by Padre Spencer Reece
Spencer Reece was featured in the original “Post-40 Bloomers” series at The Millions, from which Bloom was born. Following is an essay about his current pursuits, as both poet and Episcopal priest. Also, there is an opportunity at the end of the essay to contribute to his project—he’ll be working on an original book of poems with orphaned girls in Honduras, and filming the year he spends with them.
I was born in 1963 on the day Martin Luther King, Jr. gave his “I Have A Dream” speech. I am a priest now, and a poet. It seems an unlikely combination in this world, almost counter-cultural, a throwback to another time. Some days I’m surprised to see myself in the mirror with that white collar around my neck. At times, I have wondered how this career will make a difference in a world where churches disappear every day.
I majored in English literature at Wesleyan. I took my only creative writing class with Annie Dillard, who told me, among other things, that if I wanted to be a writer, I should “study something else.” So I did. I studied theology for five years. I did not come from a religious family and so this course of action was, in its way, mildly rebellious. My heroes became George Herbert, Gerard Manley Hopkins and Emily Dickinson. My call seemed to be more literary than churchy, if it was a call.
I thought of ordination in my early twenties, but many things held me back. I was unsure of the responsibilities involved. And there was AIDS: the thing I am sometimes tempted not to mention. Yet it is always the thing we don’t want to say that tells so much, no? Five classmates from college had died of AIDS, and every church I attended seemed to be scrambling with how to deal with a plague attached to morality: keeping a distance from organized religions seemed best. I knew my classmates were more complicated than being labeled sinners. That old Levitical law kept coming up and was used with sloppy theology I dimly understood. One classmate I’d admired had hoped to be a poet and a priest. He died at thirty. Shame cast a long shadow in those days. Fear, too. People didn’t want to drink from the communion cup for fear of catching the virus.
I’d attended an Episcopal prep school but that had not been a particularly religious place; and while it did provide structure and a belief system, my fellow classmates still harassed a young gay classmate until he committed suicide. Dreams were dying all over the place. Whatever the reason, I was curious about religion, though I was still standing a long way off.
Through some reversals and disappointments, I found myself, with my college degree and theology degree, at the age of thirty-three, working in retail at Brooks Brothers. So much for a call. It was not a religious place and it was not a place concerned with poetry, but it paid bills. All the time I was in retail, I worked on a book of poems in my off hours. It was my little church of ideas. Some kind of sanctuary amidst all that noise. Maybe I could publish it? Surely, it was a fragile dream. I didn’t have literary connections. No. I had one. James Merrill, whom I’d met through letters. But he had died of AIDS in 1995. I would work in isolation for another eight years. I submitted this first book of poems to national competitions three hundred times over a fifteen year period and was rejected every time.
Then, unexpectedly, when I was 40, my book, The Clerk’s Tale, won the Bakeless Prize, and Houghton Mifflin published it in 2003. I stayed in retail another five years, not sure which way to go. Should I stay? Should I go? I’d built a secure little life, but was this my dream? Perhaps it didn’t look like much to the world, but I was proud of my independence. Yet, hadn’t there been other dreams? Hadn’t I wanted to live abroad? Hadn’t I wished I spoke another language? What happened? What happened to me? I was about to apply for a manager’s job in Miami.
Old dreams began to surface with the publication of the book. A part of me I thought would never be seen was coming forward; to use Tennessee Williams’s phrase after he left the shoe warehouse, I’d been “plucked from oblivion.” I stepped from behind a sales counter to a podium at the Library of Congress.
I continued at Brooks Brothers. Then I began to volunteer at Hospice on my days off. One day, going from one patient room to another, reading poems to the dying, it struck me: Yes. That was right. I’d gone to seminary, after Wesleyan, at Harvard, and I’d thought of being a priest then. Somehow twenty years passed. I went to my Episcopal church. I asked what they thought about becoming a priest now. Was I too old? Was it too late? No and no the committees finally said. I asked to be put forward for Holy Orders as my hero George Herbert once had done. Hadn’t Herbert had a career in government before he turned to the church?
I stopped arranging store-sets on a Friday and drove across the country, starting at Berkeley Divinity School at Yale on a Monday. It took me a while to adjust. I would go to the library and expect the phone to ring with customer complaints. I did not get A’s. I struggled. But I did not give up. My mother, the product of Lithuanian immigrants, would encourage me from her home nearby: “We don’t give up.“ Three years later I graduated in 2011.
One summer, I worked in the Hartford Hospital emergency room. Hartford Hospital is a 1000 bed hospital in a dangerous nieghborhood. One night they paged me. There a young Puerto Rican boy and his mother entered; the boy had been stabbed in a gang fight. The boy died at dawn. All night, I was unable to speak to the mother because she did not speak English and I did not speak Spanish. My ineffectiveness angered me. The next morning, I spoke to my bishop: I wanted to learn Spanish. The following summer I was sent to Honduras to work in the orphanage of Our Little Roses.
Nothing prepared me for that orphanage. Honduras is the poorest Spanish speaking country in the Western Hemisphere. All this study and talk of theology, now I had to live these ideas. I had never seen such poverty. The whole enterprise seemed a distinctly unlikely location for a call. I did not feel comfortable with hormonal girls without parents. It was a world away from folding cashmere sweaters and Palm Beach.
Frankly, I didn’t feel like I did much during those two months. Because my language skills were in the beginning stages, one of my most enduring efforts was teaching one of the girls how to paint watercolors. Ana Ruth was talented. Eventually her paintings were made into cards that Dr. Diana Frade, founder of the orphanage, and I then sold at my deaconnate ordination at Yale. Ordained in January, during the worst blizzard to hit New England, my old sale skills came into play, and we sold all those cards, enough to pay for Ana to go on to high school. So, perhaps that was something? Sacramental snow fell up to the rooftops.
Photo: Lawrence Schwartzwald
And then, there was this: a voice in my head that wouldn’t leave me be. The last night I’d been in Honduras, feeling rather useless, rather awkward, one girl, Wendolin, said something that changed everything. I said, “I leave tomorrow.“ She said, “I know.“ That surprised me; so I had been noticed. She paused and then said three words that have been written on my heart ever since. She said: “Don’t forget us.” But me? Why me? What could I do? Surely there were smarter people, more capable people for this work? More religious missionary types? I was a middle-aged gringo speaking Spanish terribly who’d worked in Florida malls and wrote a book of poems. Wendolin sat on a curb. She was counting on me. That made me nervous.
I kept pondering her request as I returned to Yale. Perhaps I could be effective there in a way I was not in Trauma 1 at Hartford Hospital. I applied for a Fulbright so I could go back and work in the orphanage: a dream began to take shape, of making a book of poems with the girls, their own poems. I was a finalist, but lost. However, I did win an Amy Lowell Traveling Grant, which allows American poets to live outside the North American Continent on a stipend. Honduras was not allowed. “Too close to America,” my Amy Lowell lawyer said. I called my Bishop. He suggested Spain. In less than five minutes he’d made a call from his car to Madrid. I’d never been to Madrid. I moved in October of 2011, and in Madrid I improved my Spanish, wrote my poems, and worked as the chaplain to the Epsicopal Bishop of Spain, an old friend of my Bishop. Every day I went to language school, my ego stripped down to a kindergartner. I taped the subjunctive conjugations up on my dining room wall. People made fun of my accent. I watched a lot of TV in Spanish with Spanish subtitles. An old priest at Yale had asked me how old I was before I left for Spain. I said, “Forty-seven.” He said, “You’re too old. You’ll never learn Spanish.“ Them’s fighting words: that was all he had to say to motivate me. However, I’d probably lost that Fulbright in part due to my poor language skills.
On a whim, I applied to the Fulbright one more time. The dream—of having the girls write the poems of their stories for the world to hear—persisted. I believed a book of their poems accompanied by their drawings would help the world not forget about Honduras. I thought I could respond to Wendolin in this way. I kept talking to her in my head. And this time maybe, maybe the deaf mute gringo just might speak to her in Spanish.
The dream kept coming to me. It wouldn’t let me be. I saw public readings, a web-site, recordings, images, the girls being remembered. I saw a documentary film being made. My dream was real as Jacob’s dream in Genesis, my stairway was leading directly to seventy four orphaned girls. But the Fulbright language exam had been hard and that old priest at Yale’s voice had stuck in my head. I thought I’d lose again. Why does negativity cling like a burr to the mind? I vowed to try not to say things like that to people, just as I vowed not to tease people the way we’d teased my gay classmate in high school. Words, mishandled, damaged people, and worse, killed them. But then, the unexpected happened once more: I won the Fulbright.
If I have anything to do with it, Our Little Roses is about to be known by the world.
I will teach a poetry writing class in the bilingual Holy Family School behind the orphanage. I will gather poems by the girls and watercolors to collect into a book to be published in a bilingual edition. I will teach them poems of their own culture, American and Spanish poets, have them write poems and memorize poems. The poet, Richard Blanco, will co-edit the volume with me, and he will visit the orphanage and help teach with me from time to time throughout my year there. The writers Sharon Olds, Marie Howe, Nick Flynn, Mark Wunderlich, Joshua Mehigan, A.J. Verdelle, John Coy and Carolyn Forche have all expressed an interest in coming to teach with me and be part of the project. I will assemble this work into a collection for publication that I will bring back to my publisher in the States. I want the proceeds from the sale of the book to return to the orphanage. I will work with the girls in the classroom in both Spanish and English. I will live and teach there on the grounds for one year, Christmas to Christmas.
At the same time that the book is being created and the girls are learning poems, taught by me and other artists, a feature documentary film will be directed by Brad Coley. James Franco will executive produce the film. Dar Williams will write and record the soundtrack for the film. Filming begins before Christmas.
The film requires $250,000 to be made. The film company hopes to employ local Hondurans to work on the film. Once completed the film will be entered into all major film festivals, national and international. These artistic gestures, book and film, will bring greater attention to the orphanage and the work that has been done there for the last three decades. To my mind the work Dr. Diana Frade has done is on the same level as what Dr. Paul Farmer has done for those afflicted with AIDS in Haiti, Frade saving Honduras one girl at a time. Before Frade began this work the girl-child in Honduras was left to the streets. Today, one girl is an engineer, another a dentist, another runs a beauty parlor.
The book and the film coincide with the celebration of the 25th anniversary of Our Little Roses. Shortly before Christmas of 2013, the school will put on a “spectaculo,” with dancing, singing, poetry and a play in celebration of the orphanage, the local community will be invited. The event will be filmed.
As I get settled I would like to meet the poets in the country and have them come to the school as visitors. The theme of the book will be home, what it means personally and what it means to be from their country. I found when I was there, the girls’ understanding of the poems of their country was mere, and to me, if a country loses its poems, it loses it soul.
Did I choose Honduras? Or, did Honduras choose me? Who knows? In Honduras I was introduced to the poem, “Los Pobres,” by Roberto Sosa. It begins: “The poor are many/ and so/ impossible to forget.” True to the poem, and the spirit of Roberto Sosa, who himself died in May of this year, I have been unable to forget those 74 orphaned girls. I believe poetry—that most invisible of the arts, the poorest of the arts some might say—can raise up the story of the girls.
Slain Salvadoran priest, Oscar Romero, was passionate for the silent minorities he lived among. He said, if every priest or bishop were silenced, “each of you will have to be God’s microphone.” If I am the microphone, it is time for Wendolin to sing.
Click here for Bloom’s exclusive video interview with Spencer and Dar Williams, who will write and perform the soundtrack for the film.
To contribute to the Our Little Roses poetry project/film:
Visit the Donate page at Our Little Roses: http://ourlittleroses.org/help.htm. When you make your donation (via PayPal) make sure to click the “Add Special Instructions” box before submitting your donation; type “Poetry Project/Film” in the box; or
Contact the OLR offices by phone (1.800.849.9252). All donors will be acknowledged in the film credits, unless they specifically wish to remain anonymous.
For more information about the Our Little Roses documentary film project, click here.