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.
Many years ago, Helen and I were driving on a highway when we passed a two-car crash that had happened very recently — a police car and an ambulance were just arriving. Helen and I had been talking animatedly, but as I drove by the accident, she got very quiet and closed her eyes. After a couple of minutes I asked her what she was doing and she replied, "I am sending blessings to all the people involved." And from then on that's what she did every time we passed an accident.
She filled her life with rituals like this — some daily, weekly or monthly, some on a seasonal basis, some, like the above, only on specific occasions. Some she received from various religious or cultural traditions, others she discovered or invented. Whatever their origins, once she committed to them, she made them her own. The purposes and uses of the rituals varied — from forming a clear intention for a course of action, to invoking grace and asking for blessings, and perhaps most often, for expressing gratitude. (I recently found a journal I didn't even know she had kept which she devoted exclusively to listing things for which she was grateful.)
Whether it was greeting the sun and the four directions each morning, lighting a candle or a stick of incense before meditating, taking a moment to bless her food and give thanks before each meal, using a sage smudge or fragrant spray to literally clear the air after a disagreement or a time of stuckness, she would take a moment to step back from the activity, to center and get in touch with a point of stillness inside her before proceeding. Helen loved these rituals — many of them took only a moment to do, but the focus with which they were done permeated the entire time or action which they initiated, and gave thanks for one that was concluded.
Sometimes she'd perform these rituals to ask something for herself and what she was about to do, but more often for others, whether friends and family or total strangers. And because she took care to be mindful and not automatic when she performed these rituals, they did not lock her in; they gave her a structure within which to be spontaneous and able to respond to the needs of the moment.
Our son, Daniel reminded me last week of something he didn't see, only heard about from me, and the huge impression it made on him. One morning a few years ago Helen and I were out for a morning walk when we heard a distressed sound above us in a tree. A robin had gotten one of its feet caught in the tangle of what probably once had been a kite string. The tree did not have branches low enough for climbing but that did not deter Helen. She went straight to the house next to the tree and asked the woman who answered the door if she had a ladder and a pair of scissors. From the ladder she climbed into the tree and very slowly, so as not to frighten the robin any more than it already was, inched her way out on the branch, talking gently to the bird the whole way. Nevertheless, the robin tried to fly away, tangling itself even more in the string. Helen finally got close enough to be able to cut the string to within a few inches of the robin's foot, at which point it flew away, the string falling off its foot as it landed in a tree across the street.
Of course, dramatic events like this did not happen often, (though, there were at least two other bird rescues I could think of) but her ability to be intuitive, steady and responsive in the moment was highly developed. She would call up a friend and invite her to a cup of tea — and later hear from that friend how perfectly timed that meeting was to help in making an important decision, or feel encouraged at a difficult time.
She made a ritual of regularly going through her belongings — clothes, books, art supplies, jewelry — and whatever was no longer useful she would ceremonially and whole-heartedly thank for its service, but then let go of it. Some things she'd donate wholesale to Kiwanis or the Salvation Army, but she also delighted in matching friends and especially children with objects they'd cherish. (By the way, I've always tended to be a pack-rat, saving everything, "just in case." She inspired me — and still does! — to trust that I'll have what I need when I need it. And because I still have much to learn about this, she left our son, Daniel, who acquired this great trait from her, to continue working on me to "lighten up.")
(Perhaps, it was this quality of non-attachment which she cultivated throughout her life that gave her the ability to let go of her body so quickly, gracefully and peacefully, when it became clear that it was time to go, time to let go.)
Of course, her use of ritual had an effect on me, and I joined her in many of them. One that we created together when she was pregnant with Daniel was especially sweet for me. Each night before we'd go to sleep, around 10 o'clock, we got in the habit of talking to the baby in her belly. Since we didn't know the sex of the baby, we kept it generic: "Hello you beautiful, amazing, wonderful baby! We're so glad you chose us to be your parents. We're really looking forward to seeing you and having you join our family." And we said many other such madly-in-love things that probably most parents have thought or said to their babies, in or out of the womb. We'd sing songs to the baby, play instrumental tunes, and tell jokes, at which we'd laugh. And we delighted in how the baby responded to our performance with vigorous kicking in the later months!
Before I finish this story, a word of caution to young people planning to have children, and also to grandparents-to-be who live near the expecting couple. Don't do this pouring-out-of-love-on-the-baby-in-the-womb at bedtime! When Daniel was born, 10 o'clock at night was when he became most active! We had trained him to expect a fun show at that time and he fully expected the entertainment to continue!
So, one of the things Helen did to help calm him down at bedtime, was to put up on the ceiling above our bed glow-in-the-dark stars and a crescent moon. As we turned off the lights, with Daniel lying between us and the stars beginning to glow, Helen would talk to him in a very soothing voice about the wonders of the cosmos and our very tiny but totally magical place in it. Besides wanting to comfort and lull him to sleep as he lay between us, staring up with his huge bright eyes, Helen wanted to give Daniel, however subliminally, a tiny experience of the miraculous immensity of the universe he'd been born into. I must admit, oftentimes I fell asleep before Daniel did!
When Daniel moved out of our room, the stars stayed above our bed, but I forgot about them over the years. I didn't notice them again until a little while after Helen died when I couldn't sleep one night. As I opened my eyes in the dark and saw the stars glowing above me, the memories came flooding back on the tears.
She has entered (or perhaps returned to) that unimaginable enormity — but she has expanded and enriched so many lives through her life. And through the preciousness of memory she is continuing to give her gifts.
Helen started learning to play the flute when she was about ten years old. She told me it took her a full month of daily trying before she could even get a sound out of it! Persistence was definitely one of her many great qualities. If she started on something and found that it was right for her, she was willing and able to give herself fully to it — obstacles or not. This was true in so many areas of her life, but perhaps it was most evident in her flute playing.
She grew up playing classical music exclusively, (her mother was an excellent cellist) and by her late teens could sight-read most any piece of music put before her. After we met, I encouraged her to learn to play the folk songs and dance tunes I was learning, writing and performing. But I couldn't notate that music, and she couldn't play by ear, so when we first tried playing music together she'd end up crying and I'd be very confused. Little by little we learned how to work with each other; she helped me write out flute parts for the folk melodies, (and in the process started teaching me how to read and write music) and using that sheet music, she began playing concerts with my brother and me. But she was somewhat shy about performing, so it was only on relatively rare occasions that I could convince her to join us on stage.
However, playing on recordings did not require being in front of an audience. So when San and I started recording, Helen was happy to add her flute playing to our albums. Starting in the early 1980's and continuing right up to the month before she died, Helen contributed flute tracks to songs and instrumentals on more than 30 recordings.
The recording engineers at the two studios where we worked called her "One Take Helen" because most of the time she'd nail her part perfectly the first time through. (If you've ever been in a studio, you know how rare that is.) One of the projects my brother and I worked on in the 1980's was a series of 11 folk dance recordings for the High Scope Educational Research Foundation. The tunes were from all around the world, and San and I played most of the instruments that we over-dubbed to create a full band sound. I found that I could play most of the melodies, harmonies and counter-lines in the tunes, but some were virtuosically difficult — I simply did not have the "chops" to play them. These were the parts I gave Helen, and she never failed to play them well. She helped me to transcribe the parts and then she'd practice them — which was a lesson in itself. Listening to her practice I learned so much about how to break down a difficult passage into manageable parts, how to vary the tempo, rhythm and phrasing in order to get a handle on the lines, and most of all, how to be persistent until the parts began to flow.
But besides the difficult parts, I also gave Helen and her flute the loveliest, most liquid melodies, because she could literally breathe the most beautiful life into them.
(Incidentally, I learned to play the pennywhistle because I loved the sound of her flute. Until then, I'd only played string instruments, and I could not imagine myself learning to play the flute — it looked so complicated with all its keys and valves — and besides she was there to play it whenever I wanted to hear the flute on a song — but, inspired by her playing, I longed for an instrument into which I could breathe. At first she laughed at my squeaks and squawks as I started to learn the pennywhistle, because it reminded her of her early attempts on the flute. But then, as in so many other things, she encouraged me, and delighted in my playing of it.)
Her flute playing became even more precious to me six years ago when I started setting to music the poems of the ancient Sufi mystics, Rumi and Hafiz. They both use the image of the flute a great deal in their poetry; the flute becomes a symbol for human beings, through whom God breathes and plays the music of longing for union, for reunion.
Helen loved this poetry; it expressed her own deepest yearnings. And though she was still somewhat shy about playing her flute in public, she felt differently about these songs and started accompanying me at many concerts, and on all five of my Rumi / Hafiz recordings. Here are two of the poems she especially loved and played flute on.
The Reed Flute's Song
Rumi, translated by Coleman Barks
Listen to the story told by the reed,
of being separated.
Since I was cut from the reedbed,
I have made this crying sound.
Anyone apart from someone he loves
understands what I say.
Anyone, anyone pulled from a source,
longs to go back.
An Old Musician
Hafiz, translated by Daniel Ladinsky
How should those who know God
meet and part?
The way an old musician
greets her beloved flute,
and will take special care
as a great artist always does
to enhance the final note
of each song.
Two months after Helen's death, I started to feel drawn to her flute and I took it out of its case. Never having played it, at first I didn't even know how to put its three pieces together. Once I figured that out I downloaded a fingering chart from Google, and tried to play some notes. Since I remembered how long it had taken Helen to just make a sound, I did not expect too much at first.
So I was more than a little shocked by how quickly the basics of flute playing started coming to me. By the end of a week I was somewhat amazed, especially considering that I hardly played more than 15 minutes a day. Now, you could say, "You're a musician, you play a lot of instruments, you can pick things up pretty quickly." And, of course, in one sense that's true; I've played a variety of instruments for much of my life. Nevertheless, playing Helen's flute had an uncanny feeling about it — as if there was an extra energy or presence that was teaching me, and enabling me to learn much more quickly and easily than I could have on my own.
My rational mind felt very confused and even threatened whenever it caught me feeling this way. I sometimes felt like Helen's breath was still left in the flute, and her fingers still moved on its keys, and that's how the tones were being produced.
After two weeks I got freaked out by what felt like the unnatural speed with which I was learning to play the flute, and I stopped.
But after two more weeks I felt very drawn to it again, and this time, when I went back to it I started playing every day — and I've continued ever since. Don't get me wrong, I'm not a child prodigy (Is there a word for a sixty-something prodigy? Well, I'm not that either.) but I can usually make a pleasant sound, and feel a very sweet connection to it.
As I play Helen's flute, I sometimes get an eerie feeling, as if I'm outside myself and seeing myself from a few feet away. Whenever this happens, the posture in which I catch myself looks (in the mirror) and feels (in my body) exactly as I remember Helen looking when she played the flute. But it's not just the outer posture, which, of course, is somewhat the same in everyone who plays flute — the slight tilt of the head, the pursing of the lips, the upright way the arms and hands hold the flute, the movement of the fingers. No, it's something more. It's as if she is standing inside me, breathing into her flute. It's as if she is at once teaching me how to play, demonstrating it, and actually playing her flute from within me.
I've been learning some specific songs and tunes, but mostly I've been improvising, allowing melodies to form and sing their way through the flute. The notes of some of these melodies may be mine — expressing love, grief, memories, gratitude — but the flute, and the ability to breathe life into them, is Helen's. And as I've been playing her flute, there have been certain phrases, snatches of melody that have come out, that I know are not mine, that I recognize as ones Helen might have written and played. In particular, one melody started up soon after I first picked up her flute, and it kept coming back until I learned it.
Next week I am playing a benefit concert in Helen's honor (raising funds for a local organization that supports nature preservation — something that was very close to Helen's heart) and, with a lot of help from a number of other musicians who will be joining me, I will play that tune, her tune.
There are so many ways, small and large, in which human beings honor a loved one who has died. We give to charity and establish funds in their name, we plant trees, we try to carry on work that was important to them, we use their tools and think of them, and of course, most importantly, we remember them — sometimes with sadness, but more and more in celebration of their life — we get together with friends and family to look at photos and tell stories. In the case of someone like Helen, who wrote music, prose and poetry, we continue to share their creativity with others. I've done some of these things, and some others, and will continue to. But in one sense, the way I've been remembering Helen the most is by playing her flute at least for a few minutes every day.
It will always be Helen's flute. It will always be her playing it.
Helen died nine months ago today. The most common association with the words "nine months" is the time a mother carries a child inside her. In a couple of weeks it will be Mother's Day. I've been thinking a lot about this role in Helen's life.
Both Helen and I had mixed feelings about having children. And though we kept checking in with each other over the years, we always arrived at the decision not to — until a letter from our dearest friend made us reconsider once more, and this time we arrived at yes.
Helen became a mother quite late — she was almost 42 when Daniel was born. Though she did many other things in the next 20 years, and had many other significant roles, she devoted her time and creative energy the most to being a mother. And I choose the word "devoted" very consciously. Being a mother became a spiritual path and practice to her. And the goal of this path was to make unconditional love manifest fully — even, or perhaps especially, despite the very human demands of ego and judgmental mind.
Helen was an only child and had very little experience caring for, or even being with younger children as she was growing up, and even less in her early adult life. Nevertheless, I saw Helen embody the Mother energy from the moment she found out she was pregnant, and even more so, after Daniel was born. She was constantly looking for how to best nurture and care for him on every level — physical, emotional, intellectual, spiritual.
One of the ways Daniel and I have been keeping her presence alive in us is by reminiscing about the things she did along these lines — but especially how she was able to listen — to really listen. Then, she'd either have a thoughtful response, or having really listened, made it possible for the person to hear themselves very clearly, and thereby be able to arrive at their own conclusion as to how to proceed.
These days, when Daniel faces a complex situation or a difficult decision, he often says, "I want to talk to Mom." Or, "If Mom were here, she'd know how to deal with this." I try to help and be a good sounding board, and I don't take it personally (most of the time!) that he longs for her guiding presence, and does not find me an adequate substitute. In fact, most of the time, I end up telling him, "I think you should talk to Mom about this." I suggest he take into his room the picture of Helen we have on our living room mantle, and talk with her. I offer to leave the house so he has total privacy in which to do this. And though he says "It's not the same," he does talk with her. I have come to see over these last months that she actually is still guiding him, from the inside. Through all those years of listening to him, she did teach him how to listen to himself, and allow himself to be guided by his own heart.
Let me tell you about the last time Helen listened to Daniel. As I mentioned in an earlier piece, Daniel has Asperger's Syndrome, a form of high-functioning autism, which makes social interactions and emotionally charged situations difficult for him. When Helen went into the hospital, five days before she died, it was very stressful for Daniel, and he was not able to come to see her. And, of course, since none of us had any idea that her illness was terminal, or that it would proceed so quickly, we assumed and fully expected that she would come home soon. So, when Daniel did not want to come to the hospital, Helen was totally understanding and said, "Don't push him." They talked briefly by phone each day, and when I'd leave the hospital each night, the last thing Helen always said was, "Hugs to Daniel."
But when I walked into her hospital room early that last morning and felt instantly that she was dying, I called my brother, San, to go wake up Daniel and be with him. A little while later I called back, and told Daniel what was happening. He started to get dizzy and faint and needed to lie down. I asked San to stay with him to make sure he was all right. Then, Helen and I had that incredible gift of a last talk in which we expressed our love for each other and asked forgiveness for anything hurtful we may have done. Helen was still completely lucid and present, and she gave me a number of instructions, including to thank her friends, and her favorite trees in our yard. Then, seeing me starting to cry, she said, "Laz don't give up." And then, "Be very sweet with Daniel."
After this she started losing consciousness. I called back Daniel, and told him that if he wanted to say anything to Helen I felt she could still hear him. (I remembered reading somewhere that, as a person is dying, hearing is the last sense to go.) Helen's eyes could no longer focus on me — they were open, fixed, looking straight up. But as soon as I put the phone to her right ear and Daniel started talking, her eyes shifted over to the right and remained there. I couldn't hear what Daniel was saying, but after a few minutes I felt he was done and I took the phone from Helen's ear. Daniel said, "Good timing, Dad, I just finished talking to Mom." (Later, San told me what Daniel had said to Helen. He told her how in the last few years, she had said to him many, many times that she loved him — but he'd never been able to say that back to her. But now, he wanted her to know — "I do love you. I always have. Goodbye, Mom. Hugs from Daniel.")
Immediately after this, the death rattle started in Helen's throat and within minutes she closed her eyes for the last time. It wasn't until later, when I heard what Daniel had said to her, that I understood that, though Helen did not need to hear what Daniel said — she knew he loved her — she knew that he need to say it. And so she waited, and listened to him one last time.
Except it wasn't the last time.
After Helen died and her body was taken to the funeral home, I went home to be with Daniel. Knowing how important it would be for a sense of closure for him to see her body, I encouraged Daniel to come with me to the funeral home — but he was not able to. The cremation was going to be three days later, so at first, I did not push. I went alone, and with my brother and sister-in-law. But on the morning of the last day I told Daniel, "This is our last chance. They are taking her body away at two o'clock this afternoon." We spent the entire morning talking about it, but he could not decide if he was up to it. Finally, at around one o'clock, Daniel asked if I could call the funeral home and see if things could be delayed. They said, yes, they could wait till six o'clock. Daniel and I spent several more hours talking, by the end of which I was completely worn out. I couldn't advise any more, and I wasn't sure I could even listen any more. I understood it was really out of my hands, and whatever needed to happen would happen.
Finally, around four o'clock, Daniel said, "OK, if you're willing to drive there but turn around immediately if I can't go in, I'll go." I agreed, and we went. When we got to the funeral home Daniel asked, "If I can't go into the room, are you willing to turn around and take me home?" Again, I said yes. We went in. When we were led to the room where her body was, Daniel said, "Will you stay right outside the door, and be ready to take me home as soon as I come out, whenever that is?" I agreed, and he went in — and talked to her for nearly half an hour.
I don't know what he said to her. All I know is what he told me he said at the end — "Goodbye, Mom — for now."
I was so grateful to Helen for waiting one more time, listening one more time, so he could say that final earthly — yet wonderfully provisional — goodbye to her.
I understood many years ago, seeing how Helen was with Daniel, that when she took on the role of being his mother, she took it on for life. But what I realized in the funeral home — and what I continue to see nearly on a daily basis, as her presence continues to be such a guiding light in Daniel's life — is that when Helen took on the role of a mother for life, it was not for the length of her life — but his. She is still listening to him.
Happy Mother's Day, Helen. And thank you, once again.
Throughout her life, Helen kept returning to Nature again and again, for renewal and guidance. She told me many times how much she loved, as a young child, playing by herself in the woods near her grandparents house in New Hampshire, or on the beach at Cape Cod.
She looked for opportunities again and again to be in beautiful settings in Nature, but she found ways to connect deeply wherever she was. Almost on a daily basis, she would go outside near dawn, and take a few minutes to greet the sun, to face the four directions, and invoke their blessings on her day. I've written in previous posts about a number of other ways she delighted in and honored Nature. And after Daniel was born, one of the things she most valued was sharing her love of Nature with him, especially her love of water.
Helen especially loved the winter and summer solstices and the autumn and spring equinoxes, rooted as they are in Nature's rhythms and cycles. She always made an effort to celebrate them in some way, and to be open to inner gifts might be given on those days. On the spring equinox of 2000 she went to a park not far from our house to sit by the Delhi Rapids of the Huron River. She came back radiant, with a song — River Sounds. A few weeks later I went to the rapids with her and we recorded the sound of the river. Nearly two years later we went into the studio to record the song, with Helen adding several flute lines to our voices, and our friend and wonderful keyboard player, Brian Brill, contributing several accompaniment tracks and textures. We also layered in the sound of the river beneath the whole song.
But then other projects came along and we never finished mixing the song to get it ready for release. We kept singing it at our concerts, and several other people started performing it, and even recording it, but over the years we forgot about our own recording. A few weeks ago, as it was getting close to the spring equinox, I remembered this song and how we'd recorded it — but all I could find was the data CD from 11 years ago, no audio. Earlier this week I took it back to Brian, and we mixed the various tracks.
Helen gave me so much over the years, and in the last eight months she has continued giving me gifts, on the inside as well as on the outside. This song is one I've always treasured — and now, more than ever. As spring began to return, I felt she would want me to share it with you also.
Helen loved eating mangoes. But it was not just the delicious taste she liked; she loved the process of preparing and eating one. She'd score the fruit in quarters, peeling back the skin from each section, all the while licking her fingers which had gotten sticky right from the start. Then she'd begin cutting off the golden fruit in juicy chunks from the large, flat, oblong pit. And then came the part I think she liked best — chewing off what remained of the fruit on the pit, and on the inside of the four pieces of skin. By now, the juice was dripping past her wrists, and half her face was covered in golden stickiness!
Daniel and I were much more fastidious, so she'd always give us chunks of the ready-to-eat fruit — which we would proceed to eat with forks! Helen, meanwhile would continue licking her fingers, the palms of her hands, her wrists and forearms, smiling yellow-orange from ear to ear.
This was a metaphor for how she lived — totally into it. She loved really getting into things, getting her hands dirty. I think that was one of the draws for her about pottery, which she did a great deal of in her younger years. She relished the feel of the wet clay, cupping it with her fingers as it spun on the wheel and took shape between her hands.
She was the same way in gardening, hardly ever wearing gloves, loving to feel the dirt in her hands. Whether she was planting seeds, vegetables or flowers, or harvesting root crops like carrots, onions, beets and potatoes, she delighted in the direct connection to the earth.
She also loved going barefoot. After each long Michigan winter (during which she'd often lie down on the ground to make "angels in the snow") when she'd been wearing boots, and her barefoot callouses had gotten soft, she'd be out at the first sign of spring, and within days she could walk barefoot on gravel.
She savored any time she could be by rivers, lakes and the ocean, delighting in the element of water as much as in that of earth. She was a strong swimmer, and could handle a canoe expertly. And if there was no opportunity to be by water, she found a walk in the rain to be nearly as energizing.
Last month I wrote about how she loved to climb trees, and how unafraid and sure- footed she was. Let me tell you a related story. A year and a half ago we were in Ecuador, visiting indigenous musician friends. Near where they live is an amazing place that people come from all over to visit — the waterfall at Peguche. There are steps carved into the cliff along both sides of the waterfall, with several observation booths where you can get quite close to the falling water. But if you're daring and fearless, you can approach the waterfall head on where there are large rocks jutting up from the rapids below. Guess where Helen went! I took these photos from a safe, dry place by the side of the river, while Helen climbed barefoot onto the spray-soaked rocks to commune directly with the waterfall. She wasn't being reckless or foolhardy — she respected, but at the same time trusted Nature and her connection to it.
She died in the same fearless, trusting way that she had lived. Dylan Thomas's poem "Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night" is a masterpiece, but it does not speak for how Helen approached death. She entered it as gently and trustingly as she had lived. She did not "Rage, rage against the dying of the light." There was no hint of anger or regret in anything she said, nor in the way she looked.
When I walked into her hospital room that last morning, I instantly saw that she was close to death. When I said that to her she replied, "I don't think I'm dying, but I know I'm in a bad way." However, a short while later, as we were talking, she started to say things — asking me to thank friends, giving me instructions — that made it totally clear that she knew she was dying. I don't know what happened in that short, intervening time — what she saw, heard or felt that told her she was dying. I don't know if she perceived it from some sign given beyond the senses. I never got to ask her. Mostly, I just listened to her. Perhaps I'll find out what it is that signals the imminence of death when it's my own time.
But I do know that when she realized she would soon die, nothing changed in her state. There was no desperation, no clinging, no bitterness. There was a simple clarity and acceptance that was awe-inspiring. The way she closed her eyes for the last time was like a sacred bowing to life, a gesture of gratitude and surrender — surrender, not in the sense of giving up in defeat, but in the original meaning of the word: "Rendre" — to give back, and "Sur" — on or above. My understanding of this is "to offer back to what is higher than us, what was given to us as a gift."
Seeing her die that way was, and is, an incredible gift to me. But, of course, remembering her life is a far greater gift.
A few weeks after Helen died I bought a mango for the first time in my life. Though I'd never prepared one before, I remembered how she had, and followed her example. I offered chunks of the fruit to Daniel and ate the rest the way she did — though the juice on my face was streaked with tears. Last week I bought and ate another mango with Daniel — one of the countless, tiny ways we remember her and keep her memory alive in us.
Since this is not a leap year, there was no 29th of February — so there was no exact day to mark the seventh month from when Helen died. It's as if this month even the calendar agreed — don't remember she died, remember she lived.