Wednesday, July 29, 2009

A goodbye to Frank McCourt


When I think of great storytelling, I think of Frank McCourt. It is not hyperbole for me to say that I have never enjoyed listening to a story more than the first time I heard his Irish brogue narrate the book 'Tis about his travels from Limerick, Ireland to New York City. His style was so conversational, so authentic, so honest and often so utterly hilarious that I regularly sat in my car long after reaching my destination to continue listening to him. Listening to 'Tis led me to to his first book Angela's Ashes and then finally to his last - Teacher Man. So when I heard of his passing a little over a week ago, I knew we had lost a master of the storytelling craft.

In this society, stories are a kind of currency. We flock to movies, plays, bookstores and television sets looking for those that capture our attention and illuminate a part of life we find interesting or exciting. At their best stories are painfully honest and in being such generally evoke all kinds of emotions - empathy, laughter, inspiration, even righteous anger. The reason I prized Frank McCourt as a master storyteller is because I can vividly remember feeling every one of those things when I listened to his books.

When I hear Frank's stories of his upbringing in the fetid and dirty lanes of Limerick, Ireland, it is hard for me not to feel really privileged. I never knew the gripping hunger that was his daily bedfellow. I never had two brothers and a sister die in childhood. I didn't have a depressed mother or a drunken, no-count father with a burr in his side for the martyrs of Ireland. I never had to immigrate to a foreign country and hustle to get a job without even holding a college degree. Frank lived a colorful life. After finally getting his feet settled in this country, he even managed to survive and prosper as an English teacher in the New York City public school system for 30 years. Having spent one stressful year teaching 8th graders myself, that accomplishment alone is reason enough for my admiration.

When I walk this Fall you can bet that I'm going to have his audio books saved on my iPod so he can walk with me down a road or two or three, keeping me company with tales of, among other things, what it is like to have your drunken father pull you out of bed at 3am to sing anthems to fallen Irish heroes with your brothers. Stripped down to their essence, his stories are archetypal human stories. To have big dreams and then battle to realize them. To overcome odds. To suffer through tough relationships. To go into work each day and do something you are passionate about. To laugh. To cry. To never be too old to write your first book.

I'm not quite sure why in a month of many celebrity deaths, the passing of man who first became an author at the age of 66 affected me the most. Maybe it was because of just that. He reminded me that there is no set age at which to do anything. After nearly 15 years working at jobs I don't feel passionate about, his story seems to whisper in my ear that it is never too late to write a new chapter of life. I hope to tell a story or two in my day that reach even a fraction of the audience who read and listened to Frank. That's my big dream. Is is possible to realize? In the words of his mother, "'Tis, 'tis".

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

The Present of Presence

About a year ago I learned about Forrest Church. Forrest is an author, and Unitarian minister and a "New Yawker" like myself. He is also dying from incurable esophageal cancer. That was the door through which his story opened up to me. I heard him being interviewed on Fresh Air about a book he had written called "Love and Death". I read it and, pardon the pun, I loved it to death. For someone dying with cancer, Forrest is infused with a sense of gratitude for life that some might find counter-intuitive. The fact that his days are clearly numbered (let's face it, all of our days are numbered, but we just assume our number is pretty high) has pushed him not toward depression, but toward appreciation. It was impossible to read his book and not be moved toward more compassionate, intentional interaction with the world and those people in it who are our loved ones.

I hadn't thought about Forrest in a while. But yesterday I was researching organizations I could write to as I search for hosts in different cities and all of a sudden I remembered the service I went to this Spring at All Souls Unitarian Church in Manhattan where Forrest used to be senior pastor. I went to their website to get an update on Forrest's health and sure enough, there was a letter he wrote to the congregation in May, updating them on the ongoing chemo and the battle against the ever present tumors. In the letter he mentioned that he still planned to preach the Sunday after Memorial Day. A few clicks later, and a silent thanks for the marvels of the internet, I was reading that sermon. I am including a link to it here.

In the sermon he talks about a topic I have been very, very aware of lately. He discusses how essential living in the Present is. So essential, in fact, that to quibble over the recent past, such as how I ended the last sentence in a dangling participle, is to deny myself the pleasure of the only moment in which we can truly see, feel, touch, smell, love or laugh. He challenged me to give myself the Present of Presence. To Forrest I say, "I accept".