Ben White's Adventures with softened hearts

Month: June 2021

The Holy Spirit Helped Me Write This Poem

When something wonderful happens I often write it down so I can remember to write a poem about it. I love writing poetry. I draw my inspiration from those epiphanies that happen often enough in a life lived with open eyes. “Open eyelids and open hearts” I should say. Because sometimes what you see is beyond sight, and that’s definitely poetry territory. Good poetry transports you beyond the realm of thought. It uses words to express those things to which words cannot be applied. It tries and fails beautifully. And as it fails it invites you into your own understanding. In the faint outline the words approximate, it feels you. Like a sparkler writing someones name in the dark when there is no long-exposure camera in your eyes to see what they have written.

However you have said something — with your life, with your heart, with your deepest down things — a poem that speaks it back to you rhymes with what all words fail to say. I don’t know if my poem will share unspoken words with you or not, truthfully, I’m not sure I have given enough time to poetry to expect that it would, but here’s a story that adds more words to a sonnet bellow. The extra words  might spoil it, but here goes anyway.

Connie Starzinski’s died on March 7, 2019. She was my dear friend’s MomMom , so I went to the funeral to support her and her family. The funeral was in a Catholic church building with high transom windows all around the almost circular polygon room. The transom light was the key ingredient to the mesmeric effect of incense smoke dancing high above our heads. All throughout the ritual mass the incense snaked into the transom light and collected in ribbons until the priest went to fetch the censor and flood the room with the scented smoke, he simultaneously flooded my eyes with tears. He honored the body, and all of us . We were witnesses to something deeper than that moment. At the doorway to death we all stood in in awe – full-bodied awe.

I wrote it down, “Write a poem about the incense at MomMom Starzinski’s funeral.” It stayed on the list for two whole years — 730 days exactly. Because on March 7, 2021 I wrote this poem. I don’t know why I chose that day, and I did not know it was the same day as her death. I can only attribute this to the Holy Spirit and some purpose beyond my own musings for this poem. It’s kind of spooky. I was flabbergasted when I looked up her obituary to make sure I spelled MomMom Starzinski’s name correctly in the dedication of the poem. My attribution to the Holy Spirit is the reason I share it with you now. It is Pentecost season in Circle of Hope, and we keep looking for a life in the Spirit in all the mundane and fantastic of our own lives.

The “purpose of noses” line is in homage to a Rich Mullins song I like, “The Maker of Noses“. It’s a good song, but far less profound than this strange discovery and amplified awe of the moment and its anniversary telling.

The Purpose of Noses
for MomMom Starzinski and Rich Mullins

The incense smoke rose high above the pews,
And of its bitter sweetness we were
At first unaware, though it’s presence grew.
And whether the ascending scent was myrrh
Was not a question on our minds, for grief
Already filled the room. It gathered us ‘round
The shroud with our beloved underneath.

The words of the priest cannot now be found,
But we’ll not soon forget the piled up cloud
Of incense as it fell down on us all,
The moment he honored her for the crowd,
Surrounding her with that perfuming pall.

Thrice ‘round the casket he swung the brass chord,
Reminding us just what noses are for.



You can listen to me read it here

To the Graduates of 2021

This is to the graduates – college grads, high school grads, other kinds of grads, too. In my neck of the woods I’m talking to Camden, Pennsauken, Collingswood, Cherry Hill East and West, Haddon Township, Gloucester City, Audubon High Schools, and more. I’m talking to Rutgers, Rowan, the community colleges in Camden, Burlington and Gloucester Counties and more at that level, too. (Much love to the universities that made my home turf, “University City”, in Philly as well). To ALL the graduates, I’m sending you love. What a time to start out with something new! What a time to step into your agency! How much you have had to face! How different were your last two years of school than you had ever expected! What is it like to face THIS world into which you are delivered? Note that last sentence has a question mark and all the others were exclamations. These are my reflections for you but I don’t really know what it’s like. I can only imagine. 

Campesinos and Coffee

When I was 18 I won the oratory competition for my senior class. I delivered a very practiced speech on the injustice of the international coffee trade which featured a campesino in Colombia I had completely invented. I vowed to only ever drink fair trade coffee (And this was when fair trade coffee wasn’t even very much of a thing… AND, and I write this while sipping Dunkin Donuts.) I was very idealistic, and I hadn’t had much time for compromises yet. I’m not recommending compromises to you; I think that vow was better than my current convenience, but it happens. And I’m telling you that it happened to me so I don’t come off as just another old guy pontificating (even if that’s unavoidable).

I also bring up the oratory award because way back then, it triggered a nudge from my class’s sponsor to enter another speech competition to determine who would give the “class address” at our graduation ceremony. This was a separate speech from the “valedictory address” given by the valedictorian and the “Parents Acknowledgment” given by the class president (There were a lot of addresses). So I decided to enter that competition at the last minute, but I needed a speech.

Dad Said Get Mad

I have a vivid memory of sitting on a stool in our basement as my dad cut my hair and asking him what he thought needed to be said. I’m doing the same thing now as I write this blog. My dad said something like, “I think you should acknowledge the anger. There are all kinds of problems you’re inheriting and those in power don’t seem to care at all.” It resonated with me. 

It sounded like a punk anthem my brothers and I were always playing in the car:

KLOVEROur Way (1995)

“We’re the radiation generation
When we was born I wish iId known
Mom and daddy got the meat
And we got the bone”

I felt that jilted. WTF mom and daddy! Punk may be kind of dead so I went looking for a contemporary example, and it wasn’t hard to find.

AJRWay Less Sad (2021)

I wake up and I’m not so mad at Twitter now
Livin’ sucks but it’s suckin’ just a little now
And I don’t wanna cry no more
So I set my bar real low

Don’t you love it, don’t you love it?
No, I ain’t happy yet
But I’m way less sad

Dang! It’s got that same clear-eyed understanding of how jacked up the world is 25 years later, but so much more resignation. AJR is setting the bar real low with a happy vibe that is dripping with irony. I think that irony is a response to the same anger I was vibing with 20 years ago. Yes, I am officially THAT old, but I don’t think my class has organized a 20 year reunion. By the way, a four year old shouted “old man” at me to his mother’s horror today as I left the Dunkin Donuts. It was too fitting because I had already begun this reflection. In response to her apology I said, “It’s ok, he’s right.”

It’s True, I’m an Old Man, but Can I Be Mad with You?

But this old man still feels jilted even though I have fully arrived at the power position our culture bestows upon me. My dad was less than ten years older than I am right now when he advised me in the basement to express my generation’s anger. That’s sitting heavy on me, for sure, but back to the story…

So I slapped a speech together for the selection committee of the class address. It wasn’t nearly as polished as my coffee speech, which I had delivered dozens of times during Academic Decathlon competitions, and I ended up bombing the delivery. I was not selected, but the class sponsor commended me for the honesty. It was not optimistic mountain climbing success delusions expected at such things. I like to think it was a prophecy. I can’t remember if it actually was.

But there are still many reasons to be angry, my graduating friends. I don’t need to tell you that, but I’d like to be another old guy telling you you’re right. I’d like to be another person listening and nodding their head at least. But more than that I would like to be someone who listens to you and follows, someone who hears the perennial prophecy of June for the same damn problems and does something that makes change. At the very least I would like to change. 

Even though… … … …

It might be impossible, but don’t set the bar real low. Even though there’s no certainty a college degree will get you a job. Even though trade careers are hard to find without some piece of paper or a family connection. Even though crippling student debt is still a sound piece of advice. Even though the racial reckoning that began last summer is resulting in ideological bickering that effectively avoids actually doing anything to address racial inequality. Even though climate catastrophe has moved from the prevention phasee into the adaptation phase. Even though gay folks your age still take their own lives rather than face their community’s refusal to help them know that they belong. Even though no, you “ain’t happy yet,” and “Why would I be happy?” seems like a very reasonable retort. Is it possible not to set the bar real low? You can give up on old guys like me, but don’t give up on yourself. There is a future.

And it doesn’t have to be you. 

There is a future, and it doesn’t have to be you… but it can be. 

But Also Jesus

I believe the future is inevitable and it is good. Even if we leave the bar on the floor, there’s more than what we hope for, whether it’s low or high. Don’t give up on the future. One way to keep caring, and I would recommend it, is to follow Jesus, who’s got this whether we do or not. Jesus is doing something bigger than mountain climbing optimism or soul crushing acceptance of inevitable disaster. 

I think Jesus can help you become old and still love it when the young people are mad. Maybe you won’t compromise on fair trade coffee, or whatever else you care about. Maybe you will. But a better “maybe” would be that you get bigger than whether you get it right or not. Maybe that.

Maybe there’s more than meets the eye, especially your eyes in the mirror. I can assure you the world is not getting better, but you might be. There is a future, and it doesn’t have to be you all by yourself. But the world could use you just as you are right now — whether you care a lot or a little, whether your bar is low or high. I’ve found it works best with Jesus and his people. With them I have made it 20 years without giving up, and hoping for 20 more.

God bless you, graduates. Congratulations on living through impossible times. I think you’re doing great. And I’m listening.