To Make a Difference [or Not]


My adoptive father, Dr. Albert Conkle Kean, was an imposing figure and an educated man. He had many close friends in his inner circle and he was well known throughout northern Minnesota where he lived for most of his life. I called him ‘Pops’ for short.

Pops was 57 years old when he and Pearl Kean adopted me. I was just five years old at the time and fresh from a series of seventeen different foster homes that I shared over a three-year period with my five older brothers: Darryl, Dale, Curt, Kenneth, and [the eldest] Philip. Our natural parents gave us up for adoption when our house burned down and their ill-fated marriage consequently collapsed.

The welfare system tried their best to keep us all together but in the end they couldn’t; and eventually we were all sent our separate ways like it or not.

The path I took was an improbable one. Doc Kean had one son from a prior marriage that ended in death. His son, Dudley, was five years old at the time and Doc raised him on his own. Doc remarried later in life when he had means and a professional career of consequence; plus time to give to a little girl who quickly became the apple of his eye.

I learned many things from Pops over the years but one that stands out from all the rest is his insistence that, no matter what, I somehow make a difference; that I find a way to stand out from the crowd in whatever I did and take stands on things that are important to me. That was all he asked, he said.

It was a tall order and one that I didn’t entirely understand until years later.

What form did this take?
My initial foray into making a difference came in Kindergarten when I was appointed director of the first-ever Kindergarten Band. I had a white director’s uniform made just for me and a long, thin baton, as well as a very important director’s hat. I remember looking back at the others in the band and thinking that this was fun!

Not long after that I visited Chicago with the Keans and sat on my first-ever Santa’s lap. I was bowled over by all the tinsel and toys and Santa’s bright red velveteen suit and I know I talked his ear off. I was jubilant; that is, until I eventually came down with the mumps.

“There is always a little bit of bad with the good.” Pops told me as he held a cooling washcloth to my forehead. “You have to learn to take the lumps.”

Those were pretty big lumps as I saw it and right then and there I had my first inkling that the road ahead was not necessarily going to be a smooth one.

That first Christmas at the Keans came and went and I was awash with gifts enough for ten of me. The tree was gigantic and sparkled with hundreds of colored lights, joyful music played throughout the house, and well-wishing neighbors came and went as I sat beneath that Christmas tree and quietly wept.

Yes, I wept for my five brothers because I did not know where they were at the moment. Our connection had been lost. These presents should have been theirs, too; yes, and all the rest.

Later, as children came to my house to play with me, I sent them home with my newly acquired gifts. I didn’t feel any sense of ownership and I really didn’t feel all that happy to have them. That was my first lesson.

Things do not make us happy
To this day I experience a sense of dread about presents. I appreciate gift giving and I feel that I am a giving person, but I still do not like the commercialism of Christmas as I approach my 63rd birthday. I prefer to [make] presents for others, or at least to make a present of my time that I then give to others. I dislike purchased gifts because they rarely come from the heart.

Curt, my middle brother, gave me a doll when I was eight. I had been living with the Keans for a number of years by then and he wanted to show me that he was thinking of me. He brought me a rag doll that he had made in school – he even sewed the bibbed corduroy pants and shirt that the doll was wearing! – and he painted a welcoming smile on the doll’s face.

I still have that precious doll. It means the world to me.
Years later I invited my brother, Philip, on a trip to Africa with me. It wasn’t the trip itself that was important; it was the thought and the time that he and I would be able to spend together. He hemmed and hawed because his health wasn’t good and he worried about his ability to manage such an adventure physically. But he went anyway and we had a wonderful time, the two of us.

Little did we know that it would be Philip’s last adventure. Shortly thereafter he died in his sleep and I was left to grieve for him with bittersweet thoughts of black rhinos and leopards and lions and African elephants roaring in the background. It was a trip of a lifetime for him and a precious time of togetherness for us both.

Then this last fall I visited Doc Kean’s old hunting and fishing camp on Bowstring Lake in northern Minnesota. I found my way to the camp with a little help from my buddy, Larke Huntley, who got directions and permission for me to go out there. Visiting the old camp was fun and filled with memories for me, but the real treasure was in the camp’s LOG BOOK that brought my past zip zip into the present. There, on its pages, in handwriting that I recognized, were words that told the world that I had been there, on which dates, and that I had been there with dear old Pops at my side.

No one can possibly know how important that day was for me.

Music for the soul
A lasting gift that the Keans gave to me was the gift of music.

I danced up a storm when I was a child and I took all kinds of music lessons – not to become a famous musician but to become a soulful grown-up. Music is an international language of love. It’s meaning transcends all barriers. I didn’t necessarily know that as a child or teenager practicing BACH on one instrument or another; but I know it now. I know that music moves me in ways that nothing else can.

When Pearl Kean died, years after Pop Kean’s death, I had a grand piano placed on the altar of the Catholic Church where Pearl’s funeral was officiated. I stepped up to the altar and spoke with the audience of friends and family that had gathered and told them of the gift that the Keans had given me – the gift of music. Then I sat down and played a soulful AUTUMN LEAVES and EXODUS to friends whose tears were audible between the bars of music.

Many years later I had an opportunity to take over a classroom of emotionally troubled children in Newport News, Virginia. Their teacher had suddenly taken ill and I was her replacement, much to the chagrin of the children, of course. They missed their teacher and they balked at my sudden intrusion into their lives.

But I got to them through music. They learned to spell to music, count to music, march to music, dance to music – indeed, everything that happened in that classroom of twelve children was done to music. We even laughed to music. And it wasn’t long before they loved me as much as they had loved their prior teacher and that made me glad. This lesson was that music, indeed, is a tool for life.

What then?
It seems that Pops was a stickler for words. He was an avid reader and he expected me to be one as well. Whenever I approached him about the meaning of a certain word or two he would send me immediately to the dictionary. I would beg him to tell me whatever it was but he persisted and, before I knew it, books became my best friends, too.

To this day I treasure books, good books – not necessarily any book – but books that inspire and force me to think big thoughts. I have found, over the years, that anxiety escalates when one becomes cocooned and cutoff from the rest of the world.

Books – words – forge friendships between strangers half way around the world.

During my years as a family therapist clients often asked me what books they could read to help them through their trials and tribulations. There were none, I said, except for those literary classics that had confounded philosophers from the Middle Ages forward. Read those, I told them. Don’t read dreary SELF-HELP books. Read about the real world. Read about life and the passion of pursuit and the untold joys of discovery.

Read to your heart’s content.
I learned over the years to read authors, not just one author’s book; but also every book that someone I admired has ever written. As a result I learned how that person thinks, how they view the world, how they manage adversity and, most importantly, how they see themselves in relation to the world around them.

This is important. For me to admire a person that admiration must be grounded in some larger context. David Bohm, for example, is an internationally acclaimed theoretical physicist. His thoughts became increasingly important to me as I tracked his initial musings about wholeness and the implicate order. Those musings infatuated me beyond belief.

I became a systems thinker at Bohm’s feet, and also coincidentally at Dr. Murray Bowen’s feet, and I will treasure those musings to my dying day.

I do believe I have made a difference in the lives of some for whom the world was broken and senseless. I gave them structure, a framework, if you will, to hang their hat on. I engaged them a systemic dance of a lifetime, a dance that would, if they let it, transport them to higher realms of thinking and being where anxiety was a mere afterthought.
The lesson? That big thoughts crowd out lesser thoughts. Pops would be proud of me, I think.

So I continue my trek through life to stand apart. I am politically an Independent. I am religiously private. I give voice to the downtrodden. And I try to give voice, as well, to the animals in our midst, both companion and wild, who cannot speak for themselves. I will always give voice to dissent when I think the situation merits it.

I also strive to be creative which is not always easy. The business of life constantly interferes with creativity. But I thrive on creativity. I wake up in the middle of the night filled with fanciful thoughts. Later I sit at the piano and imagine a world without war with Beethoven at its helm.

I also wonder at the constellations and how I might one day get to visit them.

I wish for nothing, I hope for nothing. I am moved by everything. I think, therefore I am.

This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed. © 2010 Dr. Ellen K. Rudolph. All rights reserved.

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