Twenty years ago it happened. Ten years ago I wrote this post. So much of it is still true, and there’s so much more to say about the heartbreaking state of polarity, divisiveness, and home-grown hatred in our country. About the pandemic-catalyzed resilience and mutual aid as well as abuse, addiction, anxiety, poverty, and despair. About all those gone, recently or a long time going. Also about the changes that make us better and better able to face our collective American history, especially the worst of who we’ve been and can be. About perseverance, innovation, and the love that abides. Especially about the love that abides and the importance of memory. Here is my little love note for part of where I grew up, in the shadows of the towers that went up when I was growing up.
“Those god-awful towers,” my father said in disgust. He wasn’t alone: we all thought they were wicked ugly, too big, and besides, they would and did block the light from our neck of the woods, three blocks away, never mind that we were underground. Down the steps to the Fulton-Nassau Street station was a small arcade of stores, including our own, the Subway Stamp Shop, which my dad and grandpa ran.
I grew up spending many Saturdays and holidays there, emerging frequently for walks around the block, heading with Grandpa to Chock’full’o’nuts on the corner (where I would dip my chocolate donut in his coffee), forays to get ice creams of a slice of pizza, and trips to the bathroom, which entailed going to the building next door, getting the key, riding the elevator up eight floors, and walking down a long hall.
Below ground was a kind of kid paradise. There was a candy stand, complete with stacked rows of Chuckles and M & Ms. Need I say more? There was also a jewelry shop full of silver and glass, a shoe-shine place with an ancient Black man who always smiled at me and told me how beautiful I was, a barber shop where they spent more time reading the paper and complaining than cutting hair, and a fabled diner where I sat on a high stool inhaling grilled cheese sandwiches and chocolate malts. Faced with the choice of spending the day helping my mom with housework in first our Brooklyn triplex and later our New Jersey Levitt house or coming to the store, it was no contest.
The towers started being built when I was an impressionable kid of six and were finished when I was nearly 12. To say everyone around us hated them was an understatement. It wasn’t just the shadow they cast but what they symbolized to my dad and other small business owners who tended to despise the ruling class, particularly those on the rung just above them who worked white-collar jobs in the towers and had impressive college degrees.
“College-educated idiots,” my dad called them and everyone else to whom the term the applied which, in his mind included millions. It didn’t help that between my three siblings and me, we amassed seven college degrees, the first generation in our family to not go from high school to largely a life of full-time work. My dad started college but was derailed from where it might lead him by becoming a father very quickly (to me) while having to balance multiple jobs in between his schemes — often successful, for a time — to make money, which included selling plus-sized polyester clothes at the Englishtown Auction, working as an antique auctioneer, some kind of tax shelter deal that didn’t work out too well, and occasionally buying out stamp and coin supply shops.
When the plane hit the towers, I reacted like most of us, shocked, but consoling myself with the only thing my mind could imagine: it was an accident. When the second plane hit, and then I heard from some construction workers on New Hampshire street in downtown Lawrence that the first tower “went down like a pancake,” I walked quickly to my car, shut the door, turned up the news and cried. I also raced home to make phone calls (this was before everyone carried a cell phone), first to find out if my brother, who worked seven blocks away was okay, then to call my dad.
My brother couldn’t be reached for a little while, but we soon heard he was fine — he walked the other direction from the towers to catch the ferry home. He was shaken but intact after feeling his whole building shake, windows breaking and then everyone oddly calm and organized in getting themselves outside and home.
My father, who had since moved the business to Pennsylvania, was incredulous. The towers we always hated were suddenly a broken object we loved. They no longer symbolized class warfare but instead a unity that enveloped us. Just as the signs around the world read, “We are all New Yorkers,” those of of us with downtown NY roots were now all Twin Tower people. “The whole world’s gone crazy. This is going to lead to big wars, a mess financially, the whole world falling apart,” my father said. Then he added his rhetorical response to the world: “What you gonna do?”
Yet most of what it led to wouldn’t include my dad. He was diagnosed with advanced pancreatic cancer, ironically enough, on September 11, 2002. I found out late at night when, coming from from a 9/11 service that I read a poem at, Ken told me my sister called and said I should call her back immediately. After calling her, I spoke to my dad, who said, “What you gonna do?” He died four months later.
Now it’s ten years since the attack. Most years since then, I’ve returned to the store, or at least tried to. The entrance to this part of the subway is usually closed (due to the damage and then the construction from 9/11), but still, I always get my picture taken in front of it. In fact, the first thing I do when going to the city is usually the pilgrimage to the site of the store. Posing with the entryway is like posing with part of the family. In the last few years, the stores in the neighborhood changed drastically. Gone are the small locally-owned clothes from India or sporting goods stores, little delis and pizzarias. Suddenly, there are all chain stores around, and I say suddenly, I mean mostly in the last year. The world where I grew up is layers beneath the one I see.
Yet several years ago, the entrance to the subway arcade was open. I ran down the stairs to find every store out of business and locked up, and the entrance to the subway gated and locked too. Standing there, on the cement floor in the middle of these ghost stores, I felt strangely at home. All of this world may be gone, but in my mind, I hear words like “Angola” and “pre-folded hinges” and “stamp tongs” and see myself at age seven, drawing abstract snakes at the big table of stamps under glass in a tiny store. My grandfather is chain-smoking, my father is arguing with his mother on the phone, and the store is crowded with a Hassidic man looking over stamps beside a Sikh in his turban and an ex-showgirl in her pancake makeup and heels. We were all subway dwellers, so far underground and away from how the future would rise and fall.
This morning, I gave a short talk at the Lawrence Jewish Community Congregation’s Rosh Hashana service on Shafarot, a calling to live with greater awareness and purpose, to examine what we need to change or release or summon our courage and strength to do, and to be more of a mensch. I ended up, no surprise given the subject matter and how I grapple with things, writing this poem.
The Call of the Shofar
It is not just the old call in the bones
and quiet of memory, the temple
falling, the exiles returning,
the temple rebuilding itself
through our hands and acts, the readying
of whatever clearing—right outside
our front door on a hot September afternoon
—welcomes the presence of what
we cannot name but names us.
The call of the shofar is a question,
staccato as cicadas or long-necked arching
into the sunset tonight. What is here?
It asks. Who? We might answer,
or just as misguided, Why?
But all such music—part animal,
part wind, part invisible, part visible
even if we miss it—is always
a conversation. Did you hear that?
Each inhalation a slip of sound
we finally grasp, Each exhalation a surrender
to how little we know, especially about
the confluences of our own voices so far
behind us, around old bends that shape
our hours now, so far ahead of us into
the chatter of babies or birds, the rush
of storms through the fields of the future,
the sound of the shofar running
or stilling itself like water,
like this river of life.
Lightning maybe. Thunder.
A flash of clear blue again. Quiet.
Then the call and response we are made for:
Let your old temples fall.
Raise your eyes. Return.
Listen. Listen Listen.
When we went to the Pacific Northwest earlier this month, we had a mission: behold as many big-ass trees as possible. Thanks to our friends Carl and Sara obliging or humoring us, that’s just what happened.
Why the big-ass trees? Why not hang out with big marvels of the natural world at this moment in time when there’s so much human-triggered despair and war, grief and stupidity, encompassing everything from the pandemic to climate change to the big-ass mess in Afghanistan.
Maybe my quest also has to do with my age or old karma, but whatever it is, there are places on this earth that are happy to provide abundantly, particularly in the northwest. Right in Carl and Sara’s neighborhood in Vancouver, WA, there were large bouts of big-ass trees, particularly along a few blocks known as “the grove,” full of sequoias, grand firs, Oregon ashes, and red alders, often well over 80 feet high.
Then there’s Oregon Garden botanical park, a wonderland of lushness and color that also sported a conifer garden full of large, looming trees posing as abstract monsters. We also hiked up and down and down up in Silver Falls State park in Oregon where the trees were especially massive and soaring. I spent a lot of time looking up, then looking down quickly to make sure I didn’t trip on the climbing or winding-down trails.
But the thing about big-ass trees is that there’s a lot to see when you look down. Their root systems are mazes of wonder and time, wrapping around boulders and across hills. In fact, the roots are vivid reminders of how much we need to secure ourselves to something relatively solid to survive and grow (but sometimes it’s easy to trip over our own roots too).
Back home among the more petite trees of our clime, I’m reminded of the vast possibilities all around us, even and especially with cedars and Osage oranges I can wrap my arms around or slim cottonwoods well-schooled in bending in the wild wind. I think about something I once heard about how the trees are just migrating through even if they make their stand for hundreds or thousands of years in a single place. I also think of how sometimes what seems small is far more infinite than we can image. Aspen trees, often just slips of things compared with the largeness of sequoias or firs, are actually the biggest organism in the world, sending forth roots underground to grow another and another and another leg of themselves.
So let’s hear it for the big- and small-ass wonders of this world, no matter where they are, and how much they can bring us home to the shining green and mottled bark all around us. May we, like them, continue to grow another ring around our center year after year, reminding us how we’re big and small all at once.
Kelley Hunt and my 16th annual six-day Brave Voice, Sept. 19-24 in Council Grove, Kansas. We have strong Covid protocols in place to keep everyone protected (all participants must show proof of vaccination, we’ll be spread out and will use masks for big group meetings), and the White Memorial Camp is also very committed to keeping us all healthy and safe. Everyone you need will be right at the camp too, including delicious, healthy meals (with vegan and vegetarian options).
Why should you join us at this retreat? Here’s some reasons:
- Magic: Yes, there is real magic, and it happens when you get a group of people who love to create — write, sing, make art, or just dip their toes into any of it — together in a sacred and relaxing place, mix in vast vistas of the lake and surrounding hills, add excellent food and deep sleep, and let everyone find their own best answers.
- Rest: There’s something about being away from home, surrounded by water and prairie, big skies and gentle breezes (with an occasional good rain) that makes for good sleeping weather. Plus, we hold open afternoons for people to create, wander, explore, collaborate, or take naps.
- Perspective: We all need to step out from the ordinary noise of our daily lives and see who we are now and what we have to say to ourselves and others from a new vantage point.
- Courage: Brave Voice is a courageous place where people are daring to create and listen to their hearts’ songs. Just being in that space give us back more of ourselves.
- Community: People make friendships, sometimes even for life, here. We witness each other, listen carefully, and find clarity and connection in community.
- Music: We sing, we’re sung to, we listen, we explore (no one has to sing alone or even sing at all), and oh, Kelley Hunt does a private concert for us!
- Writing: Writing is a way of knowing what’s true for us and what no longer holds water. In listening to each other, we find our way to our own strongest words and truest stories. I also do a private reading just for us.
- Surprises: The happy kind of surprises abound — maybe fresh pineapple or a new song (even if you’ve never written one), maybe a shooting star, a wonderful dream, or a double rainbow. Expect to be surprised in good ways.
- You: Coming to Brave Voice brings you home to yourself even more, and hey, don’t you need a great retreat right now?
- Flash Sale: We’re having a special sale to make Brave Voice more affordable for you right now — Aug. 18-22. Come visit our registration page here for the details of how to save close to $100.
Find out more at our website right here.
Kansas roses struggle once summer gets its heat on, but I have found a land where everything is coming up roses: the Pacific Northwest. We were there for Aunt Wilma’s memorial and the family reunion around that gathering, which also included a very special rose garden made from something and by someone Wilma loved very much.
But first, the number of roses in the western Oregon and Washington was dizzying and surely in infinite multiples to rose meccas here. Walking around our friends Carl and Sara’s Vancouver, WA neighborhood, I was dazzled by bundles of blossoms, some tumbling over themselves in excitement and others just standing big and bold in skies that get cool and mildly breezy most evenings. We went to the Oregon Garden, a botanical wonderland of winding gardens mazing together and apart, including a beautiful rose garden. We waltzed to live music in the Portland Peninsula rose garden. Everywhere, there was something to stop me in my tracks and made me bend over carefully, checking to make sure there’s not a bee in the center of the rose before I inhaled it.
But the highlight of the rose tour bloomed in an Auburn, WA backyard, where our cousin’s son Justin, in honor of Wilma, who is his grandmother, created a magical memorial. He finished the Sir Justin’s Rose Garden at the Chase Place just in time to invite all of us to enjoy the three concentric circles of the roses Wilma chose, tended, and loved. The roses were part of a garden she organized volunteers to care for at the retirement facility where she and her late husband Ron lived. The garden was also in the pathway of an oncoming bulldozer that was to way for more housing, so Justin, 21 years old and balancing his college studies, jumped in. With help from his family, he transported a whole lot of big, mature, and sometimes very heavy rose bushes.
The garden circles around a brand-new gazebo Justin and his dad Jim built, finding and rehabilitating some old wood from here and there and finishing it all just in the nick of time for us to step into, shoes off because the polyurethane was still drying, and slide across. All in all, it’s a gorgeous tribute made of wood and flowers, sweat and memory, to his grandparents.
Some of the rose bushes were way taller than me and almost all were thriving like nobody’s business (only one was sluggish but it looks like it’s likely to snap to greater life in the future). Justin created a detailed chart of what’s where and did many hours of research to figure out what each rose was. But whatever each was called, what grabbed me most was the scent, some smelling exactly like rose essential oil and others vastly richer and more intoxicating. I made it my business to smell a flower from each of the 70 bushes.
All those roses took me back to my own grandfather, my dad’s dad who loved growing roses in the tiny backyard of his rental house in Brooklyn. I remember leaning into each flower as a kid, renewed by what I seeing and smelling. While I’m a lover of many flowers, I do have some I especially adore, especially a wildly fragrant rose (or lilac or lily-of-the-valley or iris or hyacinth), which brings me backwards and forward in time at once.
We wandered the rose garden in that twilight time for a long stretch, marveling at them as a rainbowy hot air balloon sailed over. I imagined Wilma walking this garden, so delighted to see her babies — human and otherwise — flourishing, and as nightfall came, we walked the paths between the roses, scattering some of Wilma and Ron’s ashes into the roots of each rose bush.
So that’s what went down with all these roses rising up, reminding me how much a flower can tell the story of a legacy of love and care.
Let’s talk Simone Biles But first, let’s talk about two gymnasts we don’t know the names of: Elena Mukhina and Julissa Gomez
Elena Mukhina, a 20-year-old Soviet gymnast, broke her neck right before the 1980 Olympics when her coach pushed her to practice her balance beam routine although her broken leg hadn’t yet healed. Doing the now-banned Thomas salto move, she landed on her chin, and she was permanently paralyzed. She died from quadriplegia complications at the age of 46.
Julissa Gomez, a 15-year-old American rising star, a few months before the 1988 Olympics, was having a shaky time on the vault lately. Her coaches insisted she work through her difficulty with a particularly hard vault routine although some of her teammates later said it was clear it wasn’t safe for her to practice that day. Her foot slipped on the springboard and she ended up paralyzed from the neck down, only to later suffer severe brain damage, which put her into a coma. Her family surrounded her with care and love until she died in 1991.
Let’s talk about what it means to be unable to speak up, or to speak up but to be bullied into doing what you know isn’t right for you at the time. Dominique Moceanu, another American gymnast, who suffered a potentially devastating injury in 1996, tweeted in response to applaud Biles’ decision that she and her teammates never felt they had any say in their health.
Let’s think about how athletes are often heroized for working through the pain, competing with broken limbs or sprained joints, pushing themselves despite the likeliness of permanent injuries (and I can’t help thinking here about all the football and soccer players with brain injuries for life).
Let’s also talk about the unimaginable pressure not just of representing a country and the Olympics in a pandemic while carrying the weight of being deemed the greatest gymnast of all time, but also what it means to be a survivor. Matthew Norlander wrote for CBS sports that Biles “….has gone on record and said, sadly, that one of her motivating factors to continue competing was her celebrity and influence on USA Gymnastics. Had she opted to retire prior to these Olympics, Biles felt like USA Gymnastics would not be, as an organization, held as accountable as it should be for its disgraces against dozens of former gymnasts who were abused by former USA Gymnastics trainer Larry Nassar. Biles is the only active gymnast in USA Gymnastics who doubles as a survivor from the Nassar era, and she carries this with her every day she practices, competes, exists as a member of Team USA.” Biles was sexually assaulted by Nassar, a doctor who was supposed to be caring for her health and not damaging it, along with 367 other young women. She wrote in social media how it continually broke her heart to have to return to the same Olympics training facility where she was abused.
Let’s talk about growing up hungry and in the foster care system after being removed from a mother who fed the cat over her four children and how those children clung to each other to survive. Then, when Biles was six, she and her sister were adopted by her grandparents, who she came to call Mom and Dad, but her other sibs went to other family in Ohio. Biles started gymnastics that year and made her world debut in 2013 at age 16.
Let’s talk about love in action for your teammates. Biles is renowned for helping other gymnasts find what they need to succeed, including Jordan Chiles, who moved to Texas to train with Biles (and didn’t give up on her Olympics dream because of Biles). As Biles made clear when she stepped down from competing this week, she believed in her team and knew it was time for them to take the spotlight. Sunisa Lee, in winning the gold medal for the all-around competition, did just that.
Let’s talk about Biles’ brave imagination in continually redefining herself, even saying, “After hearing the brave stories of my friends and other survivors, I know that this horrific experience does not define. I am much more than this.”
Most of all, let’s talk about the powerful grace of Simone Biles’ courage to say no, and to not follow the millions of harsh lights and loud yells to risk her own life and mental health. Biles not only brought to the world four extremely difficult moves named for her but a legacy for athletes, women, women of color, and survivors of sexual abuse to write their own life stories in tune with their wisdom, to listen to what’s right for them and to tell us their truths.
Saturday I got to watch historic justice: Jarek Piekalkiewicz finally being presented with the Cross of the Brave, known as Krzyz Walecznych in Poland, for his immense courage and heart in fighting for his country in the 1944 Warsaw Uprising. The second-highest honor given by the Polish government finally made its way to Jarek 77 years after it was to be awarded. He was also celebrating his 95th birthday with family and friends.
It turns out that although the Polish government, in exile in London in 1944 when Jarek was to be awarded, couldn’t follow through in a timely manner (to say the least). Once WWII ended, the new Polish columnist government refused to recognize and decorate people like Jarek. Looking at this history, this isn’t so surprising. In my book Needle in the Bone: How a Holocaust Survivor and Polish Resistance Fighter Beat the Odds and Found Each Other — based on oral histories with Jarek and his late beloved friend, Lou Frydman — I wrote about what I learned from Jarek and other scholars.
The Warsaw Uprising of 1944, which could have defeated the Nazis, was disastrous because of the Soviet Union, which, by this time in the war, was on the side of the Allies (having switched from fighting with the Axis powers). At the cusp of the uprising in the summer of 1944, the Soviet soldiers were on one side of Warsaw’s Vistula River, the Nazi army on the other side, and the Polish Resistance qwew prepared to fight the Germans with the understanding that Soviets would join in and help them finish the job. As many of you know, the Soviets cooled their heels for the close-to-two-months of fighting, letting the Nazis kill, injure, and eventually imprison resistance fighters like Jarek. As Jarek explained to me when we were doing the book, this turned out to be an easy way for the Soviets to have “all the troublemakers,” the people most prone to advocate for an independent Poland, wiped out or forced out of the country, which is exactly what happened.
After the war, Jarek couldn’t return to Poland because he would have likely been killed or imprisoned by the new government. Sharing the same last name of his uncle Jan Piekalkiewicz, one of the main leaders of the home army until Jan was captured, tortured, and killed, Jarek wouldn’t have had any way to blend in. So he ended up, after the Sagan POW March and the Sagan POW camp, joining a Polish regiment of the British army. He went first to Italy, then to Glasgow, and then to England until he was able to go to Trinity College in Ireland. Along the way, he met and fell in love with Maura (from Ireland) and ended up, amazingly enough, in Lawrence, Kansas to teach in the Political Science department (after doing his graduate work at the University of Illinois and beforehand, living a bit in New York City).
Jarek is still active in advocating for justice and helping educate people on the Warsaw Uprising and the Polish Resistance. His new book — yes new! — is Dance with Death: A Holocaust View of Saving Polish Jews During the Holocaust. The book examines the vast capacity of so many Poles to save and hide Jews during the Holocaust, and the book, when still in manuscript form, helped me immensely in writing Needle in the Bone. When I did a reading from my book at Ellen Piekalkiewicz’s home (Jarek’s daughter), I was surrounded by many Poles from the area, all of whom had stories of their parents or grandparents hiding Jews during the war. “And that’s the story of Poland,” one Polish woman told me at the time.
At the ceremony, Robert Rusiecki of the Polish consulate, came from Houston as well as Polish Air Force Major Gen. Cezary Wisniewski from Washington, D.C. to present Jarek with the medal and to honor Jarek’s brave and passionate defense of his home country. Watching the ceremony in Jarek’s living room, I remembered what Jarek had told me when we were writing the book: he lived four lives. The first was in Poland before the war, the second during the war and its aftermath when he was fighting for his life without any sense of a real home, the third in Ireland when he came back to his roots of education and service, and the fourth when he came to America, a country he chose because he felt our multicultural (“give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free) embrace would work for him….and it did.
It’s a joy beyond joys to see him properly recognized by his home country in his adopted country. And it’s about time!
P.S. Special changes to Andrew and Ellen Piekalkiewicz, Jarek’s children, for all they did to make this day so special.
Here’s a post about my new podcast, “Tell Me Your Truest Story.” Please listen to the podcast here.
For me, it’s always been the trees and sky, sun wavering on the surface of water, wind making its invisible presence known through the curving of prairie grass, the darkening night sky and the stars that emerge. It’s always been the bluebird on the edge of the field, the katy-did and katy-didn’t call of the katydids, the smell of cedar when I rub a small piece between my thumb and forefinger.
No wonder that when I discovered bioregionalism — a calling to learn how to live from where we actually live — I felt metaphorically and literally home. This movement that came of age in the early 1980s (in concert with my own young adulthood) focuses on how to be “…..lifelong students of how to live in balance with our eco-communities. We recognize that we are part of the web of the life, and that all justice, freedom and peace must be grounded in this recognition” (from a bioregional primer I put together with others some years back).
I found not just a name for what I know in my bones but kindred spirits, many of my closest friends to this day, including my husband. The bioregional congresses or gatherings we trekked to in Maine or Texas, British Columbia or Morelos, Mexico, deepened our connection to the places we left behind so that we could return more informed, inspired, and committed to keep community and make change. My bioregional pals have gone on to start land trusts, restore rivers, protect old-growth forests, manage community garden projects, and make no end of art, music, dance, and poetry that helps us breathe into where we live.
Which is a long-winded way of saying how I met Stephanie Mills and David Abram and conceptualized the focus of my new podcast, Tell Me Your Truest Story. I first spied Stephanie in a big circle of 200 or so people at the first bioregional congress in Missouri in 1984 when, as a way to introduce herself, she said, “I want to learn about my inner wildness as well as the outer wildness.” Me too! I set out to get to know her, a very good move given that she’s an embodiment of wisdom, inquiry, and big vision into the harder and also more sublime edges of what it means to live in eco-community.
In 1988, at the bioregional gathering in Squamish, British Columbia, I met David, who not only did sleight of hand magic, but talked with expansive eloquence about how written language distances us from plants, animals, weather and earth, which also have their own language. I shivered in recognition, and when he moved to Lawrence to work on a post-doc at K.U., I made it a point to befriend him. He was sick at the time, so I would leave containers of soup at his doorstep, an offering of food to draw someone deeply connected to the wild out of his cave. It worked.
In the years since, both David and Stephanie have published the kinds of books that change lives, especially mine. David’s Spell of the Sensuous: Perception and Language in a More-Than-Human World, which he finished while in Lawrence, illuminate who we are in relation with the living earth. He writes,
0ur bodies have formed themselves in delicate reciprocity with the manifold textures, sounds, and shapes of an animate earth – our eyes have evolved in subtle interaction with other eyes, as our ears are attuned by their very structure to the howling of wolves and the honking of geese. To shut ourselves off from these other voices, to continue by our lifestyles to condemn those other sensibilities to the oblivion of extinction, is to rob our own senses of their integrity, and to rob our minds of their coherence. We are human only in contact, and conviviality, with what is not human.
Stephanie’s books, especially her Epicurian Simplicity, still tilts me toward being more where I am by growing my real-time awareness of leaves and insects, skies and ground. She writes, In Service to the Wild: Restoring and Reinhabiting Damaged Land,
In the land we may find solace for our wounds, privacy for a developing intimacy with a natural surround, an occasion for acting out healing processes that effect inner healing as well; or we may remain unconscious of and oblivious to the living community of the land. Numbed and paralyzed by the degree of damage that has been inflicted on the land, we may be domineering and exploitive toward it, or even blindly destructive. Our behavior toward the land is an eloquent and detailed expression of our character, and the land is not incapable of reflecting these statements back. We are perfectly bespoken by our surroundings.
My first episode, “The World is Made of Story” (taking its title from something David said during our interview), is about starting at the starting ground, right now and right here. What Stephanie and David have to say helps us listen to the stories that dissolve some of the boundaries between the inner and outer, which Rainer Maria Rilke speaks to in this poem:
Ah, not to be cut off,
not through the slightest partition
shut out from the law of the stars.
The inner – what is it?
if not intensified sky,
hurled through with birds and deep
with the winds of homecoming.
Martin Swinger, a virtuoso singer and songwriter, died suddenly in early July, leaving behind his husband (and partner of 35 years) Brian and many broken hearts in his Asbury Park, N.J. home community, and prior to that, central Maine, where he was a mainstay of the music scene for years. But when I think of Martin, I see him at my kitchen table, serenading the then-coordinator of the TLAN, Deb Hensley, volunteers Nancy Hubble and Laura Ramberg, and me as we stuffed folders for the 2014 Power of Words conference.
He was like this: always bringing joy, humor, and the power of music to wherever he landed. He was gifted at helping in multiple other ways too: for the conference, he coordinator participant transportation, helped Deb with many pieces of the conference coordination, and generally brought a sense of peace and homecoming to all of us.
Then again, Martin knew how vital hospitality and art are to this world. He grew up gay in the South, falling in love with music and books of all kinds. In recent years, he went on to be quite decorated as a songwriter, winning many notable big-time contests and performing across the country, even to the delight of the late Pete Seeger and very-much alive Vance Gilbert and John Waters. His seven CDs won lots of well-deserved awards, including from American Song Competition, SolarFest, Rosegarden Coffeehouse and more. Audiences have adored him for decades for his warm and vibrant voice and eclectic blend of Americana, swing and jazz, traditional music, show tune, Klezmer music, and improvisation. Deb and Martin sang together like angels from an enchanted land, including in the group Brio.
Deb says of Martin: “Martin was a true prince of friend to me and to so many others who knew and loved him. He had a heart the size of Mars and talent to match. Frost says, “Nothing gold can stay.” But Martin’s songs will stay. Oh yes they will. And so will his love.”
His generosity extended in other ways: when one of our keynote performers for the conference didn’t show up, Martin graciously volunteered to perform on the spot and for free (although we did extend to him a small stipend anyway). When he performed, he lifted a full house of conference goers, who had been waiting a while for the keynote, to their feet with original songs such as “Betty Boop and Buddha,” “Consider the Oyster,” and my favorite, “Little Plastic Part.” That song, about how breaking a tiny part of a vacuum that “makes the whole thing work” speaks to having a little part of our heart broken so that it doesn’t work anymore.
I can’t help thinking about how Martin himself was a little vital part with a big impact himself.
All my life, I heard the old folk song “Go Tell Aunt Rhody” as “Go Tell Aunt Rhoda,” and since I had an Aunt Rhoda, this seemed very fortuitous indeed. Sitting on my porch so many years after encountering that old song, I’m trying to absorb the reality that it’s not the old grey goose that’s dead but my beloved Aunt Rhoda.
Ebullient. Joyful. Enthusiastic. All of that, plus a great laugh and spectacular soprano voice with a propensity for belting out musical numbers — that’s my Aunt Rhoda. My mother’s oldest sister, she and her family were an intimate part of our family’s lives, often living relatively close by whether we were in Brooklyn or central New Jersey. That’s no surprise given how close my mom and her sister were, and it was all to my siblings’ and my benefit to get to see Rhoda and Uncle Jerry as well as our cousins Renee and Michael constantly.
While we kids all played games, like pretending to be the Monkees or the Beatles, my mom and Rhoda downed coffee and talked for hours. Yet when one of us would poke our head in, Rhoda would call us, “What’s wrong, Sweetheart?” more as a song than a response (as my sister Lauren reminded us at the burial service that Rhoda often sang what she had to say). When Jerry was in the room, the rapid-fire wit and humor would overflow, and we’d be alternately cracking up and trying to singing along.
At family dinners or holidays, it was downright expected that at some point, Rhoda and Renee (who also has an amazingly beautiful voice) would harmonize on a Rogers and Hammerstein musical number or the like. Since she was rushed to the hospital last week, I’ve watched a little video at least six times of them singing “There’s a Place For Us” from West Side Story.
But her joie de vivre and grace wasn’t just when she sang. My last conversation with her, me on speaker phone with her and Renee (parked outside a Wal-Mart), took place earlier this month. Rhoda was ecstatic that, after 15 months, they were going into a store where she could power down the aisles after she spent the pandemic extremely isolated due to age, health issues, and the downright risk of living in an area (New Jersey) where the virus really took hold. I was calling to invite them to my mother’s 80th birthday celebration next November, and Rhoda was beside herself with joy about our whole family being together again and about celebrating her fiercely beloved sister.
All of her love was fierce, full, and unconditional. Renee, who lived with her and helped take care of her in so many ways for so many years, told us at the burial service that her mom was her biggest defender and most enthusiastic fan. Although Rhoda would famously roll her eyes at times, her love was never in doubt.
Now, after a short and unexpected illness, she’s gone, and in the last week, our family went from 0 to 100 on the Rhoda front, a panorama of worry, prayer, wishes, “tell her I love her” messages, goodbyes, and for most of us, a whole lot of travel. Back home after a whirlwind trip to New Jersey involving layovers in Detroit and Minneapolis, rental cars, trains and trams, and lot of walking, I’m now back to where I started: trying to grapple with the loss of my sweetheart Aunt Rhoda.
Wherever she is, I hope there’s singing involved as well as peace. Wherever we who love her are, I pray for the same, with love and gratitude for all.
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