I didn't write or talk much about the death of Ted Kennedy for a couple of days. I didn't even watch any TV coverage. When I finally did watch the testimonials, I remembered seeing Allen Ginsberg on the Tonight Show many years ago. It was either in early 1969 - before Chappaquiddick - or a couple of years after that incident, when Teddy was once again being discussed as a Presidential contender.
Johnny Carson asked Ginsberg what he thought of Ted Kennedy. Carson clearly thought that the grubby beatnik/hippie sitting before him would go on a tirade about rich suit-and-tie wearing squares and their bummer/ego/death trips and bringdown wars, or words to that effect. While I don't remember the exact words of Ginsberg's reply, the gist of it was: Well, sure, he's part of the system as it currently exists, and yeah, he's working within a mindset that needs to change, but he kinda represents hope and inspiration, and he's really trying to help people, so I sorta love him.
I sorta love him. The comment was striking, both for its casual delivery and the open-hearted generosity of the sentiment. Carson's eyebrows went up in surprise and the conversation went on to something else. To my fourteen or sixteen or seventeen year old self it was a revelation. The false polarity between the world of "straight" engagement and the world of "hipster" art and literature had been stripped away, negated by a simple declaration of love.
Ted Kennedy was a Catholic, not a Buddhist, but the remainder of his life reads like a Bodhisattvic exercise. (In the Tibetan Buddhist tradition, a"bodhisattva" is an enlightened being who refuses Nirvana and stays in this world to help others.) His brothers flashed across the national stage like shooting stars, brief and brilliant. Teddy's was a slower fire, like the hearth around which a family could gather. He was the one who stayed behind to do the hard work. The dilettante younger brother, the drinker and partier from whom little was expected and less was delivered, the guy who cheated on his exams at Harvard because he couldn't be bothered to study ... he was the brother who spent five decades poring tirelessly over endless pages of legislation and policy briefings. He stayed behind to take care of everyone's children, to fight for the powerless, to do what needed to be done on a daily basis.
His personal struggles were well-known. He "struggled with his demons," people said, using a phrase that might have come straight from Tibetan symbolism. He was forced to expose his human weaknesses in a public way, a way that his brothers did not. I remember seeing him on Boston Common once during those dark days. It was a shocking sight, the once-beautiful scion reduced to an ashen specter. His skin seemed to be the same shade as his gray hair and suit, its surface the puffy texture of warts.
I don't know what tools he used to escape those demons, but people say he found meaning, purpose, and happiness in the hard work of the Senate. He accepted his fate - as a Kennedy, as the Kennedy who survived, as a hard-working solon - with what appeared to be joy and grace. He grew into the shape laid down for him by time and events. The gray lifted. With the brush of years he colored in the silhouette that inspired Allen Ginsberg, of all people, to cherish him so many years ago.
He kept the vow. He stayed behind. He relished the prosaic tasks of human existence. Draw water, carry wood - pass legislation.
He carried on the essential work of the human spirit. We sorta loved him.
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