Lake Moods: In honor of Sylvia Axelrod


The prompt for this dance was to base it on something that is related to the weather. The water in a lake is always changing with the weather. It can go from being completely still early in a calm morning to being full of waves with whitecaps during a harsh storm. At times, it is so clear you can see to the bottom, and, at others, it gives a perfect reflection of the surrounding trees and clouds. Moods are also changing, just like the weather. Sometimes, they run deep, and sometimes they are visible on the surface for all to see. In this dance, the moods of the dancers are intertwined with the moods of Crystal Lake in the autumn. One difference between the dancers’ moods and the lake’s is that, for the dancers, the ripples wash away one mood before a new one emerges, while, for the lake, the ripples are part of its many moods.

This dance is dedicated to the memory of my mother-in-law, Sylvia Axelrod, who recently passed away. She loved the water and always dreamed of retiring by the ocean on Mount Desert Island. She did get her wish—

Toward the end of her career and for a few years after she retired, she had a condo that overlooked a harbor on the island. She spent many hours on her porch or in her apartment watching the changing moods of the bay. She also loved watching Crystal Lake. When we first moved near the lake and she and her brother visited us, they would stroll to the lake and spend hours talking together on a bench overlooking it. In her last couple of years, when she had moved to the area and wasn’t so mobile anymore, my husband would take her for a car ride to visit us, and they would sit in the car next to the park or on a cul-de-sac with lake views. Sometimes, they ate takeout as they sat looking at the lake, and sometimes I would join them, standing outside the car, mindful of the pandemic, while talking with them.

Sylvia is an inspiration to me. When I first met her, I was struck by her strength and resourcefulness during the hardships she had faced. A few years after I met her, she became the first executive director of NAMI New Jersey, an organization that provides support, education, and advocacy for people with mental illness and their families. During her time there, she touched many lives, both directly and through all the programs and services she established. She grew the organization, found new sources of funding, worked hard to combat stigma, and played an important role in getting the first parity bill for mental health coverage passed in New Jersey. She was also ahead of her time in addressing inclusion and diversity. She identified different communities in New Jersey, including the South Asian, Latinx, Chinese, and Black communities, that were not being reached very well by NAMI New Jersey. She listened to what the community members needed and hired people from within these communities to design programs that would combat stigma against mental illness and make sure people in these communities found the help and support they needed.

Even with her impressive record, Sylvia knew how to talk and connect with everyone touched by NAMI—all the family members, people with mental illness, and volunteers—because she kept her humility and because she was one of them; she also had mental illness in the family. One reason she was so successful in getting her staff and volunteers to accomplish so much was because she made them feel like things were their own ideas. She had a habit of saying “you know.” When we hadn’t seen her in a while, we often didn’t know, but for her staff and volunteers, it most likely fostered the feeling that they were involved in coming up with the ideas and projects.

I know Sylvia’s example will continue to inspire many of us. And I hope that she is somewhere with beautiful views of the water.

~ Denise Freed ~