Year of Reading Buechner: Telling Secrets: A Memoir

So far in my Year of Reading Buechner series I have read two of Frederick Buechner’s four memoirs: A Sacred Journey, and Now and ThenThese two books cover Buchner’s early childhood, marred by the suicide of his father, and the beginning of his career as a professor and writer.

This month it was time for the next memoir, Telling Secrets. This book was written in 1991, when Buechner was 65 years old, and in it he discusses the impact of two great secrets in his life. First, the alcoholism and suicide of his father when he was very young, and secondly, the struggle his teenage daughter had with anorexia during the time that this memoir was set.

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Once again, Buechner’s aim in writing this memoir was not only to tell the story of his life, but to tell it in such a way that the reader is brought to a reflection of their own. So, in this book, he begins in the introduction by saying,

It is important to tell at least from time to time the secret of who we truly and fully are–even if we tell it only to ourselves–because otherwise we run the risk of losing track of who we truly and fully are and little by little come to accept instead the highly edited version which we put forth in hope that the world will find it more acceptable than the real thing. 

The book begins with Buechner discussing the impact of his father’s suicide. This has been a theme in other writings of his, but in this book he explores how his family’s unwritten rule of keeping the secret of that death had profound implications for him. Keeping that secret in a very real way not only erased the sadness and horror of that event but also in many ways erased his father himself from Buechner’s life, such that very quickly he could not even remember what his father looked like or sounded like. Interestingly enough, it was through the writing of Godric,  reviewed here on the blog last month,  that he began to understand an important truth, namely that,

…although death ended my father, it has never ended my relationship with my father–a secret that I had never so clearly understood before. 

Godric allowed him to explore that relationship again, and to say things to his father in that fictional setting, through Godric’s relationship with his father, that he was never able to say in real life.

Another theme of this memoir is the power and role of memory in our lives. He explores how through memory we can revisit the old hurts of the past and gain healing.

It is through memory that we are able to reclaim much of our lives that we have long since written off by finding that in everything that has happened to us over the years God was offering us possibilities of new life and healing which, though we may  have missed them at the time, we can still choose and be brought to life by and healed by all these years later. 

So many of us have hurts and secrets that we run from and stuff deep inside. I love this idea of revisiting the past and having a chance for a do-over, for making peace with all those people and events  that have scarred us.

The second secret explored in the book is that of his daughter’s anorexia; her slow starvation almost to the point of death, and his utter helplessness in the face of it. On the outside, they were  a happy, prosperous family, and in many ways that label was true. But it masked the sadness, grief, and fear of this terrible illness. It forced Buechner to comes to terms with how his desire to control his children (so that no terrible thing would happen to them and cause them to leave, like his father had left) resulted in his daughter’s symbolic grasp for freedom through her illness.

It’s utterly honest and told with sensitivity and even some self-deprecating humour, which is characteristic of Buechner’s voice in these memoirs. And as always, through his writing not he only reveals his own life but takes us by the hand and encourages us to ponder our own. What secrets are we carrying around with us? How are those secrets crippling us? Can we face them, and tell them, and so be freed from their powerful hold over us?

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The Little Ease was a tiny room in the Tower of London where prisoners could neither stand up fully nor lie down properly. Buechner uses this  as a metaphor for how he spent so much time, spiritually and psychologically speaking, bound up in dark, cramped, airless rooms of his own making. He contrasts this with the Chapel of Saint John, right above the Little Ease, a place of serene silence, peace, and holiness. Telling Secrets describes his journey from the one to the other during the course of years detailed in the book. 

Telling Secrets also covers some of Buechner’s professional life as well. During these years he taught a couple of courses at Harvard University’s Divinity School, which he describes as a difficult time, given that many of the students didn’t even believe in God. He contrasts this with a joyful time teaching a course at Wheaton College in 1985, which is Billy Graham’s old alma matter, and where he found the practical and open faith seen in the students’ lives refreshing and encouraging.

Around this time, in 1987, Buechner wrote and published Brendan, to great acclaim. And around that time as well, he discovers the power of attending an Adult Children of Alcoholics Anonymous -type group, which, along with some innovative therapy, brought much healing to the wounds of his past.

This book is another wise and gentle memoir, which I thoroughly enjoyed. It gives you much to ponder long after you read the final sentence. The two memoirs I have read so far are ones that I will definitely re-read, and this one will be the same.

 

 

A Year of Reading Lewis: A Grief Observed

A Grief Observed was published in 1961, after the death of Lewis’ wife Joy (of cancer) in 1960. Interestingly, Lewis published this under the pseudonym N.W. Clark,, as he did not wish to be identified as the author. It was only published under his real name in 1963, after his own death.

The book is a compilation of his journal entries in which he expresses his journey through grief and the struggles he faced along the way. He did not mean it to be an exploration of the universal experience of grief, rather, it was the honest look at what grief looked like for him, after Joy’s death (called H in the book – her first name, rarely used, was Helen).

C.S. Lewis and Joy, in happier days

C.S. Lewis and Joy, in happier days

I used the word “honest” above, and above all, this is how this book struck me. I read this book first as a teenager, and death had not touched me in any significant ways. Re-reading it now, after I have suffered the uncomfortable presence of death more than once, was a much different experience.

Right from the first line, “No one ever told me that grief felt so like fear.” you get the sense that Lewis would not be holding anything back in the exploration of his feelings as he walked through grief. And being Lewis, his feelings are not the only thing he examines. He is a Christian, he wrote the Problem of Pain a few years back, and now his own words on the subject are haunting him. How does a Christian really deal with this kind of pain? As he says, “Not that I am (I think) in much danger of ceasing to believe in God. The real danger is of coming to believe such dreadful things about Him. The conclusion I dread is not, ‘So there’s no God after all,’ but ‘So this is what God’s really like. Deceive yourself no longer.'” And what Christian who wrestles with the dark times has not faced this fear, too? At one point in the book Lewis explores this further, wonders how we can call God “good” when we are faced with so much pain. How can we trust Him when, as in their case, prayers were seemingly answered for healing (Joy went through an unexpected remission) but then the cancer returned? As he writes, “Time after time, when He seemed most gracious He was really preparing the next torture.” 

Strong stuff. But the very next sentence is, “I wrote that last night. It was a yell rather than a thought. Let me try it over again.” Lewis’ great strength, his intellectual honesty, comes to the rescue. It would have been easy for him to edit that “yell” out of the final manuscript. But keeps it in, along with the exploration that follows as he wrestles with the question is it rational to believe in a bad God? And in doing so we understand that it is okay to question in the midst of our pain and grief. In this, as in so much of his writings, Lewis offers a hand in friendship to us.

This painful examination of the depth of his faith shows how grief has stripped away his certainty of the goodness of God. “If my house has collapsed at one blow, that is because it was a house of cards. The faith which ‘took these things into account’ was not faith, but imagination….I thought I trusted the rope until it mattered to me whether it would bear me. Now it matters, and I find I didn’t.” Lewis doesn’t shy from this examination, he faces it head on and forces himself to think through how his faith fits in with this new reality he finds himself in.

“Her absence is like the sky, spread over everything.” The terrible, unrelenting loneliness of grief is also discussed, along with the fear that Lewis felt in the fading of Joy from his life and memory.  “What pitable cant to say, ‘She will live forever in my memory!” Live? That is exactly what she won’t do. ….as if I wanted to fall in love with my  memory of her, an image in my own mind!” 

In many ways, although this is certainly a book about one man’s journey through grief, it is so much more. It speaks to all of us who have experienced pain. It is the counterpoint to A Problem With Pain, the working out in reality of the principles expressed in that book. And that is perhaps one of the reasons why Lewis decided to publish this anonymously at first. He probably didn’t want all sorts of comparisons between that work and this, and gleeful pronouncements from his detractors along the line of “In that book he talked all about the goodness of God despite the reality of suffering, well, look at him now! Wallowing in his pain like the rest of us!” Publishing this book anonymously allowed for it, and the ideas it expresses, to stand alone and be contemplated in their own right.

If you have suffered through the death of a loved one, you may find that Lewis’ journey as expressed in this book was not your own. Which is understandable, for all of us are unique. But I can hardly imagine that you won’t get some comfort out of it, all the same. Especially if you are a person of faith, you will find his honesty refreshing and ultimately, reaffirming.

Lewis comes to the conclusion, “God has not been trying an experiment on my faith or love in order to find out their quality. He knew it already. it was I who didn’t.” In other words, this great trial forced him to see just how weak his faith really was, which is not always a bad thing. The Cosmic Sadist (as he calls God in one point of the book) is turned into a wise Vet, who is causing pain to a creature who can’t understand the need for it, in order to bring them healing.

There is much room for contemplation in this book, for although it is hard, emotionally, to read  at times, Lewis’ rigorous examination of himself in the midst of his grief gives us permission to wrestle with the questions he poses as well. Once again I am filled with admiration for his skill in illuminating difficult topics for us. Surely this was one of the worst times in his life, and yet he offers these words he wrote in the midst of it to us as a gift, in order to shine a little light in our own dark times, and above all, to show us we are not alone in feeling doubt, fear, anger, and depression in the midst of them.

And for that, I am grateful.

The inscription on Joy's crematorium marker was presumably written by Lewis. Photo credit: Ferrell Jenkins, https://biblicalstudies.info/cslewis/cslewis.htm

The inscription on Joy’s crematorium marker was presumably written by Lewis. Photo credit: Ferrell Jenkins