RIP, Jane Ganet-Sigel

This is the season of life in which we find ourselves.

The children largely grown and out of the house, not yet fully independent but well on their way.

Many, like Aidan, are legal adults who have started to shed the oppositional position in which everything we say as parents is wrong and subject to eye rolling and scornful looks.

Whereas several years ago we battled over curfews and cars, now we talk about care packages sent and received, courses taken and internships sought.

It’s calmer, less emotionally taxing and grounded in a feeling of only slightly mixed gratitude.

Our parents, on the other hand, are in the time that Dylan Thomas called “the dying of the light.”

Some, like my mother-in-law Helen said about Marty in his final days, rage against the inevitable end.

Others are more accepting.

There is no right way to go.

But fading and passing they are.

Yesterday it came to Jane Ganet-Sigel, mother of dear friend Eddie Ganet.

Jane lived a long, full, joyful and generative life.

She founded the Dance/Movement Therapy program at Columbia College, where I have just begun to teach.

A loving mother and grandmother and partner to the indomitable Mel, a sturdy nonagenerian from the West Side with a firm handshake and a grey pony tail.

Jane fought long and hard against the various ailments she suffered.

Her mind never stopped working, even if the strokes she sustained made it harder to express herself.

Dunreith and I would see Jane and Mel at Cheryl and Eddie’s house on holidays like Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.

We’d sit in the dining room, feasting on brisket or whatever other treasures Cheryl had made, chatting about this and that, thankful to be part of the circle of birth and adopted family.

Even as her ability to speak waned, Jane always transmitted pure love with her soulful dark eyes.

Dunreith chided me the last time we saw her for knocking another guest out of the way before saying goodbye to Jane.

My wife was right, but I just wanted to show my respect and caring for this remarkable woman.

On Saturday Jane said goodbye to her son, who had given her unfailing love and care as she declined.

See you soon, Eddie said.

Maybe not, Jane answered, slyly.

The Great Lioness has taken her last breath, Eddie wrote on Facebook.

It appears that she knew.

As we advance to a certain stage in our lives, there are fewer and fewer people who treat us as their children.

For us, the generation of grandparents is largely gone.

Our parents are going.

Being around someone who related to me that way, as Jane did, always filled me with warmth and made me feel safe.

I called Mom last night while we were making dinner.

She and Jane had met one Rosh Hashanah and enjoyed each other’s company a lot.

Mom had just spoken the day before about how she and her peers are nearing death, thinking about their lives and what has mattered to them.

You are in the stage of living from your dreams and seeing what comes from that, she told me.

It was a little late last night when I called, and Mom was up and alert.

She told me about the writing she’s doing.

I shared the news about Jane and about what she had said to Eddie.

People choose the time they’re going to die, Mom said. Often doctors in hospice don’t understand that, but the pull to life becomes less and less.

I’m glad you’re still here, I told Mom.

Appreciative of Jane for all that she gave us, we are aware that we are inching into the space our grandparents and parents inhabited before us, the place of elders who have largely done what they are going to do in life and who are passing on their wisdom and ceaseless love to those who come after us.

She and they will guide us as we move, slowly but inexorably, into this new stage.

Thank you.


On Receiving and Giving, Minute by Minute

Addy Reisler Yanow, left, pictured with Judge James Moran, gave to family and friends throughout her 93 years of life.  Photo courtesy of Jennifer Moran.

Adelaide Reisler Yanow, left, pictured with Judge James Moran, gave to family and friends throughout her 93 years of life. Photo courtesy of Jennifer Moran.

I’ve written a lot the past few years about the abundance of gifts I have been privileged to receive.

Gifts large and small that arrive in ordinary and extraordinary moments.

A loving wife and a son who has grown into a man I am proud to know.

Good health.

Active parents whose desires to live a meaningful life still beats strong.

Close relations with my brothers, sister-in-law and nephew on our side of the family, and love for all of the folks on Dunreith’s side.

Work that is a source of passion and meaning, and that regularly provides opportunities for collaboration with my brother.

Financial stability.

A circle of friends.

A clearer sense of how I want to live during my time on the planet.

Extraordinary opportunities for travel.

I could go on and on, and you get the idea.

More recently, though, I’ve been reflecting on what I can give.

I’m not say this is the first time I’ve ever thought of how to help people.

Rather it’s a deepening understanding of the potential all of us have, at every moment, to contribute to others, to help bring some measure of healing or insight or strength to those with whom we are fortunate enough to spend our days.

Some opportunities are more clear than others.

Dunreith and I attended a memorial service on Monday for Adelaide Reisler Yanow, mother of our friend Wendy Yanow, who died last week at age 93. (Addie had only retired four years from her position at the federal court before her passing, and, as the cantor officiating the ceremony noticed, held as a point of pride that she had been offered another position.)

I didn’t see Addie a lot, but spent enough time around her to appreciate her indomitable spirit, her fierce and loving generosity, and her simple encouragement that has stayed with me.

Dunreith, Aidan and I moved to Evanston from Easthampton so that I could pursue my writing passion.

In 2003, I had my first byline in the Chicago Tribune’s Perspectives section.

It was a piece offering an assessment of Dr. King’s 1966 campaign in Chicago to end slum housing conditions.

The effort, King’s first in a northern city, had widely, if not unanimously, been labeled a failure.

I challenged that viewpoint and suggested that there were gains that had been achieved, even if the central objective had not been accomplished.

Addie complimented me on the article, her eyes glowing as she spoke.

It was a time when I was a bit like a foal struggling to find my writing legs.

Her words, and the knowledge that this straight-talking, lifelong Chicagoan would let me know if she had thought otherwise, bolstered me and gave me strength.

This action was typical, we heard over and over again during the service.

Addie’s grandson Max Antman, a family friend whose mother had been close with Addy for 70 years, and a former law clerk of Judge Moran, the man with whom she worked for the last 28 years of her career, all rose to paint a consistent portrait of a fun-loving, compassionate, funny, strict and incessantly giving woman who lived, as Max said, a magnificent life.

Death is a natural and inevitable partner to life, so it’s hard not to feel gratitude for a woman who was such a marvelous model and who created so many warm memories.

Those feelings were there, to be sure.

But still, no matter when it comes, the loss of a parent cuts deep.

I’ve seen this during the past four years, as Dunreith has come to terms with the death first of her father Marty in 2010, and then her mother Helen about 18 months later.

Wendy and her sisters were feeling that pain.

Dunreith and I dressed up, drove to Weinstein Funeral Home in Wilmette, joined the receiving line, hugged and shook hands and expressed condolences that we knew could not eliminate the pain.

But we also knew that our presence was a balm.

In this moment the possibility to give was readily apparent.

In others, it’s less so.

But that doesn’t make its importance any less.

Doing so effectively comes from listening and feeling where another person is, thinking about what they are dealing with in their lives, and offering what we can to help.

In some cases the gift can be a touch on the arm, an appreciative laugh, an understanding smile.

At other times, it’s words of witness and affirmation.

I’m more grateful than ever for all that I have received.

But I’m as grateful for the moment by moment opportunities to give, too.

Jon Lowenstein and his team launch the Island in South Shore

My brother and ace photographer Jon Lowenstein in action.  Working with him here in Chile was a fantastic experience.

My brother and ace photographer Jon Lowenstein in action.

It’s one thing to have a vision, but another entirely to bring it to reality.

Jon Lowenstein, my brother and an enormously talented and accomplished photographer, did that Saturday night with the launch of the Island, a place dedicated to creating dialogue about social justice through documentary photography and film.

Jon has worked and lived on Chicago’s South Side for about a decade.

His photography of the community has garnered some of American letters’ highest honors, including the prestigious Guggenheim Fellowship.

More recently, as part of that ongoing project, Jon has sought to bring a new and different arts space to Chicago’s South Side.

After hunting around for locations, he decided on an apartment in his building on South Shore Drive that had been vacant for close to a decade.

Jon gained approval from the board, and with the support of the Chicago Architecture Foundation and the Chicago Community Trust, began to move forward.

Fortunately, he had help.

Anastasia "Guru" Page working to get the Island ready to launch.

Anastasia “Guru” Page working to get the Island ready to launch.

Jon’s dedicated team of Sarah Rivers, Anastasia “Guru” Page and Natalie Perkins did what amounted to a near complete rehab in the past week. Among other things, they pulled carpet from some of the wooden floors and painted the walls a soothing and attractive white.

Natalie Perkins, part of Jon Lowenstein's team who helped prepare the vacant apartment that has become the Island.

Natalie Perkins, part of Jon Lowenstein’s team who helped prepare the vacant apartment that has become the Island.

Everything was ready for the launch.

Visitors coming off the elevators were treated to several of Jon’s large black and white prints on the wall outside of the apartment.

More work awaited inside.

The apartment is a large three-bedroom with rooms located off the lengthy, main hallway.

The dining room held more of Jon’s larger pictures, many of which were taken with his IPhone.

The wall of a side galley contained much smaller images arranged in rows.

A computer projected “Chiberia,” Jon’s recent film that British television station Channel 4 commissioned about the bitter cold in Chicago and the recent closure in his neighborhood of a Dominick’s supermarket, onto a cloth screen in the living room.

All were in black and white.

All were intimate shots of people and places in the community.

Some of the pictures were older, while others were more recent.

But all were based in a bone-deep commitment to show a wide range of aspects of the proud, wounded, challenged and resilient people and their neighborhoods.

It was a snowy evening and the driving was tricky, so the crowd gathered slowly.

But gathered it did.

Residents old and young from the building attended.

“I’m the oldest person in the building,” One sprightly woman with a cane and a kind face told me proudly. “I’m 92.”

“I’m 90,” her friend standing next to her declared, her eyes twinkling.

Friends from the community like Tenessa Moss, who has known Jon since he worked at the Paul Revere Elementary School through the Comer Science and Education Foundation in the early part of last decade.

And, of course, Jon’s photographic brothers.

People like Danny Wilcox Frazier, whom he’s known for a quarter century, drove for hours from Iowa City to attend the event.

Carlos Javier Ortiz, who’s documented the painful reality and steep costs for years, was there, too.

So were Andre J. Jackson, along with his dancing daughter Leilani, and Troy Heinzeroth.

Andre Jackson's daughter Leilani watches Jon Lowenstein's film "Chiberia" at the launch of the Island.

Andre Jackson’s daughter Leilani watches Jon Lowenstein’s film “Chiberia” at the launch of the Island.

The energy kept surging as the crowd continued to file in, imbibe the selections of wine or sangria Sarah had prepared, consume the spicy chili and soothing macaroni and cheese laid out near a vegetable plate, and soak in the pleasure of each other’s company and the glory of the new space.

Wearing an evening-style jacket, his recently-cut hair pulled back a la Steven Seagal, Jon addressed the crowd after several hours of festivities.

He thanked everyone for coming, saluted his team, friends and family and talked about coming events at the space.

A wet plate project supported by The New Yorker will be next.

The work of Danny, Carlos and our dear friend and wise soul Ava Kadishson Schieber will be displayed, too.

Hearty applause and more celebrating followed.

It’s not entirely clear what form the Island will eventually take.

Jon has talked about regularly holding salons and of bringing photographers from around the world to it.

But it is certain that many people were drawn to the site and to his vision that has begun to be realized.

Comprised of people from different backgrounds, ages, and levels of physical ability, the group demonstrated the hunger folks have for a community space committed to art and dialogue and social justice as well as the power that is unleashed when you provide just that.

Saturday was a snowy and cold evening in January.

I can’t wait to see what happens next.

On Dr. Martin Luther King’s Struggles and Strength

The arrival of the annual King holiday prompts reflection on the state of the country relative to the lofty dream he articulated first in Detroit, and then most memorably on the Washington Mall in August 1963.

But it’s also an opportunity to consider the man and how he was able to persevere in the face of the consistently vicious opposition he encountered during the final third of his life.

One part of the key may lie in a speech he gave in Mount Pisgah Missionary Baptist Church in Chicago in 1967, about a year after his campaign to bring about the “unconditional surrender” of slum housing conditions in what was then the nation’s second-largest city.

The experience he recounted happened late one night in the kitchen of his Montgomery home.

King, who had not originally sought out a church that would become the center of international activism, had emerged as a leader in the boycott sparked by seamstress, NAACP member and former Highlander Center alumnus Rosa Parks. (An interesting side note is that 15-year-old Claudette Colvin had been arrested for the same violation the year before Parks, but had not been considered a sufficiently appropriate face of the moment by the local black power structure.)

The decision came with heavy costs.

King’s house was bombed one night while he and his family were in it.

He received daily death threats for the following 13 years until his assassination in Memphis by James Earl Ray on April 4, 1968.

It was at midnight, King told the Chicago audience, when he received the call. (You can hear King start to tell the story at 18:32 on the recording.)

The message was simple and laced with a racial epithet:

We’re tired of you and what you’re doing.

Get out of town in three days, or we’ll kill you and blow up your house.

Although he had encountered many similar such threats, this one jolted King.

He could not return to sleep.

He eventually went into his kitchen for a cup of coffee to calm his nerves.

He started thinking about the theology he had studied for years, about his beautiful little girl, about his dedicated and loving wife.

Nothing worked.

King then thought of reaching out to his father, a well-respected preacher, but he was 175 miles away in Atlanta.

He even considered contacting his mother.

Then he realized he needed to pray, to call on his profound belief and to ask for help from the god in which he believed so fervently.

With the crowd clapping and calling out its approval and support, King said that he bowed down over the cup of coffee and uttered the following prayer:

“Lord, I’m down here trying to do what’s right. (Yes) I think I’m right; I think the cause that we represent is right. (Yes) But Lord, I must confess that I’m weak now; I’m faltering; I’m losing my courage. (Yes) And I can’t let the people see me like this because if they see me weak and losing my courage, they will begin to get weak.”

King’s voice rose as he told the crowd that he heard a voice telling him, “Martin Luther, (Yes) stand up for righteousness, (Yes) stand up for justice, (Yes) stand up for truth. (Yes) And lo I will be with you, (Yes) even until the end of the world.”

It rose even further as he roared his belief:

“And I’ll tell you, I’ve seen the lightning flash. I’ve heard the thunder roll. I felt sin- breakers dashing, trying to conquer my soul. But I heard the voice of Jesus saying still to fight on. He promised never to leave me, never to leave me alone. No, never alone. No, never alone. He promised never to leave me, (Never) never to leave me alone.”

Based on the strength he drew from the voice he heard, King gathered himself to continue the fight for justice and equality.

He fought from victories in Montgomery and Selma to setbacks in Albany, Georgia and here in Chicago.

He expanded his geographic focus from the southern part of the United States to the north to the entire world (The bombs dropped in Vietnam fall in American cities, he said in one address.)

Animated by his faith and the comfort he received by not being left alone, motivated by what he called the fierce urgency of now, King gathered himself and fought until he drew his final breath in Memphis.

He did so in the face of disappointment, and, as he told the church crowd, in spite of battles with discouragement:

“And I don’t mind telling you this morning that sometimes I feel discouraged. (All right) I felt discouraged in Chicago. As I move through Mississippi and Georgia and Alabama, I feel discouraged. (Yes, sir) Living every day under the threat of death, I feel discouraged sometimes. Living every day under extensive criticisms, even from Negroes, I feel discouraged sometimes. [applause] Yes, sometimes I feel discouraged and feel my work’s in vain. But then the holy spirit (Yes) revives my soul again. “There is a balm in Gilead to make the wounded whole. There is a balm in Gilead to heal the sin-sick soul.” God bless you.” [applause]

The message he delivered in our city, a place where he achieved decidedly mixed results, can help us arrive at a different understanding of the man than one often reads and hears about in history books.

That King is portrayed as a lofty dreamer, a towering giant who stands enshrined in a massive statue on the very mall where he delivered his most famous address.

But his Chicago sermon reveals an imperfect man who grappled with insecurity, yet who found through his faith, his circle of loved ones and his own inner resources, the strength and courage to continue to fight for a cause he believed in so deeply he gave his life to it.

We are grateful and better as a country for his sacrifice, and closer to him as a man for his having shared his inner struggle.

The Moment Between: On Tingling Stomachs and Striving for Teaching Perfection

In the summer of 1992, after five years as an apprentice teacher, recess aide, instructional aide and homework center director, I got my first full-time teaching job at Brown Middle School in Newton.

My new principal Judy Malone-Neville called me in Portsmouth, New Hampshire to deliver the news.

I’d be teaching seventh and eighth grade English and Social Studies in a wealthy section of a comfortable Boston suburb.

I listened politely, hung up the phone and started jumping up and down for joy.

I sang, no yelled, really U2’s She Moves in Mysterious Ways.

I set up my classroom a couple of weeks before school started,

The pictures of Larry Bird that the Boston Globe published after his retirement went right on my coat closet.

Images of nature and posters phrases designed to inspire ringed the walls.

My stomach tingled as I walked around the room after I had arranged the desks in a long U-shape to stimulate conversation.

I bounced on my heels in the center of the room, just imagining the dialogue and learning community we would be able to create together.

It was that special moment before the school year began, when no homework assignments had been missed.

No disrespect, intentional or otherwise, had occurred.

All was perfect and everything seemed possible.

It’s more than 20 years later, and again I’ll be in a new classroom.

There are differences, of course.

The students are not in middle school, but in college.

Many are not coming from suburban comfort, but from impoverished communities.

Some are juggling working three jobs.

Others bring their children to class at times because they can’t find child care.

I’m changed, too.

Firmly in middle age, I no longer hold the same belief in teaching perfection as I did as a younger man.

I understand how formed the students are when we get them and the increasingly narrow window we have in which to influence them.

But when I think about what we’ll do together, as I start inviting the guest speakers and planning the specific sessions, when I start thinking about the stories they’ll write, the scoops they’ll uncover, the progress they’ll make and the lessons they’ll teach me, I feel that familiar stirring in my stomach.

It’s a feeling of nerves based in caring about the outcome.

But it’s also that sense that, just as it was more than two decades ago in a suburban classroom close to 1,000 miles away, for a moment, all is possible.

Classes begin two weeks from today.

Stomach rumbling, I’ll be there, ready to roll.

Gifts of the Moment at the Evanston YMCA

I’ve written before about being fortunate to have received many gifts and then spent large parts of the post listing the sources of my gratitude.

When I was in my late 20s I started playing in a Friday afternoon basketball game with fellow teachers at an elementary school gym at Newton where one of the players taught. I was part of the group off and on for seven years, and even would occasionally drive in to play from Western Massachusetts the year after Dunreith and I got married.

Grateful for the end of the week, we’d warm up, shoot around and played five or even six pitched battles of games up to seven points before showering and having a few beers to wash down some fries or some of the other offering at Dunn Gaherin’s, an Irish watering hole.

Over the years my motivation for playing in the games changed.

At first, and for several years, it was all about winning with whatever combination of teammates I had and of playing without surrendering an inch of focus and determination.

My desire to do my best never left, but the meaning I drew from the game evolved.

I came to understand that the game mattered to each of us in different ways. One guy, a mustachioed math teacher with whom I taught, spoke openly about how banging in the post against us on defense helped him handle some of what he considered the more outrageous behavior of his ex-wife. (We eventually learned to gauge how things were going with his ex by the fervor of his defense.)

Others sought to stave off physical decline.

Many expressed body image insecurity in subtle ways, by making an offhanded joke as they went to shower.

Over time, too, I came to value not so much the victory and the competition, but rather the counsel I received.

Most of the other guys in the game were at least two decades older than me, and had wives and families and mortgages that felt impossibly adult.

They provided examples of how to live a moral and balanced life, and one guy in particular helped me when I was grappling with a difficult relationship decision.

Listen to your heart, he said in effective, if unoriginal, advice.

It always knows.

He was right, and I did.

I thought about the shift in the basketball game today when I went to work out at the Evanston YMCA.

We first joined the facility shortly after we moved to Evanston in 2002, and have been active members since.

In the early years I loved to go there, blast out my treadmill or lifting or shooting or yoga or biking without talking or engaging much with other people.

I was there to exercise, not to talk.

Yet, like with the basketball game, that purpose started to shift and to melt, like snow does in the rain.

I still derive satisfaction and peace from pushing my body hard, from trying to reach new levels of speed reached or weight lifted or distance covered.

But I also enjoy at least as much from seeing a former intern from The Chicago Reporter whose graduation from Columbia College I attended several years ago.

We saw each other near the entrance to the sprawling floor filled with row after row of stairmasters, exercise bicycles and treadmills.

At the Reporter we were examining the issue and experience of the children of incarcerated parents when she started working for us.

I am one of those children, she told me one day. My father was incarcerated.

From that revelation she eventually wrote a piece about the second time her father was arrested shortly before her eighth grade graduation, if I remember correctly.

Her dad, who had been imprisoned before, had made two promises to her.

The first was that he would not get arrested again.

The second was that he would cook her breakfast on the day of her eighth graduation.

In the story she described waking up for her big day and not being able to hear or smell the sizzling bacon she had expected.

Her father was back in jail, a first stop on his way to prison.

He had broken both promises.

By the time she wrote her story her father had been released and her parents had reconciled.

But the impact from his absence remained for the young woman.

Today we chatted and caught up and complimented each other before resuming our workouts.

I also saw a friend who was waiting for his daughter to finish on one of the machines.

The younger of his two sons has had Ulcerative Colitis, a disease that, in his words, caused him to lose 45 pounds in a month.

As opposed to the intern, for whom the absence of the anticipated smell of bacon meant her father’s repeated disappointment, the smell of bacon, eggs pesto and garlic taunted him, he wrote in a college essay.

His face resembled a balloon, he said.

My friend, his family and, above all, the young man showed extraordinary grace and courage under excruciating pressure.

He’s made a strong recovery and is planning to attend college.

My friend and I talked about the Chargers-Bronco games and shopping missions accomplished or yet to come.

The knowledge of what they’ve endured surfaced, though.

I wrapped up my workout, the hardest I’ve done this year, and walked down the stairs to a shower and well-earned feeling of relaxation.

As it did in the latter part of my membership in the basketball game, gratitude mingled with the sweat on my T-shirt and the appreciation of the unsung strength of so many people I have the good fortune to know.

The shower water felt divine as it pelted my face.

The Moment Between: Aidan’s Last Night in Chicago

“I assume it gets easier each time he leaves,” my Aunt Helen wrote about Aidan’s return to school in New Orleans.

He’ll be leaving in the early morning with former roommate and fraternity brother Daniel Mishkin.

The two of them will be making the 16-hour trek over the course of two days. (Thankfully for us, they are stopping overnight at Vanderbilt University in Nashville. )

In many ways, Helen is right.

Aidan’s excited about getting back to campus for the second half of his junior year to see his friends, continue writing and generally be in the flow of Tulane life.

We’ve been enormously fortunate to have large chunks of time with Aidan, much of it Internet free, during the month we all spent together in Chile and in the pair of weeks since we returned to Chicago.

As opposed to many Chileans, who are known for living at home even until the forties, Aidan’s more like many American youth who have outward homing devices that are active years before they reach 18 years old. That trend has only accelerated since he graduated from ETHS and started at Tulane in the Fall of2011.

A month in the Cascade Mountains in Washington State and a semester of studying and traveling in New Zealand, Australia and Bali have only strengthened Aidan’s pre-existing state of independence and practice of competence.

In Chile we saw all manner of spectacular, haunting and illuminating sights, walking on the scorching sands of the world’s driest desert, hiking in one of the planet’s most gorgeous national parks and visiting the most fantastic of legendary poet Pablo Neruda’s three homes.

The volume of time and the sights weren’t the most meaningful parts, though.

Rather it was the space to engage in lengthy, soulful conversations at an important juncture in all of our lives.

At moments I could feel us move together into a place where we are all adults who decide together what we want to do individually and as a family.

We have the comforting knowledge that we’ve been through this before.

We also know we’ll see Aidan again sometime in March and are grateful that he wants to be in Chicago this summer for an internship.

And yet.

It’s been such a pleasure to have Aidan around that I feel a twinge again at his leaving, at the absence of seeing him on a daily basis.

The renewed reminder of the years that have passed and how we are all that much further down the road of life and closer to its inevitable add another layer of bearable sadness.

Tonight we ate together in the dark light of our favorite Indian restaurant.

The three of us talked quietly about Aidan’s trip and the semester that awaits him, about where we should place his belongings in the car, and about some of the places we all would like to go.

I sat across the table from the bearded young man I’ve had the privilege to help raise and the woman to whom I have pledged myself and with whom I will spend the rest of my life.

Poised between the journey we’ve been so fortunate to share and Aidan’s impending departure, we raised our glasses and toasted to each other.