William Edelen: Reflections at Age 92

The Contrary Minister

The poet STANLEY KUNITZ (pictured above) has been my hero and role model from the time I first came into his magical orbit and was exposed to his brilliant thinking. It is no accident that he graduated from Harvard “summa cum laude”. Or that he was TWICE chosen the Poet Laureate of the United States… or Chancellor of the Academy of American Poets, or winner of the Pulitzer and Bollingen Prizes, and his Honors would take two more full pages to list. His passion was Horticulture, and from his garden came his inspiration, he said.

My own Bachelor of Science degree is in Horticulture from Oklahoma State University. I think you can understand why this man became my kindred spirit and “role model” over the years.

One of his most famous poems, and one that speaks to my own life, is “THE LAYERS”. When I first read this to my weekly Sunday Symposium, the entire group wanted a copy, so we made over a hundred copies. It is almost mystical to me how the words of this poem are an accurate reflection of my own life.

I have walked through many lives, 

some of them my own, 

and I am not who I was, 

though some principle of being 

abides, from which I struggle 

not to stray. 

My own “many lives” fill my memory… from twelve years as a U.S. Marine Corps pilot in WW 2 and Korea… evolving into my years getting a Masters degree in Religion at the University of Chicago and being ordained a Presbyterian minister followed by serving in the Congregational church as an ordained pastor… and this lifetime evolving into a teacher and lecturer in Religion and Anthropology at the University of Puget Sound in Tacoma, Washington.

And I “was not who I was” as I left the ministry to become FREE to write and lecture, with no strings attached, and no archaic creed or dogma or doctrine to blindly and stupidly follow in total hypocrisy, because it was required by the phony institution. And so “some principle of being abided… from which I struggled not to stray”… and that “principle” was as a FREE THINKER on the quest for TRUTH regardless of where it led, and whose beliefs were destroyed and upset… and based and grounded in the finest of modern scholarship. My life now being a newspaper columnist… writing the TRUTH and “struggling not to stray” from the facts and knowledge accepted in the religion departments of every MAJOR University.

From writing for 20 newspapers, and lectures given… “I have made myself a tribe, out of my true affections, and my tribe is scattered”… from Pueblo, Colorado to Flagstaff, Arizona, to Santa Rosa and Palm Springs, California.

“Oh, I have made myself a tribe… 

out of my true affections, 

and my tribe is scattered! 

How shall the heart be reconciled 

to its feast of losses? 

Yet I turn, I turn, 

exulting somewhat, 

with my will intact to go, 

wherever I need to go, 

and every stone in the road 

precious to me. 

In my darkest night, 

when the moon was covered 

and I roamed through wreckage, 

a nimbus-clouded voice 

directed me: 



no doubt the next chapter 

in my book of transformations 

is already written. 


I look forward to telling you more about my reflections at age 94 and 95… and climbing. BUT my “reflections NOW at 92” are on ideas and thoughts that have shaped my 92 years… my “layers of existence”… the ideas that have guided my path regardless of criticism or attacks by those living in the boxes and cages they have chosen for their own confinement.

I realized years ago that the key and path to MEDIOCRITY can be found in worry about the foolishness of public opinion, in “moderation”, in “convention” and “conformity”. Moderation is the key to mediocrity… one of the most stupid clichés in our culture is “Moderation in all things.” Moderation is defined as “staying within accepted limits”. Creative and uncommon people who are memorable are usually most immoderate and rarely stay within “accepted limits”. The most creative giants of civilization, in all disciplines, have risen to immortality by vast immoderate creativity and contributions and by never “staying within accepted limits”. “Convention leads to MEDIOCRITY,” wrote Krishnamurti.

Another key to my thought of 92 years is that our obsession with outside “authority”, whether in institutions or individuals, ensures that we remain emotionally and spiritually dwarfed as children. Human beings, in the mass, sink to an inferior moral and intellectual level. Obsession with outside authority creates human beings who, in the mass, like sheep, end up as zeros, as sheep who have lost their inner voice… their intuition and guiding spirit… and so you have a society of a million zeros joined together, and they add up to ZERO. Not even to… ONE.

These thoughts, among others, are the true heart of my “reflections” as I look back over my 92 years… and the “true path” of my life (as the Lakota say). I would do nothing differently. It has been a good, productive and creative trip. My doctor recently told me that I look good for another ten. (By the way, Stanley Kunitz, whose poem I quoted, lived to be 100.)

“I AM NOT DONE WITH MY CHANGES,” wrote Kunitz at the end of “THE LAYERS”… and neither am I… so stay tuned for my upcoming “REFLECTIONS AT 100”.

One Comment

Clinging to the notion of a separate ego somehow inhibits our ability to accept the pschoanalysts’ insistence that our “self” survives the many ‘lives we have all walked through’. There is no self that resists change, and then change followed immediately by change.