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THE YELLOW LEAVES: Some Thoughts On Buechner

The Yellow Leaves: A Miscellany, the new book from my favorite author, Frederick Buechner, was released on June 16th. I added it to my Amazon shopping cart when I first heard about it from the Proprietor and Eric Peters, after they heard Buechner read a couple excerpts during the grand opening of the Frederick Buechner Institute back in January (which also featured a concert by Michael Card, with AP opening for him).

The blurb on the back of The Yellow Leaves from John Wilson, editor of Books and Culture, perfectly describes it: “Heartbreaking, sardonic, whimsical, elegiac, crazy-funny: this is a book to be sipped like a rare wine, the last bottle of a fabled vintage, brought up from the cellar for our delectation.”

After receiving it in the mail a couple weeks ago from Amazon, along with a Chuck Klosterman book and the full score for Richard Wagner’s Die Walküre, I read a couple pages here and there when I could find some time around work. When Saturday rolled around, after mowing my lawn, I returned to my air-conditioned living room, put a Jerry Goldsmith soundtrack on the stereo, settled into my reading chair with a cappuccino in hand, and read the last 80 pages, savoring each page, each sentence.

When I finished the last page, the first feeling that came over me was gratefulness – gratefulness for more stories and memories from Buechner. Last Friday was Buechner’s 82nd birthday, so it’s possible this will be his last book. In the introduction, explaining how this book came about, a miscellany of stuff he’s worked on over the last couple of years, he writes, “I can still write sentences and paragraphs, but for some five or six years now I haven’t been able to write books. Maybe after more than thirty of them the well has at last run dry. Maybe, age eighty, I no longer have the right kind of energy. Maybe the time has simply come to stop. Whatever the reason, at least for the moment the sweet birds no longer sing.”

I’m thankful for this book because of what Buechner’s writings do for me. On the back of his book The Longing for Home, there’s a blurb from the New Oxford Review that says, “Journey on, Frederick Buechner. We need your stories to help us make sense of our own.” That’s a theme that is present in much of Buechner’s work, how all of our stories are the same and we need to share our stories with each other, and by doing so we can make sense of our own. We all go through the same struggles, all have the same doubts and questions and joys and celebrations and longings and feelings of aloneness. I don’t know how many times I’ve quoted the introduction to his memoir, Telling Secrets, wherein he offers a poignant reminder of our need to tell our secrets.

The first thing I read from Buechner, the passage that convinced me I needed to read more from him, is found in Listening to Your Life: Daily Meditations with Frederick Buechner. He recounts a time he walked into a class he was supposed to be teaching, saw the sunset outside, and turned off the lights. The entire class sat in absolute silence for the twenty or so minutes it lasted, watching the day fade away. Pondering the way we think of silence and words, Buechner writes, “The way this world works, people are very apt to use the words they speak not so much as a way of revealing but, rather, as a way of concealing who they really are and what they really think, and that is why more than a few moments of silence with people we do not know well are apt to make us so tense and uneasy. Stripped of our verbal camouflage, we feel unarmed against the world and vulnerable, so we start babbling about anything just to keep the silence at bay.” (Read the full passage here.)

Continuing that thought, in a chapter in The Yellow Leaves where he writes about some of his colleagues from his time as a teacher, he writes of one friend, “I dropped in on him every once in a while, and to keep the silence at bay we made conversation about things that neither of us was particularly interested in while Mrs. Favor served us tea and cookies.” It’s a sobering reminder to me to be conscious of the ways I use words.

In one chapter in The Yellow Leaves, he recounts a time he met Maya Angelou at an event where the two of them were speaking. The host made a point of how different Angelou’s story was from that of Buechner: “But even as Fred Burnham was saying how different our two stories had been, I could see her shaking her head from side to side, and when she took her place at the lectern the first thing she did was say that he was wrong. ‘No,’ she said, ‘Frederick Buechner and I have exactly the same story.’ She was right, of course. At the deepest level the story of any one of us is the story of all of us. We all have the same dreams, the same doubts, the same fears in the night. Her words brought sudden tears to my eyes.”

And on the next page, when Buechner was visiting with Angelou at her house, he writes, “I do remember that at some point she said in a slow, pensive way as if it was only then occurring to her that she believed that, given the chance, we could be real friends. I replied that I thought we were that already, but she said, ‘No, I mean real friends,’ and if we didn’t live so many miles apart, and if she wasn’t so busy being a celebrity and I being whatever I am, I think she may have been right. In any case as we sat there I had the feeling that even if we never set eyes on each other again, in some soft, shadowy way we had left a lasting mark on each other. For a few moments, with the dusk beginning to gather, our two stories merged like raindrops on a window pane.”

The book ends with a group of poems about friends and family, the last one titled “Lawrenceville Fiftieth Reunion”. In this excerpt, he starts out by talking about a poem he had written for their graduation, fifty years earlier:

I finished up my poem like this. I said,

“Remember too that life is very good, And that to live is better than to die,” And all in all I’d say so still, though sixty- Six is not so sure as sweet sixteen What life and death are all about. Suppose We lose less, dying, than we find. Who knows? Life’s good, for sure, but would we choose to live Forever if we could? Or might that seem Like twilight never deepening into dark, Like never calling it a day, and letting Go, and lying down to sleep. “Life should Be wondered at,” I said, “not understood,” As if I thought there was a choice, then said, “Remember love,” as if we might forget.


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