My wife and I sat at a Passover Seder table last month with Mike Levine’s wife, Ellen, and his sons, Ben, 33, and Sam, 30, just as we’ve done since they were boys. I looked at the copied pages of the prayer booklet, or Haggadah, that Mike, the late Record executive editor and columnist, and Ellen compiled 21 years ago. The words that jumped out were ones Mike wrote and added to the pages. They paraphrased a Hebrew saying and spoke of “hearing the still small voice within us/Acknowledging God’s commandment to repair the world.”
I shook my head in wonder. Not just because those words are so relevant today when this divided world often feels like it could crack. But because the words were the title of a book of Mike’s columns about to be published: “Words to Repair the World: Stories of Life, Humor and Everyday Miracles.”
Just days later, its editor and driving force, former Record reporter/editor and current New York Times editor Chris Mele, surprised me when he handed the handsome book to a few of us behind the years-long project. I again shook my head in wonder. Mike’s words would live forever — and help repair a world that so desperately needs healing.
I opened the book, which will be launched with readings and copies for sale from 1-4 p.m. Sunday at Thrall Library in Middletown. I felt goosebumps reading the first of 76 columns. It’s about a “shy little Baptist girl,” Tosha Michael, who launches a blue balloon “above the hardscrabble fields of northern Alabama” and a bartender 900 miles away in the Sullivan County hamlet of Pond Eddy, Bob Schlag, who finds it “dangling from a tall oak” in his yard.
The balloon has a message attached in a baggie: “Dear You … Get High on Life.” Bob calls the phone number on the note.
So begins an improbable friendship that brings Bob to meet Tosha in Alabama. When Bob marries in Tennessee, Tosha and her family come. When Tosha gives birth to a severely disabled girl, Bob not only calls to cheer her, he and his wife visit. He keeps calling with words of comfort.
Years later, Bob walks in the woods and thinks of the balloon, “What if (I) had just passed it by?”
“Life would have been less.”
We all have opportunities to connect with one another, Mike writes.
“We hesitate to let life in and then it is gone,” Bob says.
Did it matter that Bob was a northern guy and Tosha a southern girl? Did their politics matter? The story of their common humanity is a lesson about the ties that bind us all — ties that can repair the world.
So are these words from one of Mike’s most beloved columns: “Quick, before they leave this morning. Take a good look. Touch their faces. Run your hands through their hair …”
“Time passes through our eyes this morning. We see our children as newborns, we picture them as grown-ups. We see them walking their own children to school.
Like the summer birds leaving us, our children know what to do. Like September leaves waving on the trees, we, too, give way to the winds of change.”
Finally, Mike wrote these words to repair the world in his last column on Dec. 31, 2006, three months before he died at 54. They’re so relevant, it’s spooky:
“This will be the year when the age of polarity recedes. The looney tune of the conspiracist and the screed of the name caller will fade as their mean season has passed. Sing a song for civility. May we call on something better from ourselves and each other …”
More info: mikelevinebook.com