Below are a few comments from my perspective about my father, Gary Holthaus, and his writing life. His poetry of life was so expansive that many folks now connecting with us will say, “Wow! I did not know he did that too, or wrote that…”
We did not know Dad as a writer growing up, but I think his friends and admirers finally convinced him to start publishing his poetry and then essays in the 1970’s.
His extreme humility and his voracious reading and book collecting probably kept him from thinking he had much to offer. But after his poetry book, Unexpected Manna, was published in 1978 (with an introduction by his friend, Gary Snyder), he started offering more poetry and prose to numerous publications, and he collaborated with others on books like Alaska Reflections on Land and Spirit.
All of this work inspired him to participate in a wide range of public dialogue- poetry readings, writing workshops, visiting our high school and universities, and meeting lots of new friends. He always tried to improve his writing and he painstakingly struggled, edited, rewrote, added, subtracted, and kept thinking about the ideas. He told me that “writing was really your thinking”, so he was tireless in learning and improving/expanding his thinking.
In editing, he would sometimes read his writing backwards to catch mistakes that the mind tends to miss going forward. He developed a great reading aloud voice (although he would never admit that) by practicing and listening to many others. He loved musical collaboration with his wife, Lauren. I don’t think that he relied much on “divine inspiration” but he enjoyed the work of writing, and he loved words.
His love of words, people, and the land, extended to an extremely wide range. Dad had the keen observation and insight to find profound ideas in something blurted out by a drunk person on the street as well as in the most difficult philosophical works, and everything in-between. Listening for words often gave him something humorous, terrifying, profound, light and heavy, all in the same phrase. This made my Dad so fun and interesting to be around-even for someone he just met behind a counter at the grocery store. A quick wit, lots of bad puns (love of words), and so many ideas from his continuous study and reading, gave him an instant likeability. I think part of his ability to make people feel comfortable or put them at ease so quickly in person was his inclusiveness and expansiveness in his thinking, writing, and reading. He was natural and authentic.
Dad also put himself in places of diversity and variety. In the ‘70s, he loved going to the McDonalds on 4th Ave downtown next to the Post Office in Anchorage because such a variety of people could be found there at any time. He spent much of his lifetime on social justice: quietly participating in protests and civic activism, writing and thinking hard about how to help oppressed or less fortunate people, making his own home available and open to everyone at any time day or night, going out of his way to visit the hospital or bail someone out of jail, serving on boards (e.g. The Child Abuse Board), and just quietly doing the big hearted things without bringing any attention to himself. He struggled privately and felt deeply about harmful and dangerous tendencies the world goes in, but publicly and in his writing, he was inspirational and offered solutions.
Although he admired and read a variety of philosophers, he favored the Stoics (Marcus Aurelius, Epictetus and therefore Plato), Martin Buber, and Confucius. He saw the relevancy of the classics from different cultures. He studied Alaska Native culture and worked with folks like the Dauenhauers to preserve and restore languages and stories. His work as the founding Director of the Alaska Humanities Forum took him all over the state to beautiful environments and people that fed his writing and studies. As his writing became more and more central, he connected more of his work life with it. He was hired to write From the Farm to the Table: What All Americans Need to Know — a perfect excuse for him to spend a few years traveling and meeting people to discuss big agriculture and small, local, Minnesota farm life. Dad never shied away from difficult or politically loaded issues. He put himself in Nicaragua to see for himself what was going on there in the 1980s. He was invited to Iraq by Saddam Hussein as an internationally recognized poet and was given a tour of the front lines and a ring! I mention only a few of his exploits here to help explain how he constantly put himself in rich environments to feed his learning and writing.
I think of his work as minister at The Unitarian Universalist Association (hired when he was 80 years old) as his “swan song” because that environment allowed him to be at his best and do what he loved most near the end of his life. That community of diversity and beautiful souls inspired him to work very hard every week to present a paper and sermon. I would often have lunch with him, discussing the ideas he had in mind for Sunday. I would tease him always to just “wing it” and not work so hard revising and rethinking his paper. He never listened to that advice, even though he could have easily pulled it off. After the service, I would ask how he thought it went; he would say, “I guess I survived.” Again, he was so humble, when those sermons always had a delivery and ideas that would change the directions of people’s lives.
As my sister said the other day, “He wrote it all for us!” (meaning that he did what we could not).
I am forever grateful to and for him – changing the directions in my life with his ideas and love.