by Joanne Kilgour Dowdy
I looked around me while I was on my prayer seat, and suddenly remembered that John Schlenck was no more on this planet. This was the first time that I realized how many gifts had been bestowed on me by this “monk” who I met at the Vedanta Society of New York in 1985. The music that I sang in my prayer room was written out by John. The recorded music that I played on special days that included Sri Sarada’s and Sri Ramakrishna’s birth anniversaries, was created and recorded by John. There are many memories that I hold dear from my two years’ residence at the Vedanta Society in New York that involve John. He was always there, smiling, listening, making his presence felt by communicating a sense of sturdy “dependability” through his actions.
Of course, my recollections include the rehearsals that he conducted with the choir before the July 4th celebration every year. We began several weeks before the beginning of July, and John drilled us in sections for hours before he assembled the whole choir and rehearsed his complete composition for presentation at the annual picnic. The most memorable of these creations was the story of Sri Ramakrishna’s life. I still hear the melody in my head around Sri Ramakrishna’s festival time. The words created such vivid images in the imagination and the melody was a beautiful blend of Eastern and Western music. When the composition was recorded professionally, it then became obvious to me that John had created a piece of music that would stand the test of time. I am sure that other musicians in the Vedanta tradition will play that creation for years to come.
Memories of John watering the garden at the VSNY are also important to my recollection of his contributions to the Society. He lived on the top floor of the building, four stories up, and came down punctually every day to water the garden in the summer time. He was good about time and making use of his days from waking up to going down late at night. When he played music at the Martha Graham Dance School, he made time to rehearse for that job; to be prepared for Sunday musical offerings at the Society; and to work on his own creative endeavors. John was always busy, but never hurried. He exuded an atmosphere of calm as he made his way through the many duties that fell on his shoulders.
It meant a great deal to me that John was involved as a musician with the professional dance school of the Martha Graham Dance Company, since I came to the study of Vedanta fresh from the Juilliard School. When I made a decision to change the course of my career from theater to education, I was reassured that my artistic inclination would not go unappreciated in the environment that I found at the VSNY. John’s commitment to using his musical talents, it seemed to me, was evidence that Sri Ramakrishna would make good use of my own dramatic skills. It was John who put a tanpura (musical instrument) in my hands and encouraged me to accompany the VSNY choir on Sundays after the sermon. That was the first time that I had ever played an instrument. It was a gift to my artistic soul that reassured me that I had a place in the “symphony” that was the domestic life at the Society.
Most importantly, my appreciation of John rose when I was directing a dramatic production at a small private school, Birch Wathen School, now called the Birch Wathen Lenox School, across the park on the East Side of Manhattan. I needed music for the interludes that were structured in the unfolding of the play. Low and behold, John pulled out a recording that perfectly matched the mood that I was trying to establish in the theater during the play. This small detail, generously managed by John, was of immense help to me pulling off an otherwise ambitious production of House of Bernarda Alba by Garcia Lorca, with high school students.
Thankfully, I have many beautiful memories to carry me through this season when I need to change my former attitude to John’s presence. When last I saw him, he graciously signed the CD sleeve for his compilation of songs. My last verbal exchange with him was during his last week at the VSNY. He wax busy packing boxes, getting ready to ship them to Atlanta, his new home. Our last exchange on email concerned the final editing on the story about Clementine Rigby. Luckily, I reminded him that he had the piece in his files and he was quite willing to get it ready for publication. That edition was to be the last publication of American Vedantist that he edited. I am now truly thankful that I worked with him to get the story ready by the deadline that he proposed.
Old email messages pop up when I am searching for other information in my account. Then I feel my stomach turn a cartwheel as I realize, again, that I am looking at historical accounts of my exchanges with John Schlenck. There won’t be any more mail or phone exchanges this year. What I have in hand, fortunately, is all good. That fact will have to do when I recollect my early days in Vedanta and my visits, after rehearsals at the Juilliard School, to the Society on the 71 St. Street in Manhattan. These email messages will now act as the bridge to good memories, a learning season, and a link to a “monk” who made it possible for me to believe that an artist could find a way to live the Vedanta philosophy and still be creative.
Joanne Kilgour Dowdy is a long-time member of the Vedanta Society of New York where she met John Schlenk in 1984. She serves as a Professor of Adolescent/Adult Literacy at Kent State University.