Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Let It Be A Dance

I met him first on February 26, 1984. He could have been a painter. He studied at Pomona College in California with Millard Sheets, father of Rev. Carolyn Owen-Towle. Then he studied with the famous cubist painter Fernand L├ęger at the Ecole des Beaux Arts in Paris in 1949. Years later, someone recounted, he was walking though his house pointing to some of his paintings and muttering, “Van Gogh.” But in 1984, he simply said, “sunflowers/ time and time again/ I need to spend an hour/ with my sunflower friend/ sunflowers/ light the way/ put a touch of color/ in the long dark day.”

I met him again on November 6, 1993. Then, he read from a poem he had written called, With Birth To Look Forward To. He asked us to imagine that we came into the world old and got younger each year, thus puting death behind us at the very beginning. And so he briefly traced the rewinding of his life until, “suddenly/ my father comes back to life/ and once again/ I take him for granted/ I begin to shrink/ until sinking to my knees/ I roll over in my crib/ and wave good-bye to my feet/ stripped of all identity/ toothless and bald again/ I slip back inside my mother/ to dissolve in the absolute darkness/ of never having been.”

Of course that’s not the way it happened. In 1999, he was diagnosed with prostrate cancer. He pursued both traditional and non-traditional treatments. He used poetry to engage people living with cancer. In keeping with the arc of life, he once more illustrated his ability to, as he said, “do selfish things that benefit others.” That he was made the Poet Laureate of Prostate Cancer by the National Prostate Cancer Coalition in 2005, is evidence of his embodied, confessional poetry.

Its always been all about him, but the introspection of his poetry, which is both crass and sublime, mundane as well as transcendent, is bone jarring and heart rending.

Its always been about him, except when he shared his poetry with 60 men in Thousand Oaks California who were all members of a prostate cancer survivor group. Usually the speakers talked about the practical problems of coping with their disease, but not him. Instead, he read his poem Poor Devil, which reprises old western movies when the sentry is found dead with an arrow in his back. And whoever finds him always delivers the classic line, “Poor devil, he never knew what hit him.” Except all of these men knew what hit them, or did they? So he read, “‘Poor devil’/ never used an opening/ to tell loved ones he loved them/ never seized the opportunity/ to give praise for the sunrise/ or drink in a sunset/ moment after moment/ passing him by/ while he marched through his life/ staring straight ahead/ believing in tomorrow/ ‘Poor devil!’/ how much fuller/ richer and pleasing life becomes/ when you are lucky enough/ to see the arrow coming.”

Returning from Paris he worked as a carpenter and a printer, He wrote lyrics for musicals at Carmel’s Forest Theater, which is where he met Billie Barbara, his wife of 56 years. He wrote songs for the next ten years, of which some 78 were recorded including Turn the Key by pop artist Jerry Wallace and Teenage Preacher by Lord Luther, which cracked the top 100. But this didn’t satisfy. He began to find his true voice when he heard Bob Dylan, Pete Seger and Leonard Cohen. A career as a folk singer beckoned, although he couldn’t remember his own lyrics. Eventually he left the music behind, but the lyrics remained. He had found his true calling as a poet. Then he was ordained as a specialized Unitarian Universalist minister in 1972. His was a specialized case since he had flunked out of several colleges because of dyslexia and a hearing impairment, and had never attended a seminary. He became our “troubadour preacher,” and had the distinction of performing in more than 500 Unitarian Universalist churches, including First Universalist, as well as countless college campuses.

Its always been about him, except for the song that he wrote for Barbara Brussell, a friend of one of his daughters. Barbara was a high school dance student who was seriously injured in a car accident involving a drunk driver that killed her teacher and two of her classmates. Her knee was so badly damaged that it was doubtful that she would ever walk again, let alone dance. He visited her in the hospital and bet her that within a year she would come dancing up the road to his home in Big Sur to a song that he would write. The song he wrote within a few days was Let It Be A Dance. A year later, she came dancing, limping, but dancing up the road as he played his guitar and sang, “Let it be a dance we do./ May I have this dance with you?/ Through the good times/ And the bad times, too,/ Let it be a dance.”

It was included in our hymnal, Singing the Living Tradition, which was published in 1993. Masten was pleased to have this song included, but he did not appreciate the poetic license that someone took in changing one of the words in the song. In the third verse he wrote, “share the laughter, bare the pain,” as in reveal the pain. This was changed to “bear the pain,” as in carry the pain. When Ric Masten performed in the church I served in Pittsburgh, he asked everyone to pencil in the correct word in our brand new hymnals, writing “b-a-r-e” in place of “b-e-a-r.”

In his last book of poetry entitled, Going Out Dancing, he wrote a poem called, A Word for Survival. The word for survival, coined by another cancer survivor, is “spiritude,” an engaging combination of attitude and spirit. UU minister Stephen Edington, who wrote a biography about our poet laureate, calls it “a trusting attitude towards life guided by the spirit.” But knowing a little bit about Ric Masten, who died on May 9, 2008 surrounded by his family, I think that the “spiritude” that he embodied was spirit with an attitude (of which we could all use a little).

Ric, thanks for the spiritude, for the poetry, and for the dance! (July 2008)

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