The Man Who Spoke Too Soon

Just when I think I’ve learned the art of the pause, of waiting before speaking, of being all tuned in and blissed out. Just when I’m taking a walk in the rain and the rain’s picking up and I’m singing out loud — I have found a way to live / in the presence of the lord — and finding my stride. Just when I am taking some credit for my own hard work, knowing that it’s not dumb luck that has landed me in love and livelihood. Just when I’m giving thanks for smooth sailing and an iota of awareness. Just when I’ve moved from stagnant to sweat, from heavy load to lightning pace, from struggle to ease, from doubt to devotion.

Just then, the phone rings. The familiar voice on the other end asks me a question. I answer “yes” without thinking, though my body tells a different story, a hard-won story, a story of loving boundaries and fought-for clarity. I have betrayed my own knowing again.

I return to the song, the chanting, my voice merging with the rain, which is coming down hard now, hard enough that I cut through the woods from street to field, bare prickly branches grabbing at my wet pants as I make my way where there is no trail to open ground. Mind is on the loose, a poorly trained dog who won’t come when I call it home. I call my beloved, who is finding her own ways of living in the presence of that which has so many names and only one name, always the one. She says it is not dumb luck.

I tell her I forgot to pause. Old injuries — fears, stories — came rushing back, like rivers you can tame but take years to dam up all the way, and with them my mouth opened and words came out I didn’t mean. You can’t put them back.

I remember the Yiddish tale I once told to a group of students who had been careless and hurtful with words. A rabbi tells a boy to cut open all of the pillows in the village. This sounds like a fun assignment, one the boy readily agrees to and carries out with gusto. Before long, thousands of feathers float all over the little town. He goes back to the rabbi, greedy for praise.

But there is a second part to his mission: Now he must go and collect all the feathers and return them to their containers. The boy’s face falls and his heart sinks and his soul grows limp. “But rabbi,” he cries. “It is impossible.” He has learned his lesson. Until the next time, when he forgets its toll and once again speaks out of turn, too impulsive, not thinking. The pause has gone missing like a sacred bird to some hiding hole.

The rabbi is not easily exasperated. But after many times, he turns to the boy who is now a grown man, a father, a provider, respected in name and deed by his fellow villagers, and asks: “Why are you still throwing feathers all over town?”

The man sits down. He sits and sits and thinks perhaps he will never speak again, though he knows this is nonsense. Finally, he turns his face upwards to his teacher with tears in his eyes. He knows this old man will love him till his beard grows to his toes, far beyond the grave.

“I keep thinking I’ve found a way to live — to live in the presence of the lord. To live without clinging to dead truths or flinging feathers to the four winds. I keep thinking I’ve found a way to live that waters peace in my heart the way the rain waters our crops and sustains life. I keep thinking…” Now the man is crying. He has no more words.

The rabbi takes the man’s face in his hands and looks him in the eyes. In this moment, a bird lands on the sill beside them. It is not a special-looking bird, but an ordinary one, the kind that collect by the dozens in the treetops at dusk.

“The smallest birds make the biggest racket,” says the rabbi. He then kisses the man’s forehead, holds out a finger, and stays very still until the bird hops from the open window to his hand. Then he leaves the man to sit alone. “You cannot fix this,” he says, turning back once before closing the door. “But you can sit still.”

The man nods, and begins to sing once again, his voice a bit fuller, a bit deeper. And if you listen very closely, you will hear the honesty in his heart, slipping out like so many feathers.

Shabbat Shalom.

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