Lead Me, Guide Me Reviewed

Thanks to the Heights Observer and my friend Robin Koslen for this review.

http://www.heightsobserver.org/read/2020/07/30/ewing-describes-an-exemplary-life-in-new-book

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The Worry Room

Father Dan used to imagine that our minds have a separate compartment reserved for worrying. ( I wrote about this on 4/4/20 in “Patting the Puppy.”) Let’s say our son is hanging with disreputable friends, we’re waiting to hear back on a medical test, our dad is becoming increasingly forgetful, and we can’t remember the last time we saw our wallet. Plenty of guests for the worry room. We ping from one travail to the other, fretting away the hours of our life. But then, Father Dan would say, suppose we learn that the son’s good influence is helping his friends, our test comes back negative, our dad is merely distractible, and our wallet slipped under the seat of the car. Hurray! For a short time, we feel relieved and grateful, but soon enough other worries begin creeping in. What’s that sound my car engine is making? How will I ever afford to fix it? We forget to shut the worry door, and a whole new set of problems rushes into that (metaphorical) space in our brain.

The last few weeks I’ve been obsessing over a legal worry. I tried channeling Father Dan wisdom, tried meditating and prayer, tried talking to friends and experts. All the efforts helped, but even so I pretty much took up residence in the worry room, especially in the wee hours of the night.

Thankfully, the issue has been resolved, and I’m still in a relieved and grateful mode. But worries about Covid 19, the start of school, and a Cold War with China are banging away at the door. Somehow the simple concept of a room that wants to fill up, no matter what, helps me. It strengthens me to bolt the lock, at least for awhile.

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We Shall Overcome

I’ve just finished reading a great book by a great American writer many people have probably never heard of. Robert Caro has devoted his life to writing two massive works: The Power Broker: Robert Moses and the Fall of New York and the five-volume (at 83, he’s still working on volume five) biography called The Years of Lyndon Johnson. The book I just finished was a timeout from his massive LBJ project called Working, published last year. It reveals the behind-the-scenes strategies of an indefatigable researcher and meticulous craftsman.

You might imagine that if you’re not particularly interested in Robert Moses or LBJ, Caro’s books are not for you. Perhaps you’re right. But I’d make the argument that the subject of a book needn’t attract or deter you from a book. Friends have told me they’re not interested in certain books, both fiction and non-fiction, because they’re “about” tennis or a couple’s honeymoon or 1920’s Paris. I reply that the books may not actually be “about” those things. They may actually be about America or love or families. The apparent subject is a guise for talking about other deeper, more interesting things. Or, just as important, the value of the book may be the skill of the writer and his or her eloquent and beautiful prose. I have only a passing interest in baseball, for instance, but used to love Roger Angell’s baseball essays in the New Yorker. You needed no baseball expertise to appreciate their grace.

So, too, with Working. It’s about Robert Moses and Lyndon Johnson, to be sure, but sort of in the way that Moby-Dick is about a whale. The anecdotes about the two movers and shakers are gripping, just like Melville’s three-chapter account of chasing down the white whale at the end of his novel. But both writers have plenty of other things on their minds. Working is about American history, about single-minded dedication to one’s work (a la Ahab?), about political power, about race in America, about the tragedy of great men whose power outstrips their wisdom, about writing, about research, about poverty, about interviewing, about marriage, and so many other things. If you disregard a book based on its apparent subject, you may be missing out.

Working has remarkable relevance to today, in a way that Caro couldn’t quite have predicted as he compiled the book before 2019. He devotes a beautiful chapter near the end of the book, called “Two Songs,” to the contrast between LBJ’s monumental achievements at home—the Civil Rights Act of 1964, Medicare, Head Start, bringing electricity to Texas’s hill country—and the tragedy and crime of the war in Vietnam.

One of the two songs is “We Shall Overcome,” which Caro intends to explicate in his final LBJ volume. He approaches the subject with humility. “The writing will have to be pretty good to capture what that song meant,” he says, “but I’m going to try.” His words reminded me of singing that song with the congregation at St. Cecilia’s years ago during Martin Luther King, Jr., weekend. We’d leave our pews and circle around the perimeter of the church, holding hands, black people and white people, and sing verse after verse: “We shall overcome,” “We are not afraid,” “We’ll walk hand in hand.” Who knew when I picked up a book seemingly about the lives of Robert Moses and Lyndon Johnson, I’d be swept back to that time?

Anyway, in the “Two Songs” chapter, Caro describes how 1965 saw the violent attack on protestors, including Congressman John Lewis, in Selma, Alabama, at the Edmund Pettus Bridge. Soon after this egregious police violence, Lyndon Johnson rode from the White House to the Capitol to deliver a speech advocating for his voting rights bill and on the way could hear demonstrators singing “We Shall Overcome.” Johnson’s speech, Caro tells us, made Martin Luther King cry, a sight, his aides said, they had never seen before.

 Caro writes, “And of course the speech that Johnson gave is one of the greatest speeches, one of the greatest moments in American history. I watch it over and over. I’m thrilled every time. [Johnson] said, ‘Their cause must be our cause too. Because it is not just Negroes, but really it is all of us who must overcome the crippling legacy of bigotry and injustice. And we shall overcome.’”

Our enemies, Johnson said, are not our fellow man, not our neighbors, but “poverty, ignorance, disease.” Good writers can remind us of the history that’s always with us. It’s alive, good and bad, right in this moment.

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Launch Party

You’re invited to a virtual launch party for Lead Me, Guide Me: The Life and Example of Father Dan Begin tonight, Tuesday, June 23, at 7:00 pm.

Log on to the website of Macs Backs-Books on Coventry to find the Facebook Live event. Or go to Mac’s Backs Facebook page and click on the link there.

Bring your own wine.

The event is archived at Mac’s Backs website: https://www.facebook.com/macs.coventry/videos/191873012206744

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How to Buy a Book

This title is not as condescending as it might sound, because I find myself explaining to people every day how to acquire a copy of Lead Me, Guide Me: The Life and Example of Father Dan Begin. My answer to this simple question is complicated.

Obviously, every bookstore can’t carry every book as part of their inventory, even mega-stores like Barnes & Noble. Only one site nowadays has almost every book you could wish for: Amazon. If everyone always buys books from Amazon, with a click on their computer at 1:00 in the morning, even big box retail stores will eventually vanish. It’s easy, it’s convenient, and it’s often cheap. So why not make Amazon your own personal shopper for books, as well as other things?

You can read up on the depredations of Amazon on the Internet. They include fighting unions and mistreating workers and drivers, depending on fossil fuels, wasting packaging materials, and raking in taxpayer subsidies for new warehouses. Most relevant for my purposes, though, is the harm they do to local businesses. Small booksellers around the country are doing remarkably well, but that’s because of their scrappy persistence.

Bookstore owners have told me that customers frequently browse in their stores, handling actual books!, and writing down titles and information. Then they go home and search out bargains (or perceived bargains) on Amazon. After doing their research in a bricks and mortar store, they buy via the Internet. Thereby putting more cash in a multi-billion dollar corporation rather than keeping that nice little shop, where people say hello and help you find books, in business.

I do the exact opposite. Before the Christmas holidays or birthdays, I search on Amazon for books that might suit my little nephews and nieces or other relatives. Then I go to my local bookstore (in my case, Mac’s Backs-Books on Coventry) to see if they’re in stock. If they’re not, the friendly staff there orders the books for me, and I can usually pick them up in a couple of days. I can also save a trip by ordering with a phone call instead, or ordering on the bookstore’s website. They will even wrap the books for me.

What about the pandemic? you’re asking. What if I don’t want to go out to pick up my book? Small booksellers have adapted by mailing your books to your home or directly to recipients, if the books are a gift. They also have arranged for curbside pickup.  No excuse! You can also, always, order books directly from the publisher (information you can find on Amazon!).

All that said, go ahead and slip up now and then. It’s hard not to, because Amazon owns many other companies, including the Washington Post, Whole Foods, Good Reads, and Zappos. Sometimes it’s just too easy to let your index finger make the purchase. Just try not to. Buy some books at your town’s bookstore, some tools at a small hardware store, some takeout at a local restaurant, and some clothes and crafts at retail outlets. Nurturing small business is one good thing you can do, right now, to help the economy, your neighborhoods, and cities.

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Loving Bunches

Anyone who knew Father Dan Begin knows why I bought this bottle of wine. I buy wine infrequently, and this bottle cost more money than I usually spend, but I couldn’t pass it up.

Father Dan’s habitual closing line to any missive was “Love you bunches.” I write in the book that pretty much anyone who received mail from him, probably including lawyers and repairmen, was loved bunches.

You didn’t have to do much at all to be loved bunches. That was the thing. We all thought we were his favorite, but his love was all inclusive. It’s a bitter pill. He loved all of us, even people I had no use for—even those people, Father Dan loved bunches.

It didn’t mean nobody annoyed him. It’s just that he figured out a way to love the annoying ones, too. He worked out ways to find them sympathetic or funny or interesting. And “worked” is the word. It wasn’t always easy to love everyone. It was his life’s work. Literally.

I’d like to be more like Father Dan, but to be honest I don’t know if I really want to be as loving. Being disgruntled and dissatisfied with everyone has its pleasures. That’s where I’d have to start. Working at wanting to love more. Making myself a person who genuinely wants to be more loving.

He used to preach about having a clean heart, and he had the cleanest heart of anyone I know. It took effort, that’s the thing. He buffed and scrubbed and shined his heart until he could say “Love you bunches” on every message and mean it.

”Lead Me, Guide Me: The Life and Example of Father Dan Begin” is now available at Shanti Arts and can be ordered from your local bookstore. (Also, soon, on Amazon, but support your local bookstore instead.)

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Don’t Let the Perfect Be the Enemy of the Good

Pillow CasesForty-something years ago, I bought a pair of pastel green pillowcases stamped with a pattern of leaves and flowers. It was the crafty 1970’s, when we were all doing macramé and making baskets out of bread dough and tie dying the heck out of everything. My high-school band friend Kathy was getting married, and I was giving her embroidered pillowcases as a wedding gift.

I worked on them, very sporadically, over a period of months. Three large leaves cross-stitched in shades of tawny green spanned the open edge of the pillow case. Yellow and gold daisies—formed by the fast-moving hoop stitch—were scattered around. The correct colors of various embroidery floss came provided, including instructions. I worked on the pillow cases, very sporadically, over a period of months. The wedding came and went, but I told myself it was okay to send a wedding gift late.

Reader, I got stalled. I put them aside. The pillow cases called to me occasionally, but I was able to resist the call.

Then Fate intervened. I learned after a year or two that Kathy and her husband were splitting up. Unsure who would ever want these embroidered pillow cases, I lost the will to stitch.

A plastic bag with all the fixings came with me as I moved from place to place. I went to grad school, and the bag came to my Kent apartment.  I got married, and it came to our first apartment. It came to our second apartment. It followed me to our new house, where we have lived for 35 years.

Don’t think I didn’t work on it at all! At long intervals, I’d pull it out and sew a few rows. I finished one pillowcase (or so I thought) and left it folded neatly in the bag while I worked on the other. Inevitably, I’d make some mistake. The threads would get gnarly and matted on the back, a big no-no for snooty perfectionist embroiderers, who would surely check out my stitching on the wrong side and judge me. Also, this project wasn’t destined to be framed. Whoever was lucky enough to acquire these lovely objets could discern, lying in their bed in the morning, my messy wad of green and yellow floss clumped at the back. I’d remove some errant stitches, proceed for awhile, and put it away again for a year or five.

I realized that along the way I had purchased some extra floss when the kit’s supply ran out.  In good light, it was obvious that the new floss’s olive green was a shade darker than the original. That realization set me back about a decade, because I couldn’t bring myself to tear out all that cross-stitch, and I couldn’t bear looking at the faulty match. I couldn’t live with the mistake or without it.

Which brings us at last to April, 2020, and the coronavirus lockdown. Time to Finish Projects. Time to bake bread and build a Lego castle and plant flowers. One of my friends is checking things off his bucket list, one of which was making a Boston cream pie. (I am speaking here for hardly-working empty-nesters and people without children at home to coerce into practicing times tables.)

I hunted down my pillowcases, a pursuit that took days in and of itself. I laid out the pillowcases side by side and decided that I could live with the mismatched shades of green. I noticed that the long-finished pillowcase was not, in fact, finished. It had a flower and a few inches of outline stitch left bare. As I clipped some floss to return to daisies and French knots, I realized the damn thing needed only an hour or two more work.

First, I finished the finished one. Then I set to work on the other for a couple of days.

Voila. Two completed pillowcases. Almost 50 years in the making.

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Giving up Control

Turns out Lead Me, Guide Me: The Life and Example of Father Dan Begin will probably appear ahead of schedule. In the next few weeks, in fact. Because there’s no chance for a launch party or public readings in the near future anyway, it might as well come out now. So this is good news, especially since Father Dan’s voice can provide solace and wisdom in this hard time. As I’m editing the final draft, I’ve come to a chapter that seems especially relevant. It’s about Father Dan’s oft-repeated advice to give up our illusion of control.

Possibly you grasp the relevance of this advice to our current situation.

There’s plenty we can and should control, of course. We can wash our hands. We can stay inside. We can wear face masks. But we can’t control so much else. We can’t control what the federal government does. We can’t control our employers. And we can’t control those sneaky little viruses. They’re worse than disobedient teenagers!

This excerpt is based on a conversation we had during the time we were confronting the probable closure of Father Dan’s churches, Epiphany and St. Cecilia, one of the most painful experiences in his life. After we talked about that looming threat, I posed another question.

 It turned out the question I came with was not so far removed. I
intended to ask about death, the greatest change of all. I asked what
Father Dan would advise people pondering or facing that great mystery.
“We’re all facing the unknown all the time. We just don’t know it,”
he said. Always, he said, we don’t know what’s going to happen. Our
future is a shadow. We can worry about it. We can try to control what
happens, but at some point we realize, or we should realize, that we’re
not in control of our future. Father Dan realized this increasingly as
he turned sixty.

“My fifties were the best years of my life. They were
my healthiest—physically, mentally. My sixties already are a nuisance.
I don’t like them so far. It’s a control thing. I can’t do everything I
could do before. I can’t run as fast. I can’t lift as much.”
He explained that he might have to think about asking others for
more help. “There are people who will do things for me,” he said. “I
just don’t want them to.”

Losing control is a painful adjustment. But if we weren’t forced to adjust, he said, we would avoid all changes and maintain our routines and do things the way we always have.
He went on to describe the process of letting go, which everyone
who ever attended a Father Dan funeral heard some version of. He
wrote it once again, in fact, for his own funeral, and his brother Father Bob
read it to the hundreds of people attending.

He said, “When we finally do die, it’s just like birth. It’s one
labor that everybody goes through. You can’t make it start and you
can’t make it stop. But then there’s this moment, this ultimate real
letting go, which we can really never do in this life. It happens more
easily for people who have been doing it all of their lives. So, the
more letting go you do as you live, the less difficult it is when you die.
When you look back you think: why did I even worry?”

I had this conversation with Father Dan in 2009, taped and transcribed
it, little knowing I’d be revising it after his death. Father Dan spent his last
few days in the care of his loving sisters. He lay in a bright downstairs
room where he could look out at the house next door where he grew up.
Like all of us, he never wanted to relinquish control. He didn’t
want to be helpless. But when it came time to do so, he chose it
instead of resisting it. It makes sense, doesn’t it, that the day before
he died he said, “I hope everyone is learning about dying from me.
Don’t be afraid! It’s beautiful!”

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Patting the Puppy

I bet for a lot of us, these difficult times turn our minds to Father Dan. What would he be saying and doing in the face of Covid 19? How would he cope? What would he advise us?

I keep returning to a frequent Father Dan trope. He used to say he imagined a space in our brain, like a room, reserved for worry. Serious concerns can certainly fill it up. Maybe we lost our car keys, our child has become a rude, snarling monster, and we’re awaiting the results of a medical test. Plenty to worry about! Our “worry room” is crowded, and we are hanging out there 24/7, unable to sleep or relax. Then imagine that we find our keys, our kid is just a normal moody teenager, and our text results come back negative.

Guess what? Other worries rush in to fill the void. These days, we are seeing money flying out of our bank accounts (if we’re lucky enough to have bank accounts) to cover rent and food, we can’t do our job well at home, our kids will never go to college because they refuse to do long division at home, and what’s going on with this tickle in my throat?

In other words, in the best of times and the worst of times, that little room in our brain is going to keep filling up. Once we recognize this, we can exercise some executive functioning. We can try to stay out of the worry room, knowing that no matter how serious or trivial our concerns, it’s always there to remind us of them.

The alternative to worrying is to make ourselves present in this moment. In Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, Annie Dillard describes stopping at a gas station in the midst of a long drive, where she gets out of the car to pet a beagle puppy. “My mind has been a blank slab of asphalt for hours, but that doesn’t stop the sun’s wild wheel. I set my coffee beside me on the curb; I smell loam on the wind; I pat the puppy; I watch the mountain.”  She’s fully present in the moment. “The air cools,” she writes. “The puppy’s skin is hot. I am more alive than all the world.”

Dillard goes on to quote from Stephen Graham’s The Gentle Art of Tramping:  “As you sit on the hillside, or lie prone under the trees of the forest, or sprawl wet-legged on the shingly beach of a mountain stream, the great door, that does not look like a door, opens.” Dillard explains, “That great door opens on the present, illuminates it with a multitude of flashing torches.”

Part of Father Dan’s discipline was to keep that “present” door open as much as he could. He strove to be present to the person in front of him, present in prayer, and present at a concert or play. He would always say, ”The past is over, the future is unknown, and all we have is now.” In the now, we might be chopping carrots, listening to our favorite music, or feeding our cat. We might even be suffering from Covid 19 or nursing a loved one. We have to keep the worry room door closed and the present door, with its flashing torches, open.

This is not a one-and-done decision. It’s a process. Even Father Dan, who seemed to do it so well, worked at it. His method was to give his worries to God. If matters were out of his control, he prayed about them. Then he began looking around to see whom he could help, or call, or write to.  Good advice for right now, for us.

 

 

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A Timely Return

This seems like a good time to resurrect the blog. Lead Me, Guide Me, a memoir about Father Dan Begin, is tentatively planned for publication in June, and the vagaries of the coronavirus won’t, we hope, get in the way. The blog serves to remind everyone that the book is coming, and it can also share Father Dan’s words and example at this ominous time. Ominous, yes, but maybe in some ways also promising and meaningful.

The lines below have been recurring in my mind over the past couple weeks, and because they have helped me, I can only think they might help others. The situation at the time was this. I was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2016 just before Father Dan’s much more threatening esophageal cancer diagnosis. While he was dealing with portentous news, I was dealing with the dismaying suggestion that I might need chemo, after repeated reassurances that I wouldn’t. This suggestion threw me, scrambling my mental timeline. I wrote Father Dan a panicky email, sharing my fears. While dealing with his own dire diagnosis, he took the time to write this to me. Despite its specific references to breast cancer and my memoir about my mom’s mental illness, you might find something here that speaks to our current condition.

 

I think breast cancer for most today is more of a chronic illness that keeps demanding attention. Each person seems so different in the way their bodies react to the cancer and the treatment that they have to try to change strategies as they go. It is not a clear path and can change over and over. That leaves you filled with uncertainty about what they are doing today and what they plan to do tomorrow. Consequently, there is no sense of control over your life. Actually, I have come to believe the only control we have is an illusion anyhow. Learning to live in the now, with a wait-and-see attitude about tomorrow, becomes super emotional—maybe for you even more so, because that is a description of your childhood. Wait, see, wonder, adapt, make the best out of it. That was the way to survive.

            Silly as it sounds, I think the only solution is to choose it and wonder how you can use it. Over and over again, claim the beauty of the present moment, believing that with God whatever is not right about the moment can be handled and maybe even used for something good . . . even just having the experience. Breathe into the problem . . . whether it is pain, worry or aggravation . . . breathe deeply the Holy Spirit and life into it and then breathe out the negative tension, pain, and grief.

            I sure will be praying for you, as I have been, to use this time of life fully rather than just existing till the treatment is complete. The process of living with cancer or anything else, even aging, is not something you can do and be done with. It is a new decision every day that I have to make a part of my prayer. I can control how I react to what the world throws at me. Maybe that bit of control is what I find such joy in grabbing on to. Love you bunches.

 

If you ever received an email or letter from Father Dan, you’ll recognize those three closing words. As I say in the book, everyone who received a missive from him–attorneys, repairmen, disgruntled parishioners, and probably even recalcitrant bishops–were all loved bunches.

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