Dr. Evan Carton, UT English Professor
Opening Meditation (Malachey Elyon)
The Hebrew word for angel is malach. Which also means messenger. One who is sent.
Not the cherubic creatures that adorn architecture or valentines. Malachey Elyon, messengers of the most high, may be anyone who is sent. It is required only that there be an errand, a message.
One thing separates Malachey Elyon from other sorts of messengers. Those on ordinary errands in the world generally know that they are sent, know what they are sent to communicate, and by what agency. Malachey Elyon rarely even know that they are messengers. Attending, like others, to the business and pleasures and relations of their lives, they are all the while being sent somewhere else.
One to whom it is given to know that their errand is completed is blessed and rare. It is not so for most of us. Yet, at least once in our lives, each of us is sent—and some, a very rare few, serve almost perpetually as messengers of that which is most high.
There must have been a time when you entered a room and met someone and after a while you understood that, unknown to either of you, there was a reason you had met. You had changed the other or he (or she) had changed you. By some word or deed or just by your presence together the errand had been completed.
Each lifetime is the pieces of a jigsaw puzzle. For some there are more pieces. For others the puzzle is more difficult to assemble. But know this. None of us has within ourselves all the pieces to our puzzle. Each of us carries with us at least one and probably many pieces to someone else’s puzzle. Sometimes we know it. More often we don’t. But when you present your piece to another, whether you know it or not, whether they know it or not, you are a messenger on a rare and profound errand, a malach.
After I assured Anna on the telephone that I would be honored to help organize and open this service, I stood alone in my house, staring out the front window, within reach of a bookcase that contained a shelf full of books of Jewish philosophy and spiritual meditations. I pulled one more or less at random from the shelf—it was Honey From the Rock, by Rabbi Lawrence Kushner—opened it to a middle page, and read: “The Hebrew word for angel is malach. Which also means messenger. One who is sent.”
John carried with him a piece—in many cases a very large piece—to the puzzle of each of our lives. He carried it and he presented it to us . . . freely . . . wisely . . . gently . . . joyously, and yet, it seemed, all unknowingly, just by virtue of his presence in a room with us, just as a part of his errand. The pieces of our lives that John carried for us and carried to us—each of such a different shape (so many distinctive errands)—each piece helped reveal to us the contours of who we were, the outline of what we lacked, the totality of what we could be and perhaps were meant to be. We hold those pieces now, and carry John’s presence in them.
My daughter Jackie described her experience of gravitating toward John on every social occasion, large or small, of her childhood and adolescence, because, she wrote, “he radiated calmness and balance and happiness”—ways of being that often seemed inaccessible to her, but that John, eyes closed, patting her knee, smiling, revealed and offered. Calum Chisholm—Sue and Kurt Heinzelman’s son—said early and eloquently this week what many have echoed since: “When John lost his vision, he taught us all how to see the world.” And moments after I heard what Calum had said, I was sharing some memories with John’s father Myles, a teacher himself, and remarked to him that John’s extraordinary place in so many hearts and so many lives was, in some measure at least, a tribute to how he had raised him. “I don’t know,” Myles said, “Sometimes I think John raised me.”
The Hebrew word for angel is malach. Which also means messenger. One who is sent.
**********************************************************Cantor Neil Blumofe, Congregation Agudas Achim, Austin
(Canting: Oseh shalom bimromav, Hu ya’aseh shalom aleinu.)
As we take John’s memory and access our hearts and we let his ideas and our experiences with him flow, if we can expand the world in which we live, and bring a moment or two with John into focus right now… Close your eyes for a moment. You can take something, sad, happy, unexpected or otherwise, and bring his presence to you now…(Oseh shalom bimromav, Hu ya’aseh shalom aleinu/)
Hold that moment, or those moments.(Oseh shalom bimromav, Hu ya’aseh shalom aleinu.)
And we’ve been centered in this space that a malach is one who is a messenger, and perhaps you’re asked or you wonder where a soul goes after a presence in this world, and there’s an idea in Judaism that there’s a never-ending cycle, an ayin sof, a place or a time or a moment or a presence without end.
So, as John becomes part of our life as we walk in this world, we try to merge these worlds—this world of mystery, this world of unexpected, this world beyond us—and bring a bridge into the world in which we live that will affect us and those whom we influence from generation to generation. So hold this in your heart.
(Baby Wolf coos.)
Listen to the sounds of life that bubble from within and from without. And if you’re comfortable to, please do stand. Six words: Oseh shalom bimromav, Hu ya’aseh shalom aleinu. This is what it means roughly: “One who makes shalom,” a wholeness; one who makes a connection between this bimromav, between this outer plane, between this other place, and for us as well. This is what we hope in all of our lives as we ask ourselves those questions, as we access and encounter our own struggle, our own weakness, our own fragility, and our own strength.
Again: Oseh shalom bimromav, Hu ya’aseh shalom aleinu…And take this place in your heart that you have with John and yourself and maybe other loved ones and bring it into this chant, into these Hebrew words that talk about bringing worlds together beyond us—worlds that are perhaps not in the living realm—and our own lives together as we connect here. Let’s sing a little bit: Oseh shalom bimromav, Hu ya’aseh shalom aleinu…
A little softer: Oseh shalom bimromav, Hu ya’aseh shalom aleinu.
A little softer: Oseh shalom bimromav, Hu ya’aseh shalom aleinu.
In a whisper: Oseh shalom bimromav, Hu ya’aseh shalom aleinu.
And inside our hearts: Oseh shalom bimromav, Hu ya’aseh shalom aleinu.
And we come into contact with El Elyon. May we ask perfect peace and a sheltering presence, God’s sheltering presence to John’s soul, who has returned, in the mystical tradition, to gan eden, to the eternal home. We ask God to remember all of his deeds here in the land of the living. We ask that his soul be bound up in the bond of life; we ask that his soul be comforted. We ask that the best parts of himself flow within all of us as we again bring connection between the highest realms and our own.
This is called an El Maley Rachamim. This is a prayer for John’s soul. And we express our presence to you, Myles, to you Anna, Peter, and all who love and cherish his life, and now his memory. You will hear his name in Hebrew; you’ll hear his name as Yohannan Meir Ben Menachem Mendel, which is a fancy way of saying we love him.
Yohannan Meir, one who is filled with Meir, with light.
Ben, the son of Menachem Mendel, the son of a great comfort.
If you’d like to contribute your own sounds, please do so as this prayer goes outward and upward. If you’d like to think “Oseh shalom bimromav, Hu ya’aseh shalom aleinu” in your hearts, if you’d like to do a little humming, all notes reach the intended end.
So, please, if you’d like, you can start with a hum. This is the melody, and this is the song for his soul…
If you can refer to the sheet you may have, on the back there’s something called a Kadisha Tome Demonis Kaddish. And this is the larger ideal of drawing connection between worlds, our own worlds and the worlds, again, far beyond us. You’ll see the Aramaic at the top and the transliteration of it at the bottom. We’ll go nice and slowly, for us to hear these words. It is a linkage, it is a connection from our soul, one, each to each, one to another. And we hope, too, that as we find and make sense and bring ourselves from step to step in this world, that John, too, is doing the same in a world beyond.
Here are the words together, please: [Mourner's Kaddish]
Peter Slatin, John’s brother from New York City
Let me say in a language you’re perhaps more familiar with: Howdy, y’all!
I’m having such a hard time coming to terms with where we are and what we’re doing, but I’m also so grateful that we’re all here and doing it, and that you’re doing it with us.
Before I get any further, I want to say that I’ve never seen, and doubt if I’ll ever see again, the kind of love that I saw between John and Anna. And I’m so grateful—we’re all so grateful—to Anna for everything she did to help John from the time she met him to the time he left us. So, I want to say that, and thank you to the whole family.
We all will hear many, many wonderful things about John, and we think many wonderful things about John, but any of you who have younger sisters, older brothers, know that it’s not always a perfect world when it comes to sibling relationships. And John and I were no exception, and we were a work-in-progress for much of our lives together. And when we were children sharing a room, our parents wisely chose to draw a line down the center of the room.
(Myles: “Ma, he’s on my line!”)
Needless to say, it didn’t work! But it was a great reminder of what was what, whose was whose, et cetera, and I think, as we grew up and fought over toys, friends, even girlfriends, we also learned a great deal about accommodation and about living together, and certainly, as we grew older, I think it was a love forged in that fire and that division, and I am so proud to have been his brother and to be his brother.
We had our differences, but John first showed me his true colors as a brother, as a brother who said, “Yes, I am brother’s keeper,” when, as teenagers, one night a good friend of mine and I had – let’s just say “some people over.” My parents were out, and the people were over, then they left, and my parents came home; I was sleeping. The lights came on in my room and my father wanted to know what this earring was he’d found on the floor. And John, who was then a senior in high school and had a little more gravitas, blithely said, “Oh, I had so-and-so over and she must’ve left it here.” –I don’t know if you knew that, Dad, but—
He saved my sorry butt!
I remember so many things, and it’s hard to tease them out and talk about them, but strange images come to mind. A photograph my father took when we were in Paris when I was 13. He took a picture of the two of us with our backs against a wall and our feet—I feel like they were up on a railing, but probably we weren’t so daring—but we were just lolling against a wall along the banks of the Seine in Paris. Now, that was nice, that was really nice; that was a nice time to be there.
I remember when I really knew that John was cool. We were staying at our grandmother’s in the Bronx and we all went to Sam Goody’s; it was a wonderful trip from Buffalo where we had escaped the reality of Buffalo for the reality of the Bronx, which was not that much better, but at least it wasn’t Buffalo, and it was closer to Manhattan. And we all went into this wonderful record store Sam Goody’s and came back with some records. I think I was about 14, so John was about 16; he put on an album, and, y’all forgive me, but it started to play: Dah-dah-dah-da-dah, I feel free, dah-dah-da-dah-dah, I feel free— And it was the first cut on the first album by Cream, and it was just so…it was just wonderful. And I said, “Wow, he knows something, this guy, he really knows something!” And it turned out he did know something; he had these amazing scores on his SATs.
One of the saddest days in my life was when he went off to college and left me in Buffalo. But he also deigned to have me come and visit him in Ann Arbor, and I had a wonderful time – we had a wonderful time together, and I felt for a minute that we were equals as we just did the normal college things that normal college freshmen did in those days, you know, we studied hard and I helped him with his homework! He took me to see Herbie Hancock and Freddie Hubbard; it was pretty great.
One of the happiest days of my life, of course, was when I learned that I was going to be a father. Another of the happiest days of my life was when I learned that I was a perfect match for John, and that I would be able to help him live on. And it seems to me, at the end, that line across the floor in our room was completely erased, so erased that the two of us are joined together even now. And I love that.
He taught me so many things throughout the years, but the last thing he taught me—and Anna knows this, and those of those who were there know this, and those of you at Body Choir may have heard me say this—but he really taught me, as he left this world, he taught me how to dance out of this world, because that was what he was doing, so still and so quiet and so gently and beautifully, and I’ll always treasure that moment, because, as he left, his spirit filled us all and it’s with us today.
Thank you all. God bless you.
Dr. Liz Cullingford, Chair, UT English Dept.
John and I arrived in Austin at the same time, in the summer of 1979. I was an exchange visitor and he was a new assistant professor, thrilled to be joining the English Department in which his friend Evan had also been hired. Although we were total strangers, he generously agreed to let me share his rented house for the summer. The John I met that hot July was brought back to me recently by the tiny mug shot that I found in his department file: a sweet, skinny, serious, slightly balding, and incredibly young looking man. As we both negotiated our new circumstances we had many long conversations, during which I was stunned and saddened to learn that he was going blind. Those were the days before ubiquitous audio books or computers that read text aloud, and I wondered how a scholar of poetry, who had just finished his dissertation on Marianne Moore, was going to negotiate the rest of his academic career. Being a poetry girl myself I thought often that summer of Milton’s sonnet on his blindness, which begins on a note of indignation:
WHEN I consider how my light is spent
E're half my days, in this dark world and wide,
And that one Talent which is death to hide,
Lodg'd with me useless . . .
This sonnet ends on the famous note of resignation, “They also serve who only stand and waite.” But Milton clearly wasn’t resigned, since he went on to write Paradise Lost, and nor was John. He didn’t stand and wait, he stood up and was counted. Although he never ceased to love poetry, and went on to publish his book on Marianne Moore, his interests turned first to the representations of blindness in literature, and then to ways in which he, and other visually impaired people, could surmount their disabilities. He was what is called an “early adopter,” one of the first to see how the new technologies that have transformed our communication and information practices could enable people like him to be leaders in their chosen fields. His work on Web Accessibility turned him into an advocate for others, and the arc of his career stretched from the formal poetry of language through the practical poetry of committed activism, and ended in the linguistic immediacy of his blog, The Leukemia Letters, which many of you here have followed with pain and anxious sympathy. I was not an “early adopter,” I came in on the second wave, and when I needed help with my first computer, John and Ted Smith were at hand to lead me into the heart of the information revolution. I remember that it was John who taught me to use a long dead system called Pine, and sent me my very first e-mail. Since my inbox currently contains 6,148 messages, this was clearly the gift that goes on giving. Perhaps we could call blogs, in the words of Marianne Moore, “imaginary gardens with real toads in them.” The Leukemia Letters, a courageous account of his long dying, celebrated the usefulness of language, as Moore thought all genuine poetry should do: she wrote:
I too, dislike it: there are things that are important beyond all this fiddle.
Reading it, however, with a perfect contempt for it, one discovers that there is in
it after all, a place for the genuine.
Hands that can grasp, eyes
that can dilate, hair that can rise
if it must, these things are important not because a
high sounding interpretation can be put upon them but because they are
John’s life, which we are celebrating here today, incarnated the poetry of the useful. Although we are indignant that he should have suffered two such mortal blows as blindness and leukemia, we are amazed at the courage and grace with which he turned potential defeat into creative triumph, and we are grateful to have shared his journey.
Dr Alan Friedman, English Professor, UT
Liz's account of that early summer when she and John lived together omits all the details that made it such an interesting, exciting, and fraught time. I too will spare you most of those details, but I will say that it necessarily brought the three of us close together, so close that in a way Liz and I became intimate with John before we knew him very well. That intimacy included getting to know a fair amount about his relationships with women he had known up until that time. A little later on, the three of us went to a party together -- I don't remember if it was a Halloween party, but I do remember there were a number of women dressed rather flamboyantly. So that when John told Liz and me in the car driving home that he thought he had met "her," our hearts sank and we did a silent "uh, oh." But when he said that her name is Anna we breathed a deep sigh of relief because, though we hadn't known her before, we too were taken with her from the first and sensed that, yes, she really was the one -- the one who would be loving, gracious, and caring, and who would always be there for him. John, we knew, would be safe and happy -- and we were right.
P.S. Bill Nemir subsequently told me that the party occurred at his house, that it was Christmas and not Halloween, that Anna called him the next day asking for John's number, and that he refused to give it to her because he didn't fancy playing the go-between role. But when John called to ask for Anna's number, Bill felt he had no choice but to give them what they both wanted, and then to get out of their way. And so he did and all was well.
Ledia Carroll & Mason Carroll, daughter & son from San Francisco
Ledia: John was so helpful to us from the day we met him. John helped Anna set up her stereo a few days after she met him. And John supervised Mason his whole life—even after John became more blind---in setting up stereo equipment and computer stuff. But always according to his exacting directions. We have always enjoyed knowing that.
My brother and I first met John, and we liked him, but we didn’t know him that well. We got John when I was 8 and Mason was 4, and now that I’m older than John and Anna were at the time we met, I think, “Wow, he was only 30!” Isn’t that amazing to you? I don’t know, it’s really amazing to me!
John smoked cigarettes, and Mason and I made fun of him, and he stopped smoking immediately. We got to know him, and as we’ve got to know him, he became one of our parents, for sure, and he has been a huge influence on me and my brother. I think that’s really the main thing I have to say.
Mason: It’s really hard to follow all of John’s wonderful friends and colleagues, distinguished professors and academics and what-not! But I just wanted to say how much I love John and I’m gonna miss him so much.
Ledia: I wanted to say that he’s always been a really good listener and a good person to bounce ideas off of, including giving us ideas like what to take in college and how to be a good step-parent. And he and my mom have been such nice role models, and they really do have a really, had – It’s hard even to say “had.” I’m going to say “have” – a great relationship. They would sit in the kitchen and cook a lot of dinners and talk about the details of everything that they’ve been doing, and it’s a really nice model of a really nice relationship. And I think that a lot of people don’t realize, too, that a lot of times—they would have a lot of people over for dinner—and that John really cooked a lot, his entire life he cooked. And a lot of the things that I even cook now are things that really are his recipes, all those wine-based French recipes that my friends know about.
As John got sicker, it has been amazing to see (as a child you’re in your own more self-centered existence and then as an adult, not really living fully in their world) all of their friends come by, colleagues and friends and students; he and my mom have had such a big impact on so many people, and have taught so many people, and been friends with people, and have not just shaped us, have shaped so many peoples’ lives, and I’m still in awe of him.
Mason: Thank you guys.
Dr. Peg Syverson, UT Professor, Rhetoric & Composition
Back in 1989, when Ben was 9, watching him using his first computer—not, as I had imagined, for neatly typed essays and homework, but for living words that dripped, oozed, and swept across, not a clean white page, but a brick wall, a city skyline, a galaxy—I stared, slack-jawed in wonder. As a graduate student in composition studies, I realized I was witnessing some tectonic shift in what we think of as “writing,” but like so many others in our field, I had no way to mobilize this recognition, no way to explore my way into understanding, until I met John.
John used to joke that he used technology because he wanted to make English expensive. He meant he wanted to make English count, in ways that the University can recognize and appreciate; there is no question he succeeded there, although it was a long time before the department itself recognized the significance of what he was building. By then he had found his home with the new Division of Rhetoric and Writing, and the Computer Writing and Research Lab.
John was not merely an innovator; he was a visionary. And he was not a visionary who merely saw into the future, he brought the future he saw into being. And the future he brought into being was dazzling and entirely unexpected. The advent of technology into our field was poised to automate functions, to mechanize routine activities such as grading papers and giving exams. John saw it differently, that technology could become a vehicle for liberation and transformation in the humanities. It could liberate teachers and students from stale, predictable pedagogical practices, and it could transform the humanities from a musty archive into a world of dynamic and creative possibility.
He saw how much the new technologies needed the humanities if they were not to become an oppressive hell realm, and how much the humanities needed technology as a new environment for creative expression, community-building, research, teaching, and learning. Simply to see that was no small achievement; to fully realize it as an embodied reality was revolutionary.
The Computer Writing and Research Lab under his direction became a humming, thriving, generative, and collaborative community filled with energy, imagination, and productive activity. I was stunned when I first visited it; it was unlike any other program—any other world— I had ever seen, and that was the reason I came to UT.
The CWRL was an explosion that helped launch a new discipline, Computers and Writing, and served as a model of what is possible for others: other scholars, other teachers, other institutions. Suddenly, the old horizons were completely transcended and entirely new worlds opened up. Out of this revolutionary and evolutionary shift came hundreds of scholarly articles, research projects, and useful technological tools and innovations. Graduate students were supported, trained, and launched into professional lives in areas that simply had not existed before. Scholars and researchers became enchanted with the intellectual challenges and engaged technology as new subjects for their work. Conferences sprouted up, new journals, and whole departments at other universities, as these ways of being, learning, and teaching in the world became manifest in great part because of John’s tireless energies and spacious, inclusive vision.
He was the champion of creativity, a master teacher, and the mentor to countless young scholars and colleagues as they found their way in this exciting new domain. And he had nearly infinite patience with all those, young or mature, who were struggling to learn about these strange technological environments. I cannot think of anyone else I have personally known who has accomplished such a sea change in the world. And that was only the first one.
Exasperated by stupidity and cruelty, his incredible memory, deep compassion, and laser intelligence would quickly turn toward the potential for teaching with one question in mind—how can we overcome the self-centered ignorance and arrogance? He did it by reframing the “problem” as an exciting intellectual and human adventure. He turned every life circumstance into a teaching: his love of language and poetry, his encounter with technology, his degenerative blindness, his leukemia and all of its twisting path of promises and horrors. Here was a master teacher, through and through.
But what I really want to talk about is the very human John I and so many others knew and loved. And I hope I can get through this. If you are very, very good, sometimes you get to have someone in your life who sees your faults and weaknesses as natural and accepts you, warts and all. But John actually saw them as signs of the goodness in you, your shared humanness alive. He celebrated you and celebrated others with you. It went far beyond the loyalty of a good friend; it was an open-hearted kind of grace.
I said, the students don’t use specific details in their writing. He responded, of course not! They don’t know what that means. If they knew how to do it, they would! I said, I feel like I’m floundering my way forward here. He answered, you too? I said, I am hopelessly mired down in administrivia. He replied ruefully, our next book will have to be called the collected memos and budgets. He made you love the obstacles and struggles, and laugh with him about them.
As our families and lives came together, he and Anna, Mason and Ledia folded us into a world of lively dinner parties, quiet evenings, and always the sparkle of ideas, music, the love of our children, and passionate conversation. This was the life I had so long aspired to, a life of intellectual adventure and creativity, warm friendships, teaching and learning and mutual care.
As I drove John home from the lab in the evenings, we would talk about the graduate students like happy parents, so delighted by the developments we were observing, the way they were thriving. We wrestled with complex grant applications (John liked to refer to these as “pop quizzes”), puzzled over some new computer program, and called on our own tech-savvy children to orient us when we were completely stymied.
Just working together day by day I would forget John’s towering standing in our field, until I’d watch the way people responded to him at conferences, their respect and eagerness for him. And most of all, we would laugh together, about the whole amazing carnival of life we were immersed in. As I look at my life now, I see with such deep and profound gratitude how it has unfolded so happily and richly from his early and ongoing support and interest and confidence in me and in my work.
I hope you get to live as abundantly, as wholeheartedly, and as generously in spirit as John did, so that you too can be as beloved as he truly was.
My love to Anna and Myles and Mason and Ledia.
Pam Scott, former Braille teacher and counselor, Texas Commission for the Blind
If I had only one word to describe John it would be transformation. It seems that life has constantly handed him the challenge of reinventing himself. From sight to blindness, from using his vision, to using a cane, to using a dog guide. From reading print, to using speech technology, to reading Braille. From being a web user to becoming a web creator.
I first learned of John in the early 80’s as I talked to other blind students on campus. There was a marvelous new professor who was losing his sight, but who refused at all costs to use a cane, a symbol of one’s disability as well as one’s independence. I heard nothing more about John until the mid 90’s when because of my job at the time, (I taught blindness skills to adults as they lost their vision), I was selected to teach John Braille. As you might imagine John was an excellent student, but like many adults who learn Braille he absolutely refused to do his homework. So I fired him. I said “John, we are having a lovely visit with each other, but I have the sneaking suspicion that we are really wasting each other’s time. When you get ready to buckle down and really learn Braille give me a call.”
We reconnected in 1998 when John again asked for Braille instruction because by this time he had lost so much vision that he could no longer read his print lecture notes. He learned the Braille code in record time and became one of my best students ever. And of course he did it in his own unique style. Board with the conventional adult curriculum John decided to complete his studies by reading a Tony Hellerman novel in Braille, and that is exactly what we did.
As we practiced Braille and compared notes about our wonderful new dog guides I noticed a definite change in John’s attitude. He had transformed himself and his anger toward his blindness into a powerful weapon against the institutions which, for whatever reasons, deny access to information to those of us who cannot read print. John no longer resented his blindness. At last he had begun to embrace it. John taught himself web accessibility and went on to write a book on the subject so he could teach accessible web design to others. In doing so John has left us a tremendous legacy which continues to impact the blindness community world wide.
Then in 2005 I discovered that both John and I were living with cancer, he with leukemia and I with breast cancer. We sat in chairs in the chemotherapy room at our mutual oncology clinic and I could hear John directing Dillon across the room and called out to him. Starting that day, we would sit together chatting, laughing, and exchanging war stories while the chemicals dripped into our veins.
And now John has begun his final and perhaps most meaningful transformation. Through the purifying fire of his illness John’s shining spirit has emerged. He has left us with a lasting lesson which we can keep. Live your life with courage, and though you are afraid, never never fail to take that next step forward. You may be surprised where it leads.
Jim Allan & Jim Thatcher, Web Accessibility Gurus & W3C advisors
Allan: Hello, We are the Judge Brothers – minus one. It is a long story that we will get to later. I am Jim Allan. And this is Jim Thatcher.
Thatcher: We are heartbroken over John's death. He did not pass away and he did not negotiate the river Jordan. He became very ill. He fought that illness with every ounce of his being but it killed him in the end and for that we are hurt, we are devastated, we are bereft.
Some prayed for a miracle during John's war on cancer but there already was a great miracle, the miracle of John's life and for that we are truly grateful.
He was an amazing person who had an incredible life - a life that crossed boundaries and was filled with energy and creativity. We are grateful for that miracle.
Allan: It has been amazing to me the different facets of Brother John – a fine gem – I am lucky to have known a few of your faces. Talking with others as we sat Shiva, and listening today as we share John stories, I am amazed as more faces are revealed and we all learn new parts of you. What a shame that it took you dying for all who knew you to know more about you, John.
Thatcher: I received an email on Thursday from Henny Swan, accessibility consultant at the Royal National Institute of the Blind, RNIB in the UK. She said, about John, "my thoughts go out to all his family and friends at this time. I have never met him and yet feel a great loss; I can only imagine how those close to him feel."
Allan: Brother John’s disability transformed him, causing him to change the focus of his career to accessibility… and in doing so transformed accessibility. John, you are responsible for bringing many to the calling, many who did not yet know accessibility would be a focus of their work. Having embraced them, you sent them on their way to add their voice to the call for an accessible world.
Thatcher: When I've done consulting gigs with John, like Proctor and Gamble or NASA Glen Research - his presence, sincerity and his clarity of thought elicited a sense of profound trust in those listening to him.
Allan: John loved teaching and learning from others. He wanted to find new ways of teaching and getting people to interact. In order for John to interact with the world he had to ensure it was accessible. And…he set out to make it so through communication and gentleness, always being reflective … … … and choosing… just the right… words to make the …point.
He collaborated with all who were interested – to share and learn together. Part of that collaboration was writing Maximum Accessibility with, as he was fond of saying, his co-ARTHOR Sharron Rush of Knowbility.org. Also. Knowbility announced today that their AccessU training event will be renamed in honor of John. From now on it will be known as the John M. Slatin AccessU.
We described the Judge Brothers T-shirt here.
Thatcher: For us - the accessibility geeks - Brother John is accessibility
Allan: We Brothers laughed much in our work. Usually a pun followed by another and another… we tried to think of a funny story…but nothing happened – the humor was in the moment and based on context – just like John.
We will all miss you – Brother John.
Tom Giebink, Contact Improvisation teacher & dancer, Austin Body Choir
I can’t quite accept John as dead, so I’m thinking of him in the present tense.
Years ago I read an obituary for the great physicist Richard Feinman. The headline said, “Richard Feinman Dies”. That struck me as odd;… that it didn’t say “Dead”. “Dies” seemed so present tense. But I think Feinman was like a seed crystal. The work he did. The theories and ideas and relationships with people that he engendered in the world were seeds out of which so much has grown. And I think of John like that. That his work, his ideas, his very person are seeds that persist in the present tense. So he “dies” and is not “dead”.
I know John and Anna in the community of dancers who meet every Sunday morning, Monday night, Wednesday night, Friday night. Week after week. Month after month. Year after year… for closing in on two decades now. I see John here right next to me; leaning slightly against me. Wiggling. Jumping up and down. Dancing in quirky ways. Music loud. People moving in ways that’d get them arrested in any supermarket checkout line. Such great joy… shared with each other. And more…somehow, magically, dancing is an antidote to suffering. The energy of dancing together; that joy. Transcendent. Those who dance together are close knit family.
I see him here next to me. He is a big man. Just like Dillon, his dog, was a big dog. Now thin and resting happily and peacefully in front of me on the floor. Dillon is a master at resting now. The last time I saw John he too had become slight. I hear his voice, particularly, a thin husk. A husk that had held a large boisterous voice, often laughing.
Somehow I’m reminded of the birth of my son. It was long and difficult;… over 36 hours. Yet then… there he was;… just the top of his head emerging from his mother’s loins. Its called “crowning”. And that’s how I saw John, last time I saw him. He was “crowning”. Out of the flesh of his body, his spirit was clearly crowning.
Like fruit fallen to the ground. The seed revealed… germinating. Trying to take root.
In ancient Greek times in dying a person might be strewn into the sky as stars… to become a constellation. Cassiopeia; the Pleiades; Gemini. Invisible by day, hidden in the sunlight. At night, brightly visible. I believe John was scattered into the sky as stars … and if you look tonight perhaps you can pick out a new constellation in the never ending tapestry of stars.
First star I see tonight…
In the circle following our last dance someone said, “Now John can see all our faces”.
I see tonight…
Dr. Janis Bergman-Carton, Art History Chair, Southern Methodist University
I met John in Baltimore in 1973, in a dingy, smoke-filled bar called the Grad Club near Johns Hopkins. Though he was one of six or seven regulars I came to know there, it is HIS smile and HIS welcoming wave I remember most. When I came in, he would pat the seat beside him in a gesture of welcome; as I slid into the booth, he would rub my arm, tip his head to touch mine, and ask me what I wanted to drink. Whatever lingering irritation from the day I came in with usually washed away. Seeing John there was like coming home.
Though that fundamental sweetness and generosity of spirit was there at 22, it was not ALWAYS there in those years. There was a cynical side as well, a restless loneliness about John, as he tried to assimilate what it would mean to eventually lose his sight-- and at the same time resist letting that define him.
It was in Austin, a city that suited him well, where he figured out how to do both. He came here to teach after grad school, and to find a partner, to make a life. The life he made was transformative-- for him, and for those of us who had the privilege of being his close friend. The transformation came in the form of Anna Carroll whom he met in 1982 at the party of a mutual friend. John’s gentleness and sweetness found a home in his partnership with “the amazing Anna” --as he liked to call her. The early cynicism gave way to the unusual openness and acceptance that characterized John in recent years. To the inspirational way he remained focused on the present, uncomplaining and positive, when he had more than his share to complain about. To the beautiful welcoming smile always on his lips-- even when he suspected he was dying.
John fell deeply in love with Anna in the very same years his vision dramatically declined. Those of you fortunate enough to know her, know about the magic. Anna helped John leave regret and blame behind. She helped him turn vulnerability into strength. He became more outgoing not less, as together they explored the pleasures of senses other than sight—they hiked trails in national parks notable for plants with particularly strong scents; they walked the beaches of Truro John loved so much in bare feet; they listened and danced to music from around the globe at Body Choir, in their living room, and most recently in the hospital in Houston. They made the tastes of good food and good wine and the special sounds of intimate conversation an essential part of each day. At one of the hundreds of dinner parties at their beautiful cottage on 35th, St. to which they regularly welcomed friends and in the cosy little nook of their kitchen where they ended most days in a leisurely two hour meal. As the musicality of their coupled names suggest, “John and Anna” formed an exquisite partnership. Their passion and deep respect for one another was always apparent: in the way they spoke about each other; the way they held hands at dinner parties, in the multiple phone calls during the day just to say “I love you.”
When John was diagnosed with leukemia the amazing Anna again rose to the occasion. Beyond researching treatments and tirelessly managing the logistics of care, she made sure whether in Austin or at MD Anderson John always felt the presence of his friends and his many communities. Most memorably, she coordinated a blessing ceremony for hundreds of people to see them off to Houston for their first long term stay around the bone marrow transplant. Each of us was asked to fill an envelope with memories or poems or photographs so that every day they were there they could look forward to opening a letter from home. But For me, the most remarkable and generous thing Anna did was to allow us in, to experience this ordeal with them and show us how even, or perhaps especially, in the end of life there can be beauty and grace. For that Anna I am eternally grateful.
Poem written by John Slatin in early 1980s, read by Dr. Kurt Heinzelman, UT English professor
Once, having eaten all my house
had held and hungry still, I went down
to sit and sweat away
at Sweetish Hill some lies I'd told myself
and couldn't leave until I'd seen
how in the tree to the left of the lot the leaves
were filling with light, swelling with light
right to bursting: I exploded
then like a bird from the branch, up,
your voice a singing in me
wordless as I walked. And now
I'm leaving sight behind
a while, and I'm scared
to go; but why tap out this
bittersweet slow farewell, if not
to learn in my blindfold way
the texture and the sound of
things—if not more blindingly
to see in that acre of nearly
melted asphalt and its broken bits
of glass, as in that aching sunlit
tree, appalling beauty?