Memory is such a trickster. I came across a lost document while helping my dad and stepmom clean out their condo recently, notes from Monday, January 28, 2008, and the opening of the Buechner Institute at King College in Bristol, Tennessee.
My overall memory is that it was a great day, but I had forgotten many specifics, yet as I read, they flooded back. Isn’t memory odd? Sometimes our brains are giant filing systems, and all it takes is a little prompt to retrieve the file.
I had forgotten how the day started. I got in a van at the hotel to take me to King and sat down next to a man dressed in black. It wasn’t Johnny Cash; it was Thomas Lynch, the world’s most literary undertaker. A fine poet and essayist, Lynch won the American Book Award for The Undertaking, which was also the inspiration for the HBO show Six Feet Under. He stuck his big hand out and shook mine, and we talked easily. (The picture above is of Thomas Lynch and me at the end of the day. It’s one of my favorite pictures, simply because I was so happy.)
The last person to hop in for a ride was the noted Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann, who looked like a prophet of yore with his crown of white hair and white beard. Upon arrival at King, we found Fred and Judy Buechner already inside, having breakfast. I grabbed something to eat and sat down and Walter Brueggemann came and sat with me. I was just about to say something witty and wry like, “Hello, Walter Brueggemann,” when Frederick Buechner came over to talk to Brueggemann.
I looked on, gaping like one of the disciples on the Mount of Transfiguration. What is it they say at the Seder service—“It would have been enough”? It would have been enough just to have this happen. But this was just breakfast, and there were many more treats in store.
My friends Jim, from Kansas City, and Joel, from Boston, had come for the event. We gathered in the auditorium for a session of tributes to Buechner. Thomas Lynch noted that he felt right at home since there was a large stone and flowers, but thought it unusual that the honoree wasn’t horizontal.
Buechner read two funny, sad, and interesting stories, “Our Last Drive Together,” and “Presidents I Have Known,” which both would subsequently be published in his final book The Yellow Leaves. He spoke with sadness about throwing away most of what he wrote because it wasn’t any good. How I wished I could comb through that trash! None of us knew it, but this would be one of Buechner’s last public appearances. Now that almost a dozen years have passed and Buechner has withdrawn from public life, I treasure having been there more than ever.
After lunch, our host, the late great Dale Brown, spoke about Buechner as novelist and then Thomas Lynch spoke about Buechner as memoirist. Lynch wove in pieces of his own story, showing pictures of his grandparents and noting dryly, “That’s my grandmother on the right,” and adding how these old pictures make you wonder how our forebears ever got together to have children. His presentation was a tour de force, combining his deep insights and terrific wit. He finished by noting that there were a lot of preachers present, and that “preaching to Bishops is like farting at a skunk. You might win the battle but you will lose the war.” I had somehow forgotten that line, but rediscovered it in my notes, and hope to never forget it again.
My friend Joel was joined by his friend Charlie from Nashville. Charlie is in the band Jars of Clay. The day was already magical, but now here was someone whose picture was on a poster in my teenage daughter’s bedroom. I tried to come up with something nice to say to Charlie, but all I could think of was, “I hear your music unwillingly through the walls of my house and it doesn’t drive me crazy.” I decided to hold my tongue.
I was part of the next presentation, about Frederick Buechner as a preacher. I had forgotten that I was on a panel with the well-known preacher Thomas Long. I remember now that I could clearly see Long’s notes which meant he obviously could see mine. I had a couple of pages of meticulously typed notes. Long had a sheet of paper with four lines scribbled on it. Oh, the insouciance! It went well, and when we finished Thomas Lynch said to me, “I could have listened to a lot more of that.” Then I went for dinner with Joel and Jim and Charlie, who drove. I was being chauffeured around the hills of Tennessee by a Jar of Clay. We did not listen to Jars of Clay in the car.
As I walked into the auditorium for the evening session, Thomas Lynch motioned me over and asked me to sit with him. I was channeling Sally Field: “He likes me, he really likes me.” Brueggemann interviewed Buechner, which was like Jeremiah interviewing Paul. They were fascinating. Great stories of their seminary days (both went to Union in New York during the 1950s) and great thoughts about literature, ministry, politics, and the church.
When it was finished, I rode with Joel back to the hotel and made the mistake of saying, “I wish I knew the music of Jars of Clay better.” Joel fiddled around playing snippets of various songs to me and turned a ten minute drive into a half an hour adventure. We passed the hotel twice going different directions on the same highway. On a third try, he saw the hotel entrance just as we were passing and went into the parking lot at forty miles an hour. A near-by pedestrian leapt to safety between two parked cars. It was Walter Brueggemann! I am not making that up.
Karma and total depravity and Murphy’s Law being what they are, Tuesday was the yin to the previous day’s yang. My early morning flight was cancelled, and I wound up with my friend Jim and The Twelve’s own Jennifer Holberg in a car with a driver compliments of Delta Airlines, being driven 90 miles across the Smoky Mountains to Asheville, to catch a flight to Atlanta and then home. Our fossil of a driver had a high Tennessee twang and a penchant for driving ten miles an hour below the speed limit. Jim got carsick as we wound through the mountains. The driver, doing a solid 52 miles an hour on the interstate, wouldn’t pull over. I finally had to order him off the road so poor Jim’s humiliation could be complete. We made it to the airport at 10:18 for our 10:30 flight, which Delta incredibly held for us.
It was a very strange plane. We entered from the rear and the luggage was loaded in the front, like an old Volkswagen. I asked the flight attendant what kind of plane it was and she said, “French,” confident that “French” explained everything. I told the flight attendant, who was sitting kneecap to kneecap with me, the story of our day and she asked, “Is your friend wearing a gray sport coat? He’s getting sick again.” Poor Jim. He looked like a candidate to see Thomas Lynch professionally.
Of course the plane Jennifer and I were getting on in Atlanta was delayed. Of course Jim’s to Kansas City was delayed as well. Jennifer and I landed in Grand Rapids ten hours later than the original schedule. I called Joel to see how he was doing and he reported sleeping in, luxuriating in the hotel hot tub, and enjoying his beautiful drive to the airport. He’d landed in Boston several hours before we got home. Jim got home last of all, having vomited again in the airport parking lot in Kansas City as he was approaching the toll gate. His last words, though, were, “I was very, very inspired by Monday.” So was I.
Parts of this story are included in the book Reading Buechner, which is available November 19 and can be ordered here.