All Souls Day

(From November 2015) Carol’s book is not a book about death.

This is a book about living.

Last week was a great week for the book. We spread the word, and won new fans in Greenville SC, Spartanburg SC, and the Louisiana Book Festival in Baton Rouge. Between Tuesday evening at 7 pm in Greenville and Saturday morning at 10:45 am at the Louisiana Book Festival, I delivered Carol’s message six times, and each time I said, “This is a book about living.”

In the Catholic Church, November 2 is All Souls Day—a day of death--the day set aside to remember and pray for family members and friends who’ve died. At our parish in Roanoke, Virginia, there’s a touching service on Sunday afternoon. Family members and friends carry candles to remember those who’ve died in the last year.

I was on the road Sunday, and I wasn’t able to be there for the service. Bienta (Giles’ widow) and our son Chad carried the candle for Carol.

I don’t have any trouble remembering that Carol is dead. I do notice, however, that lots of people have trouble with that word. She “passed away.” She “passed on.” She is “at peace.”

I know she died. Dead. That’s the word.

We are in the eleventh month since her death. Seems like yesterday and forever at the same time.

Day of the Dead.

Commemoration of All Faithful Departed.

Dia de Los Muertos.

I wrote the Afterword to the paperback of Carol’s book in September, 2014. By that time, we knew what was going to happen, but we didn’t know when it would happen. She’d been in hospice since August, and we were in “surrender” mode. In my Afterword, I talk about the Mexican-Aztec traditions surrounding “Dia de Los Muertos,” and the idea (described by writer Victor Landa) that a person has three deaths. The first death, when the space Carol occupied lost its meaning, had already occurred by September. She had slipped away. The second death, when she drew her last breath, was in the evening hours of Sunday, December 14, 2014. The third death in the legend comes when her name is no longer spoken on earth. After that, she is “on the other side of eternity.” Of course, because of the treasure of her writing, it will be many, many years before that third death occurs.

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But there is more.

I think about her all the time, but I can’t quite get a grip on where she’s gone. I just know she is not here—anywhere. I have been on quite an unexpected journey since December 14. I had no idea what this would feel like, and it has been a tumble of unexpected emotions.

Her presence—or more accurately, her absence--dominates every day. It is constant. I don’t know where she is. I just know she is not here—anywhere. Not in the Teton Mountains of Montana or the Badlands of South Dakota, where I travelled this summer to talk about her and her book. Not in the endless ocean I could see from Charleston and Pawley’s Island. And, to paraphrase what C.S. Lewis said after the loss of his wife, Joy, if I could look behind every star in the heavens, she would not be there, either.

But a strange thing is happening to me. To say “I don’t know where she is” could be considered a doubting statement. Consider this—“I don’t know where she is—yet.” I think that is a faith-filled, faithful statement. My friend Martha likes to say there is “wonderment.” (I argue with her wording, pointing out that “wonder” is quite sufficient.) As I look at all the “wonder,” I try to embrace the fact that I am not the center of this universe, and that there is beauty and faith in uncertainty.

Paul Tillich, Christian existentialist theologian, says that the opposite of faith is not doubt, it is certainty. If that is true, then my faith is growing. To again lean on C.S. Lewis, I think that I am beginning to “misunderstand a little less completely.”

In Baton Rouge, I spent some time with Peter Golden, a very smart guy and a great writer. He has a new novel coming out Tuesday, November 3—Wherever There is Light. Buy it and read it. I told Peter part of my story, and he came to hear me talk in Baton Rouge on Saturday morning. I went to hear him on Saturday afternoon. He gave me a great quote from Hemingway. In Death in the Afternoon, Hemingway writes--

"There are some things which cannot be learned quickly, and time, which is all we have, must be paid heavily for their acquiring. They are the very simplest things and because it takes a man's life to know them the little new that each man gets from life is very costly and the only heritage he has to leave."

Wow—Ernest Hemingway, Paul Tillich, C.S. Lewis, and Dia de Los Muertos.

The wonder of it all.

Richard WallComment
Birthday Wishes
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(From October 2016) On Monday, October 10, we celebrate Carol’s 65th birthday.  This is the second birthday celebration since she left us in December, 2014.

“Celebrate” is the right word.  Carol had a wonderful life, and that is something to celebrate.  And she left us a wonderful gift—a treasure.

We spend our lives marking time—birthdays, anniversaries, and other occasions that call for a special card or a gift.  We can’t do that for Carol, of course.  Like the hummingbird in her story, she is floating free of time.  But this is a great day to acknowledge the gift she has left for us.

In the last fifteen months, I have appeared at over 100 venues in 20 states to talk about Carol and her beautiful book.  The responses have been uniformly amazing.  People everywhere are embracing the story of her transformational friendship with Giles Owita, the gardener from Kenya who was described by Oprah.com as “… one of the most refined and gracious characters to ever hit the page (except that he is real)….”  Our journey with this story is just beginning.

As I have travelled and listened to people talk, I hear about the other themes that resonate widely and deeply.  Carol says that Giles taught her “what we do when the script we have written for our life does not work out…how do we graciously slip into Plan B.”  When I started this journey last summer, I said that I am a walking “Plan B”.  I’m not supposed to be talking about her and her work.  We had planned for her to do that.  I was the “manager”.  My jobs would be making the travel arrangements and managing the logistics of going from one place to the next.  It didn’t work out that way.

Instead, my life has changed.  It will never be the same again.  There is no “cure” for catastrophic personal loss.  We never get over things like this, but we can heal.  And her story is all about healing.  Her gift to me is the growing realization that, just because my life will never be the same again does not mean that it will be terrible every day.   Healing is real. 

As Giles said, “Every day brings something good.”  And Carol tells us that “the ground in winter…holds a thousand lovely secrets.”  Two lessons for living. 

So we pause today to acknowledge Carol and her gift to us.

Phil WallComment
The Beauty of Eclipse Shadows

(From August 2017) I did not know about “eclipse shadows” or “shadow bands” – those mysterious bands of light and shadow that race across the ground just before and after the moon blocks out the sun during a total eclipse.  After my experience today, I read some about them, and I learned that scientists don’t understand what these bands are or where they originate.

My good friend Chris died last week.  He was 89 and had lived a great life.  He died suddenly which, all things considered, is not a terrible way to leave here.  I went to his funeral mass at noon today.  The service was moving, the music was beautiful, and the priest delivered a perfect homily.  I went with the crowd to the cemetery.  It was past 2 p.m. when the graveside service was over, and a friend offered me some eclipse glasses to see the moon blocking the sun.  An amazing site, but not as surprising as what I saw when I pulled into the driveway.  

My neighbor was pointing at the sidewalk and the road where I saw a peculiar collection of shadows.  Eclipse shadows, he explained.  I went in the back yard to the garden.  There, in “Mister Owita’s Garden,” I saw a similar collection of peculiar shadows. Moon shapes dominated, but there were also images that appeared to be animals. 

So I took these pictures and went to find out more.  I discovered that scientists have been trying to explain these shadows, particularly the moving shadow bands, for the past 100 years.  Since 1925, one report said that many believe the popular theory that the bands originate in the atmosphere.

Then I was drawn to the NASA website, where the English astronomer George B. Airy was quoted.  Airy had seen his first total eclipse of the sun in 1842.  He recalled the moving shadow bands, saying, “As the totality approached, a strange fluctuation of light was seen on the walls and the ground, so striking that in some places children ran after it and tried to catch it with their hands.”

My shadows were not moving, so I guess they were not the shadow bands that the 19th century children were trying to catch with their hands.  But it was an eerie, almost spiritual experience to see the patterns in the garden and to think about the wonder of it all.  I thought about Carol and Mister Owita.  I thought about my friend Chris and his transition after a life well lived. 

And I considered what NASA says about the shadows and the bands – that the “intensity, motion and direction…seem to be related to the same phenomenon that makes stars twinkle”.  

I am quite certain I do not understand the science of this, but it seems like a good thought at the end of this day.

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Richard WallComment
Standing Room Only

Last month I picked up a book called My Bookstore. Published in 2012, it is a collection of 84 essays by renowned writers, each essay touting the author’s favorite independent bookstore. In my travels over the last three years, I have been in many of the stores, and I have met some of the writers. I love the book. The essays are arranged alphabetically by the author’s last name, and each essay is about three pages long.

Under the “Bs”, on page 22, Rick Bragg, iconic Southern storyteller, writes about also-iconic bookseller Jake Reiss and The Alabama Booksmith, headquartered in Homewood, Alabama, a suburb of Birmingham. I say “headquartered” instead of “located”, because The Alabama Booksmith is wherever Jake happens to be that day, whether out at on event, or, more likely, at his desk in the sprawling, low-slung building at the difficult-to-find location in Homewood. If you go in that door, chances are that you have been looking for that door. Seeing it while just passing by is not very likely.

 Jake Reiss at The Alabama Booksmith

Jake Reiss at The Alabama Booksmith

Jake is The Alabama Booksmith. If you are paying any attention at all, you get that in the first three minutes of any conversation with him. He is eighty-three years old, with the verve and vigor of a man thirty years his junior. He sports a short ponytail, which is either a vestige of his days as a custom tailor (a craft which he left at age 55 to roll the dice with this bookstore—more about rolling the dice later) or maybe left over from the sixties. He has the salesman’s gift. When he starts talking, you want to hear more. And you probably want to buy whatever it is he is selling.

What he is selling is The Alabama Booksmith. Not the business. It is hard to picture the business without Jake. But he is selling the concept—the way things are done at The Alabama Booksmith. “We should not even be characterized as a bookstore”, he says. “We probably have fewer titles than any bookstore in the country.” Get this—every copy is a hardcover (not even one paperback). And every one has the author’s signature on the title page.

That vision evolved in the early years of Alabama Booksmith, which started as Highland Booksmith, located in a more stylish section of Birmingham when Jake, just having turned 55, left his family’s tailoring business. At this point in the story, he usually starts to talk about his affinity for rolling the dice. The guy likes to gamble, and this is his game. If you like to gamble, starting a store like this should fill that desire nicely. To call it a risky business is quite the understatement.

It seems that Jake is doing a lot more than breaking even. Writers, agents and editors all seek the endorsement that comes with having a stack of your signed hardcovers arranged on Jake’s shelves (face-out, mind you, so the covers are clearly visible).

Jake is a great storyteller. When he tells you of the 2009 event where it became apparent to him (and everyone else there) that The Help was going to be a big hit, you feel as if you are in the crowd—or in the car with him as he was scouring the area for more books. You may think that he more-than-dabbles in hyperbole, but I would take issue with that. I am certain that every word he says is true—maybe not 100% accurate, but true nonetheless.

When he bounced out of the back of the store to greet me last Tuesday morning, I tossed him an innocent good-morning. “Everything alright?”, I said.

Jake feigned shocked, answering sharply, “No—absolutely not. ‘Alright’ is terrible. If I were just ‘alright’, I would not have been here at 7:30 this morning so I could do this until 7:30 tonight. I love this. If someone told me that I would have to pay $100 every day to do this, I would do it in a heartbeat. I am a lot better than ‘alright’.”

When my event in Birmingham was scheduled last year, I was hoping I would get the chance to see Jake. But I had no idea that he would reach out to the event organizers at St. Luke’s Episcopal Church so he could sell books at the event. In my former life as a high-school basketball coach, that would have been akin to Coach K or Roy Williams showing up to one of our games.

I talked to Jake before the event and asked him if he wanted me to bring some paperbacks for him to sell at the table. He answered—with some considerable disdain—“No, Dick. I will be selling the book.” And he had plenty of copies of “the book”, each with Carol’s signature, which had been intended for a big event he had organized in Birmingham in March, 2014. She was ill and unable to attend, but Jake has remained a supporter of what we are trying to do. In The Tipping Point (Little Brown 2000), best-selling author Malcolm Gladwell writes about the “exceptional people identifies three types of people who are crucial to spreading an idea or a product. There are connectors, who are capable of starting epidemics.” He explains that there are “connectors”, who know a lot of people and will spread the word. Gladwell says that, if a connector tells ten people to stay in a particular hotel, five of them will probably do it. There are not too many connectors. “Mavens” are rarer still. A maven is such a strong personality, such a convincing person, that, if he only tells five people to stay in a particular hotel, all five of them will do it. In the book business, Jake Reiss is a maven and a connector. If he is talking about your book, you are filled with anticipation about the good things that are coming as you go down the long road. And the salesmen—the consummate salesmen of the world, are the key to starting an epidemic in the book business. You need a core group of true-believing salesmen who can, as the story says, borrow your watch and then sell it back to you the next day. That’s Jake Reiss. All authors are searching for an epidemic. When you have Jake Reiss in your corner, only good things will happen.

I left Jake’s store late in the morning to prepare to go to an event with the Lower Alabama Arts Coalition in Andalusia. On the three-hour drive south, I thought of Jake and his work. I thought of his stories and the way he makes you feel like he is doing you a favor by selling you these wonderful books from his stock. (As I was checking out with my purchase, he said, “If you are going to take these across state lines, you will have to show some ID.”)

With Jake’s enthusiasm and his words about “the book” serving as inspiration on my drive south, I took a few boxes of hardcovers along with some paperbacks to stock the inventory at The Gallery. I told my story, spread some books around the room, and left some for some potential mavens and connectors. In three years, I have learned that this epidemic-spreading business goes slowly. There were not a lot of people in Andalusia. But I left our message with fifty people there. And maybe if they each tell five people and those five each tell five more. Well, you get it. I’m starting to sound like Jake (which would not be a bad thing).

We had some really nice publicity for the Andalusia event. Jim Walker, of Fox 107 FM interviewed me for his morning show. The newspaper, the Andalusia Star News, ran two nice stories in advance of my talk. All of this, along with the organizing skills of Sheila Rhea at the Arts Coalition, made this a lovely evening. Sheila had arranged forty chairs in the gallery space for the attendees. Everyone was happy when about fifty people showed up. All in all, a heartening evening.

The day after the event, The Star News ran a picture and report. Really nice stuff. I had to smile when I read that “Dick Wall talked about his late wife’s memoir, Mister Owita’s Guide to Gardening, to a small crowd at a Lower Alabama Arts Coalition Tuesday night.”

I liked the article, and I know that we made new friends and fans in Andalusia. But what made me smile was thinking of Jake Reiss reading the newspaper article. I knew what he would say. “Small crowd? Forty seats? Fifty people? That’s standing room only.”

NOTE: You can check out Alabama Booksmith at www.alabamabooksmith.com. Jake still has some copies of “the book” with Carol’s signature. Also, check out the Signed First Editions Club as well as Patty Callahan’s national launch of Becoming Mrs. Lewis.