Throughout her life, Helen kept returning to Nature again and again, for renewal and guidance. She told me many times how much she loved, as a young child, playing by herself in the woods near her grandparents house in New Hampshire, or on the beach at Cape Cod.
She looked for opportunities again and again to be in beautiful settings in Nature, but she found ways to connect deeply wherever she was. Almost on a daily basis, she would go outside near dawn, and take a few minutes to greet the sun, to face the four directions, and invoke their blessings on her day. I've written in previous posts about a number of other ways she delighted in and honored Nature. And after Daniel was born, one of the things she most valued was sharing her love of Nature with him, especially her love of water.
Helen and Daniel on the beach in Florida
Helen and Daniel kayaking at Friends Lake
Helen and Daniel at the Delhi Rapids
Helen especially loved the winter and summer solstices and the autumn and spring equinoxes, rooted as they are in Nature's rhythms and cycles. She always made an effort to celebrate them in some way, and to be open to inner gifts might be given on those days. On the spring equinox of 2000 she went to a park not far from our house to sit by the Delhi Rapids of the Huron River. She came back radiant, with a song — River Sounds. A few weeks later I went to the rapids with her and we recorded the sound of the river. Nearly two years later we went into the studio to record the song, with Helen adding several flute lines to our voices, and our friend and wonderful keyboard player, Brian Brill, contributing several accompaniment tracks and textures. We also layered in the sound of the river beneath the whole song.
But then other projects came along and we never finished mixing the song to get it ready for release. We kept singing it at our concerts, and several other people started performing it, and even recording it, but over the years we forgot about our own recording. A few weeks ago, as it was getting close to the spring equinox, I remembered this song and how we'd recorded it — but all I could find was the data CD from 11 years ago, no audio. Earlier this week I took it back to Brian, and we mixed the various tracks.
Helen gave me so much over the years, and in the last eight months she has continued giving me gifts, on the inside as well as on the outside. This song is one I've always treasured — and now, more than ever. As spring began to return, I felt she would want me to share it with you also.
Helen loved eating mangoes. But it was not just the delicious taste she liked; she loved the process of preparing and eating one. She'd score the fruit in quarters, peeling back the skin from each section, all the while licking her fingers which had gotten sticky right from the start. Then she'd begin cutting off the golden fruit in juicy chunks from the large, flat, oblong pit. And then came the part I think she liked best — chewing off what remained of the fruit on the pit, and on the inside of the four pieces of skin. By now, the juice was dripping past her wrists, and half her face was covered in golden stickiness!
Daniel and I were much more fastidious, so she'd always give us chunks of the ready-to-eat fruit — which we would proceed to eat with forks! Helen, meanwhile would continue licking her fingers, the palms of her hands, her wrists and forearms, smiling yellow-orange from ear to ear.
This was a metaphor for how she lived — totally into it. She loved really getting into things, getting her hands dirty. I think that was one of the draws for her about pottery, which she did a great deal of in her younger years. She relished the feel of the wet clay, cupping it with her fingers as it spun on the wheel and took shape between her hands.
She was the same way in gardening, hardly ever wearing gloves, loving to feel the dirt in her hands. Whether she was planting seeds, vegetables or flowers, or harvesting root crops like carrots, onions, beets and potatoes, she delighted in the direct connection to the earth.
She also loved going barefoot. After each long Michigan winter (during which she'd often lie down on the ground to make "angels in the snow") when she'd been wearing boots, and her barefoot callouses had gotten soft, she'd be out at the first sign of spring, and within days she could walk barefoot on gravel.
She savored any time she could be by rivers, lakes and the ocean, delighting in the element of water as much as in that of earth. She was a strong swimmer, and could handle a canoe expertly. And if there was no opportunity to be by water, she found a walk in the rain to be nearly as energizing.
Last month I wrote about how she loved to climb trees, and how unafraid and sure-footed she was. Let me tell you a related story. A year and a half ago we were in Ecuador, visiting indigenous musician friends. Near where they live is an amazing place that people come from all over to visit — the waterfall at Peguche. There are steps carved into the cliff along both sides of the waterfall, with several observation booths where you can get quite close to the falling water. But if you're daring and fearless, you can approach the waterfall head on where there are large rocks jutting up from the rapids below. Guess where Helen went! I took these photos from a safe, dry place by the side of the river, while Helen climbed barefoot onto the spray-soaked rocks to commune directly with the waterfall. She wasn't being reckless or foolhardy — she respected, but at the same time trusted Nature and her connection to it.
She died in the same fearless, trusting way that she had lived. Dylan Thomas's poem "Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night" is a masterpiece, but it does not speak for how Helen approached death. She entered it as gently and trustingly as she had lived. She did not "Rage, rage against the dying of the light." There was no hint of anger or regret in anything she said, nor in the way she looked.
When I walked into her hospital room that last morning, I instantly saw that she was close to death. When I said that to her she replied, "I don't think I'm dying, but I know I'm in a bad way." However, a short while later, as we were talking, she started to say things — asking me to thank friends, giving me instructions — that made it totally clear that she knew she was dying. I don't know what happened in that short, intervening time — what she saw, heard or felt that told her she was dying. I don't know if she perceived it from some sign given beyond the senses. I never got to ask her. Mostly, I just listened to her. Perhaps I'll find out what it is that signals the imminence of death when it's my own time.
But I do know that when she realized she would soon die, nothing changed in her state. There was no desperation, no clinging, no bitterness. There was a simple clarity and acceptance that was awe-inspiring. The way she closed her eyes for the last time was like a sacred bowing to life, a gesture of gratitude and surrender — surrender, not in the sense of giving up in defeat, but in the original meaning of the word: "Rendre" — to give back, and "Sur" — on or above. My understanding of this is "to offer back to what is higher than us, what was given to us as a gift."
Seeing her die that way was, and is, an incredible gift to me. But, of course, remembering her life is a far greater gift.
A few weeks after Helen died I bought a mango for the first time in my life. Though I'd never prepared one before, I remembered how she had, and followed her example. I offered chunks of the fruit to Daniel and ate the rest the way she did — though the juice on my face was streaked with tears. Last week I bought and ate another mango with Daniel — one of the countless, tiny ways we remember her and keep her memory alive in us.
Since this is not a leap year, there was no 29th of February — so there was no exact day to mark the seventh month from when Helen died. It's as if this month even the calendar agreed — don't remember she died, remember she lived.
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