I believe every community has one – a wizard, a medicine man or woman, a sage – a wise soul who sees with the eye of the heart. Calm beacons in life’s many storms, they usually lead quietly, often in the shadows, avoiding the evaporating shine of fame. We seek them out when building bridges, fighting battles or feeding the hungry. Or when we need healing salve for our aching souls.
For my final post of 2017, I share with you a poet, author, teacher, counselor and friend to many, including me.
Polio stole Major Ragain’s happy, jumping legs when he was just an eight-year-old boy. He learned to adjust, to drink from the cup life had given him and do so with gratitude. What his silenced legs could not do, his strong arms, muscled chest and hungry imagination could do and did. “Maj” as most call him, fed his curiosity with stories and life experiences. His hungry, intelligent spirit led him across the globe. He blossomed into an accomplished world citizen, respected teacher and honored poet. Earning a PhD from Kent State and teaching since 1960, Dr. Major D. Ragain, was an instructor of English at Kent State since 1981. But nobody I know calls him Doctor, nor does he encourage it. He is Maj.
“For me, the polio was a splendid opportunity to be held in the fire,” Maj assures. “It took me in its tongs and held me in the fire and for that, I am stronger and more resilient and more forgiving of pain.”
Maj has many loves in his nearly 80 years – his wife LuAnn, his children and veterans. But perhaps one of his greatest loves is story, particularly poetry. He recalls when poetry’s arrow first pierced his searching heart.
“It happened very early. Poetry was alive and was part of the great continuity of things. And I was, as anyone, interested in that continuity, something much bigger than my own life. Early teens when I started to dream that stuff. And I began to see that imagination was a quickened form of spirit. And I began to read more.”
One of the first poems Maj really connected with was “With Rue My Heart Is Laden” by A.E. Housman. Written in 1896, the words had a profound effect on Ragain. He can still quote it by heart today.
“I began thinking, what is that? And in that poem, is a whole kernel of what’s sad and beautiful about being alive. Youth, old age, the living fade out of it, but life goes on. We die but life doesn’t die. And there is beauty in it.” He adds, “I didn’t write any poetry until I was about 35. I wrote down my feelings and my thoughts, things like that, but they were just that. A poem is beyond that. A poem has to have its own reason for being in the world, apart from you wanting it to be. It all comes from some deeper urgency, like it wants to be out with all other poems.”
In poetry, he wanders a magical, limitless landscape of imagination and emotion, always searching in that deep lake without bottom. The poem allows him to drink from his own soul, see his own moving reflection, and the reflections of others who have come to drink with him.
Maj, a man who wears a deep sadness, even when he laughs, has a special love for veterans and has given to Warriors Journey Home and The Veterans’ Writing Circle, sponsored in part by Wick Poetry.
I watch him, painfully, as he grimaces while trying to lift his large chest and twisted body from his car to his wheelchair in bitter cold. His loving wife LuAnn patiently awaits, helping only when he asks. It’s an arduous process which often leaves Maj gasping for breath, and lately he “totes around a dandy little device that makes its own oxygen” to the meetings.
He doesn’t complain because he believes his mission is worth the pain.
He uses words as medicine,
“There’s something spiritual in gathering with Maj, to read and listen,” says Douglas Kulow. “He gives me courage to write more. And when he shares his words as fertile gifts he nourishes our imagination to grow. I always leave with more than I came, a seed bag full of new ideas.”
Once a week, for the past 8 years, Maj has pulled himself up to a table with up to 12 souls, the numbers vary weekly, and for two hours, listens and shares and encourages.
Though I am not a vet, the group has adopted me into their family. For two hours we read and share, led by our word Yoda. Several members drive an hour each way to commune, often in bad weather.
Composed mostly of veterans from wars in Vietnam, Beirut, Afghanistan – some with reoccurring nightmares and PTSD from the killings they have seen and perhaps contributed to – The Veterans’ Writing Circle is a therapy pool for the mind and heart. It’s a safe place where honest and comforting words massage deep emotional wounds and where grown men can cry. A safe place where one is able to drink from his own soul, see his own reflection as well as those about him who have also come to drink.
Says Jill, “Maj has a way of reading between the lines and seeing what a story or poem is really saying through the person that has written it, sometimes seeing more than what the writer realized they were expressing. Maj is a gift to all that know him.”
Andy adds, “Maj is a wise and noble Chieftain, with a penetrating gaze that sees deep, and a gentle heart behind his words. I am honored to know him.” –
The power of poetry to transform and heal.
Using the healing power of placing words on paper, Maj gently encourages each member of the circle to reach into his or her own soul and liberate painful emotions with written words. It’s a magical, healing process, allowing some of the poison to escape.
“One word: trust,” says a decorated veteran who has battled PTSD since being sent to Vietnam in his twenties.
“It has taken me 40 years to talk about this,” he confesses. “Maj taught me to put my feelings in words and those words on paper. He told me to focus on one or two words at a time.”
Another vet, Dave Agard, says, “Maj is a beacon seeking stories. If you sail to his light, telling your story along the way, you will find yourself there.”
Though the group meets in a church building, the gathering doesn’t open with prayer. Instead, Ragain will offer updates on members who may be ill or off on some adventure. Sometimes he shares poignant words from a poem another has written. Or, he shares a slice from his life, perhaps a lesson from a haircut given him by his wife, Lu, in a cemetery. It’s evident Maj needs to give, to share, as much as we need to catch his wisdom in whatever containers we bring each week. His is one of the few voices that can silence the room. He chooses his words carefully, as if each a rare coin from a limited collection.
I sense it is sharing that keeps him alive.
One night, while sharing his struggle with growing health issues, he groaned, “I don’t want to lose you.” Warning the time was coming where he could no longer make it to the church building, especially on snowy days, he asked if we could meet in his home during bad weather. “I don’t want to lose you,” he repeated again, this time nearly choking on his words. “It took me too long to find you.”
In an era when so many doctors have neither the time nor interest in listening to patients, and when many teachers suffer under the weight of apathy and state regulations, we gravitate to the “unofficial” counselors and healers in our communities. After all, there is a beautiful purity when money isn’t the motivation for action.
They are angels without wings.
Maj has learned to see love and kindness when others saw hated and judgment. He drew strength from personal grief to ease the suffering of others.
“Words can’t sit on my lap and give me comfort the way a child can. They don’t smell, or wriggle or ask innocent questions. But they do help, when they come from sweet fountains.”
– Maj Ragain
To learn more about Major Ragain, I have attached a few links.
Also, with his permission, here is Maj’s email address: firstname.lastname@example.org