Time All At Once

Carrie’s Cosmic Seder

Poetry of Everyday Life Blog #14
To be published in the magazine Voices: the Journal of New York Folklore
by Caroline Harris with an Intro by Steve Zeitlin

Brodsky-Stein and Zeitlin Seder, 1946

After celebrating a family Seder in Philadelphia for almost a hundred years, my coterie of cousins became too dispersed, and the celebration gradually dwindled and faded away. So I was happy when Carrie Harris, my close friend and City Lore board member invited me to celebrate her family Seder in Manhattan last year. As Carrie led the symbol-laden ritual meal, we re-told the story in the familiar Haggadah booklets given to each of us. We read aloud about the Jews escaping slavery in Egypt, giving thanks that God who “passed over” the Jews during the ten plagues, parted the Red Sea, led them to freedom, and, as noted in the accompanying  Seder song, “Dayenu,” gave the Jews the Ten Commandments on Mount Sinai, and, after forty years, brought them to the Promised Land.

As is traditional at the Seder, the youngest child reads the four questions, beginning with “Why is this night different from all other nights,” but, after a few glasses of wine, a different set of questions crossed my mind. Considering the current situation between the Israelis and the Palestinians, is it productive for us to annually retell a story that points to Israel as a promised land for the Jews? Was the promise of a Promised Land actually a promise of land?  When did the metaphor of a righteous escape become a right to real estate? (Thousands of years later, politicians in Israel regularly make that claim.) Is it helpful, given the situation, for Jews all over the world to exclaim “next year in Jerusalem”?  Jesus is said to have been crucified in that city and, adding to the the contested claims, centuries after the Second Temple was destroyed, the Al-Aksa Mosque in Jerusalem became a holy site for Muslims. When the Christians talk about home they think about heaven; Jews often think about Israel. Is the Seder adding fuel to the fire?

Like the lamb shank and the bitter herb on the Seder plate, I thought about these questions as food for thought. In conversations with Carrie growing out of her Seder, she suggested that I am short-changing the story. “It’s primarily a story about freedom from oppression. It does express the hope that “next year” we will be in Israel, but it has expressed that hope for thousands of years when there has been no state of Israel and still hopes for it now that there is one.” Here’s how she tells it.

Caroline Harris

The Haggadah tells a story within a larger story, within an even larger story.  On Passover at the Seder, we transcend time. In one night, we journey into the past through the present to the future—time all at once. These time frames are tracked in the Seder:  the past before the meal, the present at dinner, and the future after dinner.  The past is very deep, reaching back not just to Egypt, and Jacob and Abraham before, but to the beginning of time.

PAST

The Haggadah reminds me of my mother. As my mom is getting older, and might be afflicted with some dementia, her stories, like the Haggadah, always start further and further back. You ask my Mom a simple question and you might find out where she – or even her father – was born to get to the answer.  For instance, if you ask her about my father who passed away almost 20 years ago, she will tell you the wonderful story of how they met. “My mother and Herb’s sister,” she would say, “both went to the same dressmaker – and one day she told them that the two of us would go great together.”

The Seder is supposed to tell us the story of the Hebrews’ escape from slavery in Egypt. But like my mother’s answers to certain questions, the Haggadah goes back to the beginning of time, to Creation, remembered when we first light and bless the holiday candles separating light and darkness to start the story.

The Maggid, the section of the Haggadah where the official narrative is recited, also doesn’t get right to the point either.  It incorporates portions of Abraham’s and Jacob’s stories that describe the growth of a tribe into a nation.

More significantly, the Maggid introduces monotheism to the Passover narrative. God’s promise of a great nation is predicated on Abraham’s and the Hebrews’ acceptance of the one-God. The Haggadah recounts all of the wonders God performed to free the Hebrews from slavery, showing the one-God’s might over the polytheistic Egyptians’ gods, through the plagues and the parting of the Red Sea.

Throughout the centuries, the Haggadah has incorporated what were then contemporary references to make the story relevant to the day, intimating that the Haggadah isn’t only about a particular place – Egypt at a particular time – but about all “Mitzrayims,” all “narrow” places, at all times.

Today, many Seders emphasize that the celebration is not only about freedom from slavery in Egypt thousands of years ago or just about Jewish history; it’s about freedom from oppression anywhere for everyone. In the 1970s, some added a fourth matzah to bring attention to the plight of Soviet Jews. Modern anti-Semitism is recalled with a reading from the writings of a Holocaust survivor and, this year, anti-Semitism and all hatred undoubtedly will be recalled by reading about the slaughters at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh and the All Noor Mosque and Linwood Islamic Centre in Christchurch, New Zealand.  A challis of water has joined the Seder table symbolizing Miriam’s well and the role of women in the Passover story.  Along with the shank bone, the bitter herbs and the egg, an orange on the Seder plate now stands for diversity, a tomato, for migrant workers’ rights. Thus, “Egypt” is a metaphor for any place where there is slavery, oppression or hatred.

 PRESENT

Caroline Harris and Howard Goldman Seder, 2018

Before dinner, three different themes have been introduced:  slavery to freedom; tribe to great nation; and polytheism to monotheism.  The focus has been in the past, with efforts to make the past meaningful by reference to more recent events.  Finally, with dinner we are fully in the present.

The Haggadahs are tucked away, tossed on a couch or dropped to the floor. There is no script during the meal. We erupt in conversation. Adults find out what’s happened in each other’s lives since the last Seder. Kids run around or play with plastic frogs jumping into wine glasses.  We eat heartily, the smells and tastes reminding us of our family’s and friends’ sweet past, with a dash of bitterness about the brother who won’t join us, sadness about the aunt who died.  Yet, here we are together again, linking the past and the present.

Then the kids (in my Seder, adults, too) scramble around to find the Afikoman. That piece of matzah, raised aloft at the beginning of the Seder, will let us begin to end the Seder, once again merging the past with the present, present with the future. When we bite the small broken piece of matzah from the Afikoman, we bite reality – the reality of oppression and hardship, the reality of a broken world. Yet, we taste our dreams, our dreams of freedom and justice for us and all people.

 FUTURE

We open the door for Elijah, the prophet who is supposed to resolve all conflicts before the Messiah comes, and we pray God will once again redeem us, hoping that whatever Jewish or humanitarian crisis we are facing this year will be resolved by next year.

But the Haggadah doesn’t end with our hope that the immediate problems of the Jews and the rest of the world will be resolved by next year, though indeed that would be, as the beloved Jewish folksong goes, “Dayenu!”–  It would be enough.  The Haggadah’s vision extends further.

Where does the story end?  A story that begins with Creation can only end in the far distant future beyond time, after Elijah, in the world to come—in “ha’olam ha’ba.” The concluding line of the Haggadah, “Next Year in Jerusalem!” is, in part, the hope for the physical place that Jews consider home. (“Hope,” in Hebrew, is “Hatikvah”—the name of Israel’s national anthem.) It also is the hope that the problems we experience today will be resolved next year.  Beyond that, “Next Year in Jerusalem!” is the existential hope that someday—in the world to come—-all of us will enter the Promised Land, the land of milk and honey. “The Promised Land” is a metaphor for universal freedom, the perfect world of peace and justice.

Just before he was assassinated in Memphis, Martin Luther King echoed the Passover story when he declaimed, “I’ve been to the mountain top. . .and I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the promised land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the promised land!”

In one night, we journey together from Creation, through all time in-between, to the future beyond our imagination in the world to come.  We form a bond that unites us with other Jews now, with Jews in the past and in the future, linking us with all humanity to create a better world.  In the words of Theodore Parker, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.”

The message uncovered is deeply optimistic and challenging.  From the time of Creation of humankind, we have been on a trajectory towards the Promised Land of justice, compassion and peace. The Haggadah teaches us: The light of Creation illuminates our path to redemption.

But we cannot sit by idly. We must walk on that path.  We must take action like Abraham and Jacob, Yoheved, Puah, Miriam and Moses, continuously owning our freedom, striving for freedom and an end to oppression for others, and pursuing justice as we march together through human history to the Promised Land.

And then we sing.

“By showing us that poetry lives everywhere,” writes Bob Holman in the preface to Zeitlin’s new book, The Poetry of Everyday Life: Storytelling and the Art of Awareness, “Steve seems to make the whole world into a poem, with all of us collaborating daily in the writing of it.” If you like the blog, you’ll love the book. Click here to purchase.

Please email your thoughts, stories and responses about the poetic side of life to steve@citylore.org. This monthly post continues to tap into the poetic side of what we often take for granted: the stories we tell, the people we love, the metaphors used by scientists, even our sex lives. I chronicle the poetic moments in life and also look at how we all use poetry in our daily lives. I am a folklorist, and I want to hear from you—because that’s where all the best material comes from. For more information about The Poetry of Everyday Life published by Cornell click here.

Corporate Candy

Ungentrified Sweets in a Gentrified City

The Poetry of Everyday Life, blogpost 13

By Molly Garfinkel and Steve Zeitlin

 

Artwork by Bryn Pennetti

In the 1976 film Taxi Driver, Travis Bickle, played by Robert De Niro, buys some Chuckles from the concessions stand at the adult cinema. He tells the concessions girl that he prefers Jujubes because they last longer. If he were in a movie theater today, he certainly would not find Jujubes and probably not Chuckles, either. He would be given a choice of mostly Haribo candies and varieties of its juggernaut gummy bears. These are today’s gentrified candies. Although the German gummy bear has been around since 1922, the Haribo company recently swallowed up a slew of other confections manufacturers all over the world, and churns out over a hundred million bears in different varieties every day.

If De Niro were looking for Jujubes now, his best bet would be Economy Candy, at 108 Rivington Street, on the Lower East Side, which opened its doors in 1937, and which thankfully is NOT endangered. Where else can you find not only Jujubes but Dots, licorice pipes, Gobstoppers, Cinnamon Bears, Charleston Chews, a five-pound Hershey bar, or a Betty Boop Pez dispenser? This is a place to go for what we call ungentrified candy. It’s a place that offers a plethora of flavors and shapes that you can’t find anywhere else, at least not all together in one extravagant “Big Rock Candy Mountain.” Economy Candy sells the sweets many of us above a certain age delighted in as children. It’s a place that resonates with our memories of taste, a place that can still surprise us. This variety of tastes and experiences, this historic resonance, is what the city should—and sometimes does—offer, but not without our vigilance and advocacy.

Artwork by Bryn Pennetti

Let’s imagine that New York City was made of candy. The city’s glass towers and big-box stores would be the Haribo gummy bears: crystalized corporate candy. Places like Economy Candy, Katz’s Delicatessen, Yonah Schimmel’s Knishery, and the Eldridge Street Synagogue might be the venerable but still extant Jujubes, licorice pipes, Chuckles, and Spearmint Leaves – or the spice drops in your grandmother’s crystal candy jar that like older buildings smack of yesterday.  But many candies are now extinct: Chicklets, black licorice dollars, Mary Janes and now –say it ain’t so! – Necco Wafers. They remind us of the city’s bygone places – Mars Bars (the Lower East Side dive bar not the candy bar), 5 Pointz (the famous Queens mural space), CBGB, the Domino Sugar factory, the Lenox Lounge, the house under the roller coaster in Coney Island, Music Row and now even the Cornelia Street Café.

It’s not that we care so much about candy, but we do care about a diversity of tastes, of experiences in the city. We care about the experiential difference between buying a piece of penny candy from friendly soul at a neighborhood bodega and trying to even find a human being to ask where an item is located in a big-box store.

The iconic Economy Candy is a metaphor for these tastes and experiences. The shop has been in the Lower East Side for over sixty years. Before the Great Depression, the storefront housed a hat and shoe store, with a vendor selling candy from a pushcart outside its doors. During the Depression, the candy started selling better than the shoes and hats. When Morris “Moishe” Cohen and his brother-in-law returned from World War II, they took over the business. Moishe’s son Jerry and Jerry’s wife, Irene, inherited the shop in the 1980s, and, like Moishe, took pride in kibitzing with the customers. Currently, Jerry works part time and their son and his wife run the store.

Today, the Lower East Side emporium, which we were pleased to honor in 2011 with a Place Matters Award, is a thriving pilgrimage site. Neon marshmallow Peeps seem to glow from the counters, hollow chocolate bunnies patiently perch on beds of plastic grass, and bins stacked nearly to the ceiling contain every jellybean flavor on record. In parts of the store, mirrors reflect the merchandise below, so shoppers can feel gleefully surrounded by candy.

Artwork by Bryn Pennetti

At City Lore, we have been inspired by the San Francisco Legacy Business Registry, which, as its website states, “works to save longstanding, community-serving businesses that so often serve as valuable cultural assets,” and which uses a nomination process similar to that used for historic landmarks. We urge New York City to follow suit, but with some key differences.

First, the San Francisco registry, which is itself endangered, relies on the government giving grants to landlords to keep legacy businesses affordable. Grants to landlords? Even the registry has come to realize this is not sustainable. Second, commercial rent control is simply anathema to recent New York City mayors and most city council members. When we brought up cultural landmarking at a city council meeting years ago, we were laughed out of the room for suggesting something so economically infeasible. Thankfully, the Small Business Jobs Survival Act, which was first introduced in 1986, is currently being reconsidered. We strongly support it.

City Lore’s also proposes a Community Anchors rent-subsidy program for cultural landmarks. Small businesses would be nominated for the program with petitions based on their contributions to neighborhood stability and quality of life. If it’s possible to do this for historic landmarks, as the city already does, we believe it’s possible to do this for cultural landmarks. But the number of Community Anchors would be limited so as not to have a significant effect on the overall city economy: this program would not be commercial rent control to upend the city’s economic viability. We would limit the number of Community Anchors whose rent increases would be limited to perhaps less than 2 percent of any landlord’s properties, with a negligible effect on their profits. City politicians are hesitant to consider or strategize about this, claiming that the state constitution forbids it; yet commercial rent control did exist in the city between 1945 and 1963 under a special law. Yes it will take a bit of creativity on all sides, because last we heard the people make the laws and their purpose is not to serve as a straightjacket for the common sense reforms this rapidly gentrifying city sorely needs.

New York is in a constant state of change. If it weren’t, Economy Candy would still be a shoe and hat shop. Thankfully there are still ungentrified newsstands where you can buy a pack of Chuckles. But let’s find a way to protect Community Anchors. For if we don’t, as the folklorist Alan Lomax once put it, “Soon there where be nowhere to visit and no place to truly call home.” As for the gentrified candies, we’ll just swallow hard.

From a concept book by Bryn Pennetti (https://www.brynpennetti.com/economy-candy-concept-book)

 

The Gravedigger’s Tale

Poetry of Everyday Life, Blogpost 12

Born in Aiken South Carolina, raised in South Jamaica, Queens, Donnie Williams, a gravedigger, spent many long years digging his own grave.

“There was a time when I was actually looking at a death – my own,” he told me.

“When I was growing up, I was in the church – but I strayed.  I first started selling drugs when I was 13 – by 14 I started making real good money.  My grandmother would come and get me and we would go to church and then when I leave church I’d go back to doin’ what I was doin’ – and sometimes I would see my grandmother coming and just go hide so I wouldn’t have to go to church. Like my mother always says, ‘God has a way of bringing you down.’  At 15 I was doing really well. At 17, I ended up in the penitentiary.

Donnie William, Gravedigger

“They gave me 75 years to life – my mother, my grandmother and the church they worked on it and worked on it and after 2 and a half years, they got me out.

“When they finally got me out my grandmother said ‘you’re not going back to jail and you’re gonna get yourself a straight job’ My grandfather got me a job in 1980 in Beth David Cemetery. When I first started out I was just cutting grass with my grandfather. Yeah I used to walk by just to watch people dig the graves and I was wondering when it would be my turn one day –and sure enough one day I came in and a man handed me a shovel. I went in there digging like an old steam shovel.

“I started liking it so after 5 years I cut the drug dealing and stuck with the cemetery. Became honest. If you’re good at something it pays to be good at that – some people are good at writin’, some people good at photography. I was pretty decent at being a grave digger. I learned how to take a rounded spade shovel and make a square hole.“

But when my mother died and I lost my best friend I started drinking heavier and became an alcoholic, and then I became a functioning alcoholic, then I became a functioning fighting alcoholic.

Donnie Williams has mastered the art of digging a square hole with a rounded shovel.

“I used to get out there and tell the guy, ‘you don’t have to dig the grave, I’ll dig it.’  I’d go to the store and get me a six pack and I’d dig the grave 5 and half feet, a little deeper. Then I’d make a square hole down there, bury the six pack under the grave and go.

“But I knew I had to get my life together and in order to do that I had to go somewhere and find somebody and find peace in my life to make myself become who I used to be.  And that’s what happened. I checked myself into a clinic.

“I was in Odyssey Rehab and I was in there for about a year and a half going on- almost two years – and I was beating my own purpose – I was still going out drinking, tellin’ people no I’m not drinkin’, getting dirty urine but you know when I thought about it I thought it’s time to get yourself together – you came here for a reason – so I started stoppin’ little by little.

So one night I came to my room and the light was kind of dim. And there was this person sittin’ on my side of the bed—so I asked this guy, ‘you’re in the wrong room, Sir.’  He didn’t say nothin’ to me – so I said, maybe he’s sleepin’ – I said, ‘Excuse me, Sir, you’re in the wrong room – and if you don’t get out of here, I’m gonna whoop your ass.

He says to me, ‘hmmmm.’

I said, ‘Excuse me, you’re in the wrong room, Sir.’

He turned around and lifted up his head and said, ‘You don’t know me?’

I said, ‘No, I don’t know you. But you’re in the wrong room. If you don’t get up out my room there’s gonna be issues here.’

So the man looked at me, eyes red as fire and said, ‘You don’t know me?’

I said, ‘I don’t know you and don’t really give a damn.’

The man turned around and said, ‘I’m you.’

My head started spinning, really.   I had started thinking, and was thinking maybe he’s drunk.

He says, ‘I’m you.’

I said, ‘what do you mean, you’re me?’

He said, ‘I’m the drunk in you.’

‘The drunk in me?’

Couldn’t figure that one out either.

Then he told me, ‘you’re leaving me.’

I said, ‘leaving me?  If you don’t get out of my room, you right you’re gonna be leavin’ me.’

Then he turned around and told me the whole story.   He said, ‘I’m the drunk in you and you’re leavin’ me.’ And it was then I realized I had stopped drinkin’ for a whole year and I didn’t even know that God was with me then, without the bottle, without any medication. I was sober – and from that day to this day I haven’t seen that person since.

That’s a phenomenon I really would like to understand – but you know what? I ain’t in no rush to try to push it either.  I take it day by day and I let it go and if he show up again, maybe I can ask that question.”

“You know,” I said to Donnie, “you’re a great storyteller.”

“Never a storyteller.  I’m only telling you facts of what’s happened to me. Now I don’t know about anybody else. You asked me about me, and I can only tell you about me. And everything I tell you about me is the God’s Heaven truth. I’m telling you facts, not stories, there’s a difference. I don’t mind telling you because that’s part of what God put in my life.”

The grave digger’s tale is true. These are the facts.  To paraphrase the writer Virginia Woolf these are the creative facts; the fertile facts; the facts that suggest and engender.  I shared Donnie’s story with my friend, the poet and therapist, Marc Kaminsky.  “In Donnie’s story,” Marc said, “facts become images of transformation; they evoke the conversion experience through which the divided self becomes healed and whole through the intercession of grace.  His story belongs to the poetry of everyday life because he is thinking in images. Is the mysterious event in the room a hallucination or a revery or a visitation through the unconscious? The vision confirms that Donnie is leaving his drunken – his divided, dissociated – self behind; it is the revelation that leads to lifelong change.“

Donnie now has five successful children, and is gainfully employed as a grounds keeper in New York City, working with two wonderful women who “regrouped” him.  Long before he sat down with myself and filmmaker Heather Quinlan, Donnie testified to these storied facts of his life each Sunday at Peace Mission Church of Christ in Queens, elevating them to a revelation beyond storytelling, his poetic evocation rising up into the eaves, told before God and everyone – encouraging all of us to walk away from the dark side of ourselves.

 

“By showing us that poetry lives everywhere,” writes Bob Holman in the preface to Zeitlin’s new book, The Poetry of Everyday Life: Storytelling and the Art of Awareness, “Steve seems to make the whole world into a poem, with all of us collaborating daily in the writing of it.” If you like the blog, you’ll love the book. Click here to purchase.

Please email your thoughts, stories and responses about the poetic side of life to steve@citylore.org. This monthly post continues to tap into the poetic side of what we often take for granted: the stories we tell, the people we love, the metaphors used by scientists, even our sex lives. I chronicle the poetic moments in life and also look at how we all use poetry in our daily lives. I am a folklorist, and I want to hear from you—because that’s where all the best material comes from. For more information about The Poetry of Everyday Life published by Cornell click here.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Live from the POEMobile – Poems on Steam

Poetry of Everyday Life Blogpost #10

My friend and possibly distant cousin, Ariel Zeitlin, expressed the view of many of us when she quipped, “You may be living over a hot air grate, but at least you’re in New York.” I’ve always been fascinated with the steam that billows out from the underground in New York, on and around which many homeless souls have found some cold winter warmth. To me it suggests that the hallowed ground beneath our New York City footsteps is bubbling and gurgling like a witches’ caldron, an orgy of passion or the fires of hell – mirroring the teeming life of the city above.

But for Chris Jordan, who spends his time thinking and imagining and projecting light both from his luminous soul and the hi tech projectors he owns and thinks so much about, the steam from the streets was just another challenging surface to project upon.

And for our poetry team – Bob Holman and Sahar Muradi and myself –the intermingling of words, light and steam was away to express the fleeting evanescence of life.

Ride with us in the POEMobile and watch it now before the steam disappears into the ether.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DnCHiACVKc0&list=PL4slyQodoIv3DexHzk_d3vAHmo3NjPWU6&index=4

 

 

“By showing us that poetry lives everywhere,” writes Bob Holman in the preface to Zeitlin’s new book, The Poetry of Everyday Life: Storytelling and the Art of Awareness, “Steve seems to make the whole world into a poem, with all of us collaborating daily in the writing of it.” If you like the blog, you’ll love the book. Click here to purchase.

Please email your thoughts, stories and responses about the poetic side of life to steve@citylore.org. This monthly post continues to tap into the poetic side of what we often take for granted: the stories we tell, the people we love, the metaphors used by scientists, even our sex lives. I chronicle the poetic moments in life and also look at how we all use poetry in our daily lives. I am a folklorist, and I want to hear from you—because that’s where all the best material comes from. For more information about The Poetry of Everyday Life published by Cornell click here.

 

 

Spring Burial

Spring Burial:

The Legend of the Service Tree

 

Poetry of Everyday Life Blogpost #9

 

Serviceberry tree in bloom, courtesy New York Botanical Garden

“We grew up thinking that if there wasn’t pavement under our feet, we were lost,” Marc Kaminsky said facetiously, as he sat with his longtime friend George Getzel, who lay dying in a hospital bed at Calvary Hospital in the Bronx, talking about spring. They were two Bronx kids who morphed into two aging, brilliant intellectuals. They knew each other from their time at Hunter College School of Social Work in the ’70s. Struck by George’s tranquility in the face of mortality, Marc asked his friend, filmmaker Menacham Daum to videotape their conversation, and sent a copy to me.

In his better days, George told Marc, he’d loved to visit the New York Botanical Garden in all four seasons. Each time it would be a totally different world—the garden was a symbol of nature and birth and growth and decay.

“You discover this natural world,” Marc remarked. “You take this literal fact and use it as a symbol of immortal life.”

“I was especially close to the service tree,” George continued. “It’s an indigenous tree in northeast America. It’s a tree that’s barely a tree—it might be considered a bush—but it’s a tree. It actually fruits, it has a sweet little fruit that comes out of it when spring warms up, but it’s the first tree that blossoms in the woods. It has soft, large flower petals, light pinkish-white, and if you can reach out and smell it, the tree has the most delicate perfume—really beautiful. It only blooms when the earth around it is unfrozen.

Serviceberry tree blossom, courtesy of the New York Botanical Garden

“Our ancestors—at least the ones in North America—had a real problem when people died during the winter, because they couldn’t bury them; the ground was too hard. So what they did was wait till the service tree bloomed, and then they knew they could bury the dead because the ground was soft enough. Otherwise the bodies would have to be kept in coffins stacked in barns. That touched me deeply.

“So for the last few years, when I could still walk, I’d been trying to hit one of my holy places—the service tree. I would go into the Bronx botanical garden to walk on a trail through fifty acres of virgin forest that had never been cut, and there is the service tree, and I try—it has a life of flowering of, like, three days—so I always try to imagine, ‘Is the ground soft?’ ‘Will I make it?’ And sometimes I make it and sometimes I don’t, and the service tree’s spent flowers are on the ground, but I think that it is emblematic of my notion of immortality in life: a brief time, a beautiful fragrance, and then passing, disintegrating, falling to the ground, and renewal.”

Alone with his mortality in the hospital late one night, George spontaneously texted Marc some of his spiritual musings. Marc later lined the text out as a poem. It ended

Humankind calls out for compassion
For one’s self and then the other
The spent perfume of the petals
Of the service tree
Fall to the forest bottom
When earth loses its chill

“The last four lines” Marc told him, “sound like the poem that Zen priests wrote just before they died.” It was as if George were musing about an eternal spring, with ground soft enough to accept his body, a universe that still had a place for him even after his death.

George Getzel

“So here I am in bed, and I’m fading away, I’m losing weight, there are changes, and people visit me and they say, ‘I really want to go to the botanical gardens with you,’ and then a little sadness comes over me—’cause that’s not possible anymore.”

George was a faculty member at the Hunter College School of Social Work, now the Silberman School of Social Work for more than 30 years. As someone who avoided the limelight, he wouldn’t have wanted anyone to walk in his footsteps. “If anything I do is truly worthwhile in my eyes or in the world’s eyes, I don’t want to be copied,” he said. “I just don’t want it—I’m me, you’re you. But I do want to inspire.”

And so as spring rolls around after a bitter winter, I was inspired to call the New York Botanical Garden in the Bronx and ask if they knew about the service tree. The Garden arranged for horticulturalist Jessica Schuler, Director of the Thain Family Forest, to meet my wife and me at the reflecting pool the next Saturday. We traveled into the woods she knew so well and we stood in front of the tree George had loved. Though it was the first beautiful day of spring, the service tree had just a tiny splash of pink on the buds. Perhaps the ground wasn’t yet soft enough to bury the dead.

Checking for blossoms on the serviceberry tree, photo by Amanda Dargan

I told Jessica about George, whom I never met, and his metaphorical interpretation of the service tree. Jessica told us the tree’s Latin name was Amelanchier arborea but that it had had a variety of common names and etymologies in early North America. Shadbush because it often grows in riparian forests at the edges of rivers where the shad run. It was also called “Juneberry,” because it often fruited in June. And it was called “serviceberry tree,” because it bloomed when the ground was no longer frozen and it was time to bury the dead and hold a service.

Back in the hospital room, Marc felt that the space around himself and George was getting greater and greater, and that on the other side of that space was death, but that the space of life was also looming larger. George continued to express his deep and thoughtful perspective on life in the face of imminent mortality, making connections between blossoming and withering, growth and decay. “I remember holding my wife’s hand when she was dying,” George told Marc, “and having a great sense of intimacy, the same as when I held my hand over her belly when she was pregnant. There’s this mixture. Even in the face of the grim realities of life that nauseate you and shatter your dreams, I’ve found—with difficulty—deeper meaning.

“We all hold down to something that we would hope would have permanence,” he continued. “Something that would lead us beyond our grave and have something of eternity tied to it. We discover that the idol—be it money, position, your own children, the neighborhood you live in—it’s not forever and it falls apart and isn’t what you thought it was when you were a young man. It becomes moth-eaten and dissipates, and then with that—and here is where I think the faith of an older person, the circumstance of an older person, is useful—it’s followed by new growth, new possibilities.”

George Getzel died on January 7, 2018. The serviceberry tree he loved so well will bloom again this spring.

 

“By showing us that poetry lives everywhere,” writes Bob Holman in the preface to Zeitlin’s new book, The Poetry of Everyday Life: Storytelling and the Art of Awareness, “Steve seems to make the whole world into a poem, with all of us collaborating daily in the writing of it.” If you like the blog, you’ll love the book. Click here to purchase.

Please email your thoughts, stories and responses about the poetic side of life to steve@citylore.org. This monthly post continues to tap into the poetic side of what we often take for granted: the stories we tell, the people we love, the metaphors used by scientists, even our sex lives. I chronicle the poetic moments in life and also look at how we all use poetry in our daily lives. I am a folklorist, and I want to hear from you—because that’s where all the best material comes from. For more information about The Poetry of Everyday Life published by Cornell click here.

 

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