Top of Piedmont: To Watch, Listen and Ponder — Then Write!

February 2013Monthly Archives

Sticks and Stones

Words are pearls,

lying on the tanned neck of a finely dressed woman.

Their creamy iridescence sways ever so slightly,

harmonizing with the swing of flaxen hair,

a song of elegance borne in a black sheath,

confidence in every step, where class is given not procured.


Words enter as Philistines bickering,

unhailed guests encased in rude attire, unkempt . . . of rigid bearing.

They champion distraction with shallow bluster

over insight pulled from the depths of enlightened inquiry . . . effort cast aside.

Their barbarian instincts run loose at the mouth. . .  vanquishing,

their primitive twitter lacking precision, respecting no nuance.


Then, when water for high tea is drawn from the well of more aged wisdom,

it freezes in bombast’s frigid air, iced before its brewed,

all comfort and good counsel benumbed.


It crystallizes and words, words, words,

become a millstone tied to the neck of civil discourse

who is thrown to the depths where the serpent lurks.

No dialogue here, ignorance triumphs – after all, right is right.

Sticks and stones tossed pulverize.

What’s done is broken bones.

Words count . . . no less than actions.


And from a fetid fen the python coils . . . it rises and prophesizes, crushing,

promising what it cannot deliver, slaying the emissary before voice is given.

It calls, singing a song of destruction,

a broken bell tolling, peeling mournfully over the countryside.



On the roadside, a black dress lays perforated,

the milky jewels encircling a skeleton’s neck.



I am Polish, a father, husband, teacher, psychologist and ruminator. “Identity” questions always seem to be in vogue. The theory goes, that one’s identity is formed early in life, and for the most part this is true. Early themes written in a young mind rarely change, just show up in different ways. Having an identity, a sense of yourself, is critical for a happy life.

Robert Bly, the poet and enumerator of a new mythology for men, in his book Iron John, opens a door for men on the quest for who they are. The “Iron John” myth does not answer these questions, only hints at them. Men form their identities by being with men.

Themes etched in the consciousness of young boys come from watching.  It is not what is done, as how it is done. The shade tree mechanic approaches an oil change on the old Chevy with “Here’s a job to do,” or cusses a blue streak when the crescent wrench slips off the drain plug. Decisions made about spending come from the top down or are a result of setting priorities and family discussion. Discipline is administered to teach rather than punish, and being responsible means acting because it is right rather than seeing what you can get away with.

A wealth of information comes from those who have lived before us.  The hope is that the task of being oneself becomes a little easier. Rules and guidelines for men are a lot more fluid than what used to be – we must draw from many places now for a clear sense of ourselves.

The earliest maps laid out for us come from our own fathers.  Unfortunately in our society fathers are absent in many ways. Nurturing men figures are absent in the lives of many young men. This absence can be outright abandonment to emotional distance caused by the demands of work and travel. To the extent a father is present, how he does things is important.

If the models for manhood are inadequate or incomplete, then being with men who can give us a sense of what it might be like to be a man, can fill a void. The teachers I had over the years were good men. Many of them also happened to be living a celibate existence as religious men. They were men of feeling, who allowed access to the world of emotion, demonstrating how to listen and to care.  They were men of intellect, pushing beyond the ready-made answers and cookbook recipes of church and society for what was right and wrong, probing and asking, “If so, why so?  If not why not?”

Themes etched at an earlier age echo to the present day. What is done counts little, since so frequently it is changed or distorted by the receiver. How it is done, and living that, is the clearest message we can send to boys becoming men today.

Drugs and Depression

We are all different.  The blonde Northern European and the deep rich browns of the Native American child spring from a random shuffle of chemicals brought into focus in a moment of time.  We’re like a card game, dealt a hand over which we have little say.  Sometimes we discard and pick up new possibilities, other times we’re stuck and have to make due with what’s there.  We’d like to think there’s a fix for everything.  We are getting closer in modern psychiatry to applying chemical mixes that increase the odds at winning more in our day to day lives.

Human personality is largely an interaction between three basic elements: thoughts, feelings and behavior.  Most times the relationship between these elements goes in a line – I think, I feel, and then action emerges from the interplay.  Other times the relationship is more subtle, like mixing paint. As things are stirred, interesting hues emerge. Mix too much and a dull, often monochromatic blend results.

There are also “stressors” that occur; life situations that impact how we go about our daily business. Normally we cope and adjust pretty well, but when life gets to be too much, the added burdens tip the balance. It’s like pressing on a big balloon filled with water. Pressure in one area changes the shape and tension on the skin of the balloon. The membrane of the balloon has adaptability – but pressed too far it breaks and we get wet.  For some, the genetic paint blending and stressors creates a situation where body chemistry takes a hike and checks out – we get depressed. For others it’s like standing on an already icy slope and getting a shove down it.

I have often asked people with sleep problems, poor appetites, low energy, lousy self-esteem and disinterest in sex what being depressed is like.  Answers come back like – “I feel everything is an effort,” or “A nice or dreary day, I’m the same, I just can’t focus.” or “I feel like I have PMS all the time.”

Slowly and insidiously the persons’ body chemistry has changed.  The ability to think correctly, feel right and behave in a self-confident manner is lost.

The conservative, closely monitored application of antidepressant medications throws sand on an icy rode so traction is possible. Other times it provides a wake-up call.  The introduction of a chemical messenger says, “All right dudes, let’s get the lead out and get moving!”  For many it’s a return to wholeness where there was fragmentation between thought, feeling and action.

A doctor friend of mine once told me, “The smartest thing you can do is pick your relatives.” Well, we don’t get to do that. How we process feeling is partly learned, but heavily influenced by genetic factors.

Fortunately in this day and age, laboring with a difficult hand in our own poker game need not be a horrible disadvantage.  If the game is not going our way, drawing in some new cards can make the playing a little easier.



Get Away

“I need to get away.”  These words, at this time of year usually means winter is getting the best of us. For those with the resources, a quick plane trip to Florida or Arizona makes cold weather tolerable. Others start walking around in t-shirts when temperatures hit 40 degrees, enthusiastically expressing how wonderful the weather is – and it is! Getting away also can mean finding solace in solitary activity – out of the realm of day to dayness.

After graduating from high school I had the chance to “get away” for a whole year.  Most post-high school mythology paints a picture of exploring the limits, whether living on the edge or in a different culture.  For a young man growing up in the Roman Catholic world of the early 60s – a retreat to the monastery or religious life was the choice.

I had been educated during high school by the Christian Brothers.  Yes they do more than make a fine brandy and good wines.  Their founder, St. John Baptist DeLaSalle had the education of youth as his goal.  After high school, I chose to join these men to become an educator myself.

The first year of the training was a kind of religious boot camp.  It was divided into the postulancy and the novitiate.  The postulancy was three months in a hot Winona Minnesota summer after which time you assumed a different name and were given a religious habit.

My new name was Brother Terrence Bruce, after a couple of high school buddies.  The robe or religious habit was a plain, black, floor length robe with what looked like two white index cardsunder the neck in front.

Our days were filled with prayer.  We rose at 5:30 AM and were in chapel by ten to six.  The first twenty minutes was devoted to mental prayer. Six AM was awfully early for most of us, so we could stand during meditation if we needed to stay awake. After mental prayer came the office, a recitation of psalms chorally, mass, and then breakfast.

Throughout the day we would interrupt study and work, mostly housekeeping chores, to
pray.  At the end of the year I had callouses on my knees.

Most of our day was spent in silence; the rule of the house.  The quiet provided the opportunity for thoughtful reflection on scripture and spirituality classes, not distracted by conversation. The rule was not in force during recreation, a great deal of soccer was played, and on occasion during meals when the superior of the house felt discussion was appropriate.

The world we lived in was a naive one in some ways. We were insulated from the struggles of our peers.  That however, was the purpose of the retreat.  The self-examination was a luxury that few young men of that age have the time to engage in.  It was also an experience in communal living, at a very intense and personal level.

When life gets nuts like it frequently does, I think about the quiet of that period and the chance to dream, to examine the larger questions of life..  I hope someday to be able to return in some small measure to that luxury.


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