Gravy

Erev Rosh Hashanah • Rosh Hashanah Eve

September 28, 2011 • 1 Tishrei 5772

Rabbi Bridget Wynne

 

High on a cliff overlooking the town of Port Angeles, in Washington State, is the Ocean View Cemetery. There you can find a grave covered with a black granite slab, and on the slab these words, “Will you please be quiet, please!” It seems like a strange joke.

 

If you look more closely, you will read: “Raymond Carver, May 25, 1938 – August 2, 1988, Poet, Short Story Writer, Essayist.”

 

You might notice that this famous American writer lived to be just 50 years old. And, if you’ve read his books or studied him in school, you might realize that the words “Will you please be quiet, please!” are not as odd as they seem, since they are the title of a collection of his short stories.

 

Look even more closely, and you would find that one of his poems is engraved in full on the stone. Here it is:

 

“Gravy”

 

No other word will do. For that's what it was. Gravy.

Gravy, these past ten years.

Alive, sober, working, loving, and

being loved by a good woman. Eleven years

ago he was told he had six months to live

at the rate he was going. And he was going

nowhere but down. So he changed his ways

somehow. He quit drinking! And the rest?

After that it was all gravy, every minute

of it, up to and including when he was told about,

well, some things that were breaking down and

building up inside his head. "Don't weep for me,"

he said to his friends. "I'm a lucky man.

I've had ten years longer than I or anyone

expected. Pure Gravy. And don't forget it.”

 

As you might expect, there’s a story behind this poem. When Raymond Carver was 19, he married a 16-year-old girl, Maryann Burk. By the time he was 20, Carver had two children. He supported his family by working various jobs -- as a janitor, sawmill laborer, deliveryman, and library assistant. 

        

Meanwhile, Carver continued his education, got interested in writing, and became an important short story writer. At the same time, he started drinking heavily, to the point where it soon eclipsed everything else in his life.

 

Finally, after being hospitalized three times, Raymond Carver joined AA, and in 1977 he stopped drinking. A few months later he met the poet Tess Gallagher; the two fell in love and they lived together from that point on. Eleven years later Carver died of lung cancer.

 

“Gravy” might seem like an odd title for this poem, but we know what he means. Something extra, beyond the basics. Getting more than you expected.

 

For Carver, the gravy was the ten years he never thought he’d see. Ten years:

 

“Alive, sober, working, loving, and

being loved by a good woman…”

 

Ten years of pure gravy. And his gratitude for the gift of those years remained even after he was diagnosed with lung cancer. From the moment he stopped drinking, he says:

 

… it was all gravy, every minute

of it, up to and including when he was told about,

well, some things that were breaking down and

building up inside his head. "Don't weep for me,"

he said to his friends. "I'm a lucky man.

I've had ten years longer than I or anyone

expected. Pure Gravy. And don't forget it.”

 

I want to share this poem with you this evening because, for so many of us, this last year has not been one of gravy.

 

We are experiencing the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression. Even if it has not affected you personally, the worry it generates is all around us.

 

A couple days ago I had a check-up, and my doctor told me that many of his patients come in panicked or depressed about losing their jobs, their houses, their health coverage. Last week I got my hair cut, and my stylist talked about how she and her husband had to walk away from the house they had remodeled so beautifully, and move in with her mother.

 

Gravy – it’s about getting more than you expected, more than you earned. When you put money in a vending machine and out comes a drink, when you do your work and get a paycheck, that’s not gravy, it’s what we deserve. In fact, if the machine keeps our money, if we don’t get that paycheck, we’re angry. When we do get what we expect, we are rarely full of joy about it.

 

What do gravy, and a bad economy, have to do with Rosh Hashanah? A lot.

 

The call of the shofar – the ram’s horn – that we will hear at the end of tonight’s service, and again tomorrow morning, brings us one of the most important messages of this holiday. Its loud, haunting sound is meant to be a yearly alarm, a cosmic version of the one that wakes us up in the morning. The shofar calls to us, “You, who are sleepwalking through your days, you, who are rushing headlong through your days – wake up! On this day, of all days, pay attention!”

 

Pay attention to what? I want to offer two answers.

 

First, gravy. Where in your life is the gravy, the something extra? Even with the difficulties, whether they are economic, health, relationships, or anything else, where is the more than you expected? More than you earned? Think about it.

 

It can be hard to find the gravy, even harder to notice it on a regular basis. This leads me to the second answer to the question, “what does the shofar call us to pay attention to?” Choice.

 

Rosh Hashanah reminds us that we are free to choose. There is so much that is beyond our control – the economic downturn, sickness, other people … but usually there is still much we can choose. One of those choices is to look for and appreciate the gravy.

 

Appreciating the gravy, what we would usually call gratitude, and making conscious choices about how we live. These are two of Judaism’s most basic teachings. Because for most of us they are difficult to remember, difficult to carry out, our tradition reminds us with the cry of the shofar.

 

Judaism even goes beyond the yearly wake-up call, and gives us a daily, even hourly way to choose gratitude. Whether or not you want to make use of it in your life, the idea behind it is simple and wise.

 

Our tradition invites us to say 100 blessings a day. Saying a blessing – it has 3 steps. First, choosing to stop in the midst of what may be our rush through the day, second, noticing what we might be grateful for, and third, expressing our appreciation.

 

We offered a blessing this evening at the beginning of our service for having made it to a New Year. We said it in Hebrew, using traditional words, but you could express it in any way you want.

 

In what other situations besides the New Year might you choose to stop, notice the gravy, and express your appreciation? A baby being named, your body working – even just going to the bathroom, waking up in the morning, eating, seeing a good friend, experiencing natural beauty …

 

The idea of saying 100 blessings a day isn’t meant literally, though I’m sure it’s possible. The point is to actively choose gratitude more often than most of us would without this reminder.

 

This year we may need the Rosh Hashanah wake-up call even more than usual. The spiritual discipline of choosing gratitude – for that’s what it is – is hardest to practice when things are not going well, when we or those we love are out of work, ill, or in trouble. Then it is challenging indeed to perceive what it is good.

 

I’ve shared my thoughts on what Rosh Hashanah has to do with the economy, and gravy. Let’s end now with the words of a second poem by Raymond Carver, that’s also on his tombstone. It’s a short one, a poem addressed, I think, to himself – to a man killed by cancer at the age of 50, who somehow, even so, found the strength to choose to be grateful. As I read it, I invite you to listen as though it is speaking to you.

 

"Late Fragment"

 

And did you get what

you wanted from this life, even so?

I did.

And what did you want?

To call myself beloved, to feel myself

beloved on the earth.

 

Did you love somebody on this earth? Did you feel yourself beloved? Did you experience natural beauty, days of health, laughter, the wisdom of the very young or the very old, the joy of giving to others? And did you know it?

 

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