Back from summer break with kids in Chautauqua, NY, I can’t help but start: What I did on vacation. Highlights include contemporary views on immigration, irrationality, art and politics, a journalism master class, a writing class on ‘place’, and joining a group of folks reflecting on Loss. I took in the documentary, ‘Armor of Light,’ where an Evangelical minister asks, is it possible to be both pro-gun and pro-life? Finally I saw Selma after a lecture with director Ava DuVernay. Stepping away is to step out of the box, taking in what others hear, feel, and say. Maybe most profound was my first LGBT and friends brown bag lunch. More to come on that!
I returned home to a nearly complete construction project so the first order of business was to put a lot back together. Our upstairs landing houses a hutch we moved for worker access. The hutch holds books that are special to at least one of our hearts, deemed indefinite keepers. Re-shelving these books I came across one Dad had given the kids in the last few years: The Beauty of Life By Kahlil Gibran – Author of The Prophet. The book stopped me in my tracks. Like Dad, it was a bit of a mystery. I’d only remember him saying it was given to him as a gift.
Gone now a year and a half these moments of coming across past possessions have become defining more than ever.
Standing at the shelves I gaze at the cover, carefully brushing fingers across the books front jacket. I imagine Dad privately, deeply pondering what this gift really meant for him, how important the title alone must have been. As I open the first page, I take in the lush color of soft images, oversized leaves, maroon branches, blue wing tipped birds clutching a frail branch. In the upper left corner an inscription in green marker, now bloated and bled from original size reads: To John, From All Of Us.
Though the book has been in possession for a few years now this is the first time I begin to explore its contents, possible hidden meaning. The copyright 1951, was reprinted in 1962, his copy is from 1971 by Hallmark Cards, Inc. I leaf through pages scanning content, but begin to take in the passages around the 10th page, when the words become profound.
Life without Love is like a tree without blossoms and fruit…and Love without Beauty is like flowers without scent and fruit without seeds.
A page later I absorb the last line of a phrase:
…and protecting love shall determine its behavior.
Drifting in thought I recall 1971, Dad and his first partner Jim were living in Cedar Rapids. Memory a bit fuzzy I think Dad mentioned this book was a gift from a group of co-workers. Did they know the secrets Dad held? They must have. They knew of his children, they witnessed him gushing over us when he’d bring us into Killian’s, the department store where he worked as a buyer. Certainly they also knew about Jim. They also had to know the comfort these words would bring him. But did they know what a life treasure the book would become for him?
Some 20 pages later I stopped once again. I read and re-read:
Know your own true worth…and you shall not perish. Reason is your light and your beacon of truth. Reason is the source of Life.
The paper on this page is darker, like parchment yet strong and sturdy — heavy in weight. Reading this passage I imagine Dad utilizing precious resources to stay strong in his core, when outside all odds where against him as a gay man of the early 70’s. His emotions constantly playing tug of war, his church tugging at him, parental figure-hood, his parents unspoken disapproval, his communities judgment.
Three short pages later a wash of brighter color hits me. A lime green hive houses a small critter, orange block illustrations of butterflies flutter on both pages. It is here I catch the scent assigned to Dads belongings, the sweet aged musk of time, a mark I can still embrace:
It is my fervent hope that my whole life on this earth will ever be…tears and laughter. …tears that purify my heart and reveal to me the secret of life…and its mystery…laughter that brings me closer to my fellow men.
…tears with which I join my brokenhearted…laughter that symbolizes joy over my very existence.
I now realize my dad searched, struggled to find and keep these sentiments alive…oftentimes at a cost. Visiting Dad when I was a kid and into my mid-twenties, it was during morning coffee he would sit clutching a mug, other arm resting on his elbow, a cigarette between the knuckles of two fingers. He was lost in deep thought. I couldn’t understand how his gaze would be so far away, especially when we had precious little time together.
It’s in these passages I now imagine what his deep thoughts may have contained. Now at 50 years old I continue to gain understanding, turn dark anger I often lived, soften blame for him not caring enough. Growing my family sometimes I critically thought he could have done better – done more. There wasn’t a lot in middle, large amounts of togetherness. Instead I remember tears and laughter. With all that was handed to us we came out of it with tears and laughter.