Just this past week I had a surprise…one that evoked pure joy. Recently I was invited to lunch by a friend who was my boss several decades ago. I’m sure he’d cringe at the word “boss,” since he preferred to think of himself as a leader. Hearing from him after so long, and seeing him again was a true pleasure. Over the near decade I worked for/with him, he became a significant mentor. At a time when I had limited confidence and no clear direction in my life, he believed in my potential and hired me for a position in a university setting that contributed immensely to my personal and intellectual development. His leadership was firm but supportive. I haven’t worked with many other bosses with his outstanding qualities.
Several days after our reunion, a manila envelope arrived in my mailbox. In it was a book of poetry he had written a few years ago. I am a poetry junkie so I was very excited to receive his gift. I don’t think he knew that about me, and I certainly had no idea that in addition to his many accomplishments, he also wrote poetry.
I immediately opened his book and began reading his poems. He has had an interesting life. He was a commissioned officer in the US Marines and served for 6 years during the Korean War. He became a professor at SUNY Stony Brook in the late 60’s where he still teaches and eventually became Distinguished Service Professor in the Department of Technology and Society. Late in his career, he began teaching undergraduate seminars and delivering speeches on nuclear arms control and has traveled the world keeping himself informed about that issue.
But all those accomplishments melted away as I read his poems. He had always seemed to me to be a very self-contained, disciplined, but kind and generous person. In his poems, he becomes a very lyrical, sensual person who enjoys cultivating flowers and takes pleasure in household chores. He is fascinated by wetlands and considers the sighting of a blue heron a gift (as do I). He is sensitive to the passage of seasons and time both in the natural world and in the lives of people he loves. He seeks stimulation in sojourns to far away places, yet yearns for his beloved from afar. He is connected to this earth and all its wonders, and is able to share that connection without pretense.
I always thought of him as a very methodical, science-oriented thinker; never did I think of him as a poet. Was I somehow blind to this part of him, or did he keep it a well hidden secret until now? I eagerly read the rest of his poems that very same night, and went to bed feeling a sense of wonder. The best poetry, like an old friendship can do that: it peels back so many layers of ourselves, leaving us exposed and open to wonder. Having my friend (no longer my “boss”) share this part of himself at this stage in both our lives is a surprise I will never forget and a gift I will always cherish.