Monday

Mar. 2, 2009

Sleeping Next to the Man on the Plane

by Ellen Bass

I'm not well. Neither is he.
Periodically he pulls out a handkerchief
and blows his nose. I worry
about germs, but appreciate how he shares
the armrest—especially
considering his size—too large
to lay the tray over his lap.
His seatbelt barely buckles. At least
he doesn't have to ask for an extender
for which I imagine him grateful. Our upper arms
press against each other, like apricots growing
from the same node. My arm is warm
where his touches it. I close my eyes.
In the chilly, oxygen-poor air, I am glad
to be close to his breathing mass.
We want our own species. We want
to lie down next to our own kind.
Even here in this metal encumbrance, hurtling
improbably 30,000 feet above the earth,
with all this civilization—down
to the chicken-or-lasagna in their
environmentally-incorrect packets,
even as the woman behind me is swiping
her credit card on the phone embedded
in my headrest and the folks in first
are watching their individual movies
on personal screens, I lean
into this stranger, seeking primitive comfort—
heat, touch, breath—as we slip
into the ancient vulnerability of sleep.

"Sleeping Next to the Man on the Plane" by Ellen Bass from Mules of Love. © BOA Editions, 2002. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

It's the birthday of Theodor Geisel, (books by this author) better known as Dr. Seuss, born in Springfield, Massachusetts (1904).

It's the birthday of Sholem Aleichem, (books by this author) born in Pereyaslav, Ukraine (1859). He is one of the world's most prolific and widely read Yiddish-language writers. He was the son of a lumber merchant. His given name was Solomon Rabinowitz, but he adopted a pen name because many of his friends and relatives disapproved of his decision to write in Yiddish, the colloquial language of Eastern European Jews, rather than in Hebrew, the language of intellectuals and liturgy. So he chose the name Sholem Aleichem, which comes from a Hebrew greeting meaning "peace be with you."

His family were fairly successful merchants, but their fortunes took a turn for the worse, and his parents opened up an inn to make some money. Young Sholem Aleichem loved hanging around the inn, and he found a great wealth of material in the characters and situations there.

He got married, and he and his wife moved to Kiev. He tried his hand at the stock market and started a Yiddish literary journal. But both ventures failed, and he went bankrupt and fled the country. One of his most famous characters is an itinerant stockbroker. Another is Tevye the milkman. Sholem Aleichem wrote many stories about Tevye, and they were the inspiration for the 1964 musical Fiddler on the Roof.

He and his wife had six children, and he had to write constantly in order to make ends meet for his family. He toured all over Europe and America giving lectures. He lived in Germany, in Denmark, and finally in the United States. He died at the age of 57, in New York City. One hundred thousand mourners lined the streets on the day of his funeral.

He said, "Life is a dream for the wise, a game for the fool, a comedy for the rich, a tragedy for the poor."

And, "No matter how bad things get, you got to go on living, even if it kills you."

Be well, do good work, and keep in touch.®

 









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