Sunday, August 2, 2015

Starlight, Star Bright 2: another writer's view

It's a terrible image, a photo of a the program for his funeral, taken by my plain old iPhone 4. The photo quality doesn't matter. The simple honest face, the smile of a person almost incapable of assuming anything other than positive intent: this is what I wanted to share with you. This is the face of kindness, the face of guilelessness, the face of someone who almost certainly saw you in your best light, all the time, even when you didn't, or couldn't. Perhaps he wasn't able to see himself the way he saw the rest of us. Perhaps we did not try quite hard enough to reflect him while he was with us. Perhaps it would have made no difference in the end. But certainly there is a lesson, in the words of its author, "a lesson/about how we spend our time".

The name at the top, poorly captured, is "Phillip Wayne Powell".

Grateful thanks to Amakeda Ponds for permission to reprint.

A friend told me,
yup, heard the news today.
If only I could take it back,
here's what I'd say,
never sweat the small stuff,
it's all small stuff anyway.

Just one longer conversation,
just a bit more than, "hey",
just a few comforting words
may have changed your fate.

We may never know the reason
or understand why,
but know this is a lesson
about how we spend our time.

Someone once told me,
be mindful how you deal with others
you never know what they are going through.
So fitting now
when thinking of you.

I hope this is a lesson
to everyone you knew
The thought that just a few more comforting words could've saved you.
There's a lesson in your struggle,
though some will never learn,
there's power
in the spoken word.

May you rest in peace.

--Amakeda Ponds, (c)2015
from an original Facebook post by the same author
All Rights Reserved

Wednesday, July 8, 2015

Starlight, star bright

The Citi where I work lost a star yesterday. A quiet, steady, constant star by which we steered; a star without whose presence we are quite lost.

Wayne Powell was far more than met the eye. To the eye, in fact, he looked like just any average guy. The statistics, on the face of it, would have born that out. He was 47, married, with four kids, a hard worker, kinda paunchy and slightly balding. He went to church. He loved to fish and hunt and go to his kids' soccer games. But look at him more closely, my heroes. Look more closely with me.

Wayne and I and many of our colleagues attended a regular meeting at which we discussed our work and because we work for a big company these meetings would often feature arcane acronyms, often so arcane that people had an idea what they meant, but no clear recollection of what they actually stood for. One of these was ORC. Every time it came up in a meeting, I made one of several silly jokes taken from Peter Jackson's movie version of the Lord of the Rings trilogy, and every time I made one, Wayne and I would laugh. Somehow or another, I began to tease him about actually being an orc, and because he was incredibly good-natured and humble, he would laugh with me. One day I got an email from Wayne which contained a typo, a missing word that changed the meaning of the email, and his intention. There were a million people on it, so I emailed just Wayne and said something like, Hey, you might want to correct that...I know it's just a typo but it might cause confusion. He responded with an email that said, more or less, "Typing is difficult when you have the short, chubby fingers of an orc. If I had the long, slender fingers of an Elf, I would make less typos..." and thanked me for calling out the mistake.

But it was such a fortuitous mistake. It gave rise to an ongoing, conversational joke that leavened many of our days at the office. Our Resident Expert on All Things Elvish and the rest of the gang conspired to give him a hobbit name, and an Elvish name, and finally we gave him his own, Powgolas. Various parts of the real estate around us will always carry a hint of the Shire, and his own desk will always be right in the middle of Rivendell for me, despite the email joke created by our Resident Expert, below. Laughter was one of the things Powgolas made very easy for us all, as diverse and different as we are. 

“The Age of Men is over. The Time of the Orc has come.” -Gothmog

But we knew he was no orc. He sent me a note once after we'd "promoted" him to Elf-hood. It said, "You are an Elf, too. But almost, a Wizard." He thought I was more than I am. He made me better than I was.

More than kindness, there was a deep abiding loyalty and truest love in him. His wife, rather famously, is a wonderful baker, so admired for her cakes that they sell at fundraising events for astonishing sums. Birthdays at the office are most commonly celebrated with grocery store bakery cakes. These could not, out of loyalty to his beloved wife, be eaten by Wayne, though his figure (like my own) betrayed how much he loved cake. She was the light of his life, and I know this as well as any of my colleagues, though I never met her. He didn't say much about her at the office, but he had only to mention her name and you knew that she was his completion, in a more profound sense than the trite "my other half" sometimes used to try and capture that feeling. His children lit him from inside just as much as that beloved wife, and much of what he did was centered on them. We knew their names, how things were going in school, who was having surgery, who had a tournament on the weekend. He wasn't a guy who bragged about his kids. He lived and breathed and shared about them because they were his life and breath. You only had to stop by his desk and see the range of pictures to know the source of that inner light. We saw those faces every day, through his affectionate eyes. And we knew Wayne to be the truest of friends, the guy who really cared whether his absence might make more work for you, who genuinely sought opinions and expertise of others, who found the gentlest ways of broaching difficult or uncomfortable conversations. 

Wayne and I shared a love of the outdoors. He loved to hunt and fish. Some of his fish stories established laughter that went on for weeks, as in the time he entered a charity fishing tournament, caught a big black drum that he thought would win the tournament, and then DID win the tournament...because there were no other entrants. Some guys would have been annoyed or been ruffled around about the ego. Not Wayne. He laughed and laughed, mostly because he'd almost - but not quite - taken himself too seriously. He loved to hunt in a Wildlife Management Area which is under the care of the Research Reserve at which I'm an active volunteer. At first he was, I think, careful about letting me know he was a hunter, perhaps uncertain whether I would understand or even be offended. Once he knew I'd grown up with the traditions of hundreds of years of local northeast Florida families, where venison is welcome at the table, he would tell me hunting stories. Most these were typically self-effacing and involved him standing in muddy semi-darkness, being attacked by mosquitos. But there was always a laugh and sometimes a wonder: something spotted in the wild, a moment of perfect stillness, some treasure or other that not everyone might understand. Here again, he might have talked of religion, but he never did. He just modeled it with kindness in every single exchange. One of my dear colleagues said to me recently, "I actually sometimes think to myself, before I say something possibly ill-advised, WWWPD?" And he meant no disrespect to people for whom the basis of that phrase means something different. He meant that you could always use Wayne as a yardstick - a guy who seemed so average - you could use him as a yardstick to figure out what was the balanced thing, what was the ethical thing, what was the RIGHT thing to do. I knew just what he meant.

On Monday, I was cleaning out some papers in the office. I found a nomination that had been written for Wayne and had come across my desk before I knew him but when I was serving as a champion on our team for Recognition. The nomination was two pages long, an accounting of what made Wayne so special to his team, why he was so valued. At the time, I'd had about 30 such nominations to read and rank, and I had put his nomination at the top of the list, because it made such an impression on me. It had been written in 2008. I took it over to his desk. He happened to be working from home, so I left it there for him to find. He will not find it now.

But he can see it, from his dwelling in the great wondrous universe. He made us better than we were without him. He will continue to make us better, because we are not the same as we were before he touched our lives. We will continue to be better than we were, in his memory: so say we all. You have, perhaps, your own Wayne Powells; indeed, I hope and pray that you do. These gentle marvels who light our way in dark places without our even knowing it, these guides we do not miss until they go ahead of us; I hope you have been blessed with someone like Wayne.

Look up at the sky tonight, my heroes, and think of this great-hearted, humble man, who made people different and BETTER through his simple and genuine presence in their lives. Know that this was a man who did not need to be told or taught to assume the most positive intent from everyone he met, for he was molded in that fashion. Perhaps the Citi where I work lost a star yesterday. But last night, the wondrous universe welcomed that star to the Heavens, there to shimmer down on us, his inner beauty wholly and finally visible. Look up at the sky. There is our star.

Thursday, March 19, 2015

World without end. Amen. Amen.

A consecrated priest cannot be unmade. This is my profoundly untutored understanding of Roman Catholic canon law. It may be wrong. But when I was a cantor at the Cathedral of St. Augustine, I would sometimes lead congregations in song in this response: "You are a priest forever/In the line of Melchizedech". There are so many objections one can make: How can this be, given revelations of abuse and horror these past few years? How can this be, given women are excluded? How can this be, how can this be? But as spring rises amongst us with tender fig leaves and wild violets blooming and the Lenten season provides time for reflection and contemplation, it is resonant with me. And it has nothing to do with priests. It has everything to do with consecration.

My Dear Old Person and I were talking about our treasured beach walks not long ago. He said something along the lines of, I need to start to focus on photography on the beach; I won't always be able to swing a metal detector. And it's true. As much as he loves looking for lost or forgotten treasures he knows he'll have to use a different toolkit in the next few years. He is not the invincible man I married so long ago. We often talk about how things have changed in the course of his chronic illness, how frustrating it is for him to be unable to do things he took for granted just a few years ago.

Did you know him then? Do you remember when there was nothing he could not fix? Whether it was a motor vehicle of any kind or a light fixture or an irrigation system or a computer, he could fix it. Friends used to joke-but-not-joke that he could lay hands on anything mechanical and from its state of refusal or injury or wounded-ness he could call it back amongst the living. Did you know him then? Because it was true. It wasn't smoke and mirrors. At his core was a diagnostic ability sometimes found and revered in medicine, an almost mystical ability to dial in on underlying causes and invisible connections between systems that cause stutters or even abject failure. His mind made synaptic leaps and so-true connections that other minds - really smart ones - weren't able to make. Even for a mechanical and mathematical underachiever like me it was easy to see. And it's still there, of course. It's hidden behind some medical and chemical dysfunction which are normal parts of his prognosis. It's just harder to see, harder to trust. Unless maybe...did you know him then? He was the one who, back in the mid-90s, thought it would be a good idea to spend nearly $2500 on a PC with a hard drive barely sufficient to host today's operating systems. He was the one who took it apart. He added hard drive space, added RAM, added video cards...belief in the future that ultimately positioned me for a career of surprise and delight. Did you know him then? If not you might have to stretch to see all that today. And sometimes he will say, This isn't fair to you. You should find a person who...But I can still see him. I knew him them. I know him now. And he is consecrated to me, as I am to him.

Consecration cannot be unmade. The promise cannot be unmade. In some cases the consecration cannot be made "officially" - I think about gay friends who are not free to consecrate their commitments publicly. Still, people bravely make these promises and they are as sacred as any promise consecrated in any church or mosque or synagogue. Consecration, by my definition, doesn't mean some specific imprimatur of this or that religion. It is a sacrament, which we must each define by our own lights.

I'm not suggesting that there aren't very good reasons for humans to end relationships, to move forward as is right for each of us. I do not presume to judge what's right for anyone, for we must all make our own lives and our own joy. We must all make things right for ourselves, our hearts, our beloved ones - none can judge. But consecration is for always. You can pull up the plants but you cannot unplant the seeds. They will give rise to plants you may or may not choose to harvest and this is as it should be for each of us. For me and my Dear Old Person, I am thankful to the notion of consecration: as constant as a garden. It turns with the rhythm of the planets, and brings forth its own rewards.

May the blessings of wisdom, kindness, forgiveness and love be upon us all.