Saturday, February 20, 2016

The Water is Wide

Last night at synagogue, we sang a new version of a very old tune.  It’s a Scottish tune that dates back to the 17th Century, but we used its melody to sing Mi Chamocha, the song where we thank God every Shabbat for the miracle of parting the sea to permit our ancestors to safely escape from Egypt into freedom.  I was very familiar with the melody we used last night because of a Karla Bonoff album that I’ve owned since the 70s.  This tune was easily my favorite on the album.  Its name is “The Water is Wide,” and you can see a video of Bonoff’s gorgeous rendition -- with James Taylor singing backup --  right here:

This morning, I can’t get that song out of my mind.  And I’m not thinking of the version where God is performing miracles to save people from drowning.    Believe me, I’m hoping for miracles.   I am thinking about the people of Fiji who are facing a devastating cyclone.   With expected wind gusts of 180-190 mph, how can all the people on those islands possibly escape such a storm?   Surely, they had warning that it was coming, but if you are poor and live on an island, to where do you run?   The water, as they say, is wide – in fact, it’s the widest body of water on the planet. 

Bodega Bay, California is across that pond, -- roughly 5,500 miles from Fiji.   Today, despite my fears about the horrible tragedy that is striking the people of Fiji, it is Bodega Bay that is occupying most of my thoughts.   One week ago today, my old friend Steve Mitchell drove to Bodega Bay beach, parked his car, and then disappeared from human contact.   He was reported as a missing person, and the local newspapers were all over the story.  Steve, you see, was one of the barons of the local bar.  Just a few years ago, he was the President of the Sonoma County Bar Association, and even up to the present, his career has been going strong.  One judge after another was quoted in the newspaper as saying that Steve Mitchell was an ethical role model for young lawyers to follow.   He was, in short, a legal mensch.

Steve was also a loyal friend.  We met freshman year at Stanford, and every time I saw him, he put a smile on my face.  He hailed from the rural county of Humboldt and spoke like Jimmy Stewart.  So being a bit of a schmuck, I would always imitate him to his face, and he would just shrug it off with a chuckle.   He remained good natured – not Pollyannish, but a heck of a lot more positive thinking than I was.  Like so many of my college friends who grew up in California, he never seemed to take life too seriously.

Steve married a woman that we both met freshman year, and I always thought of them as among the most popular people on campus.  Normally, that would be an insult, but in Steve and Terri’s case, it is a compliment.  They were people you just felt compelled to like.    Sophisticated people who remained salt of the earth.

Steve and Terri had four children.   According to the news clippings, he remained as competitive in tennis as he was in the courtroom.  From what I can tell by reading the “Comments” section of the articles, he was universally liked and respected.   He was the last person you’d expect to take his life.
Yesterday, the police finally attempted to shed some light on the mystery of this “missing person.”  They announced that they had found a suicide note and that when they combine that with the other circumstances they’ve uncovered, they’re confident that Steve did indeed take his life.  Presumably, he drowned himself in the Pacific. 

This is not the first time for me that a friend has died suddenly and before his time.   Nor is it the first suicide I’ve had to grapple with.   But there’s something about this particular death that has me so reflective this morning.  It makes me think about the delicate balance that we all must traverse every day we walk this Earth.  Steve was, by every measure, exemplary, and still, the world wasn’t working for him.   When I think about it, we can all relate to the idea that the world isn’t working for us.  Maybe it’s one of our children whose luck is going south. (I love the line – “we’re only as happy as our least happy child.”)  Or maybe it’s our office life, where everyone seems way too busy with their own work to worry about our shaky psyches.   Or maybe it’s our love life; that should be our greatest earthly anchor, but if that’s not working out, what then?  Faith?  For so many people today, “faith” rests on a delusion – an “opiate of the masses.” 

 So what will save us during those times of our life when we need to be saved?   The answer is certainly not our society’s attitude toward mental illness, which in conventional parlance includes the kind of garden-variety clinical depression that could lead to suicide.   There’s still such a stigma around the term mental illness, isn’t there?   When I recently had to extend my security clearance, I had to answer pointed questions about my mental health in particular, and I suspect that those of you in the private sector have to answer the same questions.   After all, as much as we realize that heroes as great as Abraham Lincoln and James Madison suffered from depression, employers are petrified at the prospects of having the “mentally ill” in their midst.  I can imagine how people who suffer from depression must feel like they have some sort of horrible secret that needs to be hidden from the world, and perhaps even from themselves.   So how do we expect them to find the help that they need?  How can they walk into the sunlight and work on achieving that delicate balance?

Sometimes when I see a physically healthy infant, I reflect on the miracle of life, and wonder to myself how it is that with all the diseases in the world, a baby could actually be healthy.   But now, when I see an apparently mentally healthy adult, I will need to start wondering how, with all the crap in this world, any of us could actually be mentally healthy.   What does sustain us through the downs as well as the ups?  Isn’t the existence of an old person who has chosen never to take his or her life as miraculous as the birth of any baby?

In the end, I suspect, we are sustained by our beloveds.   They cause us to feel valued.  They point out what makes us special.   They give us motivation in life – motivation both to support them and to make them proud of us.   Most importantly, they inspire us to love others who resemble them in some way.  That is how the love we get from our parents at the earliest age forges such great empathy not only with them, but with all human beings.  

Over the decades, I came to see Steve Mitchell less and less.  Most recently, I only saw him during college reunions.  But even then, his face invariably put a smile on mine.  And now, looking back, I think of the support that he gave me when we were younger.  For example, it was Steve who told me when I visited him a couple of years after we graduated from college about this great gadget known as a “CD player,” and how given my love for music, I would come to appreciate this gadget more than anyone he knew.   That statement helped reinforce my love for music, a love that has never died and hopefully never will.

So, I want to leave you with the lyrics to “The Water is Wide.”  And indeed, it is a reminder of the importance of love – the love between two soul mates, to be sure, but not only that.  For whenever we have a true friend, whenever we form an I-Thou relationship with another person, we have the foundations of a boat to carry us across some very treacherous water.   While in Steve’s tragic case, that boat wasn’t there when he needed it the most, I will always remember him as someone who has helped build a boat for me and so many of us.  We may never see him again, but we will never forget him.

The water is wide,
I can't cross over,
And neither have I wings to fly.
Build me a boat
That can carry two
And both shall row, my love and I.

There is a ship
And she sails the sea.
She's loaded deep,
As deep can be.
But not so deep
As the love I'm in,
I know not how I sink or swim.

Oh love is handsome
And love is fine,
The sweetest flower
When first it's new.
But love grows old
And waxes cold
And fades away like Summer dew.

Build me a boat
That can carry two
And both shall row, my love and I,
And both shall row, my love and I.

1 comment:

Betty Carlson said...

Lovely thoughts, Dan. What a shock.