Have faith: A pastor’s poetry

Paul Dawson talks about his life and his writing.

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A velvety black cat named Rosie cozied up to my open laptop as I spoke with Paul Dawson the other morning. It’s his grandson Jesse’s cat, and she’s a pushover for attention. Paul lives with his daughter Susan and her spouse Alison Shaw and their family. I went to see him about a book of poetry he’s just published, “Musings of an Old Man: Poems by Paul Dawson.” He told me he had recently celebrated his 88th birthday.

“I love it here,” he said, looking around the living room. “I was suffering from loneliness. I think men generally find it harder to live alone than women. I’ve settled in here.”

Paul is a retired Episcopal priest, although that’s not quite the way things started out. His father was a Methodist minister, and Paul was following in his footsteps until he visited the Episcopal General Theological Seminary in Manhattan for a conference.

“Since I was a young man old enough to have a sense of the future, I felt pulled in two directions,” Paul told me. “The arts — I majored in music and did a good deal of painting. And the other side was a pull toward religion, particularly the spiritual aspect. Really, I was interested in the mystical side of religion.”

He was planning to drop out of the Methodist seminary and study painting, but at that conference at the Episcopal seminary, he said he was impressed by the people he met and told them he’d like to make a visit.

“I met with the subdean of the seminary, and the rest is history,” Paul said. “I transferred to General Theological Seminary and spent a year there, and was ordained in the late 1950s.”

“Musings of an Old Man” is filled with poetry written in free verse. “Oddly enough, I wasn’t that interested in poetry,” Paul said. “I decided to write in free verse because I hadn’t been educated much in the subtleties of poetry, and I felt more comfortable in that medium. I have now enough poems for two more books lying in wait.” His daughter Susan designed the book, and Alison took the photographs.

“They’re both very bright and creative,” he said, “and their two children are too.”

Paul spent a number of years compiling his poetry. He said he had written a few poems while serving as a parish priest and a hospital chaplain, but really began to focus on poetry after he retired and as his wife Marilyn’s health began to decline. They had met in college, and then got reacquainted after graduating. Paul ministered in the Baltimore area, where he was from originally, and had a hand in developing hospice there. The couple eventually worked their way up the coast, moving closer to Susan and her family, after spending most of their marriage in Maryland.

They lived in Falmouth before moving to the Island. Marilyn, who had “a beautiful sort of mezzo voice,” Paul said, lived at Windemere for six years before she died in 2015. She had been a teacher and very involved in music.

As Paul developed his poetry, he attended workshops on the Vineyard, and was encouraged to publish his work, particularly by his friend and mentor, Susan Klein. “Musings of an Old Man” is dedicated to two Susans: Susan Dawson and Susan Klein.

“Have you ever taken the Myers-Briggs test?” Paul asked me while we were chatting. “It measures personality and introverted and extraverted thought, logic, intuition, and sensing. My profile was very highly developed in intuition. I think it’s one of the primary reasons why spirituality fascinates me. I feel like our culture has gone so far the other way in technocracy that we are at risk of losing the rich resources of spirituality. Come with me, I want to show you my office.”

His office is filled with icons, and a few of his own paintings, one of which depicts Christ’s face at the Crucifixion and another that looks like, to me anyway, the face of a nun — St. Teresa of Avila perhaps.

“I’m drawn to people that are spiritual people,” he says. “You can probably pick that up in my poetry.”

I told him one of the poems, “The Peach,” is my favorite. “It’s one of mine too,” he said.

A ripe peach,
saffron,
tincture of the Spirit …
its sweet pulp
edged with tart
as in a refreshing
conversation …

Soft and luscious
with fibrous flesh,
whose filaments
and nectar make music
with the palate
in lingering savor.

Senses and spirit blended
in pleasure lent
through marvelous generosity
by the golden fruit
whose pit, untouched,
bears the germ of life.

Paul said he’ll likely do a book signing at Grace Church, where he attends services, sometime soon. I’ll be waiting to get my copy signed by this remarkable poet and spiritual thinker.

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The Rev. Charlotte Wright from the Chilmark Community Church sent word that the MV Camp Meeting Association and the United Methodist Society of MV are sponsoring a new event this summer: Catch the Spirit. It’s a youth camp meeting for middle school and high school ages that begins at the Tabernacle on Thursday, July 12, from 9:30 am to 5 pm. There will be food, fellowship, and friendship, live music, workshops and dancing. Guest speaker will be the Rev. Steven Chambers from Houston, Texas.

That evening at 6:30 pm, the Dirty Gospel band will play a traditional hymn sing at Trinity United Methodist at the Campground. Then, on Friday, July 13, gather at Inkwell Beach at 7 pm for evening worship.