Many of today’s best-selling spiritual memoirists like Anne Lamott, Rob Bell and Brian McLaren owe an enormous debt to Frederick Buechner, who explored this largely uncharted literary territory long before them.
While they still were wrestling with the religious crises that made them truly interesting adults, Buechner already was out there writing in a such a remarkably honest way about his spiritual journey that many of his books still make the hair stand up on the back of one’s neck.
How can someone who’s an ordained pastor, writing a “religious book,” admit to such dark moments of fear and doubt? Do I really want my literary hero to admit that he has kept secrets in his life? Do I want him to tell me about those secrets?
His fundamental message, which affirms that all of us truly share a single spiritual story, speaks so closely to the heart of our faith and to our inner fears that it’s almost uncomfortable for him to write about such intimate parts of our lives.
The inspirational power of his work lies in his unsentimental honesty about those questions that we rarely raise in the comfortable lives of our congregations.
One of those questions that Buechner, now at age 81, has been contemplating since the 1990s is the universal process of aging.
Somewhere between 1991’s “Telling Secrets” and 1996’s “Longing for Home,” his reflections shifted toward a kind of summing up of life’s lessons. By 1999’s “The Eyes of the Heart” and 2001’s “Speak What We Feel; Not What We Ought to Say,” this latter-day prophet was in full voice. (In any of our ReadTheSpirit stories, click on book titles or book covers to jump to more information on the books and our Amazon bookstore.)
But there is more to the spirituality of aging than has been written by Buechner or anyone else, so far — much, much, much more.
Aging is the darkest abyss that Baby Boomers must face and, so far, we have no taste for even admitting that the chasm lies ahead of us, let alone exploring its significance in our lives. Walk into a bookstore and ask for a good book on “the spirituality of aging.” And, may the Good Lord help you with whatever you find on the shelves, because it most likely won’t be much at all. If you find something, it most likely will cast a suspiciously golden glow of condescending comfort.
That’s a tragedy because aging is the defining spiritual issue for Americans at the dawn of this new century. Our population is aging and if you’re not in later years yourself, you almost certainly love someone who is.
What we strongly suspect, here at ReadTheSpirit, is that this Uncharted Territory of Aging actually may hold more than a bottomless abyss. The process, if we explore it honestly, may actually hold spiritual gifts that accompany the aging process itself.
Doesn’t that phrase sound bizzare: The Gifts of Aging. But we believe there are spiritual treasures here that, together, we must explore.
As usual, Buechner is unafraid in talking about this or any other issue. In fact, he will at least touch on the theme of aging in a collection of various essays that Westminster John Knox Press will publish sometime in 2008.
Our Conversation, which began in yesterday’s ReadTheSpirit article and took us through the realms of Buechner’s own writing, by way of the Land of Oz, wound up exploring briefly, but powerfully, the theme of aging.
Here is the concluding portion of our Conversation With Frederick Buechner.
BUECHNER: Not only do we all have our stories of ups and downs, nightmares and high hopes in our lives. It’s more than that.
We all really have the same story only with minor variations. That’s the point of being a memoirist: You’re not only telling your own story; you’re telling everybody’s story and giving them another handle to hold onto their lives.
CRUMM: I’ve always found the greatest power in your books came from that idea. And, now, as I’m in my 50s and you’re in your 80s, and we’re both looking at the aging process, I’m finding myself most drawn to your books like, “Longing for Home” and “Speak What We Feel.”
Tell me about the aging process and your writing.
BUECHNER: It’s another of the great mysteries in my life. I can write. I can sit down with a pen in my hand and write something and some of it is good. But for the last six or seven years, I haven’t written anything more than fragments as things occur to me.
I don’t know why that should be true. Maybe it’s not so much that I can’t write anymore. Maybe there’s something deeper than wanting to write inside of me. Maybe it’s not wanting to write. Maybe I just don’t want to get back down into those parts of my life again. I may now have things that I do not want to write.
This is a mystery to me and I wonder about it.
CRUMM: You once told me in an earlier interview, a year or so ago, that you would begin writing, but you often found that you were writing things that, in a sense, you had already written before.
BUECHNER: Not quite. I have been making many false starts in writing, but I never threw out any of those fragments. Some of them were 60 or 70 or 80 pages long.
At one point, I looked back over about 15 pieces that I thought were salvageable and brushed them off and turned them into a book of about 200 pages. It’s really just scraps, a patchwork quilt of things and then I sent them off to my friends at Harper San Francisco.
I said, “This really isn’t a proper book, but it’s all I have.”
And I got a letter back from my editor and he said that I was right. He said, “I just don’t think we would know what to do with this.”
And I said, “I couldn’t understand more.” I thanked them. They have been marvelous in keeping my books in print.
Then, I said, I don’t want this to go to waste, so I sent it to Westminster John Knox Press, who had been after me to do something for them. And I told them they could have it.
And, they said they wanted to publish it. That’s wonderful, I think.
CRUMM: Is there a working title?
BUECHNER: Something from Shakespeare’s Sonnet No. 73. You know that sonnet?
CRUMM: I’m sorry, no, not by the number.
BUECHNER: Oh, yes, well it’s the sonnet that starts:
“That time of year thou mayst in me behold
“When yellow leaves, or none, or few, do hang
“Upon those boughs which shake against the cold
“Bare ruined choirs where late the sweet birds sang.”
I like that. The leaves still hanging there, even as the season is almost over.
CRUMM: So, you’re summoning this vision of the golden leaves?
BUECHNER: No, yellow! Not golden. Golden is not the word, not the association. Yellow leaves. You see, the leaves are dying and he’s looking at this bough that once was so full and fruitful and what he’s seeing are these last few yellow leaves hanging there.
They’re yellow, not golden. And those yellow leaves have a kind of sweet sadness about them. They’re lovely but they won’t last long and, when they go, the tree isn’t dead, but it is bare.
That’s how I feel about old age. There’s a sweet sadness about it.
I’m now 81 and there are things you can’t do anymore or don’t want to do anymore.
There are mysteries. People you know die all the time.
And people will say these terrifying things as they’re talking to you. They’ll refer to someone and they’ll tell you: “Well, he’s beginning to lose it.” How terrifying to say that! Because we know that it really means: He’s beginning to lose himself.
CRUMM: So, you’re talking about fears but also a mysterious time of life, when even a new kind of excitement arises? You’ve never been afraid of looking at the abysses in life. It sounds as though looking at the yellow leaves left at the end of the season is one of those chasms.
BUECHNER: Well, it is a strange time. It’s as if the party is not quite over but an awful lot of the guests have left, already, and one can see the waiters poised there at the sides of the room just waiting to clear all the tables, if we’d only all clear out of the place.
CRUMM: I have to say that’s both terrifying and such a haunting image to hear you describe. The yellow leaves. The scene at the banquet with the waiters anxiously pacing the room.
BUECHNER: Perhaps, but this is my life now.
I keep starting things. Now, I’ve started off on something that may be sort of pathetic in a way, something new that I’m working on, another fragment. This one is about the Book of Jonah. I think that Jonah is the one prolonged joke in the Old Testament, especially in the end of the story.
So, I’m working on something about Jonah. (…) I want to retell this story, but I want to make this version a quiet, unassuming, engaging kind of book. I’d like people to see the goodness and the depth in the story.
But writing for me now is like starting to pull the string on an old outboard motor over and over and over again, hoping you’ll hear the chuckle of the motor arise. You don’t hear the chuckle and still you pull again. Over and over.
You start things for the hope of hearing that chuckle again.
CRUMM: There’s a somber aspect to that, but somehow what you’re describing is very appealing, too. I’ve always loved that juxtaposition of reactions in your writing.
BUECHNER: I do know that I’m still having marvelous times in my life! I enjoy my grandchildren so much. And I’ve been reading a lot. And I keep starting things.
This time next week, if you call me again, I may have forgotten that I even started working on this Jonah fragment. And I may move to start something else.
But for now Jonah is my latest glimmer of hope.
And I’ll take that.
So concludes our Conversation With Frederick Buechner. If you care to go back to Part 1, click the “Previous” link at the top of this column.