Magic My Dad Taught Me
(For his 75th birthday)
1. Numbers are Words of Power
Late for bed, I hear you give me
Until the count of ten,
Your voice echoing down the cinderblock hallway,
Enumerating the fateful deci-knell,
Whose end I must avert,
Or face, I do not know;
My four-year-old self cannot imagine.
Small wonder that, a year later,
I feared to take up such dangerous words,
And my teacher found
I would not count past five.
Many years later, I would embrace qualitative research,
Forgoing the numbers
That psychologists love so well,
And refusing to use the discipline
Of quantity with my own children.
Some powers are so numinous
They are best left to one’s parents.


2. True Magic is to Know the Other
You will always be the Other
I want to know.
Silently walking the golf course,
As a young boy,
I followed beside you.
As the silence grew, I would begin to wonder:
What were you thinking?
Until I could no longer contain myself,
And I would ask you.
You never said “I do not know”
Or “Nothing,”
Those empty answers we give
To keep each other out.
But instead you would unfold the plot
Of some interesting legal case,
or a science fiction story,
Something clever and surprising,
Full of ironic twists and turns.
And so I’ve never been able shake the notion
That every single person walks their course,
Filled with astounding stories
Waiting to be asked.





3. The Magic of High Places


Mountains climbed and unclimbed:

Whitney, Shasta, McKinley;

We approached these,

Portals to heaven.


Shasta and McKinley we looked at

Wistfully, imagining the climb,

And passed by.


Mount Whitney we set out for one day.

I was full of grand dreams,

But my little brother gave out after half a mile,

Thus saving us from our own

Inadequate preparations.


But finally, one summer solstice night,

We climbed high above the Murray Creek valley,

To the top of your Mount Zion.


We spent the night

Looking for shooting stars,

Finding instead the airplanes in their flight paths,

Ten miles up, flashing across the night sky,

Dragging the roar of their jets

Far behind them,

While we attempted to sleep

Among the rocks and weeds.


I no longer remember what we talked about.

But somehow, in my memory

That night marks a boundary for me,

Between a childhood of vague imaginings,

And an adulthood of climbable destinations.

Mountains that we only dream of climbing,

And those within our grasp.




4. The Shaman Must Journey to the Land of the Dead


For much of my childhood

I was troubled by dreams

That you had died.

And then you almost did.


A few weeks ago, I read that

A well-known psychologist, my age,

Had died of what very nearly took you.


And I remembered the trip we made

In 1969 to Ben Lomond:

I think you were feeling unwell, because

I was driving the old white checker cab

That we taken to Alaska two years before.


As we passed through San Jose,

You were stricken, and suddenly

I had to do something and I had never

Had anyone else’s life in my hands before,

And I had to do something.


And so we found the hospital in Los Gatos,

Which was for you the entrance

to the Underworld.


I didn’t see you for a while,

As you journeyed there inside.

I knew you might not come back,

But I hoped and prayed you would.

And when you did, you had traveled

Much farther than we realized.



As a psychotherapist, I am often faced

With the terrible question

Of whether people can ever really change,

In the face of so much that stands in the way:

Fear, addiction, isolation, old injuries.


But there you were, emerging out of the shadows,

Struggling, but carrying with you

Hope, freedom, connection, healing.

Small wonder that you found the road to shamanhood

A few years after that.

You were already well on the way.


And so my terrible question has

An undeniable answer:

Yes, change is possible,

But sometimes you have to

Go through Hell to get there!


-Robert Kingwill Elliott, Jr., 7 September 2002