Sunday, August 9, 2015

A Rebirth of Wonder -- Saying Good-bye to Fred Stern

There was a man who made rainbows.

His name was Fred Stern. Since 1999, he had lived in Las Cruces.

A lifelong artist in his mid-seventies, Fred was vibrant, imaginative, and energetic – and always excited about some new idea or project.

He made rainbows for political causes and civic events, but mostly he loved making them for children, often kids with serious diseases, and watching their joy.

Corporate clients helped fund this, and flew him around the world to make rainbows or discuss the logistics. Last year, Coke flew him to South Africa to make a rainbow in an award-winning celebration of the 20th anniversary of the first free elections there. [See pix from this event here.]

In May he wanted to make and photograph a rainbow over the full moon rising precisely as the sun set. He climbed onto the wall of friend's backyard. He fell. He was airlifted to an El Paso hospital. He had broken his neck. His daughter came to be with him. He lasted several weeks, then died.

“Well, at least he died doing what he loved,” folks said to each other. It was true, but it sounded as flat as we felt.

I was struggling with this column, trying to describe Fred as friend and artist, and his abrupt departure. Then, while randomly replaying a radio interview we'd done, I was delighted again by what Fred said and how he said it, and had to yield the column to Fred himself.

On Art, he says, “Once you start pursuing markets, once you start pursuing money, the game changes. It's got to be about passion, and vision.” Art is the process of creating, not anyone's evaluation of what's created. “Art really, if it's anything, if it really exists, is a verb, not a noun.” He added that the second worst thing for an artist is believing a negative review – and the worst is believing a positive one.
On the difference between how kids and adults see rainbows: “When you talk about what we lose, going into adulthood, the concept of wonder is critical. The one thing that kills our sense of wonder is the things we know. It's impossible to make a rainbow, it's impossible to get to the end of the rainbow. We know all these things, and as a result we don't see them.”

“If I were ever going to be a superhero I would like to be Wondering Man. Say something happens in your life, a negative thing. Or something we see as negative. But if you stop for a second and say, 'I wonder what the real meaning of this is,' then suddenly it opens up possibilities.”

“I traveled for four months last year, after two years of intense work. And I got into saying 'Yes' to every opportunity that came up, no matter how much chatter went through my mind about cost and 'Is this worth doing?' or “Is this crazy?' It took me to incredible places. I wound up traveling to places that I had to get there to find out why I was going. Because why you go never turns out to be the real reason. When we're out of our normal everyday context we start wondering, and all kinds of possibilities open up.”

“Adults never go under the rainbow. Only kids do.”

“At these cancer camps, the kids are always standing under the rainbow with their arms out because they're standing in the center of a full circle rainbow that begins right above their heads and ends at their feet. Their arms are stretched out because they see their arms bathed in color.”

Thanks, Fred. We miss you.

[This Sunday column appeared in the Las Cruces Sun-News this morning, 9 August 2015m and will appear today on KRWG-TV's website under "Local Viewpoints."  For more on Fred, check out his website, which has photos of his 1995 world-peace rainbow over the U.N. and his 2014 rainbow over South Africa's Burning Man.]

Perhaps fortunately, letting Fred's own words take over the Sunday column pushed to the side more personal reflections.  I will say that in his seventies Fred not only retained his passion for and commitment to art, and his sense of wonder, but was also periodically as excited as a teenager about a new love relationship, but saddened whe they didn't last.  We were sad for him on that score, and sad with him.

"Wonder" is something I'd thought a lot about and Fred and I had discussed over coffee.  Listening again to our radio discussion of "wonder," and wishing I could reproduce the quality of wonder in Fred's voice as he discusses the kids reaching the end of the rainbow, I keep thinking, as I thought that day, about the Ferlinghetti poem which I mistakenly recalled as "A Rebirth of Wonder" but which is actually entitled  "I Am Waiting.I can't recall whether Fred and I ever discussed it, but he surely knew the poem.  

I am waiting for my case to come up   
and I am waiting
for a rebirth of wonder
and I am waiting for someone
to really discover America
and wail
and I am waiting   
for the discovery
of a new symbolic western frontier   
and I am waiting   
for the American Eagle
to really spread its wings
and straighten up and fly right
and I am waiting
for the Age of Anxiety
to drop dead
and I am waiting
for the war to be fought
which will make the world safe
for anarchy
and I am waiting
for the final withering away
of all governments
and I am perpetually awaiting
a rebirth of wonder

I am waiting for the Second Coming   
. . .
and I am waiting
for the Grapes of Wrath to be stored   
and I am waiting
for them to prove
that God is really American
and I am waiting
to see God on television
piped onto church altars
if only they can find   
the right channel   
to tune in on
and I am waiting
for the Last Supper to be served again
with a strange new appetizer
and I am perpetually awaiting
a rebirth of wonder
. . . I am waiting
for the meek to be blessed
and inherit the earth   
without taxes
and I am waiting
for forests and animals
to reclaim the earth as theirs
. . .
and I am waiting for lovers and weepers
to lie down together again
in a new rebirth of wonder 
. . .  I am anxiously waiting
for the secret of eternal life to be discovered   
by an obscure general practitioner
. . . and I am awaiting retribution
for what America did   
to Tom Sawyer   
and I am waiting
for Alice in Wonderland
to retransmit to me
her total dream of innocence
. . .
I am waiting
to get some intimations
of immortality
by recollecting my early childhood
and I am waiting
for the green mornings to come again   
youth’s dumb green fields come back again
and I am waiting
for some strains of unpremeditated art
to shake my typewriter
and I am waiting to write
the great indelible poem
and I am waiting
for the last long careless rapture
and I am perpetually waiting
for the fleeing lovers on the Grecian Urn   
to catch each other up at last
and embrace
and I am awaiting   
perpetually and forever
a renaissance of wonder

It was a favorite when I was young, in part because I have always honored (and sought to recapture through travel and other adventures, as Fred did) that sense of wonder that we do lose as we learn our way around.  It is a good part of why I left a successful and remunerative law practice in a big firm in San Francisco to wander around Asian countries where I'd no clue what was up the next alley or whether the musical sounds of the Chinese or Thai language was a discussion of something magical or just discussions of a malfunctioning washing-machine or a cheating husband.

1 comment:

  1. I Know Why the Buddha Smiles
    (For Fred)

    Your Buddha smile reminds me
    there are rightful states of
    happiness and bliss
    which are ours to enjoy,
    for happiness is our natural state
    no matter those illusions family,
    or friends,
    or you,
    or I,
    may weave and wear
    like fine linens of gold.
    We are deeply entwined;
    this I know because
    it rests,
    sweetly and silently,
    deep within that hidden place in my heart,
    where perfection of all things,
    “like drops of dew, or flashes of lightning,”
    dwell forever
    and even yet another day,
    for that is the love
    we hold for you.