ONCE UPON A TIME, THE STORIES TOLD

ONCE UPON A TIME, THE STORIES TOLD

 

about the path in the forest

and what you’d find if you strayed.

How manners matter,

respect for elders, kindness

to strangers, even giving them

your last crumb. When it comes

to the point, respect, too, for animals,

because you never know.

About how careful you must be

when you make promises and

what happens if you don’t keep them.

How dangerous it is to offend old women.

(Never, ever, offend old women.)

They told what happened

if you lied, stole from the poor.

They told what always happened

to people who wanted to be like god.

THE GREEDY FISHERMAN

THE GREEDY FISHERMAN

~after the Brothers Grimm

Once upon a time, there was a fisherman who lived in a vinegar jug by the seaside. Every day he went out fishing. Some days he caught enough fish to sell, some days he caught only enough to eat, some days he caught nothing.

But one beautiful morning, when the sea was calm and the sun was shining brightly, he caught a little golden fish, the likes of which he had never seen. “Ah,” he thought to himself, “I can sell this fish for a pretty penny.”

But as he pulled the hook from the fish’s mouth, the fish spoke. “Fisherman! If you let me go, I will grant you a wish. Anything you desire.”

Of course the fisherman had never heard a fish speak. “Why should I let you go?” he said.  “I can sell you and get rich! A golden fish that talks!”

“But you can wish for all the riches you like,” said the fish, “if you let me go.”

“Well, all right,” said the fisherman, who still did not quite trust the fish. “I would like a nice cottage instead of a vinegar jug.”

“Go home then,” said the fish. “It is as you wished.”

So the fisherman rowed his little boat home, and there, just as the fish had said, was a little cottage where the vinegar jug had been. There were two rooms, the kitchen with a good stove and a neat table, all complete, and a bedroom with a neat cot covered with a featherbed. Outside was a bit of garden, with cabbages and onions planted in rows. The fisherman was well pleased, and for many days he lived contented in his cottage.

But one day he began to think, “Why did I not ask for a mansion? Surely the fish could have granted me that. I’ll go back and see.”

He rowed his little boat back out into sea. There were clouds over the sun, and ripples in the water, but the fisherman was used to bad weather. He rowed out to where he had first caught the fish, and he called, “Fish! Fish! I have another wish!”

The fish immediately poked its head from the water, and the fisherman thought it looked a bit larger than it had at first.  “Yes? What is it?” asked the fish.

“I would like a mansion. Can you do that for me?”

“Yes,” said the fish, “I can. Go back home and you will have a mansion.”

The fisherman rowed home, and there where the cottage had been was a big stone mansion with beautiful gardens and a barn and a stable full of horses and carriages. The mansion had a hundred rooms and a great hall and a gallery and servants to look after it all. The fisherman was very pleased. He liked the beautiful things in the mansion, and he liked telling the servants what to do. And he stopped going down to the sea to fish.

And one day, after he had ordered his servants to prepare a bath and a picnic lunch for him, and had watched them busy themselves with his orders, he thought, “I could be king. If I were king, I would have more servants, and the lords and ladies all around would have to obey me, too. I will order my yacht to take me back to the fish, and I will tell it that I want to be king.”

So he ordered his yachtsman to make ready, and down to the sea he went. The sky was covered in cloud then, and there were whitecaps on the water, but the fisherman was not worried at all. He knew about all kinds of weather. “Fish! Fish!” he called. “I have another wish!”

The fish appeared then, poking her head out of the water. Yes, she was definitely larger than before, thought the fisherman, but the fisherman did not worry. As he grew more powerful, he thought, of course the fish would grow, too.  “What do you want? the fish asked.

“I want to be king,” said the fish.

“Of course you do,” said the fish. “Go back now. You are king.”

The fisherman had the yacht bring him back to the shore, and sure enough, the mansion was gone and in its place was a castle. It had a moat, and towers and flags flying in the brisk wind. The fisherman was greeted at the shore by a herald blowing a trumpet, and by a golden coach pulled by eight white horses, and the people lining the road waved and cheered as he passed on his way.

The castle was as magnificent as he could have imagined, and he was attended by lords and ladies who were happy to do his bidding. He had fine food to eat and fine clothes to wear, and wanted for nothing. But one day. . . “If I were emperor,” thought the fisherman, I would have kings and queens to attend me instead of mere lords and ladies. I will go back to the fish and tell it that I want to be emperor.

So he ordered his royal fleet to escort him to the spot where he had first met the fish. The wind was high and the rain had started to fall when they reached the spot, so the fisherman had his herald blow a trumpet to summon the fish.

She reared out of the water before him, half the size of his royal ship. “What is it now?” she asked.

“I want to be emperor,” said the fisherman. “Make me emperor.”

“Go,” said the fish. “You are emperor.”

This time when the fisherman disembarked, he was met by six golden coaches, each with a king or queen inside. His own coach was three times larger than their coaches, and was pulled by twenty black horses. As the kings and queens escorted him back to the palace that had taken the place of his castle, the people again lined the road and waved and cheered. It was raining and the wind was howling, and it pleased the fisherman that the people were standing in the rain to greet him.

And so his life went on. Kings and queens waited on him, and did his bidding. Anything he wished to have, he had, anything he wished to do, he did, and no one could stop him, or even stand in his way. But one morning as he looked out the window of his private chamber, he saw the sun shining over his lands, and he said, “I would like to make the sun come up when I want it to. I want to make it set at my pleasure. I want to be god.” The kings and queens attending him were horrified, but they said nothing. The fisherman ordered his coach and attendants to take him to the sea, and his imperial fleet went with his imperial flagship out into the water. The clouds were towering, and the rain falling in great sheets, and the wind was blowing a gale. Two of the ships in his fleet were capsized and the sailors drowned, but the fisherman did not mind. He himself stood at the bow of the ship and called the fish. “I command you!” he shouted. “Come forth!”

The fish emerged from the water, her great golden form looming above the ship. Everyone but the fisherman fell to their knees. “What do you want?” said the fish.

“I want to be god!” said the fisherman.

“Go then,” said the fish. “Go.” And the fish slid back into the water. The sea was suddenly dreadfully calm, and the ships vanished, and the fisherman found himself on the shore where there was no palace, or castle, or mansion or cottage. There was nothing but a vinegar jug, and there the fisherman lived alone for the rest of his days.

I WHO HAVE DIED

I WHO HAVE DIED

I who have died am alive again today.

~e. e. cummings

I have surrendered to the darkness

of loneliness, of foreign spaces.

 

Where did you go when you were afraid?

I sat on the kitchen floor and wept

 

for my golden house, the porch,

the rock in the meadow.

 

Broken butterflies predicted loss,

so many losses. And today

 

I live again. On New Year’s Night,

two owls flew over my head

 

in the dark garden. This morning,

there is snow. Again I live, again.

 

This was inspired by a lecture by Br. David Steindl-Rast  about the practice of gratitude.

NOT ON ROCK: a poem for the Feast of the Confession of St. Peter

NOT ON ROCK

On this sand I build my church,

grit of barrier and beach,

shift and shape, tumbling jag

tossed in my whimsical wind.

 

On this clay, sticky with itself,

plow-breaker, seed-wrecker,

slip and slick, firing hard

to slice and slab and cup.

 

 

Out of flesh I build it,

bones, heart, blood, decay.

Out of bread I build it,

risen, broken, given away.

TZADIKIM NISTARIM–part 6

31. She works in a Day Care Center in a dying city. She is tiny, and too old for this work. She has bad knees and a smoker’s cough. And she loves the children. She sings to them, embraces them, wipes their noses, listens to them, talks to them as if they were equals since she knows they are. She recognizes their fatigue and anxiety and takes it very seriously. When she cannot reassure them—and many times she cannot—she comforts them with her kindness. When she was five years old, her own parents died in a boat fleeing a country at war, and her older brother saved her and raised her. When she was too young, she married the wrong man. He tried to kill her, and he killed her baby, and killed himself.  Every night she sits before her cardboard altar and lights candles for the baby, and her brother, and her parents. And she lights one, too, for her husband.

32. She is a librarian in a middle-sized mid-western town. When she was in college, she had a great deal of trouble deciding on a major, so she has a background in English, History, Latin, and Philosophy. Later on, a library degree made a great deal of sense to her. She likes to catalogue. She likes things that fit together, and she likes incongruities. When she prays for the library patrons as they come and go, she imagines them in their proper settings: this matron working tapestries in a castle tower, that high school student taming eagles in Mongolia. Sometimes she recommends books that fit her visions of them, and she is always right.

33. He is a jack-of-all-trades in a hardscrabble rural town, doing his best to support his family.  His wife has a bad back and is not able to work. They have three children, two in high school and one in fifth grade. He plows driveways and mows lawns, does some brush-hogging and ditch-witching and logging and roofing, and in the winter sometimes he makes snow at a small ski area. He has a backhoe left him by his father, and he recently bought a small elderly dump truck so he can haul gravel and crushed stone. He will, his wife says, “give the shirt off his back” to anyone in trouble, and she smiles fondly as she says it. They’ve housed neighbors whose house burned down, they’ve taken in runaway teens and stray cats and abused horses. And there’s always enough. “The Lord provides,” he says, and his wife laughs and rolls her eyes.

34.  Her early marriage ended in divorce, and now she lives with her elderly mother, three fat ginger cats and an obnoxious Yorkie. She used to be an office manager for an electronics firm, but after she recovered from breast cancer, she decided that she needed to spend more time outdoors. Now she has two jobs:  in the winter she teaches skiing at a Mom-and-Pop ski area, and in the summer she is a flagger for a traffic control company.  Her favorite of the two jobs is flagging, something that her friends find very surprising. “It isn’t at all boring,” she says. In the evenings, she enjoys making small books from nice papers, and she writes happy things in them and hands them to the people waiting in the first car in the line. She has dog biscuits in her pockets, too, for their dogs.

35.  He is a widower in charge of programs at an adult day care center. There is never enough money, but he always manages. His salary is ridiculously low, but he remembers the birthdays of all the staff members and all the clients with corsages or boutonniers. In season, they are made from flowers from his garden. He knows hundreds of popular songs and sings them while he plays his banjo. He invites people from all over the community to come offer programs at the center, and he rewards them with bouquets.  A cartoonist comes regularly to give free lessons. Every spring a woman who does bird calls comes with slides of the birds she imitates. A group of junior high students come to sing a capella music. A retired history professor leads a current events discussion group. The only problem he has is scheduling: so many people want to come that he has trouble fitting them all in. He likes eating at the center because he is a terrible cook. Left on his own, he eats cold cereal and microwaved baked potatoes.

36.  She is the Lunch Lady at an elementary school in the town where she grew up. Five years ago, she graduated from a prestigious culinary institute, and after some consideration decided she’d rather work in a school than a restaurant. The breakfasts and lunches she prepares are beautiful and good. There is almost no wasted food in the school now. She has convinced many community members to grow extra vegetables and fruits for the school, and she freezes the surplus for winter meals. With her own money, she bought a grow light system so she can make fresh salads all year. Children are always welcome in the kitchen, and sometimes teachers send restless or troublesome children there to help her. She always has something for children to do:  washing vegetables, arranging things on trays, making decorations for the cafeteria tables. She is engaged to a young orchardist who also drives a school bus. They hope to marry as soon as they finish building a little house on the edge of the orchard. She meets regularly with a women’s circle for meditation and earth-honoring ritual.

TZADIKIM NISTARIM– part 5

25.

She is a clerk in a city bookshop, and since she has an MFA, she specializes in books about music and art. Customers always ask for her when they want to find the perfect recording to give to an aunt who loves opera, or the perfect coffee-table book about the pre-Raphaelites.  She lives alone in a one bedroom apartment two blocks away from the bookshop, over a stationery store, and she has a tiny, elderly dog whom she rescued from a high-kill shelter five years ago. She lives very modestly, without a car or television or computer, though she has an excellent, though compact, sound system. Once a week, she takes the night shift at a shelter for homeless teenagers, and she gives a third of her income to support the shelter and the local food pantry. She also attends AlAnon meetings twice each week, in the basement of the synagogue on the corner.

26.

He’s a high school senior in a small-town union high school. He’s not an athlete, nor especially gifted academically, though he is a solid B student. He isn’t part of the crowd of “popular” students, although he has a good circle of friends who, like him, are creative and funny.  He lives with his parents and twelve-year- old sister in a double-wide on the edge of town. Both his parents work odd hours, so he does most of the cooking for his sister and himself, and he keeps an eye on her after school.   During his junior year, he came upon a group of people teasing one of the special education students who attend his school, and he put an end to the teasing, and defused the situation. He also has a knack for stopping fights before they become violent. This has been noted by one of his teachers, who is encouraging him to go on to work with troubled teens. He likes that idea, and has decided that if he can’t get a scholarship to college, he will work for a couple of years on his uncle’s farm, and then become a classroom aide. He plays the ukelele.

27.

She is the music director in a large church, responsible for two choirs, music for all the services, and a concert series. She is also in demand as an organ soloist and a teacher, and has several advanced students, although her favorite students are the beginners. She loves music, especially Bach and Fauré, and she loves her work. God, she believes, is best known through music, and she once told her husband that if she had to choose between music and God, she would choose music. Her choristers respect her and always give her their best because, as one soprano says, “She cares so much—not just about the music, but about us.”  Her husband is the principal cellist in the city symphony orchestra, and they have one daughter who is in junior high school and plays the clarinet. She has a dry sense of humor, and privately considers the disbanding of the church’s handbell choir one of her greatest accomplishments.

28.

He was born again two years ago when he attended a revival meeting at a Baptist church in the suburban neighborhood where he lives in a duplex with his girlfriend. The early glow has worn off, but he still feels the love of Jesus in his heart. His girlfriend, a massage therapist and yoga teacher, calls herself a secular Jew, and is bemused by his religious fervor, although she loves him dearly and does not make fun of him. He attends a community college, hoping to get a degree in management. To pay the bills now, he is a picker in the warehouse of a large catalogue company. But in the back of his mind, he is always singing hymns and saying prayers for the world, especially for the people whose orders he is filling. His co-workers are very fond of him. He does not proselytize, but they know that he’ll pray for them if they ask him. He likes to bake, and often brings homemade cookies to share at breaks.

29. When he retired from IBM, he started volunteering. He drives elderly and low income people to medical appointments now, in all kinds of weather. Nearly all the staff at the small-town hospital and in the various doctors’ offices know him and greet him when he walks in with a patient. In order to do the job, he had to learn CPR, but he has never mastered the blood pressure machine. The people he transports are often anxious, and he listens to them but does not offer advice. Usually he gives each of them a small white stone from a supply he keeps in a paper bag in the glove compartment. “Put it in your pocket,” he says. “And remember that I’m remembering you.” He gathers the stones on a beach in Rhode Island where he goes every year to visit his wife’s sister, who is alcoholic and diabetic, and does not follow her doctor’s orders.   Her religious and political views are extreme, so the visit is always difficult, and he finds great comfort in his daily walk on the beach, looking for perfect white stones and praying over them.

30.  He worked all his long life as an editor, working his way up from jobs at small-town newspapers. By the time he retired, he was editor-in-chief of a major publishing company. He shepherded uncounted authors through the publishing process, and discovered several major writers. He cared passionately about language and thoroughly enjoyed the changes, including the evolution of slang words, which he defended vigorously against what he called “English-murdering snots.”  After he retired, he and his wife moved from New York to a small town in Vermont, where he occupied himself by writing letters to the editors of every newspaper he subscribed to. He became a warden in the church there, and developed a reputation in town as a curmudgeon, which delighted him. When he was in the hospital undergoing a fiercesome chemotherapy for lymphoma, the parish priest visited him and asked him how he was, and he said,  “Let’s just say I’ve had better days.”  Since his recovery, he has been recording books-on-tape for people who are unable to read.

TZADIKIM NISTARIM, part 4

19.

He is a professional stage hand, on the road all summer and into the fall, mostly on the west coast. His co-workers say that they always feel safe when he’s around. He is deliberate and thoughtful and does his work with great care. Though he is only in his forties, he has become a mentor to many younger people. Since by its nature, the profession involves difficult schedules, he impresses upon his young colleagues the importance of eating well and taking catnaps. He sets a good example. No one in the trade knows more shaggy dog stories. Sometimes he is lonely. He has a twelve-year-old daughter who lives with her mother in Boston, and he calls her once a week, and sends half his salary to her mother for support.  When he has time, he likes to fish.

20.

When his wife and three children died in a boating accident, he changed his life. He sold the boat, and his business, his city apartment, his summer home in Vermont, his winter home in Santa Fe, his Lear 60, and his three cars. He liquidated all his other “assets,” and returned to the shabby city where he grew up. He found ways to give away all the money, always anonymously. Among other things, he bought a number of tidy little houses and gave them to Habitat for Humanity; he gave full college scholarships to four high school students from low-income families and endowed a fund to continue that practice; he bought a musical instrument for every promising child in the city schools who could not afford one, and paid for lessons. He rented a one-room apartment over a hardware store and got a job as custodian in the neighborhood junior high school.  The income just meets his needs. He takes pride in his work. The students like him, and find it easy to tell him their troubles. The teachers and guidance counselors know this, and often send students to him. He listens to them while he is mopping or sweeping or cleaning a bathroom. Although he misses his wife and children and always will, he has never been happier.

21

She makes jewelry from silver wire and semi-precious stones:  birds’ nests and flowers, intricate weavings, tiny children on swings. If she went to a high-end city or had a classy website, she’d make a great deal of money, but she sells her things at craft fairs and local markets. She determines the price of each item by the way she feels about the person who wants to buy it. She once sold a pendant— a silver rabbit under a garnet-studded tree attached to a chain of hand-made links—for five dollars, to a teenaged boy who wanted something nice for his mother.  And once, she sold a pair of hammered hoop earrings—that took half an hour to make—for one hundred twenty dollars, just because she saw the woman who wanted them slapping a little dog.  Her studio is in the old bungalow where she lives with her own little dog. She doesn’t consider herself “religious,” and indeed, she doesn’t think she knows what that word means, but she puts a blessing on everything that she makes, hoping that the people who wear them, or even touch them, will find peace. And somehow, people do, even the woman who slapped the little dog.

22.

She is the pastor of a small church in a small town. Because the church cannot afford to pay a full-time salary, she is also a substitute teacher in the elementary school. Because the rectory is large and she is single, she takes in overflow from the homeless shelter. When her brother asks her if she is afraid to do that, she laughs and says she’d be afraid not to. “Angels unawares,” she says. “Whatever you do unto the least.” Her parishioners worry about her. They think she doesn’t eat right, and they bring her casseroles. She has three cats, Patience, Prudence and Mephistopheles. She does not talk about her past.

23.

He lives with his family in an old farmstead on a back road. He grows vegetables and raises chickens and pigs. The pigs till the ground for the broccoli and tomatoes; the chickens fertilize the soil and pick out the seeds and bugs. He kills the animals quickly, with thanks. He picks the vegetables the same way. Although he could command high prices at specialty shops, he sells his eggs and produce and meat from a shop that was once the creamery connected to his old barn. People come from miles around and often stay to chat because, as one regular customer says, they always “feel better, knowing there is such a good man in the world.”  His wife has MS and can no longer help in the field, but his teenaged daughter and son work after school and all summer, and a retired farmer nearby always comes by to help during the time of the pig slaughter. “We’re lucky,” he says. “We have so much to be grateful for.”

24.

He takes photos for a local weekly newspaper and regularly exhibits photos in local art galleries. His portraits are especially arresting, and he has won journalism awards for several. One reviewer of his work wrote, “His ability to capture the feelings of his subjects is almost uncanny.” He does not talk much about how he works, and when asked, he smiles and says, “I guess it’s just intuition.” Always respectful, never intrusive, his presence at community events—even tragedies—seems to have a calming effect on the people around him. One woman whom he photographed as her house was burning down, said, “It’s like I knew if he was here, everything would be okay.” His wife is Methodist, but he is a member of a Quaker meeting, and he practices walking meditation regularly.