This morning on the subway, a young guy was attempting to tie his tie while his girlfriend looked on. I overheard him say that he remembered his father first teaching him to tie a tie–a memory no doubt that a lot of young men share. But it’s actually a memory I share as well. In the late 1970s, caught up in the Annie Hall tie and vest fashion craze, I asked my dad if he had any old ties I could have. My father was well known for always being the most dapper guy in the room. He punctuated his suits with the many ties we had given him over the years for his birthday and Father’s Day. Without even asking why, he pulled out a Wanamaker’s gift box from the closet, filled to the brim with ties that no longer made his fashion cut. I had a field day! But of course what good is a tie if you don’t know how to tie it. So my dad, typically unphased by anything out of the ordinary, (if his children were asking for something, we must have our reasons), gave me, his only daughter, a lesson on how to tie a tie. As I watched the young man on the subway struggle with his neckware, I thought about how it’s usually the little moments in life that we remember and cherish–the ties that bond!
For me, one of the all-time gems of New York City is the show, The Fantasticks. After 42 years at the Sullivan Street Playhouse, it relocated to The Snapple Theater on Broadway in 2006, where they are happy to welcome students and groups of any age. In fact, a few months ago, we took a group of students participating in Urban Glee NYC, a project of our in-school arts education organization, Literacy Takes a Bow (LTAB), to see the show. It was thrilling for them, especially when they got to hang out with some of the actors during the Talk Back and ask questions about their acting process and the production. I have always had a special place in my heart for The Fantasticks. Here’s why…
As a college student attending NYU in the 1980s, I had an apartment over Rocco Restaurant on Thompson Street between Bleeker and Houston in Greenwich Village. In the height of the summer, the hot, stagnant air, pregnant with the pungent fragrance of roasted garlic from Rocco’s, filled my apartment. For a respite from the heat, I would sit on my windowsill, which opened out to the fire escape, to try and catch an occasional cool breeze. One night I made an incredible discovery. The back of the Sullivan Street Playhouse was directly parallel to my apartment. Seeking some relief from the sultry temperatures, they would often open the stage door resulting in the sweet sounds of the The Fantasticks flowing out the theatre door and in through my open window. As an aspiring writer and student in NYU’s School of the Arts, I was passionate about theatre. What greater gift could there have been, than to be serenaded night after night by the world’s longest running musical? It’s a memory I haven’t had to “Try to Remember,” because it has stayed with me all these years.
In 2005 I was part of the interfaith delegation attending the first Meeting of the Parties (MOP-1) to the Kyoto Protocol─the protocol to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, aimed at fighting “global warming,” since the gathering in Kyoto in 1997. It was therefore one of the largest intergovernmental conferences on climate change ever, hosting more than 10,000 delegates. I was representing the Coalition on the Environment and Jewish Life (COEJL); our ecumenical team was monitoring the international negotiations on climate change and meeting with scientists and government officials from many countries to discuss ethical and moral responses to this urgent environmental crisis. It was at this gathering that I first heard and met, Ray Anderson, chairman and chief executive of the world’s largest carpet-tile manufacturer, Interface, Inc.
Wearing my more radical grassroots hat, I was also involved with a group called, the Climate Crisis Coalition, and being genetically predisposed to activism and looking out for the little guy, I was wary of big business. In walked Ray Anderson, this charismatic, all-American looking executive, with his almost evangelical approach to the need to reduce waste and carbon emissions. But this wasn’t always his mantra. He had an ethical wake-up call after reading Paul Hawken’s book, The Ecology of Commerce, and realizing that he, through his company’s role in the industrial system, was a “plunderer of Earth.” This resulted in his helping to pave (or should I say, carpet the way), for innovative thinking on sustainability and how a company could remain profitable and do the right thing, all at the same time. From that point on, in any facility greening project I was involved in, I touted the many benefits of investing in Interface carpeting, a green business success story. But I also need to disclose that I had a personal agenda for my support as well. Besides their goal of a zero carbon footprint and using renewable materials, Interface figured out a way to eliminate the use of adhesive toxic glues, notorious for causing off-gassing─the evaporation of volatile chemicals in non-metallic materials. In layman’s terms…that new carpet smell that overwhelms you when you enter a newly carpeted space. Being chemically-sensitive, I am particularly sensitive to this. (No one should have to endure the affects of off-gassing, especially children.)
In a tribute to Ray Anderson, who passed away on August 9, New York Times writer (and my friend), Paul Vitello, quoted from a speech Anderson made to the business community after being inspired by Paul Hawken’s book. “We are all part of the continuum of humanity and life. We will have lived our brief span and either helped or hurt that continuum and the earth that sustains all life. It’s that simple. Which will it be?”
Ray Anderson, through Interface, was part of the continuum of addressing our greatest environmental threat, climate change; as well as reducing waste and indoor air pollution─key to a healthy building, whether it be a home, business, or house of worship─making a sacred space, a little more sacred.
A little over a year ago, right after I was commissioned to write a chapter for The Sacred Table, (a book about ethical eating), I serendipitously got a plot in the community garden across the street from my home in Brooklyn. I titled my essay, which is about community gardens, “Getting Back to the Garden” as a homage to Joni Mitchell. Among the many topics I touched on was how the garden is a metaphor for life as it cycles through the seasons and teaches us lessons on decay and the fragility of life. Rather than focusing on death, we can choose to look at it as life-affirming in that “nature recycles itself through composting. Dead plant material that has decomposed is in fact rich in nutrients, breathing new life into a garden.”
I had just completed the chapter when in mid-June, unexpectedly, my 93 year old, totally independent father, fell. He spent the next six weeks in the hospital, alert, yet frustrated by his immobility. I spent that time on automatic pilot: traveling back and forth to Philadelphia, renting a car at 30th Street Station and driving out to the hospital to be with my mom by my father’s bedside for ten hours a day, then returning the car and traveling back to New York City. My mother did the same thing seven days a week for that period of time, only leaving my father to go home to sleep.
For my birthday, in the first week of July, my mother sent me a set of gardening tools sophisticated enough for a master gardener. She and my dad had always gardened, so she was excited about my new venture. My daughters, working in the Berkshires at their summer camp, sent me a wooden hand-painted plaque that read, “Mom’s Garden” with various veggies painted on it, which I placed prominently in my garden.
During the six weeks, one day my dad was up, one day he was down. All along my mom and my brothers and I were making plans to move him to a rehabilitation facility where he would receive more needed care for his eventual recovery. Meanwhile, back in Brooklyn, I found solace in my little garden and the tasks needed to nurture it: watering, pruning and harvesting. Much to my delight, from my little garden sprang life: plum tomatoes, Indian eggplant, basil and a rainbow of begonias. But what I would never have guessed was that while I was watching my garden thrive, I would be watching my father die.
That was one year ago.
My success with the garden inspired me to want to improve my skills and expand my yield this summer. When I went out to my garden plot this past spring, I discovered that the wood of my raised garden bed had rotted out as the fall and then winter settled in and the vines withered. Since it could no longer be used for planting, it has now been designated as the collection bin for the compost for our garden’s new composter, generating fresh soil to nourish new plants. Talk about driving the metaphor home about my dad’s legacy and the life cycles of a garden!
I will forever associate my garden with the summer I lost my dad, and I will be mindful of what I wrote in, “Getting Back to the Garden”—that nature recycles itself, breathing new life into the garden. One of the most comforting sentiments people shared with me after the loss of my dad, is that a person you love is never really gone because they live on in the lives of the people they’ve touched. And so, like my plants, my loving and selfless father, is recycled daily through all of us.