This photo was taken 42 years ago, in one of the early months of 1971. This is what Helen looked like when we met. How could I help but fall in love?
As I recounted in "Solstice" last month, Helen and I met at the University of Rochester in mid December 1970. Something flashed between us when we were introduced, but she was dating someone else, and I was quite shy. A few days later the semester ended and we went home for two weeks. When we came back in January, I was delighted and amazed to find that we had a course in common. Delighted because I was already falling in love with her, and amazed because our majors were completely different — Helen's in Asian Art History, mine in English. As a senior, I'd completed most of my requirements for my degree. Earlier that fall, when it was time to register for my last semester's courses, I looked around for an easy one, what in those days we called a "gut" course. I found one in the Art Department listings called "The Divine Lover." I'd never taken an art course before, but that title really appealed to the hot 21 year old I was, and I signed up. (Little did I know that I was not signing up for a one-semester gut course, but for a life-long heart course!)
For Helen, on the other hand, that course was a requirement for her degree in Asian Art History. "The Divine Lover" was about the legends of Krishna and the Gopis (milkmaids) and especially, his beloved Radha. These stories, cherished throughout India to this day, are rich with symbolism. They always work on at least two levels — a very human love story we can all relate to, and simultaneously, Krishna representing God, and Radha being all of us — and the love between them mirroring the love between God and all humanity.
The professor for the course, Diran Dohanian, had a wonderful way of teaching. He showed us pictures of paintings and sculptures of Krishna, Radha and the Gopis, but before explaining anything of the historical, cultural or artistic context, he gave us an assignment. He asked us to study closely the postures and gestures of the people depicted in the art, and then go home, assume those same poses, and pay careful attention to what we felt as we held them.
There is a universal pose of adoration found in the art of all religious traditions, where the worshipper stands with arms lifted, lightly bent at the elbows, head tilted up and back, and on the face an expression of ecstasy born both of deep longing and an experience of total surrender and union. I remember the first such painting Professor Dohanian showed us, of Radha standing with her arms raised. I went back to my dorm room and stood holding that pose — and after a few moments I began to cry. Standing there with my arms raised, I felt a yearning and a love I'd never experienced before. I knew exactly who I was longing for. But it was also my first glimpse of the spiritual dimension of love — and an intuition that these were two expressions of one and the same love.
(This total interweaving — of spiritual and worldly love — became the main theme and defining characteristic of our relationship. Years before we met, I had turned my back on the religious tradition in which I'd been brought up, and had stopped searching for meaning in anything to do with religion or spirituality. Although Helen had also left her tradition, she had remained an ardent seeker, and she brought me back to seeking. Years later, she was the one who introduced me to the meditation path that we walked together for the next 35 years. Along the way, she taught me so much about courage when facing inner fears, compassion for others, and forgiveness, especially of oneself.)
For the final assignment in "The Divine Lover" — a 12 page paper examining an aspect of the Radha-Krishna relationship — I wrote 20 pages of blazing love poetry, both spiritual and worldly. Professor Dohanian, who couldn't have helped but notice the blossoming relationship between Helen and me, understood, and accepted it.
One of the things I discovered that first Spring we were together, was that Helen loved to climb trees. We'd go for a walk in the woods and as soon as she saw a tree with a low first branch, she'd take off her shoes and begin climbing. We joked that she had prehensile feet and toes, with which she seemed able to grasp any branch and stay balanced on it. I, on the other hand, had never climbed trees. Raised by parents who had lost so much during the Holocaust, my brother and I were hovered over to make sure we never did anything where we could hurt ourselves. San did climb a tree once when he was ten years old — and fell out of it, breaking his elbow. That was that for tree climbing. Even with Helen's playful encouragement and the emboldening effects of love, I usually only managed to climb into the lowest branches of a tree. Meanwhile, Helen would climb 20-30 feet into the air without any signs of hesitation or fear.
One of the paintings we studied that Spring depicted Krishna sitting high in a tree, holding the Gopis' clothes which he had gathered up while they were bathing in the river below. Professor Dohanian explained the symbolism; how God steals our "clothes" — our ego, and all the concepts and masks with which we cover our true self — and invites us to meet him spiritually naked. Seeing Helen high above me in the trees, I instinctively knew that, being with her, I would be letting go of many, many fears and limitations. On a level I could not at all have articulated at the time, I sensed what I now know — that I was embarking on a journey to learn about love, human and divine, and how to experience the one in the other. I also sensed that I would have a most lovely companion to encourage, guide and support me on the way. And I now know that I did.
And I still do.
The sense of disbelief that a loved one has died seems to be a universal experience. Some days and nights my son and I look at each other and we both know what the other is thinking — we cannot believe that she is gone, that she will not walk through the door any minute now. It's been six months, and we have not been able to let go of any of her belongings, or even rearrange the objects on her desk. We understand that to think this way — that she might need these things if she returns — is a completely irrational thought. Of course, in one sense, this is a total denial of a reality — the physical form of the beloved is gone forever. But on another level, perhaps a more profound one, this sense of disbelief points to a deeper truth.
The great 13th century mystic poet Rumi (translated by Coleman Barks) says:
The minute I heard my first love story,
I started looking for you,
not knowing how blind that was.
Lovers don't finally meet somewhere.
They're in each other all along.
I believe Rumi would agree that lovers stay in each other. Through the love that she showed me, Helen is still encouraging me, still teaching, guiding and supporting me. I trust her love will stay with me as long as I live.
Helen felt a great reverence for, and a deep connection to Nature. She loved the seasons and their cyclical rhythms, especially as expressed in the solstices and equinoxes. The Winter Solstice, the longest night of the year, with its rich symbolism of death and rebirth, the dramatic extreme of darkness, which nevertheless contains the promise of the return of light, was especially meaningful to her.
Helen and I met just before the Winter Solstice, exactly 42 years ago. She was a junior and I a senior at the University of Rochester. I don't remember the precise date, but I know it was right before we went home for the winter break. Her boyfriend at the time, one of the guys in my six-room suite on campus, introduced us to each other in the cafeteria. Something flashed between us, but we simply said, "nice to meet you" and went on to eat our lunch at separate tables. I didn't see her again until after we returned from that winter break.
Now, here's a slight detour, but please bear with me. While at home during that break, I started playing guitar, really for the first time. Four years earlier, San and I had convinced our father to buy us a guitar. It was the late 60's, everybody was playing guitar, we wanted to try it too. Since we didn't know a thing about guitars, we asked two friends, Frank Johnson and Bob Mills, who were accomplished players, to come with us and advise us. They suggested a guitar our Dad found too expensive, so he picked one out within his budget. He liked the orange sunburst finish and would not listen when Frank and Bob tried tactfully to let him know a cheap guitar would be hard to play.
To say the guitar was hard to play is an understatement. It was impossible to play. The strings were nearly a quarter inch off the fingerboard, and unless you had hands like a gorilla, there was no way to make a chord without buzzing all the strings and getting cramps in your fingers after a minute. Within a few days, both San and I abandoned trying to play it, and didn't touch it again for four years.
Leaning in a corner at home for those four years, the neck of the guitar must have warped just right, because when I picked it up during that winter break, I found it playable — at the first three frets anyway. Now the only problem was, I didn't know how to play it. I got a beginners folk song book and started learning the simplest chords. During those two weeks at home I learned eight of them: E minor and major, A minor and major, D minor and major, G major and C major. But I especially liked three of them — A minor, D minor and E major — and played them over and over in various orders, all the while humming little wordless melodies to the chords.
I brought the guitar back to school and played those same three chords over and over every minute of my spare time. When one or another of my suit-mates banged on the door or the walls, I'd mix in one or two of the other chords for their relief, but soon I'd be back to my favorites.
End of detour. And now you'll see why I included it. Helen was sometimes there in that suite, visiting her boyfriend. Months later, when she'd broken up with him and we'd gotten together, she told me how much longing and yearning she heard in those plaintive minor chords, and the melodies I hummed over them. (The fact that she could still want to be with me, and could so confidently and fully encourage me to be a musician, after hearing those endless repetitions of just three chords, told me that she must really love me!)
At the time, I didn't know what I was longing and yearning for. All I knew was that I was about to graduate from college and had no idea what I was going to do with my life. I'd long ago abandoned the career path my parents had chosen for me — to become a doctor — and was student teaching at a local High School as part of my preparation to become an English teacher. But I knew that was not what I wanted to do. I was going through the motions because I couldn't face telling my parents that they'd put me through four years at an expensive school only for me to move back with them and do nothing.
But on some level, so deep inside that I was not able to touch it consciously, I did know what I wanted. I wanted to be with that woman across the hall, and I wanted to sing and play music. I was falling in love with Helen and music at the same time. And, in fact, I believe it was that very first meeting with Helen before winter break, that set in motion my picking the guitar back up after four years of not touching it.
As Helen was leaving after one of her visits to her boyfriend early that winter, I jokingly put my hands on top of her head and recited this blessing: "May the peace that surpasseth all understanding, be with you, and remain with you, always." I had no idea where that was coming from as it came out of my mouth. A form of a Christian prayer priests say at the end of the Eucharistic Service, I certainly never heard it growing up in an Orthodox Jewish home, and attending Synagogue. But from then on, all that winter and spring, whenever I saw Helen, I'd say that to her as we said goodbye. Even though it had started out almost as a joke, she would get a very solemn look on her face, and bow so I could put my hands on her head, and then she'd thank me very sweetly. What started out as a joke whose origins I've never figured out, became almost a sacred ritual between us every time we parted.
And now, of course, in one sense, we are parted. But as long as I live, I will never say a final goodbye to Helen. In some way she will be with me forever. Yet, of course, a form of goodbye must be said when someone dies. So though I can never again put my hands on her head, I say now to her spirit, with all my heart: "May the peace that surpasseth all understanding, be with you, and remain with you, always."
Here is a poem I set to music by the revered Bengali poet and mystic, Rabindranath Tagore. Last year was the 150th anniversary of his birth, and there have been celebrations of his life and work all over the world, including a very recent one in Ann Arbor's Hill Auditorium. It was Helen who first introduced me to Tagore's poetry, giving me a copy of his "Gitanjali — Song Offerings" very soon after we met. This poem, "Peace My Heart" is a very poignant prayer and blessing for a departed beloved.
Thanksgiving Day is an especially good opportunity to thank all of you once again — for all the kindness, caring and support which you have lavished on Daniel and me during these last few months. Your continuing to reach out to us has been a tremendous help.
But most especially this Thanksgiving Day, my greatest "thank you" goes to Helen — for all she gave, and continues to give, to Daniel and me, and to so many others. I'll let her express her gratitude in a poem she wrote as an epilogue to "Friendship with the Elements," one of the books by the Ecuadorian Yachak Don Alverto Taxo.
The fewer the words—
The better I remember, the more
I can savor the teaching.
The briefer the instruction—
The more I can make the experience my own.
The simpler the practice—
The more likely I am to do it.
The more repetitive the assignment—
The more I can see myself
reflected in its mirror.
Earth, Air, Fire, Water—
The practice of becoming intimate with these,
Inside and outside
The practice of giving thanks to these,
Inside and outside
Leaves no moment, no place—
Each moment, each place—an opportunity
To offer gratitude—
for each breath, for each bite,
for each step, for each sight
with water gliding down my throat as I drink,
down my skin as I shower,
with the rain, with a river
To fill myself with happiness
with the smooth solidity of a river stone,
with the treasured, brief palette of fall colors,
with a hanging mist that turns the familiar
Each moment, each place—
a chance to give thanks
For all I’ve been given
For all I’ve not been given
(an unexpected catalyst for joy!)
In this wonderful, wild dance with Life.
If you'd like to order any of the books Helen compiled and edited of the teachings of Don Alverto Taxo, please visit Ushai.com
To order any of Laz's Rumi / Hafiz recordings (on all of which Helen played flute), Helen's solo CD, "Darkening of the Moon", or Gemini's children's recordings, please visit Laz's page in the store.
Helen's birthday was a few days ago, and today is exactly three months from the day she passed away. I want to mark this time by thanking all of you who have been so kind to Daniel and me, so supportive, so caring. Of course it's been rough, but we've been carried by your outpouring of love in so many forms — cards, e-mails, phone calls, meals, donations to Daniel's college fund, and so many other gifts, tangible and intangible. Thank you, thank you, thank you.
Gratitude. I'd known for many years that this was a quality Helen valued greatly, and was always doing her best to embody, no matter what was happening in her life. One of her favorite quotes was from a Zen Master who said, "Thank you for everything. I have no complaints whatsoever." But it was not till the last five days of her life, which she spent in the hospital, that I saw how fully she'd imbibed this quality — how she offered gratitude to everyone she met, even under the most trying circumstances of her life.
She said a heartfelt "thank you" to every single person who came into her room, round the clock — no matter how small or large the service they performed for her — from the many doctors and nurses, to the people who wheeled her from one test to another, to the people who brought her food, to the ones who cleaned her room — no one left without being thanked.
When I walked into her room early on the last morning of her life I saw she was dying, and I said that to her. At first, she replied, "I don't think I'm dying, but I know I'm in a very bad way." We started talking very openly with each other, among other things thanking each other for the gift of our lives together. At some point, she began asking me to thank all her friends. And then she asked me to thank two trees in our yard that she especially loved, that had been a source of comfort and strength to her during rough times. As she was saying these thank yous, I realized she knew she was dying. Filled with the knowledge of her impending death, with the last bit of strength she had left, the words she chose to say were ones of gratitude.
In that last hour, she did not think of herself, but of others —she did not ask me to do anything for her, or to carry on with work that had been important to her. No, she only asked me for things for others — to thank her friends, her favorite trees.
She was many things to many people, and she was all of those and more to me — but perhaps her two most clearly defined roles were mother and wife — and as such, she gave me instructions for those also: "Laz, be really sweet to Daniel." And "Laz, don't give up."
So now, let me say again, a great thank you to all of you, on her behalf, as well as from Daniel and me. Among the last words she spoke, she asked me to thank all her friends — that's all of you. If you ever did any kindness for either of us, if you ever sent a prayer or a blessing for either of us, if you ever thought even one caring thought of us, you are one of her friends, and mine also. Thank you. Again and again, thank you, with all my heart.
If you've not had a chance to see the slide show from Helen's memorial, or to read her Hummingbird Story, or the stories I've written about her and our life together, all three are below.
This is a guided meditation written by Helen Forslund Slomovits (1950-2012) based on an experience she had in January of 2011, at the Loma de Ensueños — Hillside of Dreams, a deforested area in Ecuador which she was helping to restore. It is also the site of a retreat center she helped found with the Ecuadorian Yachak, teacher and healer, Don Alverto Taxo.
The drawing, also by Helen, is based on a photograph taken of her hand, holding the hummingbird.
I want to tell you the story of an experience I had recently in Ecuador, and I invite you to experience it with me. You might want to take a deep breath to come fully present.
I don't hear the thwack against the window. I'm in another room having a cherished quiet moment alone. But my son's wail brings me quickly. "A bird hit our front window hard! How terrible; it's probably dead already." Geared for tragedy and loss, he is, and near tears.
Something in me feels ready and able, knowing what to do. I go outside and find the baby hummingbird, stunned on the cement porch near the front window. I look carefully and see it is breathing. Slowly approaching, I somehow know it will let me pick it up, so I do with great care. I hold it between my two hands, giving it life energy to use as it will—either to leave the body quickly and easily, or to stay. I don't presume either way. I truly only want to serve its desire and need.
Shock allows for a swift, painless exit from the body. Birds are good at that—so alive when here, so easy to let go when their time comes. But this bird's breathing continues, so very rapid—3 times a second or more, letting me know that for this moment anyway, it is still here, alive.
As more minutes pass and I warm it with my hands and feed it energy, the growing likelihood of it choosing to live dawns in me. I peek between my hands. Fifteen minutes have passed. One small black eye, then the other opens for a little, shuts and then opens again.
I watch for my healer friend to return. I can see him in the distance, talking to a neighbor, too far away to hail. He just recently nursed a stunned bird that he found on the hillside, back to life and freedom again. Yet this bird has come to my care, and she's staying minute by minute longer.
Finally I see him walking up towards the house. I call to him and get up carefully, disturbing the wee bird in the process. I feel a fluttering of wings between my hands. But the wings are all askew. Will they ever be able to fly again? A hummingbird is such a delicate creature. I wonder how the long, curved beak could have withstood the force of the impact with the glass, unharmed, yet I see no signs of injury or blood.
My friend arrives and I show him the tiny bird. He immediately smoothes its wings into their proper place and I'm relieved to see them, looking normal again. In his wisdom he knows that it is important to offer the elements to the little bird—earth, water, air, fire—as a way of calling her spirit back into her body.
He quickly finds honey, water, a spoon and a little cage which he's used before to shelter wounded birds. He makes up some water with a bit of sweet and tastes it to be sure it's not too sweet, finds a spoon and gently taps at the beak, pouring out a few sweet drops. A second and third time he does this, and then we see the bird's mouth move and drink.
My healer friend fans her, blows strongly on her. "She needs air to help her breathe, to remind her to fly." He happily notes her tenacity in keeping her balance when he blows extra hard. "She's a strong one!" He fans her again and again, knowing the power of air, the affinity of bird and air, the necessity for her to reconnect with the power of air, to call to the spark of her spirit and fan it back into the will to live again.
We open the bird cage door and I carefully put my hand, with bird, inside. Her black eyes watch, but she still seems somewhat stunned. Her mouth takes in more sips of nectar. It is time to withdraw my hand. I sense that she needs to be left alone, that she's received from me whatever was needed. In the process of taking my hand out, she startles and flies to the side of the cage, tiny claws grabbing onto the metal bars, and beak and tiny head trying to push through the bars to escape. Her short flight leaves us hopeful and happy. We move away and leave her alone, to continue regaining her strength.
After about 45 minutes my friend tries to feed her again, but now she responds like the wild creature she is, flying desperately away from him, wings whirring, bumping into the sides of the cage, trying to escape. "She seems strong, unharmed and clearly wants her freedom." So we take the cage outside. He manages to close his hand around her, remove it from the cage and release her. She flies, like a shot, straight to a flowering bush about 3 feet away. At first it looks like she's made a bee-line to the nectar of a flower, but then my son sees her hanging from a stem, beak-down, looking stunned. "I don't think she's ok! We should never have let her go!"
But I feel hopeful, and I also know that our part in her life is now over. She continues to hang upside-down, motionless, but holding on tightly. I decide it's time to continue on with my own activities, and I say good-bye and wish her the very best. About fifteen minutes later, I come back out to see her. The branch is empty—she's flown free!
Two mornings later as I'm waking—suddenly the little hummingbird's image and spirit is with me. She's well and I feel she's come to let me know and to say thank you. In the physical we never see her again, but I have the happy sense that she is living out her nectar-sipping life on our hillside.
I've often wondered since then why I was given this gift—the presence of such a delicate winged spirit—and why I was given the chance to offer healing energy. It was a precious gift to my heart to open and give love, to surrender to life's will, and then to be delighted at her recovery.
So now, I invite you to spend a moment with your own heart.....What tiny heart-bird lies there stunned from crashing into one of life's pains? What delicate, sweet part of you needs the love that only you can give. Take her in your hands. Give her your love; invite her back to life and to fly free again!
We were together for more than 41 years, essentially our entire adult lives. She was my beloved, my wife, the mother of our son, one of my main musical partners, my steadfast companion on the spiritual path, my teacher in so many ways, and the one who always, always, always encouraged and supported me in following my dreams.
And she was so much more. A few days after her death, our son, Daniel, and I were trying to deal with one of the myriad details around the house that she had always taken care of. At one point he turned to me and said, "Dad, you brought in the money. Mom did everything else." Which is a slight exaggeration, but only a slight one! I'd be incredibly grateful to her if all she had done in her life was to take care of our household. But she did, and was, so much more!
Here is a partial list of her outer accomplishments:
She graduated Phi Beta Kappa from the University of Rochester (which is where we met) with a BA in Asian Art History. After we moved to Ann Arbor in 1973, she worked at a picture-framing store and later owned and operated one. She learned pottery in her mid-20's and for a number of years had a booth at the Ann Arbor Art Fair. She facilitated Artist Way workshops, encouraging many, many people to find ways to express their creativity. After discovering that our son had Asperger's Syndrome and other special needs, she became interested in various energy healing modalities, and mastered several as a way to help him.
In 2000, she met a highly regarded Ecuadorian teacher and healer, Don Alverto Taxo, and over the next few years compiled, edited and published several of his books. She arranged and facilitated a number of his appearances in Ann Arbor, as well as in other parts of Michigan, New York and California. In the process, she learned Spanish (which she had not known at all) well enough to be able to translate his talks. Between 2001-2012 she traveled extensively in Ecuador, studying with Don Alverto. Through him she met several indigenous Ecuadorian musicians for whom she arranged concerts in Ann Arbor and other parts of Michigan and the US. Along with me, she performed and recorded with them, both original and traditional folk music that was a fusion of North and South American influences.
Perhaps her greatest accomplishments came in music. She'd studied classical flute since her childhood, attended the High School of Music and Art in New York City, and took flute lessons at the Eastman School of Music while at the University of Rochester. When we met, she had never played folk music or played by ear — but she learned, and along the way, taught me to be able to notate music. In her late 40's she decided to fulfill a lifelong desire to play harp — and became a wonderful Celtic Harp player. She also learned to play the Native American flute, as well as some of the folk flutes of the Andes.
But it was on the classical silver flute that she did the most. She played flute on almost every one of the more than a dozen Gemini recordings my brother and I released starting in the early 1980's. In the 80's she also recorded flute parts on each of eleven albums of folk dance tunes Gemini recorded for the High Scope Educational Research Foundation. From the 1990's until just a month before her death, she played flute on more than a dozen recordings, ranging from my solo CDs of the poetry of Rumi and Hafiz, to folk music with Andean musicians, to her own solo recording, "Darkening of the Moon," which featured not only her flute playing, but also her singing, composing and song-writing.
So, that's an abbreviated list of her outer accomplishments. But she was so much more than the sum of those. Since her death, I've gotten hundreds of cards, e-mails and phone calls from people all over the country whose lives she had touched. Many of them mention some of these external accomplishments, as well as other ones too numerous to mention, specific to a particular time, place, event or person. But what people remember most about her is her genuine kindness and caring about people, her determination to live a life of meaning, and her drive to inspire and encourage others to do the same. And though I'll miss terribly so many things now that she's gone, what I'll miss most is this kindness and caring which I experienced on a daily basis, and which was the support of my life all these years.
And, as you can see from the photo, she was beautiful — and from her smile and the light in her eyes I know you can tell her spirit was as lovely as her form. That spirit expressed itself in so many ways, but certainly one of the most important to her was her connection to nature. She took such delight in, and felt so much gratitude for the beauty, inspiration, guidance and healing power to be found in nature. She also felt a great affinity to, and compassion for, trees and animals — and wanted to learn as much as she could about ways human beings could best relate to them.
One example, almost at random, out of so many I could tell: A few years ago I unknowingly bumped into a yellow jacket nest in a stump in our yard, was stung by several, and chased by a number of others as I ran into the house. Helen calmly took care of me with a rescue remedy and a homeopathic, settled down our son who was quite upset because he'd been stung by a swarm of bees earlier that summer, and then went to attend to the 5-6 yellow jackets circling around in the kitchen. She started talking to them very gently, using her open hands to guide them lightly towards the open window. It only took her a few minutes to get them all out, and there was no hint that any of them might sting her.
She was my teacher in so many ways — from relatively small things she taught me on a daily basis, to basic attitudes that have come to permeate my entire life. Let me give you two tiny examples of things she taught me:
We always enjoyed going for walks together. Many years ago, one day when we went for a walk after it had rained, she stopped after we had gone just a few yards, and picked up an earthworm wriggling on the sidewalk and set it back on the grass. Since there were a lot of worms in that condition, we didn't get very far on the walk that day! She'd also pick up earthworms on hot summer days to keep them from drying out on the sidewalk. Later, I began to see how that was an image for how she was with me, and with many other people, helping us when inspiration ran dry, and we were wriggling on a hard, hot surface.
The second example will also give you a taste of the sense of humor with which she taught me. I'd been brought up in a household where the strongest curse word was the Hungarian equivalent of "Darn." And though I learned English curse words quickly enough when we moved to America when my brother and I were eleven years old, I basically never used them — till I went to college. It was the late 1960's and I fully and enthusiastically embraced the rebellious language of the hippies, and used the f word and other such quite liberally. When Helen was about five months pregnant with Daniel, I let loose with that language about some mild annoyance. Helen looked at me serenely and said very sweetly, "Well, you could stop using that language now, or you could wait until you hear it coming out of our child's mouth."
But she didn't just teach me relatively small things like that. She taught me most everything I know about notating music, and introduced me to a great deal of music she loved that I might never have explored — especially classical Indian music, and the folk music of the Celtic and Andean cultures. She introduced me to an ancient tradition of connection to nature, which I'd never had, through Ecuadorian teachers and musicians. She also brought me to the spiritual path, Siddha Yoga, that she and I walked together since our late 20's — we meditated together almost on a daily basis.
She was the same way with Daniel, never missing an opportunity to teach him something — especially something to do with nature and the wonder of the universe. One night a few years ago, when Daniel was almost 17, she heard that there would be a meteor shower around midnight. Knowing that Daniel would be up at that time, (and that I wouldn't since I needed to leave early in the morning for a gig) she set an alarm clock, muffled under her pillow, got up around 11:30, took Daniel outside, and they stood looking up at the sky. Not being able to see much because of the streetlight, she went over to a neighbor's driveway, and lay down on the concrete to look up. Daniel followed suit, and the two of them lay on their backs looking up at the stars for a long time.
She was also pretty unstoppable when she made up her mind to do something. A tiny example: We live at the top of a short, steep hill. One winter day many years ago, when Helen stepped out the front door to walk to her picture framing job downtown, she saw that the street and sidewalk were covered with ice. She came back in, grabbed a large, flattened cardboard box from our recycling bin, and went off with a grin on her face. "I'm going sledding" she said, and slid all the way down the hill, and then continued on her way.
She put that ability to persevere to especially good use in advocating for Daniel when he started school. She was absolutely tireless in researching what procedures and accommodations were in place to help him with his special needs. In the days after her death, as we started to hear from some of the teachers and administrators she had interacted with over the years, almost every one of them said something like, "She was amazingly dedicated to Daniel — but was always totally respectful in the way she asked for things for him." The fact that Daniel has had a very successful academic career (semi-finalist in the national Presidential Scholar program, with straight A's through High School and his first few college courses) is totally a testament to Helen's support of him. And she definitely instilled that quality of perseverance in him by her example.
Like everyone who has lost a spouse or someone they loved deeply for a long time, I've had my moments when I've wondered if I can go on. Though it's a well-worn cliché, during these dark moments, Daniel and I have asked each other and ourselves, "What would Helen want us to do?" There is no doubt about her answer. She said it to me as one of her last words in the final hour of her life. I was sitting on the side of her hospital bed, starting to cry, as I realized she was dying. She was fully lucid and calm. We talked completely openly with each other, both of us realizing this would be the last time we would see each other. I told her how much I loved her and how grateful I was for all she had done for me. I also asked for her forgiveness for anything I had done to hurt her. And she said all of these back to me. And then, seeing how hard I was crying, she said, still totally tranquilly, but with all the conviction she had lived by her entire life, "Laz, don't give up."
Even in her last moments she was teaching me by her example — she was utterly fearless. Not that she was acting brave or strong — just that there was no hint in her expression, her voice, or in anything she said, that she was anything but totally trustful and at peace.
• • • • •
The evening of the day Helen passed away, I told Daniel we needed to go water our Project Grow garden because it had been very dry and we hadn't gone for a number of days. He was reluctant to go and said, "But the garden will remind us of Mom." (She, of course, had been the main motivating force behind us having that garden, and learning how to take care of it.) I replied, "I'm sorry, Daniel, but everything will remind us of Mom." And, of course, there is great sadness in being reminded of her absence everywhere we turn — and, there is also the great blessing of being reminded by everything of her having been in our lives. I am very, very sad that there are no more years — or even an hour — to add to those 41 years. But I am so grateful for those 41 years, and all the sweetness in the memories of them.
When I was invited to be one of the "stars" in a Dancing with the Ann Arbor Stars benefit, I felt like someone invited to sing a duet with Renee Fleming at the Met after only ever singing in public in karaoke bars. If I'd been asked to jump from an airplane with a parachute of questionable quality I'd likely have been more willing to agree. The idea terrified me.
So my immediate and emphatic response was "No!" But this Dancing with the Stars was a benefit for two organizations very dear to me; the Rudolf Steiner School of Ann Arbor, where my daughter, Emily has gone since kindergarten, and Wild Swan Theatre, longtime friends, and simply the best children's theater around. So I finally said "yes." It was the best thing I've done in a long time.
My three minutes and eight seconds of fame in the Dancing with the Ann Arbor Stars was such a delight that ever since that night I have been contemplating a career change. No, not hardly, but I did have a blast. And even more than the performance itself, I enjoyed the preparation leading up to it. After all, practicing for a dance performance is not unlike rehearsing for a concert; endless repetition of an enjoyable activity—always with the goal of an unattainable perfection worth striving for.
My coach was Jackie Steinbacher, a superb dancer and, if possible, an even better choreographer and teacher. We chose Tish Hinojosa's beautiful song, Esperate, and Jackie created a routine that combined moves and steps from cha cha, paso doble, samba, and even a hint of swing. She tailored our dance perfectly to the different moods and rhythmic subtleties in the music and the lyrics, creating a challenging and very satisfying piece that somehow also managed to minimize my many, many limitations as a dancer.
I was as nervous—and then some—for our performance than for any musical appearance I can ever recall. Before we danced, my mouth felt like I'd been eating dry peanut butter mixed with sand, and my hands were so cold it seemed as though I'd been soaking them in a bucket of ice water for a week. I felt sorry for Jackie in her sleeveless top. I hoped she wouldn't cringe when I touched her shoulder.
And then the music started; music, which has been my friend, my go-to safe haven, for most of my life. This would be the secure boat I would sail for the next three stormy minutes. Jackie gave me a reassuring look and we were off. By the time the intro was over and Hinojosa began singing, I was no longer dancing, or sailing, I was flying—anyway, it felt like that to me. It was over much too soon.
Linda Yohn, the renowned long-time host of jazz programs on WEMU, was the MC for the evening. After our dance, she asked me how performing a dance was different from playing music. In all the most important ways, I told her, it's the same; you look to connect with your partner and with your audience. Of course, I needed to learn a whole new vocabulary, but the feeling was the same.
I came away from the experience with a whole new appreciation for the artistry of dancers and with a great deal of gratitude for the opportunity to learn something brand-new in my sixth decade. I also feel a little braver for when another new, exciting, and scary adventure might present itself. I'll for sure say yes again.
The first day of 10th grade English, September 1964, started with a song. Mr. Schaeffer didn't even say hello or welcome, just started singing, "Moon River, wider than a mile" in a warm, rich tenor voice. As he sang, he walked up and down between the rows of desks, smiling at each of us in turn. When he finished, we naturally applauded, and he gave a slight bow. Then, in a very matter-of-fact way, without any explanation as to why he had started with a song, or with that particular song, he began laying out the curriculum we would study and class procedures.
I don't remember much about what books we read that year, or how we discussed their content, but I've never forgotten his singing of that song. Without ever saying it in so many words, he got across to me the tremendous power of a solo, unaccompanied voice that relishes a beautiful song, and offers it to others. In fact everything else that is vivid in my memory from that class relats to the intrinsic value of beauty, and the importance of sharing it.
One day, out of the blue, unconnected to anything we were studying at the time, he told us how he'd met his wife. He'd been in the military during World War II, stationed in Germany after the war ended, and served as a messenger between his commanding officer and a German diplomat. The first time he knocked on the door of the diplomat's house, with official papers he was charged to deliver, the door was opened by the diplomat's daughter. At this point, Mr. Schaeffer, who would always walk up and down amongst us as he gave a lecture, stopped, lowered his voice to a whisper, and said, "She was the most beautiful girl I had ever seen in my whole life." From the look in his eyes, it was clear he was back in that doorway once again. He hardly spoke a word of German and she didn't speak any English, but it didn't matter. Over the course of the next few weeks, as he kept delivering papers to that house, their love-at-first-sight deepened; he proposed, and she accepted. Twenty years later, it was clear he loved her just as much as he had the first time he saw her.
As with "Moon River," he never explained why he told us this story. But for me, even today, it has more personal impact than Romeo and Juliet, or West Side Story.
Spring of that year he brought in a shaggy-looking young man whom he introduced as a former student. In our conservative little town of Kingston, New York, long-haired hippies in bell-bottom blue jeans were still not a common sight. Mr. Schaeffer said there was a song he wanted us to hear from this former student of his. The young man unpacked a guitar and started singing "What Have They Done to the Rain?" by Malvina Reynolds. (Many people assume the song was written about acid rain, but in fact it was in protest of above-ground nuclear testing, which was putting strontium-90 in the air.) I don't remember a discussion following the song. In fact there was no applause when the song ended we were stunned into silence by the power of the song and the singer's delivery but I still remember that silence, and how the song continued to work inside me.
When I think about the influences that directed me towards becoming a singer-songwriter-storyteller, these moments with my ordinary and extraordinary 9th grade English teacher rank near the top. Thank you Mr. Schaeffer.
Earlier this month we played in the Silver Maples Retirement Community's Kaleidoscope concert series in Chelsea. The day of our concert I got a phone call from Carlos Fetterolf, a resident at Silver Maples who I'd met last year at a concert my daughter Emily and I had played in Ann Arbor. Emily and I had ended that concert with This Land Is Your Land. After the show, Carlos had introduced himself, said he had some new verses for that song and that he'd send them to us. He soon did just that and now Carlos was calling to suggest that he join us at Silver Maples and sing those new verses with us. I agreed immediately and enthusiastically.
Carlos Fetterolf is now 85 years old. He says about himself, "As a kid I played with water and the things that lived in it. Then, armed with degrees from the University of Connecticut and Michigan State, I discovered that folks would pay me to do the same thing, using sophisticated words instead of "play." (For Carlos' full professional bio, see below.) In 1972, as a fishery and water quality scientist, he was appointed to the Great Lakes Science Advisory Board of the I.J.C. the Canada/US International Joint Commission which is charged by treaty to assure that actions within either country did not adversely affect the other's water quality or quantity agreements. After serving on that Board for eleven years his work was celebrated at a dinner in Indianapolis in 1983. He concluded his comments that night by urging people to "develop that Woody Guthrie feeling that not enough scientists, administrators, and legislators have. If you start thinking that These lakes are your lakes, these lakes are my lakes, these lakes were made for you and me' you'll start acting that way very quickly. This thinking translates easily into actions resulting in better management. Not only will the lakes be better off, we'll have a better feeling about ourselvesand so will future generations. Wouldn't we be proud to leave a legacy based on preventive programs rather than remedial ones."
Jack Vallentyne, a senior scientist with Fisheries and Oceans Canada was in the audience that night and, inspired by Carlos' remarks, penned some new verses to Woody Guthrie's song. These were the lyrics that Carlos proposed singing with us.
At Silver Maples that night, after a brief rehearsal with Carlos before the show, we invited him up on stage to sing the last song of our concert with us. Carlos opened his remarks by saying he'd never met a microphone he didn't like and, that at age 85 he was making his professional singing debut. (I interrupted him with an incredulous, "Professional? You didn't tell us we'd have to pay you!") Then, after Carlos told the audience the story of how the new verses to Woody Guthrie's This Land Is Your Land came to be written, we all three sang Woody's great chorus and then Carlos sang the new chorus and verses. His voice, an octave below ours, was in fine form and he sang flawlessly. The full house gave him a great whole-hearted ovation. Thank you, Carlos!
Here are the new verses that Jack Vallentyne, (Johnny Biosphere) wrote.
These lakes are your lakes. These lakes are my lakes.
From the Long Point marshes to the Nipigon highlands
From the Michigan sand dunes to the Thousand Islands
These lakes were made for you and me.
And there beside me in those clear mirrors
Came summer breezes and autumn colors
And winter snowstorms and springtime flowers
They said: These lakes were made for you and me.
Above Niagara I stood in wonder
At the rush of water and the roar of thunder
And way down under I heard her whisper
These lakes were made for you and me.
The sun was shining white clouds were drifting
And eagles soaring and rivers throbbing
And fish romancing the whole Earth dancing
These lakes were made for you and me.
Carlos Fetterolf's professional bio:
Carlos Fetterolf researched, managed, initiated, developed, resolved or administered fishery and water quality issues/programs for the Tennessee DNR, the Michigan Water Resources Commission, the National Academy of Sciences, the Michigan DNRE, the Canada-US Great Lakes Fishery Commission and the NOAA National Sea Grant College Program. Before he retired twenty years ago he was the CEO of the Canada/US Great Lakes Fishery Commission, an organization that is charged by treaty to revitalize the fishery which had been devastated by over fishing and the invading predaceous sea lamprey.