Friday, November 10, 2017

High Hopes

A Liberal Irish Catholic Portlander's Perspective On:

High Hopes The Journey of John F Kennedy.

by Tessa Dansie

On this cool November morning I found myself walking in Portland’s Cultural District amongst the golden and umber leaves that fall all about me on the sidewalk leading to the Oregon Historical Society. I am on my way to High Hopes: The Journey of John F. Kennedy. I decided to come alone, to absorb the exhibit and attempt to capture it with a meditative mind.

The rain fell soft, making the air smell clean. I took a deep breath and drank in the aroma. As walked, my mind rested on something Marcus Aurelius said: “In the life of a man, his time is but a moment, his being an incessant flux, his senses a dim rushlight, his body a prey of worms, his soul an unquiet eddy, his fortune dark, and his fame doubtful.”

JFK’s fame may have been doubtful due to the anti-Catholic sentiment of his time, his faith making him weak in terms of presidential viability. Folks felt they might be electing a president who was the Pinocchio to the Pope’s Stromboli. His liberal ideas about equality and social justice were an extension of his Catholic education, and much of that moral compass was crafted by the Catholic Church, so this was an understandable concern given that the country had never elected an Catholic president. 

To my eye, he turned out to be much more liberal than the Pope.  A newspaper article notes that southerners hope he will soften his liberal language.

As I entered High Hopes, my entry is free due to the address on my drivers licence, I am grateful. Entry to the exhibit on it’s last days in Portland is also free to military families along with Portlanders.  Liberal Portland loving them some Jack Kennedy was just how I wanted to spend this drizzly grey day, I find myself falling in love with this city all over again.

Soon, I realized that capturing this exhibit in it’s entirety was going to be akin to capturing the Portland rain in my palm and saving it in my pocket for later.  No matter how hard I tried, the secret of it’s magic was ephemeral.  I felt my father walking with me, the Irish Catholic Navy man. He loved John and his little brother Bobby.  He would speak with much pride about how we Irish Catholics could be proud of them, and how they fought for the poor, the voiceless, the oppressed and then how they were killed on their journey towards justice.   He would speak of traveling the world and observing altars with JFK and RFK right next to the Virgin Mary. I was born the October of ‘69 after the death of RFK in June of ‘68, this subject was fresh and topical upon my arrival to the world. 

On my first visit to this exhibit with my husband and children, the very kind docent told an over excited me that absolutely no pictures would be allowed! I enjoyed the visit, but as I thought about it afterwards, once was not enough.

I remembered about how I had cried at the rocking chair, watching my son bend his head and pray for JFK. How my family circled that piece of his personal history, prayed the rosary for him and thanked him for his service.  The sign next to the rocking chair said “do not touch!” So, my very wise daughter gave it a sniff, and said “Look Ma, it’s smells like the beach, and history all rolled into one cool rocking chair!” On my second visit as I stood looking at the rocking chair that smells of the beach and history according to my daughter, a new docent came by and politely mentioned to me that it would be a bad idea to climb in the rocking chair no matter how inviting it might be.  I assured him that I would do no such a thing. He laughed and said, “oh yeah, well just yesterday we had to ask a person to get out of it.” This was shocking to say the least.  

I moved along to assure the docent I was not intent on sitting a spell in the president’s chair. 

As I do, I notice an interoffice memo to JFK that says:

​ ​"Robert​ ​White​ ​called​ ​to​ ​say​ ​that​ ​he​ ​wanted​ ​to​ ​know​ ​if​ ​Jack​ ​was bringing​ ​his​ NEA ​rocking​ ​chair​ ​to​ ​the​ ​White​ ​House."
Next to it​ ​a​ ​letter​ ​from​ ​JFK,​ ​his​ ​response​ ​is​ ​epic!​ ​
"Whither​ ​I​ ​goest-​ ​it​ ​goest!"​ ​August​ ​of​ ​1960.
The​ ​rocking​ ​chair​ ​NEA​ ​referred​ ​to​ ​was​ ​the​ ​chair​ ​of​ ​his​ ​father​ ​Joseph​ ​P.​ ​Kennedy.

Wandering through the exhibit I find myself smiling at a ​picture​ ​of​ ​JFK in​ ​1960​ ​with​ ​three​ ​nuns​ ​in​ ​full​ ​habit​ ​at​ ​Marycrest​ ​High​ ​School,​ here in Oregon, ​with​ ​his famously​ ​large​ ​grin​ ​and​ ​purely​ ​enchanted​ ​looks​ ​on​ ​the​ ​faces​ ​of​ ​the​ ​nuns.​ ​​ ​His​ ​charm​ ​not​ ​lost​ ​on them.
This exhibit doesn’t let you loose contact with the realities of the time, and the cultural unconscious.  It looks at the president as a boy, a brother, a man, a husband, a father, a politician, a resolute leader, and icon.

I think many people may not want to reflect on this subject because of its weight and melancholy reality. This exhibit addresses the tragedy of John’s death, but it does not dwell there. Visitors are greeted by an old t.v. and Walter Cronkite saying the words that changed our nation forever.  
I observed elementary age school children fascinated by this piece of American history. I notice one boy whose hand was held by an elder woman who leaned down to whisper in his ear: “I remember that day, it was awful, I cried for months, we all did.”

On the wall to the left past the old t.v., I take in the quote from J.F.K.
"The courage of life is often a less dramatic spectacle than the courage of a final moment; but it is no less a magnificent mixture of triumph and tragedy."

Then I notice the intro to High Hopes from the museum:
"One hundred years after his birth and more than a half century after his shocking death, John Fitzgerald Kennedy remains a subject of endless fascination for millions of Americans. The youngest president ever elected, Kennedy's 1,037 day administration was marked by great hope but also great tension.  How he reached the White House is a story of both privilege and determination.  The second-born son of a rich and influential father, Kennedy's rise to power may be seen as inevitable, but his ascension was hard fought, as he persevered through severe health problems and religious discrimination.  The hope and promise of Kennedy's life was cut short when he was assassinated in Dallas, Texas on November 22nd, 1963. He was 46 years old.

Through artifacts and documents from the Mark Family Collection, Shapell Manuscript Foundation, John F Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, and Oregon Historical Society collection, this collection explores the life and legacy of one of the most iconic figures in American history.

You are shown a glimpse of the boy John Fitzgerald Kennedy in the handwritten letters to his mother, which I have transcribed here:

Dear Mother,

I hope you and Dad and all the little girls including Bobby and lastly Buddy and Pal are feeling o.k.
I was weighed yesterday and lost one pound and have not grown at all. I guess the only thing wrong with me is that I am pretty tired.
I have been doing a little worrying about my studies because what he said about me starting off great and then going down sunk in.  I will admit I did not work anymore than usual and I got pretty good marks.  I am not doing as well in Latin having an average of about sixty so far and I don't want to flop. My marks might not be high this time.  

This exhibit is a time vault in which I can peek into his childhood, his worries are palatable.  I think of how he tries to downplay his anxiety about “flopping” by saying he was doing "a little worrying".  I think of my own son, and how when he read these words to me, it made JFK more real to him.  He saw that he had worries and concerns, that my son Alexander has. Later when we talked, Alex said that this was his favorite part.  At the top of the letter there is a note signed by JFK that says “file this”. 

In the reel to reel playing tucked into a small theater in the back, JFK speaks to visitors, he says it is important to preserve the possessions of the past Presidents for future generations, I think he knew how impactful it would be for a person to see that the man who became our thirty fifth President, felt fear of failure, but overcame it with faith and hope.

I watched the reel to reel of him larger than life. I laugh at the end when he says he thinks "even the girls should run for president".

In a second boyhood letter to his mother, JFK says
Dear Mother,
It is the night before exams, so I will write you wednesday.
Lots of Love,
p.s. Can I be Godfather to the Baby? ( the soon to arrive RFK)

My favorite part of the exhibit was definitely the rocking chair that sits eerily empty behind a cardboard cut out of JFK leaning on the resolute desk with his head down, bearing the weight of the nation.

Next to the chair is a painting JFK did in watercolors at Palm Beach 1955 after back surgery. As a person who struggles with chronic back pain, I understand deeply how art can be healing as an invaluable tool in placing one's mind elsewhere.  The elsewhere JFK preserved is of the sea there in Palm Beach and his family home.

As I said goodbye to this amazing exhibit, and walk into the Portland rain, I whisper to myself,  "Peace be with you Mr. President."

*I would also like to express my appreciation and gratitude to Kerry Tymchuk the Executive Director of The Oregon Historical Society for being so kind as to allow me to write on my laptop in the exhibit after instructions to not take photo’s (which I absolutely did not). I think this helped me to feel more deeply the weight of the exhibit by challenging myself to describe each piece.  I am grateful that The Oregon Historical Society chose to honor JFK with a unique Oregon perspective, local photos and historical documents.  

Thursday, November 9, 2017

See You Next Trip

“See you next trip” were the words I heard from my father’s lips every time he left for sea.

This refrain was not accepted by me.  He told me that goodbye was for when you left this life, a sort of superstition he had.  If I pressed him to say goodbye to me, he would say “no”. He would always lower himself to eye level when explaining something to me.  Many of the loving things my father did where non-verbal, but in this case he wanted to be clear about why and how he used language.

I was just five, an October baby, I was already in kindergarten early and seriously suspicious of formal education given my two month experience with it.  On top of all this, it was time for Daddy to return to the sea.  My little nervous system was on overload. He captured my gaze with his cerulean blues and waited until my attention settled on them. “I will never say goodbye to you until it is time for me to leave the earth.”  He let me take that in.  Then he said, “If you don’t like see you next trip, we can always say, so long, another words, it will only be so long until I see you again.”  I decided “See you next trip” wasn’t so bad.  

It simply was my father in his controlled differentness. He was laying the ground rules for himself of the soul and connection. He told me that we are interconnected with those we love.  He explained non local consciousness in depth and still at the level a child could consume without much effort. The talks would sometimes be side by side as I sat at one of the stools of his bar, or while he was teaching me Mandarin and calligraphy. Or while I was dancing on his fabric cutting table, or while I was working with the wood.  I think he understood that I could sometimes take in more information while distracted by a kinetic exercise. I can’t really know why he did this, perhaps it was just instinctual. But, those lessons are the ones that stayed with me.  I can remember very little wisdom I received while in formal education. Certainly nothing that lasted me a lifetime.  And, I remember that there was little drama, or extensive explanations.  Often my father’s wisdom came between hammer strikes of this project or that, with a nail hanging out of his mouth, a cigarette tucked behind one ear, and a small pencil for measuring in the other ear.
Now scientists have newly discovered proof that our brain operates on a non local consciousness.  An interconnectedness that is not affected by time, space or distance.
They do not understand it.  This is of the next frontier in the study of the mind as the soul, I believe.
They have been able to show that this is true of all sentient beings.  There is a study where a camera is put on the dog of a person at their home, their human goes to work, they lay down.  Then when their human is ready to come home and is leaving work, time after time the dog will go to the door in anticipation.  Some observing the study said, ‘Well, the dog could know what time their human gets off work.”  So the study included randomizing the event.  The human would get in their car and start home, then turn around and go back to work.  When this happened, the dog, would go lay down, knowing that their human was not on their way.

My father did his own version of this study for me.  He called me Poopsie. I know, right?  He said "Poopsie, I am going to be gone for three months.  If it gets really bad and you just need to talk to me, send me a message with your mind.  But only do it if you really need me because it is hard to call from sea."  This was the seventies and ship to shore calls were often difficult.  

The first week of his absence I thought about sending him a message, but then thought better of it.
I had complete belief that he would call.  About six weeks later, my dog Teasha died.  She was a big white Siberian husky with blue eyes and the soul of a guardian.  I went to school knowing that Daddy would call me after school, I just knew it.  He did.  His first words to my mother where, “I am sorry about the dog”

My father died from Parkinson’s Disease.  A disorder I can only think of as a cruel reality of life to become a prisoner of your own body. I know the physical reasons for it.  In fact, I have extensively researched its neurobiology.  But for me, it is nothing less than the cruel curse of the Medusa. A robber of one's own ability to move their own muscles,  a slowly creeping goregaon that freezes you in slow motion while your loved ones witness the event in slow motion too. In this way, perhaps I am giving Medusa a bad wrap, her way seems a little kinder. I was sixteen when Daddy came home from the ship for the last time.  Finally, my Daddy was home to stay.  We would have time alone to talk, I cherish those times.  Reading to him “The Old Man and The Sea” after my mother would leave very early in the morning to work at the local gun factory.  But those cherished memories are all mixed up with pain, and the terror of seeing my Daddy die.

I remember the day he died.  I was late for work.  I was irritated because he wanted a chocolate Ensure before I left, and I was young, thinking “I’m gonna get fired”.  As I scurried out of the room, my Daddy said, “Poops!” I turned to see his cerulean blues, they met mine.  A feeling passed through my body that I could not feel as anything but coldness at the time, he raised his left hand, battling the tremors like King Arthur fighting a dragon, and the dragon was winning.  He said very clearly, “Bye, bye Poops.”

I said, “Bye bye Daddy” and rushed to get to work. I think you can imagine that if there was a point in time and space that was accessible to me,  I would go back there, hold his hand, and tell him it was o.k.  But, he was my Daddy, he never wanted that. He was strong and brave, and Medusa will never sever my soul from his soul. Someday, I know, we will meet again. See you next trip Daddy!