Light Years Ago

Baseball Cards

What follows is the beginning of a lecture I presented in February 2014, at the Graves Lecture Series at Chadron State College in Chadron, Nebraska. It is entitled, “Poemhenge: Poetry on the Rocks,” and you can view the lecture at this link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=X40H4uNEeMk&feature=youtu.be

I do believe my students must think I have rocks in my head with all the poems I feed them. And they might be right. But like those massive, mysterious bluestones, those enormous boulders that found their way to Stonehenge 5,000 years ago, I sometimes wonder how mine arrived.

I guess it started with a kite when I was eight years old. A kite stuck in a tree. A kite I wrote about after being knocked down by a neighborhood bully. I remember the pain, the struggle to get up and once I did, how he slammed me to the ground again. And though the pain was excruciating, what hurt most was my pride. Being singled out by this guy, the taunting – the embarrassment I felt in front of my friends.

A few days after the incident, I saw that winged kite, struggling to get free from the tree in front of my house in a town called Braintree – Braintree Massachusetts. From my bedroom window, I stared out at the tree, at that kite, and for the first time, wrote a poem. I learned at early age that when I wrote, the pain went away. I had tapped into a healing place, a place within that I would return to over and over again throughout my life.

To paraphrase poetry therapist John Fox: “Poetry is a natural medicine. Writing and reading poems is a way of seeing and naming where we have been, where we are, and where we are going with our lives.”

One of the goals of poetry therapists is to help create a safe environment for their clients. Geri Chavis and Lila Weisberger, co-authors of The Healing Fountain, help trigger poems from their clients by asking questions like: Where were your safe places as a child? Where are your safe places now?

I often return to the safe places of my childhood with poems.

This is one I wrote entitled, Light Years Ago.

Light Years Ago

by Rich Kenney

In a time when neighbors built bomb shelters

I found one already set up, my safe haven,

beneath a row of wire questions marks,

below sleeve and pant crease, way back

beyond PF Flyers and a loafer’s loose penny.

With Captain Midnight’s flashlight pen, I sat

for hours in my closet on a heisted milk crate

crammed with comic books, reading baseball

cards and Bazooka Joe bubble gum strips.

Behind my uncle’s hand-me-downs,

I stashed an old cream cheese jar

filled with tree house keys, fishing lures

and a few of my father’s beer cap tops.

It was the one time I had answers…

sitting there in the black until

the pen went dead, sitting there

with a glow-in-the-dark Jesus

and a pale dry bottle

of fireflies.

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Wedding Speech

Wedding - Shelley and Rich

Two weeks ago, my step-daughter, Shelley, was married. My wedding speech went something like this:

There’s a movie I like called When Harry Met Sally. And in this old movie, a love story, actually, there’s a scene where Harry says to Sally:

“When you realize you want to spend the rest of your life with somebody, you want the rest of your life to start right now.”

Shelley and Chad, the rest of your lives are starting right now. Everyone here is so happy for you both. And I’m especially proud of you, Shelley, for all that you’ve accomplished at such a young age.

Your mom, by the way, is always reminding me.

I remember when you first started working for Encompass Health Care a few years ago and how you were flying to different cities all over the Midwest every week, training employees and giving presentations. It seemed like you were always in the air.

We’d be sitting watching TV at night and your mom would say, “Well, Shelley should be landing in about twenty minutes.” Ten minutes later, she’d say, “Well, Shelley should be landing in ten minutes.” Ten minutes would go by: “Well, Shelley’s landed. Tomorrow, she’ll be training people almost twice her age. Imagine that, little Shelly, training all those people. She’s only 23, you know.” And then your mom would look back at the TV, a contented smile on her face.

Sometimes, we’d be driving in the car, and your mom would say, “Well, Shelley’s making her presentation in fifteen minutes.” Fifteen minutes later: “Shelley’s making her presentation right now. Imagine that, little Shelley, all grown up. She’s only 24, you know.” And again, that contented smile.

Shelley, you have a lot of fans in this room and I’m proud to be one of them. But always know one of your greatest fans is sitting right here, your mom.

Sometime tomorrow, probably while we’re flying back to Nebraska, your mom will say to me, “Well, Shelley’s married now. Imagine that, little Shelley, married.” And already, I can hear the pride in her voice, see that contented look in her eyes. A mother’s special love for her daughter.

Please raise your glasses with me for a toast. Congratulations, Shelley and Chad.

Cherish the rest of your lives together. We love you.

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Two Takes on MLK Day

MLK While sitting in a cafeteria in Oklahoma, on MLK Day a  couple of years ago, I overheard a conversation between an elderly couple sitting at a nearby table and their middle-aged waitress. The woman at the table said to the waitress, “Don’t rush home this afternoon. There’s no mail today.” The waitress, frowning, replied, “Oh, I hate it.” The man, tapping his plate with a fork, added, “I still don’t consider it a holiday.”

It was the laughter of the waitress and her next remark that prompted me to scan my table for something to write on: “It’s one of those back-of-the-bus holidays.”

Not believing what I was hearing, I removed a pen from my pocket and jotted down their words onto a napkin as quickly as I could. The woman at the table nodded to the waitress and said, “Never did know his place.” The man put his fork down and, in a low voice, said, “That’s why he got what he did.”

What I remember most is the way my hand trembled as I jotted down these exchanges. I wanted to say something, but, regrettably, I held my tongue. The conversation ended abruptly as the waitress was called to another table. Before leaving she said, “You folks have a good day.” The man, smirking, replied, “Yeah, happy holiday.

Why is it I felt compelled to record that conversation?  Why is it that I still hear the waitress’s laughter, see the man’s smirk? Why is the woman’s, “never did know his place,” comment still ringing in my ears?

Fortunately, there is another conversation to offset the cafeteria episode. It took place on an MLK Day in Arizona, years earlier. While working at a school that provided services to children who were blind, I had volunteered to transport five high school students to and from a studio where they participated in an art project. The teens, totally blind, were sculpting a human figure that would say something about their blindness.

The students worked on the project every day after school, weekends and holidays. Each student fashioned a different body part: face, torso, legs, arms, and hands. In the end, they put all the pieces together to create a bronze figure of a young girl holding a butterfly. They named it, “All Things Are Possible.”

While the project was a powerful one so, too, was the discussion I listened to while driving the students to the studio on MLK Day. The students were all white Caucasian, except for Victor, a Mexican American. He asked, “So what do you guys think of MLK Day?”

Amber was the first to respond and recounted this story. “I remember Thanksgiving when I was five or six. All my relatives came and we were sitting around the table eating dinner. My aunt was talking about some black people who had moved into the house next to her. And one of my uncles was talking about how some white guy at work was mad that a black guy got the promotion he wanted. For the longest time, the conversation was about black people and white people. It made me wonder what color I was and I asked, ‘Am I black or white?'”

Amber’s best friend, Sara, who was sitting next to her in the van, said, “This may sound weird but sometimes I’m glad I am blind. I can’t see skin or someone’s looks. Friends ask me why I spend time with ugly people? For me, it’s what’s on the inside. Someone’s looks or skin color doesn’t matter.”

“I just don’t get color, Justin said. “It’s really about what people say and do.”

“Well,” Victor said, “I’m dark and sometimes my skin talks before I do. They tell me I’m brown. Some call me a ‘wetback’ or tell me to ‘go back to Mexico, where I belong.'”

Nicole weighed in.

“Belong… We don’t belong anywhere except to the world – all of us. Sight is such a distraction. Why do people spend so much time on things they see  that are so unimportant? White, black, blue, plaid… So what?” 

“Plaid isn’t a color,” Sara said.

“Can you imagine if it were?” Amber asked, laughing.

***

Two conversations, two takes on race.

These are the ones I hear on Martin Luther King Day – reminders of how far we’ve come and how far we need to go

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Christmas Smoke Rings

Christmas treeWhile the holiday season is filled with many good scents like pumpkin pie and balsam fir, the one I like best is smoke from a White Owl Cigar. That’s what “Big Ray” smoked.

The other day, I caught a whiff of it as I was leaving Walmart with a few rolls of wrapping paper. I half-expected to see him in the crowd with a well-chomped stogie jutting out the side of his mouth. For a few moments, it was the week before Christmas, 1981. And there was Big Ray, all 275 pounds of him, leaning against the tailgate of my pick-up truck. He was counting snowflakes.

Ray was one of the twelve residents with special needs that I worked with at a school in New England. He was a child trapped in the body of a twenty-year-old. When he was supposed to be making his bed, I would hear him singing children’s songs. If he was supposed to be vacuuming the stairway, I’d see him standing there sucking his thumb, his thoughts far away. When he saw me staring, he’d take his thumb out of his mouth, turn on the vacuum and say, “Well, today’s Saturday.”

That’s what he said when things were going right, regardless of what day it was. He told me that during the few weekends he went home, his favorite activity was to walk to Walmart on Saturdays and smoke cigars while watching the automatic doors open and close.

Ray was on a behavior plan to deal with his obesity. The nurses developed a diet for him and my job was to make sure he stuck to it. I did it with cigars.

Cigar aBecause Ray liked smoking cigars better than eating onion rings or spaghetti, I knew I had leverage. The plan was simple. He earned an after-dinner cigar when he followed his diet. He went smokeless when he broke it.

That fall, Ray reported to me each day after school with a teacher’s note regarding his diet plan compliance. On good days, I’d hear him lumbering down the hall toward the office. He’d stop before reaching the sliding, wooden door and pause to catch his breath. Then, mimicking the school receptionist who was constantly using the public address system for staff to call the switchboard, he would call out in a high voice, “Rich Kenney, please call the switchboard. Rich Kenney, please call the switchboard.”

I’d play along, picking up the phone, saying, “Hello, did you page me?” Five seconds later, Big Ray would appear from behind the door and laugh for the longest time, his entire body jiggling like a mound of Jell-O.

On bad-note days, his approaching steps in the hallway, heavy and slow, spoke volumes. There was no receptionist imitation. He’d plop himself down in the chair opposite my desk, hand me the note, and say, very solemnly, “Bad day, Rich Kenney, bad day.”

To cut down on the “bad days,” I added an incentive to his behavior plan. Whenever he had five good days in a row, he could walk independently to the store to purchase cigars. But – he had to bring back the package, unopened. That didn’t happen very often.

Big Ray smoked his bonus cigars outside the laundry room. Every now and then, I surprised him by firing up a stogie of my own. We’d sit there in thrift shop armchairs, our feet up on milk crates.

He taught me how to blow smoke rings. When I’d float a full one, he’d say, “Well, today’s Saturday.”

The week before Christmas was hectic, the many holiday parties causing behavior pandemonium. Denny was on house-restriction for flushing ski hats down the toilet while Clayton was grounded for unscrewing and hiding bedroom doorknobs. Friday’s noon dismissal for vacation could not arrive soon enough.

snowOn Thursday afternoon, however, it started snowing. By the time we finished dinner, three inches of snow blanketed the grounds. After cleaning up in the kitchen, Ray stopped by the office to get his cigar. When I opened the empty box, I saw panic in his eyes. “Bad news, Rich Kenney,” he said.

I glanced out the window to see that the snow had turned to flurries. Reading my mind, Ray assured me he could walk to the store a few blocks away to pick up reinforcements. I agreed to let him go if he promised to come right back with an unopened package.

He didn’t. I found him in the staff parking lot, leaning against my truck with his head up and his hands outstretched, counting snowflakes. When he saw me, he handed me an opened package with a missing cigar. “I’m disappointed in you, Ray,” I said. “This means room-restriction.”

We walked back to the house in silence. He went straight to his room. When I checked on him ten minutes later, he was asleep.

At noon, the next day, cabs lined the driveway. Despite their blasting horns and residents sliding suitcases down the stairwell, I heard Big Ray’s steps in the hallway. He stopped just before the office door, pausing to catch his breath, and called out, “Rich Kenney, please call the switchboard. Rich Kenney, please call the switchboard.”

Still irked from the previous night’s incident, I didn’t play along. I said, “Let’s go, Ray. Your cab’s here.” Instead of the apology I was hoping for, he said, “Hey, Rich Kenney, what’s wrong?”

From the driveway, I watched the cab drive off. Big Ray stared at me from the back window, mouthing the words to his favorite expression. At that, I softened and waved back.

With everyone gone, I locked up the house and headed down to the parking lot to my snow-layered truck. I began clearing the windshield with my scraper, and as I lifted up the windshield wiper blade, loose snowman wrapping paper sailed across the parking lot in the wind. Under the blade was a frozen cigar.

Christmas tree bThat evening I sat by my Christmas tree with a dented White Owl Cigar. I lit up the bruised stogie, grateful for the opportunity to learn about life from kids who seemed to see it more clearly. I blew a smoke ring and said, “Well, today’s Saturday.”

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Tribute to an Old Friend

Every now and then, I look at this picture. It was taken in 1969 during my senior prom. It was supposed to be of my date and me – one for the ages, one of those stunning photos that you marvel at forty or fifty years later. But just before it was snapped something landed on my shoulder. I turned to see someone’s chin. Then, that wide grin I’d come to know over four years at Archbishop Williams High School. It belonged to Phil Rando, photo-crasher.

“Archies” was a Catholic High School in Braintree, Massachusetts, run by nuns with long, black, flowing robes and cloud-white wimples. In 1965, when I was a freshman, several of the more intimidating sisters patrolled the school auditorium during Mass, eyeballing the crowd for mischief-makers.

I first met Phil at one of these Masses. I remember taking the end-row seat next to him as a vigilant nun studied us. “Careful, he warned.”Deputy Dog is watching you.”

It was at that Mass that a stolen communion host was being passed up and down the rows. I hesitated in taking it when it reached me; I knew this was one of those  venial-bordering-on-mortal-sin moments. Yet, caving to the pressure, I reluctantly took it and stared at the freshly snatched bread.

For a few seconds, I was hypnotized; time stood still. Even the rattle of rapidly approaching rosary beads could not break the spell; I was like a deer in headlights. It was an all-points nun alert and they were headed my way. That’s when Rando scooped up the white-hot loot from my hand and popped it into his mouth. When the dust had finally settled, he grinned and said, “I was hungry.”

Truth is, Phil Rando was always hungry. Like a magician, he’d pull a sandwich out of his suit coat pocket every morning and eat it in Spanish class. And, at lunch in the cafeteria, he’d get a full tray of hot food with two desserts. When the dessert was cake, however, frosting would mysteriously appear in last-period chemistry class between the pages of science books – sometimes mine.

We spent our after-lunch break walking around the school building in those days. We talked about all kinds of things like boat shows, the Red Sox, or what we’d do after graduation.

One time, we talked about Spanish class. I was having a difficult time trilling my “r”s.

“All you have to know about Spanish, Ricardo,” he’d say, the r rolling perfectly off his tongue, “is que pasa.  Know that and you’ll always know ‘what’s happening’.”

Months later, he surprised me when I had gotten to school early to prepare for a class presentation. I was practicing my speech when a desk moved in the back of the room.

“Que pasa, Ricardo,” he said, his head rising from behind a chair. I remember his grin and a powdered cruller.

Phil Rando loved boating and the ocean. Those loves, along with his family and friends, kept him in the Kingston area most of his life. I admired his loyal ties to the South Shore.

Unlike Phil, I jumped around from place to place after graduation. We didn’t see each other much after our twenties. Before email, there were long stretches of time between our talks. Whenever he called me, though, it was just what I needed – a laugh,  some advice or encouraging words.  And he always opened with: “Hey, Ricardo, que pasa?”

When I’d tell him of a new job in Arizona or Texas or Oklahoma, he’d say, “I don’t know how you do it. I could never move like that.”

Yet, he was always interested in where I was and what I was doing. Earlier this year, we didn’t really talk about my latest endeavor of teaching at a college. Instead, we spoke of his determination to beat his cancer – and when he did, how he and his wife would retire to Florida for some serious boating.

In a few days, I’ll show up early to a classroom in Nebraska to prepare for my first class of the semester. No, I’m not expecting to find frosting in a book or desks that move. But I have a feeling he’ll be around, over my shoulder, in my thoughts…

Que pasa, Felipe? I’ll miss you.

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A Warm Language

My mother, Pauline, with brother, Steve, and sister, Deb at our home in Braintree, MA – 1961

My mother and I had a secret. The thought of it breathed life into Mondays during fifth-grade arithmetic with Mrs. Smith. Its mid-week approach helped me endure sticky-finger Wednesdays and the glue-fest, art class fiascos with Mrs. Puffer. And come Saturday, its power of promise saw me through clarinet practice and those too-frequent emergencies of shoveling dirt over our leaky, backyard cesspool.

At ten years old, I was beginning to find my voice and spoke out against my eight o’clock bedtime. I had two years on my brother, Steve, and four more on my sister, Debbie. All I wanted to do was to be able to stay up a little later to watch the Leave It to Beaver show on Saturday nights which aired at eight-thirty. I thought I had a case but it didn’t fly with my father. The  curfew stood… until Ma unveiled her plan.

This was our secret: “When Stevie and Debbie fall asleep,” my mother told me, “you can come downstairs to watch Beaver. But you can’t wake them up and you can’t tell your father.”

The second part of the plan was easy because Dad “played” every weekend – the saxophone with his band at the Mohawk Lodge or Ciro’s Top Hat. He’d never know.

The first part was trickier. I had a half-hour to  make sure Steve and Debbie were sleeping. From the time we were in bed at eight, I’d spin stories about how The Sandman was on his way and how we should be asleep before he arrived. Somehow, it always worked. Then, the show’s opening theme music playing on the television in the living room – that was the signal to quietly make my way down the hallway stairs, careful to step over the creaky ones.

That’s me on the left with my brother and mother at the top of the stairway in 1961.

It wasn’t until I was settled in the rocking chair facing our black & white-screened TV, a Magnavox with three channels and four legs, that I dared breathe a sigh of relief, my mission accomplished. It was time to join the gang in Mayfield.

Every episode was real to me. I imagined walking to the fire station to visit Gus the fireman, with Beaver, Gilbert and Tooey. I knew wise guys like Eddie Haskel and Lumpy Rutherford. And there really were great moms like Mrs. Cleaver. Mine was one.

As I watched the shows, Ma ironed or folded clothes. We spoke sparingly so as not to wake Steve and Deb but there was communication. Like the whispers and puffs of steam rising from her iron, there was a warm language between us – one that helped smooth the wrinkles of childhood.

Happy Mother’s Day, Ma…

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Green Rosary Beads

Beach sand and green rosary beads… They’ll always remind me of the summer of 1961.

It was the year my brother, Steve, and I spent two weeks at Cedar Crest, a summer camp run by Catholic seminarians, in Green Harbor, Massachusetts. I remember the excitement and anxiety as we settled into our new digs, cabins named after saints.

Several things stand out about that first day:

– The cabins. Steve moved into one for eight-year-olds not too far from mine – St. Edward’s, the cabin for kids who were ten.

– All the bunk beds inside the cabins. Wally was my bunk bed mate who had already claimed the top bed upon my arrival. And that was okay by me; I was rather chubby in those days and was a little concerned about the worn springs. Plus I was known to occasionally sleepwalk and a top bunk could have been a problem.

– The Canteen. It was a store where we could buy soda, candy and ice cream. We all had accounts from which the counselors would deduct the amounts of our purchases. I think Dad put $5 into each of our accounts. It was our first taste of budgeting.

– Our first Canteen purchase. Steve and I bought green rosary beads.

There were many memories that summer:

– Truck rides to the beach and the ice-cold showers when we got back.

– Horseback fights on the beach and in the water where one kid was the horse and another rode his shoulders trying to knock over other teams (I was always a horse).

– Birch beer soda at The Canteen.

– Rosary bead walks after supper where campers roamed the camp’s grounds with the seminarians praying the rosary.

– Morning inspections when seminarians checked rooms for cleanliness and bed sheets for sand.

There’s one other memory, though, I still think about even today. Just before supper we all lined up in front of our cabins to listen to the Camp Director on the PA system announce the names of the Campers of the Day. My brother won the honor three or four times.

I wanted to be Camper of the Day more than anything and I prayed for it daily with my green rosary beads. But it never happened. It may had something to do with rarely passing morning inspection. Somehow, the counselors always found beach sand in my bed sheets.

Too many horseback fights on the beach, I guess, and not enough time in those freakin’, cold showers…

Anyway, here’s my poem about it:

Green Rosary Beads

Whenever I come up short,
I remember summer camp
at Green Harbor Beach.

Along with birch beer
and pistachios, my brother
and I bought rosary beads,

green ones, at
the Cedar Crest Canteen,
extra blessing insurance

to assure us honors
as campers of the day.
And while they worked

for him, I never passed
morning inspection,
never seeming to sweep

enough beach sand
from my bed sheets,
leaving me without hope

for camping accolades.
Yet, I never gave up prayer
and still sleep with sand

between the bed sheets,
green rosary beads
under my pillow.

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