by Lawrence Kessenich
I watch them from my office window
pecking at pebbles on the blacktop,
pink heads, iridescent feathers,
stick legs moving with surprising grace.
Living in the woods behind the office
park, they tolerate our diurnal presence,
unmoved by creatures four times their size
invading in steel and glass.
Ben Franklin preferred them for our national
symbol, and they act as if they deserve no less.
How different would our nation be if we
had chosen these gentle grazers—who
nonetheless defend their nests—over
a bird who scours the earth for prey?
American though they are, these turkeys have
no allegiance. They only need a patch of earth
to scratch, a place to raise their pink young. And,
come to think of it, do any of us need more?
“Wild Turkeys” by Lawrence Kessenich from Before Whose Glory. © Future Cycle Press, 2013. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)
During Lent, season of discipline,
I drag myself early out of bed, ride
to Mass with Mom and Mrs. Crivello,
warm in the front seat between their
woolen coats, soothed by familiar perfume.
Headlights carve the ebony darkness.
The women talk in low tones
about people I don’t know, the thrum
of their voices reassuring. I doze
for seconds that seem like minutes.
In the half-acre lot, we park among
a small band of cars huddled near
the entrance of St. Monica’s. Inside,
stained glass windows, a feast of color
in daylight, are black. The church is barn-cold.
Candles burn, bells ring, prayers are murmured,
songs sung. The church warms slowly. I sit,
stand, kneel between the two women,
rituals washing over me like soft waves
on Lake Michigan in August.
Later, I carry the sacred mood
out on my route, dispensing papers
like Communion to my neighbors.
“Communion” by Lawrence Kessenich from Age of Wonders. © Big Table Publishing, 2016. Reprinted by permission. (buy now)
I hear the music of seven languages
on a four-block stretch of Harvard Square,
see the copper glow of the Hancock
Tower at sunset, feel the familiar
bump of cobblestones under my feet.
Mark Twain said people in New York ask
“How much is he worth?” while Bostonians
ask “How much does he know?” That burning
desire to discover keeps the city humming,
yet we’re grounded in history, too,
still treading on sidewalks made of
baked clay. I stand
one night on Beacon Hill, gaze up at the
few stars city lights allow to shine,
feel myself stretched between past and future
the pull of the earth on which
our forefathers stood, the pull of the moon,
which they could not have dreamed their descendants
would visit. Or perhaps they did.
One historian reports that
“there were books on Beacon Hill while wolves
still howled from the summit.” Perhaps some
Englishman closed his book one night and stood
where I stand, dreaming of what we’ve become.
“Becoming Bostonian” by Lawrence Kessenich from Age of Wonders. © Big Table Publishing, 2016. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)
In My Father’s Tears
Lawrence Kessenich – Watertown, Massachusetts
As heard on The Bob Edwards Show, December 17, 2010
My father and I disagreed vehemently about politics and religion in the late 1960s. He was a World War II veteran and a colonel in the Wisconsin National Guard. I was a long-haired student at the University of Wisconsin–Milwaukee, helping to organize antiwar demonstrations. He was a devout Catholic. I was an agnostic. My younger siblings remember all too vividly the violent arguments he and I would have. There was nowhere to hide from them in the small home where we lived. Once, my father ended up chasing me around the kitchen table, intent on hitting me for the first time in his life—and then he broke down crying.
The memory of those tears says more to me about who my father was than the memories of our arguments. He was a man who cared passionately—about the people he knew and loved, but also about people in need he didn’t know at all. He taught me to care with the same intensity. I never doubted that he loved me, even in those moments when I felt least understood by him. And his life spoke eloquently about how much he cared for the less fortunate. He and my mother always did charitable work—preparing and serving meals for homeless people at St. Ben’s parish in Milwaukee’s inner city, for example—but after my father retired, he took his social action to a new level.
He was admitted to a lay ministry program sponsored by the Milwaukee Archdiocese, a program that introduced him to contemporary theology and the history of Catholic social action. This was heady stuff for a man who had never gone to college—one of the greatest regrets of his life, by the way. Suddenly, my conservative father sounded like someone from Dorothy Day’s Catholic Worker Movement of the 1930s. He became incensed about how unconcerned the wealthy people in his suburban parish were about the plight of the less fortunate. When he graduated from the program, he became the Social Programs Coordinator for his parish, and until he died at eighty-one, he was a thorn in the side of his fellow parishioners, continually exhorting them to give more to, and do more for, those in need.
It is in large part because of the example set by my father, Arthur Kessenich, that I believe I have a responsibility to give of myself—not just to those I know and love, but to those I would never know if I didn’t seek them out: the poor, the disabled, the imprisoned. It is because of my father’s example that I try to tithe, to give 10 percent of my income to charity; that I spend two hours a week assisting a blind man; that I help lead Alternatives to Violence workshops in prisons.
I don’t do it out of guilt or fear of damnation, but out of love. Because I saw love in action, in my father’s tears and in the way he lived his life. Because of him, I believe in love.
Lawrence Kessenich was formerly an editor at Houghton Mifflin, where he encouraged W. P. Kinsella to write Shoeless Joe, the basis for the movie “Field of Dreams.” Mr. Kessenich now makes his living as a marketing writer while spending his free time writing poetry, essays, short stories, plays, and novels. He lives in Watertown, Massachusetts.
Lawrence Kessenich Reading Poetry on Poet to Poet Writer to Writer with Doug Holder