For the past two weeks an uninvited memory has surfaced during my sleep and during the early morning hours when I’m unsure whether I’m awake or still asleep, that twilight zone when the brain does whatever the brain does to move the soul toward healing the broken pieces of the past.
The memory is of Snoopy, the pet hamster who brought such joy to everyone in the family. He was a special creature — a lovely white tan, like a palomino horse, who very quickly learned to please us all. At dinner I’d bring Snoopy up from my bedroom in the basement and sit him on my shoulder, or my Dad’s, the way Twinkle the parakeet used to do in an earlier iteration of pets we humans thought we owned. Even my mother, who loved birds but was the first one up on a chair whenever a mouse appeared, fell in love with Snoopy and our love for him.
Until the week I moved from the basement bedroom to the one on the second floor after Jeanine moved out of our home. Snoopy stayed in the basement. I have no idea now why I forgot him — or why the family didn’t miss him — but the next time I saw Snoopy he had starved to death. I’d forgotten to feed him. The picture of Snoopy lying on his back with his mouth open has returned repeatedly, a message, perhaps, about paying attention to when and where I am.
I was maybe 14 at the time. The hormones were raging back then. Not so much anymore at 73, but I easily find distractions from responsibility toward the likes of Snoopy — family who in some way deserve or need the sustenance I’m still in position to provide: Kay, John, Doug, Kristin, Andrew, and Christopher, my brothers Don and Bob, and old dogs hanging on to the pack while the clock runs out on us one by one.
And then there is the need for confession, for repentance, and for forgiveness that will never come from those I’ve hurt, ignored, forgotten, betrayed, denied—and animals I’ve killed, like Snoopy.
Then, during the run-up to the week when six seminary friends will gather in Chicago to focus on the Hebrew prophets, I remember a poem of Yuli Daniel, written from a Soviet labor camp published in Rabbi Jonathan Magonet‘s Returning: Exercises in Repentance in the chapter CHESHBON HANEFESH — Self-Judgment.
When your life is tumbling downhill head over heels,
Thrashing and foaming like an epileptic,
Don’ pray and offer up repentance,
Don’t be afraid of jail or ruin.
Study your past with concentration,
Evaluate your days without self-flattery,
Grind the fag* ends of illusion underfoot,
But open up to all that’s bright and clear.
Don’t surrender to impotence and bitterness,
Don’t give in to disbelief and lies,
Not everyone’s a cringing bastard,
Not everyone’s a bigot who informs.
And while you walk along the alien roads
To lands that do not figure on your maps,
Count out the names of all your friends
As you would do with pearls on prayer-beads.
Be on the look-out, cheerful and ferocious
And you’ll manage to stand up, yes, stand up
Under your many-layered load of misery,
Under the burden of your being right.
*i.e., unwelcome work.
Yuli Markovich Daniel was a heroic figure who bore the burden of being right. I bear the burden of being wrong. Yuri stood up. I sat down, or stayed upstairs, ignoring the basement and the attic where the work needs to be done “without self-flattery” at age 73.
My mind isn’t what it used to be. The synapses are shrinking. The short-term memory is fading. But the longer-term memory of the likes of Snoopy is a call from Beyond to pay attention to and give thanks for this moment within the Eternal Now.
- Gordon C. Stewart, Chaska, MN, May 21, 2016