Well I try to make it go, I try to make it go
But it’s all about the slow ascension
And the mountain feels so high, the mountain feels so high
But is it any match for my intention?
I’m not going to lie, I’m having a hard time right now. I know you are extremely busy comforting the countless people who are wrecked by your death (God, it hurts every time I write that), but given your track record of stepping up and helping me out even when you’ve got a lot going on, I thought I’d reach out and see if you can help out with the crisis of faith with which I’m currently wrestling.
“Normally” right now I’d be writing my annual Love Wins-themed blog post to try to find a shred of light or wisdom or encouragement amidst the darkness of the December 14 anniversary of the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary. And you and Gabe would be reaching out and sending love to me and Kate and supporting my public and private remembrance of Ana Grace and the other children as you always do when that date rolls around. Even in grief I’m able to see the irony that as I spent early December bracing myself for the nearly unbearable pain of this annual ritual, I had no idea that the ante of simultaneous pain would be upped in this way or that my nervous system was capable of sustaining that (sort of).
First off, can I tell you how proud of you I am? I am struck by how consistently you were able to offer wisdom into all things Resonant Motion. Which sounds kinda corporate as I read it – really, it means that you were a collaborator in my life’s work ever since I asked you and Gabe to join the RMI team in the early stages back in 2013. Your wisdom went so far beyond your 27 years. I was just thinking about the planning meeting we had for the NY constituents of the Unity Arts Alliance, and how easily and completely you commanded the respect of everyone in a room in which I (15 years your elder) was the next-youngest person there. As your teacher, I saw firsthand the determination and discipline that fomented that wisdom. You could have coasted on talent, but there you were painstakingly learning multiple-chorus Lee Morgan and Clifford Brown solos note for note.
But more than having wisdom in the sense of knowing and articulating information or perspective, you had wisdom in knowing how to be. And a big part of that was your courage. I never saw you shy away from the hard stuff, which manifested in your capacity to fully engage in conversation about difficult subjects. More importantly, you fully engaged in ACTION around difficult subjects. That was in the most literal sense what you were doing right up until the end, and I love you for that more than anything.
You know it’s the reason I treasure your singing so much, too. Many have praised your otherworldly voice, and they’re right. Singing at Bushnell Park with you and Latanya and Mel when Garth couldn’t make the gig gave me a physical sensation that, if it could be bottled, would make us a billion dollars as pharmaceutical magnates. But that’s only one part of why you were a remarkable singer. You were a remarkable singer because your courage allowed you to fully inhabit the most emotionally loaded material with profound grace.
This is why I kept giving you such emotionally loaded material to sing. Amidst the agony when dear Ana Grace and her classmates were murdered, I also agonized over how to express that loss in music without dramatizing it or drawing undue attention to myself. My loophole was making the penultimate track of Ripples a short song based my poem “L’Amour Gagne” (semi-concealing “Love Wins” by changing the language). It needed to be you singing it. I’ve probably listened to you sing it hundreds of times, and I get chills every time.
But those chills actually pale in comparison to what you did with my “The Rock and the Redemption” suite. At the end of the hour-plus of music, there’s this moment. You know the one I’m taking about because I’ve thanked you for it repeatedly (and you of course demurred). I knew that I needed you to sing the culminating verse, the one at the beginning of this letter. I didn’t realize, though, that I’d get weak in the knees every single time I heard you sing the word “ascension.” Those three syllables literally make me think “this is why I make music.” With all due respect to the many other fine singers I know, it could only have been you delivering that.
And I just realized that the last musical sounds we ever created together were at the RMI showcase in Brooklyn this past spring. Appropriately enough, the last tune we did was Franya Berkman’s “Little Ones.” You were singing a song about children who died too early, composed by a wonderful woman who died too early. And you sang it utterly perfectly. I know this, because I forced myself to watch the video today. It was almost unbearable to watch, but it was perfect. What my music will be going forward without you is just one way I’m lost right now, though I recognize that I owe it to you to get found eventually.
I needed to tell you these things now, though I’m thankful that I also did so when you were here. But now I need to talk about the moral conundrum that has been exacerbating my sorrow, anger, and disbelief.
As you know, I spend a lot of my life’s energy encouraging people to live lives governed by peace, love, courage, and generosity, a mandate that deepened when the Marquez-Greene family adopted “Love Wins” as a mantra and I formally committed to making sure my life’s work (for which you were such an important co-conspirator) consciously aligned with that. This commitment is doubly true for my students. It is triply true for the students with whom I become close. It was quadruply true for you. I openly admired and encouraged the proactivity with which you supported people (including your family) through difficult times. We worked together to foment radical love for all.
Preaching that is easy enough when there are universally positive outcomes to be promised (joy! brotherhood! transformation!). But now . . . I know this is not a constructive or even accurate viewpoint, but I’m haunted by the sense that you were martyred for your abundant goodness. I’m crying writing that and I’ve cried every time I’ve thought about it (I know that on earth you never saw me cry, because I pretty much only do so when watching sappy movies).
This is intensified by the post-election climate in which you and I (along with so many others) had already been contemplating the possibility of a reality in which speaking up for love and goodness and caring could become simultaneously more necessary and more risky. Does that mean we should back off or lean in harder? Is a life of selfless adherence to these principles worth the risks that one can avoid by keeping to oneself? Do I have to start appending my beseechments to love one another with potential side effects like a freaking Viagra commercial? Even if I reconcile what happened to you (which, of course, I never will), can I in clear conscience continue to encourage others in the way I have?
Yes, you’re right that these are false binaries and that I’m getting worked up. So I’ll take a pause here to bring the subject of Basha Baerman, my mother, into the conversation.
My mother died peacefully on Friday at age 81, lucid to the end and grateful for having had the opportunity to savor the presence of her family. She would not want an elaborate eulogy here (or, really, any attention at all), so I’ll keep it brief. She was motivated by selfless, unconditional love, particularly for her kids (and eventually grandkids and great grandkids). That was what mattered to her above all. And that was easily the dominant influence she had on my own development. Sure, through her I learned to distinguish Chopin from Mozart in a “blindfold test,” learned to love reading, and learned the verbal and gestural mannerisms that immediately identify me as Jewish even though my spiritual adherence and faith-based education are literally nonexistent. I concluded that the way to be a parent (and, indeed, as a human in the world) is to be governed by love every day, in every decision.
As we’ve discussed, one of the ways I measure the rightness of my actions is by projecting forward to my deathbed. It’s morbid in a way, and it’s also presumptuous (since, as this very conversation so painfully acknowledges, we don’t all get the luxury of that final reflection). But it is an effectively sobering way to anticipate the likelihood of regret and to re-route one’s actions preemptively as necessary. Well, I just spent a good amount of time next to a deathbed, so even before you went away last week, I was reflecting heavily on that.
So from that perspective, I guess the fundamental question is this: in the end, would we want our last reflections (whenever they come) to be of courageously living our principles or of successfully avoiding pain? I’m straining to think of an instance in which I’ve ever heard someone in their golden years express relief that they shied away from emotional involvement and responsibility to a sufficient degree to have enjoyed a long, emotionally detached life. Maybe it’s a thing, but I haven’t ever seen it.
So for some of us, I guess it isn’t really a decision. Sure, there are moment to moment cost/benefit analyses, and sure there are needs to strategically exercise protective boundaries, but in the broader sense the conclusion is self-evident. As far as I’m concerned, love and community and connection are the reasons for living. And yes, if you love, that means you are more engaged with others. Their pain becomes your pain, their risk becomes your risk, and that’s kind of how it goes. You can mitigate it some through being savvy and having healthy boundaries and so on, but on a broad level, what do you do when you hit the crossroads between actively and bravely loving or shrinking back into a definition of love that is inert and sentimental? Courage is in that sense not so much a matter of facing danger as it is a stubborn determination to be undeterred in love, no matter what. You did that. Did I mention that I’m proud of you?
At this point I ask myself this: what would you say to all of these musings and doubts? As I attempt to picture that, I think it would be pretty succinct and would go something like this:
Geez Louise, what are you TALKING about? Golly, if I’m not here to help people, SOMEONE has to do it. Take good care of yourselves . . . and then get back to work. We have to spread love more intensely than ever.
I think I’m pretty close, right? Well, this is what I/we will do. Love still wins, and it’s still the only thing that does, and we’ll keep on loving, for you, for Ana Grace, for my mom, and especially for everyone left here who needs it. You’ve done a great job of loving boldly and courageously, and one result is there are a whole lot of people who will make sure your family is okay. And we will take care of Gabe, now, 15 years from now, always. I wish so badly that being in it for the long haul didn’t mean going on without you, but I promise that I will, as I can remember you singing with the Wesleyan Jazz Orchestra one of the first times I ever heard you, dust myself off, pick myself up, and start all over again. Dammit, Claire, I’m crying again.
Until we meet again . . .