Dancing through life


Ric Masten responds to cancer the way he knows best: turning ‘a line of language around a pain or puzzlement.’


The sixty men, all members of a prostate cancer survivor group in Thousand Oaks, California, were used to hearing speakers talk about the practical problems of coping with their disease. But when the Rev. Ric Masten came to speak, he led them on an emotional and spiritual journey, his itinerary formed by personal experience with the disease: In 1999, the Unitarian Universalist minister had been diagnosed with terminal prostate cancer.

His vehicle, as always, was his poetry. In his soothing and expressive voice, Masten read “Poor Devil,” which recalls old western movies in which a sentry would be discovered dead, an arrow in his back. It could be the sergeant, says the poem, who would deliver the classic line: “Poor devil, he never knew what hit him.”

There had been a time, the poem relates, when Masten had liked the idea of death taking him by surprise. But since he received his terminal diagnosis, he has thought differently:

“Poor devil”
never used an opening
to tell loved ones he loved them
never seized the opportunity
to give praise for the sunrise
or drink in a sunset
moment after moment
passing him by
while he marched through his life
staring straight ahead
believing in tomorrow
“Poor devil!”

how much fuller
richer and pleasing life becomes
when you are lucky enough
to see the arrow coming

Masten feels lucky. He says his life “really began” when his oncologist promised him a “graceful end”: He saw the arrow coming.

Because he holds this conviction so sincerely, his effect on the cancer survivors was like a shaft of sunlight angling through storm clouds. Harry Pinchot, who runs a prostate cancer helpline, said Masten took “guys who don’t cheer up easily from emotions of crying to joy back to very serious thought. Ultimately, we had a room of people singing ‘Let It Be a Dance.’ It was remarkable.”

Most patients, continued Pinchot, “are almost entirely focused on ‘have you heard about this drug, or that drug?’ and it’s very hard to bring up the psychological issues because no one wants to face their mortality. Ric is able to get them to face that.”

Finding a way to put his unique gifts to use in a ministry for people living with cancer is but one more example of Masten’s remarkable ability to, as he puts it, “do selfish things that benefit others.”

Since the mid-1960’s he has made his living singing songs and speaking his poetry, getting “a line of language around a pain or puzzlement” that has challenged his intellect or come to trouble his life. After he performed at the General Assembly in 1968, the UUA assigned the self-described peacenik the Vietnam-era task of “taking the spirit of liberal religion to college campuses and churches around the country,” in the words of the Rev. John Buehrens. Masten estimates that he has performed worship services in 500 UU congregations.

Unitarian Universalists who have not experienced Masten the performer have, most likely, risen to their feet to sing his signature composition, “Let It Be a Dance.” The UU standard has been recorded by a number of artists and appears not only in Singing the Living Tradition, the Unitarian Universalist hymnal, but several other hymn books as well.

College English professors have largely spurned his poetry. One told him after a performance that he was more a vaudevillian than a poet. But invitations from departments of psychology and theology have taken him to 400 colleges and universities. He has spoken at high school commencement exercises, at civic and business clubs, and at the White House Conference on Children, among other venues.

In a recent book of poems and line drawings titled after his well-known song, Let It Be a Dance: Words and One-Liners (Carmel Publishing Co., 2001), celebrities like Bill Moyers, Ruby Dee, and Ossie Davis, as well as artists, poets, and religious leaders like Buehrens, former president of the Unitarian Universalist Association, pay tribute to him. They call him a “people’s poet,” “a priest and a preacher,” a “poet and a philosopher.” He is recognized today, at 75, as the creator of a unique genre of inspirational and spiritual poems meant to be spoken rather than read.

Highly dyslexic, he flunked out of five colleges. But as his ministry grew he sought, and in 1971 was granted, fellowship as a minister by the UUA—the first who had never attended a seminary. His ordination represented an early recognition that Unitarian Universalist ministry need not be primarily about serving the needs of one congregation. That idea received formal recognition twenty years later when the General Assembly legitimized full-time community ministry as an official category of ministerial fellowship.

Masten’s ministry has always been about moving people to confront life’s major philosophical questions. But the focus of his ministry changed when he faced his own mortality, learning that his cancer had spread beyond his prostate. Instinctively, he began chronicling his cancer journey from diagnosis through continuing treatment both in poems and an online journal. Becoming one of the new kind of cancer patients who is not cured but lives on with treatment for a chronic disease, he endured surgical removal of his testicles, chemotherapy, radiation, and a hip replacement made necessary by the effects of the radiation.

Masten recovered enough to begin performing again, though less frequently. I was lucky, therefore, to hear him read his poetry at a house party early last spring at an unofficial event arranged by a member of my congregation, the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Huntington, New York.

Like most Americans, I am not a poetry enthusiast. I read poetry in college in dread of not figuring out the “right” interpretation. So I had few expectations for anything more than a social evening when this mostly bald, somewhat stooped man began speaking in a crowded living room.

I was captivated immediately. Sometimes his poems had punch lines and images that made me laugh out loud. At other times I could feel tears welling in my eyes. He made humor out of his dyslexia and flunking out of college, letting his poems expunge any bitterness or hurt from the experience. He offered himself as proof that life was worth living despite periods of despair and suicidal impulses. He voiced thoughts about death that most of us are afraid even to think, making them less fearful for the airing. He handed out copies of his books and asked us to pick out poems for him to speak. Somehow he managed to be so hopeful, so open, so tender, and so wise that by the end of the evening I felt as if I had been to a remarkable worship service that had touched me both spiritually and emotionally. I felt blessed.

When a family wedding took me to California, I determined to visit Masten at his home in Carmel. As I walked up the dusty driveway to the house he built overlooking the rocky coast just north of Big Sur, he reached out a hand in greeting. With the other, he leaned on a cane, a gnarled tree root that seems to have lifted itself out of the ground on purpose for him to find and polish for his use, its curved end a perfect handle.

A scraggly beard covered the lower part of his face, while clear blue eyes regarded me through trifocals. His face was sheltered from the California sun by the bill of a cap that proclaimed “Spiritude,” a word coined by a prostate cancer sufferer who met Masten via the Internet. Masten liked the word so well—a combination of spirit and attitude, keys to coping with prostate cancer—that he didn’t just put it on a hat, he composed a poem around it.

He walked slowly with me past his son-in-law, who was repairing the flat roof of his house with planks of plywood that had been donated by friends and well-wishers, each with a blessing penned into the wood. Prescription-drug costs had not left enough money to otherwise repair the leaky roof.

He led me into his earth-brown, rough-shingled house, organically grown as he and his wife, Billie Barbara, needed or wanted more rooms. It is built into the hillside on three levels. We went down one level to the kitchen and into an adjacent dining room. Both rooms overlook a spectacular narrow canyon where plumes of fog were stuck in the creases of land that slanted down to the coast. Surrounded by blue glass pitchers and plates and other collections put together by Billie Barbara, he told me about his remarkable life and work.

‘I’m just about the luckiest person on earth,” he announced. “What are the odds of a person being able to make a living writing poems? I’ve done a program in every state but North Dakota and Alaska.

“Everything I do has to do with wanting to find ways for me to have the feeling of being part of the larger self, and hopefully presenting something that you can come through to have that same feeling.”

Masten came to Unitarian Universalism unexpectedly. Born and raised in Carmel, his father, who died when he was 11, was an atheist ex-Catholic. His mother was an Episcopalian. Billie Barbara was initially a Church of Christ fundamentalist. Around 1965, after they had been married about ten years, he says, they went in search of a church to join. One day, he was looking through the newspaper to find the address of a Methodist church when his eye fell on an ad for the UU Church of the Monterey Peninsula. He was intrigued by the title of the sermon: “Are we authors or are we actors?” “We went and we never got out,” he remembered.

Within six months, the minister at Monterey then, the Rev. Bob O’Brian, asked him to do a Sunday service. He protested that he was a folk singer—he had been doing gigs, for example, at the Joan Baez folk festival—making his living in a print shop and doing construction work. But he acquiesced and did the service. Word spread, and soon he was traveling throughout California to present his folk-song service. His 1968 visit to the UUA General Assembly became the foundation of the rest of his career. The UUA financed his appearances at colleges, and many UUs who heard him at the assembly quickly invited him to their congregations.

‘I write out of personal necessity,” Masten told me, out of a need to understand his own life. Nothing is too personal for his poems, which fill fourteen books and can be heard on a series of CDs. When he and Billie Barbara discovered that they had both had brief affairs after ten years of marriage, they first contemplated divorce. Instead, she and he wrote poems that became a book, His and Hers: A Voyage through the Middle-Age Crazies, then went on the road to perform them. They have been married now for fifty-three years.

The poems, as time went on, slowly replaced the songs in his performances, and the singing was all but gone by the mid-1980s. He explained that he preferred poems because he had always felt embarrassed about having to read the lyrics while he was singing. His dyslexia, he said, prevents him from seeing images of any kind in his mind, and that somehow extends to remembering song lyrics. This inability to see mental images is particularly remarkable because in the years before he began writing rock songs and then folk music, Masten had been a promising painter. He points out some of his paintings as we walk through his house, muttering “Van Gogh.” He felt he could never escape the influence of the impressionist master.

But he still does visual art: single-line drawings done without ever lifting the point of the pencil from the page. They illustrate his book Let It Be A Dance and go out every week to his Internet “cybergation,” as he calls it. (Anyone can join—go to www.ric-masten.net—and receive a drawing, a poem and audio of Masten reading it.) His “pulpit” is a computer with an oversize screen tucked into a corner of his house.

Because he writes to be heard, not read, simplicity of expression must rule. “It doesn’t mean I can’t talk about complicated things like existentialism,” he said, “but I do it in Kiwanis club language.”

Well, not quite. “You’re going through his poems, and at the end he just flips you upside down,” said Robin Murphree, editor of Poetic Voices, a Web site where Masten’s books and poems have been enthusiastically reviewed. “I look for that, and twists and turns, and good images, opening lines that grab you into a poem. I don’t think he fits in any of the pre-defined slots for poets. He’s definitely not literary, not reggae-rap, not like some of these peace poets who are protesting the war with their poetry. He has created his own model. He’s just a joyful, down-to-earth, rare human being.”

Masten uses humor to open his audiences to serious messages. For example, he gave the commencement address last spring to the graduating class at a local high school. Coming into their seats, he said, the kids looked like “a disgruntled lynch mob,” forced to listen to a poet on their graduation day. He caught their interest when he told them he was about to impart something that was “going to save marriages, impress bosses—and it’s especially for you women.”

Then he read “Men Missing the Mark.” It’s about why men miss the toilet when they urinate.

Once the graduates had stopped laughing, he told them: “If your parents are sending you to college, don’t go. Go to college, don’t be sent.” He followed with another poem about his mother sending him to college to study optometry. He flunked out. “Thank God, I was learning disabled,” he said. He finished with an exhortation that they follow their dreams. The kids gave him a standing ovation, the only time in twenty-two years, a veteran teacher told him, that any graduating class had done so.

“Ric is wonderfully accessible and moving,” said Elliott Roberts, an old friend who is professor emeritus at Monterey Peninsula College, where he taught poetry. “He knows how to move through the emotional content of poems. He uses poetic devices, but he uses them very subtly.

“The fact that psychology and theology departments in universities ask him to come read tells you that his poetry has tremendous substance in terms of self-analysis and introspection,” continued Roberts, a poet himself who is affiliated with the Robinson Jeffers Tor House Foundation. “When he’s good, he’s very good,” said Roberts, but “the ultimate evaluation of his and all poetry is whether it continues to be read.”

Back at his home with me, Masten admitted to some pain in his lower back where his cancer has metastasized. He said he might have to resume chemotherapy soon because his blood markers are inching up. But he was feeling quite well, no longer needing powerful painkillers. Walking slowly up the hill, he showed me the homes on his property where two of his daughters live, one full-time, the other when she is on vacation. He and Billie Barbara have lived now for forty-five years in this place of spectacular beauty on land they bought back then for the price today of a very cheap car. As we continued to chat, he was relaxed, content.

Masten knows the arrow is coming, but at home in Carmel, surrounded by family and the land he loves, he is using every minute to dance through the rest of his life.

Editor’s note: The Rev. Ric Masten died May 9, 2008. Read his obituary from the UU Ministers Association. 

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