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Excitement thrummed my imagination as I paged through the sleek book, The Wild Braid (2007) written by the centenarian Stanley Kunitz and his associate, Genine Lentine. It turned out to be a book to savor, not to read.

As author, professor, and translator, as Poet Laureate Consultant in poetry to the Library of Congress, he has influenced many. His poetic voice reveals an intimate knowledge of words that opens listeners and readers to Life’s interior, replete with mystery and hardships. Paradoxically, his acute sensitivity to multiple setbacks advanced his craft, together with his dream work as influenced by Dr. Carl G. Jung’s depth psychology.

The poet’s second passion was gardening, and for over forty years, he cultivated his seaside garden at his Provincetown, Massachusetts, summer home that he shared with his wife Elise, also an artist. There, with muddied hands, he was just at home as in his basement cell—with nothing to distract him—searching for that elusive word for his next poem.

 The Wild Braid, his final publication, consists of a collage of essays and poems comparing these two passions and how they had shaped his life. Its concluding chapters barely contain Kunitz’s voice, made transparent by revelations gleaned during a close encounter with the Dark Angel, his term for death, two years before his actual last breath.

Perhaps some of the blurred photos of the centenarian in his garden speak to his still-to-be completed transition: he was here and not here.

He taught me much …

I seldom know when a critical message will pounce upon me like a rambunctious toddler gripping my knees with gummy hands. One such message, “Be fiercely authentic,” was printed on the underside of an aluminum foil wrapper of a Dove milk chocolate. The sweetness quickly dissolved upon my tongue, but not the message, delivered in the imperative voice.

Such rigorous self-discipline is not new to us. Only girded with honesty and humility is it possible to unearth shadow material—instincts gone amuck—lodged in our unconscious and distorting our thoughts and choices, leaving mayhem in our wake. Instead, it’s about learning who we really are, and with this self-knowledge serving our God, others, and ourselves. But few bother to go there, especially today—too arduous. Yet past cultures deemed otherwise.

The ancient Greek aphorism, “Know thyself” was one of three maxims inscribed on the forecourt of the third site of the Apollo Temple in Delphi Greece (mid fifth century BCE), the god of music, light, healing, harmony, and oracles. Such was also incorporated in Aeschylus’s play Prometheus Bound (424 BCE), in Socrates’s history Memorabilia (371 BCE), in the Dialogues of Plato (347 BCE). Numerous poets, authors and playwrights, including William Shakespeare referenced this self-knowledge, essential to our humanness. Theologians Heidegger and Thomas Merton also spoke eloquently of authenticity.

I still marvel at my 1998 Grecian tour to Apollo’s Temple with its discovery of the maxim, “Know Thyself,” shadowed in the afternoon sun—a maxim that under-girds the practice of the Twelve Steps. I’m still practicing …

The swoosh of frigid air within a hearty welcome jump-started my cane-waking as we pulled open the automatic door at the Y. It was almost too much, my helper supporting my upper arm, until steadied.

Seated upon a plastic chair in the lobby, her thin arms leaning against her housekeeping trolley, she had belted, “Hi! Back again, I see! Good for you!”—the words still echoed down the corridor, her image fixed in my heart: her wide toothless grin, her round eyes accustomed to seeing deeply, her pixie-braided-head jiggling with delight, her bosom creating peaks and valleys beneath her blue uniform shirt. Veined hands still bore the imprint of hard work, from all times.

In a split second, she had revealed her seasoned spirit of having been tossed around Life’s washing machine—when it worked.

I will not forget.

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