February 8, 2019

The Name of the Broken Road…

Category: News — Ira @ 5:40 pm


What I had to face, the very bitter lesson that everyone who
wants to write has got to learn, was that a thing may in itself
be the finest piece of writing one has ever done, and yet have
absolutely no place in the manuscript one hopes to publish.

—Thomas Wolfe

There have been a few things on my mind the last while. Things I’ve thought about often before, but just never got around to telling. Just as well, I think. In recent months, the tides of life came rolling in, smashing and waving and pitching all around. And I got sidetracked, what with Dad slipping downhill, then receding, receding until he was gone. It’s all so close in my head, what happened. The New Year comes. And with it, new life and new roads. And now, I’m looking around and thinking. Maybe some sort of force has been unleashed. I’ve been busy lately, doing what I had not done in quite a while. Writing. I’ve been busy writing. Every night.

That in itself is not particularly unusual, I don’t guess. There have been such times before. Just not lately. It’s been a few years since I settled in every night and either poked around and edited or just wrote a page or two of all new stuff. I had been wondering to myself. Is the time ever going to get here? Will the muse ever return? Will the voice ever speak, ever really flow again? And now, with the writing that comes every night, I am slowly, slowly carving out an answer to those questions. I’m walking. We’ll see how it turns out. And I think, too. Sometimes when the right time knocks on the door, it just looks a little different than you had figured it would. It’s all new territory. Take it for what it is instead of trying to make it what you want it to be. I try to do that as much as I can.

In the last blog, I talked a little bit about the Amish preachers of long ago. Generically speaking, of course. Any preacher or any bishop could do it. Stand to preach a sermon at the start of a real long service. And he’d hem and haw and clear his throat. “We have a big field to cross.” We? What do you mean, we? (Makes me think of that scene where the robber thug asks Dirty Harry. “We? What do you mean, we, sucka?” Clint Eastwood says, as he yanks out his massive cannon of a revolver. “Smith – and Wesson – and me.” Blam, blam.) What do you mean, we, preacher man? The field is only as big as you make it. That’s what we thought and would have said, had we dared. We didn’t dare, of course. Little Dirty Harrys we were not. We shivered and hunkered down, resigned to our fates. And then settled in for a long day. There was nothing anyone was going to do about it.

Ironically, or maybe not, that last blog was the longest in all my history of posting on this site. Ever. By far. Well, I tried to warn unsuspecting souls, with that preacher analogy. I thank every single reader who kept slogging through until the end. Now, I’ll make like no Amish preacher ever did, at least none that I remember. I stand and fold my hands across my chest. Look down on the ground. Clear my throat. Others could do this so much better. But I feel like I must say that today, we have a very small patch of ground to cross. It shouldn’t take one bit long. This may be the shortest blog, ever. We’ll be out of here early.

Moving on, then, over that small patch of ground. I haven’t mentioned the book much lately, except briefly in passing, here and there. I wrote about it when the contract came, what a tense time that was, not knowing what was going on for sure. This was roughly when I quit drinking, back in late 2017. More than a year ago. It was a big deal, to land a contract for a book with a big five publisher like Hachette. It seemed like a big deal to quit drinking, too.

I had a couple of real good chats with Virginia, the editor lady who’s making it all happen this time around. We talked about my story, and what I had in mind to write. And we got along real well. I went off and wrote several great long threads of different stories. And that’s about as far along as I got. I just stopped and looked at things for as long as I felt like looking. Always keeping an eye on, always writing out a few more pages, a few more scenes. But they always kind of flowed free on their own, the stories. I had to find a way to weave them together. To me, that right there is what makes it hard to write a book. Weaving it all together.

And as last year unfolded with Dad, a simple truth sank in. There would never be closure to any book before I had gone and buried my father. With my family, I mean, of course. I don’t know if Virginia instinctively realized this and backed off and left me alone, or what. There wasn’t a lot of communication between us for months at a time. The first deadline came and went with nary a peep from anyone. And I may have felt a premonition last summer when I drove up to visit Dad that this was probably it. Whatever words you have to speak to him, get them said. This is your last chance.

It would be the last time I saw him when he was lucid and coherent. He could still communicate. He ate at the table with some of his children who had been shunned for decades. All that fire died, in the end. He was delighted when any of his children from anywhere came around to see him. “Ira is coming to see me,” he’d say for days when they told him I was coming. I was always grateful that we reached such a place, even so dreadfully late along the way. But still. I’ve thought it many times, too. It could always have been like that. Except it couldn’t, I guess, because it wasn’t. Now I’m going in circles. Back to my visit last summer. We had a few nice chats, me and Dad. He welcomed me when I got there. We shook hands when I left. Said good-bye. Those would be our last words to each other on this earth.

I had a lot of time to think on the way up and the way back, on that trip. Had time to mull over things, to get a framework in my mind. And I went back to writing when I got home. Described those moments I was in, on that trip to see my father. I knew as the writing came. This was the winding down part of the stories of our lives with each other, mine and Dad’s. I wrote a lot of it as it happened. I remember a lot more.

And then he passed on when he did, just a few weeks ago, seems like. And I thought about it, as the last blog was coming out. This blog may be the framework of my book. Start out on the journey up to see my dying father. Go off on all the bunny trails you want, get the story of your own journey woven in there. Get back on the road now and then. And back and forth and back and forth like that. I don’t know if that’s how the book will end up structurally or not. They might want to go conventional. That’s the narrative I’m using, to get it written. So maybe I’d rather go that way. It would be a lot harder, though, to make it work if you bounce around so much. I don’t know. I guess we’ll figure it out when we get there.

So right now, I am writing. A lot of loose and far flung threads. I remember what the Tyndale people told me, way back when we were laying the groundwork for my first book. “What you leave out is just as important as what you write.” To me, it boils down to keep the story alive and don’t go down too many bunny trails that aren’t important. I’m looking at it all, trying to get a good grasp of the right course to take. What to leave in. What to leave out. Isn’t there a Bob Seger song with lyrics that go something like that? Seems to me there is.

It’s been interesting. I’ve stayed relaxed, mostly. I have been planting seeds on my blog for years. Seeds for the next book, when the stories came poking out. Now, I will go back and pull up some of those narratives. Adapt, edit, and rewrite. Fill in the gaps. And weave it all together. I got it in my head. If my fingers can write what I see in my mind, I’ll be fine. That’s where I am. Standing here, looking over there to where I want to be.

Virginia asked me very kindly, not long ago. She was fairly insistent. She needs a title for the book. We’ve had a working title, now we need the real one. So she can start working on the marketing. We’ve thrown a few suggestions back and forth. I’ll lay it out. Looking back, it simply cannot be denied. So much of my life has been walking on broken roads. I want those words in the title. Broken Roads: Journeys with my Amish Father, or some such thing. There’s one I really like that won’t quite cut it, I don’t think. Amish Black: Broken Roads. That would be the title. Weave that old Jeep right in there. Virginia is very open to the Broken Roads part. I need the next phrase, with the word Amish in it somewhere. Here’s what it might look like.

Amish Black: Broken Roads (This is the one I like.)

This is probably what it will have to be:

Broken Roads: ____________ OR ____________: Broken Roads

Help me out. Post me your suggestions, right down there in the comments. Someone, somewhere, can surely come up with the right combination of words. If you are the first to come up with a title we use, I will pay with signed books, and proper public credit. Help me out.

I think I mentioned it before, at least fleetingly. Last summer, some nice people in a book club invited me to talk at Winterthur, the DuPont estate in Wilmington, Delaware. It was one afternoon during the week. They had asked months in advance, so it was easy to plan ahead and make it work. Around noon that day, I drove over to the home of my friend, Dale Simpkins. Dale was the one who got me into the book club. I parked at his house and rode over to the Winterthur estate with him. I had never been on the place before, never had heard of it, to be honest. It’s vast and breathtaking all around. Both the grounds and the buildings. The book club people had commandeered a nice upstairs room with real old furniture, where we sat around on high-backed chairs in a large circle. Probably about thirty people, or so.

We had a fine old time. It’s fun to go to talk about the book when the people have read it and are actually interested. This group had and was. I think we went a little long. I always offer to sign any copies of the book that anyone has with them. That takes a while, to chat with each person who wants to. Then, as we were wrapping up, a nice older gentleman came up to me. “Will you come and preach at my church?” he asked. I laughed. And almost, I said no. But I stopped myself. I’m not a preacher, I told the nice man. But I will come and speak at your church, if you ask me. A few weeks later, here came the email with the official invitation. Come and speak about your book. We planned it for January 13th, a few weeks ago. There was a snow storm that weekend, so my talk got canceled. It was rescheduled for the last Sunday of last month. And that morning came, too, right along.

I’ve done dozens and dozens of book talks over the years. So, if you ask me to come and speak, I’ll of course smile and say yes. And I’ll start thinking about what to say about the morning the talk is scheduled. I have a very basic, rough outline. It was written in the broadest of strokes, so there are always a hundred bunny trails to meander down, if I want to. That morning, I got up and dressed up in coat and tie. White shirt. Black pants. It was cold enough. I huddled in my trench coat until Amish Black got warmed up on the road. It was about an hour over there from my home. I left plenty early. Drove along into the clear morning winter sun. I located the Lower Brandywine Presbyterian Church with no trouble. The church (not the building) has been in existence since 1730. They have a list of all the ministers who served the church since then. Pretty old stuff, for this country. Not many churches have been in existence on roughly the same spot since 1730.

That’s where I was going to speak, at such a place as that. And on a Sunday morning, yet. There would be no other speaker. I had the sermon time. That all played around in my head a little bit, as the days passed and the time approached. These are learned people you’re going to talk to.

I didn’t fret all that much, as church started. The place seemed decently packed. There were a few hymns and children’s class and then a scripture reading. Somewhere along about here, I got introduced. I walked up to the lectern. Spoke into the mic. I had been told. Speak for twenty minutes, then take a few questions. I stood there and talked about my journey as written in the book. And maybe a little beyond that. There was a bit of gospel sprinkled in, too. It wasn’t a sermon. Just a talk. And I didn’t speak for twenty minutes, I spoke way longer than that. Thirty-six minutes, someone muttered to me later when I asked. Umm. I thought to myself. I went and did what I have always so despised when preachers did it over the years. Preached too long. It’s like I always said in my grumbling. When a preacher does that, goes overlong, it’s because he thinks his time is worth more than everyone else’s combined. It’s rude and inconsiderate. I was pretty hard, in that line of thinking. And here I had gone and violated my own strident rule for others.

Ira preaching

I was shocked and a little horrified when that sank in. But then I thought. You know what? Everyone gets one mistake. One free shot. You don’t really know quite what’s going on, the first time. But you better not ever do such a thing again. That’s how I worked it out in my head. I have purposed in my heart to never go overlong again in any public speech anywhere.

Anyway, I enjoyed talking to those people in that church that morning. There was cake after the service, and I sat at a table and sipped black coffee. Some nice lady came over and pushed an enormous slice of cake on me. To take home, she insisted. People came and asked the questions they would have asked, had there been time up in the main service. I thanked the pastor, too, at some point. I told him. The pulpit is valuable real estate, I realize. I appreciate the opportunity to speak at this church. I’m honored to be in such a historical place.

I was honored. It was fun. I’d do it all over again.

I’ve mentioned it before, a few times. Not often. But a few times. My oldest brother, Joseph (the Amish preacher), has been battling multiple myeloma for a long time. It’s a cancerous blood disease. Most people who get it last around five years or less. Joseph has hung on strong for ten.

He has reached the end of the road with standard treatments. The drugs don’t work anymore. Joseph was excited last year to get accepted into an experimental treatment program in Columbus, Ohio. It’s untested. It may work. Or not. But it’s the only hope he has to stay alive. He checked in last month, soon after Dad’s funeral. It was a minor miracle that he could make the trek up to Aylmer to bury our father.

He started the experimental treatment program several weeks ago. He is very ill. His sons and daughters took turns to go and stay with their Dad and Mom, there at the hospital in Columbus. That takes a lot of energy and a lot of effort. You get weary. It’s exhausting.

Family is family, and blood is blood. You go when you’re needed, you help out when you can. This blog is posted from the road. Because this morning, I took off on a little trip to go see Joseph and spend a few days with him.