Tuesday, July 18, 2017

Buechner's "Yellow Leaves"

I'm a big Buechner fan, especially his books of definitions. I read a review of his recent anthology, Yellow Leaves, in Books and Culture-- and decided to pick up a copy. It was an easy read, full of miscellany, and ideal for a reading experience between a devotion and something that needs half of one's attention. (Here's my review of Buechner 101-- the other book mentioned in that review.)

The title comes from a verse of Shakespeare: 
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.

Buechner uses this to introduce the project-- that his well of books has dried up (at least for now), but the miscellany is still worth "a volume like this". (ix)

Observations from the mix: 

-Buechner's story on "Presidents I have Known" includes a short memories of FDR and Truman, before sharing a lengthy discussion of Eisenhower. He didn't want to like Ike, but found his smile to be "so beautiful...utterly spontaneous...all but justified my mother-in-law's [description of him as] spiritual." (24) Buechner implicitly connects Ike and his supporters to ACL (American Civil Religion)-- one of my favorite little concepts-- describing Ike as "so spiritual".

In "Wunderjahr", Buechner shares a bit of wisdom-- "to look not at the horizon but just above it" (29). He intends this literally and figuratively, as a more effective way to see life. This reminds me of Chesterton's "maniac"-- where people stare narrowly and directly at the horizon, but lack the perspective to understand reality, dogmatically insisting that their blinkered version of "the truth" is all there is. 

Late in the same essay, Buechner notes that his first book had been a surprising success. But his second novel was wooden, overtly Christian "before I had any clear idea what Christianity was about", and his least successful book. He muses on what would have happened to his career-- given his early and later success. But he concludes "all in all I wouldn't have had it otherwise". (45-46)

In "The Laughter Barrel", Buechner shares a story of his time with Maya Angelou (66-68). They met at a speaking engagement and the emcee introduced Angelou, after Buechner spoke, by saying that their backgrounds were totally different. But Angelou said they "had the same story". He profoundly enjoyed talking with her-- mostly listening to her, really: "She is as good a listener as she is a talker, but I kept mostly silent so as not to interrupt her wonderful, lazy progress from one thing to another."

To open "Gertrude Conover remembers", he shares her speculation on theology (81-82), transforming reincarnation into its Christian cousins-- the ideas that eternal life has already begun (for the believer) and that we reap as we sow (at least for this life and probably beyond). The excerpt ends with a wild story of her marrying a confirmed bachelor-- and I don't want to steal its thunder by revealing the strange and wonderful ending (86-87).

Buechner includes a long discussion of Charles Dickens' and all of the effort he put into "A Christmas Carol" (89-91). He wrote in in two months, but took great pains to edit it thoroughly. He spent a lot of time, money and energy on its production-- "the most expensive format" of any book he wrote. And so on. Buechner concludes: "It is Dickens' undoubted masterpiece and its own way an extracanonical Gospel."

Some marvelous little gems:
-Buechner shares a pithy and powerful response to a simple question about complex matters: "Any question that can be asked in one sentence can be answered in one sentence." (43)

-Giving a eulogy for an old teacher/mentor: "it was as hard for me to look at my old teacher lying there as it was to avoid looking at him." (49)
-A story at the end of "Bulletin Board", he relates a story about a priest who struggled with depression and with whom Buechner had shared morning prayers for years. He told Buechner that his friendship and presence over nine years "had saved his life"-- what Buechner described as "a gift of sheer grace to both of us." (62)


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