Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Walt and Me

Walt Whitman and I go back a long way. I once memorized his “Song of the Open Road,” all 231 lines of it. So when organizers of the CL Northeast Family Vacation began talking about programs for our four days here in the Catskills, and someone mentioned an “evening of beauty” drawn from strands of American culture (music, poetry, painting), I piped in with Walt Whitman. Who’s more American than the first great American poet? I offered to organize a presentation on the author of Leaves of Grass.

It is in the nature of organizations—even Christian ones—that personality, not mission, can take over the direction of things. For a couple of weeks, my proposal hung fire as other ideas took precedence. I won’t comment on other personalities (it would be un-Christian of me) but my own personality did a slow burn. Would someone please get back to me on my Whitman proposal?! . . . I’m waiting here . . . Hello?

Then, six days before the start of the Vacation, I got a text, an unofficial one, from a friendly bystander, who told me that I was “the winner LOL.” Meaning, I imagined, that he had heard through the grapevine that The Powers That Be had smiled on my proposal, although as yet I had heard nothing from TPTB. About eighteen hours after my annoyed text reply to my friend, during which I imagined everything from a polite no to blowing up world CL headquarters (problem: there’s no such thing), I got the official word. Twenty minutes on Walt Whitman, please. By then, my heart had turned and my answer was ready: OK, let’s do this crazy thing.

Four days later, I was four days constipated. Sitting in the lobby of the Hudson Valley Resort in Kerhonkson, New York, while masses of Old Friends from Boston, New York, Philadelphia, and Washington were greeting one another loudly, and their children were making mayhem, I was parked at a table trying desperately to pull together SOMETHING about Uncle Walt. I was bolstered by Justin Kaplan’s magnificent biography Walt Whitman: A Life and by the suggestion from national CL responsible Chris Bacich that I particularly look at one of Whitman’s last great poems, “Prayer of Columbus” (1874). I had never read this poem.

Saturday night I had been hit with the saving inspiration: to ask others in the Movement to help with the presentation. Communion and Liberation contains not only doctors and scientists, engineers and academics, businesspeople and lawyers and committed parents, but also some very talented performers, musical and theatrical. As the Sunday evening scene unfolded before my eyes and my stomach continued tying itself in knots, I recruited, one by one, Thad, Paula, Ken and Naomi, John, and Paul. (At the last minute, Dino would replace Naomi, who needed to care for her daughter.) I moved forward through the day on Monday (opting out of the games and picnic for last-minute writing), with a shaky certainty that our lines of combined effort would converge with the Holy Spirit in Ballroom B at 5pm. 

The presentation went very well, ending with a choral recitation of “O Captain! My Captain!” the poem with which I had won a public speaking contest in fifth grade. Here’s how we looked.

In case you wondered, the poster overhead reads: “He who is in Christ is a new Creation,” from St. Paul.

The applause at the end of the presentation was raucous, and for the last two days, I have been approached by many friends and strangers telling me that they were struck, provoked, or moved by the performance. (Struck, provoked, and moved are key verbs in the CL lexicon.) I too have been struck, provoked, and moved—

Struck by the extraordinary combination of turmoil and creativity that this exercise unleashed in me, made possible only by my willingness to follow a quite unreasonable schedule proposed by apparently unreasonable leaders. Provoked by the desire that arose in me to create something beautiful for members of this Movement that means so much to me. Moved to continue working, from here on, on this Whitman piece and the sort of serious, amateur theatrical productions that I enjoyed so much in my youth. Communion and Liberation continues to challenge me, forcing me to ask questions, to study, and to confront the shadow of myself projected forward on the long Open Road we are following together.

(Thanks to my friend Luca Salvi for the performance photos.)

1 comment:

  1. It is interesting, that in 19 century Ivan Turgenev tried to publish Whitman`s book in Russia.
    Thanks fo your post. I discovered Whitman for myself.


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