Peter Yarrow – Carry on, Sweet Survivor

Puff, the Magic dragon, bent his head in sorrow, lost his green scales and slipped off into his cave after Jackie Paper “came no more,” but that’s only the song. In the new book, based on the lyrics written by Peter Yarrow and Lenny Lipton and illustrated, magically, by Eric Puybaret, Puff finds a new friend- the daughter of Jackie Paper-and so the story goes on and seemingly will forever.

Yarrow is the “Peter” of Peter, Paul (Stookey) and Mary (Travers), the voices of our youth, the soundtrack, as others have written, of our political awareness.

The three began singing together in 1961 (Mary had sung professionally while still in high school, including stints with Pete Seeger; Paul had been a singing comedian at a club in Greenwich Village), and by 1963 they were the organizing musical performers for the March on Washington (where Martin Luther King, Jr. delivered the “I Have a Dream” speech).

Vivid recollections make it impossible for someone of our generation to hear Peter, Paul and Mary sing “It’s the hammer of justice/It’s the bell of freedom/It’s the song about love between my brothers and my sisters all over this land…” and not have a heart-twisting memory of our youth, of our pure idealism and hope unstained by cynicism and grief.

While the trio still performs together occasionally, they’ve traveled individual roads of achievement as well; and for the last decade Peter Yarrow’s path has led into America’s public schools, where his message is a variation of “love between my brothers and my sisters.” Under the aegis of the nonprofit organization he founded, Operation Respect, he sings, talks and listens to children about compassion.

Operation Respect has provided more than 140,000 copies of its “Don’t Laugh at Me” curriculum to teachers and other educators (now, in Egypt, Israel, Canada, Croatia, the Philippines, South Africa and Hong Kong) and has addressed more than half a million students.

Peter and his former wife, Mary Beth McCarthy (the niece of the late Minnesota senator Eugene McCarthy, who was an anti-war Democratic presidential contender in 1968; Peter met Mary Beth at a rally in Portland, Oregon) have two adult children, Christopher and Bethany. Chris lives in Portland and is the co-owner of The Monkey and the Rat, a two-location emporium of Asian antiques; and Bethany lives in New York.

A strikingly beautiful woman with a strong and passionate voice, Bethany, with her performing partner, cellist Rufus Cappadocia, travels throughout the world, taking the message of Operation Respect to war- and conflicttorn countries. As she was taken as a child to peace marches and concerts, she now takes her daughter, Valentina, 2.

For children-and grandparents-dragons do live forever.

We shouted “Hello!” in the entry hall of Chris’s eastside Portland Victorian and were rushed by greeters Chris, Bethany and Rufus, but no sign of Peter. Then, a leg crooked out from around the corner of a walnut doorframe, the loafer wiggled a bit, and he entered the room, hugs first, questions later.

“I don’t think consciously about creating a legacy. A certain point in time, you confront the question “How do I want to spend this part of my life?”-I was 70 the end of May-and I see it this way: There are two things that make up this phase of life: wisdom and perspective.

“Think of life like downhill skiing. If you look in front of you, you see every bump; but if you look farther down the hill-and in front of yourself at the same time!-you can carve a path that makes sense. Wisdom, to handle the immediate situation, and perspective to look at all the goodness you have, the good fortune. We need wisdom and perspective. And sincere gratitude.

“I’m grateful that I am able to focus the vast majority of my time on things I really care about-although I’m working harder, with more energy, more focus, more concentration than I ever have. I’m so lucky I don’t have to earn money….”

We mentioned that perhaps it was easier for people who had power and money to extol the virtues of gratitude.

“Gratitude is an understanding and appreciation of the fundamental gifts of life. The gifts of life are not power, fame and money. Power, fame, money divide our society and take away from our hearts, foster false illusions and are ultimately unsatisfying, leaving us empty. “I sing to patients in hospice-I’ve long worked as an advocate for hospice patients- and they don’t have time for anything but love and truth and an appreciation of people who are serving them and the people they are serving. Because even if they are dying, they’re still giving.

They’re living at the heights of elevated consciousness. No one talks about how much money they made, what expensive new car they just bought, what fancy jewelry they’re wearing to dinner.

“And we can have gratitude-celebrate!-our capacity to do something. I recently sang at the funeral of a remarkable young woman-she was 21 when she died from leukemia-who’d had Down’s syndrome. The family asked me, a Jew, to sing ‘Amazing Grace.’ I said that was ironic- it’s a Christian song-but it was appropriate; her grace was amazing. And I said to the crowd, ‘Let’s sing it together.’

The singing progressed from reluctance to-not full-throated singing; I didn’t ask for that-but a blanket of mercy, of merciful sound that hung like a warming blanket over the people. And I caught the eye of the girl’s father; and in his grief, he blew me a kiss! And I thought, I can do this? By standing up and opening my mouth? I’ve been trained to do this all my life-just as people do the creative, loving things like cooking dinner and planting gardens-I can do this! And it was something I had learned to allow to come to me; it wasn’t me alone.

“This is what we must have gratitude for: that we can live our lives in meaningful ways. That we have meaningful work.

“Why do people get old and lose their sense of vitality? They don’t have work. Work-that’s our ability to input in a positive way to other people, to the world around us.

“Work and love. And what is love? Even with animals-One day, I suddenly felt a connection to my dog, another dimension to love, when I realized I knew what my dog was feeling! We open the door, allow ourselves to be taken to that place.

“And now, I have a granddaughter to love. Falling in love with a grandchild has to do with getting outside of our boundaries of self-protection. We rejoice in their freedom and spontaneity. Parents are more about ownership, which is negative, and responsibility, which is positive. But grandparents are free to rejoice in the child’s personal freedom. We love them, and, as grandparents, we allow them to manifest themselves for who they are.

“I was fortunate to have had the opportunity to manifest myself at an early age. My parents were divorced when I was 5, and my wise mother enrolled me in an art therapy class to help me find a way to identify and experience, however imperfectly through this work, my grief. My teacher was Florence Zane, one of the pioneers of art therapy.

“If you’ve seen your grandchild take her first steps, walking, ‘strungling’-that’s half-struggling, half-lunging-toward you with delight, and then, suddenly, she turns and goes to mommy, and between mommy and child, you can feel the tangible force. What is greater than watching your own child in love with her child? In Valentina, I see my daughter, and I see my mother on my left, flowing through me to my daughter and my granddaughter; and I am at peace because I am a part of something larger than myself.”

We asked what all grandparents can do to make the world a better place for the children we love.

“We teach by modeling respect and gratitude; we can love and appreciate a child in a way that the parents themselves cannot do. On the whole, you don’t have to understand love; you just have to be there. In the most profound sense, then, grandparents are the peacemakers and the healers.

“Wisdom, perspective, gratitude. Once you have that in your heart, you can heal the world.”

Peter Yarrow was interviewed in Portland, Oregon, by GRAND editor in chief Wendy Reid Crisp.

Originally published July/Aug 2008

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