The afternoon of Rosh Hashanah, in the midst of our getting ready to get out the door to lead services, our shower handle broke – with the water on. Fortunately, a good friend was able to come by on a moment's notice and fix it, and all was well.
The experience reminded me of something I hadn't thought about in years, a story in verse by Garrison Keillor about a shower. I heard it on a tape of Prairie Home Companion many years ago, and it came back to me. When I looked online, I only found the audio, so I bought it on iTunes and transcribed it for use in our Rosh Hashanah morning service.
It made a fitting introduction to the Unetaneh Tokef prayer, which presents a problematic theology of sin and divine punishment, of a God who tallies our deeds and seals our fates accordingly. Keillor, in his characteristically wry, Midwestern way, makes a profound theological point that speaks to us today.
Enjoy and share. Shanah tovah!
~ Rabbi David
A couple notes on the text:
- This is my own transcription, to the best of my ability according to the recording.
- There are two bracketed couplets that I did not read during services because of their Christian imagery; I thought they would be distracting, and excluding them did not take away much of the meaning.
- In the final lines, the all-caps exclamations should be understood as the uncomfortable utterances of a person taking a cold shower.
- To hear Keillor read it, click here.
The Old Shower Stall
On these cold October mornings, when the trees are going bare,
and the smells of frost and fruit and wood-smoke linger in the air,
when my skin warms to the chill, and my blood and flesh and bone
are touched by old sweet memories of autumns I have known:
the excitement of the senses, waking up in cold, dim dawn
to the smell of woolen blanket, and downstairs the coffee on,
and my mother’s voice much louder on her third and final call,
and the tingling of the skin when I jump out and down the hall,
and ran into the bathroom, across the cold wood floor,
and the shrinking of the loins when I stood and dropped my drawers
and reached and turned the faucet on and took the bar of soap,
and got into that shower full of fear and shame and hope.
It was an old, old shower that my father had hooked up,
a nozzle on a long lead pipe that rose above the tub,
like a post at executions where you’re tied up with a knot
naked, with your eyes shut, waiting for the fatal shot.
My father was no plumber; he built the shower from plans
that he saw in a magazine – perhaps Modern Romance?
For this shower was so sensitive and moody, if someone
downstairs turned on a faucet before your shower was done,
even for a second, suddenly the gentle flow
of comforting warm water turned frigidicimal.
and the victim stood there frozen, helpless and surprised,
by a sudden loss of vision as his eyeballs crystallized,
and the pain throughout his body from the frostbite in the blood,
and his skin turned white and rigid and his heart stopped with a thud.
But to freeze a body is gentle, compared to when you boil it,
which happened in this shower if somebody flushed a toilet.
It came without a warning as you sang “la la” and scrubbed –
no rumble in the pipes that this volcano would erupt.
It just blew up in your face or from behind the lava rose
and hit you bending over to wash between your toes,
and you sprang up in great agony and yelled and tried to run
and slipped and fell down in a heap, medium well done.
[Another Christian martyr in the flames trying to pray,
Oh Lord forgive that person but please not right away.]
Yes I had some spiritual moments in that shower of my youth,
moments when the water seemed to thunder down with truth
upon my naked body, when I had a carnal thought
and enjoyed and dwelled upon it, though I knew that I should not,
but allowed myself to daydream in the regions of desire.
Did the Lord reach out and flush to strike me down with liquid fire?
I used to think He did, but now I’m older and I see.
The shower was a lesson in man’s sweet mortality:
to feel how fine, how fragile, is this trembling naked form,
how delicious is the water, and how briefly it stays warm,
and how it may turn painful, suddenly, without a word,
and how, though it seems unfair, this pain can be endured,
and how the joyful moments seem more sweet as they go by
because you know this shower has a limited supply.
I’m out of that old bathroom now. Since then I’ve gotten wet
in a lot of shower systems where the temperature is set
by small inboard computers that keep it warm nonstop
and regulate the volume and the shape of every drop
in exact configuration from a trickle to barrage,
steady flow or in pulsations for a thundering massage,
with bath oil beads and vitamins mixed in, emulsified,
from showerheads above you and below and to the side;
six to make the shower, one to make a gentle mist,
and a tapedeck in the ceiling playing Chopin and Franz Liszt,
[and a light to make a rainbow where the shower is a prism
and all of it designed to soak out Calvinism]
and the sunlamps in the ceiling and the coil in the floor
maintain precision comfort, and you know there’s always more
hot water where this came from, some endless reservoir
that the universe has guaranteed to you, it’s brightest star.
But as I stand in absolute luxurious delight
and utter satisfaction, I know it is not right.
You know it too, my friend. And so tomorrow when you rise,
and stand under your shower, when you acclimatize,
reach for the knob marked H, and turn it off, and stand in prayer,
“Lord, help me appreciate what soon will not be there.
And may I be more thankful, more wakeful unto thee
and more aware of sinful pride, my own complacency,
I’m less inclined to take for granted the gifts I get from you.
I thank you now for every one and praise and utter – WHOO!
and stand in your creation with proper reverent awe,
and look upon these wonders with joyful spirit – AHHHH!
And finally in conclusion may I just say, Amen.”
And open your eyes, turn on the warm, and now be clean, again.