ABBOTT AT THE MONASTERY
Written and published on the web in August, 2003, in the Tributes section of the K. Westhues Homepage.
The Internet connects people in unforeseen ways. When Alysia Abbott published the website, A Daughter's Memoir, in celebration of the late poet Steve Abbott (1943-1992), she could not have known the delight I would take in her labour of love.
Geographically and socially, I am a long way from the gay community in San Francisco where Steve raised his daughter and made his name during the last two decades of his life. Yet ten years after his death and forty years after I last saw him, I still feel close to Steve and eager to join the voices of appreciation for his life.
My tribute is mainly a recommendation of his daughter's website, but I want also to shed light on an earlier chapter of Steve's life, years before Eros guided him into the arms of a woman, let alone a man, years of innocence when (for better or worse) Agape held Eros in check.
Alysia writes that in 1963, at twenty years of age, Steve felt God was calling him to a monastery, and so enrolled in the college run by monks of Conception Abbey in northwestern Missouri.
That is true—sort of. Like many of our classmates, Steve and I were young men searching for a path through life, Siddharthas of the American Midwest. This in the heady time when Catholicism was convulsed by what we thought was aggiornamento, and when all America reeled from a president's assassination, the civil rights movement, the buildup of troops in Vietnam, beats, hippies, drugs—news that added up to the cultural revolution that continues even now.
Amidst the early ferment, Steve and I were fellow travellers, young and scared, pulling each other along to God knows where. He had a cryptic wit. When he laughed, his face enlarged and he looked like a gnome. You couldn't help but laugh with him.
Sometimes I would find on my desk a cartoon or poem Steve had left for me. I still have some of them. It was my job for a while to go around the dorm with a big jug of holy water filling the little fonts at the entrances to rooms. So Steve left me this:
"To the man who filleth the font of life," the greeting inside read, "and may you continue to grow in the dimensions of your personality Kenny, for that is growing in Christ, if "everything that rizes converges."
For both Steve and me, the two years we studied together,
1963 to 1965, were a time of breaking free of the rigidities and orthodoxies
of earlier adolescence. The biggest favour Steve did for me, maybe the biggest
that any friend does for another, was notice that I was growing up, and laugh
approvingly at the strangeness of it all. Steve left me this poem once:
And he stood silent and slept
To many around him
One tall wooden soldier,
Seemed n'er had he wept
Or sung gay frolic hymn.
But one day he woke up—and looked around.
A book he sung up, in knowledge abound.
And caused many hearts on that day to look
Around and say, "What's happened to K. Westhues?"
Steve left Conception Seminary College in 1965, to finish his degree at the University of Nebraska. We kept in touch in the final year of our undergraduate studies. At Steve's invitation, several of us still at Conception travelled to Nebraska in February of 1966, to hear and meet Allen Ginsberg. For Steve, so I read on Alysia's website, meeting Ginsberg was a life-changing event.
Our paths never crossed again. For graduate school, Steve
headed to Emory for literature, I to Vanderbilt for sociology. From Atlanta
he went west to California. From Nashville I moved east to New York, then north
to Canada. I knew nothing more of Steve until happening upon Alysia's tribute
in cyberspace. I am deeply grateful for his life, his effect on my life, and
his insight into our common life. He wrote in Elegy (1980):
We distance ourselves for protection, wear scarves when it's cold.
What seems most outlandish in our autobiography is what really happened.
Rest in peace, dear friend.