Remembering Donovan Thesenga

12/16/1935 — 2/28/2023

First Meeting

In the mid-1980’s I was recovering emotionally after a separation and divorce that had dominated my psychic space for a number of years. I was in my mid-30s and was opening myself to a sense of new possibilities. I saw an ad in the DC area New Age publication Pathways for a one-day event at a retreat center in Madison, VA. I made some inquiries and called some friends and soon found myself driving down to Madison with three other people in my old Volkswagen Beetle.

The event was billed as a “Day of Spiritual Practice” and featured meditation training as well as a sweat lodge ceremony.  I had experienced my first sweat lodge a year before and was mostly drawn to try it again. I had heard of the Sevenoaks Pathwork Center through some New Age friends and was also eager to see what it was all about.

My companions and I enjoyed the two hour drive down into rural Virginia via Rt. 29 on a beautiful Saturday morning in early summer. The Blue Ridge mountains were on the horizon as we turned off onto the long, forested driveway into the Sevenoaks parking lot.  I was immediately taken by the simplicity and physical beauty of the place. About twenty of us, mostly men and women in their 30’s and 40’s, gathered under the eponymous seven oak trees to begin our experience together. The towering oaks are hundreds of years old and created a cooling shade and a feeling of protection and peace, with a fabulous view of the Blue Ridge in the distance.

The leader for the event was Donovan Thesenga, a solidly handsome man in his early 50’s, who had founded the Center with his wife Susan a decade earlier. Donovan was very welcoming and congenial in his leadership as he oriented us to Sevenoaks and what was in store for us that day. We sat in a circle under the oaks as he described a simple program of sitting meditation that we would do indoors, followed by an afternoon sweat lodge on the other side of the 130-acre property.

Donovan proved to be an excellent meditation teacher, keeping his instructions simple, clear and direct. He seemed to remove some of the mystery of what many of us then regarded as an esoteric practice. I was happy to release my own onerous expectations and enjoy the simple pleasure of sitting and breathing in silence with others.

After a short break for lunch, we followed Donovan out from the Center Building through the gravel parking lot and down a winding path through a loblolly pine forest. He shared that the property had been a cattle farm when he and Susan purchased it in the early 1970’s, and that he and others had planted the pines soon thereafter. There was a substantial pond at the base of the hill and we could see a bonfire and sweat lodge on the opposite side.

I had experienced a sweat lodge the previous year when I had attended a weekend Medicine Wheel Gathering organized by the well-known Native American leader Sun Bear.  I’d had a very deep experience then and was looking forward to revisiting this ancient native purification ritual. Donovan proved to be a solid yet humble leader, offering his appreciation for the native roots of the ritual, and encouraging us to enter the ceremony with openness and respect.

I remember driving back home to Takoma Park, MD that evening feeling relaxed and refreshed.  We had a nice camaraderie in the car and all of us felt we had discovered an important new Center for continuing our spiritual development. Donovan had modeled a kind of stable, grounded spiritual presence for us that we all found attractive and inviting.

Deepening the Connection

My next encounter with Donovan occurred the following summer when I signed up for “A Day of Spiritual Practice” again, this time attending with a woman I had met that spring.  I’d been dating via personal ads for a couple of years at that point and was starting to despair of the process. I’d had a few months-long relationships by then, but what started with a lot of promise ended with a lot of heartache, time and again.

With Andrea, things felt somehow different. Although we had met via my personal ad in the DC City Paper, we turned out to be neighbors in Takoma Park and we both attended the Silver Spring Unitarian Church. A close friend in the church had even suggested Andrea to me as a compatible companion.

I wanted to share with Andrea the uplifting experience I’d had at Sevenoaks the previous summer. Although initially suspicious of “airy-fairy” New Age spirituality, she agreed to join me. We drove down to Sevenoaks on another beautiful summer Saturday and had a marvelous day together. The format was the same as what I’d experienced the year before, but having Andrea with me added to the enjoyment. She especially appreciated the sweat lodge. I remember the ecstatic feeling of cooling down in the pond with her afterwards.  She had a strong connection with Donovan as well after sharing with him her travails with breast cancer and being compassionately received.

Later that year, Andrea was diagnosed with an ovarian abnormality and was facing another surgery in the fall. We were both disturbed by this news and decided to sign up for a weekend workshop that Donovan and Susan were co-leading called “The Man-Woman Relationship.” This seemed like a perfect opportunity for us to address some of the interpersonal issues that were arising in our romantic relationship partly owing to her health challenges.

That workshop was a life-changer for both of us. We had both previously experienced therapy and Andrea was still having classical psychotherapy sessions weekly.  I had experienced individual and group therapy in my early 20’s and credited that with helping me to emerge from a dark depression that afflicted me after graduating college.  Donovan and Susan were longtime practitioners of a form of spiritually oriented therapy called the Pathwork. The weekend workshop took us on a deep dive into our individual issues that we both needed in order to navigate the medical challenges ahead.

The group process work that weekend was much deeper than I had experienced previously. With Donovan, I felt safe to explore some of my deep-seated father issues.  Rather than feel guilty for harboring negative feelings for my father’s drinking problem, Donovan encouraged me to let those feelings fully emerge. I was able to feel and express some rageful anger in a safe container, which left me feeling much more energized and less constrained.

The Pathwork had merged with a form of body-centered therapy called “Core Energetics” which placed a premium on experiencing deep emotions within the body. That work helped Andrea to move through some deeply held feelings of her own. We both felt liberated by this work, even though we both knew there was a lot more to do. We both received a lot of positive attention and support from both Susan and Donovan in our work that weekend. We both knew that this was a connection we wanted to continue.

Continuing Pathwork and Getting Married

Andrea’s ovarian issue turned out to be a pre-cancerous cyst, but required a major follow up surgery to determine if it had spread into her abdomen.  Her parents came down to Washington from western PA to be there for the surgery and to help care for her at home afterwards. It was an opportunity for me to bond more deeply with Andrew and Lucille, my soon-to-be in-laws.

Andrea had shared her breast cancer history with me when we were walking home from our first date at a Takoma Park café in 1986. She was healthy and vivacious at that time and I didn’t think about it much.  But the major abdominal “staging” surgery she underwent the following year was a deeper awakening for me to what she was facing. I’d had a minor altercation with her rambunctious Italian American father in the hospital that left me a bit shaken as well, and I was beginning to wonder if I was up to continuing our relationship. I came out of some deep soul searching with a firm resolution to not only continue with our relationship but to propose marriage. Andrea was open to the idea but wanted to fully recover from her surgery before fully embracing it.

My impetus to propose marriage arose in me spontaneously one morning  when I was reading a book by the great American Christian mystic, Thomas Merton. The book was a collection of essays called “Love and Living” and its emphasis on love as a choice is what inched me towards my decision. I felt a lot of relief and happy affirmation after making the decision and sharing it with Andrea.

Because we wanted to continue pursuing the deep work we had done together at Sevenoaks, Andrea and I decided to begin participating in a weekly Pathwork group that was meeting in our area. We met some wonderful people there, including the group’s co-leader, Alan Hill, who has continued as a friend and spiritual teacher to us to this day. Alan had lived at Sevenaoks for the past few years and was moving to Takoma Park soon with his new wife, Lani, another member of the Sevenoaks Pathwork community.

Just before Andrea and I married on May 7, 1988, I attended a weekend men’s workshop at Sevenoaks that Donovan and Alan were leading. At that time, I was having some last-minute jitters about the upcoming marriage. My first marriage in 1977 had begun with a lot of promise but fell apart after about five years after it became clear we were heading in different directions. I spoke some of my reservations at the workshop. Afterwards, Donovan approached me to say that though he could understand my hesitancy, he wanted to strongly encourage me to move forward with Andrea. He said that he had witnessed the two of us together and felt that we were a strong, loving match for one another. I was very grateful for his words of guidance and support and was able to let go of any lingering doubts. I remain grateful to Donovan for his reassurance to this day.

The Pathwork Transformation Program (TP)

Andrea and I had a memorably happy wedding in May of 1988, attended by about 100 friends and family at the pastoral setting of River Road Unitarian Church in Bethesda, MD. Since Andrea owned her home and I was renting, I moved in with her for the first seven years of our married life. We continued to attend our weekly Pathwork group and that summer I decided to start the 5-year Pathwork Transformation Program at Sevenoaks. This involved spending one weekend a month at the Sevenoaks Center from September through May. Andrea was interested in the program, too, but decided it best for her to wait til the following year, when she would begin with her own group.

I credit the Transformation Program with opening my life to experiences of self and others that I could never have imagined. I started in a group of 17 people and it was remarkable how quickly we got to know one another. The weekend format included study of the Pathwork lectures, intensive group therapy processes, meditation training, and frequent experiences outdoors in the marvelous foothills of the Blue Ridge.

Donovan and Susan had envisioned the program as a way for people to make a steady dive into their deepest motivations and desires. When I started, there were other groups meeting simultaneously at the Center, and all participants would share in communal meals and other activities, including a co-created Sunday worship service. Donovan and Susan both taught groups in the program but I would have to wait for later years before having each as my group leader.

Early on, I had read and really studied one of the Pathwork lectures called “Compulsion to Recreate and Overcome Childhood Hurts”. That lecture felt like it really addressed some of the chronic core issues that had plagued my life. I was humbled by what the lecture was telling me about my own unresolved issues from childhood. But it gave me the courage to face those issues frontally rather than avoid or escape them. In those early years of our marriage, the Pathwork offered me some important guidance that helped me to overcome some serious emotional limitations.

Another Turning Point with Donovan

Donovan was the principal teacher for my fifth and last year of the Transformation Program in 1993. My group  then consisted of nine of its original members and we had become a very close, intimate group. It was a gift to have Donovan’s seasoned leadership throughout that year. He was a remarkable group leader in all areas – psychodynamic individual and group work, meditation, and mystical spiritual experience. We got to know him better for the uniquely open-hearted and compassionate person that he had become.

As my own 5-year program ended, I felt called to take training to become a teacher within the Pathwork school at Sevenoaks. This involved learning the fundamentals of emotional processing with groups and individuals. One of my major self-doubts at the time was recognizing that my congenital crossed-eye sometimes made it challenging to sustain normal eye contact with people. I shared my reservation with Donovan but he didn’t seem to make much of it. Instead, he questioned me more deeply about the fears and self-doubt I was experiencing. It was humbling to acknowledge the level of self-doubt I was carrying, but it also gave me an opportunity to face my fears head on. Once again, Donovan had challenged me to come forward with a deeper level of courage and self-acceptance. I entered into the multi-year program of intensive training that included a long period of apprenticeship before becoming a full-fledged Pathwork Helper five years later.

Donovan and I maintained a close relationship throughout the 25 years of my active Helpership. I assisted him and Susan with many workshops at Sevenoaks. We also remained spiritual friends throughout our time together in the Santo Daime, and I learned and grew greatly from his practice and teaching of the awakening process in his last years.

Donovan’s Passing

Andrea and I have just returned from a very moving burial ceremony for Donovan at Sevenoaks. He had passed peacefully, at home, a few days earlier after a period of declining health. Our friend Alan and his wife, Lani, also a Helper, had joined with Susan and others to tend to Donovan in his final days. Alan is a skilled woodworker and had built a simple yet elegant pine casket. He and others had also dug the grave about 100 yards from the beautiful home which Donovan had built and shared with Susan and their family for the last 45 years.

Lani led our assembled group of about 50 family members and friends to the Sevenoaks Medicine Wheel for a simple ceremony on an unseasonably mild and sunny afternoon. We then walked in silence to the gravesite, accompanied by a slow, steady heartbeat cadence from a solitary drum. We stood in reverent silence around the grave while a song was sung and silent prayers made. We each placed a yellow rose on Donovan’s body before Alan nailed the casket shut and lowered it into the grave, assisted by Donovan’s grandson, Christian. We each were invited to help cover the casket by shoveling dirt from the adjacent pile. It was a simple but memorable experience, with few words but much feeling.

We all recognized that a great soul was making his transition.

John Bayerl, 2/23/2023

Remembering Michael Krempa (6/6/1949 – 3/10/2023)

Michael Krempa (Left) and me at an off-Broadway play in 2017. Photo by Andrea DiLorenzo.

One of my oldest friends died recently.  He had been bedridden for over three months and spent the last month of his life in a rehab facility in Syracuse, NY, far from friends and family. Michael and I had stayed in touch since our four years together attending Bishop Turner High School in our hometown of Buffalo. I drove up to see him a few days before he passed, and I’m very glad that I did.

Like me, Michael came from a working-class family living on the East Side of Buffalo. Michael’s home was in a neighborhood that was being rapidly integrated by the mid-1960’s and he was one of the only people I knew who had African American friends. Michael was among the smartest students in our class of about 250 adolescent males. We shared a wide range of interests from sports to music, movies, and live theater. By our junior year, we’d become part of a group of like-minded guys who spent much of our out-of-school time with our favorite teacher, Fr. Claude Bicheler. Fr. Claude was a major influence on our lives, encouraging us to read and study deeply, and to open our cultural horizons to classical music, Broadway shows, and a wide range of liberal Catholic literature. He was my English teacher for all four years of high school and was instrumental in helping me learn how to write. He was also a first-class theater director and producer, widely respected in the community for his quality productions of Broadway musicals and other dramas. Fr. Claude gave Michael a lot of individual attention in his quest to become an actor.

Michael first got my attention when I saw him on stage in our freshman year, acting the part of a town drunk, Simon Stinson, in Thornton Wilder’s beloved play “Our Town”. It was one of the first live plays I’d ever seen and I was deeply affected by it. And I was fully captivated by Michael’s rendition of Simon Stinson, both funny and poignant.

Michael was well over 6 feet tall and was an aggressive basketball center. Basketball was my favorite sport back then and Michael and I played on several intramural teams and eventually formed a team that played in some city leagues. But where Michael really excelled was in the classroom, especially in math and science classes.

Michael was temperamentally different than me.  I was pretty much a conformist and made sure I never stepped out of line enough to be sent to “jug” – a uniquely Catholic after-school punishment where offenders had to kneel on the floor with their hands above their heads. Michael had a morning paper route which caused him to be frequently late for school – an automatic “jug” offense. I shuddered whenever I walked by the jug room and saw Michael in there. Curiously, he didn’t seem to mind it much.

Michael’s easy fraternizing with African American guys at school was another admirable difference. I remember one summer when he invited me to meet him near his home for playground basketball. I was wary of his neighborhood but curious enough to bicycle over there and participate in some intense games with other of our Turner classmates. After the game, our similarly lanky classmate, Jonathan Wilson, invited us to his nearby home for Kool-Aid. It was the first time I’d entered an African American home, and we were all greeted warmly by his mother and sibs. I rode back home on my bike that afternoon with a newly found ease and appreciation for a “ghetto” area of Buffalo that I had previously feared and disdained. A sidenote: I attended the 50th reunion of my Turner High class in 2017 and ran into Jonathan Wilson, who had a distinguished career as an actor and director and was currently an esteemed drama professor.

As our senior year approached, Michael and I were both intent on college. Michael got our class’s highest marks on the State Regents exam, earning him reduced tuition at any in-state school. He chose Ithaca College for its fine theater program. I opted for Fordham in the Bronx. Michael and I were close friends with another Turner classmate, Stephen Polniaszek, who was attending the drama school at NYU in Greenwich Village. I remember some fun visits Michael made down to “the City” to share weekends together, mostly attending off-beat plays and concerts that the Village offered in plenty.

I remember being taken aback when Michael said he was dropping out of college before the end of his freshman year. He moved in with a friend in Queens and found a job at a midtown Manhattan bookstore. I remember visiting him in Queens one weekend and asking why he had opted out of Ithaca College. He said he couldn’t relate much to the social scene there, and that New York had the kind of energy he wanted to be nearby.

The Vietnam War was still going strong while we were in NYC in the late 1960’s. Michael had lost his deferment after dropping out of college and he was quickly called up. He was strongly against the war, as was I and Steve and most of our friends. Michael applied for and got conscientious objector status after returning to Buffalo. He was assigned to alternate service at a Veterans Hospital in Albany, NY.

I remember stopping to visit Michael in Albany on many of my bus rides home from New York City to Buffalo. I admired how he had adapted so easily to his new life there, finding an apartment, and making a number of compatible friendships. Within a year or two, he had met a woman who would soon become his wife. I remember many warm visits to Michael’s and Suzanne’s home in Albany.

Michael and I stayed in touch for all the years thereafter.  We would meet for reunions with our friend Stephen in NYC every few years, often attending plays or concerts together. Michael had a wide range of musical tastes from rock to jazz to folk to classical, and he attended many live concerts and music festivals over the years, frequently alerting me to younger artists who were making their way up. He and Suzanne attended my wedding in Bethesda, MD in 1988, and my wife Andrea became friends with them as well.

A few years ago, Michael, Stephen and I reunited in Buffalo to attend the funeral of a mutual friend. A year later, Andrea and I met Michael in NYC to attend a memorable performance of the musical “Avenue Q”. Michael and I continued to communicate by email, text or phone at least monthly. He regularly sent us a music CD as a Christmas present.

Michael’s physical condition became problematic about five years ago, mostly owing to acute lower back issues that made walking difficult.  He and Suzanne downsized to a 2-bedroom condominium in Schenectady when he turned 70 and Andrea and I visited Suzanne and Michael there a few times on our annual trips up to the Lake George area.  On a couple of occasions, Michael and Suzanne visited us at Lake Vanare where we attended an annual family reunion. Michael visited me in Maryland a few years ago and I remember attending a fabulous production of Sondheim’s “Sunday in the Park with George” with him at Arlington’s Signature Theatre.

Michael’s back condition continued to deteriorate last year, and he decided to have surgery with a respected orthopedic surgeon in Syracuse, NY. The surgery was postponed after he contracted covid, and was finally performed in two stages on Dec. 6 and 7. Unfortunately, though the back surgery was successful, Michael suffered an acute case of ileus, in which the bowels stop functioning. He was unable to take any food or water for months and he got weaker and weaker and continuously bed ridden. Then Suzanne took ill herself and had to be hospitalized. She returned home to Schenectady to recover while Michael was assigned to a rehab hospital in Syracuse, three hours’ drive from home.

With Suzanne’s approval and direction, I decided to drive up to see Michael last week and am very glad I did. Although he could hardly speak, we were able to communicate by eye contact and physical touch. One of his few utterances was “How’s Andrea?” I stayed overnight in Syracuse to have a little more time with my friend. Two days later he was taken to the ER with lung congestion, and he died on Saturday morning. I received Suzanne’s text announcing his death just as I was returning to my home in Rockville, MD.

Michael Krempa was a valued friend, a generous soul, and a genuinely gentle and tolerant human being, through and through. Andrea and I are mourning his loss, while being relieved that his physical travails have finally come to an end. Our hearts go out to his devoted spouse and to his sister and brothers and many close friends at this difficult time.

John Bayerl, 3/13/2023

A History Book for Our Times

I don’t read many books of history these days, but when I came upon this one at my public library recently, I was intrigued enough by the title to take it out.

I remembered that President Biden had frequently used “the soul of America” as a campaign theme in 2020. It turns out that Biden had read Meacham’s book when it came out in 2018. And interestingly enough, both Biden and Meacham were so appalled by President Trump’s exoneration of the fascist violence in Charlottesville in 2017 that they both had vowed to do something: Meacham to write this book, and Biden to run for president.

Like President Biden, I was raised as a Roman Catholic, and though I left the church many decades ago, I retain a catholic sense of the reality of “soul” as a primary source of meaning and value. We can think of “soul” as the animating principle of not just humans, but every sentient being. Religious people talk about “lost souls”, and this implies beings in whom the animating principle has been diminished, tainted, or grievously misguided.

But how to apply the concept of soul to a nation as a whole? When Biden began using the term “soul of America”, I had only a dim sense of what he was referring to. Reading Meacham’s book has given me a much fuller understanding of its peculiar aptness.

In Meacham’s book, the presence or absence of soul becomes the overarching theme in the highly uneven history of the United States. We can look to Jefferson’s rousing assertion of “all men created equal, endowed by their Creator with inalienable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” as a fundamental animating principle of our nation’s origin. Yet, even from the beginning, the implied universality of “men” was critically limited to white males of certain means. This created an inherent conflict in our identity as a nation that has persisted through our entire history.

Meacham’s book consists mainly of six extended historical essays about seminal events and themes in American history:

1. “The Confidence of the Whole People” — early ideas about the role of the President as the conscience of the nation, focusing on Andrew Jackson and Abraham Lincoln;

2. “The Long Shadow of Appomattox” — how the South’s defeat in the Civil War actually led to its resurgence as a purveyor of institutionalized racism well into the 20th century;

3. “With Soul of Flame and Temper of Steel” — how Theodore Roosevelt used the “bully pulpit” of the presidency to coax the nation towards more progressive social, economic, and environmental policies;

4. “A New and Good Thing in the World” — how progressives and suffragettes pressured Woodrow Wilson towards further democratization, but were then met with a fierce backlash;

5) “The Crisis of the Old Order” — how Franklin Roosevelt ushered in a new political and economic order that saved the nation from falling into authoritarian rule during the Great Depression and World War 2;

6) “What the Hell Is the Presidency For?” — how Lyndon Johnson and Martin Luther King re-animated the American soul by working together to bring about a radical reorientation of race relations in the 1960’s.

These six chapters are sandwiched between more generalized meditations on American history in an Introduction titled “To Hope Rather Than to Fear” and a Conclusion titled “The First Duty of an American Citizen”.

In his Introduction, Meacham lays out his main thesis: “that periods of public dispiritedness are not new, but that they are survivable. In the best of moments, witness, protest, and resistance can intersect with the leadership of an American president to lift us to higher ground. In darker times, if a particular president fails to advance the national story – or worse, moves us backward – then those who witness, protest, and resist must stand fast, in hope, working toward a better day. Progress in American life, as we will see, has been slow, painful, bloody, and tragic. Across too many generations, women, African Americans, immigrants, and others have been denied the full promise of Thomas Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence. Yet the journey has gone on, and proceeds even now.”

In his Conclusion, Meacham reminds us: “A tragic element of history is that every advance must contend with forces of reaction.” A key requirement for keeping the soul of America alive is citizen involvement. Meacham quotes from a speech by Republican
President Theodore Roosevelt in which he defines the primary duties of an American citizen. The main requirement is that we each find a way to enter the political arena, at a minimum, by staying informed and voting in every election. In addition, a citizen should look for opportunities to do something practical in the political arena, collaborating with other citizens of like mind. And good citizens should bring to the fore their highest moral and ethical values when engaging in political questions.

After the election of Donald Trump in 2016, many Americans heeded the call to citizen action. My spouse and I were among them, forming a small Indivisible group that has continued to meet every month for the past five years. Our commitment to help resuscitate the soul of America was part of a much larger citizen involvement in politics that helped keep the reactionary forces in check and helped lead to the election of more progressive and “soulful” leaders in 2020 and 2022.

John Bayerl. 1/7/2023

Lest We Forget

When the Covid pandemic began in early 2020, I read a series of books, fiction and non, about various past “plagues”. The Spanish Flu of 1918 was the first draw, fueled by my grandparents’ stories of it. I read Katherine Ann Porter’s compelling 1939 novella “Pale Horse, Pale Rider”, about a young nurse who has a brief romantic fling with an ailing soldier from whom she contracts influenza and dies. The story is told as a delirious remembering of her frightful last days as she lies dying in a Texas hospital. Susan Meissner’s 2018 novel “As Bright as Heaven” was a timely selection for my family book group just after Covid emerged. It was about a family which moves to Philadelphia to take over a relative’s funeral home just as the Spanish Flu mercilessly infected the city in September 1918. I also reread Albert Camus’ classic 1947 novel, “The Plague”. Finally, I read a detailed non-fiction account of the worldwide impact of the Spanish Flu in Laura Spinney’s “Pale Rider — the Spanish Flu of 1918 and How It Changed the World”. Lawrence Wright’s 2021 account of the Covid pandemic caught my eye while browsing for new books in my local public library recently. Once engaged with it, I couldn’t put it down.

The Spanish Flu was most devastating in the fall of 1918, just before the November 11 armistice ending World War 1. In the ecstatic relief at the end of the war’s frightful carnage, the equally traumatizing experience of the flu pandemic was largely swept aside. Laura Spinney’s book documents the millions of death worldwide from the flu, far surpassing the number of casualties from the war.

Perhaps there is a survival mechanism in human existence that makes us want to skip over horrendous trauma so that we can go on living. I’ve certainly noticed such a tendency within myself. But reading “The Plague Year” has reminded me of what is lost when we fail to remember our recent history, directed by an impatience that simply wants to be done with an inconvenient interruption to our sense of normalcy.

Wright is a talented journalist and author of a number of compelling nonfiction books, the most noted of which is his 2006 Pullitzer Prize winner, “The Looming Tower — Al-Qaeda and the Road to 9/11”. He does a masterful job of telling the story of the Covid pandemic from its origins in Wuhan to its tragic spread worldwide, fed by stonewalling from the Chinese government and an inept response in the U.S. led by a president with his sites more on re-election than on overcoming the greatest threat facing his people.

Rather than attempt my own comprehensive review, I’m citing a superb one by the talented author and New York Times reviewer, Sonali Deraniyagala. Ms. Deraniyagala is a professional economist who nearly lost her life in the 2004 tsunami in her native Sri Lanka.

Book Review: ‘The Plague Year,’ by Lawrence Wright – The New York Times (

Just before their inauguration in January, 2021, Joe Biden and Kamal Harris led a public memorial service at the Lincoln Memorial’s Reflecting Pool in which they memorialized the over 400,000 Americans who’d died from Covid at that point in time. They also gave tribute to all the health professionals, first responders, and families of those who had died. It was the first national remembrance since the pandemic’s onset, and set a new tone for the federal government’s response to the ongoing crisis. The pandemic is far from over, yet that marked a turning point in our nation’s approach to it. The historic Democratic successes in the recent 2022 midterm elections may be partly due to a sense that we now have intelligent, compassionate adults at the helm for whatever we are facing.

John Bayerl, 11/14/22

A Bridge to Nowhere

I was at sixes and sevens late yesterday morning when a number of plans for the day failed to materialize. I idly brought up Google Earth on my laptop, using it to better acquaint myself with our relatively new environs. It awakened my curiosity about a long pedestrian bridge that ran across the 10-lane highway two miles away. With that focus in mind, I prepared for a bike ride, packing a sandwich, apple, and a water bottle. The temperature was still balmy for November. I had a purposeful feeling as I retrieved my bike from the locked storage room in the parking garage and set off.

I took a familiar route through the quiet streets of our suburban neighborhood, cutting through the grounds of the local middle and high school complex to reach a large local park. Wooton Mill Park abuts the bridge I was looking for. The park itself is a real delight of woods, playgrounds, a large community garden, and paved trails culminating at a fast-running creek. From there, the bridge was visible. I’d been intrigued by this bridge because I couldn’t determine its entry and exit points. I rode down Watts Branch road from the creek to near the intersection of Hurley Avenue and the busy Rt. 28. There it was, a quarter-mile long white bridge, about 20 feet high, unmarked, but open and well maintained.

I was the only one on the bridge as I pedaled up to the constant sound of whirring traffic below. Halfway across, I did pass a young woman pushing a child in a stroller and wondered where she could be going. As I passed over the multi-laned highway, the traffic noise became deafening. This part of the bridge was completely enclosed by a mesh metal fence, obviously designed to prevent suicides. The bridge terminates alongside an exit from the highway, which left me perplexed, until I saw two other bikers crossing Rt. 28 to get to the bridge entry where I was. After clarifying my whereabouts on GPS, I was ready to ride the bridge back.

It was satisfying to do this little act of exploration on my bicycle. I felt completely relaxed and present throughout the ride. I was in no particular hurry to get anywhere, and I took an alternate route back, exploring another large forested park further east on Rt.28 and then meandering through quiet neighborhoods in the Fallsgrove area until I reached the Fallsgrove shopping center, where I parked my bike at a table outside a Starbucks. I got a coffee and enjoyed my lunch outside there, reading a chapter in Lawrence Wright’s excellent book, “The Plague Year — America in the Age of Covid”.

As I was pedaling home later, waiting on a long traffic light, I noticed how calm and relaxed I felt. I’m usually at least somewhat impatient with long traffic lights. But as I stood there waiting on my bike yesterday, I noticed my complete surrender to the moment. It occurred to me that “waiting is not wasting time”.

The rest of the ride home through an unfamiliar neighborhood was a complete delight. That two-hour bicycle excursion was the highlight of my day.

John Bayerl, 11/11/22

“Travel as a Political Act”

One of the five “cinque terra” hilltowns on the Italian Riviera

Andrea and I attended a presentation by the travel writer and travel business mini-mogul Rick Steves last night at the Weinberg Center in Frederick, MD. We took our retirement home’s minibus with about 20 others and got door-to-door service. It was a beautiful late-summer evening and we arrived early enough to take a stroll around the bustling downtown area where restaurants and shops enjoyed plentiful pedestrian traffic.

We’ve been fans of Steves’ travel series on PBS for decades. The old but well-preserved theatre on Patrick Street was sold out to about a thousand similarly inspired folks interested in world travel. This was the first lecture presentation of the 10th season of such events at the Weinberg, and there was an excited buzz in the room as introductions were made.

Steves launched right into the current state of European travel in the covid era. He didn’t underplay some risks, but his enthusiasm for the adventures awaiting prospective travelers was evident. He’d been forced to curtail his full assortment of travel offerings for over two years, using that time to update his many printed travel guides, and retaining his 100+ full time staff at full salary.

One of his main themes in conveying his enthusiasm for world travel is captured by his book “Travel as a Political Act”. Steves believes that world travel is an important and necessary experience for those of us committed to becoming citizens of the world. He talked about the inevitable “culture shock” of travel as a good thing — that which makes us become aware of the comfortable bubble we inhabit as well-off Americans. He told many stories of how his own encounters with different cultures opened him to a fuller appreciation of the rich varieties of being human.

One telling fact he shared was about basic eating habits — that about one third of earthlings eat with chopsticks, a third with only their hands, and the remaining with traditional silverware. He talked about our inherent ethnocentrism, and how our own preferences and prejudices can keep us small, distrusting, and isolated.

In addition to Steves’ main focus for travel — Europe — he also spoke of richly rewarding experiences in Turkey, Iran, Cuba, and Russia. He is a genuine humanitarian, showing photos of third world children and saying that they had as much right to be loved and cared for as our own. He reminded us that 10% of the world’s population lived in abject poverty, where basic human needs for food, water, clothing, and shelter are challenged. He said that travel could help us to open our minds and our hearts to this greater reality, beyond our self-absorptions in creature comforts and technological luxuries. In the end, the main benefit of travel is that it opens us up to larger realities and can help us devote ourselves to a life of higher consequence.

John Bayerl, 9/10/22

A Human Requiem

We attended a another moving classical concert Sunday evening at Washington Cathedral in honor of the people of war-torn Ukraine. A friend had gotten the precious tickets for his wife and Andrea and me some weeks ago. Andrea drove us to pick up him and his wife outside of their apartment building in downtown Bethesda and then down Wisconsin Avenue through the heart of northwest DC to the cathedral site. It was impressive arriving at the immense church and grounds, including the lovely English garden. It was sunny and hot, but a steady breeze made it bearable.

The concert was given by the City Choir and Orchestra of Washington and was the last one to be conducted by the legendary choral director Robert Shafer. It included the world premiere of a new Shafer composition, “A Prayer for Ukraine”, as well as one of Elgar’s Enigma Variations (“Nimrod”). The main fare was the monumental “Human Requiem” of Brahms.

The Cathedral was a worthy place for the concert — the site of so many state funerals for fallen leaders. I recalled being there with Andrea 30 years earlier for a dramatic pageant of Native Americans commemorating Columbus Day from their perspective.

At the start, the Ukrainian ambassador to the U.S., Oksana Markorova, spoke her heartfelt appreciation for this supreme honoring of her countrymen and women, presenting sunflowers as a symbol of her country’s beauty, spirit, and gratitude.

Shafer’s “Prayer for Ukraine” was a marvelous little choral piece, reflecting the rich harmonics of Eastern European music. Elgar’s “Nimrod” is a well-known 20th century orchestral work that evokes deep feelings of solemn affirmation of boundless joy emanating from great suffering.

The Brahms Requiem is unique among pieces of this genre, most of which follow the liturgical structure of the Catholic Requiem Mass. Brahms’ follows its own organic structure, using assorted quotations from Martin Luther’s original German translation of the Bible. It has passages of deeply resonant feeling that I was able to tap into better after having done some preparatory listening beforehand.

The second of the piece’s seven sections is the most evocative for me, beautifully expressing a sense of purpose and joy emerging from long suffering. A translation of its text points to this liberating feeling:

“For all flesh is as grass
And all the glory of man
as the flower of grass.
The grass withers
and the flowers fall away.

“Be patient, therefore, brothers,
unto the coming of the Lord.
Behold, the husbandman waits
for the precious fruit of the earth,
and has long patience for it,
until he receive
the early and the later rain.

“But the word of the Lord endures forever.

“And the ransomed of the Lord shall return,
and come to Zion with songs
and everlasting joy upon their heads;
they shall obtain joy and gladness,
and sorrow and sighing shall flee.”

John Bayerl, 6/27/2022

Creativity Under Siege

Dmitri Shostakovich on civil defense duty

In its last concert program of the season, the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra presented a rousing performance of the “Leningrad” Symphony (#7) by Dmitiri Shostakovich. The printed program notes for the concert included the following contextual background by A. Kori Hill:

“Millions of people, over millennia, have created during horrific circumstances.  Shostakovich was one of them, as guns and bombs destroyed his birthplace and the home he and his wife, Nina Varzar, had made for their children. On June 21, 1941, Germany invaded the Soviet Union.  By July, the city of Leningrad was surrounded and under siege until 1944.  The destruction of the city, murder of over a million people through combat, and horrific living conditions caused by the siege, have led some historians to categorize this event as an act of genocide.

“Sometimes the only thing to do amid such horror is to create. Shostakovich started his seventh symphony in the early stages of the siege.  After he and his family were evacuated in the fall of 1941, Shostakovich completed his symphony for its premiere in March 1942. The composer had told a friend: ‘National Socialism is not the only form of fascism. This music is about all forms of terror, slavery, and bondage of the spirit.”  The radio broadcast of the symphony coincided with the Nazi’s planned celebration of the city’s capture. One of the musicians observed: “They never had their party. Instead, we played our symphony and Leningrad was saved.”

The BSO’s conductor for the evening, James Conlon, referred to these program notes in a brief, spoken introduction to the piece. He noted the irony of the piece’s timing – little did anyone know that in February of 2022 Russian itself would invade the Ukraine and lay violent siege to a number of its cities. He said that some people were calling for a boycott of all things Russian, including their music. He sharply disagreed, and went on to affirm Shostakovich’s intention to present a strong counterpoint to the barbarity of all acts of unprovoked military aggression.

The symphony opens with a simple, insistent march melody that grows in volume, complexity and ferocity which keeps repeating as the symphony unfolds. Some people interpret this march to represent the vast Nazi armies streaming in toward the Russian heartland. My own interpretation is that the growing unfoldment of the march is about the spirit of resistance with which the people of Leningrad met the onslaught. There are many fine recordings of the symphony and the first movement is imminently accessible even to those who aren’t fans of classical music. I heartily recommend it to you as an invitation to listen for the current spirit of indomitable resistance that the brave people of the Ukraine are manifesting on so many fronts.

Shostakovich was no fan of the Soviet dictator Josef Stalin. Early in Shostakovich’s career, Stalin purportedly took offense at a performance of his opera based on Shakespeare’s “Macbeth”. Could it be that Stalin couldn’t stomach watching that awful tale of a bloodthirsty quest for power, and projected his discomfort onto Shostakovich? In any event, he had the composer blacklisted for many years. The patriotic fervor aroused by the Leningrad Symphony got Shostakovich back in Stalin’s good graces. But the composer’s comments about his work, quoted above, indicate that the fiery music was inspired by something greater than nationalistic devotion. It’s a strong affirmation of the indomitable human spirit in the face of the cruelest adversity.

John Bayerl


Gaithersburg Book Festival 2022

Yesterday marked the first “live” Gaithersburg Book Festival since the pre-Covid 2019 event.  My sisters Marian, Anna and I had been eagerly awaiting the opportunity to participate in this annual book-lovers event after over two years of literary lockdown. They drove down from Buffalo the Friday before, staying the weekend with my spouse Andrea and me in our new digs in a Rockville retirement community. I’d been wary of the oppressive 95F heat predicted for Saturday since it’s primarily an outdoor event. It was also taking place in a new venue – Gaithersburg’s Bohrer Park rather than the cozy grounds of the municipal center in Old Town. Despite my misgivings, this year’s GBF proved to be as full and rich an experience as ever.

As usual, my sisters and I had surveyed the day’s program of author talks and interviews before setting out for the short drive over to the festival. Most of the authors we were interested in hearing weren’t appearing until the late afternoon, but we still wanted to arrive for the 10am start time. We’ve always enjoyed the whole atmosphere of the GBF, including the many community booths, a large variety of foods and beverages, and the various writers’ workshops for children and adults. As the traffic thickened at the entrance to Bohrer Park, Andrea called us to say that the parking lot was full and the police were directing people to a large shopping mall lot a mile away, with free shuttle buses from there. Grateful for this tip, we proceeded directly to the mall, where we parked and quickly boarded a school bus. Without undue delay, we arrived at the festival only a few minutes late for the first round of author talks at 10:15.

Lost and Found

Author presentations at the GBF were given at seven open-air tent-pavilions set up around the 57-acre grounds. Our first stop was the Frederick Douglass pavilion where the Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, Katherine Schulz, was being interviewed. Ms. Schulz had recently published a well-regarded “extended essay” book called “Lost and Found”, in which she described an 18-month period in her life when she “lost” her beloved father, and “found” a loving life partner. Ms. Schulz was being interviewed by a local book reviewer, Becky Meloan. We were able to find seats at the rear of the tent, but still inside its welcome shade.

 Schulz eloquently described the events that inspired the book, starting with her 74-year-old father’s rapid decline and dying from a longstanding heart ailment. Schulz quoted from her book about the difficulty she faced in coming to terms with both the profundity AND the ordinariness of her father’s dying process.  She felt uncomfortable with many of the euphemisms we use in talking about death: “passing”, “going home”, “slipping away”, “going to a better place”, etc. But she did feel right about telling others that she had ”lost” her father.

Ms. Schulz did a detailed entomology study of the word “lost”, finding that its original Old English meaning was “cut apart” and “perished” – remarkably close to our present usage of it for “dead”. She discovers meaningful analogies of “lost” when she creates a list of other important “losses” in her life: “losing” a childhood friend who moved away, a beloved cat who disappeared one day, a precious graduation letter from her grandmother “lost” during a move. She writes that “much of the experience of heartbreak falls into this category” of “loss”.

Ms. Schulz described her bleak, bereft world view in the days and weeks following her father’s death. She felt in some way like the whole world was dying, herself included. Everywhere she turned she saw the “evidence of past losses and the immanence of future ones.”

I resonated with her words deeply as I had “lost” a close friend the previous week and my mourning was manifesting as a kind of tragic sense about life in general.  And yet, as Ms. Schulz also observed, the feeling of broken heartedness was not constant, even in the immediacy of grief.  All around her was the ongoing unfolding of ordinary day-to-day reality. As she began to realize just how “normal” her father’s death was, she was shocked into the realization that “something so sad could be the normal, necessary way of things.”

The second part of Ms. Schulz’s book is about “finding” the love of her life. She had actually met her love partner while her father was still alive and the two had hit it off enthusiastically well.  As her love for her future wife deepened in the period after her father died, Ms. Schulz discovers just how close the emotions of profound happiness and profound sadness can be. At the end of her talk, she pointed to a young woman with a baby carriage standing just outside the tent as her wife, and jokingly suggested that we all buy a copy of her book to help with their young one’s college fund.

Perils of Living Under Russian Autocracy

The second authors’ event we attended was a dialog between veteran writers Karin Tanabe and Elena Gorokhova, talking about each of their recent novels. Their commonality was that they were both well respected nonfiction writers prior to turning their hands to fiction. I was most taken with Ms. Gorokhova, a Russian émigré who was most grateful to have escaped the autocratic control of the Russian state under which her family had suffered mightily during the last years of the Stalin era. She had studied English at university in Leningrad (now St. Petersburg) and had worked as an English teacher and academic prior to fleeing Russia with her American lover and settling in the U.S., eventually publishing her first memoir “A Mountain of Ashes” in 2011. A second memoir in 2015 had exhausted her life-based writing material so she turned to fiction to deepen her exploration of the life she had left behind in Russia.

Gorokhova began by expressing her abhorrence for the Putin regime which had recently unleashed its merciless, unprovoked war against the Ukraine. She knew many Russians who were afraid to express any objections within the current atmosphere of extreme repression.  She compared Putin’s ruthless bullying of the opposition to Stalin’s dictatorial poisoning of any hope of achieving a free, open, democratic way of life in her homeland.

Her first novel is called “A Train to Moscow” and it uses actual events from her family’s life in Russia during the decade after WW2. I was inspired to begin reading it subsequently and was immediately drawn in by her rich descriptive tale told by a young Russian girl, Sasha, living in a small town outside of Moscow in the early 1950’s. Sasha is modeled on Ghorokova’s older sister who would go on to become a professional actress in real life. It begins with a riveting account of her visit to a classmate’s home while local henchmen brutally arrest her friend’s father as a suspected slanderer of the almighty Stalin. In her visit to Moscow shortly thereafter, Sasha attends the annual May 1 rally and actually gets a glimpse of Stalin entering an arena packed with thousands of his worshippers who unleash a deafening round of approving shouts.

“Dreams from My Father” Revisited

I wanted to hear our local County Councilman Will Jawando speak about his new book while my sisters had other interests at that point. Jawando was completing his first 4-year term and had made a name for himself as an effective, intelligent public servant who offered a strong voice for the large minority population in Montgomery County. As a young man, he had worked in the Obama White House and was personally mentored by the then President. Like Obama, he had a white mother and an African father who left the family early on.

Jawando’s book is called “My Seven Fathers” and it tells the stories of his relationship with the black men who helped to guide, inspire and support him during his troubled early years after his father left. I had read Senator Barack Obama’s first book, “Dreams from My Father”, back in 2007 when he had just set his sites on the presidency. I was curious to hear Jawando’s version of a similar life story.

Jawando was admiringly introduced by long-term Gaithersburg mayor and now County Councilman Sidney Katz and was interviewed by the local educator-writer Sean Felix. Jawando himself proudly introduced his wife and three young children who were in the audience.  Like Obama, he had a strong, compelling presence and quickly established a warm rapport with his audience with his big smile and his witty, articulate responses to Mr. Felix’s informed questions.

Jawando has a compelling story and he tells it well, beginning with his desperate efforts as a young boy to engage with his emotionally distant father. After his parents separate, he looks to an older boy at his school for inspiration and support. The older boy, Kitanji, dominates the local basketball playground and gives Will an opportunity to establish himself as an athlete there. They become after-school friends and Will learns his street smarts from him. Unfortunately, Kitanji falls victim to street violence leaving the young Will bereft and needing to search again for masculine strength and guidance.  He finds it in a middle school math teacher, an African American army veteran who is the first older black man to pay attention to him and his desire to learn. In his mid-twenties, Jawando has the good fortune to land a job at the White House where Obama encounters him and encourages him to develop his own political intelligence.

It felt good to witness Jawando’s political initiative and to know that Obama’s political legacy was being carried forward. I was impressed enough to download the book from Amazon.

My sisters and I decided to break for lunch as the hot temperature and humidity continued to build. There were many outdoor food vendors within the festival site, but we wanted an air-conditioned place to cool down. Guided by Google, we walked across the park to try the Tex-Mex fare at “Ay Jalisco” restaurant in a strip mall across Frederick Avenue. The place was surprisingly uncrowded and we were happy to gather ourselves in the welcome coolness. Refreshed by cold drinks and delicious tacos and empanadas, we were soon ready for the afternoon’s literary fare.

Another Take on the Mexican-American War

Our first post-Mexican-lunch event was, appropriately enough, an intriguing interview of a rising Chicano voice, Reyna Grande, conducted by the better-known novelist Jeanine Cummins, whose 2020 bestseller, “American Dirt”, had stirred controversy owing to the author’s presumed cultural infringement. We had read that novel in our family book group, and we’d all felt that “American Dirt” told a powerful story with a lot of integrity.

It was clear from the start that Cummins and Grande held each other in high esteem, having communicated about their work previously. Cummins was effusive in her praise for Grande’s first novel, “A Ballad of Love and Glory”, based on her extensive research into the Mexican War of 1846-1848. Grande had made a name for herself with three books documenting her life as a Mexican immigrant who had entered the U.S. illegally but who had gone on to get well educated and gain citizenship. This was her first work of fiction and Grande did a lot of research because she wanted to make her story closely follow the actual historical record of the war. While in school in the U.S., Grande had wondered why the Mexican War got so little attention in her American History classes. Her research revealed that the war was an expression of the “manifest destiny” doctrine that guided much of U.S. policy – that we had a God-given right to appropriate all land between the Atlantic and Pacific oceans. Her novel primarily offers a Mexican-eyed-view of the causes of the war and its actual unfoldment.

I had downloaded the book and read enough to know that the two main characters were a Mexican curandera (“healer”), Ximena, who tended to the wounded in General Santa Ana’s Mexican army, and an Irish-born soldier, John Reilly, who had enlisted in the U.S. Army as a way of making a career within a time when Irish immigrants were held in low esteem by most Americans. Due to the wretched treatment that Reilly and his fellow Irish soldiers receive from their arrogant American officers, they decide to abandon the U.S. army and cast their lot with the Mexicans. Ximena and John meet and fall in love as the story unfolds.

I was most impressed with Ms. Grande’s poise and eloquence. Ms. Cummins read some poignant passages from the book, especially praising the accuracy Grande achieved in rendering the Irish brogue of John Reilly, and the herbalist practices of Ximena. It was heart-warming to witness the care and respect that Cummins and Grande had for one another. And I heard enough of the story to know that I wanted to read it to the end.

Political Books

There were three other political authors that I wanted to hear that afternoon, but I only made it to one of them:  Congressman Jaime Raskin talking about his book “Unthinkable: Trauma, Truth and the Trials of Democracy”. The other two were retired security analyst Fiona Hill and Congressman Adam Schiff, both of whom were interviewed by the Pulitzer Prize-winning Washington Post reviewer Carlos Lozada. The overflowing crowd for that event prevented me from attending it.

I had read excerpts from Jamie Raskin’s book in the Washington Post’s Sunday magazine. Raskin has become one of my political heroes for the way he conducted himself after the tragic suicide of his son last New Year’s eve. In the midst of deep grief for his beloved son, Raskin was able to respond to the call to lead the impeachment against Donald Trump for his nefarious stirring up of the seditious attack on the U.S. Capitol on January 6. Raskin had an overflow crowd as well, but I was able to find some shade outside the tent and listen to most of his presentation. I had heard his message before, but it felt historic to hear it directly from his mouth, with all his powers of eloquence, deep human feeling, and acerbic wit.

Adam Schiff’s book was titled “Midnight in Washington: How We Almost Lost our Democracy and Still Could”.  Fiona Hill’s book, “There Is Nothing for You Here”, was more autobiographical, telling of her decision to leave her native England and become a U.S. national security analyst, specializing in the Ukraine.

A Musician Turns Writer

The last author interview I heard was with the violinist Brendan Slocumb talking about his first novel, “The Violin Conspiracy”. The interview was conducted by Torie Clarke, the primary host of the podcast “Chatter on Books”.  Mr. Slocumb is an accomplished classical violinist who found himself with time on his hands as his musical appearances were cancelled during Covid. He had an idea for a suspense-thriller and decided to give it a go, completing his first draft within a couple of months. I was intrigued by his presence and demeanor as an African American classical musician. I subsequently downloaded a sample of his book and was immediately drawn in. His excitement about writing and its possibilities for creative expression was contagious!

Gratitude for the GBF’s Return

My sisters and I left Bohrer Park last Saturday happy and satisfied with a day well spent. The Gaithersburg Book Festival is an opportunity for us to immerse ourselves in the culture of The Book. It always takes our love of reading to higher levels of appreciation and enjoyment. Hats off to current Gaithersburg Mayor Jud Ashman who had the idea for a city-sponsored book festival thirteen years ago, and who has succeeded in bringing that idea to such remarkable fruition, surviving even one of the worst pandemics of the last century.

John Bayerl, 5/31/2022

Remembering Steve Crawford (1942-2022)

I first met Steve as a neighbor living just around the corner from our home in Derwood, MD.  My wife Andrea had encountered Steve’s wife, Liliane Floge, at a nearby YMCA facility that both our families used. Shortly after that, we met Steve.  He and Liliane had just moved down into the DC metropolitan area from Frederick, MD after Steve started a job with the National Governors’ Association in downtown DC. They had recently adopted their young daughter, Pascal, from Vietnam. Andrea and I had adopted two older children from Brazil around the same time. As aging adoptive parents, we had a lot in common.

My first real encounters with Steve occurred while we were both working in downtown DC. We would frequently connect on our Metro commute and had many good conversations about our work and our lives.  Steve and Liliane were both former academics, both highly credentialed in the social sciences. Steve’s job at the Governor’s Association gave him a lot of high-level political connections which he was happy to talk about. I found out that Steve himself had made a run for Congress, but the conservative Frederick district he ran in wasn’t quite ready for a liberal Democrat like Steve.

Andrea and I shared with Steve and Liliane a similar left-of-center political perspective and we all shared our interests during election time. Steve was highly informed about local, state and national issues and I learned a lot just listening to him.  He read voluminously – the New York Times as well as the Washington Post, and a slew of magazines and public policy books.

Andrea and I also shared with Steve and Liliane a mutual love of classical music.  After the Strathmore Music Center opened in our county in 2005, we attended a number of Baltimore Symphony concerts together.

Liliane was an avid gardener and I remember spending a day working with Steve to break ground for a vegetable garden next to their home. A friend of ours helped them build a 6 foot enclosing fence to keep out the neighborhood deer. Andrea and I would look after the garden during their annual summer vacations in Maine and we still recall the sweet, succulent tomatos we got to partake in then.

Our friendship with Steve deepened during the Obama presidency when we shared many hopeful conversations about the future of our country.  We both despaired after Trump’s election in 2016. When Andrea and I decided to start a small Indivisible group in early 2017 to try to counter the rightwing ascendancy, Steve was happy to join us.  We met monthly with a half-dozen other politically motivated neighbors and friends for over five years, initially in each other’s home, but on Zoom after Covid appeared. We mobilized to help secure a $15 minimum wage in Montgomery county, and also lent our energy to a number of country, state, and national issues and candidates.

Another important commonality with Steve and Liliane was our shared interest in spiritual growth. Andrea and I were longtime meditators, and were impressed when they started a Buddhist sangha within the Rockville Unitarian Church that they attended. Steve and Liliane had both visited Thich Nhat Hanh’s spiritual community in southern France. Andrea and I had read a number of his books, and had even attended a talk that Thich Nhat Hanh had given in DC in the 1990’s.

Steve had served as an officer in the U.S. Army in Vietnam during the late 1960’s. He trained paratroopers and also served in combat, receiving a Bronze Star. But he returned from Vietnam utterly disillusioned with the war and joined forces with John Kerry in the early days of Vietnam Veterans Against the War. Like many veterans, Steve returned to Vietnam after the war seeking to offer positive help and support.  He and Liliane were big supporters of Vietnam Friendship Village, a social service agency there, and eventually decided to adopt from Vietnam, bringing home Pascal to share their lives with. Steve recalled how the adoption helped him convert his bad feelings about the Vietnam War into positive feelings for the Vietnam that emerged from the ashes.

I vividly remember Steve joining Andrea and me one evening to watch part of the Ken Burns’ riveting documentary series on the Vietnam War. At one point, Steve broke down in tears, reflecting back on his own horrific experiences in combat during that ill-begotten war.

After Covid hit and social life was dampened, Steve and I still got together regularly for walks and bicycle rides. He walked the cute little family dog, Jojo, past our house most mornings and he’d often stop to chat about the day’s news. Even though he was half a dozen years older, I was always impressed with his physical vigor and stamina. To the end, he was playing tennis three times per week.

Our last encounter with Steve occurred only a week before his sudden and unexpected death.  Andrea and I had moved into a nearby retirement community in March, and sold our Derwood home in late April.  The day after our closing, we had a memorable evening at Steve and Liliane’s home. They wanted to affirm their friendship for us after so many years as neighbors. It was a delightful evening, with a fine dinner and a special French gourmet cake for dessert. We left feeling closer to Steve, Liliane and Pascal than ever.

We were shocked to hear of Steve’s accidental fall and subsequent heart attack and strokes just one week later. It’s taken us this long to begin to emerge from our grief over the loss of a beloved neighbor, friend and political ally.  It’s been heartbreaking to witness Liliane and Pascal’s deep grief as well.  We attended Steve’s funeral at historic Mt. Olivet cemetery in Frederick yesterday. Another Buddhist sangha leader, a personal friend of Steve and Liliane, led a deeply soulful and gracious remembering of Steve and his rich contributions to family, friends, and community. She read a poem of Thich Nhat Hanh that called for our tears of grief to be converted into nourishing rain. She affirmed Steve’s depth of soul and his commitments to the highest ideals of justice, peace, and love.

One of Steve’s last contributions to our political group was his recommendation that we watch the short video on the life of Thich Nhat Hanh called “A Cloud Never Dies.” Andrea and I sat down to watch that video on the night after we learned of Steve’s passing. We took consolation that Steve’s life, like that of his Teacher’s, partook of the eternal nature of spirit.  He will remain in my heart for the rest of my days.

John Bayerl