Steve Charles, Nashville, TN—My last two interviews of a five-day road trip will follow a relaxing meander yesterday back down to Nashville from Louisville via Bardstown and the Bluegrass Parkway.
Professor Emeritus of Classics John Fischer had recommended a stop at one of the bourbon distillers in Bardstown, as I’d never tasted bourbon before.
After that pleasant surprise, I headed south to the Abbey of Gethsemane, where one of my favorite writers and teachers, the Trappist monk Thomas Merton, had lived. Our alumnus Andrew Dits ’06 had visited one of the poet/monks there many times (and wrote about him for Wabash Magazine in 2006), and I’ve wanted to visit since I first began reading Merton’s work in the 1970s.
Paging through Merton’s books in the gift store and walking the 2,400 acres surrounding the abbey were pleasures I had anticipated, but my conversation with 84-year-old Brother Camillus was not.
Thin, no more than 5’6”, and wearing the Trappist’s traditional habit and belt, he has the same dry sense of humor my grandfather had. Sitting next to him listening to his stories, I felt tension and anxiety leaving me like a sigh.
He nearly drowned in a crowded swimming pool when he was a boy, saved only because the lifeguard had kept his eye on him and plucked him out of the water just in time. “You can drown as easily in a crowd of people as you can alone,” he said.
He asked me if I’d ever seen a sandbar. "You know, when the water levels just right," he said with a grin, "it looks like the people on the sandbar are walking on water."
He told of his 20 years working in the infirmary, about the way Trappists honor their dead with a 24-hour vigil. I asked him if they embalm the bodies, “I wouldn’t want that done to me,” he said, laughing. “It’s a good thing the people they do it to are dead.”
He suggested I walk the grounds, recommended a couple of trails, told me about the time he got lost out in the hills, and he told me that if he was younger he’d go with me and “take you up the hill the hard way.”
Brother Camillus told me nothing specifically about his beliefs or theology. I know him only through 20 minutes of his stories. He just lent me those stories, trusted me to come to my own conclusions. Remarkable hospitality. What a wonderful and generous way to get to understand a person. I didn’t want to leave. Shook hands with him twice.
“You do that again, and you’re going get blisters," he said, smiling, and he put his arm on my shoulder, then patted my back as I left.
That’s how it’s been on this trip. People generously lending and trusting me with their stories. The old adage “every person has a story” is a crock. I cringe when I hear someone say, “that guy is a great story,” as if people can be reduced to the tales we tell. People are more, much more than stories, and the stories we tell are just one way we have of coming to know one another.
But they are my favorite way, and I’m grateful the alumni I’ve visited on this trip have trusted me with some of theirs.
Today I’ll meet Lindsey Wilson College President Bill Luckey ’82 and his wife, Elise. I’ve admired Bill’s work at this growing Kentucky liberal arts college ever since Professor David Polley’s wife, Debbie, told me about him after they attended his inauguration almost 10 years ago.
Then I’m heading over to Belmont University—where one of the 2008 Presidential Debates was held—to photograph Nick Ragsdale, a biology professor and researcher there.
Then it’s back home after meeting with 10 alumni in four days, convinced more than ever that trips like this are essential to our work, that as important as writing and photography are to the work of Wabash Magazine, listening is the most essential.
Interesting irony: Next week I’m getting my hearing tested!
In photos: a sycamore tree in front of the Abbey of Gethsemane; Professor Nick Ragsdale.