Omer’s Where The Art Is

“Meanwhile, we dig.”
— Big X (Richard Attenborough), The Great Escape

Pesach is over, the last of the matza crumbs have been vacuumed up, and our stomachs have finally returned to normal (or soon will).

Now what?

When we were kids, we thought (well, I thought) that freedom was a “done deal.” Freedom was the be-all and end-all of existence. If I could only be 18, thought I, I would be free to do whatever I wanted: bounce on the bed, eat cookies for dinner, shout fire in a crowded theater.

Of course, the realities of post-adolescent life soon disabused me of those notions. Bouncing on the bed meant I had to buy a new one when it broke. Eating cookies for dinner made me sicker than the smiling faces on the box had led me to believe. And shouting fire in a crowded theater, even metaphorically, meant hurting innocent people.

Hence, a lesson: Freedom implies responsibility. The ability to act implies — rather, demands — that we act with an eye toward consequences.

By the Jewish calendar, we’re now in the Omer period, the 49 days between Pesach and Shavuot. The first festival celebrates the going-out from Egypt, from the narrow confines and blind thralldom which keeps us from living to our full measure. The second celebrates the Sinai Event and the acceptance that endless and unforseeable permutations arise from even the simplest of our actions: whether thought, or speech, or deed.

The Omer period teaches us that freedom and responsibility are not binary exclusives, but endpoints on the scale by which we weigh our lives. May we all find — or help each other acquire — the perfect balance for every challenge.

Thanksgiving v. Thanks Giving

During the course of an online discussion of Jewish practice in the United States, someone asked the resident rabbi if it was “kosher” for Jews to celebrate Thanksgiving. His terse but memorable reply: “Sure — but we do that every day.”

His point, of course, was that gratitude is not only an essential part of the Jewish daily liturgy, but also of our lives. However, like most ideals, many of us find ourselves honoring gratitude more in the breach than in the moment; we face so many irritations (exacerbated by email, cellphones, Blackberries, traffic, infotainment, talking-heads, talking points and static cling) that the end of any given day often finds us more grumbly than grateful.

But the ability to look past all that is crucial — to put aside inconvenience and indifference, to appreciate the countless miracles (astronomical, geological, meteorological, biological and technological) which have seamlessly and inexorably combined to bring us to this moment. So as we gather tomorrow for the feast modeled by its founders on the Jewish holiday of Sukkot*, in addition to giving thanks for the One who taught us about turkey (and the skill with which to cook it), let’s also give thanks for our ability to give thanks.

And if one day of gratitude leads to another, and another … we’ll have that much more to be thankful for at this time next year.

Be well.

* No, really — for example, see about midway down this page (just under the first blessing).

Feel The Fear

When Ann and I joined the small synagogue in our Northern California town back in 1998, it was with the understanding that we would get involved.

Neither of us had been, when we were younger. But especially since 2000, when I started teaching the b’nei mitzvah class and occasionally leading services, that involvement has (as anyone involved in congregational life can tell you) brought both heartwarmth and headaches. It’s nice to be part of a big happy squabbling extended family, but also sad sometimes to see and be part of the behind-the-scenes politics — especially if you’re something of a mildly bipolar idealist.

(Bit of background: our congregation — since its 1995 inception an informal, do-it-yourself kind of place — last year engaged a rabbi who liked to teach that “compassion” was not a Jewish value. Things got very bad for a while, but he quit earlier this year, and now things are better. We’re a community of smart and good-hearted people who like to learn and hang out together — and that brings its own blessing.)

Anyway, yesterday was the annual congregational sukkah-decorating party. As usual, it was mostly the schoolkids and their parents; but attendance was larger than I remember it being, and there was a nice intimate vibe that hasn’t been there before (or at least not as obvious). Everybody got to take the lulav — even some of the adults who had never before done so — and ate snacks and hung the world’s longest paper chain.

It was great, but for me also scary. I’m fairly enthusiastic about Judaism and enjoy leading services and teaching, but yesterday was One Of Those Days; sometimes my self-doubt divides me from the world, and I was looking forward to someone else leading the blessings.

That didn’t happen, though, because the someone else in question — a big enthusiastic guy who’s on his own Jewish rediscovery path, and a frequent attendee at our apartment every Shabbat morning for Torah study — handed me the lulav and etrog and said “Teach us.”

So I opened my mouth, and out popped the teaching that the Four Species — lulav (palm), hadass (myrtle), aravot (willow) and etrog (citron) — respectively stand for Jews who have much Torah learning but few accomplishments in mitzvot, many mitzvot but little Torah, neither mitzvot nor Torah, and both Torah and mitzvot. “And when we bring them together like this, it shows that we all need each other,” I concluded.

It’s not something I had thought to say — in fact, when my friend handed me the lulav I couldn’t think of anything at all but my own fear — but the warm-hearted crowd huddled under the chilly October sky welcomed it with a smile.

One of my favorite teachers, Rebbe Nachman, says “The world is a narrow bridge — the essence is not to fear.” Sometimes, though, the fear reminds you that the bridge is wide enough to cross.

Home Away

For me, there are five distinct stages involved in the building of our backyard sukkah:

Denial: “Is it Sukkot again already?”
Rage: “Where did I put the $#@! zip-screws?”
Bargaining: “Please don’t make me go to the hardware store again…”
Sadness: “I don’t think this is going to last the week…”
Acceptance: “It’s beautiful!”

Me & our summer cottage
I am a humble Jew (as a blogged statement, this may be self-contradictory), so our backyard sukkah is likewise humble:

  • One 4×6-foot Persian rug
  • Eight cinder blocks
  • Four 2×2-inch posts, six feet in length, with two small L-brackets on one side (six inches from on end and 18 inches from the other)
  • Three 6-1/2′ 1×2″ slats
  • Four 4-1/2′ 1×2″ slats
  • One 7′ aluminum javelin
  • One 12×24′ camo (“mossy bark”) tarpaulin
  • Two dozen 6′ slats (1x.25″)
  • One maroon king-sized bedsheet, pole-stitched on one long side
  • Power drill, zipscrews, cable ties

First, I stretch out the rug (making sure it’s under only bare sky) and stack pairs of cinderblocks in each corner. Then I zipscrew two of the 6-1/2′ slats to two of the 2×2″ posts atop the L-brackets, inserting the latter into the cinder blocks (for the back wall frame); the remaining 6-1/2′ slat joins the other two posts, which go into the remaining cinderblock pairs (for the front wall/door frame). Two 4-1/2′ slats are then zipscrewed into place for each sidewall frames. I carefully slide the bedsheet onto the javelin, cable-tying the latter to the front-wall slat; the sheet’s bottom-right corner is then cable-tied to the frame.

Next, I unroll the tarp (which lives under our bed the rest of the year) and fold it sandwich-wise over the frames, securing the tarp’s grommets to each other along the bottom and sides) with cable-ties. Two dozen slats criss-cross the top, supporting whatever garden greenery I can scrounge (usually ivy, but this year some sort of weird ferny plant which sprouted over the summer). Two patio chairs go inside along with a TV-table (for meals and studying), et voila!

And this was how I spent yesterday afternoon. In many ways, Sukkot is my favorite holiday — I like its emphasis on life’s fragility; that it gets me outside to pray; the way the stars look through the sukkah roof; and the way the sukkah looks with my roommate inside it. There is nothing quite like building your own sukkah — just like there’s no one else like the one who builds it.

… re-echo …

here’s what I wrote in a recent column…

Screaming in the dark
2/14/03
By Neal Ross

If you live among human beings, you must never mention how terribly, nakedly vulnerable we all are ? because we all spend a good deal of our lives trying to pretend we?re not.

I don?t know why that is; I suspect it?s related to our biosurvival imperative, which tries to keep us going against all odds. Intense pain is one of those odds: we humans like to build little consensual hallucinations to overlay and influence our perceptions, and intense pain ? physical, spiritual, or emotional ? shatters our careful efforts like a child?s foot through a sandcastle.

Since Dec. 27, I?ve discovered that the most profound and interesting of these pains is known as “deep grief.” On that day, Jim “Sputnik” Gjerde, my lifelong best friend (read: “psychic twin and other half”), died after spending two weeks in a coma brought on by a genetic-diabetes-related heart attack. And since then, I?ve been sifting sand and wondering what happened.

(I rarely read columns written about best friends who have just died, and writing this I realize why: If you didn?t know the person, or experience first-hand a similar loss, it won?t mean anything to you. But as death is the price of life, so is grief the price of love ? and we will all eventually experience at least one of these, in some flavor or another.)

“Deep grief” is the term used by my counselor at the Valley of the Moon Hospice Team (935-7504 ? a hard, but important, phone call), who is helping me cope with this first (for me) major loss. Deep grief (or what I?ve been calling “The Gray Sameness”) is when you don?t feel like eating, or sleeping, or working, or playing, or really doing much of anything except gazing blankly into the middle-distance, howling like an animal, and trying to melt into whatever surface is currently holding you up.

It hurts. A lot. More than can be imagined beforehand. But it also feels like an initiation into an exclusive but universal club. And therein lies The Mystery: “It cannot be borne, and yet it must.”

Generally speaking, I enjoy ungraspable mysteries ? I like the fact that the universe is bigger than my head; that some things can only be experienced, not explained. Grief is like that, but amid the rust and ashes there are glimmers of light ? definitely present though not always seen. And that?s exactly as it should be, at least for now.

A longtime friend called the other day to check on me. When he told me that his brother had died five years ago, I stopped in mid-mumble. “You know,” I said.

“Yes, I know,” he replied.

“So I don?t have to explain anything to you,” I said.

“Not one bit,” he said.

He then told me about the day, some time after his brother?s death, when he looked up and realized that he had just had a good hour. Sometime after that, the good time expanded to two hours. Then, eventually, a half-day. Then a whole day, two, a week. And so forth. The pain never left, but it did become manageable.

My friend then apologized for sounding superficial, and I told him there was no need: “You?re someone who?s traveled further down a path I?m currently walking, and telling me what it looks like. So thank you ? because right now, I have no idea how to even get to that first good minute.”

At this writing, I still don?t. But at least I know it?s coming ? and I hope to recognize it when it arrives.

eulogy

This is what I said about Jim at his funeral:

When studying to be a rabbi, I learned a tradition that says one should begin every public discourse with a jest. So here?s Jim?s and my very favorite shared joke ? at least, the one that?s suitable for mixed company:

A man who had studied much in the schools of wisdom finally died in the fullness of time and found himself at the Gates of Eternity.

An angel of light approached him and said, “Go no further, O mortal, until you have proven to me your worthiness to enter into Paradise!”

But the man answered, “Just a minute now. First of all, can you prove to me this is a real Heaven, and not just the wild fantasy of my disordered mind undergoing death?”

Before the angel could reply, a voice from inside the gates shouted:

“Let him in – he’s one of us!”

The ironic thing about my best friend dying is that he’s the only one with whom I want to discuss it.

This is my first visit to Griefland, and I’m still finding my way around. But “Sputnik” would see the black crushing horror part of it AS WELL AS the intensely spiritual aspect. And know that the one does not preclude the other.

Jim and I were soulmates for life, even though our 1980s-era experiments at roommate-hood proved that we would viciously murder each other in our sleep if we ever tried living together again. We were that much alike, and when you love someone that deeply it gives them leave to annoy you mightily. And annoy each other we did, though never intentionally.

But what really annoys me is that Jim finally won the game we’d been playing ever since we met in 1978. You see, he now knows something I don’t.

For Sputnik and I, the Alpha Male game was measured not by how big our toys were but by how big our brains and hearts were — and how well we used them. Our serious quest for the Sourceless Source meant we couldn’t afford to mess around with anything less — and even though we freely acknowledged that our quest was ultimately unachievable, we wanted it to be real.

An anthropologist’s skepticism, saint’s reverence and anarchist’s sense of humor, coupled with his amazing memory, made Jim fingertip-familiar with numberless and little-known facts, theories, theologies, philosophies, ontologies, epistemologies, epiphanies, chemical interactions and their results, and strange doings of mutual friends and secretly-famous personalities. As Jim’s psychic twin, I can tell you that this paved the way for inevitable and mutual quasi-macho posturing.

Now, one of the great joys of sharing unshared information is making the other fellow say, “Wow! Where’d you hear that?” During our quarter-century together, I could probably count on one hand the times that actually happened instead of the usual “Right. And have you thought about this or that correlation?”

This unspoken but obvious competition kept us both on the Path, which — for the two of us — was the exact same path with the exact same curves at roughly the same time, exquisitely tailored to our individual hands, accompanied by headshaking laughter at our unswerving devotion to something so obviously arbitrary and wordlessly meaningful as our different religious traditions ? his Christian, mine Jewish. But Jim was always a practical guy, living both in the moment as well as in its multiple interpretations, cheerfully accepting the Mystery even as he poked at its manifestations.

Well, that Mystery is cleared up for one of us. And now that Jim’s life is a closed book, I’m really beginning to see how much we actually were a part of each other — and how much a part we all are of everyone we know, especially if we let each other all the way inside.

None of us will never “get over” Jim’s death, because we will never get over Jim’s life. We can’t help it, because we ultimately live in each other. And while it may take a long time for the pain of Jim’s death to lessen, if it ever does, it won?t take nearly as long for us to understand that he is, and always will be, still with us.

Happy trails, my friend. I hope I’ll see you later.

… echoes …

for some reason, perhaps because this is my first big loss, I thought the funeral would “make things better.” it didn;t occur to me that I felt that way until afterward, when it didn’t. … I did my hardest weeping after we got back Sunday afternoon. and I am now feeling the biggest part of the loss.

it was nice seeing the edges of the hole that Jim made, though — by which i mean the people who pilgrimaged to Shasta to attend the funeral. Ann wrote something about the weekend which she is permitting me to post, so I shall. But some random notes:

– Seeing someone-you-love’s name accompanied by two dates is a definite Step On The Path.

– ” ” photographs and realizing that “this is the remaining physical evidence” is another Step.

The alarm rang this morning and my first thought was, “Crap. Now I have to try and get through another day.” All I really want to do is sit and stare. I am completely unmotivated to work, play, laugh, teach, pray, study, shave, dress myself, or eat. (But at least I have my health, he joked attemptedly.) Even lifting my arms to the keyboard is taking all my effort.

Anyway, here’s Ann’s piece.


The Weekend of Jim’s Memorial January 10-12, 2003
By Ann
Part I – THE TRIP THERE

Neal’s/my/our friend Jim Gjerde had a catastrophic heart attack on
December 11, 2002 in his girlfriend Jan’s bookstore in Mt. Shasta,
California. He went into a coma where he remained, treading life for 16
days, until he died on December 27th at 10:08 p.m. Jan called us on
Saturday evening, just as our Sabbath was coming to a close.

Neal had known Jim for 25 years. Jim — or “Sputnik” aka “Sput,” as his
old friends knew him — was what I like to call a sane freak, and you must
understand that the term “freak” is a compliment when I use it. He was
deliciously weird, frighteningly intelligent, and endlessly interesting
and interested. As Neal says, he never stopped thinking, he never stopped
learning; he never stopped looking around and grinning. A fringe lunatic
of the most delightful variety. I loved talking to Jim, and listening to
him.

I met him in Berkeley in 1988; he and I were going to meet for the first
time to walk over to the post office together to mail in our request for
tickets to the Grateful Dead New Year’s show. I was a tucked-and-
tailored legal assistant dating his best friend Neal; he was, like Neal, a
shaggy, scruffy, Goodwill-attired, sleepy-looking 25-year-old. Here’s the
weird thing about our first encounter, and I’ve never told anyone: We
individually mailed off our requests for tickets but I had run mine
through the office postal meter and so my request was rejected (“no
metered mail!”) and Jim’s tickets arrived in timely fashion. The part I
never told anyone was how annoyed I was that I, the responsible one, had
failed where Jim-of-the-casual-lifestyle had succeeded. I was really only
annoyed for about 5 minutes; after that I found it all quite amusing.

Throughout the years this is what Jim meant to me: someone who was always
there, someone to turn to. Even if we didn’t speak for years, I found
comfort in his presence, like the big old quilt you keep on the top shelf
in case the weather turns really cold. Had he been MY friend exclusively,
I probably would have pulled the quilt down far more often no matter what
the weather but simply because I liked its smell, and the way it felt when
I pulled it about my shoulders.

Jim knew things about me that only Neal knows. For one thing, that I am
in fact a fringe lunatic in conservative clothing. (Neal always told me
that was good — I could infiltrate that way.) Jim and I had some of our
best conversations in 1989, when Neal worked nights at Berkeley Sauna.
Jim would come over (appearing, like a hungry cat, seemingly from
nowhere….I didn’t know where he lived or what he drove, and I never
asked) and we would sit on my back doorstep and smoke and talk for hours.
I could always be myself with him; he was shock-proof.

Through the ensuing years, he was more out of touch than in. He and Neal
would go for huge chunks of time without talking or even knowing where the
other was, and then there’d be the reconnecting phone call. He was the
Best Man at our 1994 Tahoe wedding.

When Neal got cancer last summer, he and Jim reconnected and spoke often.
In November, 2002, a month before he died, Jim came to spend the weekend
with us.

That was a hard weekend. First of all, it was sprung on me. Guess who’s
coming to dinner, breakfast, lunch, dinner, breakfast, and lunch? So I
was in a bit of a partnerly peeve. I was especially peeved to learn that
Neal was going to go about teaching religious school on Sunday, leaving me
alone with Jim to “entertain” him for four hours. I was so wrong. Our
time together was absolutely precious. I’m so grateful for that weekend.
And for the half-day that Neal left Jim alone here. We talked. Jim
REALLY listened to me. That was one of his gifts. He made a person feel
fascinating.

One thing he told me during that long talk really stood out for me after
his death: He told me how frustrated he was that he couldn’t drive and
that he had to rely on friends for rides. Decades of Type I diabetes had
damaged his eyes. After he died, I kept thinking, “You’re mobile now,
Jim; you can go wherever you want, my friend. Use those wings!”

So…December 27th comes and goes and Jan organizes a Memorial Service for
Jim at the Episcopal Church in Lake Shasta on Saturday, January 11th.

Neal and I left Sonoma Friday afternoon, January 10th. It was gray, dark,
and raining. And in our souls as well. Neal had been in a place of deep,
agonized mourning pretty much since Jim’s heart attack. I had felt stabs
of pain and had had bouts of sadness and crying, but had been going about
my life without obsessing too much on Jim’s death.

The trip up felt like a scene from a movie. The Winters Cutoff over to
Interstate 5 is a blank landscape, dotted only with cows and dilapidated
buildings which all seem to have arrived there by accident and without
purpose or people to tend them. I popped in Pink Floyd’s “Wish You Were
Here” tape (“shine on, you crazy diamond!”) and we spoke little.

At Dunnigan we swung onto Highway 5; the sky grew darker and the rain
heavier. I had only ever traveled up Highway 5 for vacation purposes —
mainly to go to Mt. Lassen with my family. Highway 5 and all its
long-beloved town names — Dunnigan, Williams, Willows, Richfield, Corning
— had up until now only brought me memories of driving through them long
before the Interstate was built…days of feet-out-the-window sunshine and
the smell of alfalfa and my mom pointing out the different crops and
telling us “It’s going to be hot going up through the Valley today.”

This trip, however, was anything but a vacation. The rain pounded and the
big-rigs firehosed water onto every passing car and the state-sponsored
Rest Areas looked as dreary as vacant drive-in movie parking lots. We
switched tapes and motored up Highway 5 to Led Zeppelin (“Stairway to
Heaven”), more Pink Floyd (“Dark Side of the Moon”) and Alan Parsons
Project (“freedom, freedom, take the world away….). I kept noticing
things along the freeway I’d never noticed before, but they looked
anything but new: “casual” housing of dilapidated trailers, and
ramshackle, tumbledown homesteads, surrounded by dead and dying autos,
their parts strewn about as if by the very wind that buffeted us mile by
mile.

We stopped at a Taco Bell in one of the now-hostile-feeling towns and I
gagged down half of some sort of wickedly bad taco “salad.” Neal had more
luck with burritos. Heading north again, I stumbled upon an awesome
college-sounding radio station, playing 12-string guitar/poetry/folk music
which seemed to be a good chaser to Pink Floyd. One song merged
commercial-free into the next as liquidly as the raindrops on our
windshield and the station became the soundtrack to most of our
south-of-Redding I-5 trip. At one point, the rain grew leadenly heavy and
the sky turned pewter and we looked ahead and everything north hung black
and forboding like the edge of Mordor itself. It was still early
afternoon and felt like dusk.

When we finally reached Redding, my gaze turned to the right. Somewhere
out there was Mercy Medical Center, where Jim had gone to die. I felt a
clutching sickness tear at the inside of my throat, and suddenly I was
wailing/keening/moaning/crying for Jim. I called out his name, I told him
I missed him, I think I may have railed at God a time or two; I can’t
exactly recall. I went on like that for about an hour, or until we got to
Dunsmuir, at about the same time the last song on our home-made tape was
playing: Elton John’s “Funeral For a Friend.”

I hadn’t known that I held that much Jim-pain/Jim-love inside me. All
around me there were majestic trees and the moss-green mini-sea that is
Lake Shasta and patches of snow liquid-papered onto the foothills of the
Siskiyous, and I could see the beauty in which Jim had lived and through
which a screaming ambulance had borne him into the lowlands of Redding,
and it just all hurt too much to bear. I regained some sort of composure
as night began to fall and we made the last leg of the trip from Dunsmuir
into the City of Mount Shasta, second exit, to the Best Western Treehouse
Inn, $85 a night and a free breakfast.

Part II — MEMORIAL AND REUNION

Room 106. We unpacked. I turned on the Zenith because that’s what you
do: other towns might have better TV. However, I discovered that
television offerings have become America’s electronic malls — identical
from town-to-town. Paul and Jamie Buchman romped around the screen in our
wood-paneled motel room as comfortably as they had in our dingy-walled
apartment in Sonoma. It was 5:15. I had given Jan our ETA; she called
and we tried to set up a dinner but she, understandably, had much to do
before tomorrow’s Memorial service. We made plans to meet at 8:30 the
following morning for breakfast. Neal and I had never met this woman, the
love of Jim’s life.

I wasn’t yet hungry so Neal and I lit the Sabbath candles and read for an
hour or so, then went down to the hotel’s dining room/restaurant. As we
ate, Neal looked up and said, “It’s Alana!” His
old-friend-from-high-school-turned-our-friend with whom we are in frequent
contact, had shown up for Jim’s funeral. She and Jim had once been
roommates. I ran across the room and hugged her soundly and she joined
our table.

Dinner turned into a pre-memorial for Sputnik, as we all shared stories.
Neal and Alana had more to tell, of course, all about the old wild days
and their collective misspent but properly lived youth. After dinner,
Neal and Alana went to the hot tub together while I curled up with film
critic Anthony Lane’s new book. The phone rang — it turned out that
Jim’s old friends Linda and Randy from Humboldt County were also staying
at the Treehouse, in Room 227. I had met them once, at a wild party in
Rio Dell back in 1988. Neal knew them well. When he got back to the room
we crashed Room 227 and exchanged reunion hugs. They had with them
their teenaged son Cory, and a wonderful shepherd/pit bull/greyhound mix
named Maya who couldn’t tear herself away from me, to my delight. We
finally left them to their bedtime sometime after 11 p.m.

Our bed was comfortable but sleep was elusive and we awakened to the 6
o’clock alarm in mutual states of fatigue and dread. Today was the day.
My head throbbed from my Redding-to-Dunsmuir tear-letting; I pressed
ice-cold washcloths to my swollen eyes. As we headed to the lobby to meet
Jan, I had a sense of what she would look like. I knew that Sput would
not have chosen a round woman, and I was right: Jan is petite. Five foot
and a smidge, perhaps. She is beautiful. Long, thick, shiny straight
golden-brown hair; gray eyes shining with wisdom. And then she spoke and
there was that voice that been so generous over the phone with us in the
weeks since Jim’s heart attack — the deep, sweet, husky, soothing voice
of Jan. Only now she was saying, “It’s nice to finally meet you!”
Gracious, ever gracious.

We began breakfast, and Alana joined us, and once again there was a
pre-memorial for Jim — two more hours of shared anecdotes,
“how-did-you-meets” and remembrances. Jan excused herself at nearly 11,
and the rest of us went to our rooms to get ready.

The Memorial was at 1 p.m. at St. Barnabas Episcopal Church in Mt. Shasta.
Jim had, within the previous 5 years, returned to his more
Catholic/Christian roots (similarly to how Neal had returned to his Jewish
roots), after years of exploring alternative religious practices. He was
very fond of Vicar Julie of St. Barnabas, and we had heard him talk about
her frequently during his November stay. As she began the service, Neal
and I both understood why Jim was so drawn to Julie. She was warm and
real.

Once Jim decided to recommit himself to Christianity, he did it right.
That is to say, he was a purist. None of this halfway, this-and-that,
part-New-Age crap for him. He wanted the real thing. And this service
was traditional. The priests were in white Lenten robes; there was
chanting; there were bells and incense (or “smells and bells,” as Jim
called it). But Jim also felt free to have a voice in his religious
experience. Shortly after taking the podium and introducing herself,
Julie pulled out a sheaf of papers.

“Right after I became the vicar of St. Barnabas, I received this five-page
letter from Jim.” Laughter filled the room; his friends knew what was
coming. “In which he set down all the ways in which he thought services
at St. Barnabas could be improved.” Hilarity, from the crowd. Good ol’
Jim. Julie gave us the very precious gift of reading to us from parts of
Jim’s letter and in doing so brought him into the room with us in quite a
different form than the white-cloth covered ashes of Jim sitting on the
altar area.

The formal parts of the service were difficult. I’m Jewish, so I couldn’t
participate in the Jesus parts, of which there were many. I couldn’t even
say “The Lord’s Prayer” which, before my conversion to Judaism, had
brought me comfort and which I can recite not only forwards and backwards
but which I can also sing because I know the melody which someone wrote to
add to the verse. These days, however, “The Lord’s Prayer” sounds as
alien to me as Hebrew once did. I found myself longing to comfort myself
with The Mourner’s Kaddish, and I even brought into my head the beginning
of that prayer, “Yit gadal v’yit k’dash sh’mei rabbah,” desperately
searching for spiritual purchase.

Neal had been asked by Jan to deliver a eulogy, and he gave a kick-ass
speech about Jim that Jim would have loved. Then another man spoke.
Then Jan. As I told her later, she rocked. How that woman stood up there
and said the things she did, how she read that unbearably beautiful and
painful W.H. Auden poem, how she did all that without crumpling in a heap
of sorrow, I will never know. All I can think of is that in her religious
tradition, there is a deep belief that Jim is in the place in which he was
meant to be, walking with Jesus, in a happy afterlife somewhere beyond
time, place, and pain. As we say in MY religious tradition, “Ken yehi
ratzon,” — “May it be so.”

And then it was over. A procession out to the reception hall, and there
we were in an overly-flourescented, hot room, seeking out all the
different people from all the different communities into which Sput had
woven himself. “I knew him from Diablo Valley College days.” “I knew him
from the Mugwort parties in San Francisco.” “I knew him from when he lived
in Oakland.” “Tower Records.” “The Self-Realization Fellowship in
Richmond.” And then there were his parents, who had apparently reconciled
themselves to Jim’s early death from the day he’d first been diagnosed
with Type I (formerly “juvenile”) diabetes. And his astonishingly
beautiful red-haired sister Ann, who lost her husband three years ago and
who told me, “You learn that the grief process never goes away; it never
stops.”

It was like a wedding, but so not. I kept catching myself wishing, in
some ridiculous childish fashion, that Neal and I were up here for Jim and
Jan’s wedding in this very church, and I kept catching myself slipping
into that alternative “what-if” scenario, like some kind of fantasy
addict. This was no wedding. Yes, a church, a priest, a beautiful woman
to love the man, a reception, a hall, the smell of coffee, a book to sign,
flowers and an organ. But no wedding.

And then the reception was over. People drove back — to Portland, to
Dunsmuir, to Alameda, to the airport, to San Francisco, to Vallejo. Neal
and I stayed another night. There was some talk of another party taking
place in Mt. Shasta — some of the Humboldt County community wanted to
keep the hour going without the presence of Episcopalian adults and with
something a little more relaxing than coffee — but Neal and I went back
to the hotel room to have our close-of-Sabbath Havdallah service.

When Sput had visited us in November, we did this service as we do every
Saturday night. There is a candle, a box of sweet-spelling spices, and a
glass of wine. Neal and I chant blessings together and it’s a very
hauntingly beautiful melody. During Havdallah at our home in November, I
glanced over at Sput on the couch and saw him with his head back,
listening to us, a blissful smile on his face. He loved it. Since his
heart attack in December, I haven’t been able to chant the Havdallah
blessings without choking back tears of Sput-sorrow.

And of course this night, the night of his Memorial Service was no
different and quite a bit harder. The chant is in four verses, and as I
finished the first my voice broke, and I thought I wouldn’t be able to get
through it. But then I thought of Jan on the podium that afternoon, reading
love poems to her beloved whose ashes were in a box about four feet to her
left. And resolve washed over me and I toughened up and I by God got
through it to the end.

Havdallah is about the pain of separation — the holiness of Shabbat
separating into the ordinariness of not-Shabbat. I had never really felt
a sadness at the end of Shabbat, as observant Jews are “supposed” to feel.
As Neal feels. I told Neal, “It’s funny that, because of Sputnik, I now
feel pain at the end of every Shabbat, just like I’m supposed to but never
did before,” I guess Jim gave me the gift of understanding something about
the pain of separation. Who said lessons or learning have to be ones we
necessarily WANT in our lives.

We’re home now. It’s Sunday night. There’s a wake in San Francisco, and
Neal will be driving over for it. I never much thought about the meaning
of the word “wake” before, until we were in Mt. Shasta. I was reading
Lane’s review of “Star Trek: First Contact,” in which he quotes a line
about a temporal wake. I started thinking of the wake of a boat, and that
a funeral wake must mean just that: that which trails behind after a
person’s life, and death.

Jim has left a deep and wide wake. And just as I did back in my
water-skiing days, I want to ride the rough part, the part that makes you
jump and jolt and makes every sense alert and alive to the any-second
possibility of diving head first into icy waters. That’s the way Jim
lived, and he would expect no less of his friends.


*****************
James Leroy Gjerde
January 24, 1962 to December 27, 2002