“He really was an enchanting person. In some way he was like the spiritual father of everybody…. It is hard to imagine Central Park without Charles Kennedy.” Marie Winn, author of Red-tails in Love, and close friend of Charles, remembering him after his death in October 2004

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Grace Abounds

Yesterday I returned to Colorado after spending sixteen days in Iowa, staying with Dad, making the daily jaunts with him to support Mom in the hospital. The events of the past week have me clicking to Webster's online to make sense of what has been all around me: Grace. An ancient, complex word and concept with roots as deep as Sanskrit. Grace is defined in terms of human behaviors and as a divine gift. It's as elegant and potent a construct a we have in our language, right up there with love, truth, justice, and beauty.

Selected bits about grace from Webster:

-unmerited divine assistance given humans for their regeneration  
-disposition to or an act or instance of kindness
-ease and suppleness of movement or bearing
-the quality or state of being considerate or thoughtful

Selected scenes from the past week:

*My mom, intuitively and often playfully, making medical staff at ease with her by expressing her gratitude and reaching out for core connections with each of them: family, vocation, interests, passions. 
*Nearly every medical staff person walking through her door with clear intention to have a healing encounter, and perhaps even more profound, with receptiveness to meet my mom where she is and accept the intention of her overtures. Highly-trained medical staff exercising physical and emotional gentleness and attentiveness to Mom's needs moment-to-moment. Consulting Mom on whether she is ready to go for a walk or to be examined or to be stuck with another sharp object- and deferring to her when possible.  
*My wife, the lovely Deb, calling me from our home in Colorado on Saturday to say that our beloved 18-year-old cat, Ella, had reached an irretrievable state of distress and frailty. Expressing her concern about having to go alone for Ella's last trip to the vet, but going solo with her anyway because of Ella's need and Deb's love for her.  And for many weeks prior, Deb was always responding to Ella's needs, adapting the house to demands of the cat's condition, and staying close to her.
*And then there was the veterinarian: putting Deb at ease by telling her about her current 'dance' with her own elderly and ill cat, providing a special blanket for Deb in which to hold Ella in comfort on her lap, and then sitting on the floor in front of Deb and Ella, so that their last moments together might be just like their best moments at home.

I believe I was witnessing, and hearing from Deb about, grace. Images of washing another's feet come to mind. The experience or gift of grace seems to grow from the fertile ground of practicing basic human kindness and service. Or, maybe: 'Grace behaviors' beget 'grace, the gift.' Or, perhaps: To act with grace is to create the experience of grace for the other and self. My friend, Rev. Bill Calhoun, speaks of the "grace margins" that exist in the paper-thin space between our separate selves––the potent place where need, pain, suffering, love, care, and healing meet when one party makes a "grace move" toward another. In the major spiritual traditions, humans are asked to intentionally make themselves evermore in tune with, and in service to, the other.

I don't remember having a conversation with Charles about grace. In his avowed atheism, Charles would not have believed in "the unmerited divine assistance given humans for their regeneration."  However, he believed deeply, based on the best of literature, philosophy, art, science, nature, and experience that people could create––and absolutely should create––the space and consciousness for the kind of love and healing that I have been witnessing. He practiced it and I know he would be gratified––and not surprised–– by how it is playing out in lives of people he loved. 


Wednesday, August 18, 2010

August In Iowa

photo by Charles 

cicadas are

In this elegant, percussive haiku, Charles captures the pulse of August in Central Park. For Charles, cicadas and fireflies were important touchstones to a youth spent in small-town Iowa.*

steep ceiling
of cicada voices
August chant

the three year old
misses the falling star
grabs for the firefly 

I spent my first twenty-one Augusts in Iowa. Now that I've been back in the home state for the past 8 days, I'm remembering that August can be a complicated month. I'm sitting in U of Iowa hospital watching light rain further soak the saturated lawn. My mother has come through her cancer surgery well, considering that the doc had to work on her for nearly six hours. She is chipper and determined to prevail. I believe it helps that she and my dad celebrated their 56th anniversary the day after her surgery––love, resilience, partnership, beating the odds. He is right by her side, looking strong with his can-do approach. Dad and I took a walk around the neighborhood the other night, flashed by summer's last fireflies, counting all the blessings in Mom's recovery. August optimism.  

August rolls in like the poster-month for summer with suffocating deep-fryer heat and humidity.  Then mid-month, as with two days this week, the same bright sun shows up, but the temperature drops 10 degrees and the air dries.  The seeds of autumn are stored in August.

On this trip the nieces and nephews seem more fresh and vibrant than ever––unaffected by the heat index; no artifice in their exuberance about prospects for their grandma's recovery. And we've shared a handful of "Charles moments." We marveled at the rust-capped swirl of Chipping Sparrows on my parents' lawn, and pondered the synchrony of insect hatches and maturing seed heads with late-summer bird migration: eat some seeds, knock some into the soil, and carry some to new places, providing strength for the southward journey as well as next summer's sustenance. August launches spring.

And, of course, we listened to the cicada chorus. We collected their shiny brown husks and giggled at the idea of cicadas being bagpipes. An entire lifetime of just a day or two in which to make all that noise and leave a starter kit for a future August concert. I gotta believe we all have tickets to that concert.

*(These haiku can be found in The Fish Jumps Out of the Moon:Haiku of Charles F. Kennedy. 2010 Cerberus Press.)

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Dancing with the Cancer Blues-Revised

   It seems life is always presenting us with new "dance partners"––many pleasant, some disagreeable. My mom just learned that she'll be learning to dance with cancer. Bad things really do happen to some of the very best people...happens all the time... period. In October of 2004 we lost Charles to a vexing, perplexing mass of lymphoma. Now his sis-in-law, my very own sweet mother, has come down with cancer. 
     Cancer is always an unsettling partner, so everyone is concerned, of course. But there is good news. Mom is very resilient and she has battled through some very tough stuff in her life. We believe, along with Mom, that her crack team of docs is on top of things and has an effective treatment plan for her. Yea!  And, of course, Dad is there, strong and supportive as ever, helping her navigate. The person most in command of the situation is Mom herself: facing her fears and hopes with aplomb, using her strong faith in God as balm and bolster, and her prior difficult and peak life experiences as guideposts. She is laughing, playing with her grandkids, hitting the nearby casino for pure fun, asking for the prayers of friends and family, and sharing hope and light with us familial worry warts. We'll all be with her as her treatment begins in earnest next week with surgery. We are confident it will go well and that she'll do well. Go, Mom!
     Unlike my mom's case, Charles's 'C' went undiagnosed for too long. But he, like his favorite in-law, took a head-on, positive approach to his situation––even when he was gravely ill. It was never hard to see why he and Mom had such unabashed admiration for one another. 

Note:   In addition to getting Charles's books into posthumous publication, I've been slowly chipping away at building his biography. Here is an excerpt of a draft piece for that project, based on notes I scribbled on the subway after my last visit with Charles. It includes one of his pieces previously posted on this blog.

Fortunate Lives

From photo-essay collection "Owl"

      Frankly, I don’t believe that a Saw-whet owl is likely to be mistaken for the Christ child.  However, it was Christmas Eve. 
            Because it really was Christmas Eve of the first year I ever owned a camera, because I knew that the Saw-whet was roosting in a small group of hemlocks on the south edge of the Shakespeare Garden, because it was a holiday eve and I was magically alone, because it was between 4:30 and 5:00 pm and the exquisite owl would not have flown out yet to go to its night’s labor.
            Because it was a soft December evening and I had the passionate feeling that there was nowhere I would rather be.  Thus I had no choice but to break a park rule—a small one.  There was a three-and-a-half foot high rustic fence twixt me and the owl.  So I looked over my shoulder several times while awkwardly climbing over the fence, hoping to locate the owl for its Christmas close-up.
            Owls tend to reuse the same spots for daytime roosting and for the previous week this one had its residence in one of the two small conifers very close to where I was clambering over the fence.  Owls are such cryptic masters that I didn’t know exactly where the bird was.  So when I stood up straight I was a bit too on target and bumped a branch that brushed the owl and it flew.  And this is how my life has been.  It flew perhaps two feet and landed on another hemlock where the photographic light was even better.
            Saw-whets have many unique traits, and just then the owl illustrated one.  They sit tight.  This owl, a very small raptor, proved that its defensive style is to stay put, even on Christian holidays.
            The Freud of us birders, the man who invented birding, Roger Tory Peterson, actually gave instructions in a book that he wrote in the 1970’s on how to pick up a Saw-whet.  This bird is so committed to its defensive posture that according to Mr. Peterson, one can wiggle fingers in front of its face and with the other hand, from the rear, pick it up.  For years I had dreamed of holding a Saw-whet, but now, with the perfect opportunity, I wanted the photograph more!
            So I backed up a few feet, got my camera ready, stepped forward and bingo, a perfect Christmas Eve.

   Charles believed in serendipity.  He also believed that the world was an absurd, unfair place where Fortune smiled on some more than others simply because Fortune felt like it.  The saw-whet owl essay reveals his innate gift for appreciating his own modest good fortune and his natural compulsion to share it with others in a variety of ways.  Charles believed in sharing wealth in all its myriad of forms.  He was an atheist and a compassionate humanist––and he was, of course, in love with the natural world.  Talk to anyone who spent time with Charles in any venue and they will say that just to be in his presence was to feel comforted, encouraged, and uplifted.  This was so even to the end of his life.
     My brothers and I were with Charles two weeks before his death.  He was in an Upper West Side medical rehab facility (not far from Thelonious Sphere Monk Street, Charles pointed out.) The small ward scene was unsettling; four beds, three occupied. Next to Charles was Billy, a handsome 80-year-old former Broadway show dancer who had recently broken his neck in, of all things, a fall.  The graceful dancer was now a quadriplegic. He exhorted us to open his trunk full of artifacts related to his life and career and then regaled us with stories about his encounters, some quite intimate, with great stars of musical theater.  Next to Billy was David, who sat at the end of his bed, with wild white hair and beard, fully dressed for traveling, and anxious. He looked physically well and he occasionally peered out of his dementia to loudly appeal to anyone who came near to, “Take me home, right now!”  He spent most of every night in dialogue with unseen characters, especially someone named ‘Charlotte, dear’ beseeching them to retrieve him from that “wretched place.”  And, of course, there was Charles––gaunt and physically wracked with stage-four lymphoma, he still managed to illuminate the entire ward with his undimmed charm and presence.
     After my brothers had gone, Charles and I spent our last two hours together. Charles was reading the above essay from his recently assembled photo essay book titled, Owls. (Spurred by the rapid decline in his health, Charles had been busy for some time finishing essays and assembling the final collections of his essays and photos.  He had conscripted his closet friends to assist with the latter task, masterfully maneuvering them to finish his beloved projects while simultaneously keeping them from obsessing about his physical condition.) I sat looking across Charles’s bed out the window toward the sailboats and wheeling terns along the Hudson River.  My mind was occupied with recalling the excited phone call a couple of months earlier announcing the birth of this essay. And I had developed heartburn trying to find a moment to have a serious talk with Charles.
     He caught me off-guard with, “Look, Kid, I know what you want to talk about.  You just need to know that if I spend more than about five minutes thinking about dying, I will die.  So, with whatever I have left this is what I’ll be doing: I’ll be getting Billy to talk about his luscious life because that is what he loves to do and I am so entertained by it.  I want him to remember himself as he must always be, with his unbroken neck holding a beautiful face of one-third its eighty years and making great comical four-limbed leaps with no harsh critics, only critical awe. 
     I’ll make sure my physical therapist’s assistant knows her work matters; that her amens and testifying are a balm to me.
     And these beautiful orderlies from Haiti and other hard places are going to hear from me over and over that they are singular and that I so welcome their caring touch and lovely spirits.
     I want my physical therapist, Shourin, to teach me everything he can about his PhD study connecting human learning and piano playing because he loves to teach and his accent is pure music.  He loves Beckett, you know, so we are of a kind, he and I.
     Speaking of Beckett, I’m going to keep on writing a special play for David called “Waiting for Charlotte.”  He is our Estragon, you know, and she is his ‘Godot.’  I want to make his part in this madness important even if we can’t connect with him.  That dear man is right to be mad and is as mad as he is right.
     And more than ever I realize that we are lucky guys, you and I!  We have had such full and fortunate lives!  What a kick it has been, the whole thing.”