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Around the Kitchen Table

Lloyd Ratzlaff

09/30/2015

It’s just over two years since my good friend Ken Latos died. For a decade he had pitted his redoubtable spirit against an encroaching cancer, and at the same time was struggling with his pre-Vatican II Catholic upbringing, and toward the end of his life also with certain aspects of evangelical Christianity to which he had been drawn. He was my only friend who shared such deep passion for Carl Jung’s psychology and its insights into the profundities of the human soul. And he was a writer — a prolific writer — collecting over his adult lifetime some 500 notebooks which he kept variously in the trunk of his car, in the rafters of a cousin’s garage, or in a small storage room with concrete walls because it was “the safest place in the apartment.”

I first met Ken in 1986 in the Saskatoon airport, where we discovered that we were both headed for Pecos, New Mexico, to a conference on psychology and spiritual life. It was the beginning of a long and comfortable friendship which eventually became for me (and I believe for Ken, too) a relationship of soul-brothers. We seemed to point each other to what we knew would help, and often after a discussion felt that some imbalance in life had been corrected. More than once he said, “Now that we’ve talked, things are back to normal,” and I felt that way myself.

In academic philosophy Ken had out-read me by far, and perhaps also in Jungian psychology. During one of our final visits he said he had always imagined our relationship to be like two mountaineers who were climbing for the sheer adventure of it. This metaphor astonished me, since to my mind our common adventure had always been the other way — down into deep places, and much more by necessity than by choice. The images of course are complementary, but it was just like Ken to come up with such an eagle-eyed view; and when he added that our mountain-climbing phase was now over, I half-way joked that this didn’t necessarily mean he had to die.

One of the last writings he shared with his family and friends was a letter meant as a testimony to his spiritual quest. It begins with a series of negations: he is not a metaphysician and not a psychologist, neither is he a theologian or a teacher. But interspersed among the denials are his poetic lines:

I have no profession as a writer
but I am a writer by birth and by toil.

He is neither novelist nor playwright nor essayist, he goes on; he is a poet — but not a Shakespeare or a Dante!

I weave from my sorrows wings that become butterflies.
I carry my pail of infinity.
I write snake-spears of fire.

As the testament unfolds, he writes that his 500 notebooks were like a field from which he hoped one day to dig out buried treasure; or again, they were like a field ready to be harvested, but just when the harvest was ripe, his doctors told him he was dying.

He had often said that he didn’t want to sleep through his own death, and just as often was adamant that he would never die of cancer — of something, no doubt, but not of this cancer. And though all common sense would deny it, he may well have spoken more truly than anyone knew. For he understood how unwelcoming this world can be, and in one of his he poems describes

my grade one teacher’s judgment
that made me a charter member of the slow group
and our reward was all that extra time in the sandbox . . .
and in April on my birthday I let the dark have me.

For a soul as tender as Ken’s, maybe 68 years of being pigeonholed and typecast was enough, especially in the final 10 years of contending with so much medical skepticism about his viability. Yet however much he suffered from cancer, I never met him but that his mind was as sharp as always, and I want to say with Paul Scherer, another poet, that I can’t think of Ken as declining into death, but rather as mounting to it.

A few days after he died I discovered the following quotation from Loren Eiseley: “The true poet . . . is born wary and is frequently in retreat because he is a protector of the human spirit.” Annie Dillard somewhere comments that even an unknown manuscript discovered on a closet shelf after an author’s death was worth having been written. The words had to come out, and did.

I trust that Ken’s treasures will be unearthed in due season. Meanwhile, may he rest awhile in that place of which it’s said, “The sun shall not smite thee by day, nor the moon by night” — no sunstroke, no lunacy there, only Ken’s capacious soul as ever carrying its pail of infinity.

Ratzlaff is the author of three books of literary non-fiction published by Thistledown Press: The Crow Who Tampered With Time (2002), Backwater Mystic Blues (2006), and Bindy’s Moon (2015); and editor of Seeing it Through, an anthology of seniors’ writings published by READ Saskatoon. Formerly a minister, counsellor and university instructor, he now makes his living as a writer in Saskatoon.