(Yesterday was a Memorial Service for a colleague at school and her son gave me the honor of speaking at the event. Below is the talk I gave.)
Shannon and I go way back. 1975, to be precise, when we both began our jobs at The San Francisco School. I discovered that we both went to Antioch College (though I never met her there—she was a bit older), which immediately created a certain kind of bond. In those early years, we often had lunch together in the kitchen and had long conversations about how screwed up the world was. We agreed on that! (I also remember her shaking the salt shaker over her lunch while we talked—for about 30 seconds!) I have a photo of the 1978 camping trip at Lake Oroville and there she was, camping with the elementary kids even though she mostly taught preschool. In the Fall of that year, Karen and I had a year leave of absence to travel around the world and Shannon took over Karen’s job teaching elementary art. When we returned, I remember talking with her about our travels and soon after, she herself went to Indonesia and did even more adventurous traveling going to a more remote island. So we had many ways to connect—including me teaching her son Sotweed, who was in that groundbreaking group of eight kids who recorded the first school Cassette tape in 1983—Music From Five Continents. In those first 10 or 15 years, I definitely had the feeling that we both were on the same side of creating a new, more creative and caring, generation.
After a while, Shannon stopped eating in the kitchen and our conversations grew fewer and she started to express her sense that the school had lost its soul. I disagreed and then later, began to agree, but hadn’t given up on its revival—and it felt like she had. So our connections grew weaker. But still it was meaningful to pass each other in the hall every day for 42 years. That’s a rare thing in this life. And I always respected her work, appreciated her wonderful summer camp that allowed the school feeling to continue when school was closed, gave young kids like Aidan a chance to work with younger kids, saw her tenderness as she stroked kids’ backs at the daily naptime. And thought confused why she continued so long at the school having fallen out of love with it, I always respected her longevity. I was sad that she closed the door to a school celebration when she retired, but it was at least honest and true to her character. She never took a moment to say goodbye to me and I did write her a note at the end expressing some of the above, but I never heard from her. Then one day teaching my Orff class in the summer at school, I was closing up the building and saw a light on in her room. There she was, gathering the last of her personal things. After some casual conversation, I asked her if she ever got my note and she replied with a quick, “Yes. Thanks.” So I thanked her again out loud, hugged her goodbye and I believe that was the last time I saw her.
Nobody knows what really happens on the other side of this life, but every culture has some idea about it. If you believe the white-robed angels one, I can imagine Shannon appearing at Heaven’s gate and when St. Peter finds out she devoted her life to nurturing children, he throws open the door and says, “You’re in!” I imagine Shannon peeking in at the smiling beatific beings playing harps and asking, “What else do you have?” Or at least, “Is there a smoking section?”
The Balinese believe that heaven is exactly like earth, only everything is backwards. So I can picture Shannon in the daycare/nap room which is now on the other side of the hall with the furniture re-arranged and still working on art projects with kids.
One of the lovelier images comes from an indigenous Mayan group in Guatemala. In this cosmology, the dead travel across an ocean to the Beach of Stars, where they are welcomed by the ancestors, those who have passed before. They change from a person-spirit to a nature-spirit and come back to visit us in the form of clouds or plants or trees or just simply a felt presence. But in order for them to reach the Beach of Stars, they have to be grieved by those left behind. That’s why we’re here. Without their bodies, they can’t paddle their own canoe. So they depend on us. Every tear we shed is a paddle of the canoe that gets the spirit across the Ocean. Also funny stories and loving remembrance and gratitude for having known the person. And of course, songs.
All of these traditions have some sense of coming Home, even as you leave your home here. So let’s stand and sing “Swing Low Sweet Chariot.” Of course, Shannon would have hated this. But this is as much for us as it is for her. I can imagine her scowling at this Kumbaya moment but hopefully, as the canoe begins to move, finally accepting how much love and gratitude she deserved from the life she led. Let’s sing.