In Winter 2006-7, philanthropist Lynn Schusterman brought an international group of young Jewish leaders to the Galilee to help “repair” what the Second Lebanon War had destroyed. Because we lacked painting experience, we imparted way more personality than artistry – illustrating bomb shelter walls with images we believed to be calming, inspiring or uplifting. Fish in an ocean. Flowers and animals frolicking in a sunny field. And my friend Dave Burnett, who had joined us from Australia, drew a hospital with a helipad on the roof – he second-guessed it, saying that maybe that wasn’t a calming image. But we decided it was good – it was an image that said, “help is coming.”
As we worked, we listened to the one radio station with reception, and sang along with what we knew, Hebrew, English or Spanish. But with all our backgrounds so different, there was only one song that we all seemed to know from its opening chords. Its minimal musicality encroached on near-atonality, with lyrics that looped in waves of surface simplicity. And the chorus seemed to vibrate with our collective voices:
[...]And all the roads we have to walk are winding
And all the lights that lead us there are blinding
There are many things that I
Would like to say to you
But I don't know how
You're gonna be the one that saves me
And after all
You're my wonderwall
Penned and sung by Oasis, a literal band of brothers known for sometimes-violent rivalry, 1995’s “Wonderwall” is instantly identifiable from its opening chords. According to Wikipedia, "Wonderwall" is one of the most covered songs of all time, with versions ranging in musical style from death metal and acoustic to dance and swing. In a recent episode of “Girls,” when Lena Dunham started singing the song in the bathtub, her lonely voice echoing against bathroom tile and bouncing off bathwater, I was not at all surprised.
We were there because of a war, on a trip meant to bring support to Israelis who were under fire. We were supposed to infuse the region with hope. This song always makes me think of that time, and of Dave, and the jubilation with which he sang it. But really, Dave did everything jubilantly, living out loud and with a whole heart, until he died in January 2008, of injuries sustained during a fall while he was vacationing in Petra, Jordan. He was 23.
There is always a temptation to idealize those who leave us too soon, remembering their attributes as more perfect than they actually were. But anyone who knew him can attest that Dave was an outgoing, endlessly enthusiastic, vibrant personality – pure energy contained only barely, and all too briefly, by a human form. Dave saw every person as an entire world of possibility, strength, personality and fun. He was the life force personified – for his friends and family, left behind, the loss was (and continues to be) incomprehensible.
But together with others of Dave’s friends, we find comfort in company and community. We blog, or sing, or give to scholarships in his memory, or see leadership institutes estabilshed, or seek out closure by visiting the spot where he died. Some still post messages on Facebook seeking his counsel, gleaning comfort through imagining a connection with some greater meaning whilst on a long and winding path. “If I have done half the job you did I'll know that I really made a difference to the world. You are still inspiring leadership in an amazing way.” “Dave, I can't sleep again. Struggling with some decisions and lingering issues that I wish would go away. But as I write to you, the answers are coming to me.” For us all, Dave becomes a point of light – we seek his wisdom and spirit to inspire and illuminate our way.
In confronting loss, fate, and mortality, what are we to make of the winding roads that lead us to people who provide guidance and salvation along the way? What was Dave’s journey from Dynamo Dave, Australian student leader, to Dave the dynamic Jewish leader? What of fate, which took him to Israel, and greatly enhanced his life, but which also led him to Petra? What of my roads, from blogging, to the global circles of friends I now have through the ROI Community? What of the possibility that powerful connections can transcend distance, and reverberate beyond mortality? Do those roads – some logical and others emotional or spiritual - converge and support each other, or branch out into chaos? Are these paths leading us into the obscurity of darkness or into a future, beyond vision, that is bright as day?
Illumination is a funny thing. It can perfectly elucidate, or leave us blind, a swift flash before the immediate afterwards of a bewildered darkness. In seeking it, we move from from supplication to séance, from the prophets’ time to psychic hotlines. We slip prayer-hope-notes into an actual wall in a holy city, or use a virtual Facebook (wonder)wall as public memoriam. We struggle with the articulation of loss, and feel inadequate in our attempts to express what we feel authentically, originally, and respectfully. All the roads that brought us here were winding.
When we write, or remember, or pray, or lift our eyes unto the hills, seeking assistance and support, we sense that the answer is out there, somewhere beyond the range of our vision. Beyond any physical road, where earth meets sky, the two, together, become a textured portrait, the holy ground where both text and context converge.
Maybe “the one that saves me” isn’t a “one” at all. Maybe, this process - of mourning, remembering, seeking - is going to be the one that saves the collective me, the us, the divinity in humanity, all of us who seek consolation and inspiration beyond winding roads, who have many things to say to each other, even if we don't know how.
And after all, maybe that’s our wonderwall.
Esther D. Kustanowitz, met Dave Burnett (z"l) and many of her closest friends and trusted colleagues at the first ROI Summit in 2006, and has consulted for ROI Community ever since. She lives in Los Angeles, and blogs in many places, including http://myurbankvetch.com. She is currently working on a book: “Nothing Helps (But This Might Help): A Guide to Loss and What Comes After.” For a glimpse of Dave, click on the video below.