We made our way to the car, opened the door and the cell phone rang.
Tia Watts regretted to inform me that Roger Somers had just died last
night. Found naked, dead and relaxed in his hand-built hot tub with
his two dogs, Tai and Chi, barking near by.
I have had the great fortune of having had a number of older men shine
their mentoring light on my youthful eagerness. Rogers passing
somehow seems to be a punctuation mark to that part of my life. For
the first time in my life I feel the baton passing into my hands as
I watch my predecessor fade away. There was something magical and sparkling
that worked through him that I also find works through me. Sometimes
it was like we shared the secret that we were both two thieves of enthusiasm
destined to be caught with only our smiles as proof of our loot.
So Roger is dead at almost Seventy-five. But the light that came through
Roger still shines through me and that young man at Costco. The bulb
burns out, a new one in its place and the room knows only a slight pause
of darkness before everything is lit again. I will continue to look
around my world and see Roger. That is the name, the label that got
put on this particular Rose. And so, in my world whenever I see a Rose
that has the sparkle of a thousand shimmering stars and the manners
of a six month old Brittany Spaniel puppy Ill want to call it
In the late spring of 1992, Dionne Somers, Rogers fifth wife,
lost her twenty-one year old son Damien in a car accident. The memorial
service was held on a remote part of the university of Santa Cruz campus.
Behind a classroom building several hills sloped downward to a small
valley where the family of the deceased had gathered. Behind them were
more lovely hills and forest, unblemished by buildings and offering
a green and natural backdrop for the ceremonies. Damien had been part
of a clan of students known as wood nymphs who rejected
the student dorms for a more primal experience of living in the surrounding
forests. Thirty or forty of those colleagues, long dread locked hair
and bright gypsy colored clothing played drums and other acoustic instruments
while a half a dozen or more ran and danced naked through the woods
and around the crowd. This was in marked contrast to Damiens Fathers
side of the family who consisted of forty or more conservative Jewish
people who liked to sit on folding chairs and shake their heads at the
great loss of a young mans life. Occasionally the music would
pause and someone would walk to the center of the gathering and read
a poem or tell a story about how Damien had touched their life.
Seated near the center, looking as beautiful as a King and Queen of
King Arthurs court, sat Dionne and Roger. Dionne was dressed from
head to toe in vibrant purple with red and black and royal blue ceremonial
trim. Her long brunette hair hung loose over her shoulders with a simple
band of purple worn like a crown to keep it from falling into her eyes.
Her posture was strong, her spine straight and her chin held at a proud
angle. She smiled and greeted each of the presenters, supporting their
daring displays of emotion by her simple presence. If I watched closely
I could see the pain moving in waves through her. She allowed it to
flow, never cringing with surprise. She just let it wash through her
like a silk scarf held under a faucet.
Roger held the space next to her. His posture also strong and fit and
firm. He wore a black ceremonial robe with embroidered red and pink
and yellow detail. Occasionally the sun would mirror off of tiny pieces
of silver that weighed down the outside edges. It was a perfect California
spring day and the hot sun was well into its afternoon arc. Somehow
the light made its way through the cool coastal air and lit Rogers
already bright white hair to a brilliance usually reserved for the depiction
of angels and the Christ. A halo of the whitest of lights shone though
his hair and even seemed to cling to the blackness of his robe. The
light was there for everyone but somehow it was drawn to Roger.
The presenters had stopped talking and more and more of these colorful
young men and women in their late teens and early twenties were dancing
and playing drums. At least twenty of the revelers had syncopated their
rhythms to create a thunderous mob scene of vibration and trance. Roger
rose from his seat, the sun dutifully following him along and he entered
into the throng of dancing, beating humans. I dont know how this
happened, but as he entered the crowd, some sixth sense, some primitive
tribal wisdom, had them know to step back and one by one the dancers
stilled and the drums went silent. By the time Roger reached the largest
set of Congas the whole scene was silent. The young waited for their
elder to sing his song.
The quiet was unusually penetrating because of how loud things had been.
We could, for an instant, hear a bird, a far-a-way airplane, and our
own breath. In that intense silence we waited; our expectation deepening
our ear, ready to feel the next moment with every tuned sensory organ
Roger touched the first conga as only an experienced drummer can do.
Not a slap, not a caress but a touch that elicited a tone we could feel
more than hear. He allowed the vibration to rise and then fade so that
we became aware of the ripples that follow a single action. Another
touch, a bit stronger and we are pulled in, anticipating now a third
and a fourth touch that will start some kind of magical rhythm. Its
not that Roger takes his time. Its that as a lifetime drummer
he knows that there is no time, only a relationship to the drums
vibration and the beating of our own hearts.
With the slowness of a first kiss he somehow is able to find the sadness
of all of our hearts within the echoes of these drums. Everyone feels
it. Our tears are no longer in our eyes. They are in Rogers fingers
and on the drums taunt skin and finally in the air all around us. If
our eyes are open we see the light behind and through Roger playing
a sad song that we are all singing. If we close our eyes we can feel
how the rhythm of this drum beats out the very life and sadness that
has gathered us to this place.
Once our hearts are captured the dance begins. Roger has spent his entire
life practicing rhythms with the expertise of a professional and with
the heart of a poet. His syncopations get fancy and complicated and
we are moved through our sadness to once again know the pure joy of
the pulse beat of every living thing on this planet. People start to
move again, to dance, their ecstasy made more profound by their journey
through sadness. He plays and plays and soon some younger drummers cant
help but to join in and Damiens life is celebrated, his joy is
now our joy and his death begins to move behind us.
A few years later, not long before Dionne Somers died, I was given that
very same ceremonial robe to wear when I was ready. It had been given
to Roger by Alan Watts who had worn it for years to perform weddings,
funerals and celebrations. It hangs on my wall now in a place I can
see it everyday. Occasionally I put it on and look deep into the mirror.
When Im lucky, when I see beyond the surface light, I catch a
glimpse of the brilliant white light, the one that is always there,
and I remember anew to be careful not to see periods where there are