Sunday, January 11, 2009

766. Steam (part 1)

Here's part 1 of an essay I wrote for my writing class (still needs a lttle editing, but close to being finished), about that awful (well, not really) Rosh Hashanah a few years ago:


If you breathe in enough steam, after awhile your lungs start to feel like an open wound. I stood under the shower for half an hour gulping in the prickly air, and then moved to the bedroom where I draped a towel over the humidifier, and stuck my head inside. I emerged a few minutes later coated in newer, hotter sweat, and crawled to the piano. I played a tentative A above middle C, and opened my mouth.


It was 7AM, two hours since I awoke this second day of Rosh Hashanah and discovered my throat was swollen shut. The night before, as I lay in bed in awe of my superhuman ability to sing all morning and still be able talk with friends for hours afterwards, I wondered why I ever doubted my competence as a fake cantor. Singing had been a hobby since I was a kid, but always in large choirs or bouncy 
a cappella groups. I loved it, everything from the sounds of chords weaving filigrees out of thin air to the magnetic touch of the tips of our shoulders as we stood close and breathed as one. But I wasn't a very good actor; I had a hard time pretending that I understood why Gershwin loved London town or Monteverdi, God. Nor did I want to touch the scary parts that required an open heart to transform pretty notes into emotionally authentic music. Hiding in a choir was like a contact high, imbibing the honesty of others when I was too chicken to get naked and find my own.

But sometimes life pushes you out of the back row. One day, just for fun, I decided to take a Torah chanting class; the next, more or less, the cantor was the phone asking if I could volunteer to help lead Shaharit, the morning service, at High Holy Day services. I laughed louder than Sarah when God suggested she'd have a baby at 90. On my scale of improbable pursuits, this ranked just under becoming an Olympic athlete, and above raider of the lost Ark. But I said yes, because I had made an amazing discovery after many Shabbat mornings hunched nervously over a Torah scroll in the company of no voice but my own: it was safe. There were gabbais at my left and right following each syllable, ready to rescue me if I fell. And sometimes I swore I could hear a big, inflated beach ball of sound ricocheting between me and the last row, as the people listening seemed to catch my notes and throw them right back.

I remembered an old joke about a boy flipping madly through the pages of a book. "What's up?" asked his friend. "I have a date tonight, but this is useless!" said the boy, and showed him the front cover. "Silly!" laughed his friend. "That's just volume 9 of the encyclopedia: HOW to KISS." Sitting in a synagogue had been my own volume 9, HOW to PRAY. Everyone acted as if they understood, but I read the words and nothing happened. Was it like pornography, I'd know it when I saw it? I couldn't just latch onto someone else's kavannah like I did in a choir. But when I chanted Torah or sang from a siddur, when I exhaled and the story came out—my story—and the congregation listened, something new transpired. Like a circuit completed, the words, once heard, lit up like fire. This was praying, I realized, sighs and love and hope in the form of shared breath and sound, naked, addictive--and never lonely. And I think the glue filling the space between me and everyone else, the current between circuits, was God.

(Continued here.)

No comments: