Obituary for Paul B. Janeczko

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Writer Paul Bryan Janeczko, 73, died peacefully February 19 at his home in Brunswick, Maine, surrounded by close family and a good friend.  On the windowsill perched his upcoming poetry anthology, The Proper Way to Meet a Hedgehog, just before its March release. A collection of cards, pictures, and drawings from friends and family crowded the bedside tables. His favorite music, jazz, played softly.  It was lunchtime, cold and sunny.

Paul was diagnosed in spring 2018 with a recurrence of a rare cancer that he fought 25 years ago.  After many consultations, procedures, and treatments, both conventional and experimental, he and his family decided to accept hospice care as the best option for the end stage of a rich life.

Born on July 27, 1945, in Passaic, New Jersey, Paul was the second child and son of Francis John and Veronica (Smolak) Janeczko, both children of Polish immigrants.  For most of young Paul’s life, the family lived in Wood-Ridge, NJ. He attended Catholic schools, and though he later left the church, he embraced his Polish heritage, especially its hearty food and stereotypically dogged work ethic.  In the last week of his life, he enjoyed a family dinner of authentic pierogi and stuffed cabbage from Bogusha’s in Portland.

Paul was barely a postwar child—arriving just after Germany’s surrender but before Japan’s—and not quite a Baby Boomer.  He embodied much of the late-1940s spirit of middle-class suburban America, playing little league baseball (not well), enduring school, exploring early rock and roll, and finding his way amongst a large brood in a small brick house.

A self-described indifferent student, Paul discovered poetry as an undergraduate at St. Francis College (now the University of New England) in southern Maine, and furthered his studies at John Carroll University in suburban Cleveland.  He dedicated the next two decades to inspiring high school students as a language arts teacher in Ohio, Massachusetts, and Maine. After the birth of daughter Emma, Paul retired from teaching to devote more time to writing and share in her care.  This allowed him to combine his enthusiasm for teaching poetry with a more flexible schedule. As a sort of wandering poet/educator dubbed Poet Guy, he traveled throughout the U.S. and overseas, leading school workshops for kids ages 5 to 18. He had a special affection for “the County”—rural Aroostook County, Maine—and other remote, under-resourced areas in his adopted home state.  In these tailored seminars, Paul helped hundreds of students find just the right words to describe images and feelings, using examples of poems that had “reached” his high school charges, as well as fun challenges and word games to open their imaginations.

In the early 1990s, in his early 50s, Paul experienced his first bout with cancer, undergoing successful chemotherapy and radiation.  Although he never needed an outside force to maintain his strong work habits, this period of illness and recovery was followed by prolific, creative years, as if there was no time to waste.  He turned out more than 50 books altogether—poetry anthologies for all ages, young-adult fiction and nonfiction, instructional books for teachers, and his own poetry books-on a wide range of subjects such as cowboys, a Holocaust-era ghetto, a circus fire, and, of course, baseball.  (More about Paul’s writerly life may be found in his Publishers Weekly obituary at https://www.publishersweekly.com/pw/by-topic/childrens/childrens-authors/article/79328-obituary-paul-b-janeczko.html)

Paul often proclaimed that he was never bored, that there was always something to research or start, edit or polish. He carried a small notebook in his pocket and would write down a song fragment, a character quirk, or a brilliant idea gleaned from an article he’d read. He was an avid reader and book collector, with an impressive home library that contains more books than most people could hope to read in their lifetime.

Paul loved a good football game and followed the New England Patriots loyally, but baseball reigned in his heart.  In 2012, he and daughter Emma took a rambling cross-country tour of several major- and minor-league baseball stadiums.  A childhood fan of the Chicago White Sox (because of a fixation with their star second baseman, Nellie Fox), Paul happily joined Red Sox Nation once he moved to New England.  He generally attended two or three games a season with his brother, Emma, or a friend. He was a reserved guy but never hid his childlike delight in a great game or even an average one. He was known for disliking long lines (or any lines) and crowds, but if there was a Sox game on the other end, it was okay.  At home, he counted down the days until spring training and listened to games on the radio, almost every summer night. An early-to-bed fan, he’d check the final score first thing upon awakening at his usual hour of 4:15 or so.

Paul and Nadine, his wife of 34 years, moved to Brunswick from Hebron, Maine, in 2015.  The number of book boxes that were moved from one house to another even after agonizing culling shall remain unreported. While leaving the tiny town and his familiar grooves was not Paul’s idea, he reluctantly agreed that civilization could be a good thing, and his three-plus years in the college town were happy and productive.  The neighbors proved smart and caring, the Broadway Deli nourishing, and the Bowdoin College campus invigorating for walks or a trip to the library.

Spiritual nourishment was a priority of Paul’s and came in the form of a regular Buddhist study, consistent meditation practice, daily yoga (before yoga was cool) and  about 40 morning minutes of journaling, Paul made time for daily walks with and without the family dog (first Ed, then Rosie, recently Nellie) along wooded paths in Hebron and Brunswick.  In bad weather, he used a treadmill and often watched English mystery series—what he called “Brit Dicks”—as he walked. Paul grocery-shopped on Saturday (before the crowds), cleaned the bathroom on Sunday (listening to twangy country tunes), and planned the week’s menus in advance, ensuring home-cooked meals on the table most nights.  He liked lists and checking things off them, something that runs in the family. He cultivated a semi-Luddite image but appreciated his iPad, from which friends would receive links to articles they might like, along with thoughtful notes. Paul amassed a large collection of fountain pens, which he used for journaling and note-taking. He felt that waiting for the ink to dry on a page allowed a pause—a moment to think—before the start of another.  A late adopter of the smartphone, he nevertheless became a devoted texter, not only to keep up with his millennial daughter but because it allowed him to avoid phone conversations (which he never liked anyway), as he lost some hearing over the past few years.

Every summer for the past 25 years, the Janeczko/Edris family with many of their friends spent a couple of weeks on the Isle of Springs, a small, no-cars island off Boothbay, Maine.  In the week before he died, Paul talked about the great fortune of finding such an “otherworldly” place so close to home. Although he was a bit of a landlubber who never learned how to swim, he adored the island—the rambling pathways, the salty smells of the rocky and grassy shores, the sureness of the tides, the glimpses of red squirrels and deer and ospreys from the screen porch, the hunt for sea glass, the clanging of the channel bells, and the big themed dinners with friends in the evenings.  Paul loved peach pie, peanut butter, slow-made oatmeal, and kielbasa. He was a hearty eater with a healthy appreciation for treats, and even came around to tolerating kale and arugula thanks to his veggie-obsessed wife and daughter.

This past Labor Day weekend, Paul walked Emma down the aisle arm-in-arm with Nadine, opened the ceremony with a Rumi poem and toasted the happy couple after a tender father-daughter dance.  This was his last big public appearance and a testament to his commitment to celebrating this joyous occasion. The fall and winter became an uneven rotation of visits to Brigham and Women’s Hospital and a Spaulding rehab facility in Boston, then back to Brunswick and frequent shuttling between Mid Coast Hospital and home with in-home care. During his time at home, he visited with many close friends, neighbors, and family members.  As the winner of the 2019 Award for Excellence in Poetry for Children from the National Council of Teachers of English, he participated in a wide-ranging bedside interview the week before he died, reflecting on his work habits and practices with typical humor and few regrets.

Paul volunteered for the Mid Coast Hunger Prevention Program and taught courses at the MidCoast Senior College and Adult Education Programs.  He was a devoted supporter of many humanitarian, educational, political, and artistic organizations.

Paul leaves his wife, Nadine Edris of Brunswick; daughter Emma Janeczko and her husband Devin Perry of Westbrook, ME; three brothers and their wives:  Francis John, Jr. (Linda) of Ocala, FL, John R. (Patricia) of Haddon Heights, NJ, and Mark T. (Nancy) of Wood-Ridge, NJ; sister Mary Janeczko-Jezsik of Littleton, CO; ten nieces and nephews and many grand nieces and nephews.  The family is planning a memorial celebration of his life on June 8 at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Brunswick, ME. Donations in Paul’s memory may be sent to Mid Coast Hunger Prevention Program, Curtis Memorial Library, Good Shepherd Food Bank, Amnesty International, your local library or a charity of your choosing.

POP QUIZ

Can you take a guess as to what this is?

 

I will give you one clue: It is something in my office. Use the comments section to make a guess.

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Strings

One of the writing assignments I often give students in my poetry writing workshops is to write a history poem. Not current-events history, but personal history. Among the prompts I give them are: write an autobiography of the ways they’ve worn their hair, write a list of houses they’ve lived in, or draw a map of the neighborhood they lived in when they were 10 or 12. In addition, I give them some sample poems, including “A History of the Pets” by Vermont poet David Huddle. (if you’d like to see Huddle talk about poetry, try this.) I want them to consider the strings that have run through their lives, often connecting to family.

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I was thinking of my history lately when my niece Elizabeth sent me half a dozen black-and-white snaps that my newly-retired brother John had developed from negatives he recently found. (You do remember negatives, yes?) In these pictures I was about three years old, living in Maryland. As photographic technologies changed, my family accumulated hundreds of slides to replace the Brownie shots. Often a family gathering included a slideshow orchestrated by my father who selected a random carousel of slides to show us. His method of organizing the slides was to not organize them. So, we might see a slide or two of a 4th-of-July parade, followed by a decorated Christmas tree, and a group shot in front of the church following a wedding. Then back to a parade…from another year. Photographs are certainly a string that connects my history.

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One of the strongest strings is my collection of tickets from baseball games I have gone to. The tickets sit in a Fenway Park/Citgo promotion glass that has sat on my bureau for nearly 25 years. I have tickets that go back to 1993, including the tickets to five games that Emma and I saw when we drove back to Maine from California after she graduated from college in 2012. And, in the glass is a ticket to an Orioles-Blue Jays game in Baltimore that my brother Mark and I were traveling to the morning when the first plane hit the North Tower on 9/11. Talk about strings.

 

Do you have strings that you hold dear?

How I Write

I write slowly. On purpose. With purpose. I write all my preliminary notes, jottings, and first draft in longhand on yellow lined paper with a fountain pen. Always. Writing with a fountain pen slows me down, which gives me the opportunity to think more as I write. What’s next? Is there a better way to say this? Sure, I want to let the words and ideas flow, but I tend to do some editing as I draft. And with a fountain pen, there there’s always a pause at the end of page, as I wait for the last line of words to dry before I flip the sheet to the other side.

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Writing with a fountain pen is also part of my ritual when I write. Selecting the pen I’ll use, as well as the color ink. For me, it’s so much more satisfying than using a Bic with its end pitted with teeth marks.

When I’ve written four or five pages of a nonfiction chapter, for example, I swivel my chair from my desk to my iMac and type the pages into Word, again editing a bit as I type. I need to put my draft into Word soon after I write a handful of pages because it makes it more likely that I’ll be able to read what I’d written. My penmanship is often unruly, so going to Word soon after I’ve written is critical.

And that’s the early part of the process for me: fountain pen on yellow pager to Word, then back to my fountain pen for my next short installment. Every time I type a page of my draft, I drag a slash of blue highlighter down the sheet, my signal that that pages is safely in Word.

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Of course, once all my pages are in Word, then the hard work begins: revising and rewriting, the part of the process that I like the least. But it really is what good writing is all about. So, I revise, reading with pen in hand—a ball point will do for this—looking for words that I can change or cut, sentences to streamline, paragraphs that belong in a different part of the chapter. Once I have made those changes in the doc, I print the chapter and give it time to rest in a folder—a day or two—then read it again, pen in hand, tweaking until the chapter becomes the best I can write. Then I’m back at my desk facing another blank yellow sheet, fountain pen in hand.

A visit to the past

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 On my recent visit to the Jersey town in which I grew up, I took a walk and found myself standing in front of the house where I spent my kid years, across the street from the school field where brothers and friends played baseball on countless days until, as Jonathan Holden wrote, “the ball is khaki—/a movable piece of the twilight/...and routine grounders get lost in/the sweet grass for extra bases.”

    But before the sky darkened, we often shimmied up the drain pipe in a hidden corner of the school to the flat roof and ran around hoping to find a baseball that other kids had hit up there and abandoned like a bad idea, a baseball that was always in better shape than the ones wrapped in black electrical tape that we usually used.

    And the house. Truth be told, not much about it has changed since I left for college over 50 years ago. I found comfort in that. And a measure of gratitude as well.

    When I finally stepped into the street to leave, in the gutter I found a baseball. I picked it up and rubbed it in my hands, feeling a sense of comfort in its roughness. And gratitude.

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    As I slipped the ball into my jacket pocket, I thought of what John Banville wrote in the opening section of his new Memoir, Time Pieces, “When does the past become the past? How much time must elapse before what merely happened begins to give off the mysterious, numinous glow that is the mark of true pastness? After all, the resplendent vision we carry with us in memory was once merely the present, dull and mundane and wholly unremarkable.... What is the magic that is worked upon experience, when it is burnished to a finished radiance?...Let us say, the present is where we live, while the past is where we dream. Yet if it is a dream, it is substantial, and sustaining....And when does the past become the past?”

I’d love to hear what you think of Banville’s final question.

Welcome to my blog

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             One of the best things about this new-and-improved website is that it gives me the chance to write a blog. As the blog evolves, I’ll try to keep it practical, helpful, and lighthearted. The subject of the blog will be about poetry. Mostly. However, I will, from time to time, have something to say about the writing process, creativity, and journaling. I will talk about how I write, select poems, and decide which book I would like to write next. Oh, and I might have something to say about the Red Sox, fountain pens, and living on the coast of Maine. I will also have a monthly Poetry Connection, in which I will feature a poem by a contemporary poet, followed by some comments by the poet about the poem. In addition, I will alert you to new and noteworthy poetry books, especially those suitable for classroom use. And, since so much of poetry is sound, I have partnered with AudioFile magazine to bring you news and reviews of worthwhile audio poetry programs. I hope to include a link to excerpts from these books. Finally, I plan to share poetry-writing lessons for your classrooms.

            I hope that From My Desk is not a one-way street. I will welcome your comments, suggestions, and questions.