My guy

So…I’m going to be taking a break from blogging for most of summer 2017. This blog will be undergoing a giant makeover, and it might turn into a completely different site, we shall see… But I thought an appropriate post for today would be one describing a little more fully my current writing project. Many people seem puzzled as to why I’m writing this biography and why now, and why I would veer away from my novels to do so.

For one thing, I just really need a break from fiction; after six novels, I was feeling a little burnt-out. But I need to write this biography; it simply has to be done.  My choice of subject is a man who may seem obscure, but he shouldn’t be. Irenaeus Herscher OFM was a bit of pop-culture personality in his day, which would have been mid-twentieth-century America, the 1940s and 1950s in particular. His own story of immigrating from Europe as a boy and struggling to find his place in Camden, NJ, of all places, could be a book just on its own. And you could write another volume on his long career as an extremely competent and respected academic librarian. He’s most well known, I’m sure I mentioned before, for his constant and lifelong friendship with Thomas Merton, who called him the “happy little Franciscan.”

But there is much more to his story than that famous friendship. I don’t want to compare him to Forrest Gump, but like that character, Father Irenaeus seemed to have had a passing acquaintance with and connection to various famous and well-known people of the century, beginning with President Herbert Hoover, the boxer Jack Dempsey, Presidents Roosevelt and Kennedy, the poet Mark Van Doren, the popular historian Theodore Maynard, Cardinal Cushing of Boston, the writer Pierre Salinger and others. That old Jersey journalist and book-writer (“The Day Lincoln was Shot,” etc.) Jim Bishop suggested to Father that he write an autobiography, and Father did indeed attempt to do so, but didn’t get much beyond his seminary days. So I decided to take up the task that he couldn’t finish, and as my research continues, I never cease to be astonished at the marvelous anecdotes and gems I keep running across.

I don’t know how much more I want to reveal here. I want to save the choicest nuggets for the book. But here’s just one example: Perhaps your mothers or grandmothers clipped a prayer that appeared in thousands of daily newspapers across the US and Canada in the 1950s, as well as in many papers around the world: “The Bride’s Prayer.” Irenaeus did not write the prayer—it was written by an actual bride, who died tragically months after her wedding day. But he was the one who singlehandedly circulated it, following it up with a “Groom’s Prayer” a few years later. Though he tried to do this anonymously, a Chicago Tribune reporter tracked him down and wrote an article about it.

Perhaps his finest work was the research and the vast bibliography he created for his own Franciscan order, which perhaps makes him one of their greatest historians. He doesn’t really have much of a personal life, because he lived the Franciscan ideal,  modestly and primarily to serve others, yet he managed to keep one foot out in the world, and another within the spiritual realm—which, I think, makes him particularly extraordinary.

The research—and there’s a lot of it out there, I feel I’m just scratching the surface—is fascinating.  And yes, I knew the man and tell a little bit of when my life interweaves with his, but it’s mostly all about him.  And I’m doing my damnedest to be objective. Don’t know yet who will publish this book, only that it won’t be me or Amazon.  But it will be published one way or another, I can tell you that with some certainty. So check back with this site later this year—say, late August or so, in whatever incarnation the blog takes then–and find out what comes to pass over the summer.

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Burning lips

Sorry if I mislead you with the title, but this is not an erotic or romantic post, just a rambling rumination on weird idioms, metaphors, similes and other types of wordplay that make English so much fun to teach. Think about this simile: “Happy as a clam.”

When I tried it out on one of my students, I was rewarded with a look of utter bafflement.

“Clams are happy?” Well, we can never know, can we, since clams cannot really tell us for sure. If clams could talk, what would they say? I think Johnny Hart had a talking clam in his comic strip B.C., but I can’t imagine them doing anything more than incomprehensible muttering or murmuring. But to my student, I tried to explain that the point was they appeared to live in a state of ever silent, contented obliviousness…until someone or something yanks them out of the mud, smashes open their shells and devours them.  Who is truly happy as a clam? Perhaps a monastic. I’m sure Thomas Merton had his happy clam days, and also the days when he felt like he was being forced through the shucker.

Certain phrasal verbs can also lead to trouble. Never mind a certain four-letter verb beginning with ‘f’ that can be combined with “off,” “up,” and a remarkable number of other prepositions. We were talking about the term, to pick up. Pick up your clothes, pick up your theatre tickets, pick yourself up and move on with life. Play a game of pick-up basketball.

“And also, pick up girls in bars!” said my student, a little too eagerly. Whereupon, I sternly reminded him he was a married man, and did not need to familiarize himself with that particular shade of meaning.

Which brings us to my story about burning lips, a true story, and not a metaphor. In an act of wanton vanity, I picked up a new tube of lipstick at the supermarket, enchanted by the shade, a deep shade of antique rose. I put it on for the first time, and of course on me it looked a bit more like a rose in mud, maybe the shade a lady clam would wear (if clams could talk, of course) but, contentedly oblivious, I went off to a liturgical service. Where I was asked to read aloud a passage from the New Testament.

It was the tale of Mary, Martha and dead Lazarus. And just as I got to the part where Jesus summons Lazarus from his tomb, my lips began to tingle in an ominous way. My first reaction: Hope this isn’t a stroke… But I kept reading, and suddenly my lips were prickly hot and burning, and I was even starting to have a little trouble forming the words. And I actually thought—yes, this idea actually flickered through my cynical old brain–was this some kind of mystical or spiritual phenomenon? Some kind of message, from the Divine? Burning bush, why not burning lips? But I got through the passage, and later on, when I checked myself out in the bathroom mirror, saw that my lips were a bit swollen, in an antique-rose kind of way. I then checked out the label on the lipstick, and saw that I had bought the ‘lip-plumping’ formula, which was full of all kinds of nasty little agents designed to “pump up your pucker power to the max!” Hence the burning lips, not a mystical experience in the least.

Still, there does seem something poetic to me about having your lips tingle while reading the word of God. And my lips looked pretty good while doing it, too.

About those saints…

People ask where I get my ideas for writing, and I think a fair amount of the time they to me come early in the morning, just after dawn. I read the entire Washington Post before I even get out of bed, so by the time I’m upright and walking, I already know what’s happening in the world, for better or worse.

So today’s story was about the Pope canonizing the two children who saw (or say they saw) Our Blessed Lady at Fatima, in Portugal. Now as one who writes about Catholic things from time to time, you might think this is a topic of interest for me. But you might be surprised to learn of my concern, and vague dismay, on reading about it.

First of all, it’s not clear to me anymore what is necessary to make someone a Catholic saint anymore. It used to be much more explicit. There are three stages in the process, and probably most candidates never get beyond the first or second—being called ‘Venerable’ or ‘Blessed’. To gain the top title of “Saint,” the crucial phrase is, as I remember from my catechism, ‘heroic sanctity,’ emphasis on the ‘heroic’ part.  So Mother Teresa had it in the bag (excuse me, Saint Teresa of Calcutta). But then there is the troublesome matter of the necessary miracles. There usually have to be three, although popes have been to known to waive this requirement now and then. More so now than then.

I do believe in miracles, but think they are far more subtle occurrences than usually depicted, little graces woven deeply into everyday life. I can’t discount the validity of medical miracles, because I experienced one myself. Conceiving my daughter with crinkled Fallopian tubes was such an unlikely event that my ob-gyn wrote about my case for a  medical journal. If I’d been on the ball back then, I should have been praying to someone in line for a sainthood promotion; then we’d have the necessary documentation. I do feel my daughter is a miracle, a special grace, as is being cured of cancer or recovering from paralysis. But the skeptic in me says, what does this have to do with that person being considered for sainthood? How do we know who to pray to? How does my random and grace-filled event make that candidate more holier? How is that heroic?

As for the other miracles—visions, secret messages from God and Mary, stigmata…Oh, boy. I just can’t buy it. I remember how horrified I felt, reading about the stigmata of a certain recent saint. Several of his doctors said it was not only self-inflicted, but they knew how it was done: With carbolic acid. It’s heroic, in a way, sure, but…I know my beloved Saint Francis had the stigmata, too, but he’s nine centuries away from us, so I’ll give him the benefit of my doubt.  I can be a little more forgiving on visions, being in a creative endeavor myself, but usually seeing and hearing things can be a symptom of schizophrenia or some other mental disorder. Sainthood should not rest on emotional behavior or bizarre quirks, but require some kind of true and palpable sacrifice and service to others, heroic obedience to the only commandment that matters, love. The trouble is, these kind of people—heroically generous, loving, giving—also seem to have interesting transgressions in their pasts that make them unacceptable (to certain Church officials) as true saints. Which means the wondrous Dorothy Day probably has no chance whatsoever, because of her abortion (can you imagine!!) and earlier habit of co-habitating with men without the benefit of marriage.

And then, why are we canonizing children? This seems to me, as a mother, a bit exploitative; and we don’t want to be giving children some impossible idea they feel required to live up to. Let kids be kids,  let them figure out life and their faith as they grow up (as normally as possible).

If I sound a little soap-boxy, it’s because I can’t help but think, as I go along with my biography of Father Irenaeus, that he has the ideal, almost immaculate sort of background that would qualify him for the canonization process. And for an American male on this earth for 78 years, that’s not an easy thing to pull off. But his heroic generosity—and it was that, indeed—involved not the bestowal of basic needs, food and shelter, or the more dramatic act of giving up his life, but the gift of books and knowledge and his own time to anyone who asked. Even I think the idea of putting him forth for the process is absurd, but I have to admit that I’d love to see him at least get the title of ‘Blessed’ or ‘Venerable’, because he was indeed both those things, in a perfectly ordinary way. As are, and were, many, many other people who will never even be remotely considered for canonization or any kind of earthly reward.

Camden

My writing life takes me all over the place, and last week it brought me to Camden, NJ, reputedly one of the five worst cities in the United States. It’s a kind of a sister to Paterson, another very  troubled and run-down New Jersey post industrial city; and also Trenton, where I ended up later the same day when I took a wrong turn. And all these cities are kin to Hartford, CT, my native city, which shares the same  woes, urban problems and random, sporadic violence. All were, in their day, glorious, vibrant places filled with hope and promise. The sort of cities where the immigrants were drawn to, to chase down their version of the American dream. I feel weird kind of affection and respect for these kinds of old-lady cities, even with all their issues. If some think back on  idyllic childhoods spent on rural farms with friendly animals, I think with great nostalgia of scurrying down alleyways between factories and the forbidden joys of playing beside (or on!) the railroad tracks, or running over to Dominic’s on New Park Avenue for penny candy that actually cost 1 cent…and paying for it with a grimy penny found in one of those alleyways. Even though I grew up in the 1960s, I really had more of a Depression-era kind of childhood. And it was great, certainly great fodder for my writing.

So I nonchalantly ventured on my own to one of America’s worst cities ever, and survived just fine, and nobody even vandalized my car which I left sitting on the street all day, while I conducted research at the Camden Historical Society. My biographical subject grew up here, during World War I, when it was a very different kind of city. But still  a gritty, poor-relation of Philadelphia, a city of strivers and dreamers. Afterwards, I inadvertently got a tour of the city’s darker side, when I got turned around direction-wise (Yeah, yeah, I know, I could have asked Siri on my phone, but I don’t really trust her; and it’s more of a fun challenge to figure it out on my own.) I caught a glimpse of Sacred Heart Church, a true survivor of the city, still a thriving parish despite being in one of the poorest waterfront areas—it was here that Father Irenaeus—then a 17-year-old high school dropout named Joseph—received his call to vocation, stopping at the Church on his way to work at a shipyard. So that church is a kind of shrine as far as I’m concerned, and I’m happy to see it still standing.

I expected a burnt-out kind of apocalyptic war zone—the fifth worse city in the nation?!!–but really didn’t see much of that, just a lot of fairly lively neighborhoods in varying degrees of both decay and revival. But you still see the struggle:  Still a lot of pain, some anger, some despair, but people moving on, continuing with their lives. I wouldn’t write Camden off just yet.

And the historical society there is top-notch, although it was amusing to use an old-fashioned microfilm machine again. But through its murky lens, I got a glimpse of old Camden, bursting with new buildings and neighborhoods and shops,  European immigrants and bluebloods too, South Jersey farmers and Quakers mingled with the newcomers and shipyard and factory workers. And the next time you eat Campbell’s Soup…well, I can tell you where that all started, too. My weird fact of the day is that of the twenty original varieties, chicken noodle was not among them, but oxtail and mock-turtle were. My biography seems to be a kind of crazy mosaic: the sort of thing that seems jumbled and random when you look at it up close, but then when you step back…ah! You see the total picture.  Campbell Soup is one of those chips in it; as is the New York Shipbuilding Company (Yes, it was named that even though it was in Camden), Sacred Heart Church, a certain valley in Alsace-Lorraine and a certain university in upstate New York. And dozens upon dozens of other personalities famous and unknown…the trick is piecing them all in, just the right way.

I might return to Camden; the folks at the historical society were so friendly and helpful, and I don’t think I got to everything I needed to research. But I worry for the city, as I do for all the troubled, struggling cities across the US, in this current political climate, and as a long hot summer lies ahead. Having lived through the ‘70s in an urban environment, remembering the riots: No one wants to see that part of American history repeat itself…

The biographer’s dilemma

The other day, I read a review of the new biography of Barack Obama. Sorry, the author’s name escapes me. But now that I’m ensnared in writing a biography myself, I’m hyperaware of other people’s efforts, looking into their strategies and methods for chronicling the life of another human being. I’m always interested in the why: Why this man? Or woman? Why now?

With Obama, the reason is obvious. His story is extremely timely, and irresistible. I think that’s  the real key to a successful biography: The story. Biographers have to be storytellers too, but in a much more rigorous and honest way than novelists. And within that story there needs to be some kind of revelation, something we haven’t heard before, or knew about. In this book’s case, it’s Obama’s romantic life, the woman he shared his life with before Michelle, a white woman. The media is sure to play this up as a bombshell, something I’m uncomfortable with, the idea of race playing a role in hyping or promoting a book. In my corner of the world, mixed-race relationships are no big deal at all, so I’m hoping that’s not the only revelation this book offers. The other woman, however, regardless of her race, seems to be a very interesting person in her own right, and I would love to hear her side of it all, eventually.

Since my biography is of a rather obscure man, I don’t have to worry about such revelations.  Life can be simpler when you’re celibate, and I’m pretty much convinced he was to the very end. I admit, the journalist in me was inappropriately eager to dig out a small indiscretion or two, a bit of scandal to add color and texture to what seems at times a spiritually flawless life. I may still stumble across something, but now I’m hoping passionately not to. Unfortunately, in these times, when you’re researching the life of a priest, you do have to face the possibility of finding evil,  forcing yourself to check those ominous lists of known pedophiles and molesters, because finding him on one would kill the project in its tracks. I could never write about a pedophile, no matter how wonderful his life otherwise might be. And no reader would put up with it.  Thank God that for me, this hasn’t been the case.  I do keep reminding myself that such priests—such monsters—were definitely in the minority, despite the vastness of the damage they caused.

With smaller, less serious sins and dark spots, balance seems to be the key. I discussed this with my biographer friend Michael McGregor: Simply present the subject truthfully, as he truly is–quirks, faults, errors of judgements, good deeds and all–and if you’re skillful enough, it all leavens itself out, giving a complete portrait of a person who  is neither all goodness or all bad. He just is. The best biographies tell a good story, but they also tell the truth.

My guy, as truly good as he is, does have just enough interesting flaws and annoying character quirks to keep him from becoming the marzipan-saint. I can still be honest about him, without really offending anyone or doing him an injustice. As long as I tell the truth…