A few days ago, when on facebook, I was happy to see that Inger Koedt, one of the stalwart matriarchs of Jackson Hole, is still going strong at 103. I had wondered if she was still alive, and everytime I hiked alone in the wilderness — believe it or not, Jackson Hole folks, there is relative (hilly, woodsy) wilderness in southcentral In-Diana — I wondered how long she continued to hike the Tetons. I remember thinking, when I lived there, that her level of physical activity at an advanced age was amazing. And I wondered how old she was when she finally quit. In this morning’s peregrinations, I found a Jackson Hole News and Guide article on her which mentioned that she hiked until “well into her ’70s,” which would put her at about my age now, 75. And I’m nowhere near done! On the other hand, as I told son Colin a few days ago, I no longer do really wild hikes on my own. That it does not seem wise, in case I fall.
Okay. Then, this same morning, still on fb, I came across shocking news, that David Swift, one of the amazing beings of my own generation in Jackson Hole, died yesterday, at 67, while cross-country skiing alone. Details are sketchy, but it looks like a heart attack.
And then I found, again on facebook, a remarkable and moving tribute to David by Christian Beckwith which, in turn, stimulated me to write this entire post.
So you have passed, David J Swift, skiing by yourself in GTNP. Beautifully, I hope – sun piercing that blanket of fog to refract on the tree limbs and morainal rises of the reason you came here. Down here on the Valley floor, beneath the inversion, the moisture has gathered around us like a cloak, enveloping branches in boa feathers of hoar. Did the sunlight glint off those frozen boughs as you closed your eyes that final time, a flickering to light the path ahead?
O David, my friend. My dear friend. I hope so.
I look around this kitchen and see the photo of Soleil you took as we exited that day from our ramble through the majestic architecture of Canyonlands when she was barely walking. We carried her most of the day; your hip hurt, and I can still see you limping as we exited the desert’s spinal embrace back to camp. She was three. In your photo she has the nonchalance of a woman twenty years her senior. How did you find a bohemian, tussle-headed, hands thrust into pink hoody pockets, with your camera? You saw in her what she would become and teased it out in a moment that has now outlived you. Inshallah. This fetid world, so ripe for your timeless lampoons, lives on.
Another one, propped against the opposite kitchen wall, Soleil and Giovannina and me in black and white atop a rock above camp at Wooden Shoe. How we laughed when you drove in that night: all we’d had was the briefest of conversations at Skinny Skis when we were on our way out of town.
“Where you headed?” you asked, ebullient. Always.
“The desert, ” I said, pushing a red fuel canister across the counter. “Canyonlands. Wooden Shoe Campground.”
“The desert,” you sighed. “Ahhhh.” So much in that sigh of yours: recollection. Solace.
And right there, at the end: anticipation.
A moment later: “I need a break. Mind if I meet you there?”
We didn’t think you would. But you did, gliding in at dusk in your Honda Element, a caravan on wheels that carried the last of the day’s last light with it. You brought the light with you wherever you went, David Swift. Fabulous hair, too, rich and loamy, black as lavastone and thick as ink. We debated, laughing in wonder, whether you dyed it.
The one of Soleil and Giovannina and me is one of my all-time favorites, rimmed in a beaten Browse-N-Buy frame I must have bought for a dollar. In it, Soleil is reaching out to you, that same tussle of blond swept to the side by the wind while Giovannina smiles down in beatific grace. I’m laughing, looking at you. How did you do that? How did you find our souls in your photographs, the parts of ourselves that we most deeply wanted to be—and then how did you flip the perspective so now that I’m looking at it I’m looking at you? Soleil, arm outstretched, fingers splayed. You, looking back, smiling, your black hair perfect.
There’s your magic again. It’s not a camera. It’s a conversation between friends.
I got here in ’94. Didn’t know shit from shinola. Started the Mountain Yodel just because I didn’t know I couldn’t. Soon after the first issue appeared, I opened an envelope. In it was an essay you’d submitted for publication, a check for $250 and a handwritten note that said simply, “Keep it up.” You broke my heart wide open.
God, you had my back. From that day on, I felt like every crazy fucking idea I came up with, you were there with your camera, film festivals and mountain games and boulder projects and SHIFTs (not to mention impromptu leftist picnics in Phil Baux Park and that election night party at Betty Rock when a black man won and we all posed around the cut-outs of Barack and Michelle). The best images that remain are the ones you took. Most of the time I never paid you. You never complained. On our wedding day we didn’t have money for a photographer so we asked our friends to take photos instead. The two photos on our walls are yours, the only ones of that day we still have.
I took you for granted. This last SHIFT I was stressing about the budget down the stretch and wrote you that, for the first time, I couldn’t hire you. More time for vacation in the desert, you wrote back. How I regret it now—the last chance to work with you, the last chance to see your beautiful photos, the way they brought out the essence of who we are and who we aspire to be. You saw it all, and now you’re gone, and there’s no getting you back.
And frankly, the photos I have instead are shit.
You would have laughed at that.
You were immortal, David, ubiquitous, as ethereal as the light and just as buoyant. You lifted me up, you and your smile and your hair and your wit and your politics and your redacted remarks on FB and your love of women—“Legs like a gazelle,” you said of Giovannina once, sighing that sigh of yours. Volumes in that sigh. Always finding the moment to love in that most lovely of genders, and always surrounding yourself with those dancing motes of light.
I am better for your time in my life, my friend, and so grateful to have had you in it. Godspeed. May the light on the other side be perfect.
Beckwith’s personal tribute reminded me of the obituary I wrote for my husband, Jeffrey Joel, who died in 2003. It splashed across two pages of the Jackson Hole News and Guide, with titles and subtitles composed by the newspaper itself. Later I heard that a local columnist had read the obituary out loud to his wife, and commented, “That is how everybody should be remembered.”
Yes, rather than the puerile, cliched ways we usually write up a person’s life after he or she passes, citing their “accomplishments” and/or “hobbies,” let us write from the heart; especially, let us speak of our own relationship to that person, and let us, I would add, include a recognition of that person’s (and our own) “shadow material” in the process. I went on to publish this obituary as Chapter 2 of This Vast Being: A Voyage through Grief and Exaltation.
Joel, 55, healed on interdimensional planes
JEFFREY JOEL, 1947-2003
by Ann Kreilkamp
Kelly Scholar had tremendous powers of concentration
Jeffrey Joel arrived in Jackson in the summer of 1990. He was a large, ungainly, sloppily dressed middle-aged man with a Buddha belly; that body and its fluid motion plus my imagined version of his intelligence reminded me of a dolphin. With grey/white hair corkscrewing out like it was transmitting permanent voltage from his giant bald egghead, he certainly stuck out in this hard-body town! My friends did not know what to make of him and I was embarrassed to be seen with him.
Our relationship did not begin with romance, it began in shadow. What most couples discover with a shock after romance has cooled, we ran into like a brick wall from the beginning. How did we survive it?
How did we even begin? Well, it all started on a shuttle bus on the way from the San Francisco airport to a hotel where we were both to attend a conference on “Cycles and Symbols.” Most of the participants were astrologers like me, with an interest in psychology.
I have often told the story of how I instantly “recognized his ass,” (because I hadn’t yet seen his face!), as he climbed up the shuttle’s stairs in front of me. This man, I knew, was “in my tribe.” The shuttle was empty but for one other man, and as I watched them interact I was instantly repelled. In a contemptuous tone, Jeff said he was a mathematician, and that he was “slumming” at this conference; that he was on his way to a meeting on “Alchemical Hypnotherapy,” one of his many healing modalities.
Absorbed knowledge from everywhere
Despite the off-putting start, that proved to be a turning-point weekend, full of synchronicities. It was a large conference, with 700 attendees, and Jeff and I kept bumping into each other. Finally the two of us gave in, started talking. I discovered that he was trained at both Princeton and MIT, was a musician as well as mathematician, that he knew languages, that he was interested in just about everything, and carried both computer and encyclopedia in his head. However, I had to work to get him to speak above a mumble, and noticed his sometimes painfully shy, stuttering self-consciousness. And I was very judgmental about his overweight condition, preaching to him about diet, nutrition, exercise, etc.
That’s when I saw him as a dolphin, not just his body, but his mind. I told him that it seemed to me that he absorbed knowledge from all directions using sonar, sensing the fluid within which all things took place.
He liked that. He was a Leo, and loved being appreciated.
After the conference, he and I spent a night together at the house of a friend of mine nearby, and then in the morning he went on his way.
I wanted to go to the ocean before flying back to Jackson. So Ella drove us to a beach, where we walked along the Pacific timeline. I had my glasses in my hand so as to feel the salty air with my eyes. Suddenly Ella said, “Look, Annie!”, pointing out to sea.
I put my glasses on and looked to where she was pointing. An entire pod of dolphins was cavorting there, just beyond the breakwater. They followed us up and down the beach for the next hour. Ella was astonished. She had never before seen dolphins at that particular beach.
That was the first of several miracles, which guided and affirmed my choice of partnering with this unusual, urbane, uncivilized man.
Bored with Mathematical Reviews
The second was a few weeks later, at another astrology conference at which I was again presenting. I had, foolishly, I thought, left a message on his answering machine, daring him to come live with me for a year rather than go to Atlanta for his sabbatical. (When I met him he had been for 17 years an Editor for Mathematical Reviews, an international journal in Ann Arbor, Michigan, and was, he said, “bored.”)
I had left that message, and afterward was terrified that he would take me up on it. Would I be willing to make room for a giant amoeba in my 20-foot diameter yurt?
It was at the end of that second conference when the second miracle occurred. I was sitting across from two people, one of them a close friend of mine. They were engrossed in conversation, and I was slumped in an exhausted stupor. At one point, the woman I did not know said, “When the teacher is tired, it’s time to become a student again.” At this, I involuntarily flinched, recognizing its truth for me. Suddenly she turned 90° to face me and said, “I thought you would say that.”
She then proceeded, in a rapid monotone: “You have met a being. He is HUGE!” At this, I was startled, and shrunk back in alarm. She leaned forward. “And his FEET are huge. He wears Birkenstocks, exactly like yours, only they’re SUEDE!” As this was a detail that Jeff and I had commented upon, I suddenly woke up up to what she was saying. She went on to speak of him as a “star being from the Pleiades, connected to dolphin energy.” She said that the two of us had work to do, that we would “anchor the northeast corner of a grid.” (I still have no idea what that meant, though Jeff did not seem puzzled when told.)
Needless to say, I was blown away. From that moment on, no matter how bad things got between us–and at first they were terrible, two giant egos clashing, me determined to change him, him determined to resist—I would remember the miracles, and endure his sloth, his passive aggression, his rare but roaring anger.
A vast being
I’ll never forget the day I stood outside the yurt, with him inside and massively depressed; I was yelling: “You asshole! I’m not going to kick you out!” (HE had to make the decision to stay with me or not. I wasn’t going to give him the opportunity to slink back to Michigan, tail between legs, feeling sorry for himself.)
Or the day when we were in Albertson’s, and I noticed a young, mousey, sensitive woman whom I knew we couldn’t avoid without being rude. With trepidation, in a quavering voice, I introduced him to her, “Deb, this is Jeff.” He slouched up to her face and rudely roared, “Hello!” She shrunk back in alarm.
I was furious, and, once in the car, yelled at him all the way back to Kelly, with him slouching further and further down, sunk in self-loathing.
When we got there, I could not stomach the idea of being in the yurt with him. It was one of those crystal blue -20°F days. I pulled a scarf over my mouth and started walking to the Warm Springs north of Kelly. There, I sat on a hillock, which had been steamed free of snow and watched the sun set through the mist. By the time I walked back, I knew something within me had shifted.
I opened the door and there he was, just the way I had left him, sitting on the couch, elbows on knees, holding his head. It looked like he weighed a thousand pounds; the usual depression, magnified.
I walked up, knelt down in front of him, and these words, startling, even to me, poured out: “I am so grateful to be in this dance with you.”
He looked up at me, the surprise and wonder on his face mirroring my own. I proceeded to say how much I appreciated his very being. That his being was vast. That though my personality might be more socialized, my being was miniscule compared to his. That I could learn from him.
“Can I have a hug?”
And that’s how it started. From then on, we were mindful of that distinction. Two people were involved in this relationship, and each of them had two aspects, persona and soul. We sensed that our connection was at a soul level, or we wouldn’t be together; that our difficulties were those of two personas, two egos who, both being stubborn and prideful, clashed.
Whenever we fought, sooner or later, we remembered to look in each other’s eyes, to see through persona to soul. And we made it a practice to ask the other, in the very moment of being most furious and frozen, most likely to walk away, “can I have a hug?” I initiated this ritual, and he was always very willing to pull me into his embrace, relieved to have been forgiven.
By the end of our years together, this man with five planets in Leo had actually learned to apologize!
I have never met a man who was more willing to change—not to meet my needs, but to hear my truth, and allow it to affect his being. Because he was so resistant to my preaching, I was faced with an exacting mirror. Over and over again, his resistance reminded me to let go of my dogmatic Sagittarian ways, to simply speak my truth from my soul (which signaled its presence when my voice slowed, and dropped an octave), and then to simply let him go. To let go of all expectation as to how he would respond. I had to actually be willing for him to leave me, if necessary.
Over time, I grew to trust that he would respond, because he always did, in his own way; at first it was days later, and then as time went on, and he began to learn that I truly did forgive him, it would take only hours, or even minutes, for him to surrender ego to soul.
The work we did in the outer world, initiating the Jackson Holistic Center as a clearinghouse for alternative thought and co-publishing Crone Chronicles: A Journal of Conscious Aging, were outgrowths of that inner work. How to see through persona to soul. How to allow the magnetic connection between us to flower in the world.
Emerging from depression
The resulting transformation, in both of us, was subtle, steady, and total. Within a few years Jeffrey was emerging from depression. He began to sense the wildness within himself in this wild place, to look forward to chopping wood and carrying water at the yurt, to relish skiing and walking in the mountains, and to pursue his beloved swimming on a near-daily basis. His rough persona eased into a gentleness and caring of which many people received the benefits. They sensed an attentive ear and sympathetic eye, and some even surrendered to his increasingly large-hearted embrace.
His interests, as many people know, were both extremely varied, and pursued in depth. He was a true Renaissance man in an age of specialists; a polyglot polymath in an age of narrow linear thought. He had two calling cards, one left-brained, and one right-brained; the latter, he labeled, accurately, “Circumconscious Navigations.” Periodically, people–especially other body workers—would come to him for Trager bodywork, for which he had trained and had become a tutor, and had even organized and incorporated the International Trager Association. Once in awhile someone would call for a hypnotherapy session with him, though their presenting problem, usually addiction, he would tell them might not be healed through hypnosis.
He was always reading widely and deeply. His office was so disgustingly cluttered that it reminded me of a giant bird’s nest: a chaotic mixture of papers, books, magazines and junk mail curving steadily up, with a narrow trail from doorway to computer.
Generous oaf was sensitive to touch
He could sit there for hours at a time, translating mathematics for German and Russian publishers while listening to opera in another language, singing along. He multitracked easily within, but if I came in and touched his shoulder, wanting his attention, he would jump, furious. This big wonderful lazy generous preoccupied oaf was extremely sensitive to touch.
His tendrils reached into many areas of the community: into theater (where he played the Grandfather to Susan Juvelier’s Grandmother in several Nutcracker productions) and music (he was in the choir, and a great friend of both choirmaster Bob Partridge and composer George Hufsmith). He was one of the Geologists of Jackson Hole, and loved their noon meetings on scientific subjects. He was, for a time, on the Public Lands Committee of the Jackson Hole Alliance, and was one of the founders and the incorporator of the Jewish Community of Jackson Hole.
His work with Crone Chronicles—which carried clout nationally way in excess of its miniscule print run, being nominated for Utne Reader Alternative Awards several times, and being featured on many big city dailies and on ABC’s Good Morning America—was thankless, as some female subscribers were upset to hear a man even answer the phone. This pained both of us. But he soldiered on, bailing out the magazine with money whenever it threatened to go under. When I told him, in the Fall of 2000, that I was finished, that I was too exhausted to do another issue, he urged me to do two more issues: one to announce the decision to close, and another to give room for reader response. So that is what we did, finally closing the magazine with the Spring 2001 issue after 12 years.
Years earlier, I had promised that the next move was his; that it would be my turn to make up to him for his long years of sacrifice to my interests. Gleefully, he elected to go to law school, choosing Indiana University.
Last summer we moved to Bloomington, Indiana. When school started, every morning this brand-new middle-aged pupil would leave the house with 30 pounds of books in his backpack, beaming with childlike pleasure. The man truly loved to study. He was an eternal student, sensing the connections between widely various facts and impressions and fields, seeking to embrace and comprehend the whole.
The two weeks prior to his death—from a heart attack while asleep on the morning of January 4, 2003—felt like divine choreography. He visited with me in Massachusetts, where I was spending the winter with my children and grandchildren so as not to distract him with my presence during the first year of law school. He bonded with my two-year-old granddaughter Kiera in an extraordinary way, the two of them spending three days in his immense, increasingly spacious and sunny embrace.
In his final lunch with his father, a few days later in New Jersey, he told him he loved him.
Many people remarked on the increase in luminosity shining from his face towards the end, the spaciousness, the immense relaxation into his essential being.
The night before he died was our final evening together, and it was full of joy and gentle joking, extraordinarily affectionate and loving.
I sense that he had achieved the purpose of his life, to open his emotional and spiritual heart so completely that his physical heart burst open, releasing him to the vast universe which has always been his true home.
Several people remarked in the days since he died, of a vision of Jeff streaking through the sky in a long robe (I had dressed his body in a long robe after washing and anointing it with essential oils), grey/white curls streaming behind, giggling with joy. His exhilaration is palpable.
I am left in shock, both ecstatic and grief-stricken. And so very thankful to the universe for gifting me with this great soul for the twelve short final years of his life on this Earth. He was 55 years old. He is one of the Ancient Ones. I sense his immense compassion and gentleness working to heal the interdimensional planes during this sacred terrible time of climactic violence on our beautiful green home planet.
May we all be gifted with such grace in our passing.
Jeff is survived by his father, Amos Joel, of Maplewood, N.J., and his sisters, Stephanie Joel, of New York City, and Andrea Joel, of Los Angeles.
Please send any donations in his name to either the Jackson Hole Housing Trust or the Jewish Community of Jackson Hole. The Jewish Community will host a Celebration of Jeffrey Joel’s Life in early June.