Moving on…

In the third month of 2018, my “new narrative” has already gotten bogged down, eclipsed by events both delightful and miserable. I was deeply distracted by my alma mater’s improbable rise to national prominence, which, alas, ended last night in the first round of the NCAA tournament. Those events provided some invaluable pre-publicity for my upcoming book on Father Irenaeus and the St. Bonaventure campus; but it kept me from getting a lot of work done. And we have been negatively impacted, along with the rest of the entire Northeastern United States, by the relentless series of ‘nor’easters’ that continue to dump thick wet snow on everything in sight. St. Patrick’s Day was usually the day I’d plant my peas, but there’s still a good eight or ten inches of snow sitting on my garden bed right now, so that’s not happening anytime soon.

Our downsizing plans have taken a hit too, but for good reasons: My husband has been getting some local short-term work, which makes moving out west a bit impractical right now. So we are simply moving those plans ahead to the latter part of the year, or maybe to next year, who knows? Go with the flow, as they say. Preparing our home for resale, it turns out, is a chore of epic proportions and it may take until next year to get it into presentable shape. For us, sometimes, nothing is easy. But we must keep moving on…and so, even this turn of events leads to another opportunity.

I said I would not write another book just yet, but it turns out I was fibbing. I have started another book, mostly to amuse myself. It’s not only fiction, but it’s genre fiction! Yes, I have succumbed to non-literary temptation. I have always, secretly, loved mystery novels, the more complex the better, and so decided to try my hand at it. I’m finding it absolutely irresistible, like putting together one of those 1200-piece jigsaw puzzles, struggling to fit everything satisfyingly in place.  I’m even wondering if it will evolve into a series,  though I  thought my next book would be another serious non-fiction work. And of course I’m going to self-publish it, because I already know exactly what I want the cover to look like, and how to market it effectively. I’m planning to release it under a pen name—not because I’m embarrassed about it, but because I think mysteries sell better under androgynous names, where you don’t know the gender of the author. It also creates a little mystery of its own, although my most loyal readers will probably figure out very quickly that it’s me.

I had carried around the idea for this book for almost a year, all through the writing of the biography, but kept pushing it to the back of my brain. I actually had the entire thing plotted out in my head by the end of February and then decided, what the hell, might as well pour it into the laptop. In two weeks, I’ve written over 17,000 words (17,835 to be exact) so I guess it’s a reality now. But I do find myself thinking a lot about the genre in general now—and all the crazy arcane classifications and subheadings for it these days—trying to figure out precisely where my little book will fit in. Also working hard to put some of my best writing into it as well; although plot takes primacy here, there’s no reason there can’t be a little pretty language thrown in as well.

Meanwhile, there’s another nor’easter predicted for next week, so I should have plenty of time to work on it…

March madness: The man who was a fan

One of the most gratifying things about writing Called to Serve, my biography of Father Irenaeus Herscher OFM, was being able to document his friendship and spiritual influence on the writers Thomas Merton and Robert Lax. The man who had been a high-school drop-out and shipyard worker from Camden, NJ, became a great scholar and historian in his own right. But he was also a crazy, almost fanatic, college basketball fan, which I think is one of the most endearing, and human, things about him.

You would not think a man who created a 43-volume bibliography of the Franciscan Order would have much time to follow basketball, but I remember seeing him at the games, when I was a student. He would be standing by the either the front or back entrance of St. Bonaventure’s Reilly Center, close to the court, dressed in his brown Franciscan robes, his arms tightly folded, watching the game with intense, almost grim interest. When he got older, he would leave at the half, and listen to the rest of the game on the radio, claiming a too-close game was hard on his heart. I didn’t realize how much the team meant to him until I went through his letters and a small diary he kept, when he traveled through Europe for several months in the 1960’s—during the basketball season. The diary is filled with events both charming and moving (Visiting Rome and the Vatican, his birthplace in Alsace, then cold-war Berlin) but through the whole thing, he frets about not being able to “get the scores” of his college’s team. The diary actually closes–after a rather poetic description of riding the night train through the darkness of rural Pennsylvania–with this aside: “Finally got the score on that Niagara game from Joe Magnano.”

His letters to the poet Lax, living on an isle in Greece, are peppered with references to the Bonnie’s team, rivals and games: In one of his responses, Lax writes as a postscript: “Too bad about the ECAC,” which refers to the old East Coast Athletic Conference, perhaps a tournament game that was lost badly.  To Merton, Father restrains himself and doesn’t mention the team much until one letter, written in the 1960s, when he describes in considerable detail the construction of the new gym and basketball court to be named Reilly Center, something he was obviously quite excited about. Merton graciously replies that he might no longer recognize the campus if he were to return.

I think the most poignant story was from at the very end of his life: He worked every day until the day he died, showing up at his office in the library to work on his vast correspondence. In a letter he wrote to a friend and library philanthropist, Samuel Lasser, on January 27, 1981—written the day before he died, and perhaps the last letter he ever wrote—he joyfully mentions, after a discussion of a lost invoice, the Bonnie’s triumphant victory at home the night before over long-time upstate New York rival Syracuse.

As I was writing this part of the book in late 2017, the Bonnies had just defeated Syracuse at the Carrier Dome, and the commentators made much of the fact that Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim had once vowed never to return and play the Bonnies at Reilly Center, after a particularly humiliating loss. I looked up the date of the game, and sure enough…it was the very game Father Irenaeus had been talking  about in his final letter to Sam Lasser.  Hmmmm….coincidence? Or as Father himself would say, the Divine Hand of Providence? (the deity, not the city or college basketball team)  Still, I can’t help but imagine his spirit imbuing the Bonnie’s rather meteoric season this year, which Father must be utterly thrilled about, wherever in the cosmos he is now. Should the Bonnie make the Final Four, perhaps we can post it as Father’s first miracle toward canonization…

Postscript, 3/11/17: Well, the Bonnies did get into the Big Dance this year, just barely, and somewhere Father Irenaeus is smiling. A little: he’s not really happy about the play-in nonsense or the seeding…