Search This Blog

Sunday, December 15, 2013

When the light fades

"'Begin at the beginning.' the King said, very gravely, 'and go on till you come to the end: then stop.'" -Lewis Carroll

"Nature's first green is gold;
Her hardest hue to hold.
Her early leaf's a flower;
But only so an hour.
Then leaf subsides to leaf.
So Eden sank to grief,
So dawn goes down to stay.
Nothing gold can stay."
-Robert Frost

'...But I'm not too sure
How I'm supposed to feel
Or what I'm supposed to say.
But I'm not, not sure
Not too sure how it feels
to handle every day
And I miss you love' 
-'Miss You Love' Silverchair, 2000

Because I could not stop for Death,

He kindly stopped for me;
The carriage held but just ourselves
And Immortality.

We slowly drove, he knew no haste, 
And I had put away
My labor, and my leisure too,
For his civility.

We passed the school, where children strove
At recess, in the ring;
We passed the fields of gazing grain,
We passed the setting sun.

Or rather, he passed us;
The dews grew quivering and chill,
For only gossamer my gown,
My tippet only tulle.

We paused before a house that seemed
A swelling of the ground;
The roof was scarcely visible,
The cornice but a mound.

Since then 'tis centuries, and yet each
Feels shorter than the day
I first surmised the horses' heads
Were toward eternity. 
 -'Because I Could Not Stop for Death', Emily Dickinson, 1890
I apologize for neglecting this blog for so long.  I went home, to the Midwest, for Thanksgiving and was gone from NYC for about a week.  That's the tactically tangible reason.  The subconsciously intellectual reason is that despite desire, I've been procrastinating my writing a post about a topic that many people are uncomfortable discussing: death.  There countless songs, poems, artwork on the topic. Above I transcribed a poem by Emily Dickinson and put in a link to a Silverchair song that to me, express very poignantly my feelings toward the topic.  Death doesn't care whose life is taken.  Once your time is here, it's here.  You cannot delay it or stop it; it's inevitable for us all.  Death is what we all have in common within the human experience.  

Moreover, it is because many of us are frightened of mortality that we approach death with fear and uncertainty, and duly so.  When we cry at a funeral, we are crying at Eve's bite of the apple that, Biblically speaking, led to our very mortality.  As we watch our friends, lovers, and relatives die, we are confronted with our own death.  As a result, we never know what to do or say when a person dies aside from 'I express my deepest and heartfelt condolence at the passing of your ____'.  We know deep down in our hearts that we are thankful that death did not outstretch its finger for us.  

No matter what, our words and actions seem robotic and rehearsed.  As a society, we don't know how to properly process death.  Different societies and religions have varied responses.  As Jews, we eat our emotions.  Others drink their emotions.  Some wear black, some white.  Some people cry, some celebrate.  We have open casket wakes while some spread ashes over an ocean.  And we have completely different ways to process death.  I process it by writing.  So here we are.  

My e-mail inbox has been filled lately with sad news about people within my circles of community.  Some have died from disease, some from unexpected accident.  Some of them are older, some young.  What they all have in common is that they're all upstanding, good hearted individuals.  I have been processing this question a lot in the past few weeks: Why is it that the golden hearted people who spread light have their lives cut short and the wicked, evil hearted individuals are often blessed with long life?

Don't get me wrong, I don't ever wish death for anyone, not even my worst enemy.  But I think a lot about how there are people walking these streets who are greedy, crooked, nasty, and give very little thought to being altruistic and kind.  Now, it may seem an unfair judgement especially since I don't know exactly what people are thinking on any given moment of any given day.  But I bet money on the fact that there are more people, than you'd think, who don't give a damn about you or making the world a better place.  This is especially true since both American and global society has become so focused on greed, power, and ego.  

At times it is very difficult to turn on the news or even watch a television show that mirrors our society and not be hopeless and discouraged about the future.  The world we live in is vastly different than even the one I grew up with.  At times, I feel like the nineties world I grew up in was similar to the fifties in its innocence and conception of being safe.  After the hunky dory 50's, the sixties crashed in with: the Vietnam war; the assassinations of JFK, RFK, MLK, Malcolm X, Medgar Evers; rampant racism and violent bigotry in response to the Civil Rights Movement, hidden political corruption, a dawn of serial killer 'Helter Skelter, Manson mania', rotting and rioting in urban centers, violence, death, death, and death.  Similarly, after the jaded, bitchin' 90's, 2000 hit us with radical right wing born again Bush politics, a war on terrorism, the devastation of 9/11, school shootings giving way to out of control gun violence, political divisiveness and divide, an unprecedented recession and economy crash, violence, death, death, and more death.  There is a strong parallel.  
It is very easy today to give up hope.  Now more than ever, I look to the people around me for comfort and inspiration.  Lately, however, as the darkness in the world grows, I have noticed that many sources of light are flickering out, literally.  Over the past few weeks, I have had many people, who are within my community circles, pass away.  

One such individual (MH) was a woman who was a pillar within the Jewish community.  Of the many things she did, she ran a food pantry program, out of her own home, that gave poor Jewish families food for Shabbat and other Jewish holidays.  I remember when I went to her house and she showed me her basement, which was filled with food, and how inspired I was by  her.  Then there was the passing of a former student's mother (JG).  My memory of her is when she praised my teaching methods in a conference and constantly made sure that I saw her support as a parent.  At a public event, she stood up for all of the teachers while a small group of parents made unnecessary noise;  she even called these parents 'ridiculous' to their face.  

And though the situations and circumstances have all differed, what ties these deaths together is the fact that these individuals all contained so much light and inspiration that the world will grow darker with their loss.  

ML (I'll call her M) was the first of these that I learned about right before coming home for Thanksgiving.  She was a former student of mine, so full of promise and talent.  I taught her literature in seventh grade, and even then, I realized that it was because of people like her that I was glad to be a teacher.  I felt that she would take on the world by storm and would one day make it into the White House as a real-life CJ Cregg (Allison Janney's character on West Wing).  I believed that like Janney, M would become White House Press Secretary or White House Chief of Staff.  Or, maybe she would be like Hilary Clinton become a US Senator, US Secretary of State, and/or even run for President of the United States.  Maybe she would become a lawyer fighting for civil rights and social justice.  You have to understand that M was one of those students, who when they come along, you know that the sky is the limit.  

I last saw her in May, at high school graduation, where she hugged me, being elated that I was there.  She had been diagnosed with AML the past fall.  With resilience, she was able to conquer her leukemia.  Then, it returned over the summer and she lost her amazing battle after a bone marrow transplant.  Ordinarily, this would be sad news but the fact that I taught her, added a layer of depth.

See, I was and still am very connected to her graduating class.  I basically received a personal invitation from many of the students to return so I could see them graduate.  I HAD to attend.   The intrinsic connection I have had with this class is rare and though I'm close with many former students and families, none match the connection I had to this class of 2013.  Many of the parents in this class have become my friends and many of the students will one day also become friends of mine, as they grow into adulthood.  Though this class was special, also know that hearing any bad news of a former student (or their family) is like hearing bad news of my own child/family.  And though I have dealt with death before, it was never in this situation.  

I never had to mourn for such a young person who brought so much light into the universe.  What made M's death more tragic than normal was the fact that she inspired everyone around her to be better people and attracted individuals to her like moths to a flame.  People tried harder at being better individuals because her heart instructed them to do so.  So when a life that young and illuminating burns out, the intensity and heartache at adjusting to the resulting darkness is immense.  

And just as I was adjusting, I learned more sad news.  While living in my hometown, I became very close with a particular synagogue there.  The individuals I met there became my second family, as they invited me into their homes and hearts.  I am also still very connected to this community despite time and distance.  So learning of two individual's passing was just more than I could bare.  First, a friend's wife, N (NB) was hit by a car while crossing the street.  It was sudden and shocking.  Again, an individual who lit up the world with kindness and who had a heart of gold.  I last spoke to N in September, and after kvelling over pictures, I assured her that on my next visit, she'd get to meet my son.  I thoroughly enjoyed every conversation with N because you felt how much she genuinely cared about you.  She wore her heart outwardly and talking to her was like receiving a giant hug.  There are not many people like her who light up the world with only a smile and a laugh.  

Unlike my student M, however, I was not able to make the funeral for N.  But because they both possessed a similar light, their funerals were both packed with people wall to wall.  So I wasn't alone in feeling shaken and lost as a result of these two ladies' passing.  The world felt the impending darkness, just as they did as a result of Nelson Mandela's death.  The effect that an individual can have on one's own community is just as intense as that of a world leader.  

And literally on the tails of N's death was the death of a family friend, R (RH).  Like M,  he had been battling leukemia and had a bone marrow transplant that was ultimately rejected.  I imagine that the pain and grief for my parents, especially my dad, is immense.  My dad and R were very good friends and have known one another for eons.  It wasn't until going to the synagogue mentioned before, that I got to know R better.  He started going to the same synagogue and we would often have conversations.  He would ask me about my parents and my sister.  Once, he tried to set me up with a young lady he knew because his m.o. was just wanting 'everyone to be happy'.  However, I was already in a long distance relationship with my, now, wife.  I will never forget the note that R sent after my marriage and birth of my son.  He gushed from the heart about how proud my parents must be of the young man I had become.  It was so personal and so touching, something that I did not expect from someone who I felt barely knew me.  But because he was good friends of my parents, he had watched me grow up.  I don't think, however, I've ever received such a heartfelt and viscerally emotionally honest note from anyone. And at the time of writing it, he was sick.  For a person to be so sick, yet not only happy but also always thinking of others, is beyond my comprehension of the world's goodness.  
In the past year, there are other friends/mentors who I lost that were also sources of light for me an countless others.  I feel almost as if I'm having my own personal montage of memories for people in my world that have passed on, you know like they do at the Academy Awards or end of the year news specials.  To me, though, my precise memory makes my moments with these people feel like they were yesterday.  That's the thing about memory.  It's all we have left of our loved ones once they pass to what I see as another stage of life.  Death is not an end but a beginning; it is only an end for us because we will no longer see those who have moved on in a physical sense.  So with that being said, cue up the projector and music.  As the year closes, I think of those individuals who have inspired me in life and who will continue to do so in death.

There was the passing of a former teacher who had Parkinsons, Mr. N (RN) who made me, an English kid fall in love with science.  He would light himself on fire or throw things against the ceiling to display scientific concepts.  On every quiz, students would bet on malts because at the end of each school year, he would make chocolate malts in a kiddie pool by standing in it with galoshes.  My friend Heather hold the records for having the most malts.  This same friend and I got to witness his last day of teaching, as we stepped into his very last eighth grade class ever and made s'mores on bunsen burners.  This special moment will forever be seared in my brain.  I told his students how lucky they were to have had the honor to be taught by him, as this man was both my teacher and advisor.  He made us do push-ups when we were late to class or missed our homework.  He turned me from a boy into a man by instilling in me what it meant to be an scholarly gentleman.  What's more is that he sent notes to every student after an accomplishment, be it in sports or theater.  And he continued sending notes to students in high school and even into college.  When you received a note from Mr. N,  you were left wondering how the heck he kept track of your accomplishments.  He made every student feel special and extraordinary.  If I ever write a book about teaching, I will write a whole chapter to this man and probably dedicate the book to him.  It is because of teachers like him that I became a teacher in the first place.

Then there was my friend, Sandy, who I once told sounded just like Joan Baez when she sang.  She was a true remnant of the sixties.  Whenever we talked about politics and the current state of things, she would get so angry.  But it was her anger that led to activism and action.  She was involved in so much that it was hard to imagine her sleeping.  She raised chickens and had a regular Noah's ark in her home.  My only remiss was that I only saw her during choir rehearsals for our synagogue, as on Saturdays she would often swim instead of going to services.  Her mentality was that she could just as easily be close to G-d in a swimming pool as much as a synagogue.  Her life fore was so strong that when she died as  a complication from pneumonia, everyone in our Brooklyn synagogue was shocked.  Her death was also at the tail end of multiple deaths at our synagogue, one being the death of her own husband.  My wife and I had just literally mailed her a condolence card for her husband only to be followed by another one to her children after her own death.  Our entire synagogue mourned in an ocean of tears.

The mourning didn't end there, however.  I also mourned the death of one Richie Havens, someone I didn't know well but who I met after giving a concert in Northampton, MA in 2006.  He greeted me warmly and had a very in-depth conversation with me about inspiring the next generation.  When I shook his hands, they smelled like marijuana.  But the highlight, that I will never forget, is the memory of him jumping up and down on stage in a fit of glee saying how each day he wakes up saying 'thank you for another day'.  His music inspired generations and he broke multiple barriers.  When he died, I felt like a personal friend of mine had passed.  Even the one moment I spent with him eight years ago made me feel like I had known him for a lifetime.  He signed my CD 'old friend' and I truly felt like I knew him in another lifetime and was destined to find him again in this one.  After I met him, in every song, I felt like he was talking to me: 'To tell the truth is what they fear.  All of us here can change tomorrow.' (from my favorite song 'Pulling Up the Stone')  Another light that I was sad to lose.

drum circle from Richie Haven's memorial in Bethel, NY from August 2013
I wanted to go but because I have no car, it would have been difficult.  Though, I'm glad we have modern technology like You Tube so I could vicariously pretend I was actually there.

After dealing with these deaths leaves me baffled at how the universe works.  It is hard, quite frankly to remain so optimistic and upbeat about the future of humanity.  It is also very poetic and metaphoric that I am processing all of this during the darkest time of the year.  We are literally being thrown into darkness this week, as the days are the shortest out of the whole entire year.  We all feel the pull and pang of nature's cycle.  But like nature, in spring, everything is reborn again.  The light returns to our side of the hemisphere and we are one again bathed in light.  One CANNOT give up hope because to do that would allow the darkness to eat away at our hearts.  And I am certain that darkness will never completely take over and engulf us all in its grip.  I truly believe that the light will triumph.  And as the communities I am and have been apart of have lost the light of many individuals in the past year, their light is not lost.  I believe that a person's light becomes part of G-d's light which is contributed/recycled into an eternal flame that illuminates our entire universe.  I also believe in angels and know that those who touched us in life are still looking out for us in death.

The lessons I have learned and continue to ruminate on are on the matter that 1) each day is a gift to us.  We each have a personal journey, a story to tell and whether we know it or not, we are touching someone and lifting them up.  We might never know the ways in which we elevate another person's soul and spirit but it doesn't mean we should each, as individuals, stop being the best human possible.    2) The destination is not fame and fortune.  We must follow our passions of the heart.  I enjoy art and writing so I will continue to focus on these hobbies knowing fully that they won't necessarily make me rich monetarily but will certainly do so in other priceless ways.  3) We must be honest with each other.  Tell a friend/family member what he/she means to you and how he/she has inspired you to become better.  If you have only people who take from you and fill your world with negativity, then it might be time for a purge.  I only believe in surrounding myself with people who will inject positivity into my universe because I'm only as illuminating as the people I surround myself with.  Basically, LIFE IS SHORT!  The world is fearful and stressful but in the end, all we have is our kindred relationships and precious memories to rely on.  Make every moment of every day count for something.

Light and love,


*This post is dedicated to all of those amazing folks who I was blessed to have crossed paths with, especially to those that have died in the past year.  Even in death, your light will not burn out.

"If it be your will to speak

Of memories we often shared
Talk to me of days gone by
Think of love and not despair

And when I’m gone
We’ll meet again
As often do the closest friends
So dry your eyes
And lay me down
I tell you this is not the end."

-'This is Not the End', Clare Maguire, 2011

No comments: