Review: Woe to the Scribes and Pharisees

Happiness, Something Little

A bee settled
on a rose petal.
It sipped, and off it flew.
All in all, happiness, too,
is something little.

Trilussa, translated by John DuVal

*

Draw a circle with a radius of about one mile. Place Young Israel synagogue at its center. For two weeks, close schools, synagogues, and churches, and cancel or postpone large indoor gatherings within that area. Call it a “containment zone.” Call it New Rochelle, NY, a suburb of New York City.

My step-daughter and her two energetic young boys live in New Rochelle. The day before Governor Andrew Cuomo ordered the containment zone, my wife flew home from a 9-day visit with them. Using wipes to disinfect every surface and scrubbing her hands raw, my wife did her best not to “sip” coronavirus while she was there.

Fortunately for them, my step-daughter and her boys live in the other part of New Rochelle, not within the containment area. When they go to a synagogue (not often), they don´t go to Young Israel. She’s a family doctor, my step-daughter. She’s on the faculty of a medical school, where she teaches and supervises med students who are out in the field doing their rotations. She’s level-headed, follows best practices, encourages her students to do the same, and tries to keep everyone from succumbing to fear and panic.

*
Who do we listen to at a time like this? What do we listen to? How do we listen?

*
A bee settled
on a rose petal.
It sipped, and off it flew.
All in all, happiness, too,
is something little.

Let’s memorize this poem. I’ll give you three minutes.

Now, close your eyes and begin repeating the poem silently to yourself, over and over again. When you notice your attention has wandered, return to the poem: “A bee settled… “

Those were the instructions I gave to my students. Now, I offer them to you.

*

While my wife was in New Rochelle, I was in South Jersey for a short visit with my 92-year-old father and about-to-turn 89-year-old mother. We didn’t hug and kiss when I arrived. We watched the stock market fall. We watched “Law and Order: SVU.”

I scrubbed my hands raw; I squirted hand-sanitizer into my palms after opening doors—Target, Walgreens, LL Bean—my life in chains. On Sunday, it took four stops for me to find the last container of disinfectant wipes—for the plane home: seat belt, armrest, tray table.

I had arrived on Friday. On Monday afternoon, off I flew.

*

A bee settled
on a rose petal.
It sipped, and off it flew.
All in all, happiness, too,
is something little.

If you find yourself actively “thinking about” the poem, notice that and let it go. Return to the words. “A bee settled/on a rose petal…” Instead of actively seeking meaning—thinking about bees and roses and pollination; considering this definition of “happiness”—let the mind settle on the words of the poem, just the words, allowing insights to arise on their own.

*

Headlines in the New York Times right now, Thursday, March 12, 4:08 p.m.: “U.S. Stocks Have Their Worst Day Since 1987 Crash”; “Trump’s Coronavirus Speech Fails To Unify Or Reassure”; “How The Virus Has Changed Life In The United States”; “New York’s Major Cultural Institutions Close In Response To Coronavirus”…

Why do I obsessively check the news, email, and stock market every few minutes? I’m 66, on the eve of retirement, in physical pain, afraid.

Return to the poem.

A bee settled
on a rose petal.
It sipped, and off it flew.
All in all, happiness, too,
is something little.

*

Is this “close reading,” being with the poem, over and over again noticing thoughts and letting them go and returning to the words themselves—the speeding up, the slowing down, the linked sounds, the silences?

*

The mind settled
on a rose petal.

It sipped

Something’s revealed, something’s right when the mind settles, when one can breathe the words of a well-made poem.

and off it flew

There it goes, the mind.

*

We’re in trouble, my friend, a former mayor of Asheville, said to me when we saw each other at the supermarket just now. She works there in the artisan bread department. At first, we kept our distance—each of us touching our own hearts then putting our hands together in front of our hearts then bumping elbows. Then we closed the distance between us and hugged. Was that a mistake?

*

All in all.

Can we have a mind and heart spacious enough to hold and attend to it all: the terror, the love, the enormous and minuscule movements around us, within us?

Maybe a little happiness is not only enough. Maybe it’s all. Right here, right now. When you can just be with these words offering themselves to us the way a rose offers itself to a bee.

A bee settled
on a rose petal.
It sipped, and off it flew.
All in all, happiness, too,
is something little.

 

Richard Chess directed the Center for Jewish Studies at UNC Asheville for 30 years. He also led UNC Asheville’s contemplative inquiry initiative for ten years. He’s published four books of poetry, the most recent of which is Love Nailed to the Doorpost. He’s on the eve of retirement. He’s a lead organizer of the upcoming Faith in Arts Institute: An Exploration of the Intersections of Faith, Spirit, and Art. You can find out more about and register for the institute here. You can find him at www.richardchess.com