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Joyce Rawitscher, Words of Remembrance

About The Author

David W. Good is Minister Emeritus of The First Congregational Church of Old Lyme and President of the Tree of Life Educational Fund

Joyce Rawitscher was a long time Connecticut activist, particularly in support of Palestinians. This was read by Rev. Good at the memorial for Joyce, Feb. 4, 2017

As perhaps you may remember, it was a spectacularly beautiful autumn here in Connecticut, unusual also in that it wasn’t so much the brilliant red that caught my attention but rather the golden yellows of the beech and the birch.

So, when Joyce called to let me know of her sad diagnosis of pancreatic cancer, as I drove up to Storrs from our home in Lyme, I observed and found some solace in the beauty of our New England landscape, and I was reminded of the melancholy wisdom of Robert Frost in his poem, “Nothing Gold Can Stay.”

Nothing Gold Can Stay

Nature’s first green is gold
Her hardest hue to hold.
Her early leaf’s a flower;
But only so an hour.
Then leaf subsides to leaf.
So Eden sank to grief,
So dawn goes down to day.
Nothing gold can stay.

I appreciate the straight forward honesty and melancholy of this poem. No matter how we dress up our grief and look for consolations, I find it helpful simply to acknowledge our loss. “Nothing gold can stay.” Or to put it in the less poetic vernacular of today, I was bummed out by our loss.

We are an unusual group gathered here today, with representatives of a number of different intersecting circles – members of Joyce’s beloved family, different faith communities and secular organizations, and a community of activists on a number of different issues.

And that’s where I got to know Joyce. In our collective effort to bring enlightenment and constructive engagement in the effort to address our country’s complicity in the ongoing violation of human rights in Israel and Palestine, Joyce was one of our most trusted and steadfast allies.

The word “peace” can be a rather pretty but empty whitewash on an ugly injustice, and so we all came to rely upon Joyce for her unflinching, resilient, tenacious, but always gentle determination to remind us all that justice and human rights are a prerequisite for peace and reconciliation.

There was something radiant, indeed golden about Joyce’s role in all these efforts.

As I drove up to Storrs, past Colchester and Hebron, through the nomenclature of our landscape that couldn’t decide whether it was England or the Holy Land, as I drove past woodlands of brilliant yellow — birch and beech — I thought about Joyce’s diagnosis, her beautiful smile and her radiant spirit, and I said to myself those words from Robert Frost, “Nothing gold can stay.”

It’s a part of life, part of the sad rhythms of nature, an important reminder, never to take anything or anyone for granted, not even ourselves, for life is ephemeral and transitory, a reminder that each and everyday we should start the day by saying out loud or to ourselves those words of the psalmist, the shepherd boy with a harp, the boy who was a far better person as a humble shepherd and a musician than he was as a king:

This is the day the Lord has made; let us rejoice and be glad in it.

Keep in mind the plurality suggested by “us,” not the singularity of “I or me or mine,” for the psalmist knew, perhaps instinctively, perhaps un-reflectively, what he had learned in synagogue, what the philosopher Immanuel Kant knew when he spoke of the “categorical imperative” that life is more than just a narcissistic, self-centered, individualistic quest for happiness, that one cannot will happiness for oneself unless he or she wills happiness for all human life, that one cannot truly be free unless and until all are free of the shackles of racism, bigotry and injustice.

The shepherd, the boy with the harp, knew that a harp is insufficient with only one string. He knew what prophets, poets and yes, indeed, physicists have been trying to tell us, that the divisions and the subdivisions, and the gated communities and the walls that would divide us are both an illusion and a delusion.

In one of my conversations with Joyce and George, knowing that George is a physicist, I was delighted to learn that George had met the English physicist, David Bohm, author of one of my favorite books, “Wholeness and the Implicate Order,” a book in which he argues or at least suggests, that everything in Creation “implies everything else,” that subject and object are artificial constructs, that one can see the whole hologram even in just a fragment of its negative. While there’s much about physics that is far beyond my comprehension, I confess I love those boundary waters between science and religion. If you go canoeing or kayaking in those boundary waters, inevitably one comes to appreciate that the whole of the universe is a lot more interrelated and interdependent than what we sometimes think that it is.

The poet John Donne tried to tell us this truth back in the 17th century when he said,

No man is an island entire of itself; every man
is a piece of the continent, a part of the main…
any man’s death diminishes me,
because I am involved in mankind.
And therefore never send to know for whom
the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.

Joyce not only knew this truth; she lived this truth. She knew, as the prophets and the poets and the physicists know, that when a child dies in Gaza, something in us dies as well, when refugees are turned away brokenhearted, something in us is in need of a spiritual angioplasty. When so-called strangers are excluded because of their color or their religion or their lack thereof, when women and children are deprived or denied their basic human rights, there’s something in this that “diminishes” us as well.

By her words and even more by her actions, Joyce was a golden and ever-so-precious reminder of that truth.

In one of my last visits with Joyce, only a week or so before her death, Joyce was under Hospice care and clearly frustrated by her predicament. Doing my usual “pastoral” thing, I tried to get her to talk about herself and her own mortality, but clearly, she was not going to cooperate.

I don’t know, but I suspect that this short woman with such a radiant smile could also be rather stubborn.

Clearly, she wasn’t going to cooperate with my pastoral consolations. What she really wanted to do was talk about the election, politics, candidates for public office, and how frustrated she was, being in bed, not able to do anything about it. Yes, she was concerned about mortality, but it wasn’t her mortality she was worried about. She was worried about the mortality of our nation and the principles we hold dear. She was worried about the demise of our beloved Statue of Liberty. Instead of being seen as a glorious symbol of hospitality, Joyce was concerned that with the wrong kind of leadership, this much beloved Mother of Exiles would come to be seen as a Jezebel of nationalism, exclusion and hypocrisy.

And quite specifically, Joyce shared with me her concerns about the future of the Israel/Palestine Peace, Education and Action Group of Eastern Connecticut.

As we all know Joyce was deeply devoted to this group, and like every prophetic Elijah she was anxious about who Elijah might be. Who would pick up where she left off? Being the true champion that she was, she was frustrated not being able to get up and finish the work she had begun.

I suspect that this is something we all struggle with, regardless of how healthy or ill we might be, regardless of whether we are young or old. Those such as Joyce are forever discontent, for there is always so much more that needs to be done.

As she shared these concerns with me, being that it was autumn and given that I already had the wisdom of Robert Frost as my companion, I shared with Joyce what I could remember of a few lines from one of my favorite of his poems, a poem that I like even more the older I get, “After Apple Picking.”

After a long day working in his orchard, tired and determined to harvest as many apples as he could, in a spirit of resignation, he says,

My long two-pointed ladder’s sticking through a tree
Toward heaven still,
And there’s a barrel that I didn’t fill
Beside it, and there may be two or three
Apples I didn’t pick upon some bough,
But I am done with apple-picking now.
Essence of winter sleep is on the night,
The scent of apples: I am drowsing off….

I keep hearing from the cellar bin
The rumbling sound
Of load on load of apples coming in.
For I have had too much
Of apple-picking: I am overtired
Of the great harvest I myself desired.
There were ten thousand thousand fruit to touch,
Cherish in hand, lift down, and not let fall…

But I am done with apple picking now.

At the end of each day or at the end of our lives, I suspect we all need that spirit of resignation, that litany of self-forgiveness. Whether it’s apples on our trees, or children in need of our love and care, or refugees standing by the thousands outside our gates or those suffering from war and injustice, patients or clients for whom in retrospect we might have done a little bit more, or this tender earth so much in need of our love and care, at the end of the day or at the end of our lives, we’re all confronted and confounded by our inadequacies, all the things we have left undone.

Now, the only real answer to this melancholy is to remember that we do not work alone, that when we’re at our best, we’re part of what Martin Luther King called, “the beloved community,” that there are others who are working with us in common cause, and not only our contemporaries but also the younger and even unborn generations as well.

I tried to reassure Joyce that the rest of us would now need to continue the work that she had so nobly begun. And I hope you all will help me to keep that promise. Indeed, as I see it, this is the best way that we can honor this remarkable woman.

I also told Joyce about the young people who by their activism and quest for truth have kept my own hope alive. I reminded her of the three young women from this church community who traveled with Nancy on a journey to Israel and Palestine and came back home with a sufficiency of righteous indignation and a citizenship with a circumference much wider than the boundaries of this community.

I told her of the young Lakota women at Standing Rock who despite tear gas grenades and police brutality stood up against the black snake of colonialism and empire.

I told her about Ahed Tamimi, a young 15-year-old Palestinian girl from the community of Nabi Saleh who has distinguished herself as a leader in the non-violent resistance movement, a young woman armed with nothing more than the dignity of her spirit and her dreams for the future.

I told her of the three students from UConn, two from Central Connecticut State University, two from Yale and the four high school students who are coming with us on our next Tree of Life Journey to Israel and Palestine in March. At a time when it would be so easy to hunker down and hide from the harsh realities in which we live, I’m so grateful for these young people and the quest for truth and justice that they represent.

In her time of vulnerability, I wanted Joyce to know that her legacy is wonderfully illustrated in these youthful reminders of the goodness of the human spirit, that the voice of conscience cannot be silenced or defeated, as long as there are others who are willing to pick up where she left off.

As I shared these stories with her, Joyce looked up from her bed and there it was, that beautiful radiant smile for which she was so famous.

As I think about her smile, her smile wasn’t at all like the enigmatic smile of Mona Lisa. Rather, I like to think of her smile as being more like the inexplicable smile of the man in Albert Camus’ “The Myth of Sisyphus.” As you may recall, Camus reinvents this man as a Greek hero, one who forever pushes a boulder up a hill only to watch it roll back down, and so he pushes it back up once again and on and on it goes, up hill and back down.

It may seem a tragic predicament until you get closer and take a good look at the man’s countenance. And there it is, that inexplicable smile.

That’s what I think of when I think of Joyce. Like all activists, she knew that her work was never done. She knew that in the long struggle for human rights, peace and justice for all, Joyce knew that it’s always and forever an up hill battle, and just when you think you’re almost there, the boulder rolls back down, and you have to start all over again.

In Joyce’s case, it’s not a boulder I see, but a cart, a cart laden with boxes of olive oil, petitions, olive wood carvings, beautiful embroidery, signs that say “Stop the Occupation” or “Tear down the wall,” boxes and boxes of flyers about upcoming programs, and there is Joyce with her radiant, invincible smile.

But if you get even closer, perhaps you can hear her say, if you’ll indulge me one more fragment of poetry. Listen carefully, and you’ll hear Joyce saying to us those words of “Ulysses” by Alfred Lord Tennyson:

Come my friends, tis not too late to seek a newer world.

If Joyce were here with us – and in a deeper sense she is here with us – she would say,

“Come my friends, it is not too late for this troubled world in which we live. Despite all the evidence to the contrary, it is not too late to restore decency and integrity and compassion to our human institutions. It is not too late to relight the torch for our beloved Statue of Liberty. It is not too late for Israelis and Palestinians to live together in peace. It is not too late for Muslims and Jews and Christians, Hindu and Buddhist to remember what Quakers have known for a long, long time, that there ‘is that of God’ in each one of us, making us not only Friends but indeed relatives. In this horribly divided world in which we live, it is not too late to teach our children and have our children teach us how wonderfully interrelated all creation is.”

And there it is, once again, just to reassure us, Joyce’s beautiful smile.

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