It’s not often that Hungary makes international news. The last time it was in the headlines this much was nearly sixty years ago, in the aftermath of the Hungarian Revolution. I was eight years old then, and a very small part of that news. My family and I were among the more than 200,000 Hungarians who either escaped across the border to Vienna, and from there made their way to countries all over the world or, as we did, obtained legal visas (through semi-legal means) and emigrated to other countries, in our case to Israel.
I’ve lived in the United States for most of my life. I’m an American. I never think of myself as being Hungarian, but it is the country of my birth—and when I hear news of it, it draws my attention. And for me and for many others, despite the increasingly ugly current headlines, much of what we’re hearing about recent events in Hungary does not seem really new. We’ve seen it before. Of course I am speaking in the collective we, not the personal we. I, and most of us alive today, have never seen anything like this. But if I include in that we my parents, our relatives, and the other Holocaust survivors I’ve known, then yes, we have seen this before. We have seen crowds of people snaking through the streets of Budapest, accompanied by armed soldiers and police. Some of us were in those crowds. We have seen detention centers, overcrowded with mistreated, miserable people. Some of us were in those detention centers. We have seen trains stuffed with people, leaving Hungary and going to Austria and on to Germany. Some of us were on those trains. Many of us never made it back.
No, what is taking place now in Hungary is not what happened in 1944, but especially for us, there are sad resonances. My mother is gone now, but her tales of 1944 have been a part of my life for longer than I remember. They are a part of my family’s history and seem, like air, to have always been there. I breathed and inhaled them the same way I learned to speak my mother tongue. I have never forgotten them and I’ve not been able to see and hear the current news from Hungary without recalling them.
On December 2nd, 1944 my mother, along with thousands of other Jews, was herded through the streets of Budapest, to an abandoned brick factory on the outskirts of the city that was to serve as a temporary detention center. She recalled how people watched the procession from their apartment windows. “Some laughed, others shook their heads in sorrow.” On December 4, 1944, her twenty-sixth birthday, she was forced into an overcrowded cattle car on a train bound for Austria. When they got to the border she overheard an argument between the Austrian authorities and the Hungarian soldiers guarding the train. It turned out that the Austrians did not want to accept the transport. The Nazis had apparently decided they had enough slave labor and, as the American and Russian armies were advancing, the killing camps were winding down their gruesome operations. The Hungarians insisted they did not want to take the Jews back to Budapest and eventually the Austrians agreed, on condition that the Hungarians send no more transports. It was to be the last transport of Jews from Hungary. My mother recalled that the Austrians were more humane than the Hungarians. “They put us on passenger trains, not cattle cars, and gave us food.” The humane treatment ended as soon as they got to Ravensbrück, where she was to remain until April 15, 1945, when she escaped from a forced march.
Trains also played a prominent part in my father’s wartime experiences. Though he himself was mostly forced to march to Poland, where he spent much of the war in the munkaszolgálat, the forced labor camps, his parents, two of his sisters, his wife and three young children, and many other more distant relatives all were forced to ride a fatal one way train to Auschwitz.
After the war ended my mother wound up in a displaced persons camp near Dresden. Despite being offered an opportunity to emigrate to the United States, she decided to go home to Hungary, and to what remained of her family.
Making her way back to Budapest, again via trains, was also traumatic. She recalled how Russian soldiers commandeered some of the trains eastbound from Germany and shoved her and other passengers out the doors and windows onto the station platforms. Also how some of them, while standing on the roofs of the railroad cars, amused themselves by urinating down on the hapless refugees. (Like today’s refugees, my father mostly walked home from Poland, though he managed to hitch rides part of the way in ox carts.)
Like many of today’s refugees, I too left Hungary on a train. In the wake of the 1956 Hungarian Revolution, my parents and brother and I boarded a train and bid farewell to our homeland. The Hungarian government erected fences then too. Unlike today when they are erecting fences on the border with Serbia, designed to keep refugees out, in 1956 the fences were on the border with Austria, designed to keep Hungarians in. People walked across the border then too, both before the fences went up, and after. My aunt and uncle were among those who escaped over that border. They packed what they could fit on the sled that my brother and I used to slide down the snowy hills of Buda, and pulled it to Vienna. When our family left Hungary after the Revolution we did not head to Germany. We went in the opposite direction, to Italy and from there by boat to Israel, and two years later to New York.
Hungary has been center stage and in the world’s spotlight since August, a role to which it is unaccustomed, but it is playing a character that is not unfamiliar to some of us. Some of the news from Hungary has been good; a lot of it has been bad. Many Hungarian citizens have behaved admirably, helping the refugees in many ways. I am profoundly proud of them. I am also deeply ashamed of and furious at those in Hungary who elected and continue to support the Hungarian government. That administration, among the most repressive and right wing in all of Europe, has behaved despicably and, as I write this, is preparing to do worse. Viktor Orban’s tirades about keeping Hungary and Europe Christian sounds an awful lot—and I do mean awful—like Hitler’s rantings and the crazed pronouncements of white supremacists in the United States and elsewhere. And while there is little danger that Orban can build a power base like Hitler did, or that white supremacists in America can gain much power, he and they have created much miseryand I fear will continue to. As I am writing this, new laws have gone into effect in Hungary; laws hurriedly passed, as many other reactionary Hungarian laws have been enacted in recent years. These laws criminalize entering Hungary without a valid visa, and even worse, criminalize the act of helping refugees.
Soon it will be October, and with winter coming on the waters between Turkey and Greece will become even more dangerous to cross than they already are, and the flood of refugees may slow. And undoubtedly there will be other developments we cannot foresee that will affect the current crisis. I do not presume to have any solutions to the many different horrible conditions in the Middle East, Africa, Afghanistan and in other countries, that have forced so many people to risk so much as they try to make their way to safety. Nor do I presume to know the best way for Europe, and the rest of the world, to help care for all these refugees.
I do know that the Hungarian government’s response, besides being misguided and ineffectual, is flat out wrong and truly disgraceful.
Maybe the old saying—no news is good news—is true. It might be nice not to hear any news from Hungary for a while. But maybe the old saying is not true. Maybe the comparatively little attention that Hungary has gotten from international media over the years—the no news—has not been so good. Maybe that relative obscurity has helped allow the cancer of xenophobia and its contemptible siblings, racism, anti-Semitism, Islamaphobia, homophobia and intolerance of all “others”, to grow again in Hungary to levels we last saw in the 1930s and 1940s.
I am very grateful that my parents decided to leave Hungary.
In these last three years Helen has come to me many times in dreams. Sometimes the dream content is as if she hadn’t died, sometimes it’s clear that she is speaking from a place beyond, and sometimes it’s a mysterious combination of the two.
A few months ago, in mid-May when spring was starting to reach full bloom, I had a very vivid dream. In the dream it was early morning, I’d just gotten up and was starting to get dressed, when Helen called to me from the bed. “Would you go home and look around the yard for me?” Still in the dream, I was stunned by her returning from the dead, and was about to say to her, “How did you come back?” — when I woke up. I felt like I’d been with her wherever dreamers go, wherever the dead go — maybe it’s the same place. And in that dreamland, spirit-living land, she was asking me to return to my “home,” my waking life, and look around for her.
I went outside to our wooded back yard. It was a very beautiful sunny morning, and the yard was lush green everywhere, the trees fully leafed out, the purple flowers of the redbuds just starting to fade, nearly the same color cosmos flowers beginning to blossom — but the yard was also quite neglected and overgrown. I felt Helen wanted me to look around and to take care of this little piece of land that she’d loved. I started to clear the path to her favorite tree, and to reclaim the fire pit from the weeds.
I’ve done many small things like this in the last three years to remember Helen, to keep her memory alive. Since we were about the same size, some of her unisex clothes and shoes fit me, and I’ve worn them — especially to events she would have enjoyed, or to challenging places where she would have supported me — as a way of bringing her along with me. I’ve also continued to sing her songs, played her flute most days, done concerts in her memory, and have donated the proceeds to causes that were meaningful to her.
The dream reminded me that taking care of the house and yard — she’d been the one who found them and took care of them for the 35 years we’d lived here together — is yet one more way I can honor her memory. At the same time, I understand that all of these things I’ve done in her memory I’ve not just been doing for her — they’ve been her continuing gifts to me as well.
I also felt that the dream called me back to my “home,” to the land of the living. In the last three years I’ve been learning to balance the seeming opposites of mourning and going on with my life. I say “seeming” because over these three years I’ve come to see, at least to some degree, how these two strands are completely intertwined.
One of the means by which I’ve come to understand this process, and have been sustained in it, is by the words of poets. It has been said that there are only two subjects for poetry — love and death — and therefore the most intense poetry is about the death of a beloved. Sometimes these poems affirm the possibility of an unbroken and unbreakable connection to the dead. Edith Sitwell in “Eurydice” sings:
Love is not changed by Death,
And nothing is lost and all in the end is harvest.
The poet and novelist Anne Michaels seems to be saying the exact opposite, but in the paradoxical way of mysteries, the same thing:
Our relationship to the dead continues to change, because we continue to love them.
But Barbara Crooker begins her poem “Grief” like this, the title also serving as the first word of the poem:
is a river you wade in until you get to the other side.
But I am here, stuck in the middle, water parting
around my ankles, moving downstream
over the flat rocks. I’m not able to lift a foot,
She ends by saying:
I can’t cross over.
Then you really will be gone.
And I’ve certainly experienced that feeling of not wanting to get through grief because of the acceptance of the final loss of the beloved which that would imply.
The poet Lucille Clifton knew about death all too well. Her mother died when Lucille was in her early 20’s, her husband when she was in her early 50’s, and she experienced the great sorrow of outliving two of her children.
When I get to where I’m going I want the death
of my children explained to me.
In a poem titled, “after one year” —
she who was beautiful
entered Lake-Too-Soon without warning us
that it would storm in
our hearts forever
And yet, despite chronicling tremendous losses and the struggle to go on after them, ultimately, when she came to a point of choice:
she walked away
from the hole in the ground
deciding to live. and she lived.
And the poet Tess Gallagher, writing about the death of her husband, the writer Raymond Carver, says:
One cannot mourn
forever, even when one mourns
forever. The heart finds a chink
in the dark.
While the heart finds the ray of light that enables it to go on in the dark, the mind continues to ask questions that must be engaged with. How do I remember, but also let go, and move on? How do I continue to honor and keep alive Helen’s memory, without making a fetish out of it — and thereby, perhaps, holding her back from where she needs to go, and holding myself back from where I need to go? How do I not feel guilty when I feel good? And how do I allow sadness and grief to come up and just be there, without wallowing in them? These are questions I’ve asked myself many times, and I'm still asking them now.
I began this piece with a recent dream, let me end with one from long ago. One night many years ago I had a dream in which I was an old man and lay dying. In the dream, Helen was sitting by my side and I said to her, “You have been such a good wife to me.” When I woke up, I recounted the dream to Helen and said, “Though I’m not an old man, and am not dying, I want to say this to you now — you have been such a good wife to me — in case I may not be able to say it to you when I am old and dying.” Helen smiled like it was no big deal — she knew I loved her, and we often said various forms of thank you to each other. We got up and went about our day, and I pretty much forgot about the dream.
Well, of course, things did not work out according to that dream. It was not me, but she who lay dying, with me sitting by her side. I have written in previous blogs about how we got to express our love, forgiveness and gratitude to each other in that last hour, and about the instructions Helen gave me; to thank her friends, two favorite trees, to not give up, and to be very sweet with our son, Daniel. There was one more instruction she gave me in that last hour that I’ve not shared till now.
Among the very last things Helen said to me — and this was when I really understood that she knew she was dying — was, “And Laz, find a good woman. Someone to be with you and to help you. Someone to be a new mother to Daniel.” With the last of her breath and energy, she was still thinking of Daniel and me, and how to help us.
I’ve tried to follow all her deathbed wishes. I’ve not given up, and have gone on with my life, though there have been times when I’ve felt like I couldn’t. I’ve done my best to be sweet to our son, though I’m sure there’s still more for me to learn about unconditional love the way Helen gave it to Daniel. And in this last year, I have found a good woman, who is with me and is helping me, and who cares deeply about Daniel. She is also very understanding about the fact that I will never forget Helen and that I am finding my way on this very complex road on which I love her while still grieving for Helen.
And I’ve thanked Helen’s friends, but on this third anniversary of her death, I want to thank all of you again for all the love and support you’ve given me in these last three years. I don’t know how anyone makes it after the death of a loved one without such support as you’ve given to Daniel and me. Thank you. And I’m sure you will understand when I say, that even more than all of you, I still want to thank Helen. Thank you.
When I was learning to play guitar in the early 1970’s I had five guitar heroes. Four of them were Jimi Hendrix, Eric Clapton, Carlos Santana, and Duane Allman — and they all said their hero was B. B. King. If he had done nothing else than to invent the shaking motion of the fingering hand to produce that thrilling vibrato on the electric guitar that is now used by practically every blues, jazz, rock and every other style of guitar player in the world, his place in music history would have been secure. But he did, and was, so much more. (Sometimes lost among all the accolades to his guitar playing is the fact that he was an absolutely amazing singer.)
On-line you can find countless tributes to B. B. King, interviews with him, and of course, clips of him playing his famous “Lucille” Gibson guitar. You can read the very long list of his accomplishments, myriad awards, and enormous discography. You can find, again and again, stories of his kindness, generosity, and the genuine respect he extended to everyone he met. To this great collection of legendary stories, and the huge influence he had on so many famous musicians, I want to add a tiny story about something he taught a very ordinary guitar player — me.
About a year after I began playing guitar, when I was feeling more than a little discouraged by the rate of my progress, I had a dream. B. B. King was standing in front of a small church, and he was looking at me very kindly. He looked at me for a long time, neither of us saying anything. Then he lifted his arms as if he was holding a guitar, looked over his shoulder at the church, and then he looked back at me. No encouraging words were imparted, no questions answered, no technique taught. But when I woke up I knew exactly what he meant. It was not about technique. That look back at the church and then at me, said it all. The guitar was sacred, the music was sacred, the audience was sacred, and yes, even I, with all my limitations, was sacred. And he didn’t have to say it — B. B. King, standing in front of that church, was most certainly sacred.
A few days after the dream I went to hear a concert by Grand Funk Railroad. Opening for them was a guitar player I’d never heard of — Freddie King. No relation to B.B. except that he was one of the countless guitarists who were his musical children. I’d gotten tickets just a few rows from the stage, and I sat there spellbound as Freddie King, with a huge sparkler on the ring finger of his left hand (another B. B. King trademark that added a visual emphasis to his vibrato) proceeded to give me a master class on how to make that motion. Or anyway, that’s how it felt to me, that I was the only person in the hall (actually there were nearly ten thousand in the huge concert venue / sports arena that was the Rochester War Memorial) and Freddie King was there for no other reason than to teach me how to do that vibrato.
When his set ended I went to the back of the hall to go to the bathroom, and as I waited in the long line, the image of the motion of Freddie King’s left hand kept sinking deeper and deeper inside me. When I finally came out of the bathroom, Grand Funk Railroad had just started their first song, and I could feel the image of that vibrato starting to fade away. I turned around, went home, and picked up my guitar — and suddenly, that vibrato was there, singing in my hand like I’d been playing that way all my life.
I understood that the dream of B. B. King had opened something in me, unblocked something — which enabled me to imprint on the image of Freddie King’s hand and learn that technique from him. But I also remembered the main point of the dream, that it was not about technique.
In those days I had a lot of dreams — one of them was to be a blues rock guitarist. I played a Lake Placid Blue Fender Stratocaster through a Twin Reverb amplifier (which I pretended was a stack of Marshalls) and I bent and vibrated those wailing strings for all I was worth. It took me a number of years to realize that this really was not what I was meant to do. But though the form of my music changed, and moved further and further from B. B. King’s style, I never forgot the message of that dream. The guitar is sacred, the music is sacred, the audience is sacred, and yes, even I, with all my limitations, am sacred. And B. B. King is most certainly sacred.
In case we (or you) didn’t know for sure that we were twins, here is a story:
At around 1:30 in the afternoon on Saturday, August 9th, San was walking on the grounds of the FarmFest Music Festival near Gaylord, Michigan where he was performing with his daughter, Emily and their friend Jacob Warren. Suddenly, for no reason, he felt incredibly tired and could hardly put one foot in front of another. This lasted for about 20 minutes, and then just as mysteriously went away.
At that exact same time, I was being taken by ambulance from an Urgent Care facility to St. Joe’s Hospital. The night before I had felt a tightness in my chest and arms, which returned off and on during the morning, so at lunchtime I walked the few blocks to the Urgent Care near my home. The doctor there listened to my symptoms, checked my pulse and blood pressure and said, “I’m sending you over to St. Joe’s.” Three days later, after tests determined that I had major blockages to four of the arteries leading to my heart, I had bypass surgery.
So, San feeling what he did while I was being taken to the hospital is “interesting” and “proof” that we’re twins and pretty connected. What’s even more “interesting” is that he had the same surgery nearly four years ago. Lastly, in both our cases, the doctors said, “What are you doing here? You have no risk factors.” But I guess we do have the same genes and share heredity!
In any case, I’ve been home for a little more than two weeks and I’m doing very well. I’m up to walking more than a mile a day, I’ve been playing guitar and pennywhistle (excellent therapy for keeping the lungs expanded!) for more than a week, and I’m about to get back to the fiddle. And most importantly, I’ve been soaking in the good wishes, blessings, prayers, kindness, generosity, and (there’s no other word for it) love that so many of you have been showering on me. I’ve received so many cards, e-mails, flowers, meals, people helping my son Daniel with our Project Grow garden — the list goes on and on. Family, of course, has been fantastic — and, of course, having San be an advance scout in navigating this journey has been invaluable! But neighbors, friends, fans, this whole amazing community that has supported me — well, they told me I might cry more easily after heart surgery, but I didn’t need surgery to get me choked up thinking of all the support I’ve been given. I am very grateful to all of you.
And, if you’ll excuse the pun, it’s been a heart-opening experience in many ways — especially in putting me in touch with the gratitude I feel for all that I’ve been given as I’ve been going through this experience — but also in the arena of creativity. I literally wrote a song the morning after surgery, and a number of other songs and poems came bubbling to the surface in the next few days — and the fountain continues. While I certainly don’t recommend surgery for stimulating creativity, I definitely am enjoying the ride!
Speaking of poetry, Steve Gilzow, a friend and fine artist (you’ve probably seen a number of the covers he has created for the Ann Arbor Observer over the years) sent me a get-well card with this haiku he wrote for the occasion:
After all these years
the Heart finds a new pathway
Love flows unbroken
Thank you again and again for the unbroken love — in so many forms — which you have continued to send my way. I look forward to starting to perform again in mid-September. And I will continue to feel grateful to all of you, and look forward to seeing you at a concert soon.
One morning a few weeks ago I was playing Helen’s flute, as I do most days. I’d left the front door open for fresh air and to cool the house. A robin flew down from Helen’s favorite tree in the front yard, and hopped closer and closer on the walk, nearly up to the screen door. It kept cocking its head to one side, as if listening. I continued playing, and slowly walked over to the door, but the robin didn’t leave—not even when one of our cats joined me by the door. Finally, when I finished playing the melody, the robin flew off.
After someone dies, there are so many stories of their loved ones continuing to sense and feel their presence. Sometimes it’s in symbolic ways through dreams and visions. Often it’s in nature, perhaps most commonly through flowers (beauty), birds (freedom), or butterflies (transformation.) The wonderful poet, Naomi Shihab Nye, affirms this phenomenon in this tiny gem.
do not pass away.
A few months before her death, Helen bought a wind chime (with butterfly designs cut through parts of it) and hung it in our garden. That autumn, when it was time to close up the garden, Daniel and I moved the wind chime by the front door. Of course, it sounds when it’s windy. But there have been so many times in these last two years when there was not the slightest breeze, and it sounded just when I thought of Helen or said something about her. On occasion it has chimed when I was faced with a decision and was contemplating one of my choices, as if to say, “Yes, that’s the one.”
In Ann Arbor’s Matthaei Botanical Gardens there is an 80 year old American Agave plant (also known as a “century plant”—it only blooms once and then dies) that began flowering this month. Earlier this spring the plant had signaled it’s imminent flowering by sending up a single stalk, sometimes growing 5-6 inches per day. By last week, when Daniel and I went to see it, the flowering stalk was nearly 30 feet tall and one of the panels in the skylight had to be removed so the plant could keep growing out through the roof. When Daniel and I got there (both of us very conscious of how much Helen would have enjoyed seeing this) a hummingbird was flying around inside the building, circling back again and again to the century plant, sipping nectar from its flowers. While it was beautiful to watch, Daniel voiced what I also was feeling—concern that the hummingbird was trapped inside the building. Just then the hummingbird soared up and through the open panel, and flew off “free as a bird.” My first thought was that Helen was saying, “See? In spirit I can be here or anywhere, entering for a time any of these forms—the flowers, the nectar, the hummingbird—and at the same time, I am not trapped in anything, I am totally free.”
Of course, like most modern people, I sometimes question these experiences and seeming visitations, and wonder if they are “real.” Do they really have meaning? Am I attributing significance simply in order to comfort myself? Was she in that robin, in that wind chime, in the hummingbird by the century plant? It seems that the answer—yes or no—to these kinds of questions cannot be empirically tested for absolute truth. So then why do I believe that she’s still here? Because I’m here to remember her. And Daniel is here, and so many others whose lives continue to be richer because they knew her. All of us touching others who did not know Helen, but whose lives are uplifted, even if only in the tiniest of ways, through the thoughts, feelings and actions of those of us who did know her.
And here is something I don’t question or doubt. Almost every time I play Helen’s flute, a melody comes to me, “out of the blue.” Is that where she is? In that blue? And is she sending these melodies back to her flute? I don’t know. My mind may never know. But I have lived my life (and Helen shared this with me totally) believing in the reality of the intangible, in the power of the ethereal to affect the material, in the value of art and music, in creativity, in kindness, in love.
Marie Howe’s deeply moving, elegiac poem “What the Living Do”—addressed to her dead brother—ends with this line:
I am living. I remember you.
Dear Helen, I am living. I remember you. And with all my heart I love you, and again and again, thank you.
San’s Talk at the Ann Arbor Steiner High School Graduation 2014
By Sandor Slomovits
June 29, 2014
My daughter Emily graduated from the Steiner High School of Ann Arbor in June of 2013. Earlier this year the faculty of the school invited me to be the speaker at the graduation ceremony for this year's seniors. It was initially a scary, but ultimately a delightful experience. Here is the text of the talk:
Good morning, everyone. Thank you. A year ago I sat where you are all sitting now, and watched my daughter, who was a member of last year’s graduating class, sit on this stage, where you are all sitting now. It was a very special day for our family, as I know today is for all of you, and I feel particularly honored to be able to share it with you.
I've been playing concerts for many years—which means that I regularly stand in front of groups of people, strum my guitar, sing some 3-4 minute songs and—usually—people applaud after each one. It’s a dirty job, but somebody’s gotta do it. I love it. But my task today is different. Today, I’ve been asked to talk for twenty minutes. I’m not sure I know how to do anything for that long without stopping and waiting for applause every few minutes. I’m also used to playing concerts that are at least one or two hours long, so I’m not sure I know how to keep my talk brief.
So, I want to start with a little story that, hopefully, will at least remind me not to go on too long.
This is a Nasrudin story. Nasrudin is the wise fool of the Sufi tradition. There are, as I’m sure you know, similar wise fools in many cultures and traditions around the world. There are the fools in Shakespeare’s plays; there are the Chelm stories of Eastern Europe, and many others. Yogi Berra’s bewildering pronouncements might qualify him as a modern-day counterpart of these characters. These wise fools, their antics and the things they say, are zany, even silly, but often they’re also thought provoking, profound and cause us to reflect. Nasrudin lived in the 13th century and this is a modern variation on one of his stories.
Nasrudin is flying from NY to LA and about an hour into the flight the pilot comes on the intercom and announces, “Ladies and gentlemen, one of our four engines has failed. There is nothing to worry about, we are perfectly safe, but we will be a half hour late to our destination.” There is uproar among the passengers, everyone is very anxious, and Nasrudin speaks up. “Calm down everyone, what’s the problem? We’re safe, so what if we’re a little late?” The passengers are reassured and the flight continues.
A bit later, the pilot comes on the intercom again. “Ladies and gentlemen, another one of our four engines has failed. There is nothing to worry about, we are perfectly safe, with two engines, but we will be an hour late to our destination.” Again the passengers get very upset, everyone is very anxious, and again Nasrudin speaks up. “Let’s all calm down. He said we’re safe, so what if we’re a little late? It’s better than riding a donkey!” Once again the passengers are reassured and the flight continues.
A while later, the pilot again comes on the intercom. “Ladies and gentlemen, the third of our four engines has failed. There is still nothing to worry about, we are still completely safe with one engine, but now we will be two hours late to our destination.” Nasrudin says, “I hope we don’t lose the fourth engine. We’ll be up here all night!”
I will try not to keep you here all morning, and all night.
When I was invited to give this talk, my first, second, and numerous other self-preservatory instincts urged me to immediately say no. However, being the cool, calm, collected, ever-unflappable person I always try to pretend to be, I instead said, “Well, let me think about it.”
And I did think about it. I started by thinking back to my own high school graduation and my memories of the talk that I heard that day – and realized I remembered absolutely nothing of it. That made me feel better. It put things into perspective. It was comforting to know that my failure to be eloquent or wise today probably will not be remembered.
So, then I thought of my daughter; how she started in the Steiner school here as a kindergartner, went though all the lower grades and then the high school. I thought about what all that has meant to her, and to my wife and me. I had flashbacks to her first day of kindergarten, as Emily’s class disappeared over the hill and all us parents stood on the blacktop, amid a big pile of Kleenex. I remembered her first rose ceremony, and her last; I recalled her first grade play and her senior play. I recalled her first awkward alphabet letters trying to mimic Mrs. Browne’s elegant handwriting, and years later her insightful papers in Mrs. Amrine’s history classes; her early watercolor washes and later, under Mrs. Efimova’s tutelage, her breathtaking art pieces. I recalled many other stories and images from our years with the school, stories that are undoubtedly at once uniquely our family’s, and also have much in common with yours.
And, as I recalled these stories, a couple of much older ones kept coming to my mind. A couple more Nasrudin stories.
Nasrudin is walking alone on a deserted road when he sees far off in the distance a group of men approaching. His mind instantly goes into high gear. He is certain they are thieves and robbers who will mug him, maybe kill him. He looks around wildly and sees that there is a cemetery next to the road, and there happens to be a freshly dug, open, empty grave. He runs to it and jumps in to hide.
Meanwhile the travelers are in fact good, honest people and when they see Nasrudin behaving so bizarrely, they run over to see if he needs help. They surround the gravesite and one of them says to Nasrudin, “Are you alright, brother? Why are you here?”
Seeing their friendly faces and hearing the kindly questions, Nasrudin realizes that he’s let his mind get away from him and he slowly replies, “Well, let’s just say that I am here because of you, and you are here because of me.”
This story is—I hope—apropos for today, on a number of levels. I am clearly here today because of you, and like Nasrudin, as I already mentioned, when I saw this day coming I wanted to run and hide. But let me expand the story so it’s not just about me. We—all of us sitting in this part of the room—are here because of you. And you, the graduating seniors, sitting here on the stage, you are all clearly here because of us. The Steiner community—we—are here because of you, and you are here because of the Steiner community. We, all of us, are here to witness and celebrate a milestone in your life journey, the end of your Steiner schooling.
Each of you is here because, whether for a few years or twelve or thirteen, you have been immersed in a system of education, really a way of life, a way of living, that has celebrated your strengths while supporting you in facing and overcoming your hurdles, that has simultaneously promoted your unique gifts, while also fostering your common humanity. It has helped you develop an ease in, and a reverence for nature and instilled a deep curiosity about an enormous range of subjects. It has given you a sense of the whole spectrum of the human community, has shown you a glimpse of the broad sweep of human history, and an inkling of your own place in it.
And now you’ve reached this milestone, come to this juncture in your life’s journey. What’s next? Here’s one final Nasrudin story.
Nasrudin is out in front of his house at night, searching for something on the ground under a streetlight. A friend comes along and says, “Nasrudin, what are you looking for?” Nasrudin says, “My key.” The friend says, “I’ll help you.” They search together for a few minutes and finally the friend says, “Nasrudin, where did you lose the key?”
“In my house,” says Nasrudin.
“Nasrudin,” the friend says indignantly, “If you lost your key in your house, what are we doing looking for it out here?”
Nasrudin replies, “It’s dark in my house.”
Aren’t we like that sometimes? Don’t we sometimes look for simple solutions to complex problems? When we’re confronted with hard decisions, tough choices, aren’t we tempted to try for quick fixes, even if they won’t really solve the problems, just so we can stop grappling, struggling, with them. Don’t we sometimes do everything we can to avoid contemplating deeply, choosing instead to go for the shallow, surface solutions. Or as the song says, “Looking for love in all the wrong places.”
You’re moving on now, taking the next steps on the paths of your lives. There will be times when you will see fellow travelers or unfamiliar landscapes that may seem frightening; times when you will face some difficult decisions, tough questions, and will try looking for your keys, your answers, in easy, well lit places. You might feel like Nasrudin—and me—that you want to run and hide. And of course, there will be times when backing away from some people, and some situations, will be exactly the right thing to do. I think you’ll know what those times are. But you may also find, many times, that your hesitations were misplaced.
You may find—as I have—that some of the best things in life, the sweetest friendships, the most valuable work opportunities, even our family’s decision to enroll our daughter in the Steiner school, came from saying ‘yes’ when it looked hard, when I was tempted to say no and run away, when it seemed much more appealing to look for an answer someplace easier than inside that dark, marvelous, mysterious place that is in each of our hearts.
Your fellow travelers, all of us in this room, and most of the others you’ll meet, are kind and want to help you on your journey, will want to help light your way.
And I know that you too will want to help. I know that you too will want to say “yes.” We are all rooting for you.
Here are the lyrics to one of Helen’s songs. It was one of many she wrote out of her lifelong love of nature. She found image after image in nature that gave her insights into life. This was one of a number of songs she wrote from her growing awareness of how deeply we can learn from nature, and how intimately connected our lives are to the natural world. It feels especially appropriate to share this song in the Spring, as color after color begins to return to the Earth after a long, grey winter.
When people come to our concerts, both they and we make the unspoken assumption that we are the show and they are the audience; we put on the performance and they watch and listen — though, if you've been to any of our concerts, you know that we ask you to sing along with us, and participate in other ways as well. Of course, while you are looking at us and listening (and singing), we are singing, but also looking at you and listening. And sometimes we see and hear delightful, poignant, and hilarious things happening "out there." Here are a few, almost at random, that come to mind.
Last summer, during our concert at the Family Tent of the Ypsilanti Heritage Festival, we were playing the song "May There Always Be Sunshine." The song was written many years ago by an eight year old boy in Russia, and Pete Seeger brought it back to the States. Now it's sung in many languages all around the world. The song only has four lines:
May there always be sunshine.
May there always be blue skies.
May there always be Mama.
May there always be me.
Near the end of the song we usually change the third line to "May there always be Papa" to include the fathers in the audience. That day, as we were singing that line, a little girl in the front row let go of the string by which she was holding her balloon, which immediately started rising. Her dad, sitting next to her, had very quick reflexes, leaped out of his chair, grabbed the string before the balloon sped out of reach, and handed it back to his daughter. She hugged his leg, and the crowd cheered! All this in the few seconds it took us to sing "May there always be Papa!"
We went back to singing "May there always be Mama" for the last verse and I noticed a young woman crying in the audience. It was obvious she was thinking about her mother. She was stroking the back of her daughter who was tugging on her anxiously. The woman saw me noticing her, and after the concert came up and told me her mother had recently died.
Meanwhile, throughout the song, many other parents and children were exchanging sweet looks while singing along with us and adding the motions of American Sign Language. All this in the space of a simple, three minute children's song!
This past December we were performing our Holiday Show at an area elementary school, when a commotion started up at the back of the gym. All the kids sitting on the floor in that section were crab-walking as quickly as they could away from the wall, and the teacher sitting in her chair near them was frantically sliding her chair away also. Another teacher, a young woman who had been standing at the back of the gym, walked over to the wall very purposefully, took off her right shoe, and holding it by its five inch stiletto heel, she smacked the wall once — hard — quite audibly — right on the backbeat of our song — then put her shoe back on and walked away. Throughout all of this, we kept singing "Feliz Navidad" without the slightest pause or change in tempo.
After the concert I asked the teacher what it was she'd smashed. She said, "I don't know, but it was big!"
While things like this don't happen at every show, they happen often enough to keep us delighted after all these years of playing music — more than 40 of them now. But, even when nothing dramatic happens at a concert, one thing is constant, and is perhaps the most wonderful thing we see from the stage — a room full of people smiling, singing along, families and even strangers connecting with each other.
And then, after the concert, the cherry on top: We've been at this long enough that nowdays we regularly have people come up and tell us, "I heard you when I was in 2nd grade." Increasingly, people are holding their babies or young children while they're telling us this, and oftentimes with grandma and grandpa standing next to them saying, "Yes, we brought our children to hear you, and now they're bringing theirs." Thank you, to all of you — whether you heard us 40 years ago, or yesterday — thank you.
The tributes are pouring in from all over the world, from famous musicians, artists, writers, politicians, historians, but equally from the millions of ordinary people whose lives he touched, inspired, transformed — through his music, his activism, his deep humanity. And though, during his lifetime, he genuinely felt that this adulation was misplaced and unnecessary, if he is appreciating any of it now, it's the heartfelt gratitude expressed by millions of ordinary people that would move him, and bring out that gentle smile.
As with most every other folk musician on the planet, Pete's songs and the audience-involving way he sang them, had a deeply shaping effect on the music my brother and I play and the attitude with which we play it. Though I heard him in concert a number of times, listened to his recordings, read his books and his numerous articles in Sing Out! and, of course, learned and performed his songs, I met him only once.
It was 1995, and Helen and I, with our two year old son Daniel, traveled to a Children's Music Network conference in upstate New York, near Beacon, where Pete lived. He was the keynote speaker that year — though really "keynote singer" is more accurate because he mostly sang and, of course, got all of us singing.
Well, not all of us. Helen and I were excited to bring Daniel to see Pete because one of Pete's children's songs, "Sweepy, Sweepy, Sweepy," had become Daniel's favorite, and the soundtrack to the way we cleaned house with him. We kept telling him, "Daniel, we're going to see the Sweepy, Sweepy Man!" But even though it was only 10:30 in the morning and Daniel's usual naptime was after lunch, within minutes of Pete starting to sing, Daniel fell asleep, and dozed peacefully for the rest of the hour and a half. As Garrison Keillor once said, "The first function of music — putting people to sleep!"
After Pete's performance we all went to lunch and I found myself next to him in the cafeteria line — no VIP lunch for Pete, he was just going to wait in line holding his tray, and then sit with us like any other person attending the conference. I was tongue-tied-shy and other than exchanging hello's and a "thank you" from me, we didn't say anything. When we'd gotten our food, Pete looked around the room, and spotting an empty table, said, "How about there?" We sat down and Pete paused a moment before starting to eat. I don't know whether or not he was saying grace, but after that pause he adjusted the hearing aids he was wearing in both ears by then and said, "For a bunch of musicians, we sure are a noisy bunch!" That was my cue that it was ok to be quiet in his presence, and we ate the meal in sweet silence! When we finished I told him how much Daniel liked "Sweepy" and how he'd fallen asleep — and Pete just smiled.
Later that day I attended one of the break-out sessions, titled "Creating Community Through Music." There were less than 20 of us in the room, and a few minutes after the session started, Pete walked in and sat in the back. We all listened to the ideas put forth by the presenter, and then we were all invited to add our suggestions. Pete was still in the back, but after most of us had spoken he raised his hand and made his suggestion: what if we all went back to our home towns and formed children's choirs from diverse elements of our community and sang with them at our performances? He emphasized the importance of reaching out to the entire range of diversity in our communities, not just to the segment of of it that we already were part of and comfortable with. It took him less than three minutes to say this, but that tiny seed has become a great tree that bears fruit at many of the family concerts that San and I have played ever since. We invite local music teachers and choir directors in the communities where we play to form a children's choir to sing with us. We send ahead music for them to learn, and then, on the day of the concert we rehearse with the children, add motions and sign-language to the songs, and invite them up on stage for the 5-6 song finale of our concert.
One of the most special such choirs was the multi-cultural, multi-ethnic, multi-religious children's choir we assembled to sing with us when we performed with the Ann Arbor Symphony just a couple of months after 9/11. We were on the stage of the Michigan Theatre with the Symphony, and because of space limitations, the children's choir was up in the balcony. Hearing those pure young voices — representing so many parts of the Ann Arbor community —wafting down and washing over the whole audience was one of the most moving musical experiences we've had. Here was tangible hope representing what was possible in the future of our world.
Including children's choirs like this has become one of the most enjoyable parts of our concertizing — and it all began with that suggestion from Pete. And, of course, we're not the only ones doing this — Pete made that suggestion everywhere he went, and he modeled it in his own community, forming a children's choir called the Rivertown Kids with whom he recorded a Grammy award-winning CD, "Tomorrow's Children" at the ripe young age of 91!
For the last five years, right around Pete's birthday (May 3rd) we've gotten together with a number of other local folksingers to put on a benefit concert at, and for, the Ark Coffeehouse. We've called these concerts "For Pete's Sake" and the only limitation we set ourselves was that we'd be singing all Pete Seeger songs — ones he wrote, recorded or performed. We quickly realized that this meant just about any traditional American folk song, as well as many international ones, and the songs of many songwriters from Woody Guthrie and Leadbelly through contemporary singers. In these last five years we've hardly repeated any songs! We already have another such concert scheduled at the Ark on May 8th, and I expect that we and many other people will hold "For Pete's Sake" concerts for a long time to come.
Nevertheless, the tributes may slow and even stop after a while. But the songs he wrote and the ones he rescued from obscurity — songs numbering in the thousands that he brought to us, shining with his enthusiasm, commitment, and love — these songs will go on as long as people sing. I know my brother and I will continue to sing Pete's songs for the rest of our lives. And I know we won't be the only ones. Thank you, Pete, thank you.
One year ago today, at 11:22 in the morning, Helen let out her last breath and closed her eyes. Just minutes before, she had been listening to our son Daniel telling her on the phone that he loved her. Not long before that, she and I had been telling each other the same thing.
The earth has gone once around the sun, but, of course, it has not returned to the exact place it was a year ago. In that time it has traveled, along with the sun and the rest of the solar system, an inconceivably enormous distance in this miraculously ever-expanding universe. What does it mean, when looked at from this vast perspective, that one person, one infinitesimally tiny being in this immense cosmos, lived and died? To me, who loved her and lived with her for nearly 42 years (most of our adult lives) it means everything. And though we did not agree on everything, though we argued on occasion and were even sometimes hurtful to each other, we also deeply cared for and loved each other — and that love has not learned how to end. It will never get news of her death from me.
In this past year I have felt a deeper despair and grief than I have ever imagined before. But I have also experienced (perhaps "been broken open to feel" is a more accurate way to put it) more intense moments of joy, insight and especially gratitude than I have ever imagined before. In moments of stillness between these poles I have been in awe that a human heart can hold such extremes.
I've been wearing reading glasses for many years now, and without them I cannot bring into focus an object that is less than a couple of feet away. However, in this past year, it has happened a few times that, as I looked at Helen's picture without my glasses — but through my tears — a teardrop formed a perfect lens for a moment, and her face came into incredibly sharp focus. It feels like an image for how grief has given me glimpses of another reality where love continues uninterrupted and there is no death.
When the mother of an infant hides behind something, her child sometimes starts to cry, thinking the mother has disappeared. As the infant matures, he or she begins to take delight in this game of peek-a-boo, knowing the mother has not really gone away when she ducks behind something. I'm sure I am not the first to think of this analogy — the great beings of many traditions tell us that it's our lack of spiritual maturity that prevents us from seeing that when someone dies they don't really go away, they're just on the other side of something we cannot see through.
Rumi, the great Sufi mystic begins one poem (in translation by Coleman Barks) like this:
On the day I die, when I'm being
carried toward the grave, don't weep.
Don't say, "He's gone! He's gone!"
Death has nothing to do with going away.
He goes on giving a number of images of things that seem to go away, but actually don't, and ends like this:
Your mouth closes here and immediately opens
with a shout of joy there!
Rumi has such utter conviction in his own (and our) eternal life. And yet, when one of his teachers, Saladin dies, Rumi's lament begins with these lines:
You left ground and sky weeping,
mind and soul full of grief.
No one can take your place,
in existence or in absence.
And after a dozen more lines, each one more anguished than the last, Rumi ends by addressing us like this:
If you know how to weep for human beings,
weep, weep for Saladin.
It's both, isn't it? The incredible mystery of presence and absence. Sometimes felt just moments apart. Sometimes even simultaneously.
Over this past year I've come to see that it's totally my choice; to believe that she is gone forever, and that she has taken all meaning with her — or to choose to feel her on-going presence in my life which was shaped by her love, and to know that it is love which gives meaning to life. I can either doubt, and thereby deny the meaning of what we had because one form of it is gone, or I can honor the countless gifts she gave me by continuing to live them.
And I know from the experience of this last year that she is continuing to give me gifts, to guide and to teach me. A number of months after her death, when I still had not touched anything on her desk, I felt like I should start cleaning it up, and putting away some of her things. When I asked inside myself if it was ok to start doing that, I heard a very sweet voice, unmistakably Helen's, gently, but quite firmly reply, "Clean your own desk first." I can't say I've completed that task, but I have been working on it!
I've also become more competent in the kitchen, I've been greatly enriched by playing her flute, and I've seen qualities of simple, everyday courage and steadiness deepen within me. I believe I've also become a better father, as I've had to take on, as best I could, the role of mother also. I've heard a number of people acknowledge that they've grown in these kind of ways after the death of a loved one — and yet, every one of them instantly adds that they'd give it all back in a heartbeat if they could have the loved one back. And I have to agree wholeheartedly with that.
I've also seen our son Daniel grow amazingly over this last year. He even agrees with me when I point out specific ways in which he is now so much more capable than he was before. But, as he said on one of those occasions, "Yes, but it's a hell of a price to pay." And I have to agree wholeheartedly with that.
There is a beautiful saying from Africa, "It takes a village to raise a child." In this last year I have felt that it takes a community to support a grieving person. Thank you for being that precious, incredibly caring community for Daniel and me. We are, and will always be, very grateful.
The close of this first year does mark a kind of ending. It feels like a time to say one form of goodbye — "goodbye" in the original sense of the word — "God be with you." Or, as Daniel said to Helen's body in the funeral home — "Goodbye for now."
Mourning, grieving, is not meant to be forever. Remembering is. And celebrating her life. And giving thanks. Again and again. Thank you, Helen, again and again.