At a concert earlier this year Laz and I sang “La Bamba.” Not unusual for us. We’ve been singing it for years, recorded it I don’t remember how long ago, and even put it on our compilation CD, The Best of Gemini, Volume II. Our audiences have always seemed to enjoy it. They respond to the iconic, instantly recognizable instrumental intro, and many adults of a certain age remember it from 1958 when it was a big hit for Richie Valens; younger adults remember Los Lobos’ 1987 version. We often see both generations singing along even on the verses, while their kids and grandkids get into the song’s lively rhythm and the repetition of the word Bamba in the chorus. No one has ever complained about our Spanish pronunciation—our audiences are uniformly kind—but, on the other hand, based on hearing us sing it, no one has ever assumed that we speak Spanish.
But at a concert a couple of months ago, someone did come up and made it a point to especially thank me for singing “La Bamba.” She did so in heavily Spanish-inflected English, and with so much warmth and intensity that I noticed it. She didn’t elaborate, just said, “Thank you very much for singing ‘La Bamba.’” And then said it several more times with a big smile as she kept shaking my hand.
I don’t know, and never will know, because I didn’t ask her, exactly why she thanked me so profusely. Did her mom or dad sing it to her when she was a little girl? Did she dance to it with a lover? Did it bring back memories of the Mexico she left behind? Or did she thank me because by singing that song we were letting her—and everyone else there—know that we didn’t agree with the views about Mexicans (or about anything else for that matter) held by he-who-shall-not-be-named, and some of his supporters.
I’ve always felt that family concerts are not the time or place to talk politics. But I’ve always also liked singing May There Always Be Sunshine and Zum Gali and saying that they’re Russian and Israeli respectively. Maybe a subliminal message gets through about not demonizing those two peoples—or any others.
Hemingway wrote somewhat cynically, “It’s pretty to think so.”
Today is the fourth anniversary of Helen’s death. Each year, leading up to this day, I have more-frequent-than-usual, significant experiences of her presence. And while the grief, of course, is less intense with the passing of each year, the sweetness of the memories, and my gratitude for all she gave me, continues to grow.
Recently I was singing at a Senior Center and someone asked for the Scottish song “Loch Lomond.” I launched into it without thinking about the upcoming words, but when I got to the last lines of the chorus, I got choked up. “But me and my true love will never meet again…” Of course, that line is very sadly true — and yet…
Last week I was travelling in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan and stopped by one of the little roadside beaches along Route 134 on the north shore of Lake Huron. After wading in the lake for a little while, I headed back towards the car, when the shadow of something flying crossed in front of me. I looked up and there was a huge butterfly overhead. I don’t know my butterflies well enough to be sure if it was a Monarch, but it was roughly that coloring and size. I looked all around and saw no other butterfly along the entire beach.
Butterflies, of course, are a classic symbol of radical metamorphosis, and are often used as an image for how the soul goes on living in a completely different state after the body dies. I’m enough of a “modern” man, (having heard “don’t be superstitious!” many times) and therefore conditioned not to think that Helen is visiting me whenever I see a butterfly. Still, what I felt in that moment— within me, as well as outwardly — was undeniably her presence. Helen loved being by rivers, lakes and oceans, and we had been along beaches like this in the UP a number of times. In that moment when the butterfly flew over, I felt her coming to me in such a comforting, reassuring way — “All is well.”
Just a few days ago I was walking in West Park near my home, and I started thinking how I’d like to make a CD of some of Helen’s songs that she hadn’t gotten to record. As soon as that thought came up, a Monarch butterfly flew in a circle around my head. (I’m pretty sure this was a Monarch, and there were some milkweed stalks — its main food — nearby.) Again, it was the only butterfly I saw. And again you could say it was just a coincidence, but to me Helen was saying, “Yeah! Great idea!”
These are two of the more recent and more dramatic of these meetings / visitations, but there have been many others. And much more numerous than these, have been instances of Helen’s continuing influence in both my life and that of Daniel. Two small stories.
This Spring, I was taking care of my brother’s cats while he and his wife were away. It was easy — they live two doors down. One late afternoon, as I was walking back from their house humming a tune, I saw a baby robin on the ground. Its mouth opened wide, as if hearing me humming meant someone might be coming to bring it food. Clearly it had fallen out of its nest, but when I looked up into the evergreen overhead I couldn’t see any sign of it. I asked a friend to help and she called the bird rescue center. They said we could bring it in, but that it’d be best to find the nest and put it back — that it was ok to handle the bird, its Mom would not reject it. By now it was getting dark and though we looked some more, and a neighbor also helped, we could not find the nest. My friend put the baby bird in a shoebox with tissue paper around it to keep it warm, and took it to the bird rescue center. They labeled it “Robin #54” and told her if we found the nest to come back for it.
The next morning, as I was walking over to my brother’s house to feed the cats, a robin with a worm in its beak, flew out of the bushes and into the evergreen under which I’d found the baby bird. From within the thick needles of the tree an open beak rose up, and the Mom pecked the worm into it. There was the nest! My friend went back to the bird rescue center and got Robin #54, I pulled my brother’s car under the evergreen, climbed up onto its roof, and put the bird back in its nest. Within moments the Mom came flying back, and there were two open beaks waiting for her.
If this had happened while Helen was still here, I would not have dared touch the bird. I would have called her and she would have taken care of it all, as she had a number of other times. But now, I felt like she was saying, “I’ve shown you how to do it. Now it’s your turn.”
One more bird story. Daniel and I have a Project Grow plot, rented from the city, where we, along with about 30 other people have a garden. The last few years, the deer have been coming out of the nearby woods and helping themselves to the produce. So, a couple years ago Daniel devised a deer fence which was so successful that nearby gardeners asked if it could be expanded to include their plots. The fence now encloses six plots, (and most of the other gardeners at the site have used it as a template to make their own) is nine and a half feet tall, with deer net most of the way up. A few weeks ago, Daniel found a small bird that had flown into the enclosure, and somehow gotten confused, thinking it couldn’t fly up and out, and was getting tangled in the deer net just a few feet off the ground. When Daniel came near to try to help it out, the bird got even more frightened and trapped itself at ground level in a corner of the enclosure. My contribution to the rescue effort was to sing a soft, soothing song to the bird, while Daniel dug away some dirt underneath it — and suddenly the bird realized it could fly away, and it did, heading straight for the gate we had left open in the fence, and out, and free!
Again, if Helen had been there, she would not have needed me to sing the song, she would have done that, as well as whatever else was needed to free the bird. But in a very real sense, she was there — and she is here, still helping, guiding and loving us. Thank you again, dear Helen.
I met Phyllis Weikart in the mid 1970s when, on a whim, I decided to take a folk dance class at the UofM. My only previous experience with dance lessons was about six or seven years earlier, when as a senior in high school, I asked a friend of mine if she would teach me a few basic steps so I’d be able to dance with my date at the senior prom. She kindly, patiently—and oh so slooowly—taught me the box step. Which proved utterly useless at the prom, in the somewhat inebriated bunny hop/conga line—the only dance it turned out that my date and I danced that evening. It was a night I’ve tried to erase from my mind, but have not yet managed to forget.
Point being that I didn’t have any good associations with dancing when I met Phyllis. But, at that time, I was only a few years out of college, had just recently moved to Ann Arbor, my brother Laz and I were at the start of our career playing music, I felt freer than I ever had in my life, I was relishing pushing at boundaries real and perceived. I don’t recall now how I found Phyllis, but I could not have made a better choice. Phyllis’ teaching philosophy was fully formed by then, and remained constant for the rest of her life. The way she saw it, her work as a teacher was to make sure that her students succeeded in learning what she taught. Vastly oversimplified, this meant that she was willing to break down complex dance steps and patterns into units small and simple enough that anyone, and everyone, could learn them. Then she gradually built up to the complete dance, never losing anyone in the process. It worked with me, and it worked with everyone I ever saw Phyllis teach. Of course, there was more to it than that. There was also Phyllis’ exuberance and irrepressible enthusiasm. She loved to dance and loved to teach. It was always evident on her face and in her voice. The combination was irresistible. In just a few months of classes I developed a love of dancing that is with me to this day.
Laz and I crossed paths with Phyllis’ a few years later when, in November of 1982, we released Good Mischief, our first recording for children. On the second side of that album, (remember this was in the pre-historic age of vinyl, the large black Frisbees...they had music on both sides), we recorded a number of traditional and international folk dance tunes. Phyllis and her husband, David (founder of the HighScope Educational Research Foundation), had been coming to our concerts for years and this new recording gave Phyllis an idea. She’d long been teaching international folk dances and using original recordings by musicians from those cultures in her dance classes and workshops. But many of those recordings were no longer available (so she couldn’t tell people where to find them for their own use) or they were recorded on poor quality equipment, or they were not quite the right tempo or length for her teaching purposes. After she heard our folk dances on Good Mischief, Phyllis asked if we’d be willing to re-record some of the pieces she’d been using so she could make them available to her students. That conversation led to one of the most exciting and engrossing projects of our career. Beginning in January of 1983 and continuing through 1988 we recorded twelve full-length albums, 172 tunes, of international folk dance music for Phyllis and HighScope. Because of Phyllis’ extensive work in training movement and dance teachers, those recordings and her accompanying books have since been used in countless school settings all over the US and even internationally.
When we first sat down to discuss the project, we only envisioned making one record. We also agreed that we’d discuss the tunes beforehand, but that it would not be necessary for Phyllis to actually be in the studio with us while we laid down the tracks. Still, it seemed like a good idea for her to be there on the first day of recording. We met at Ann Arbor’s Solid Sound, where Laz and I have done many of our albums over the years, and began working on the initial tracks. A couple of hours later several things were evident. One, this was going to be a lot of fun. Two, the three of us really enjoyed working together. Three, Phyllis’ input was essential and invaluable. After Laz and I recorded a basic track, Phyllis would move out of the control room and into the recording studio and begin dancing to the music to make certain that the tempo was exactly right. Her thorough knowledge of the dances, and her brilliant musical instincts helped shape many of the details of the arrangements we created for the dance tunes. Each album took over a month to create, which meant we spent countless hours together in the studio. (The opportunity to spend that much time in the studio was invaluable and something else for which we will always be grateful to both Phyllis and HighScope—in particular, to Chuck Wallgren who oversaw the entire project. Laz and I learned so much about recording and working in the studio, knowledge we were able to put to good use in later years as we continued making our own albums.) Phyllis’ enthusiasm, energy, kindness and supportive attitude never flagged. I am as proud of those records as of anything we’ve done in our career. In the years that followed, Laz and I got to collaborate with Phyllis regularly, playing at workshops and conferences all over the US, sometimes even forming bands to replicate the overdubbed sound of our recordings, so she and her students could dance to live music.
Phyllis died recently, on March 11, 2016, about a month shy of her 85th birthday. By happenstance, two days before, Laz and I sang at Brecon Village, the senior community in Saline where Phyllis had lived for a number of years, and where, at her invitation, Laz and I sang two or three times a year ever since she moved there. Phyllis wasn’t in the audience this time. She was already in the hospital and her prognosis was not good. That night we sang a song we’d sung every time we’d played there, and indeed every time over the years when Phyllis was on stage with us or in our audience.
Erev Shel Shoshanim is a gorgeous Israeli love song. Written in 1957, it has since replaced Here Comes the Bride at many Jewish weddings in Israel and elsewhere. It was special for Phyllis because it was the first piece of music to which she’d ever choreographed a dance. It was a circle dance so simple that she often taught it as the music was already playing. She almost always used it as the final dance of her programs and it was simply mesmerizing to dance or watch it.
If there’s a good place where good people go after they’re gone, then surely Phyllis is there now. And if there’s dancing there—and how good could that place be without dancing?—then surely Phyllis is dancing now. And if there are good people there who can’t dance, (Yes, you can be good and not know how to dance, but you’d be happier if you knew how), then surely Phyllis is teaching them to dance now. I’ll always be grateful I got to dance with her here.
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.