John Gfroerer: Another turn of ‘The Great Mandala’

  • Folk singers (left to right) Paul Stookey, Mary Travers and Peter Yarrow of Peter, Paul and Mary pose in Hollywood on July 6, 1965.

For the Monitor
Published: 3/22/2020 6:30:14 AM

Here we are, stuck in self-imposed quarantine, trying to be safe. It feels a bit odd and at the same time almost symbolic – safety through avoidance of other people. It is a new world, a new moment, maybe a new opportunity.

For me, the moment is inviting a bit more time than usual for reflection. This seems especially appropriate having graduated into the more vulnerable population demographic by virtue of my age: a cocky kid from the ’60s confronts pandemic 60 years later.

The best medicine? Stay low and avoid contact. I can’t help but smile thinking back to my response to trouble in the world when I was younger. Staying low was not in the game plan then.

I have been thinking of a song from those years back, “The Great Mandala (Wheel of Life).”

Take your place on the great mandala,

as it moves through your brief moment of time.

Once upon a time it spoke to who I was, wanted to be, felt I should be. And it did that better than any other song I knew.

Maybe you remember or know it. The song, written by Peter Yarrow and performed by Peter, Paul & Mary, is the story of a father unable to grasp the depth of his son’s convictions. Though never directly stated, it was clearly about opposition to the war in Vietnam. At that moment I was the son, and my father was the father.

I can’t tell you when I first heard it, or when it moved into my consciousness, but I can tell you about a moment when it consumed me.

The year was 1971. It was a Friday night and I was at an anti-war service held in the National Cathedral in Washington, D.C. The next day half a million people would march to the Capitol calling for an end to the Vietnam War. And that night several hundred, including me, gathered for prayers in this highly spiritual place.

At one point in the service Peter Yarrow got up and sang “The Great Mandala.” I remember the moment as clearly as 49 years will allow. In that space, in that moment, the song took on new meaning. I understood the story in a more personal way.

So I told him that he better shut his mouth

and do his job like a man.

And he answered, “Listen Father.

I will never kill another.”

The following December I flew home for what would be my last Christmas in the place where I grew up. As the plane descended to Buffalo Airport, where both my parents were waiting, I remember looking out into the darkness and lights below, thinking back on the year just past and that night at the National Cathedral. I began singing quietly to myself Peter Yarrow’s words. I wanted my parents to hear them, to listen to them, to understand them. But I knew they couldn’t.

What the hell does he think he’s doing

to his Father who brought him up right.

Now, almost 50 years later I reflect back on that moment again, maybe looking for a fuller meaning or to find its connection with today.

I am older now than my parents were then. My youngest daughter is almost the exact same age I was when that plane landed. The virus that puts me in the house reflecting has also interrupted her semester of study abroad. We will be at the airport to meet her when she returns to the States two months earlier than expected.

I wonder what her thoughts will be as she descends to Logan. What lyrics will she be singing to herself? What words will she be thinking but unable to share with her parents? In 50 years how will she reflect back on this moment? Will a virus define part of her life the way a war defined mine?

Win or loose now you must choose now

And if you lose you’re only losing your life.

The sky is blue, bright blue, outside my window as I write. The sun streams in, completely out of control as it reflects from every surface. I sit content in its wash, refusing to succumb to the worry and fear that swirl like harsh wind outside.

I doubt that Mom and Dad ever heard “The Great Mandala (Wheel of Life).” Though it seemed important that December night, the importance has diminished with the years and experiences that followed in my life and theirs. What is important is that the memory is there, clear in my mind. It is testament of having lived, and of continuing to live. In moments of reflection, memories become affirmation of something larger that once was and perhaps still is.

What’s also important is that the mandala remains. Times are different, issues are different, we are different, but the call still sounds. Perhaps in collective isolation we will do some reflection on this brief moment in our time. Thinking about the empty theaters, stadiums, restaurants, and the emptiness in our lives at not being in close contact, maybe we will finally come to understand our inevitable connectedness to each other.

Take your place on the great mandala

As it moves through your brief moment of time.

(John Gfroerer of Concord owns a video production company based at the Capitol Center for the Arts.)

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