love, memories, obits

One last toast to a man whose bright light will never really extinguish…

I took the featured photo on a moving bus while touring the Isle of Arran in Scotland back in 2012.

Last night, I sat in front of my computer with Bill and a German beer. I tuned into Zoom, an application I had only used once before last night. The first time I used Zoom, it was for a wine tasting. Last night’s Zoom meeting was for a much more sober purpose. We were there to remember our dear friend, Matt Jensen. Most of us in on the Zoom call knew Matt because he served with Peace Corps/Armenia from 1995-97. But Matt was also widely known in other circles worldwide. He was also a Peace Corps Volunteer in Senegal in the 1980s, and most recently, he was a beloved teacher at P.S. 110, an elementary school in the Greenpoint area of Brooklyn.

It was in Brooklyn where Matt lost his life just after midnight on May 18, 2021. He was just trying to cross the street– a wide boulevard well known for being dangerous to pedestrians. He had just celebrated his birthday with friends and was on his way home. He’d almost reached home when he was struck and killed by a speeding car on McGuinness Boulevard, the driver having apparently not noticed that they’d hit him and left him for dead!

Apparently, there were no witnesses or surveillance cameras to capture a photo of the person who killed this man with such a huge heart and bright spirit. Based on debris found at that the site where Matt was found, police surmise that he was hit by a black Rolls Royce. He was someone who had devoted his life to helping others– especially through teaching. He was a very gifted teacher, and I learned last night that the young children at the school where he taught practically worshiped him, even if they weren’t in his class. He knew everyone, and they all knew him. He was a very tall guy with incredible energy, so he was hard to miss, even without that vibrant personality and charisma that defined him.

Geoff, the organizer of the memorial, had asked me to sing a song. It always cracks me up that no one ever asks me to speak at memorials or weddings. I usually get asked to sing a song written by someone else. Even at my own father’s memorial, I wasn’t asked to speak. I was asked to sing– and my mom even told me which song she wanted me to perform. I was happy to do it, although my college minor in speech has gone to waste.

Just as I had for my mom when my father died, I sent Geoff a couple of recordings I had made, and he really liked my version of “Imagine”, sort of done Eva Cassidy style. I sing it in her key and with her mood, but more in the straightforward fashion that John Lennon sang it. I guess you could say it’s really “my” style, though heavily influenced by others. I was glad to have Bill with me, as he had graciously downloaded Zoom yesterday so we could figure out the technical aspects of the application. I wanted to make sure we did the music sharing part right. I’m glad to say that it went off well, except that I was very emotional and almost started crying in the middle of it.

Last night, I learned that besides Matt, our Peace Corps community has also recently lost two others– Loretta Land, who was an amazing senior Volunteer who had joined the Peace Corps at age 62– and Don Flumerfelt, who was in the group before mine. Loretta died in January of this year and Don passed in 2019. I had recently been in touch with Loretta, but she kind of dropped off of Facebook. I wondered about her. I can’t say I was surprised about the news that she’d passed, but I am so glad we did get to chat a bit last year. I wasn’t as close to Don, but I do remember spending a great afternoon in Yerevan, making business English conversation recordings for him. I also remember that he was very inventive and had built a shower for another Volunteer.

We also lost an Armenian friend, Ashot, the drummer for a local band in Vanadzor called Snack. Vanadzor was where Matt was originally assigned to work). Snack was an Armenian band, but one of the Volunteers also played with them, so they often performed at our parties. In storage, I have a cassette tape of their music, which always reminds me of so many fun times in Armenia. Ashot would have been turning 49 today, but he passed away of a heart attack in his bed on Thursday of last week. Ashot was also, for a time, married to Rose, a Vanadzor based Volunteer from my group. They shared a son. She was also in attendance last night. Some of the guys would have performed last night, but since Ashot was buried yesterday, it wasn’t possible.

At 7:00pm Germany time, I joined about 25 other people on the Zoom call. I felt so honored to be among them, even if I wasn’t close to Matt in recent years. It was great to see so many familiar faces of people I knew in the 1990s, back when I was trying to make my own mark in the world. To be honest, I left the Peace Corps as an angry person. There were many complex reasons for my anger, and some of them had absolutely nothing to do with my service. But, suffice to say, I was ready to go home in August 1997, thinking that maybe things would get better. What ended up happening for me, personally, was a bit of a nervous breakdown. Ultimately, the “breakdown” wasn’t a bad thing, because it forced me to reset my life and make some changes, to include taking voice lessons that helped me sing last night’s song. But I worried about what people in that group remembered about me, as I was a bit of a mess in the 90s. I was determined not to make an ass of myself. 😉

There were several returned Volunteers from my group, as well as the former country director, the former TEFL director, several Armenians, people who had known Matt through the American University of Armenia, and a woman who knew Matt in Brooklyn. We were also joined by Matt’s cousin, John. I had never met John before, but I immediately liked him. I could tell that losing Matt has been devastating for him. I can’t even fathom how much pain he and Matt’s friends and loved ones felt when they got the terrible news that he’d been killed. I was glad to hear that Matt’s brother is taking good care of Matt’s beloved cats, Katie and Olive.

The participants in the Zoom meeting were scattered around the world. I’m in Germany, but we also had a couple of folks from Armenia, someone in Sweden, someone in Russia, someone in Belize, and a number of folks on the East and West coasts of the United States. It’s amazing to think of how far and wide Matt’s light has spread… and there were so many loving sentiments and stories shared.

One of Matt’s former students, Hoveek, really touched my heart as he spoke about how much Matt had impressed him. When we were in Armenia, it was just a few years after the fall of the Soviet Union. It was a time when there weren’t a lot of Americans there. And Hoveek was immediately moved by this man who was not at all like the people he knew. He spoke movingly about how he observed the way Matt dressed, and how when they visited the Peace Corps office in Yerevan, Hoveek saw the magazines about America and met others. Matt helped Hoveek get a job working for the Peace Corps. I could easily see and hear how much love and gratitude this man had for Matt. It was an honor to hear what he had to say… and really, just to be a part of the large group of people who got to know Matt and were touched by his spirit.

I learned that Matt wrote letters to so many people and had connections to folks in very high places. I think, if he had lived longer, he might have even delved into politics. He loved to talk politics and wasn’t afraid to speak out… but even in death, he will make a difference. There was a huge memorial for him in New York, and some very high ranking people vowed to finally do something about McGuinness Boulevard, a dangerous street that has claimed other people’s lives over the years. If they make that boulevard safer for others, then Matt’s death will have done a great service to so many people… again, a way of sharing that light and affecting others for good.

But I think the most profound commentary I heard regarding last night’s memorial came from my own husband, Bill. Bill never had the chance to meet Matt, but he’s heard me talk about him over the years. My memories of Matt are mostly about some of the hilarious things he said, but also his wild dance skills. Matt loved to dance, and had taken lessons. I don’t dance all that well, but I do like to spin around the dance floor with men with rhythm. I learned last night that Matt would dance with anyone! I have told Bill many stories about Matt over the years, but until last night, all Bill knew about Matt came from my limited perspective.

Thanks to our Zoom meeting memorial, Bill had the chance to hear about Matt from others who knew him through different channels. So, this morning, when I asked Bill what he thought about the memorial, his comments came from a totally different perspective. This was the post I wrote for the Peace Corps Armenia Reunion Facebook group:

My husband, Bill, was sitting in the Zoom meeting with me last night. I just asked him what he thought of the memorial, and he said it was interesting to hear all about Matt from someone other than me. Not having met Matt in person, he was struck by how personal Matt was in his dealings with others. He noticed we didn’t just gush about the positive things, but we mentioned his many quirks, too. And he loved that Matt wrote letters, since letter writing is such a lost art. He said he could tell that teaching was truly Matt’s calling.

And then Bill said, “It made me wish that the person who killed Matt could be there to see and hear just how many people have been affected worldwide by his death, and the profound loss and grief caused by that one careless act. Especially among the kids he taught.”

It really drives home how much we all affect each other, even if it doesn’t always seem like it. My husband never even met Matt, and yet he has been affected by him through me, and now by all of the people who spoke so lovingly about him last night. I take some comfort in knowing that there are so many people worldwide that he taught. Every single one of them has the potential to share his vibrant light with everyone they know, too. In that way, he’ll never truly be gone from the world.

When I think about that, it makes me realize that we all have so much potential… and most of us affect people in ways we’ll never know. We’re all connected. Not to be corny, but Matt’s life was a little like the proverbial “candle in the wind”. It glowed bright and cast warmth and light to so many… and then it was suddenly snuffed out by the careless actions of someone driving a Rolls Royce. Such a bizarre way for a man like Matt to die… it was as if Kurt Vonnegut conjured it for a novel! But in the end, his death may end up saving lives, as local activists continue to demand that something is finally done about that unsafe crossing.

Every person has the potential to share something unforgettable and good. Matt Jensen shared his light generously with people far and wide, and because he cared and shared so very much, that generosity is still perpetuating through people who will never, ever forget him.

Bill never met Matt, but Matt still affected Bill. Imagine what those young students in Brooklyn will do as they grow up. Maybe one or two of them will be inspired to teach. Maybe a few will decide to join the Peace Corps. Maybe one or two will learn to dance, or become fans of ABBA, or travel the world. Or maybe they will simply tell their friends and family about this tall, blond, monarchy obsessed ABBA fan who taught them so much , helped them learn English, made them laugh… or made them a memorable meal with beets and cabbage, or a delicious pound cake!

Matt was a thoughtful, kind, and loving person to the very end, and he always thought of others. Upon hearing of Prince Philip’s death in April, Matt wrote letters of condolences to Queen Elizabeth II and Princess Anne. Princess Anne wrote back before Matt died, but I think I heard that Her Majesty the Queen also responded, but her letter arrived after Matt’s death. I like to think that Matt knows how many people loved him and will remember him, sharing his light to infinite numbers of people around the world. And I hope he’s up there in the great beyond, sharing a toast with Loretta, Don, and Ashot… and anyone else beyond the bar who was touched by Armenia and knows how much Armenians love making toasts!

I’m so grateful that I was able to share my memories with other people… and in some small way, honor Matt with one of my own gifts. Maybe I can share my light the way Matt did with whatever time I have left. The most important thing Matt taught me is that no one is promised the next minute. So I hope this post inspires you to share yourself… because I promise, you matter to someone. And you probably matter to many more people than you will ever know.

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obits

Rest in peace, Prince Philip…

I don’t have much to say today. It’s raining outside, so even if we weren’t still stuck at home, I probably wouldn’t want to go out. I watched Lyle Lovett’s most recent live stream with Willis Alan Ramsey. I had never heard of Willis Alan Ramsey before, but he and Lyle are old friends. It was an enjoyable live stream, although maybe not as interesting to me as the ones Lyle did with Vince Gill and Michael McDonald.

Bill informed me that he’ll be gone for most of May. He also told me that it looks like we’ll be getting vaccinated sometime next month… although if he’s going to be TDY, maybe not. I sure am tired of waiting and I hate this lifestyle. It’s very depressing.

What a life.

I was saddened, but not surprised, to read about Prince Philip’s death yesterday. He was 99 years old and had been married to Queen Elizabeth II for 73 years. Until very recently, he had enjoyed fairly good health, but I know he spent some time hospitalized a couple of months ago. And, let’s face it… he was a mere two months shy of turning 100, so the end was bound to come eventually. Still, I kind of enjoyed Philip, who was like the court jester of Britain’s Royal Family. He had many quips at the ready, and a lot of them were very politically incorrect. I enjoy political incorrectness very much, even though I know it’s not so cool nowadays.

Last night, Bill and I were talking about everything the Duke of Edinburgh had seen over his long lifetime… He was a young man when World War II was happening. He was here to see cars, computers, televisions, organ transplants, and air travel become normal. He saw the first space travel, artificial hearts, and the Internet. And no matter what you might think of him, his wife, or their family, a 73 year marriage is an incredible accomplishment.

Let’s also not forget that he was a man who faced some significant hardships early in life. He was rushed from his native Greece when he was a baby and spent his earliest years in Germany. His mother went a bit crazy and later joined a religious order. And then, having been a decorated naval hero, he married Princess Elizabeth and became her consort, basically a “kept” man at a time when being a “kept” man was kind of humiliating. He took Elizabeth’s name and walked behind her as she continues to reign over the United Kingdom… Not every man could have handled such a role with the great aplomb Philip did.

I know not everyone loves them, but they sure seemed to love each other.

I have some British friends who are sad that Prince Philip has passed on, although I know there are a lot of other Brits who feel it’s time to get rid of the Royals. As an American, I have no skin in the game, but I have always been a bit fascinated by Britain’s Royal Family. I enjoy watching the pomp and glamour, even if maybe it’s all rather outdated.

Anyway… when I saw video of him riding in a car recently, I thought Prince Philip was looking pretty poorly. I am not surprised that his time came yesterday. My heart goes out to Queen Elizabeth II, whom I am sure already misses him. It’s too bad he wasn’t able to make it to 100, although maybe he didn’t care about that particular goal.

My Granny lived to be within six weeks of her 101st birthday, but I feel pretty sure she was more than ready to go when the time came. She lived a long life and was much beloved, but I think her final years were hard for her. They probably were for Prince Philip too, even if he didn’t have to worry about a lot of the things more common people do.

The passing of the prince led Bill and me to talking about our own deaths. We talked about what we’d like done with our bodies– cremation, burial, or whatever. I told Bill that I don’t really care too much, although I think I wouldn’t mind being turned into a tree. However, I would not want him to use a “mushroom suit” to accomplish that goal, since I have a phobia of mushrooms. That would be my worst nightmare, although it’s unlikely I’d know the difference.

I read that the actor Luke Perry, who was a big star on Beverly Hills 90210, and died a couple of years ago of a stroke, was buried in a “mushroom suit”, which is supposedly made of mushrooms and is an eco-friendly way to dispose of one’s remains. I like the idea of eco friendly burials, but wearing a suit made of mushrooms is enough to make me want to scream. Actually, reading about the suit while looking at the creepy stock photos of mushrooms is traumatizing enough. Still… I do like the idea of feeding trees and doing good things for the Earth… or even providing a handy spot for a dog to pee, though I am not into golden showers as a living person.

Well… like I said, I don’t have much to write about today. I think I’ll close this post and go watch something trashy on TV in an attempt to cheer myself up on this gloomy Saturday. As happy as I am that Bill has a good job, these trips really suck balls, especially when the pandemic prevents me from doing anything fun to pass the time. I guess I’ll keep working on my guitar and pondering what kind of trouble I can get into.

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musings

I went to bed, and Ruth Bader Ginsburg died…

I woke up this morning to the very sad, but not completely unexpected news that Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg died at age 87 after suffering from cancer. She was an incredible, tenacious, brilliant woman. There’s not a lot I could write about her that hasn’t already been written. She truly was a phenomenal person with true grit, and I know she hung on for as long as she possibly could.

Of course, since she has passed away, a new Supreme Court position is now suddenly open, and Trump and Mr. Turtlehead Mitch McConnell are going to do their best to fill it before the election in November. I can only hope and pray that people get out and vote blue. I know a lot of people are just as for Trump as I am against him, but I am truly very concerned about the future if he wins another election. I may just give up if he wins.

In other news, yesterday my aunt wrote to everyone in the family to let them know that our annual Thanksgiving shindig is canceled. I really can’t blame her for canceling. She has suffered from cancer since the 1980s and is up there in years. We also have a number of other elderly relatives who shouldn’t be hanging around large groups of people, spreading germs.

Bill and I weren’t planning to go to Thanksgiving anyway, since we’re in Europe. There was a time when I really loved the annual family gathering, but I haven’t felt welcome among most of my family members in many years. And, to be honest, I have no desire to take a long plane trip anywhere, especially now.

Depending on what happens in a few weeks, the gathering would have either been extremely obnoxious because Trump won or very somber because he lost. My family members are mostly dogged Trump supporters, which is a main reason why I don’t feel comfortable with them anymore. They’re also the type of people who can’t have a rational conversation about politics.

Last night, Bill and I were talking about what we’re going to do in the coming weeks. We are due to pick up our new canine family member in just a couple of weeks, but we’re warily eyeing the borders due to the COVID-19 situation, which is getting worse here. To be honest, I won’t be surprised if the trip has to be postponed. I am looking forward to having a new dog, though… it will be a bright light after many tough months… though I fully admit my months haven’t been nearly as tough as many other people’s have.

Take, for instance, my cousin, who has been a professional musician in Nashville for the past several years. Because of COVID-19, he pretty much lost his ability to work. He’s also a big Trump supporter. Last night, he posted about how angry he is because the mayor of Nashville has shut down the music scene. Or… that is what I gather, based on my cousin’s rantings and wishes that the country would “get back to normal”. He thinks the COVID-19 numbers are “inflated” for political reasons.

I truly feel for my cousin. I know how much he loves what he does. He’s super talented and really has the perfect disposition for being an entertainer. It does concern me, though, that he thinks that COVID-19 numbers are being artificially inflated and that things aren’t as serious as they are. It seems to me that he has a very America centric perspective. If COVID-19 were just a thing in the United States, maybe I could get on board with his complaints. But COVID-19 has been a bitch all over the world and a lot of people have died or become seriously disabled due to this virus. And it SUCKS for everyone. Indeed, his mom even canceled Thanksgiving because of COVID-19. She doesn’t want to turn our annual family gathering into a superspreader event. I can’t blame her. But I do empathize with my cousin. I know he wants to get back to work.

I know I would like to get back to traveling normally and being able to write in my travel blog about my adventures. Speaking of which, I haven’t decided if I will go to Slovenia with Bill yet. There are some worries we have about how to integrate our “family”– to include our sweet Arran, who has been a real comfort since we lost Zane last year and throughout this COVID-19 mess. I want him to like his new bro. I worry about how they’ll be in the car together, as well as crossing borders to get to Slovenia. I am also worried about how his rescuer is going to get him out of Kosovo, but she knows a lot more about this stuff than I do. I assume she has a plan.

Well, it’s time for breakfast, so I’m going to close for now. I may be back later with a book review. I am itching to write one about my latest reading material… it may be epic. It may not. We’ll see.

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