitchen, out the back door, into the yard, singing, walking, spiraling, singing, singing, faster, slower, louder, softer, tight, loose, drawn, compressed, expanded, pulling, pushing, singing singing singing. Passing eyes, looking, gazing, singing, the line doubles on itself, we face each other, it spirals again, we face away, it folds, circles, folds. We coil, coil, sound in our ears, singing all around and after an unknown time, we are all spiraled into a singing coil, tight, tight against each other, side by side, front and back, singing, pressing, pressing. Warmth and sound and naught else.
There is nothing to do but sing and melt. I cannot tell where I end and the next person begins. How long have I been holding Ms. Argentina's hand? Alek's hand? I am pressed between them, against the person in front of me, the person behind me. Briefly, ever so, I take inventory. What is there? Sound. But so much is missing. Anxiety. Worry. Boundaries. Me.
We quiet. Sing in a whisper. Slowly uncoil. Sit on the warm Earth. Come back inside. Sit again.
We are quiet. It is time for a story. Tori starts it. We each add a bit then pass it on. I am two thirds of the way around and it falls in and out of continuity, the story of a lonely woman of the distant past. A woman who lives in the desert and wishes to see the ocean. My turn comes and I do my best to return the story to the realm from which it came, to address the original question, get the woman to the ocean and away from caves and talking cats and speeding cars and back to her home and time and desert and to help her find her ocean.
The person before Tori has his turn. "I don't have to finish it, do I?"
"No," she says, "I wouldn't do that to anyone."
He takes his turn. So does Tori. But the story is undone.
"Adam," She asks. "Would you finish the story?"
I guess I'm not anyone. I am surprised. It is a compliment, I know. And I take it gladly, finishing the story with the breath of the divine lifting the woman and her carpet to the clouds, to the sea. Everyone blows. Everyone blows. Our breath together is the divine breath. Our wish together is the divine wish. And together her wish is fulfilled. Together, may all our wishes be fulfilled.
Tori looks across the room, smiles, puts her hands together in front of her heart, shakes her head yes, says "I love that man."
And, yes, I believe it's true. And, right now, so do I.