Atonement: Bird on the Wire

FeaturedAtonement: Bird on the Wire

In the late 1970’s I worked at a run-down residential hotel that had been sold and was about to be renovated. The legions of accountants, lawyers, contractors and financial schemers confounded even the notable. I managed to keep them all straight, pass information one to another and generally play the know-it-all role I like.

The lead accountant, Mel, asked if I had any friends who could be temporary helpers on some new events his firm was staffing—the Taste of Chicago, ChicagoFest and Art Chicago Expo.

“Sure,” I said, “How much will they get paid?”

“Free entry, all the food they can eat, a T-shirt and a poster.”

Having just accumulated a whole batch of new friends in Alcoholics Anonymous, I knew plenty of unemployed sober oddballs hungry for food and fun as ticket-takers and money-changers. Next thing I knew, Mel told me I had to meet “the guy” in charge.

“Come to Temple Beth Israel on Yom Kippur.” Mel said.

“What? What’s that?” I said, “Am I allowed? What do I wear?”

“Everyone’s allowed. Day of Atonement. It’s the best time to do business.”

I tried to sneak into a seat in the back and look around for Mel. After lengthy  prayers and singing, there was an intermission. Mel appeared at my side, grabbed me by the elbow and said, “Let’s go.”

All the congregants rose up, walked around, talked and laughed and “did business”. Mel introduced me to “the guy” who headed up one of Chicago’s Big Eight downtown accounting firms.

“How many people you got?” The guy asked me.

“Twenty or so,” I lied.

“Good.” Bring ‘em to Navy Pier on Saturday and get ‘em signed up. We’ll take it from there.”

In the years since, I’ve practiced atonement often — not just once a year, but almost everyday. At a recent book group studying The Jewish Annotated New Testament, I inched into a discussion of Ken Burns’ documentary, The US and the Holocaust.

“Someone told me the trouble with Jews is that they didn’t assimilate.” I said.

“The. trouble. with. Jews?”  One of the Jewish participants admonished.

“Do you hear what you’re saying?”

“I’m so sorry,” I said. I then attempted to overcompensate the sin of victim-blaming by blabbering about assimilation, of which I know nothing.

I once asked a musician friend to sing Leonard Cohen’s Bird on the Wire at my funeral.

“No.” He replied.

“Aw, c’mon. Just say yes. I won’t know. I’ll be dead.”

“Better to atone when you’re alive.” He said.

I bowed to my ignorance and he agreed to sing just these words.

Like a bird on the wire

Like a drunk in a midnight choir

I have tried in my way to be free

Like a worm on a hook

Like a knight from some old-fashioned book

I have saved all my ribbons for thee

If I, if I have been unkind

I hope that you can just let it go by

If I, if I have been untrue

I hope you know it was never to you

God bless Leonard Cohen 1934–2016.

Listen to Bird on the Wire here.

Change Your Life with Lima Beans

Change Your Life with Lima Beans

     When I put the light green kidney shape in my mouth, my tongue moved it to my baby molars, gingerly munching up and down, side to side, until I felt a mushy bean pop out of the slimy skin onto my tongue. I gasped, and my reflexive inhale involuntarily pulled the glob to the back of my throat. I gagged on the paper-like skin, exhaling the sodden lump back through the front of my teeth and out onto my plate. My little five-year old body sat at that table until “you eat those lima beans.” After everyone went to bed, I dumped the loathsome things in the garbage. That night I vowed to forever hate lima beans and thus seeded a recipe for an unyielding, uncompromising, black and white life.

     Whatever possessed my mother to force me to sit at the table of uneaten lima beans for hours? Was it a doctor who told her that her children needed to eat vegetables? Or perhaps she was trying to introduce exotic foods into our menu so she could show off her three little girls and their sophisticated palates.

     My sisters and I all hated vegetables. The older, Mara, would feign putting a forkful of beans in her mouth with an air of superiority, a competitive streak born in her and never pruned. Erin, the youngest, figured out how to put her vegetables in a neat pocket formed by her napkin and dump it in the trash while no one was looking. Hiding unpleasant situations is perennially rooted in her life.

     When the self-actualization movement bloomed in the 1960s and ’70s with books such as The Prophet, I’m Ok You’re Ok and Be Here Now, I cultivated my deeper self by rooting out my hatred for lima beans. I tilled the soil for a backyard garden in Toms River, New Jersey, and planted the formerly-detested vegetables. When they sprouted, I thought the light green shape hanging from the stem was a single bean. After a few weeks, bumps appeared under the thick skin of the seed pod. I diligently hosed away aphids, leafhoppers, and mites, but I was sure my crop was deformed. Consulting Rodale’s Basic Organic Gardening book, I learned the bumps were actually beans – four lima beans per pod. After a few months, I pulled the bean pods from the vines, broke them open and started eating the sun-drenched crop right there on my knees in the garden. My neighbor flew out of her back door and yelled Stop! You can’t eat raw lima beans! They’re poison!

     Uh-oh.

     This was a new reason not to eat them, cooked or uncooked, but I was determined to use lima beans to crack open the hardened space between “what is” and “what could be.” I brought an apronful of beans inside, cooked, salted and buttered them and ate the day’s harvest for breakfast. They were good.

     Abiding in the distasteful takes practice. The once indigestible lima bean aerated my closed mind and paved the way toward a paradise of tasty, fresh vegetables.