In the Swim: Musings on Meditation under Water

January 26th, 2015

1. Wendy’s “Water”

On May 24 last year, I went to the Steynberg gallery on Monterey St. to attend a concert by Shadowlands, a new local musical group consisting of Bob and Wendy Liepman and their collaborators Mark Davis and Karolyn Hausted. They were introducing songs they’d written in preparation for recording them on a CD to be released early in 2015. I’d made a contribution to their crowdfunding campaign on Kickstarter because I admired Wendy’s dedication to feeding the Homeless and because I enjoyed her earlier songs, many of which seemed to me more like religious hymns than folk tunes.

Their first piece was the album’s title track, “Shadowlands,” a dark evocation of the mental condition we usually call depression, but which in earlier times was known as melancholia—a state associated not only with illness but also with deep thought, fertile creativity and spiritual awakening.

Next was a busy, nervous piece which began, “O restless mind you’re working overtime,/when you chase (thoughts) what do you hope to find?”— a rebuke of the annoying monkey mind that meditators try to quiet.

Then came a long anthem whose chorus repeats “Every worldly thing will evaporate”—an adaptation of the perennial poetic refrain, Ubi Sunt, or where have they gone?–and an explicit assertion of the first of Buddha’s four noble truths.

The song which affected me most that night was called “Water.” It was about a connection between swimming and meditation.

Your religion is water,

you pray when you swim

Your church is a shining pool,

you worship within

When your breath and your body

And Mind and Water are one

In synchronized motion

Your prayer has begun


Your religion is water, into the waters you dive

It washes away the pain,

It keeps you alive

Let the water surround you

All your worries dissolve

And when you go with the flow

No problems to solve


…. You pray when you swim

…, you worship within

When your breath and your body

And Mind and Water are one

In synchronized motion

A Meditation


As promised at the concert, the complete Shadowlands CD became available to Kickstarter contributors in late 2014. After listening to “Water” again a number of times, I asked Wendy for permission to play and talk about it tonight and she said, fine.

The song is shaped overall by a tiny introduction, three stanzas, and a refrain consisting of the word “Water” repeated after each of the stanzas. There’s a good deal of repetition of both melody and lyrics throughout, which for me evokes the rhythmic repetition of a swimmer’s strokes and the repetitive movement back and forth across the pool.

The song begins with three slow plinks suggesting the formation and fall of water drops as well as the sound of the gong starting and ending a session of meditation.

This double association introduces the song’s theme pairing the body’s immersion in water with the mind’s awareness while sitting. An accelerated repetition of the plinks blends into the continuous flow of a voice backed by a babbling piano line that immerses the listener in sound.

Your religion is water,

you pray when you swim

Your church is a shining pool,

you worship within

These words reinforce the idea of immersion: in the shining stained glass light of a church and in the shining water of a swimming pool. “Worship within” adds another immersion–into the inner sanctum of the mind.

The flow of voice, piano and cello sweeps up the listener in a current of sound. The alternation of stressed and unstressed beats evokes the swimmer’s pumping arms and in-out breaths. The returning sound of the bell superimposes the association of purity and silence upon the vigorous flow of energy.

In the next two lines, as the melody changes, the lyrics elevate the metaphor of swimming as worship into an abstract equation: breath=body=mind=water. They suggest a state beyond the separation of opposites: matter and spirit, self and surroundings

When your breath and your body

And Mind and Water are one

As the first melody returns, the lyrics return us to a temporal narrative:

In synchronized motion 

Your prayer has begun

That prayer consists of the refrain’s accelerating repetition of the single word “water.” Its two syllables splash into multiplying phonemes as the solo voice is joined first by another in luscious harmony and then by a flood of instrumental chords expressing both multiplicity and unity:


In the second stanza, the metaphor of swimming as communion is replaced by swimming as baptism. The voice here takes on a priestly tone, conferring absolution on a tormented soul in a ritual of cleansing and healing. The immersion is now a head-first dive, relaxing the tension of anxiety and selfhood in the brain:

Your religion is water, into the waters you dive

It washes away the pain,

It keeps you alive

Let the water surround you

All your worries dissolve

And when you go with the flow

No problems to solve

The final stanza reprises the lyrics of the first, but with a few significant variations. Earlier phrases referring to religion and the church are swapped for instrumental passages emphasizing the cello, and the final line in the first stanza, “your prayer has begun,” is replaced here by the near-rhyme, “A Meditation.” The little trill on the word’s third syllable to me suggests a quick dip into the world within:


you pray when you swim


you worship within

When your breath and your body

And Mind and Water are one

In synchronized motion  

A Meditation

Instead of being repeated once as after the previous stanzas, here, in the concluding meditation, the refrain’s prayer of WATER is repeated three times.

2. The Theme

This song’s theme of the connection between swimming and meditation is rare but not unique. For Henry David Thoreau, swimming in Walden Pond was analogous to immersing himself in the Dharma. “In the morning I bathe my intellect in the stupendous and cosmogonal philosophy of the Bhagvat-Geeta.” The water of the lake allowed him to “worship within”:

To be calm, to be serene! There is the calmness of the lake when there is not a breath of wind. . . . So it is with us. Sometimes we are clarified and calmed healthily, as we never were before in our lives, not by an opiate, but by some unconscious obedience to the all-just laws, so that we become like a still lake of purest crystal and without an effort our depths are revealed to ourselves. All the world goes by us and is reflected in our deeps. Such clarity!

If with closed ears and eyes I consult consciousness for a moment, immediately are all walls and barriers dissipated, earth rolls from under me, and I float . . . in the midst of an unknown and infinite sea, or else heave and swell like a vast ocean of thought… (Walden, chapter 16)

Leonard Cohen, during his regular pilgrimages to India after leaving the Mount Baldy Monastery, lived anonymously in a small rented room, meditated, read, wrote and swam daily in a nearby hotel pool.

In recent years a number of dedicated swimmers have explored the relationship between swimming and meditation.

Bonnie Tsui, wrote in a NY Times opinion piece about swimming as a rare way for moderns

to unplug; the blunting of the senses by water encourages internal retreat. Though we don’t all reach nirvana when we swim, swimming may well be that last refuge from connectivity — and, for some, the only way to find the solitary self… We enter the meditative state induced by counting laps, and observe the subtle play of light as the sun moves across the lanes. … Submersion creates the space to be free, to stretch, without having to contend with constant external chatter. It creates internal quiet, too.

In a book entitled Swim: Why we Love the Water, Lynn Scher says

Swimming is my salvation…an inward journey, a time of quiet contemplation, when, encased in an element at once hostile and familiar, I find myself at peace, able—and eager—to flex my mind…The silence is stunning….The lane line keeps us centered in more ways than one. Swimming forces you to focus and sets the mood to meditate…

The idea of the connection between meditation and swimming elaborated in these quotes and in Wendy’s song recurs in a book by Stephen Snyder and Tina Rasmussen:

Purification of mind can be likened to the clearing of a cloudy glass of water. At first, there are particles of dirt floating throughout the water. Over time, with stillness, the particles settle, revealing a clear, sparkling pure glass of water. (8)

The authors develop an extended analogy between the serenity experienced in Samatha meditation practice and the experience of scuba divers:

… the water immediately off the beach where waves are breaking is referred to as the surf zone. … The scuba divers’ primary intention is to get through…and into the calm ocean quickly and safely without being knocked down by the crashing waves. … …sometimes it takes many trips through the surf zone…. But eventually, if you stay focused and persist, you will break through the surf zone and into the open sea…plunging to greater depths into the stillness where the waves no longer crash. There, it is peaceful, beautiful, and even easy. You can look up to the waves overhead and not be touched by them. (55)

3. Anapanasati

When I was in my twenties, under the influence of drugs I fleetingly experienced the state these writers describe. Later I tried to reach it with meditation, but was unsuccessful. Nevertheless I continued sitting regularly for the next forty years, determined to spend twenty minutes a day for the general health benefits, and resigned to leave it at that.

Things changed when I retired four years ago. Entering the stage of life that feels like a continual battle between decay and growth, I felt a last-chance urgency to give it another try.

My spiritual practice shifted from a morning hygiene routine to a quest. I kept a meditation journal. I joined the White Heron Sangha for its community of support for meditators. After being invited to join the program committee, I volunteered to give occasional dharma talks to seal my commitment.

A workshop offered by Sangha members Nancy Hillyard and June Kramer at Mary Renard’s local retreat center, Crow’s End, provided an opportunity to take one more step. They introduced me to Anapanasati Meditation, a practice traceable to original directives of the Buddha, as interpreted by the Burmese Monk, Pa Auk Sayadow, and popularized by Snyder and Rasmussen. This practice, also called Samatha meditation, promises access to a deep tranquility of mind that makes it possible to attain expanded states of consciousness. Samatha is achieved through the technique of focusing attention exclusively on a single object for long periods of time. In Anapanasati Meditation, the single object is not simply the breath, as in other forms of meditation, but specifically, the movement of the breath as it passes a place between nostrils and upper lip called the anapana spot.

This fulfillment is likely to occur only during lengthy silent retreats. But preparation for it requires strenuous daily practice to overcome the mind’s normal tendency toward flightiness and chatter. According to Snyder and Rasmussen, such preparation will result in “momentary concentration,” a state of tension between distracting mental impulses referred to as “hindrances” and the incipient energies of more advanced stages of the practice, referred to as “the Jhana factors.” The five hindrances are classified as 1. sense desire, 2. hostility or aversion, 3. sloth and torpor, 4. restlessness and remorse and 5. doubt. As the practice strengthens, these are gradually supplanted by the five Jhana factors: 1. applied attention, 2. sustained attention, 3. joy, 4. bliss, and 5. one-pointedness. As they prevail over the hindrances, the meditator enters the state of “access concentration.” Here the “supercharged energy of the jhanas” (29) makes itself felt, but only in diluted form. More intense and lengthier practice leads to a mental state called “absorption,” consisting of unwavering concentration on the breath passing the Anapana spot. Absorption opens the door to full reception of the mystical experiences of the Jhanas.

The first landmark of progress in this effort is the intermittent appearance of a light known as the Nimmita during access concentration. Later the Nimmita becomes stable, “solid and energized” and then merges with the anapana spot. At that point the meditator may be “drawn into the first…jhana,” the lowest of seven higher stages of awareness.(62)

These teachings at first seemed as alien to me as the Burmese name of the teacher, Pa Auk Sayadaw. But after some conversations with June and then watching videos of presentations by Stephen and Tina and studying their book, Practising the Jhanas, I made up my mind to jump in. I was encouraged by the dharma talks given to this Sangha by Brian Gavin, their leading student-teacher, a geologist from Spokane who came to San Luis Obispo every Spring, to take part in a bicycle race before his recent untimely death. Brian attested that he was able to reach first Jhana during a three-week retreat within a few months of being introduced to the practice.

I was intrigued by the idea of a short and sure-fire approach to spiritual growth offered by this simple, if bizarre, technique. But it turned out not to be that easy. The anapana spot itself is not a feature of the physical anatomy. You create it with your attention rather than find it, and you have to hang on in order not to be dislodged by the natural flow of other thoughts. At the same time you have to attend to the movement of the breath. This is not the movement of the muscles in the chest or diaphragm but the movement of the airflow, and only as it passes that spot. And even when you latch on to that, it’s hard to exclude everything else. Stephen and Tina acknowledge the difficulty of overcoming the hindrances and persisting in the effort. “When you start anapanasati meditation, your physical and mental energy need to be high…”

In February 2014, I attended a four-day “Introduction to Concentration Meditation” at Cloud Mountain Retreat Center in Washington State led by Stephen and Brian. During exchanges when it was over, I heard from people who’d seen the Nimmita and from one who had passed into Jhana, and I was frustrated by my own failure to do either. But I was gratified by the retreat’s interlude of quiet solitude and not ready to give up. A couple of months later I paid the hefty deposit to reserve a spot and arranged with my family to leave me time to attend a thirteen-day Anapanasati retreat that will take place in October 2015.

4. Swim

Stephen and Tina say, “We encourage yogis to come to the practice with an Olympics mentality.”(30) I never had an Olympics mentality. Always a schlemiel at sports, my athletic activity was limited to running–by myself and unobserved. I had no desire to race but ran as a way to stay in shape, get high on endorphins and enjoy the freedom of letting my feet decide where we were going.

At about the time I retired, my body commanded me to stop the high-impact exercise. Neither expensive shoes nor ipuprofen could overcome the effects of osteoarthritis. Grudgingly, I relinquished the open road for swimming back and forth between lane lines in the Cal Poly pool.

My motivation to continue with this routine was shored up by our grandson, Ian. After dropping out of soccer, baseball and karate, he’d recently taken up training with the Sea Hawks swim-team at Sinsheimer Pool and was sticking with it of his own accord. The repetitious and grueling hour-and-a-quarter daily workouts demanded by his coaches were enhancing his self-discipline, confidence and overall well-being in addition to improving his performance, measured in hundredth-of-a-second units of progress.

I observed him and his teammates and most of my fellow swimmers at Cal Poly gliding across the pool like aquatic mammals in graceful uninterrupted flow while I thrashed and flopped like a dog. I chafed with envy at the way the water seemed their ally rather than antagonist.

If my grandson and the others could learn to swim like that, why not me? If after 40 years of uninstructed meditation I could take up Anapanasati as a beginner, maybe after 60 years of uninstructed swimming I could find a teacher to help me start anew.

At the Rec Center I was referred to an imposing man known simply as “Coach,” who trained the Master Swimmers on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday. I knew I’d never become one of them, but he agreed to take me on for weekly private lessons. He offered many tips—leave the arm forward until after starting the next stroke, at each stroke rotate at the hips, lower the head in the water to float the legs, keep the eyes on the black line at the bottom of the pool, slow the motion of the arms through the air.

It was far more than my mind could absorb or my body could follow. We agreed to slow down to shorter lessons at irregular intervals of a month or more. I resolved to work out for 40 minutes a day. I saw the college students in the Stroke Improvement class showing more progress in six days than I did in six months. But nevertheless, after two years, I can feel the swivel of my hips drill me forward through the water and I can see the tiles of the center line pass by smoothly below. At the last lesson, Coach high-fived me saying, “Hey, now you’re swimming Free Style.”

I appreciated the irony of the stroke’s name. To do Free Style had taken a lot of restraint: of the impulses to windmill with the arms and keep the head up, of the fear of sinking and running out of breath, of exasperation at not going faster. It encapsulated the larger irony that the desire for serenity in swimming and in meditation had lured me into daily activity demanding struggle, risk, and willingness to fail.

5. Skillful effort

I understand now why the notion of an Olympic mentality needs to be qualified both for swimming and meditation: “In using this metaphor, we are not emphasizing the competitive aspect of the Olympics but rather the sense of excellence that can be experienced just by participating,”(30) say Stephen and Tina.

I still tire after my 40 minutes in the pool, and I’ve given up looking at the big clock to track my speed. I haven’t reached the stage of access concentration. I’ve learned that I cant afford to think in terms of success and failure or winning and losing, but that along with effort, I need to cultivate the ability to wait and, particularly in this stage of life, to be patient: “…many retreats can pass without the appearance of the nimmita…meditation moves, changes and progresses in its own time.”(56)

Stephen and Tina also warn about the pitfalls of effort. The “proactive effort” required to combat the hindrances by repeatedly pulling the awareness back to the object must be offset by “receptive effort,” the ability to be open to the influence of the Jhana factors arising from beyond the ego and its will. “The appropriate balance of effort without striving and discipline without attachment is what makes attainment…possible.” (36)

Such a paradoxical and unstable balance is often referred to by Buddhists as “skillful effort.” According to Stephen and Tina, continued exercise of proactive effort gradually reduces the need for it. With an athletic metaphor, they offer reassurance that each falling away produces a step in the right direction: “Every time we bring our awareness back to our object, we are ‘building the muscle’ of concentration…With many repetitions, over time and with consistency, our capacity increases.”(12-13)

In another water-centered metaphor, they refer to what kayakers call “riding the rail,” that is, finding an unseen current that carries them along with only the effort of small strokes to keep them centered on it.

A different way of understanding the paradox of skillful effort is with the concept of habit. As John Dilworth pointed out here a few weeks ago, the mechanisms of habit have been studied by behaviorists as early as Aristotle, and are a hot topic among neuropsychologists today. Habitual repetition of a task, whether by “building the muscle” of concentration or by developing “muscle memory” in the swimmer’s limbs, produces a thickening of the myelin coating of the nerve pathways involved in the action.

When a movement is repeated over time, a long-term muscle memory is created for that task, eventually allowing it to be performed without conscious effort. This process decreases the need for attention and creates maximum efficiency within the motor and memory systems. “Muscle memory”

Or, alternately, in a figure of speech often falsely attributed to Thoreau:

As a single footstep will not make a path on the earth, so a single thought will not make a pathway in the mind. To make a deep physical path, we walk again and again. To make a deep mental path, we must think over and over the kind of thoughts we wish to dominate our lives.


I find striking similarities in the skillful effort required by swimming and by meditation. Both involve heightened concentration during repetitive movements: situations when consciousness is most likely to wander and the monkey mind most likely to take over. Both involve steady correction to stay on course. Both involve a mysteriously flowing interplay between intention and action. Both take place in solitude and quiet, a world where, in Wendy’s words, “mind and body and breath are one.” What I have realized recently is that these similarities allow the two efforts to reinforce and strengthen one another. I’m grateful to her for leading me to that realization and to all of you for listening to me reflect upon it.









Brian Gavin, in memoriam

November 8th, 2014

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There are not many people in the world I feel close to, and Brian was one of them, even though my relationship with him was formalized and very brief.  Shortly before receiving the news about his death I was thinking about contacting him to talk about a noticeable falling off in my meditation practice during the last two weeks, partially due to a cold that kept me up at night and disrupted my early morning routine.

I thought of Brian as my personal teacher, since he conducted most of the sessions at the three-day retreat I attended last February and agreed to have regular phone consultations with me afterward. Those conversations were always serious but also punctuated by laughter and irony on both sides. During them I felt I had much to learn and nothing to hide. At one point he mentioned that he was looking forward to a long retreat in September with anticipation and some apprehension. That was typical of the frank way we communicated, despite the distance I felt from the variety of samatha experiences that qualified him as a teacher and that he described with such scientific precision.  A few months later we both agreed to forgo the conversations until something I needed to talk about came up. Now it’s too late.

But then again, maybe not, since he remains present to me often during my practice, repeating the assurance that if and when I find the time to attend a longer retreat, a door to the reality he knew would undoubtedly open for me.


Michael Friedman: November 18, 1942 – September 5, 2014

October 7th, 2014

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Michael made me feel secure in Lund when I felt most exposed.  There was something about his domineering figure, his booming voice, his grandiose self-confidence and his awe-inspiring talents as artist, writer and chef that made me feel protected, as if by the big brother I never had. Even when he told tales of disappointment in love or family or career or business–with a puzzled shrug of the shoulders and lift of the eyebrows–his presence seemed sheltering. Never mind that he rarely showed interest in what I was up to, either at home or abroad.

Perhaps I placed trust in Michael because we arrived in Lund at nearly the same time as refugee idealists groping for space to rebuild the world in accordance with our own fantasies, each of us in flight from the world of friends and family back home, but still longing for their admiration. Perhaps it was that the large tracts of land we owned (or rather owed) shared a corner in common, and that we were both concerned with property lines and subdivision potentials along with goat milk and chicken egg yields. Or that our two first children, Jonah and Josh, lived within a half hour’s walking distance and were best friends. Perhaps it was that we were both products of a strong liberal arts education that we expected to put to work in the bush, or that we self-identified as non-observant atheist Jews.

In 1972 we decided to go in together on a major investment: a green fiberglass 16 foot Frontiersman canoe.  Neither of us were fishermen or marine types, but this was a shared opportunity with limited commitment for unlimited adventure: to get out on the water, to camp on the Raggeds, to go on a four-day trip to Galley Bay through Portage Cove when the boys were three, and, when they were five to let them paddle themselves from Lund to Steamboat Bay and camp alone overnight. Here’s a picture of him working on one of his amazing superrealist paintings of the rock cliffs across the channel, as Jonah and Josh practice boat-handling.


In 2005 we tried again, as grandfathers, to paddle the cracked and faded hull to the Raggeds, but his weight in the stern made the vessel so tippy that we turned back before reaching Finn Bay.


Michael was a natural master of the theatrical, as evidenced, for example, in the dramatic proportions of the space he created inside his dilapidated mansion on Prior Road, and in the double wedding with babies, goats and cats he orchestrated in his pasture, here photographed by Fred Pihl.

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After its first production of Free to Be You and Me, Michael belatedly joined the Lund Theatre Troupe and directed and designed a haunting performance of Spoon River Anthology, the third of Three One Act Plays. In spite of his tendency to overshadow the rest of us, the huge infusion of his presence was gratefully welcomed as taking the company to the next level. Here is a 1975 photo of Michael holding forth on the back porch of the Community Hall on the morning after the all-night cast party during a meeting to plan taking the show on the road.


In later years, as many of the founding members departed, Michael kept the Troupe going himself, as producer, director and script writer.

A year or two after Jan and I started working at Malaspina College in Powell River —1976 or 77—Michael was hired to instruct studio art and art history courses there. Again his talent and energy provided a big boost to what we were trying to do—beef up the liberal arts program to make it possible for local people to actually complete a community college degree without leaving the area, not to speak of expanding local job opportunities for newcomers. The first such graduate was June Huber, brilliant as both an artist and a writer, whom Michael and Jan shared the privilege of teaching. She and most of the other students adored him for his ability and his dedication.

We moved back to the states in 1979, and Michael and his family settled in Los Angeles a few years later.  We had occasional contact—eating lunch at the old Getty museum where he combined his cooking with his interest in art, and visiting the house in Culver City he rebuilt with his own hands.  We’d cross paths on summer visits to Lund.  I was amazed but not surprised when he worked his way up to head chef at Biola University, planning and providing daily meals for 4000 people, meals good enough to attract faculty as well as students to the dining hall.  I wasn’t surprised either when the corporate hierarchy forced him out of his job in order to bring in the non-descript cooking of a food service.

I have vivid recollections of his return to Lund in retirement, his living comfortably within the confines of his fifth-wheel mobile home near the foot of the old castle on the hill, his absorption in the unending hassles of subdividing and selling the lots he designed, his contentment sitting by his little koi pond like an old Zen sage, his artistic experiments in multiple media–digital, painting and sculpture–and, though maybe it was only my projection, a sense of his great loneliness. The fact that he was back strengthened my tie to the place where my present converges with my past.

Having finally overcome the financial obstacles, he set about to fulfill his ancient dream: building a comfortable and beautiful home with a million dollar view and a gourmet kitchen.  He loved working on it, living in it, showing it off to friends and neighbors and international visitors he attracted through Air BnB, whose glowing digital recommendations he treasured.


But as soon as he moved into this bright and airy house with a sold foundation, his body started crumbling.  First the esofogeal cancer that cruelly kept him from another great joy in his life, eating, and then after a heroic and apparently victorious struggle with that, the double assault of metastatic bone cancer and a lingering infection in his leg from a cut by his woodcarving chisel. I would check in on him periodically during these ordeals, and his demeanor was always positive, proud of his weightloss, high as a kite on his medications, confident he’d beat the odds.


During our annual visit and family reunion in late July, Michael showed me and Joe around the house, delighted with the appreciation of his work expressed by his former daycare charge and now fellow design-builder.  Our last face-to-face took place at Jan’s birthday party at Knoll House.  Climbing the stairs to the living room left him breathless, but he carried up a large pot of Cioppino he’d prepared for the potluck that Jan said was some of the best food she’d ever tasted.


Despite the conviviality, I sensed his peril.  Back in California, I called repeatedly and got no answer.  After ten days, he picked up the phone and spoke between gasps. He said he’d been in the hospital because of the leg infection and was now home again on a double ration of oxygen.  It was scary, he said, not being able to get enough breath.  I asked if anyone was there looking after him, and he brightened and said, “Don’t worry, the home care people come twice a day, it’s alright.”  The conversation was exhausting him so I said good bye, horrified that he was alone in such an extreme state. I phoned Mara, and she too was horrified by what was going on. She assured me that she was doing her best to help and that Janet McGuinty was coming up to add what support she could.

Two days later I listened to a brief phone message from Mara informing me that Michael had passed—at night, at home, in Lund.  I was, as they say, overcome with grief—more than I expected because of the suddenness of the news and my assumption that he had died frightened and alone.  I couldn’t bear the thought alone myself and called Jan at the Mayor’s office and wept into the phone.

Then I called Mara and spoke to her and to Janet.  The ending was opposite to what I’d imagined.  Both of them were by his side, Janet holding his hand.  His last words were “this is such a comfort.”  I saw three old friends, returned to the place where they met more than 40 years ago, feeling their bond at a moment that counted most. I felt part of that bond.

Next day I called Linda Friedman in Hawaii.  Michael had told me she was with him for a brief visit in early July.  I hadn’t spoken to her in ten years.  As soon as she heard my voice, she said, “Funny you should call.  Michael communicated with me just before I  woke up this morning.  It was more vivid than a dream.  He said, ‘I loved being Michael Friedman.  But where I am now, I love so much more.’”

Steve Ervington: Sept. 29, 1944 – Aug. 21, 2014

September 12th, 2014

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One of my strongest memories of Steve was his performance as Lomov opposite Frankie Rogers playing Natalia Stepanovna in Anton Chekov’s one act play, “The Marriage Proposal,” staged by the Lund Theatre Troupe in 1976. His portrayal of the gawky hypochondriac landowner suffering “palpitations”–first of nervousness and then of rage– remains the funniest comedy I’ve ever seen. Thirty-five years later, I can still taste the tears of laughter it set flowing at every rehearsal and performance.  That character’s awkwardness and hysteria perfectly offset Steve’s easy grace and cheerful equilibrium.

According to Peter B., Steve often said, it wasn’t about what you make or do, it was about what you are.  Steve never said that to me, but what he did say on several occasions was that he knew I was an achiever and he wasn’t.  In fact he was a major achiever—as an artist, a designer, an actor, a builder, a social worker—though his achievements never gained the professional public recognition they might have. It was his respect combined with his affection that made me feel so good.

Celebrations of Life are about loss and compensation.  The hole left by the person’s departure takes on a distinct shape that remains with us, one more firm and positive than that of many who are still living—people we’ve lost touch with because of distance and circumstance, people close by who we were hurt by or tired of.  Our connection with them awaits such memorials to be rekindled.

With Steve it was different. My grief is not about a past memory but a for a lost presence and a foreclosed future. It was his being here that helped draw me to Lund every year. It was his participation that helped motivate me to join in group adventures like climbing on the South Powell Divide, kayaking in the Broughtons, hiking the West Coast Trail and the Grand Canyon, and canoeing on the Yukon and Green Rivers. It was the expectation of his quirky and amiable company that I anticipated making it fun to grow old.

My last encounter with Steve was in his and Juliet’s house on August 7.  I held his hand and said, “Tomorrow I’m heading back to California.”

“Take me with you,” he whispered, then faintly chuckled.

For a moment, I was at a loss.  Then came the words: “I will.”

And then it dawned on me what they meant:  “I will…everywhere that I go.”