Buechner’s Magic Kingdom

I finished reading Frederick Buechner’s The Eyes of the Heart: a memoir of the lost and found last week, after starting it two years ago. It didn’t take that long to read because of the length; it’s only 180 pages. Rather, every time I picked it up, I couldn’t help but start back at chapter two once again, with its touching account of his lifelong friendship with the poet Jimmy Merrill. In their early 20’s, Buechner and Merrill shared a house for a summer on a small island off the coast of Maine, where they both worked on their first books. Buechner, writing these words fifty plus years after the events described therein, describes beautifully the process of growing up, of finding out who you are.

Looking back, I think I see now how Jimmy and I were not much better than my characters at communicating with each other the innermost truth of who we were, not, I think, because it was a truth that either of us shied away from sharing-what made us such fast friends was that there was no topic we shied away from-but because we were only beginning to glimpse it ourselves. The selves we were beginning to grow into that summer were still in the shadowy wings awaiting their entrance cues… In the meantime we went on being the only selves we knew how to be just then[.]

Finally, though, I kept reading past the second chapter, and found a lovely passage in chapter three where he describes his library and some of his favorite books. Something he said there reminded me of a conversation I had recently with my friend Barbara. Barbara posted an entry on her blog, This Liminality, last month that included a quote from Thomas Merton, and she had the foresight to include the page number of the book where she found the quote.

Bookcase in my living room
The book she quoted, Merton’s Faith and Violence, was one I had on my bookshelf but had never read, so I pulled it out and read a couple pages on either side of the passage Barbara cited. When I thanked her for highlighting those thoughts from Merton, she mentioned another essay in the same book which she thought I would enjoy, which I did, very much, reading a page or two at a time over the next couple of days, taking time to let his words soak in and serve as starting places for my own thinking process. I find great comfort in knowing there are books like that on my bookshelves, waiting for me to discover them, ready for when I need them. The passage from Buechner that I loved in chapter three from The Eyes of the Heart is also about his love for his library. Here’s the part that demanded I stop and read it a couple of times (emphasis added).

As you enter the Magic Kingdom, biographies are immediately to your right in floor-to-ceiling shelves, hundreds of them ranging all the way from James Agee, Thomas Aquinas, and Louis Armstrong, who crowd each other way up in the left-hand corner, down to Oscar Wilde, the Duke of Windsor, Virginia Woolf, Wordsworth, and, last of all, Captain R. F. Zogbaum, whose privately printed memoirs, like a great many other books I own, I have never read. (“Why on earth would I want to do that?” a friend of mine answered when somebody asked him once if he had read all his.) Captain Zogbaum is there-one-time commandant of the Naval Air Station at Pensacola and commander of the aircraft carrier Saratoga-because I used to see him as a boy when he had retired to Tryon, North Carolina, where we were then living, and because my cousin Tony Wick married his son Rufus. The son of an artist praised by Rudyard Kipling, he was a striking-looking old man with thin sandy hair and part of one ear missing who, when ladies he admired came for tea, would always pipe them into his house with a bosun’s whistle. When I think of him, I can all but see him entering the room with a stiff little limp but straight as a mast-the patrician profile, the clipped, faintly British way of speaking, the heathery tweed jacket worn threadbare at the elbows.
Others enter with him-Satchmo, his lips wobbling around his ecstatic, bojangles smile, G. K. Chesterton, colossal in cape and pince-nez, tiny little Gerard Manley Hopkins. Mozart peers mouselike out of an oversized wig. Franklin Roosevelt rolls through the door in his chair. Clara Barton is there-Naya’s mother, who died a year after having her, was her cousin-to say nothing of Lewis Carroll, Mahatma Gandhi, and Dr. John Donne. Scores of others are close behind them, but the room is not big enough for them all, thank heaven, and they vanish so that only the biographies are left. Thank heaven too that the biographies are silent, as are all the other books as well-fiction, poetry, drama, religion, and what-have-you.
Shakespeare is not saying anything, and neither is L. Frank Baum. The Duc de Saint-Simon, the Buddha, Dostoyevski, and Paul Tillich are all holding their tongues. Not a peep out of Abraham Lincoln, Meister Eckhart, or Emily Dickinson. Even Walt Whitman and the prophet Jeremiah are for the moment speechless. The air of the Magic Kingdom is electric with the silence they are keeping. What would I have been if I had never heard them break it? What would I have failed to see if they had not pointed it out to me, and what would I have never heard without their ears to hear it through? What would I have missed loving without them to show me its loveliness? What marvelous jokes would have been lost on me? What tears would I have never found the heart to shed? And yet no less a gift is the mercy now of their keeping still with the sunlight lying in squares on the green carpet and the whole room holding its breath. They are there for when I need them, but in the meanwhile there is not a word out of any of them. Like wise parents, they are giving me room to be myself. They are giving me this room.

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