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Personally Speaking/How Sweet the Gift Unexpected

On a frigid, snow-sparkling morning I took out a pen and began setting down on an old yellow pad what it was like growing up on a hilly, rocky 80-acre hardscrabble dairy farm in northwestern Wisconsin during the 1940s and 50s. I wanted to preserve these precious memories, to recapture stories involving my grandparents, parents, four siblings, aunts and uncles, spiritual guides and teachers. In short, I wanted to reflect on the formative influences in my life, on the people, places and events that made a difference, that helped shape the person I am today.

But how best to do this? What literary medium to employ for the job? Finally deciding on the prose vignette as my primary mode of introspection, I set to work. That’s when I encountered the first of several delightful surprises. Rereading my prose sketches, I discovered that many felt and sounded like poetry. Granted, the genre’s distinctive architecture was absent, but other poetic traits such as evocative imagery, internal rhythm, figurative language and conciseness were there. And so I began thinking poetry – transforming paragraphs into stanzas, creating fresher and more powerful figurative language, working on accent and meter and rhythm.

Another surprise awaited me. As I composed more poems about my kinfolk I discovered that their lives were really quite interesting, even colorful and compelling.

So engaging, in fact, that I eagerly embarked on a family history, at first envisioning merely a long essay, but soon accepting the reality of a manuscript rivaling the heft of a Tolstoyan novel. Finally, after three years of research, writing and developing a decent case of carpal tunnel, I at last held in my trembling hands three volumes comprising 600 plus pages, not including a lengthy appendix of character sketches of my blood aunts and uncles, all 18 of them.

A third surprise was that one endeavor nurtured and reinforced the other. My research for the family history provided raw material and inspiration for scores of poems, and the work on my poems made my treatment of personages in the history more sensitive, textured and concrete. You can imagine my elation. Had I been younger and more agile, I might have frisked about like a colt in a springtime mountain meadow, or at least attempted a few bouncy steps of a spirited galliard. I settled for a lingering inward smile.

The fourth and final surprise was in many ways the most important. I found that my entire life had been significantly changed by the gifts of deep personal enrichment and profound learning I had received, and keep on receiving – benefits I am confident you will enjoy as well if you choose to undertake similar endeavors. First, writing poetry has helped me better understand myself as well as the passages and seasons of life, especially the challenges, limitations, joys and gifts of elderhood. In addition, writing poetry has helped me become a much better observer. I now find myself regularly practicing “slow seeing”; that is taking more time to look closely and sensitively at the details of common place objects and activities, what Kathleen Norris calls the “quotidian mysteries.” Then, too, writing poetry has forced me to seek unbroken periods of solitude and stillness. This alone constitutes one of the most significant and satisfying lifestyle changes I have ever experienced. And, finally, writing poetry has enabled me to feel the inimitable joy, the profound satisfaction, of the singular, awe-inspiring act of creation.

My grand adventure began quietly in January 2005, shortly after I retired from my four-decade teaching career at St. Norbert College. I must confess to having one regret about my adventure. A poignant one, indeed. I fervently wish I had begun writing the family history and poems sooner. When I commenced my creative journey I had five uncles and aunts from whom I could draw stories and genealogical information. Two years later all had passed, and my mother, another invaluable source of information and inspiration, was bereft of speech after a series of terribly debilitating strokes. Something the great artist Michelangelo once wrote reflects powerfully my own feelings. Shortly after his death, this note was found pinned to his studio wall: “Draw, Antonio. Draw, Antonio. Draw and do not waste time. Do not procrastinate. Do not delay. Draw.” My wish for you is that when you hear creativity’s knock, you do not delay opening the door. Your warm welcome may well result in an opportunity of savoring the candied truth of the sage old saying “the unexpected gift is always the sweetest.”

Nov. 5, 2021