Last Thursday morning while I was trying to decide whether to take time off from work to watch the Senate’s Judge Kavanaugh confirmation hearings live, I found myself remembering a line from a book by my favorite mystery writer, Robert B. Parker. Parker’s hero, Spenser, has been called in to help investigate a woman’s gruesome murder. Someone tells him he doesn’t have to look at the body if he doesn’t want to, but he says something like, “If she could endure it, I can endure seeing it.” In other words, he felt he owed it to her to look at, and see the tragic, ugly truth of her suffering. I realized I felt the same way. I felt I owed it to Dr. Ford to watch. She had endured what happened to her when she was fifteen, and then also in the weeks since her allegation became public, and she was now willing to endure all that might happen to her at these hearings. I could endure watching.
Although I found the hearing often heartbreaking, occasionally enraging, I don’t for a second regret that I took the time to watch what was perhaps the most remarkable public display of courage I have ever witnessed. There were countless noteworthy highlights in Dr. Ford’s testimony, but for me the most stunning moment, the one that brought me jumping off the couch to stand and yell, “Yes!” came near the end, when Senator Cory Booker asked her how she felt about the Republicans on the Judiciary Committee refusing to ask for an FBI investigation of her allegation. He offered her the perfect opportunity to blast the senators; he lobbed her a beach ball she could slam out of the park. He teed it up for her.
And she refused to swing away. It was a leading question, but she wasn’t about to be led. She resisted the temptation to point fingers, to vent her frustration, to accuse.
Who could have blamed her, after the way she’d been treated by the Republican members of the Committee for the past few weeks? Instead, calmly and without hesitation she replied, "I wish that I could be more helpful and that others could be more helpful and that we could collaborate in a way that would get at more information." It was a truly stunning statement, delivered with an honesty and a clarity we don’t often hear from people in Washington. There was no guile, no calculation in her tone or in her delivery. Her words simply reinforced what she said earlier in her opening statement; she was only here to tell the truth.
Since the hearing, I’ve read and heard that some people, while admiring her courage, and believing her testimony, thought Dr. Ford’s manner to be too ingratiating, felt that she worked overly hard at trying to please. People have pointed out how our culture does not encourage, or even permit, women to express anger and outrage in these situations.
They’re right, and I fully agree that women should not be made to feel that they must speak and behave within a more muted range of expression than men are allowed. I am not praising Dr. Ford for having been, at times, excessively agreeable. When Senator Grassley asked her if she wanted to take a break, she did not need to reply, “Does that work for you?” On the other hand, given the overwhelming hostility she has faced since coming forward, and given the intensity of the public scrutiny she was facing for the first time in her life, is it surprising that she would fall back on being overly obliging? And then go on to explain, “I’m used to being collegial.” However, there was no meek accommodation at any important moment during her testimony. Whenever she needed to be strong, clear, “100% sure”, she was. Her flexible, gentle bearing did not prevent her from being a warrior. We have had more than enough public examples of people, mostly men, being loud, rude, disrespectful, inconsiderate, relying on the bullying power of their self-righteous rage and entitled indignation, to gaslight and get their way. (I submit as Exhibit A, B and C, Kavanaugh, Graham, and of course, Trump’s peevish, petulant outbursts.)
I’ve felt some compassion for Judge Kavanaugh, and especially for his family, in the past few weeks. No, I was not, am not, in any way excusing his alleged actions. Attempted rape, even under the influence of alcohol, is not high school hijinks; it’s not something to later be merely “not proud of.” And yes, it should automatically disqualify him from sitting on the Supreme Court, even if it did happen in high school, 36 years ago, and even if he’s been a model citizen since then. If Dr. Ford’s allegation is true—and I find it almost impossible to believe otherwise—he surely must be held to account. Nevertheless, I could not ignore his and his family’s pain. Dr. Ford’s refusal to speak harshly to the Republicans on the Judiciary Committee powerfully showed that it’s possible to state a necessary truth, without demonizing those who disagree, or even choose to ignore it. And for me, it somehow validated the way I’d been feeling about Judge Kavanaugh and his family. That feeling was severely tested a few hours later when he almost completely squandered all goodwill with his demeanor and behavior.
It would be good, maybe even crucial, if we all got “used to being collegial.” It would not mean ducking our responsibility to speak truth to power. Dr. Ford repeatedly demonstrated that it’s possible to do both. But it might help heal some of the painful divisions in our country if more of us, more often, found it in our hearts to try to be “more helpful and… could collaborate.”
It was six years ago yesterday that you left this Earth. So it feels a bit strange for me to be writing a letter to you, since, of course, I don’t know where to send it. I have so many questions that are no more answered today than they were six years ago, but really, they all add up to this one: Where are you? In one of his poems Richard Wilbur asks, “Is she now there, wherever there may be?”
Different religions and spiritual paths give various answers about the afterlife. In these last six years I’ve only arrived at one answer I’m sure of — you are within me as memory, as gratitude, as love. And you are in our son Daniel, and in all the people whose lives you touched with your kindness, your encouragement, your gifts.
I am starting to accept that I may never know the answers to some of my related questions, like: Is it just my wishful thinking, or are you still listening when I talk to you? And is it just my imagination that you are still guiding, protecting and blessing Daniel and me from wherever you are? But I’ve gradually decided over these past six years that I don’t need a reply from anywhere else but from inside me.
The author Sandra Cisneros writes, “In Mexico they say when someone you love dies, a part of you dies with them. But they forget to mention that a part of them is born in you — not immediately, I’ve learned, but eventually, and gradually.”
When I started to try to play your flute a few months after you died, the first note I learned was a B; it’s the easiest note to play on the classical silver flute. For months after, though I learned how to play other notes, whenever I picked up your flute I always started with that one. After a while it struck me that this B note was telling me to be, to continue to be, even when, especially when, I sometimes wondered if I could.
Over these past six years, as I’ve continued to play your flute, that B note has kept being my favorite, and it keeps expanding its meaning within me.
In the European notation system the B note is called “ti.” (do, re, mi, fa, sol, la, ti) In Spanish — a language you started learning when you were nearly 50, but which you learned so quickly and well that you could translate in real time the talks of the Ecuadorian shaman with whom you were studying — ti is the familiar form for the word “you.”
In Hungarian, my native tongue, ti is the word for the plural “you.”
So, perhaps that B note has a message for all of us: to be me, to be you, to be all of us.
Ultimately, that’s what your death — and your continuing life within me — has taught me, and is continuing to teach me; that while I’m on this earth, to be myself, to be more and more fully myself, to more and more fully understand what it means to be true to myself.
It was early May of 1968. I had just completed my freshman year at the University of Rochester, my summer job had not yet started, and I’d come home to stay with my parents in Kingston, New York. One afternoon I heard that, as part of his campaign for the presidency, Robert Kennedy’s motorcade would be coming through our city. As I stood on Main Street along with hundreds of others, watching his car move slowly towards us, something stirred in me. Not really knowing why, I found myself wriggling my way to the front, and when he came close, I stuck out my hand. He looked me square in the eyes and shook my hand firmly. The whole exchange took just a split second, but there was no sense of hurry in it at all. Everything and everyone around us disappeared, I felt him giving me his full and absolute attention, and there was only a sense of oneness and connection. I didn’t then, and still don’t now, have a better word for it than love.
Of course, I’d experienced various forms of love — from my parents, my brother, a few special teachers, a couple of short-lived puppy loves — but this was something completely different. It was certainly not something I expected could come from someone who had not known I existed until that very moment, and who, I knew, was meeting and greeting hundreds of strangers every day.
Years later I heard about Carl Rogers’ “unconditional positive regard.” That will do as a clinical description of what I felt from Robert Kennedy, but I’ll stick with “love” as still the best word for what I experienced. In any case, after a few seconds, when his car had moved on, and everything around me had returned to normal, I felt an energy go through me as if I had touched the proverbial live wire. I turned and quickly made my way through the crowd, sprinted a block down a side street, three blocks along a parallel street, and back up on another side street to come out on Main Street ahead of his car. Once again I squirmed my way through the crowd to the edge of the curb and put out my hand — and the exact same thing happened! This time I maintained enough objectivity to notice that his face looked a bit tired, but his eyes met mine fully, and his grip was just as firm and unrushed. I went home and told my parents that I wasn’t going to wash my right hand.
Less than a month later Robert Kennedy was assassinated. Today, June 5, 2018, is the 50th anniversary of his death. I’ll let historians debate what good or harm he did, or what he might have accomplished had he lived. But I will continue to remember him for those precious moments, which I can bring back vividly even after all these years.
This is the sixth Mother’s Day since Helen passed away. Our son, Daniel, keeps becoming a more and more amazing young man. And though, of course, it’s very sad that Helen is not here physically to see his blossoming, the countless gifts she gave him as he was growing up — the tangible gifts, and even more the intangible ones — makes her presence in and influence on his life undiminished.
Two of the more poignant and heartfelt songs the Beatles composed — “Julia” by John Lennon, and “Let it Be” by Paul McCartney — were written to or inspired by their mothers, both of whom died young, when their sons were in their early teens. Daniel may never write a song to Helen, or create anything concrete in her memory, but his very being is a constant tribute to her love for him.
I recently remembered something that happened between Daniel and me around the time of the first Mother’s Day without Helen. Let me give you the context. When Daniel was little, I tried to teach him to be on time. I tried various ways, none of which worked, and I’d often end up feeling frustrated and mad. Helen was no more effective than I in getting Daniel to be punctual, but she did not get into fights about it with him.
It wasn’t until Daniel had turned twenty, a year after Helen died, that I saw what she had taught him, and how.
It happened again — Daniel was late, and I was angry. But then, instead of two male egos escalating an argument, he became very calm and said, “Can I play you something?” And then he played for me a voice mail Helen had left on his cell phone one night when they’d agreed she’d pick him up somewhere at 9:30.
Her voice — from beyond the scattered ashes, beyond time which grasps and scatters everything, with Daniel and me still closing the scar of first sorrow — her voice was unchanged, intimate, utterly ordinary. “Daniel, it’s 9:31. I’m here. But if you’re working on something, it’s fine.”
He’d saved the message, not knowing how much he’d need it later. After she died he replayed it again and again to comfort and remind himself — someone had accepted him as wholeheartedly, as unconditionally, as does our most benevolent image of God. And would again, and does still, and will again and again, forever.
Thank you, Helen.
By the way, Daniel has become much better about this issue. Perhaps, Helen knew he just needed more time. Perhaps she understood, as perhaps only God and mothers do, that you don’t expect and force a chrysanthemum to bloom in May.
Laz, Emily, our friend Eric Fithian and I sang at the March for Our Lives rally in Ann Arbor on March 24th. When we began playing at 11AM, it was 34 degrees. I had on six layers, my ski cap and, for the first time in my career as a musician, wore gloves while playing guitar. (Emily also wore gloves, while Laz and Eric, the tough guys of our quartet, bare knuckled it.) Oh, and though I brought it, I didn’t play my beloved Martin guitar. It was only 28 degrees an hour before we started, and Eric said, “You can’t bring that beauty out in these freezing temps!” and insisted I play his Fender Stratocaster. So, I played electric guitar for the first time in almost fifty years.
We played The Hammer Song, We Shall Not Be Moved, Come and Go With Me, Down by the Riverside, Keep Your Eyes on the Prize, This Land is Your Land, This Little Light, Forever Young and We Shall Overcome. Together with the crowd of 4,000, we all sang, clapped, and swayed along, and at times cried. I introduced Forever Young by saying, “This is for the kids who started it all.” I got choked up halfway through that sentence and could barely finish the first verse. Emily was so moved she was unable to get through much of the second verse. People Laz and my age of course knew these songs and their history in the Sixties and Seventies when they were the anthems of the Civil Rights and anti-Vietnam War rallies. But I saw little children and young people of all ages also singing with us. The music resonated just as powerfully as it did fifty years ago.
It wasn’t until several days after the rally that I suddenly remembered when it was that Laz and I had last sung those songs at a similar event. On March 20, 1982, almost exactly 46 years before the March for Our Lives, a neo-Nazi group came to Ann Arbor to hold a rally, and that day we sang at one of the counter rallies on the Federal Building Plaza.
I recall feeling immensely grateful for these songs on that day, and did again at the March for Our Lives rally a few days ago. These songs, intertwined as they are with the history of so many people’s struggles for freedom and justice, are truly our national treasure. We are all incredibly fortunate to have them, and to be able to sing them together.
On December 14, 2012, at about eleven in the morning, my brother and I were packing up our guitars and other instruments in the multi-purpose room of an elementary school in Trenton, Michigan. A little while earlier we’d played a concert for the entire school, kindergartners through fifth graders and their teachers; everyone had now returned to their classrooms. We were alone, except for the custodian who was getting the room ready for lunch. The principal walked in and said, “We’re on lockdown.” That’s how we heard about Sandy Hook. The news, mind-numbingly horrific under any circumstance, was especially unsettling as we stood in a room which a short time before had been filled with two hundred children and their teachers.
There had been horrific shootings in schools—and in so many other places—before Sandy Hook and, like perhaps many of us, I’d managed to numb myself to them all. But, Sandy Hook hit close to home. Since the mid 1970s my brother and I have played thousands of concerts in elementary schools. At all our shows, the youngest children sit closest to the stage; that morning we’d been standing less than ten feet from the first graders and their teachers—kids and teachers just like the twenty first graders and six teachers who were shot in Newtown.
Sandy Hook, and the many heart-breaking shootings before and since, have all adhered to a nearly identical, disheartening template; shock and despair, followed by “thoughts and prayers” platitudes, feeble attempts and utter failures to legislate meaningful gun laws, and finally the vanishing of the tragedies from the news, and our consciousness, like the buried bodies of the victims.
At first, the shootings at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School seemed to track that same familiar, sickening pattern. But then came the young people, the survivors. They were not about to follow that blueprint.
One of the most loathsome lines I heard after Parkland, as after nearly every other mass shooting, was, “Now is not the time...” to talk about, or to legislate gun control.
In my mind, I always retorted with, “If not now, when?” The ancient phrase comes from a Jewish scripture, the Pirkei Avot, or Ethics of the Fathers, a collection of ethical guidelines that are read and studied weekly in many synagogues. I remember reading them (usually unwillingly, I admit) along with my father and brother, in a small group of men from our congregation on many Sabbath afternoons when I was a teenager. After Parkland, several of those Pirkei Avot teachings came to mind.
The “If not now…” phrase, one of the most well-known from the Pirkei Avot, is actually the third of three sentences. The entire passage reads, “If I’m not for myself, who will be for me? If I’m only for myself, what am I? And if not now, when?” It doesn’t take a biblical scholar to see how they apply to the Parkland young people. I present Exhibit A. Former Senator Rick Santorum, he of the failed Santorum Amendment of 2001 that tried to promote the teaching of ‘intelligent design’ in public schools, recently also seemed to agree with the age-old teaching. Sort of. Responding to the activism of the Parkland young people he said, “How about kids instead of looking to someone else to solve their problem…” (Yes, I am taking the quote out of context. It’s even more idiotic in context.)
On the other hand, Emma Gonzalez, the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School senior, and one of the founders of the Never Again movement, forged a stark and poetic re-stating of those ancient words when she ended her stunning, silence-filled speech at the Washington March for Our Lives with an even more succinct and powerful version of the proverb. “Fight for your lives before it’s someone else’s job.”
Gonzalez and the other Parkland young people have—to our country’s credit—received enormous support for their activism, but also—to our people’s shame—much ugly and obscene condemnation for daring to speak out.
The censures have ranged from the truly moronic—that they were crisis actors—to the simply stereotypical, that they are not mature enough to properly understand these complex issues. There’s a marvelous passage in the Pirkei Avot that speaks to this last condemnation. “Do not look at the flask but at its contents. You can find a new flask with old wine, and an old flask which does not hold even new wine.” These young people have offered moving reflections, and demanded thoughtful changes to gun laws that might save lives. On the other hand, the resounding silence, as well as many of the pronouncements and propositions of the “old flasks” don’t hold water, or much else that’s worthwhile. (Santorum again, “… Do something about maybe taking CPR classes!!??”)
Of course, the Parkland young people have also made naïve, green and callow statements. Yes, they’ve used profanity at times. But to dismiss their grief filled testimonials, their thoughtful prescriptions for sensible legislation, their passionate calls for change, because of their tone is, at best, two-faced and disingenuous. The Parkland young people don’t need me to defend them, but I can’t resist responding to their attackers—not with a quote from the Pirkei Avot, nor perhaps in a very Christian spirit—by borrowing another Emma Gonzalez quote, “We call B.S.!”
The Parkland young people have even taken on the very mature, difficult, sometimes uncomfortable, occasionally even painful task of self-reflection. They’ve understood and acknowledged that their unique status—being primarily white and well off—and their resulting privilege, has given them a platform and visibility that likely would not have been afforded to young people of color in other communities. They have confronted themselves and us not only with the necessity of creating changes that will prevent further tragedies like the ones they experienced, but have also insisted that we all recognize and face related issues, including gun violence against women and police shootings of unarmed black men. At the Washington MFOL rally, Jaclyn Corin, a survivor of the Parkland shooting, said during her speech, "We recognize that Parkland received more attention because of its affluence, but we share this stage today and forever with those communities who have always stared down the barrel of a gun." Then in a moment weighed with great symbolic significance, Corin brought Yolanda Renee King, the granddaughter of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Coretta Scott King, to the stage, visually, and viscerally connecting the gun control cause to King’s great dream of an end to racism, and to his message of non-violence.
I will confess to having my own initial reservations about the Parkland young people naming their movement Never Again. When you are, like I am, the son of two people who survived Nazi concentration camps, the phrase Never Again only refers to the Holocaust. Period. So, my first reaction to the use of that phrase by the Parkland young people was a somewhat testy, internal question. “Where do they get off coopting that phrase?” Others followed close behind. “Is this willful or merely ignorant appropriation? And does that matter?”
I thought about it. I looked up the origins of the phrase. Apparently, it’s a bit uncertain, but this much is pretty sure. It did not originate with the Holocaust. It wasn’t widely associated with the Holocaust till about 1968, when Meir Kahane, who founded the Jewish Defense League, an American extremist group, began justifying its violent tactics with the Never Again slogan. Kahane used the phrase as a call to arms, as a battle cry, and applying only to Jews. For him it was not, as it has been for me and for most others, a reminder that we must all be on guard to ensure that a tragedy like the Holocaust never happens again—to any people, Jewish or not. For most of us the phrase has served as a warning, tragically not always heeded, to never allow racial, ethnic, or religious hatreds to again lead to a Holocaust-like horror.
The longer I thought about it, the more I began to feel that Never Again did not belong exclusively to Jews and the Holocaust. I also started to see commonalities between the Holocaust and gun violence in this country. The numbers of victims are wildly different, and anti-gun-control advocates do not intend to target a single group the way the Nazis did. (Perhaps a debatable point...) But just as, over many years, the attitudes and laws—and lack of laws—that created the atmosphere that led, it seemed inexorably, to the Holocaust in Europe, the attitudes and laws—and, again, lack of laws—have entrenched a culture that has normalized the incredible carnage in our country and has culminated in Columbine, Newtown and Parkland.
It hardly needs to be said that the Parkland young people do not need my permission to adopt Never Again, but I freely and wholeheartedly give them my blessing.
My favorite passage from the Pirkei Avot is: “The day is short, the task is great. You are not obligated to complete the task, but neither are you free to withdraw from it.” The “Never Again!” mission of the Parkland young people will, sadly, take time to achieve. (It’s still only weeks since Parkland, and there’s already been another deadly school shooting, another unarmed black man has been shot by police, and there have been many other gun related deaths.) But Parkland has changed me. I no longer feel the numb ennui, the docile cynicism, the accommodating attitude that allowed me to tolerate the intolerable. Instead, I feel that President Obama was also speaking for me when he wrote to the young people of Parkland, and the others who have joined them. “We have been waiting for you. And we’ve got your backs.”
At the Washington March for Our Lives rally, young Yolanda Renee King unforgettably, delightfully, and with preternatural charm, led the massive crowd in chanting, “Spread the word! Have you heard? All across the nation, we are going to be a great generation!”
“I heard the news today, oh boy…” It’s the opening line of the Beatles song, “A Day in the Life” and one I’ve thought, hummed, or said, frequently since last November. The ongoing Shakespearean tragicomedy that is the Trump presidency has spawned countless news stories that have invited—at best—a wry “oh boy” response. But there were two news stories in the New York Times on October 16 that elicited twin, and highly contrasting, “oh, boy” reactions from me. The first was a piece by Dennis Overbye about astronomers’ recent announcement “that they had seen and heard a pair of dead stars collide,” an event that took place 130 million years ago. This collision of two neutron stars was of such enormous violence that it literally shook the universe. “It was a century ago that Albert Einstein predicted that space and time could shake like a bowl of jelly,” in the aftermath of such an event, but this was the first time that astronomers had been able to detect and document such an occurrence.
As often happens when I read or hear about events of such astronomical magnitude, I simultaneously feel intensely tiny and insignificant, and also gloriously pulled out of my ordinary existence and, momentarily, profoundly grand. It’s probably obvious why I would feel miniscule and irrelevant, but perhaps less clear why I’d feel so expanded. I am briefly aware in those moments of an overwhelming sense of wonder not only at the ongoing miracle that is my life, all life on our planet, and the vastness and glory of the universe, but also at the marvel that I am a member of a life form that has begun to comprehend those miracles, that vastness and glory; that I am a member of a species that has been able, in the cosmic-time blink of an eye that is the history of the human race on our planet, to begin to understand and explain events that have happened almost unimaginably long ago and far away. “What a piece of work is a man! How noble in reason, how infinite in faculty! In form and moving how express and admirable! In action how like an angel, in apprehension how like a god!” Who besides the Bard could have put it better?
I talked about the neutron stars collision with a friend that day, and she said when she hears of these kinds of discoveries she can’t comprehend them: “My brain turns tail and runs back to my everyday world.”
Ah yes, the everyday world. The other news story that caught my attention that day was the one reporting on Trump’s handling, or rather manhandling, of the events following the deaths of four American soldiers in Niger. What a piece of work indeed; how small, how mean, how low. To quote Chubby Checkers from his song “Limbo Rock,” in which he sang, decades before Trump began to lower the bar precipitously on honesty and civility, “How low can you go?” Or, to quote the anonymous Scottish lyricist who penned lines that could be the credo of the Trump/Bannon cohort, “You’ll take the high road and I’ll take the low road…”
Einstein wrote in 1922, “A quiet and modest life brings more joy than a pursuit of success bound with constant unrest.” Einstein, the man who may have aspired to that quiet and modest life, yet whose discoveries illuminated our best understandings of the entire universe; Einstein, the man whose very name has become synonymous with genius of the highest order, was vilified and denigrated by the Nazis for doing what they disparaged as “Jewish science.” Their venomous lies and heinous acts have been renounced and repudiated by much of humankind, while his insights and predictions—including one that was just verified after those neutron stars’ collision was observed— have been recognized and honored by most of humanity.
There’s another quote from the Bard’s Hamlet that I have occasionally found sadly apropos for—good lord, has it really already been nearly a year? “I have of late—but wherefore I know not—lost all my mirth, forgone all custom of exercises, and indeed it goes so heavily with my disposition that this goodly frame, the earth, seems to me a sterile promontory; this most excellent canopy, the air—look you, this brave o'erhanging firmament, this majestical roof fretted with golden fire—why, it appears no other thing to me than a foul and pestilent congregation of vapors.”
OK, permit me to blaspheme and dare to change a few of Shakespeare’s words. “Wherefore I know not” should actually be, “wherefore I do know, and damned well too.”
Anne Frank wrote sadly, accurately, “I see the world being slowly transformed into a wilderness, I hear the approaching thunder that, one day, will destroy us too, I feel the suffering of millions.” But she also went on to write, hopefully, and as it turned out, presciently, “And yet, when I look up at the sky, I somehow feel that everything will change for the better, that this cruelty too shall end, that peace and tranquility will return once more.” She knew, as so many others have understood throughout the ages, that in order to survive, we need to keep our eyes focused on our mundane, daily, earthly concerns, but that in order to truly live, we must also simultaneously try to keep our gaze on the heavens. And that, as the ancient Sufis also understood so well, “This too shall pass.”
Hollerfest is the sweetest festival we get to play every year. Hosted by the King family on their farm in Brooklyn, Michigan, the festival features a beautiful, natural setting, some of Michigan’s finest musicians, the best food of any folk festival anywhere, and a community feeling that is at once invigorating and healing. This was the 11th Hollerfest, we’ve played it every year since the second one and we look forward to ending our summer there every year. Here is one special moment from this year’s fest.
Laz and Jennifer, Brenda, Emily and I were having supper at one of the picnic tables at the top of the hill that looks down on the main stage. Sharing the table with us were three women from Ann Arbor. One of them told me that Josh, her now forty-year old son grew up on our music. I always enjoy hearing that, and I thanked her for letting us know. Then she added, “In fact, when Josh was 5 years old he sang on your first children’s record.” Even though we didn’t have a children’s choir singing with us on that record—yes, it was a vinyl record—I knew exactly what she was talking about. We recorded “Good Mischief” in 1982, some of it live at the Ark, and one of the songs on it was Aiken Drum. In that song we make up an imaginary man in the moon, substituting various foods for different parts of his body. We ask the kids in the audience to name what foods we should use. We always end with belly button and at the show we recorded at the Ark, I called on a little boy who’d raised his hand. But he was stumped for a few seconds, so I encouraged him, “What’d you have for breakfast?” He replied, “Tofu.” Everyone laughed with delight and I said, “Only in Ann Arbor.” It’s all on the record — and now on our “Best of Gemini Vol. II” CD. Thank you, Josh.
Whenever a death anniversary comes around, it seems natural to remember the person’s death. But it is even more right to remember their life and legacy. So, one story about Helen’s death, and then the rest to celebrate her life.
Helen’s grandmother had a classic near-death experience when she was giving birth to her third daughter. She told Helen how her spirit rose up out of her body and hovered over the operating table, watching calmly as doctors and nurses frantically tried to revive her. Then she saw a tunnel with a very bright light at the end of it, and she felt drawn to it. As she moved towards it, beings of light greeted and welcomed her. She told Helen they were incredibly peaceful and loving. But after a few moments in their company, she was told her she needed to go back, it was not yet her time. She felt terribly sad, and did not want to return to her body, but the beings reassured her that they would be there again when it was her time. She was in her mid thirties, lived into her mid eighties, and never again was afraid of death. For many years she volunteered at a hospice, and because of the inner conviction she acquired through that experience, was able to be a great comfort to dying people and their relatives. Perhaps the fact that she told this story to Helen a number of times over the years, is part of why Helen showed no trace of fear in her last hours.
Now, to life! In an earlier blog I told you how Helen rescued a robin that was tangled up in a kite string in a tree — and that was just one example of how she was always taking care of creatures in nature. In a more recent blog I wrote about how my partner, Jennifer helped me put a baby robin back in its nest, and also how my son, Daniel helped free a robin trapped in the deer net in our Project Grow garden. I don’t know what particular symbolic meaning robins have, but here is another robin rescue story from this Spring.
One of my neighbors has a small garden on the little island in the middle of our Court, and as I walked by it last month, I saw some violent fluttering in it. As I got closer, the fluttering became even more panicky, and I saw a robin caught by one of its feet in the fishing line holding together a pole bean teepee. I ran to my house and asked Daniel to come help. He put on gloves and gently calmed and held the bird, while I cut the fishing line with scissors. But as I did, I saw that the line was wrapped very tightly a number of times around the robin’s leg, cutting off circulation and making that foot useless. I ran back to the house and got a seam ripper, and with Daniel still holding the robin, I gently worked the tip of the seam ripper up against the robin’s leg, and one by one cut the strands. When the last one came loose, Daniel tossed the robin into the air and it flew off. Perhaps I’ve had more exhilarating moments than watching that flight, but I can’t think of many. As I wrote in previous blogs, in the past, I would have called Helen, and she would have been the one to take care of the bird. This is just one of the many enduring gifts she gave Daniel and me, and one of the many ways we still feel her presence.
Another gift is our plot in the city Project Grow Community Gardens, which Helen initiated many years ago and worked in until just a few weeks before her death. I just heard about a new study that found a soil bacterium which causes serotonin to be released in the brain. Inhaling this bacterium while gardening or walking in dirt, can lift our mood in a way similar to antidepressant drugs. Helen knew this instinctively, and loved working in the garden and walking barefoot. Daniel and I are still tenderfeet compared to her, but we’ve kept the garden going and growing. And though there are days we feel too busy or tired to go there, we generally do because we have noticed that we always feel better for having been there. Helen’s gifts keep giving to us in so many ways.
Then there are her songs, which I continue to sing. Her flute, which I continue to play. The books she edited which I’ve kept in print and are used in a number of university classes, and spread through word of mouth to people all over the country. And especially her kindness, which I, along with people both near and far, still remember, and is a model and an inspiration to so many of us.
And, of course, our son Daniel, who continues to be such a gift to me. In addition to his computer skills (I haven’t made a tech call since he was 12 years old) in these past few years Daniel has started to become very interested in and skillful with rough carpentry tools, and has used them to fix and create many things around our house. He has also volunteered his time and abilities with Project Grow, designing and erecting a 12 foot high fence (with amazing gates) to keep out deer from the entire Greenview city plot where we garden.
Unlike me, Helen was pretty resourceful with tools, and it’s great to see Daniel going further in that direction. But he’s also using some power tools now that Helen was not particularly fond of — or at least, not of the noise they made and the fumes they emitted. Last Spring Daniel found a non-working gas weed-whacker for free by the roadside, figured out how to get it back into working order, and tried it out at our house. Wearing ear plugs and safety glasses, in short order he made an impressive difference in what had been a somewhat disheveled front yard. But the best part was the huge grin on his face when he pointed to the weed-whacker and said, “Mom would have hated this!” Yes, she probably would have asked him to use it only when she wasn’t around, but she would have loved to see how handy and helpful he’d become.
So many gifts. And yet, time is relentless in eroding the vividness and immediacy of memory. Even after a huge loss, most of us go on, and in time, the grief becomes less intense, and the spontaneous rising up of grieving memories becomes less frequent.
A few weeks ago, while cleaning the mantle, I moved a picture of Helen from there onto Daniel’s desk. In the last five years, Daniel has often brought that picture into his room so he could talk to Helen about difficulties or decisions — but less so as time has passed. For some reason, this time I left the picture on his desk, and he didn’t move it either. A few days later he told me he’d been having a hard time, late at night, struggling with some issues, when he looked at the picture and was suddenly struck with a very strong feeling. He found himself saying, “I’ve forgotten you. I’m sorry.”
Well, of course, he hadn’t forgotten her. He just realized in that moment that he had not thought of her as often as he did a few years ago, and that it was somewhat harder to visualize her or remember her voice. And in those ways he is exactly the same as I am, and I suspect, most people who have lost a loved one — the details blur and fade. And yet...
He asked her about what he was struggling with, and felt that she answered him very clearly and definitively. He found himself thinking, “It would be just like you, not to have given up on me.” It seemed perfect to me — that she answered his concern that he had forgotten her, by assuring him that she had not forgotten him.
Let me tell you one more story, which, as it starts, may seem to be a non-sequitor, but please hang in there with me.
On January 28, 1986, the space shuttle Challenger exploded 73 seconds after lift-off, killing all seven crew members on board. Christa McAuliffe is the name and face most people remember from the seven, the first teacher to go up into space. That night I was with a group of people at a chanting and meditation center. As we were chanting, my mind kept going back to the tragedy from earlier in the day, when suddenly Christa McAuliffe’s face appeared before me, surrounded by a night full of stars. Her eyes were shining very brightly, her look was radiant and joyful, and she said, “We’re fine. We’re totally fine!” It was a very compelling, powerful image but I didn’t know what to make of it. Was it real in some way I could not possibly understand, or was I somehow manufacturing some sort of vision to comfort myself? I didn’t know. What was undeniable was the change in my feelings — from great sadness and agitation, to a deeply serene stillness.
Death, the only thing as mysterious as life. In some ways, the older I get, the less I understand either. I don’t understand love and gratitude any better, but I feel them more. Love and thank you to you, dear Helen.
Every day that we’re alive is, of course, important and notable, but nevertheless some days are more memorable than others. For our family, April 22nd was one of those days. Emily — Brenda and my daughter, and Laz’s niece — graduated from college. Emily majored in German Language & Literature and minored in Musical Theatre at EMU, and graduated Cum Laude. She also earned University Honors and Departmental Honors in Musical Theatre. Laz, Brenda, her grandma Norma, and I used our fair share of Kleenex, and, even though all the buttons were still attached to my shirt when the Commencement ceremony was over, I know I at least strained the buttonholes.
And now Emily’s going to try to do the same thing with her college degree that I did with mine 46 years ago. She’s going to play folk music. She’ll be joining Laz and me in our concerts much more frequently than she was able to while still in school. She will be playing music with many other people, as she’s already been doing, and she will also be acting and playing music in theatre productions. In other words, she’ll be spending a lot of time on stage, where she’s always felt at ease and at home. She will also be teaching violin, fostering the next generation of musicians to follow her.
The week before she graduated, Emily gave a recital in partial fulfillment of her requirements for receiving Departmental Honors from the Musical Theatre Department at EMU. The recital featured her singing songs that traced the history of the American musical over the last 70 years, interspersed with her observations on the changing musical and vocal styles over that period. She was fabulous! Here’s a sample.