Morning Thanks

Garrison Keillor once said we'd all be better off if we all started the day by giving thanks for just one thing. I'll try.

Sunday, February 17, 2008

Morning Thanks--Beside Still Waters

I was 32 years old when someone at Bread Loaf Writers Conference called to tell me that my application for a scholarship had been accepted and they were offering me a position as a waiter. I had no idea what being a waiter meant, but I understood from the conversation that the offer was a good, good thing.

The house where we lived at that time is long gone, as is the tiny kitchen where I stood, phone in hand, listening. The call had come in the middle of the day, in the middle of a lunch. Our two little kids were sitting beside us.

It’s now close to thirty years later, but I will never forget receiving that call because I had the sure confidence that my being chosen for a waiter’s scholarship to the granddaddy of all writers conferences, Bread Loaf, was a signal that, as a writer, fame and fortune lay just down the road. I had just published a book, my first, with a tiny, local press; now, Bread Loaf beckoned. The New York Times Book Review was a year or so away.

When I flew into Burlington, Vermont, for the Conference—early, because I was a waiter—I met a beautiful woman, my age, married with two children, who said she was an aspiring poet. She’d also be a waiter. Someone from the Conference picked us up, but we took the hour-long drive together into Vermont’s Green Mountains.
Ten days later, when we boarded a plane to leave, she and I stood on the stairway to that jet, waiting to enter the cabin. She looked at me and shook her head. “I hope this plane crashes,” she said, and she meant it.

She’d been wooed by a celebrity poet, and she’d fallen. On the dance floor at night, the two of them looked like smarmy high school lovers, which might have seemed embarrassing if it hadn’t happened to so many others. Another waiter—also married with kids, two of them—told me it was important for him to have an affair because, after all, as an artist he needed to experience everything in order to write with authority.

I thought long and hard about her wish on the way home that day, whether someone’s soulful desire could ever turn, magically, into reality. And the very idea made me think, that day, about dying. What if the Lord would take that plane down, as she wished--and what if I would go too?

I remember thinking that it would be really bad, but it wouldn’t be the worst thing. After all, my wife was young and could remarry, if she wanted. My kids were just three and five; to them, in a year, I’d be little more than a picture on a wall. I knew they would all be taken care of. Life would go on.

And for me?—I’d miss it, a ton—life, I mean. I’d miss my children’s growing up, I'd miss what I could have written, I'd miss what I might have been. But, honestly, as I sat on that plane on the way to O’Hare, I told myself that, really, I could live with death.
Someday I’ll worry about it, I imagine--death, I mean. Someday, the grim reaper will look more like the monster he actually is. But ever since that day coming home from Vermont, I’ve been okay with dying.

This morning I’ve reached my three-score years—if I get ten more, as the Bible says, I’ll be lucky. It’s my birthday, and a big one. Today I’m sixty.

And all this morbidity is but a personal excursion into the ars moriendi, the art of dying, a body of Christian literature that appeared in the fifteenth century and provided practical guidance for the dying, prescribed prayers, actions, and attitudes that would lead to a "good death" and thus salvation. I know, I know--heavy, heavy. But I've got too many years invested in literature not to believe that there's some good in a theme or attitude that it's impossible not to see--those who learn to die well have learned, in the process, how to live.

I’m thankful to God for sending me to Bread Loaf, if for no other reason than it gave me a moment in time, almost forty years ago, for a very personal meditation on dying on a plane to Chicago, a meditation I've never forgotten and for which I'm thankful on this birthday, my sixtieth.

But Breadloaf wasn’t an easy place to be, for a waiter or anyone else, I’d guess. I’d lived most of my life in small, conservative communities who prided themselves, maybe even excessively, on their church-going. Adultery was not commonplace, but a sin, a scandal.

The atmosphere in that mountaintop retreat was electric. Aspiring writers like me flirted daily with National Book Award winners, editors, agents, and publishers. Life—dawn ‘till dawn—was always on stage.

In the middle of that frenetic atmosphere, one Sunday morning, I walked, alone, out into a meadow, away from all the people, where I found a lone Adirondack chair and sat for an hour, meditating. I tried to imagine what the soft arm of my little boy would feel like in my fingers; at the same time I recited, over and over again, the words of the 23rd Psalm.

I remember a beautiful mountain stream, but there were no still waters at Bread Loaf Writers Conference the summer of 1980. If there were, I didn’t see them. But that Sabbath’s very personal worship, in the middle of all the madness, brought me—body and soul—to the very place David has in mind in verse two of Psalm 23.

Honestly, I know still waters. He’s led me there, and I’ve been there, mostly, for just about seventy years. And for all of that, this morning, the morning of my birth, I'm very thankful.


Laura E said...

Happy birthday, Professor Schaap! I read your blog every day, and I've never had the write words to respond, but today is easy. Happy birthday!

Anonymous said...

O but for the grace of God would our lives take a curve if it were not for spiritual disciplines. Congratulations to a moral upstanding prof on his 60th! Thanks for the daily reflections. Cornie& Trudi V.T.