Louisville Epiphany


Being a riverside dweller, I can’t help but be moved by the plight of those living along the Ohio River right now. In fact, just a month ago, I drove along the “Scenic Ohio River Byway” in Southern Indiana, on my way from Cincinnati to Louisville, and I’m pretty sure the road I drove along is mostly underwater now, as well as much of the Louisville waterfront. I was there, too,  doing some sightseeing, and it was there that I also suffered a small, rather comical, mishap. But at least it came with a little revelation.

When I was at the Thomas Merton Archive at Bellarmine University, I picked up a bookmark describing Merton’s “Louisville Epiphany.” At the corner of Fourth and Walnut Streets, he writes (in his book, Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander) of being overwhelmed with the realization that “I loved all those people and they were mine and I was theirs…” Which seems at odds with his determination to live a life of solitude, but there it is. I decided before leaving Louisville, I would have to go and see this fabled spot, but getting downtown from Bellarmine was no easy matter, especially late on a weekday afternoon. Even with the directions printed on the back of the book mark: the first road they recommended, I-264 West, was like a parking lot, so clogged you couldn’t even get on to it.   Phone Siri, usually my trusted pal, was no help at all, and kept trying to make me drive the wrong direction down one-way streets. I decided to drive as closely as I could to the river, then park and reconnoiter on foot (on a freezingly cold gray day with the winds whipping down from Indiana), but surprise, no street parking, only those  claustrophobic and expensive parking garages. I chose what I hoped would be the least expensive option, locked up the car, and set out to find the magic spot.

Walking east on Muhammad Ali, I kept vainly checking my Google map to make sure I was heading in the right direction. It was absolutely frigid, in this city I’d always associated with balmy spring Derby Days and baseball, and I was clad, impractically, in a dress, short jacket and my prettiest but not most comfortable pumps. I stalked about miserably, ruing my impulsive decision to hunt down this random corner of the city and for what? To say I’d been there? To write about it, in my blog?!!

But then, all of a sudden, I was there, and all my frustrations fell away. I gazed at the metal sign denoting the spot as Thomas Merton Square, in awe to see this official, municipal acknowledgment of his existence, and work. Then I looked around for people walking around “shining like the sun,” but saw very few, though the streets were clogged with cars and traffic. I turned around, and confronted Fourth Street Live! in all its commercial glory, and thought, well, there’s some strange city planning. I decided to walk down the block and loop past the Louisville Slugger museum back to the parking garage. The street was paved with those granite Belgian blocks which don’t always give you a level surface to walk on, and suddenly, I felt the heel of my pretty pump thunk against something, and  felt myself pitched forward: I actually saw the gray granite coming up toward me, and instinctively threw out my arm. Pain shot through my wrist and fingers, but fortunately I did not hit my head.  The next thing I knew, half a dozen people were trying to help me up. My un-guilty bystanders. They helped me to a nearby outdoor café, its metal chairs still set out in January, but I was basically OK, only my left arm and hand had been scraped up.

But what I felt more keenly than the pain, was an overwhelming sense of humiliation and shame.  Falling in the street was such an old-lady thing to do! Was I becoming prematurely old and feeble? Was this it, the end of my independence, my sense of well-being, my sense of balance? I was actually thinking and fearing these things, when a rather unkempt woman came up to me. Maybe homeless, maybe not, but probably about the same age as me.  She touched my arm.

“You okay? I seen you go down, honey,” she said to me. “I seen you trip on that stone. It wasn’t your fault! Anybody coulda trip on that stone. If I was you, I’d sue!!!”

I smiled, and assured her I was okay, and not planning to sue anyone. Still, she insisted on helping me up and walking with me to the end of the block, then tottered off with a friendly wave. No, she hadn’t been looking for a handout: Just being kind. They were mine and I was theirs…  In any case, her words were an unexpected consolation, and made me realize I was mentally making too much of what had simply, and literally, been a misstep. And considering, I had gotten off easy: a few scraped knuckles, an impressive bruise on the underside of my arm,  probably far more bearable than what parts of Louisville are experiencing now, with the flood. Though for weeks afterwards,  I would feel a twinge in my fingers whenever I flexed them:  A reminder of that cold day in Louisville, and the simple decency of some human beings on this earth.

My crazy, wonderful index

One thing that gives me great sorrow, is when a really terrific non-fiction book lacks a proper index. I actually feel offended, as a reader. It’s as if the author is taunting you: Don’t be picking and choosing bits and pieces that interest you, read the whole damn thing! Chances are I’ve already read the whole damn thing, and want to return to the stuff I found most interesting—quickly.

I can’t claim that my new book-to-be has a proper index: It has only an index of names, which I felt was my prerogative, as the author of a ‘popular’ biography, not an academic project. I compiled the index myself, and really enjoyed doing so, in the same way I enjoy my various knitting and craft projects. It’s a glorious mosaic of names, of people who, in most cases, have absolutely nothing to do with each other. But they all have some connection—however thin or tenuous–to my guy, Father Irenaeus. Here for example are some random entries—and yes, these some of the names that appear in my book. If you want to know why, then you just have to wait, and buy it when it comes out: Dante Alighieri, Jack Dempsey (yes, the boxer), Dylan Thomas, Thérèse of Lisieux, Karl Barth, Anna Pavlova, Mamie Eisenhower, Virginia O’Hanlon (the “Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Clause” girl) Pierre Salinger, Art Rooney, among many, many others. But my favorite  is “Amerigo Vespucci” and I’ll explain that here, because it’s obvious that Father Irenaeus and Amerigo missed each other by a couple of centuries.

Simply put, Father was born in Alsace, near the town of St. Die, where apparently Mr. Waldseemuller the cartographer printed his famous map naming our continent after Mr. Vespucci. (And yes, Mr. Waldseemuller is in my index, too) A story that didn’t make it into the book  because I couldn’t put in every single thing,  is when Father wrote a letter to Channel 2 News in Buffalo in the 1970s, when they were having some kind of patriotic what-America-means-to-me campaign. He crisply informed them that the patron saint of the United States should be St. Emeric, who was the son of St. Stephen, the martyred medieval king of Hungary. Why?  Because Amerigo Vespucci’s actual baptismal name was Emeric. Now who else would know that? Except Father Irenaeus, at the extreme   southern end of Channel 2’s viewing area.

I admit that a fair number of these names are people Father merely researched at some point, or wrote about, and  was only indirectly involved with. But this is important because although he can come across as a geeky kind of history nerd, he firmly believed in the faintly revolutionary idea that education, research and study was a direct route to God.  And so, there it is, one of the links that joins me, my husband, our re-enactor friends and my archivist friends: Yes, we’re all crazy, geeky history nerds, but maybe…all possibly bound for heaven!


My New Narrative

My first post for 2018 comes over a month late–sorry! But with good reason. My writing career has taken yet another twist, as I (temporarily) leave the ranks of independent and self publishing, and once again become a “traditionally published” author. My biography project–Called to Serve:  The Untold Story of Father Irenaeus Herscher OFM–has found a home and a very good one at that. I submitted my finished manuscript this week to  Franciscan Institute Press, and immediately the process has begun, of turning pixels and characters into paper and ink.  It’s odd to think of my book in someone else’s hands now, and not sure how much say I’ll have from this point on, but it should be an adventure, as writing the book surely was.

I spent most of January scrambling to finish the manuscript and rewriting, rewriting, rewriting, rechecking my sources, and then, a last-minute trip to Louisville, KY, which I’m sure is a lovely city when it’s not 28 degrees and sleeting; but the trip was ultimately worthwhile in helping me dig up a crucial bit of information and the documentation for it. And, I did get to visit Merton’s old abbey down near Bardstown, particularly soulful this time of winter, and visit my lovely daughter, meeting her in Bowling Green by the Tennessee line.

So that is done now, except for production and marketing drama, and what, you might ask, will I do now? For one thing, I’m not going to start a new book. I actually have several ideas for new projects, both fiction and non-fiction, but I’m not going to start anything now, because my life really does have a new narrative. This spring we are finally pulling up stakes and downsizing–selling the house and all the nonsense and bother that comes with that, then finding a new domicile, one uniquely suited to our respective situations in life and one that will serve as a base for whatever the rest of our lives will entail: We hope lots of writing, history, art and good things like that. So for the next few months, I’ll become the Persistent Homeseller, with the first onerous task ahead sorting through a quarter century of furnishings and all kinds of needless accumulation.  (Keeping all my books however!) And then I’ll try to imagine what the last part of this year will look like, with a published book and a new house…Stay tuned…