John Berry is a native Virginian, having been born in the lush green landscape of western Loudoun County in 1966. For John, poetry was his true first love, writing even as early as grade school little love poems for the girls in the tiny school in the small town of Hillsboro. Writing poetry was as natural as the spring providing the town its water to John, and as dreams go, his was always the dream of being a poet.
The death of his father when John was thirteen was the tragic result of several years of his father’s battle with manic depression. Quite understandably, John found solace in his writing, keeping a small three ring binder with him constantly throughout high school, and through his three semesters of college at Virginia Commonwealth University.
Whether it was the dangerous temptations of city life, or the joy he found in finish carpentry during the housing boom of the late 80’s, John did not return to school for that next semester even though he had registered for a class in creative writing with the renowned author, Paule Marshall. It was a choice which would gradually distance John from the poetry that he loved.
At the age of nineteen, John purchased his first home in the little town he grew up in, using what remained of the social security money earmarked for his education from his father’s death as a down payment. Married and having his own son, Alex, by his early twenties, John swung naturally on to the path of the carpentry contractor, trimming houses throughout Northern Virginia.
When the housing market crashed in the early 90’s, and having purchased a larger and more expensive house a few doors down, John was faced with not only the financial stress of providing for a wife and child, a hefty mortgage and car payments, but also, largely unrecognized, a crisis of forgetting his dream. With little work to pay the bills, John had begun writing lyrics for songs composed by his friend Troy. The spark of creativity was burning hot in John, and he and Troy made plans to relocate their families to Tucson where Troy had family.
Packing up his work van, and moving his wife and child for what was intended to be a temporary stay with her parents, John and Troy set off with tools and musical instruments and a rough outline of a desire to build a life on their dreams. Things derailed quickly.
There was work with Troy’s cousin Bob, cutting and polishing meteorites in his shop, and a place to live with Troy’s sister, Heidi, but with mounting pressure from home, and John’s wife Kathy’s refusal to uproot herself from her family, it was not long before John had been served with divorce papers. Troy’s own wife, having been experiencing some health issues with her own pregnancy, had called Troy home at the end of the first month.
Throughout that long hot Tucson summer of the dissolution of his marriage, and the disappointment of, once again, the inability to connect with an elusive dream, John made his way back home to Virginia to resolve their property, and did not return.
In process of selling their home, it burned to the ground, and already being in arrears on the mortgage, they lost all of their property assets. Broke, and without a vehicle, having had his van repossessed in Tucson, John lived for a time with his dearest friends, Charles and Sharon. A midnight stint processing mail opened up, and between this and working half days with his brother-in-law trimming houses again, John eventually found himself in a small apartment in Leesburg doing his best to provide child support and spending every other weekend with his young son, Alex.
Long hours that left him little time for more than sleep, John found few opportunities for writing, or even connection with others. Browsing through the personal ads one day, John saw an intriguing post: Outrageous! it said. Curious, he screwed up the courage to call, and was surprised and shocked to hear a voice that he knew. This was Brenda, the manager of the bank where he had his account. It was so unexpected that he quickly hung up the phone, but then a sly thought occurred to him. He dialed the number again, and upon leaving his own message he very mysteriously confessed he knew who she was, and that she could expect to see him on Thursday—look for the man in black, he said. Wednesdays were pay days at the mail processing facility, and John made sure to dress head to toe in black that night, Black leather jacket, black jeans, black tee shirt, black, low-heel boots.
Brenda’s message was no embellishment. This was no stodgy, corporate business woman. Professional, yes, but with a tendency toward loud laughter, purple mini-skirts and high heels accentuating her shapely legs. Doing his best to pretend to go about his affairs at the teller line, John was making his deposit when Brenda eased up behind him, asking if he was the man in black. He was, of course, and a first date was followed by another, followed by a knowing that they were meant for each other; a beach wedding on the shores of the Atlantic in Kitty Hawk North Carolina joining them in a partnership that has, especially in these later years, been one full of love and laughter.
After their marriage John organized another company, and began putting his carpentry skills to work. He would eventually tire of the demanding schedules and low pay of the new home market, and move into more highly skilled and challenging ventures. Married life with two step-children and a child of his own, bills still to pay and all of the usual stresses one might expect in their twenties and thirties, John made little if any time to connect with his poetry, even if it was not entirely forgotten. It was a constant, if muted reminder of a longing for something deep in his soul.
Throughout his life, John had always been a drinker. From his earliest experiments with alcohol, John always recognized there was something different about the way he would drink with his friends. When they had one, John had two, and two was never enough. It was to become a pattern of addiction which would haunt him daily well into his forties.
If there was a recognition within him of something different about his predilection for substance abuse of all kinds, there was also, for reasons he never quite understood, a liberation there from the denial of what he was, even from a very young age. Like many who are afflicted with addictions, John was a highly functional abuser. The work got done, the bills got paid, he was attentive (or so he thought) to the needs of others, but the truth was he was in a constant cycle of misery and resentment. The act of ‘doing’; working around the house, rushing out the door to jobs in the morning, mowing the lawn, justified what he knew to be unhealthy behavior. It was this lack of authentic presence with the people who loved him that began to drive a wedge in his relationship with Brenda. It is a familiar story, and one with too few happy endings.
As Brenda began to grow in her spiritual connections, and in her own diligent work getting to know her True Self, her patience grew thin with the man she thought she once knew, and yet no amount of tearful pleas, or threats, or compassion made any but temporary changes in John.
By his mid-forties, John was in constant pain. Cocaine, alcohol even a brief addiction to Methadone being the sole comfort of the day, and a constant guilty companion. Over a long weekend in January of 2013, at the age of 47 while Brenda was away on a spiritual retreat, John was at his worst. Determined to shed his use of Methadone he began what he knew would be a difficult and painful withdrawal. Already sleep deprived, the withdrawals were worse. For four solid days he slept not at all, ate very little and drank no alcohol.
When Brenda returned, he knew he had to come clean with her, and he confessed to his use of Methadone. It felt like the first truly honest thing he had said to her in years. There were no grand proclamations, no tearful promises made. There was only the knowing he had that to continue down this path would be unbearable, and would lead only to greater misery, and likely an early death.
Strangely, all temptation to drink or abuse drugs fell away. He had, over his 30 years of constant abuse, attended a number of AA meetings, but found no solace in this practice. As the days turned into weeks and the weeks to that first month of committed sobriety, he began to realize that all throughout his life he had never given himself permission to be happy.
Stemming from the loss of his father, John had taken responsibility to heart, and had developed the belief that not only was pain, stress and the resulting resentment it breeds a part of what it is to be an adult, but indeed a requirement. Allowing oneself the space to be free to connect with what brought joy as a child was unthinkable to John. This, of course, applied to poetry as well.
While the shedding of those harmful addictions was critical to his physical, mental and emotional health; it was his spiritual health which benefitted the most. Not only had he begun to recognize that it was indeed ok to give oneself permission to be happy, but as this grew and took hold in his life, he began to recognize that this was what the Divine wanted for him as well.
Eight months after taking his last drink, and giving himself permission to live a different life, John gave himself permission of another sort; to learn who, indeed he was; something to this day he is still learning.
In November of 2013 he attended a four day retreat for men called Sacred Passages; a journey around the Medicine Wheel taught by Dr. Fernand Poulin who had been a beloved an instrumental component in Brenda’s healing. Dr. Poulin taught the art and practice of Energy Medicine through the Whitewinds Institute of Integrated Energy Medicine. Brenda had graduated from this two-year course a year before.
Very early the second day into the retreat, John got up, and sitting by a roaring woodstove, it occurred to him to write a poem about what he had been experiencing. The next morning, he wrote another, and the day after that, and the day after that. Since that time, not a day goes by that John does not connect in some way with the poetry that was his true first love.
Some time after that, while he too was enrolled in the Whitewinds prrogram, he would come to learn more about his first love, his soulful calling as it were.
What he came to discover is that poetry is not his soulful calling per se. It is not that thing we do which is our calling. Our calling is the flame of it which lights our souls. Where the wood in the fire is not the flame, but the means to the flame, so too is poetry kindling.
What was to begin manifesting in John’s life constantly astonishes him. The space for writing which had appeared so impossible became not only possible, but consistent and a beautiful source of nourishment. Opportunities to share his writing too, through publishing and the spoken word, began to unfold. Heartfelt, meaningful connections to others, so unthinkable once, were becoming a constant source of joy. Even a deeper understanding and connection to the natural world opened up in most startling ways.
John was also amazed to discover a talent and deep love for speaking in public. He hosts open mics, and was blessed with the opportunity to start his own show, The Sock Drawer Poetry Series on WinLife TV, and is finding himself drawn to expand on this by offering readings and inspirational talks for different events and private affairs.
Where all this will take him, he tries hard to reserve any expectations. His dear friend, the poet Michael Czarnecki sums it up best in the shortest poem he ever wrote: