The highlight of my summer has been Calumet Edition’s publication of my poetic memoir - “A Breviary for the Lost” – which explores the seven years I was in a Catholic religious order, the LaSallian Christian Brothers and my world after I was “tossed out”. That is a pretty freighted sentence and so I should do some unpacking before I go on.
The facts are that I entered after graduation from high school and why not? The Brothers who had taught me seemed to embody values that I admired: intellectual rigor, an enjoyment of teaching, and a sense of community. I could see myself embracing that. It was an opportunity to get a college education without financially burdening my parents or myself.
In the summer of 1965, I was one of 36 entering the Novitiate, the formation center in Winona, MN. We were mostly 17 or 18 years old, from Brother’s schools in Minnesota, Wisconsin or Iowa, though a few of them had actually gone to high school in Glencoe, Missouri at a preparatory institution. By the end of that summer when it was time to take the robe, there were 16 of us. A year later 12 crossed the valley, marched up the road to St, Mary’s College (now University) and entered the Scholasticate to pursue our (teaching) degrees with 8 of us still Brothers when we graduated. Yes, that’s quite an attrition rate. As I said on one of the poems, some left because the church was getting too liberal too fast and others because it was not getting liberal fast enough.
I taught for one year at Xavier high school in Appleton, Wisconsin and then went back to Winona to work for three years with juvenile justice offenders. During that time, I was living on food stamps and poverty wages in a farmhouse without indoor plumbing or insulation with two other Brothers, Gregory and Michael. The heat came from a wood stove. There was no phone and we always had two or three cars and a truck of which one was always in need of repair. Visitors often thought it was a commune or some exotic adventure. I have described that sojourn as my attempt to go back to the land and failing to take root though the truth is the community and work was transformative.
In 1972, when it was time for me to make “final vows” I was denied them. Most of the time I say it was because I was politically radical, which though true, over-simplifies a more complicated reality which these days I offer as a joke: “I was a member of a religious order – you know, Poverty, Chastity and Obedience. I was good at one of them and that was the one that got me kicked out.” My sin was taking the vow of poverty seriously and arguing, quite publicly, that what we were doing was a truer to the intent of the Founder, John Baptist De La Salle, and a better model of the vow than teaching in suburban schools and playing golf on weekends.
The irony as I saw it then and now, and in the poems as well, was that one day I was, the next I wasn’t and what had changed? Loss of a title, insurance? I was still living in the same house, with the same men, doing the same work for the same wages.
The poems stretch from my entering the Order to the Pandemic present and are arranged as a religious breviary which is a tradition model of prayers for various times of day. In this case, sets of poems for various stages of that journey. Matins, the morning prayer, is the first set, and entirely focused on the Novitiate. Compline which is the last offering, the prayer of resolution before bed, is a kind of summation of my spirituality in the present.
The other thing that is particular about the structure of the book is that on one side of the page the poems are voiced in first person and on the opposite page are “footnotes” in the third person which expand or comment on the poems.
As an example, here is End of the Road
We lived at the end of the road
Where the bus and milk truck turned
Around rather than plunge down
The rutted gravel path
That was the short way to the valley.
We lived in a house at the end of its days.
The insulation if there ever was any,
Long gone and the single wood
Heating stove in the kitchen unable
To keep more than that room warm.
We lived in the kitchen with the summer
Fly strip hanging from the single electric light.
The table was for eating, for writing,
For reading, for making the model
Of the Universe Gregory worked on all winter.
We lived with the end of money,
The end of work, and for myself the end
Of expectations about tomorrow and
Yet the day after I was thrown out, I thought
I was finally right where I needed to be.
and here is the footnote that goes with it:
Gregory had found the place. He ignored the state of the house But stood on a stump Surveying the night sky. Farmer Johnsgard lived Across the road. He went to bed early And turned off the yard lights Gregory had the great Dome of Heaven to himself And by time the others arrived A 6-inch telescope was set up And Gregory had begun Photographing sunrise And sunset crossing the horizon. Everything else was beside the point. Everything else was something Gregory could put up with To stand beneath the stars.
Between the two voices the Breviary touches on what it was to be in a religious order in a time of turmoil (Vatican II, Vietnam, etc.) and my own journey from faith to existential doubt to another kind of faith. It is a book of praise for those who made the journey better and a calling up of the doubt and discovery that was the measure of my days.
Getting this published has been a long time coming. I had shopped it to a dozen publishers who all said, they didn’t think it was “right” for them before Ian Graham Leask said he’d take it on. And the joy of holding it in my hand is that it is, if you will excuse my boast, what Elizabeth Ellis and I call in the “Difficult Story: workshop – work that is truthful and artful.
If you want a copy, https://www.amazon.com/dp/195074387X/ gets you to the Amazon page or you can contact me directly and I’ll sign and mail one to you.
That of course is the next task - selling it. To that end, The Christine and I have done two events to date and have another two on the schedule. The first was the annual Lowry Hill Neighborhood Yard Sale. We set out the wire rack and the various literary gems we offer in front of the house. It was a pleasant day. Folks came by, some stopped and looked, some stopped and chatted but were looking for lamps, or baskets, or a rug rather than “What Haunts Us” or storytelling craft books. We did sell a handful of copies of “Vote Coyote!” and Christine’s “The Book of Snark” to those looking for satire.
Last Sunday we set up what we call the “Runaway Bookstore” next to the bar at Inbound BrewCo.’s Pop-Up Bookstore. We sold the same number of books but this time they included “The New Book of Plots” and “Point of View and the Emotional Arc of Stories” with their matching covers bound as a set and a lot more “Snark”. When I see a woman pick it up, open it at random, and laugh out loud, I feel confident that she’ll purchase it. Besides at $10 for a copy, you can hardly go wrong. After all, it says “suitable for regifting” right on the cover.
The Christine is a good writer and a great performer of her work. If you get any of the American School of Storytelling’s social media postings or our newsletter, Hearsay, know that while I do most of the content, she does the editing, pictures and posting to the various platforms. The fact is, The Christine as the school administrator and IT guru, makes my half of the work a hundred times easier, especially as I am pretty much a digital Neanderthal.
Fall arrives and the world changes. Days get short, get cool, get the last of summer left in reds and golds on the dry grasses. Comes the first of October, we are going to be at the Deep Valley Book Fair in Mankato, MN. Same books. Same kinds of conversations about who we are, individually as authors and collectively as the American School of Storytelling. The school currently teaches oral narrative (both traditional and personal) on-line. Coming soon in-person classes and performances. We are a nascent “Godzilla” looking to combat “Mothra” under a banner that reads, “Some stories deserve more than five minutes.”
Then on the 15th, I have to forsake the opportunity to go down to Winona for the Sandbar Storytelling Festival and instead will man our table at the Twin Cities Book Festival. A hundred tables piled with choice reading material and a few thousand people roaming the aisles looking for just that “right read”. Good luck to them and good luck to us.
Good luck to you in this turning of the season.