It began with limo rides and the assembly-line interview process in the various hallowed halls of the New York media, and ended in a monastery in St. John’s, Minnesota. In between there were college convocations, radio shows, and classrooms full of students. All in all, a whirlwind tour — not the sort of thing that I normally favor.
But this one was great. When things happen fast, you don’t have time to brood over weak performances or puff up over good ones. You just go forward, moving from one interviewer or group of people to another. I just sort of rode the tide. I’m going to tell you my two favorite moments — and they were not what one might expect.
The first was in the high-buck hotel in New York where I was installed. As a man who is most comfortable with cheap road motels where I can back my car up to the door and throw a bag on a bed, this kind of colonial grandeur with endless doormen and bellmen and waiters and pillow-fluffers is not only foreign, but disconcerting. I don’t feel like a sahib and I don’t find pleasure in being treated like one. I’d rather hump my own bags, leave my room unserviced so I can spread my things around, and, generally, be left alone. The mysterious ghostly presences who turn my room into an orderly, antiseptic showpiece every morning are unsettling. I can’t help but feel that someone who is living on life’s margins is being poorly paid to service my life — something I neither require nor deserve. So, I end up talking with the help rather than utilizing them.
In this case, I got into a long conversation with a porter at the hotel where I was staying. He was from Ireland and, in the fashion of those with a solid European education, was conversant with American history in general and Chief Joseph in particular. When he heard I was there for an interview on the History Channel, he was most intrigued and impressed. Since I, myself, was also intrigued and impressed, I didn’t try to disimbue him of the notion. Instead, I gave him a copy of Chief Joseph and the Flight of the Nez Perce, inscribing it to him with a note of appreciation for his interest. He was duly appreciative — what else would one be, at least in public? But he seemed genuinely interested and genuinely moved.
Later in the day, when I was sitting in the palatial hotel lobby waiting for the car service to take me to the airport, I saw him standing in a group of his fellow porters excitedly showing them the book and the inscription.
How much more that meant to me than the smiles and “thank you’s” of the various interviewers for whom I left a copy of the book — one book among a dozen they probably receive every day and never have the time to read; at best, shelving them like trophies, or passing them on to friends as gifts.
But my Irish friend had probably never received an autographed book before. The pride and excitement I saw in his face while he was showing it to his colleagues was so genuine that it almost brought me to tears.
Then there was an encounter that did bring me to tears. A woman at one of the talks I gave in the Midwest came up afterward and told me that she had just lost her husband a few weeks ago and hadn’t gone out since. She was clearly grieving and in great emotional and spiritual pain.
“You are the only author I would have come out for,” she told me. She was one of the devotees of the St. Francis, Simple Truths, Small Graces, Calm Surrender side of my writing personality, and somewhere, sometime, something I had written had touched her so deeply that she was willing to believe that coming out to see me read and speak would offer her some measure of healing.
Whether it did or not, I can’t say. But it offered me peace and healing. Her presence was a gift of inestimable value to me, as was the excited appreciation of the porter in New York.
There were other wonderful moments — the graciousness of the people at the History Channel and the old radical station, WBAI, in New York; the warmth of the students and faculty at Concordia College in Moorhead, Minnesota; and the high level of intellectual curiosity of the folks who came to hear me at St. Benedict’s College in St. Joseph, Minnesota.
As always, it was the human contact that mattered. The people who came up with honest and heartfelt “thank you’s,” the various drivers of the car service vehicles in New York who had come from Egypt, Trinidad, and Romania to seek whatever it is that America embodies in their dreams, the students who were hungry to hear that there is someone out there who will tell them to follow their hearts rather than the money.
These are the people I brought home with me in my heart and memory.
So, this has been a fall of human contact, and appears that it will continue in the same vein. What a pleasure after the private, watchful, almost ascetic reality of several years of writing.
I’m a better man for these last few weeks, and a better person for the folks I’ve met.