This week, I am sharing my thoughts about and some highlights from Frederick Buechner‘s recent book, The Remarkable Ordinary: How to Stop, Look, and Listen to Life (2017). Reminiscent of his memoirs–each year I select one to reread–with echoes from key texts like The Alphabet of Grace, A Room Called Remember, and Whistling in the Dark, Buechner reads his life as a text. And in this story, he shows how the transformational moments in his life have not been grand miracles, but the attention to the details, the anticipation of the predictable, and astonished reflection upon the ordinary. It is not a terrible tight collection, but I am grateful for the release of these old lectures and some new material.
Today, I want to share with you the time when Buechner first met Maya Angelou at a shared series of lectures by the Trinity Institute. These lectures are “geared for burned-out Episcopal clergy—men and women who simply have had it,” Buechner says. Often filled with big names like theologian Jürgen Moltmann, archbishop Desmond Tutu, the archbishop of Canterbury, and the like, these thinkers and writers and ministers talk about ethics, the church, and the role of Christianity in terms of culture. Buechner, a relatively well-known novelist, was invited to share from his recently published memoirs, The Sacred Journey (1982) and Now and Then (1983). No doubt the audience of church leaders would be intrigued by hearing from a clergyman working in the arts, sharing about the moments when God had worked in Buechner’s life.
It isn’t hard to explain why Maya Angelou would be invited, and Buechner particularly notes I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings as one of his favourite of her writings. Buechner describes encountering her in his life:
Maya Angelou is a large woman about my height, black, beautiful, and so full of energy you can warm your hands in front of her. She was born in the South and brought up in great poverty by her grandmother in the little town of Stamps, Arkansas. Awful things happened to her. She was raped at the age of eight, not a violent rape but a sort of one-thing-leads-to-another rape by a boyfriend of her mother whom she’d gone to visit. She came back from that experience afraid to tell anybody about it, but she eventually told her little brother Bailey that this thing had happened. By a fluke, within a couple of days of that, word came that the man who’d raped her had died, and she was terrified that her words had killed him. So she was mute for five years—didn’t say anything for five years. Well, she grew up, became a dancer, became a waitress, became a cook, and for a brief time she was a prostitute. She fell on evil times—the man whom she was with at that time said he needed some money and, if she wouldn’t mind, could she entertain some of his friends, and she did that for a time. Then she started to write and one thing led to another—acclaimed books, operas, films, and TV shows. She’s a Renaissance woman, in other words. Full of life, full of beans, full of stories.
Buechner tells two or three great stories about Maya Angelou and what she said and did, and I would encourage you to read the entire third chapter of The Remarkable Ordinary–including what a “laughing room” might be. I would, however, like to share two bits, out of order in the chapter.
One story is about the way that Angelou and Buechner were introduced, and how Angelou worked to bridge the distance between the wealthy, white, urban Presbyterian minister and her own experience as a black woman coming out of extreme poverty.
The other thing Maya Angelou said that moved me was when the two of us were being introduced by the friendly fellow I had made cry on the phone. I had given my lecture first, which was based, as I said, on my spiritual autobiography, and after I was done, this fellow introduced Maya, saying, “Ms. Angelou will now get up and tell you her story, and it will be a very different story from the one that you have just heard from Frederick Buechner.” As he said that, Maya Angelou, who was sitting in the front row and shaking her head from side to side, got up, and she said he was wrong. She said, “I have exactly the same story to tell as Frederick Buechner.”
I was very touched by that because in so many ways, what stories could be more different? I’m a man and she’s a woman, I’m white, she’s black, she grew up in dire poverty while by comparison I grew up with riches, though God knows we weren’t rich, and yet she said it’s the same story. And what she meant I think is that at a certain level we do, all of us, with all the differences, we do all have the same story. When it comes to the business of how do you become a human being, how do you manage to believe, how do you have faith in a world that gives you 14,000 reasons every week not to believe, how do you survive—especially surviving our own childhoods as Maya Angelou survived hers and we’ve all survived ours—at that level we all have the same story, and therefore anybody’s story can illuminate our own.
And that’s the only reason I have, the only justification, to tell you my story. Who gives a hoot about my story? But you can give a hoot about it because also it’s in many ways your story.
I don’t know how Maya Angelou’s work to bridge the distance of culture with the universality of story would go over today, but it was a striking moment for Beuchner nearly 40 years ago. I will leave you with another one of these stories, this one about an encounter Maya Angelou had with a friend–and, I think, an instance of The Remarkable Ordinary that Buechner is trying to draw out, the astonishing beauty within everyday life.
The most moving part of my time at Trinity happened after one of Maya’s lectures. There had been a number of questions and one person asked her a question about racism—has it gotten better, has it gotten worse, is it better in one place in the West Coast than the East Coast? And she had said, “Let me tell you a story.” She said she had been in the San Francisco Bay area fifteen years or so before to do a public television program on African art, and out of the blue one day she got a telephone call from a white man who told her that he had a collection of a certain kind of African statue and perhaps she would like to come over and look at them. So she went over and they were wonderful examples of whatever form of African art they were, and he lent them to her and she used them in ways that pleased him. Through this experience, they became great friends. She went to his house for dinner a number of times, got to know his wife, and Maya had them over to her place for dinner, and they were terrific pals. She said it had been one of the bright spots during her time there, and then the public television show was over and she went back to wherever it was she went. Time went by and about four or five years later she returned to the Bay Area, this time for a longer period of time. So right away she called up her friend, who told her he’d be delighted to see her again. He said, “Let me just catch you up on what I’ve been doing since I saw you last. I have been in Europe working on the problem with American troops over there. It’s not an easy row for them to hoe in a way,” he said, “and it’s especially hard for the black troops for obvious reasons. There aren’t too many blacks over there, but our boys are also having a hard—”
She interrupted him. “What did you say?”
“I said, in Europe it’s especially hard for the black troops, and that our boys are also—”
“What did you say?” She had interrupted him again, she told us, because she wanted him to hear it.
So again, “Well, the black troops . . .” and then he got it. “Oh my God! What have I said to you, of all people? The black troops . . . our boys. I’m so embarrassed I simply have to stop talking. I’m going to hang up. To say this to you, of all people.”
And Maya had said, “No, don’t. Don’t hang up. This is just the time we need to talk. This is what racism is beneath the level of liberal utterance and superficial friendship, the sort of deeply rooted sense of we and they, the whites, the blacks, the browns, the whatever it is.”
So they finished off their conversation agreeing that they would meet. Then she said after that she had tried to call him innumerable times and left messages of one kind or another, and there was never any response at all.
She told us that was the end, and when she had finished that question and answer time, she had been obviously very moved and sort of shaken by it. The next day she had started her lecture reflecting on this story about racism, saying, “As I left the room yesterday, a man stood up and said, ‘Here I am!’”
No sooner had these words left her lips when this small, bearded, white Episcopal clergyman suddenly stood up in our midst a few rows behind me and walked down the aisle, up onto the platform, and put his arms around her. He was, of course, her friend who had been too embarrassed to talk to her anymore. And she cried and he cried and all of us cried because we just got a glimpse of the kingdom of God. So moving. So gorgeous.