My friend, Levana Marshall, died last week in London. I found out about it on the eve of our spring retreat (the blog, too, was on retreat and therefore didn’t post on Friday).
She was from Greek Israeli origin and we met in 1997 in an old Jewish cemetery in Krakow, Poland. She was taking part in our second retreat at Auschwitz-Birkenau, and I saw a woman some 7 years older than me, in a red wool coat and dark red hair, detach from the group and sit on the ground, resting her back against a gravestone. I went over to ask how she was and ended up getting on the ground with her and talking for an hour.
After that we talked a lot by phone, occasionally meeting in London, where she lived. She was a psychotherapist who didn’t work with individuals and groups, she worked with human beings. Growing up in a poor immigrant family, she not only obtained various degrees and certificates in psychotherapy but did coursework in everything from the arts to shamanic studies to Jewish mysticism. We both loved the theater and even on my last visit to her, when she could no longer go out, she had a ticket waiting for me to see an all-Black cast do Death of a Salesman in the National Theater.
She unashamedly loved life. She made the most of her big house in Surrey, with a host of orchids on the wide windowsills of her office. I would look out at her garden to watch the foxes run across, or a blue heron alight on the netting with which they covered their coy-filled pond. She gathered art, loved Chopin and her family. She and Morris Marshall, her husband, traveled to India regularly to spend weeks at an Ayurveda spa, or else at a 5-star hotel on an island off the Thai shore. She was a master chef who cooked everything from French and Swiss cuisine to Middle Eastern and Indian.
We talked on the phone, we argued on the phone. With Levana, life didn’t just flash in and out, she experienced it. She gave it her all. She derived deep pleasure from some things, deep pain from others. She chose to be present and take it all in rather than live on the surface of things.
When I received the email about her death, I retrieve some of the last emails she sent me. One, three months ago, read in part like this:
“My dear friend,.
Getting older is such an interesting experience. For me, it’s stretching too long.. yet, it touches such a deep cord- who am I? … I feel I have nothing to say, nothing to learn, nothing much to feel. Strange. Nothing is that important. As if I already died … I sit and turn the pages of large Art books. I love the beauty of the Artist’s perception. Japanese art moves me deeply. My old familiar friends- Rembrandt + Titian. I love them. I studied them for years+ now, they are here for me. I feel they know me.. I can cry. Who am I ? A wave of love fills me. Once, I studied, once, I knew. Once I was touched, desired, I love this old, frail woman. Gently. I’m touching the end.”
And in the last email she sent me, just 5 days before she died, she wrote:“[S]kins of identity are being shed like an old Onion 🧅. Who am I?”
This question came up during much of this last retreat, which I personally dedicated to her.
For much of my life I wanted to live simply. Read frugal. Read abstemious, even self-denying. I was raised on a materialistic diet, easy to do when you and your family are indigent immigrants coming to this country. I’d been born in an Israeli kibbutz so simple communal life was in my blood.
After that, I had lowered expectations about things, acquisitions, homes and cars. At around 55 I got to own my first (and current) home, and 10 years ago bought my first (and probably only) new car; everything else was rentals and second-hand, with frequent (ongoing) visits to the Salvation Army thrift shops. Bernie showed me how to use frequent miles to get Business Class seats on airplanes; we had a good decade of that till the 2008 recession, when it died.
But there was also something else. From the time I was young, I intuited that whatever I had, I’d have to give up. From that, I drew the conclusion: Why bother? Why buy this or that, love this or that, and then go through the process of letting them go? Why not live simply and not have to go through any of that?
Bernie certainly had his attachments. He loved his cigars, his blue Hybrid Camry, computers and phones.
My friend, Levana, unashamedly loved art, her orchids, jewelry, good food and clothes, gorgeous vacations, and wanted to create beauty all around her house. And at the same time, she was peeling her life layer after layer, buying and giving away, loving and losing, living and letting go all at the same time.
She began peeling that onion long before she got old. Even as she cooked great food, planted more roses, and read more poetry, the question Who am I? never stopped pursuing her. And to answer that question, she was ready to peel the onion of her life, examine layer after layer, laughing her loud, raucous laugh all the time.
She showed me there was another way to live, that instead of giving things up ahead of time to avoid the work of letting them go, one could, after all, say yes to whatever gifts you are offered. Don’t grow possessive or overly attached to them, don’t confuse your identity with them, instead be generous and give completely And, like her, keep a sharp peeler in the kitchen drawer.
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