Catherine Ford Gets Personal

One year: A challenge for change


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His name was James Kavanaugh and he is responsible for my two wonderful marriages. He is also responsible for my learning to stop picking the wrong kind of man to love.

I believe in love at first sight, but before that happens in reality, you have to know what it is you are looking for. What will make you happy in the long run, not just for one night?

James Kavanaugh taught me that through his poetry. He died two weeks ago, at age 81, in Michigan. All of his life he was, as he wrote, a searcher. “We searchers are ambitious only for life itself, for everything beautiful it can provide. Most of all we love and want to be loved. We want to live in a relationship that will not impede our wandering, nor prevent our search, nor lock us in prison walls; that will take us for what little we have to give. We do not want to prove ourselves to another or compete for love.”

I was in my early 20s when I first met his poetry. Three of his books written between 1970 and 1973, are so well-read and well-worn that the only thing holding their bindings together is the box they are packaged in.

A former Catholic priest, Kavanaugh’s obituary was in the newspaper yesterday and whatever I had planned to write in this chapter suddenly isn’t very important. I was prepared to write about the Slow Food movement and its Calgary president dee Hobsbawn-Smith, curiously enough, herself a poet of power and persuasion. But that will come in the next chapter.

For today, in view of Kavanaugh’s death, it is more important to acknowledge the not-inconsiderable effect that one man’s poetry had on my life. I am sure I’m not alone. Poets have that kind of power and kids who think they don’t like poetry, don’t “get” poetry and believe it has no place in their lives, fail to appreciate their much-loved songs are merely poems set to music.

The meanings and emotions behind Kavanaugh’s poems didn’t have an immediate effect. It wasn’t as if there was a thunderbolt off the pages of his first book, There Are Men Too Gentle To Live Among Wolves. It took some time for his words to sink in. But when they did, I ditched the controlling, abusive boyfriend I thought I loved and set out to find the real thing.

What was the real thing? A man who was gentle. Here it is in Kavanaugh’s words:
“There are men too gentle for a savage world
Who dream instead of snow and children and Halloween
And wonder if the leaves will change their color soon.”

What was the real thing? A man who would be my friend. Kavanaugh wrote:
“Will you be my friend?
There are so many reasons why you never should
I’m sometimes sullen, often shy, acutely sensitive,
My fear erupts as anger, I find it hard to give . . .
Will you be my friend?
A friend
Who far beyond the feebleness of any vow or tie
Will touch the secret place where I am really I,
To know the pain of lips that plead and eyes that weep
Who will not run away when you find me in the street
Alone and lying mangled by my quota of defeats . . .

I’m not sure why as one ages one reads the obituaries every day. I know all the jokes, including the one that says you read the obits in the morning and if you’re not there, you can go about your day. But really, it’s not age that draws one to the obituaries, it is respect and maturity. Indeed, both are supposed to come hand in hand with age, but there are those whom such magic never touches.

I figure that’s why there are so many nasty, crabby and miserable old people. They have never quite managed to drag themselves out of the narcissism and self-regard of adolescence and still believe someone owes them a living and they’re not collecting on it. What is forgivable in the young is unacceptable in someone old enough to know better. To read the obituaries is to respect all of the stages of life, not just the happy ones.

Kavanaugh’s poetry spoke to me because it captured something fleeting and rare — real emotion. But psychologist Dr. Wayne Dyer, one of the first self-help authors and best known for his humanist Your Erroneous Zones, said it better than I ever could. Dyer described Kavanaugh as: “America’s poet laureate. His words and ideas touch my soul. I can think of no living person who can put into words what we have all felt so deeply in our inner selves.”

You may not believe in a life after death — certainly many religious people believe there must be more than this so-called mortal coil. But whether there is a heaven in your future or reincarnation or nothing at all, we acknowledge death and pay it respect because no life is not worth celebrating.

Kavanaugh’s work may not live across the generations of English literature, but more than Keats, more than Browning, indeed more than any of the English Romantic poets, Kavanaugh had a profound effect on my life.

Reading poetry and finding the emotions that poetry evokes is a lifelong pleasure. But where does randomness come in? It’s simple. As Leonard Mlodinow writes in The Drunkard’s Walk: How Randomness Rules Our Lives: “A lot of what happens to us — success in our careers, in our investments, and in our life decisions, both major and minor — is as much the result of random factors as the result of skill, preparedness and hard work.

“So the reality that we perceive is not a direct reflection of the people or circumstances that underlie it but is instead an image blurred by the randomizing effects of unforeseeable or fluctuating external forces. . . . Thus our past is not so easy to understand, nor is our future so easy to predict, and in both enterprises we benefit from looking beyond the superficial explanations.”

What would my life have been like if I had not, that particular autumn night, walked into Mazzini’s in the basement of the Devenish Centre and met the first man I would marry? He was a stranger among all the regulars at what had become our neighbourhood bar. Someone had told him he’d like the music and, on the spur of the moment had detoured on his way home. I heard him laugh and realized that anyone who could laugh like that, with such hearty joy, I had to meet. It was spontaneous, random and right. But I had done my homework — I knew the kind of man I could and should love and he was it.

James Kavanaugh’s poetry prepared me for that random meeting, prepared me to meet Les, who would become my friend, my lover and my husband.

Five years after being widowed, I went to a friend’s birthday party and met Ted, the man who would become my second husband. I knew immediately that chance had given me a mulligan – a do-over. Here was Les’s emotional, spiritual, intellectual and gentle mirror image. The two men are physically unlike each other, but in all the things that matter — all the things I treasure and respect — they are the same.

How lucky can one woman get?

So, yes, I mourn James Kavanaugh.

NEXT: Living the slow and easy life.


Written by Catherine Ford

January 18, 2010 at 8:42 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

One Response

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  1. Hello Sun Worshipping Dr. C

    I was moved by your post #30. Some reflections:

    (1) “Experience is a brutal teacher, but, by God, you learn.” C.S. Lewis

    (2) “In youth we learn, with age we understand.” By that wonderful Irish writer and poet, Anonymous.

    (3) “A true friend is someone who reaches for your hand and touches your heart.” Lorne Clark

    It matters not how one reaches as you well know, but you are belssed, so enjoy the journey!


    Hugh Landerkin

    February 2, 2010 at 8:24 pm

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