Throughout this Year of Reading Buechner series, I’ve made a point of reading his memoirs. This month I come to the fourth, and last, memoir, Eyes of the Heart: A Memoir of the Lost and Found, published in 1999.
At the time of publication, Buechner was seventy-three years old, and we discover that his only sibling, his younger brother Jimmy, has just died. So I’m sure he was feeling the weight of years upon him, and the sharpness of loss, as he wrote this book. Little did he know he would still be alive, here in 2018, at ninety-two! However, this shadow of death is very much present in this memoir, giving it a darker feel than the others.
The book is also in a slightly different format than the other three memoirs. They told the story of his life in more or less chronological order, each one picking up from where the other one ended.
The Eyes of the Heart goes back into older history, the story of his mother and father’s early lives and marriage, and revisits in greater detail some of the other periods he has already written about in the other books. It delves deeper into the personalities of the people he knew, giving us a fuller understanding of who they were.
The book begins with a description of his office/study, which he calls the Magic Kingdom, the place where he keeps all his books and where he does his writing. In this space he stores his book collection and his important family papers, and as he gives us a tour through the room and its objects he also gives us a tour through the times and people in his life that are represented by the objects, papers, and books.
He also continues an element that he has included in other books, that of his discussions with his beloved grandmother, whom he calls Naya, who of course is long dead. As in previous books he brings her to life again, sitting her down in his study/office and allowing us to listen in on their conversations.
It’s an effective thread that helps to hold the book together as he skips from one person to another, and from one time to another.
This memoir helps to fill out some of the previous stages of Buechner’s life, but honestly I will have to say that it is my least favourite of the memoirs. I got bogged down by some of the details and personalities. If I had never read any of the others, I’m sure I would have liked this one more. But because I know what he is capable of when writing this style of book, I came away somewhat disappointed.
The charm and genius of the other memoirs was that, although he wrote of his own life in those books, he also managed to make them about all of us, about how we see the world, and about how the small and sometimes insignificant things that happen to us can have profound and lasting effects.
There is only a hint of that in this book, and I missed it. I got bogged down in the stories about people I don’t know, ancestors of his and friends long gone. I didn’t find much of the sparkle in this book that had captivated me in his other memoirs.
There is some of that sparkle in the last chapter, however, and it was my favourite. In it Buechner wraps up the thoughts that he has sprinkled throughout this book on death and what happens after, by having a conversation with Naya about it.
I have to admit that there were also things that bothered me about this chapter. One of the things that I have appreciated very much about Buechner as I have read his books this year is his ambiguity when it comes to faith. I like that he leaves some room for questions, and some room for doubt. That is realistic, after all, and he allows readers some space to wrestle with their own doubts and questions because of it. That is all well and good.
But at times I wished he would not be quite so ambiguous about it all. He presents an almost Universalist view of the afterlife – in other words, it doesn’t matter what god you worship, all of us will get there in the end. I think this is both intellectually dishonest as well as being absolutely anathema to the orthodox teachings of Christianity. On even a surace level it doesn’t make sense. As soon as you examine any religion, you will find that their views about who God is and how to live your life in light of that are pretty much incompatible with each other. They can’t all be true. Buechner writes about the Buddhist philosophy, for example; about how, in the end, a person will dissolve into the great emptiness. That is an entirely different thing from the Christian view of a personal God who calls each of us individually to a life where we will become more and more the people that he always meant for us to be.
Buechner does admit in this chapter to his reluctance of stating things too plainly:
I have never risked much in disclosing the little I have of the worst that I see in my mirror, and I have not been much more daring in disclosing the best. I have seen with the eyes of my heart the great hope to which he has called us, but out of some shyness or diffidence I rarely speak of it, and in my books I have tended to write about it for the most part only obliquely, hesitantly, ambiguously, for the fear of losing the ear and straining the credulity of the readers to whom such hope seems just wishful thinking. For fear of overstating, I have tended especially in my nonfiction books to understate, because that seemed a more strategic way of reaching the people I would most like to reach who are the ones who more of less don’t give religion the time of day. But maybe beneath that lies the fear that if I say too much about how again and again over the years I have experienced holiness–even here I find myself drawing back from saying God or Jesus–as a living, healing, saving presence in my life, then I risk being written off as some sort of embarrassment by most of the people I know and like.
I understand his reluctance, and in many ways, share it. But there’s reluctance to speak of it and then there’s speaking of it in such an oblique way that the truth of it is distorted.
In the end, however, I don’t want to be too harsh with my comments. Buechner has a gentle, self-deprecating way of helping us wrestle with our own thoughts and feelings. He gives us other lenses with which to view our lives. And in sharing his stories of the insights he gleaned from the things that happened to him in his life, he encourages us to find insights of our own in ours. Especially the insight that, as he says, it was all of it, all of it, and forever and always, good.
If you want to read more of my reflections on Buechner’s work, you can find the posts at the links below.