A Blessing for Misfortune

October 11, 2016 § 17 Comments

under-the-catBy Irene Hoge Smith

I spent much of the summer revising a memoir about my poet mother—what I remember of her, how she left, what it was like after she was gone, how pretending she didn’t exist ended up costing me more than I could afford. One little story after another—a few sweet memories of her good qualities, some darkly humorous episodes, and many painful accounts.  And now the revisions are done and I’m pitching the project and the question of what’s so special about me and my story is right in my face. I’m not famous, never got abducted by aliens, didn’t even manage to spend 87 days in jail in a million little pieces. I’m not special and this is not the part of the writing life I like.

But fall is here and I’m ready for a fresh start.  Ready for the New Year, in fact. I attend the Rosh Hashanah service of the Interfaith Families Project with my Jewish husband, and feel part of the gathering despite not reading Hebrew and not being Jewish myself.  We all belong here, for each of us it is the beginning of a new year, and I settle into the cadences of prayer and song and the pleasure of a good story:

Back in the old country, two boys were studying with their teacher, learning the blessings that are part of an observant life—blessings during services and at home, upon waking and before sleep, when lighting candles and while preparing food. A blessing for everything? Their teacher did not disagree.  But of course, as is the way of such boys, they enjoyed asking questions more than anything. “Oh, teacher,” one asked, “what is the blessing for misfortune?”

They had him there.  For that answer, he said, they must seek out Reb Zushya.  And of course, like all good stories, this one proceeds to the quest.  The two boys walked and walked, through brambles and along a stony path. By the time they found a humble hut deep in the woods they were scratched and bruised but still curious.  Why would a learned man of such distinction be living in poverty?

As the story is told, it seems things had not gone well in Reb Zushya’s life. But when the two young seekers showed up looking for answers he asked them in.  “I would invite you to sit, but as you see I only have this tree stump.  But, please, come in.”  They entered, bowing their heads with respect.

“I would offer you a cup of wine,” he continued. “But alas, all I have is water.  But, please, take.”

“I would give you some cake as a mark of hospitality, but as you can there is only this crust of bread.” Reb Zushya broke the remains of a loaf into three small pieces.

The boys accepted with gratitude and respect the little there was to share, wondering all the while what had brought Reb Zushya’s life to such an impoverished state.

“So, tell me,” the Rabbi beamed at the boys.  “What can I do for you?” They tell them of their lessons, their teacher, the unanswered question.

Reb Zushya burst out laughing.

He did not tell them the blessing for misfortune.  He’s the wrong person to ask, he exclaimed, “For you see, I’ve had no misfortune!”

That’s something to contemplate. What might it be like, entering these days of awe, to consider that one has had no misfortune? For that is the lesson, I see, that our Rabbi has come to teach today.

That’s a hard one in any case.  And a hard one for this writer, for whom themes of loss seem unavoidable and trauma sometimes the black hole of memory.  No misfortune?  How would that work?

Like this:  The wise man did not say his life had been without loss. He did not claim to have escaped suffering. I still cannot imagine his losses but have a new thought about my own. They were and are real. They haunt me. But they were not misfortune, curses, or evidence of the universe gone wrong. No, not the runaway mother or the damaging father or the lost sisters or even a young husband gone in a heartbeat. Suffering, yes. Grief. Wondering how to go on, more than once.  But not out of line. Not special.

That’s what I’m getting at. Yes, these are and may always be the things I write about. I write to find meaning in events not because they are extraordinary, but because they are all too ordinary.


Irene Hoge Smith lives, writes and practices psychotherapy near Washington D.C. She is completing a memoir about her lost-and-found mother, the poet FrancEyE (also known, in the early 1960s, as Charles Bukowski’s mistress and muse). Her essays have appeared in New Directions Journal, Amsterdam Quarterly and Prick of the Spindle. (She is one of the four founding mothers of the Interfaith Families Project.)


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