A Public Sphere for Poetry, Politics, and Nature
I recently moved back to Arizona, the state where I was raised, from California, to help my mother take care of my father who is suffering from Alzheimer’s disease. My father was raised by a man he never spoke of, in Tulsa, Oklahoma, and, yes, my father fits the white male conservative stereotype that may have come to your mind. I remember in my late teens my father telling me I should not date an African American girl I was interested in because “life is hard enough without having mixed relationships”. And, later, when I would visit him as an adult, the Fox Propaganda Network was always on the television 24/7. After growing up for seventeen years with such a man, I have a few regrets that have left scars that still cause some wincing in my psyche. One, I never did date that wonderful young lady I was interested in during high school. Two, my first vote cast for the president of the United States when I was eighteen was for Ronald Reagan. And last, but probably most painful, in college, my freshman year, I wrote a letter to the school paper that was published that was speaking against a new club forming for LGBQ students. Also in college, I became very involved in the Catholic church and considered myself part of what today we call the religious right. I had left my father’s home with the hard cocoon of extreme right conservatism bound about me.
Today, I can look back on that young man with compassion and tenderness, but it took much arduous work, soul searching, and time on the psychiatrist’s couch. There were two experiences that really put the cracks in my cocoon that would eventually give way to openness and freedom.
After receiving my undergraduate degree, I entered a Catholic seminary to begin my studies to become a priest. Thankfully, that seminary actually embraced the true compassion and openness that Jesus spoke to and displayed in his actions. It was where I was first introduced to the writings of Thomas Merton, a Benedictine monk who, in his later years, was doing the wonderful work of bringing together the worlds and spirituality of true Christianity and Buddhism. As part of my first year in the seminary, the novitiate, I was asked to choose a place in the city where I would volunteer two times a week. The city was San Francisco and my choice was to volunteer at a hospice, run by Mother Theresa’s Sisters of Charity, for those dying of AIDS at the height of the epidemic in the nineteen eighties.
I will never forget my first day at the hospice. I walked in, asked where they needed me, and they brought me into a room where a young boy of maybe eighteen years was in his last hours of life. He was alone and the sisters asked me to sit with him. His name was Wayne. He had bright orange hair, like Opie’s from the Andy Griffith Show. His cheeks were sunken and his chest was heaving. I literally could hear his lungs scrape together with each breath. There was blood at the corners of his lips and his eyes would go from staring straight through me to rolling back into his head. Two young boys. Strangers. My first thought was “where are his parents, his brothers or sisters?” He was dying alone. I had no training or experience in this area at all, but something natural in me, something that is truly human in me, truly me, kicked in, and I picked up a wash cloth, dampened it with cool water, and began wiping his brow and lips. I told him my name. I called him by his. I told him that he would not be alone. I stroked his chest gently. I held his hand. I did not leave his side until he finally burst from the cocoon of his own hard world, this world, that would allow such a young man to only have a stranger with him in his last moments just because of how or who he chose to love.
The second experience occurred during a year I spent as a volunteer at a cancer hospice in Jerusalem, Israel, right outside the gates of the old city of Jerusalem. During that year I sat with hundreds of people as they left this world. The hospice had about fifteen rooms at the time, and each room had anywhere from two to four patients in it at a time. Those crowded hospice rooms held no prejudice toward religious or political affiliation. A Jewish man would be dying in the bed next to a Muslim man. A Palestinian woman would be dying in the bed next to an Israeli woman. Their families would visit and bring the other families food from their homes. Some families would invite the other families to their homes for a meal, companionship, and consolation. The reality of life’s brevity and fragility washed away all prejudice, pride, and division. In those rooms all was washed away. Clean. Pure. Human. All were capable of holding another’s hand, wiping another’s brow, because that is what we truly are, deep down, as human beings. We were brought into this world because of love. That is how we were made. We wouldn’t still be here without someone else feeding us, teaching us to walk, being with us until we could go off on our own. We are not creatures of survival of the fittest. We are creatures of democracy and love.
And so now I have come full circle. I sit with my father and answer his same simple questions over and over. The news is no longer on the television. He has no idea who he voted for or who is the leader of the nation. His hard edges are soft. He struggles to remember the names of my daughters and, day by day, I can see that my name is fading from his mind. This was the man I once feared so greatly. This was the man who wrapped me in such a hard shell. And now, he is almost like a baby; soft, simple, sleeping most of the day, perhaps even at peace—finally. Neither he nor I are the same creatures we were so many years ago, and thank the universe.
We, as a country, no, as a species, desperately need to do the hard work of finding our truest, purest selves. The self that is willing to walk into the stranger’s room, the “enemy’s” room, and feed them, wash their brow, listen to them, comfort them, respect them. It is what each of us so desperately want for ourselves, in our own lonely and dark rooms. And the reality is that it will happen whether we do the hard work or not. My father never did the work, but here he is, soft and weak like a baby. Either we will do the work, or nature will do it for us in the end. But I am a big proponent for doing the work. Life for me is so much fuller and fun than when I was that young angry man of seventeen. And it is exactly the antidote for the anger and hate we saw exhibited in Charlottesville. No laws need to be written. No great debates are needed. What is needed is simply the courage and willingness, from each and every one of us, to do the hard work of breaking from our heavy cocoons and shells, to flutter and fly with such brilliant color and true freedom.
Copyright 2017 Greg Thielen