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…

 

 

 

 

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…

 

 

Time enough

There seems to be just enough time to squeeze out one more entry for 2017, this one inspired by the recent death of a fellow writer. I have to admit I have never read a single one of Sue Grafton’s books, but always admired her initiative and stick-to-it-tiveness. She of course is the author of the “alphabet mystery” series, beginning with A is for Alibi. But there is a certain poignancy that she was not quite able to finish the alphabet and died at ‘Y’, before the presumably final ‘Z’ book. I don’t know why, but I found myself thinking about that all day.

I suppose I’ve always felt that a writer is meant to write a certain number of books. But when you think about it, if a writer writes until the day he or she dies…there’s bound to be some things left unfinished. Things left unsaid. I’ve always thought I never wanted to leave behind something undone, (or unedited) and that I would try to stop writing before my ability to do so began to decline. But perhaps the main thing is to keep on writing as long as you can, and not worry about that kind of nonsense.

But unfortunately I’m at that age where I wonder how much time I’ll have, how many more books do I get to write? It’s ridiculous, because just yesterday—to get in under an insurance deadline—I had my annual physical for 2017. I was, in fact, the doctor’s final patient for the year.  And except for a little arthritis, I don’t seem to be in any danger of expiring soon. Indeed, my own parents are currently preparing to drive north in a couple of weeks from sunny Florida to visit their snowbound progeny. So perhaps there is time enough, though no one really knows for sure. But not going to worry anymore about which book will go unfinished…

But I can confidently state that 2018 will be a year in which I get published, and by a traditional publisher not MYSELF (hurrah!), though I’m not saying anymore about that until I hand the manuscript in at the end of next month. I will also be travelling to Mertonland in mid-January—Louisville, Kentucky—so the new year will get very interesting very fast.  So as I just told my doctor yesterday, see you next year…

Persistence

 

This is likely to be my last blog post for 2017: I know it’s only mid-December, but I am up to my ears in book-writing, language students and Christmas preparation. I have an actual deadline for the completion of my biography—it’s in January—so I’m not necessarily rushing to finish it, but at this point, simply trying to give as much pure thought to it as possible, in order to make it as complete and whole as I can. The last thing I want is for it to look rushed and hurried. It’s a thoughtful kind of book, one I hope will rouse many of my readers to think about it for themselves.

This blog is likely to change direction next year, so I thought a fitting last entry would be a reflection on the quality that brought me here: Persistence. Maybe you could call it stubbornness, obstinance, stick-to-itiveness, or determination. Maybe it’s a substitute for talent or brilliance. But it’s what’s brought me here to this point: Not giving up or giving an inch in my determination to be a writer, despite the rotten odds and terrible pay. It’s not always good, when applied to something you’re clearly not meant to do or have no real talent for. Sometimes we think we’re meant to do something, claiming divine inspiration or grace, when in reality it’s simply an emotional desire with no basis in reality. There were times when I thought this about myself and my writing, and I have to say, it did take many years before I realized that this was indeed the road I was meant to take. It does no good, therefore, to advise young writers to give up now and forget about literary fame: Only time will tell if it’s meant for them, and they need to make that attempt.  I’m grateful that, while I had a few people in the beginning (old writing teachers and critics) try to dissuade me from being a writer, I had enough sheer stubbornness to continue on with it, and enough insight into my own abilities to realize I could do it.

Stubbornness and persistence aren’t always seen as positive qualities; they are considered downright annoying sometimes, especially in arguments. But it doesn’t have to be a visible thing, this kind of persistence, but a secret carried in the heart. I can do this and will keep on doing this, until either my brain or heart fails. And so onward, writers and others with dreams.  Just keep calm and carry on, as they say, in one of my ancestral lands. And happy holidays to all.

Biographer’s update

If you’ve been following my blog for a while, you know I’ve put aside fiction to work on a biography of Father Irenaeus Herscher OFM, librarian extraordinaire, Franciscan historian, and friend and spiritual advisor to Thomas Merton. It’s nearly complete now, I’m happy to say, and this weekend, instead of hitting the malls and battling the crowds, I will be heading for the Allegheny foothills of upstate New York, for some last minute research and quiet reflection. I will be submitting the manuscript to an actual publisher in January—it’s not a done deal yet, but this is the first publisher to express a serious but strongly enthusiastic response to my queries. I have some support in the form of very positive feedback I received from my article about Father Irenaeus in the Merton Seasonal. Didn’t think so many people read the Seasonal, but they do!

Back in August, I was quite discouraged with this project, and wondered if it would be worth continuing with. Thank goodness I struggled on. I feel now like a lot of people are waiting for this book.  And I also  feel, rather strongly now, that perhaps my life’s calling may be for biography and non-fiction. Or more to the point, perhaps this is the time for me to turn to non-fiction, considering the dismal market conditions for fiction. I don’t write for money or the market, of course, but one has to be realistic. There is too much fiction out there right now, too much overwhelming competition. Not enough eyes. I admit, writing non-fiction is tremendously harder than fiction. All the plotting and storylines may already be there, yet you have to render the absolute truth in clear, readable, compelling prose, no matter how difficult or distasteful it is. And you always have to tell the truth. No “alternative facts” in my biographies.

Yes, I said biographies, because I’m thinking of writing another.  I’m hooked. I love the research, love the puzzle-like aspects of putting together someone else’s life on paper and making that person seem whole and coherent again. I like looking at a life like a storyline, and studying the other characters who wander into that story, adding their own plot twists and intrigues. It’s all good. I just wish this revelation had come sooner to me, when I was younger and had more energy, ambition and brain cells; but hopefully I’ll live to be a centenarian and will be writing up until the day I die.

So here we go. Somehow I have to combine the completion of this book with preparations for Christmas, with our minds uneasily fixed on the task ahead for spring, the big downsizing move. And concurrently, in “real time” as they say, an ever-growing list of ESL students. I’m not complaining; on the contrary, this season I feel blessed. I have meaningful work to do, and that may be the key to a good life after all.