Frederick Buechner — The Yellow Leaves

Yellow.jpgFor many years, I have read Frederick Buechner.  Yesterday, I began reading The Yellow Leaves, which is a collection of essays, short stories, and poems.  


The book has a brief introduction in which Buechner says, 


"I can still write sentences and paragraphs, but for some five or six years now I haven’t been able to write books.   Maybe after more than thirty of them the well has at last run dry.  Maybe, age eighty, I no longer have the right kind of energy.  Maybe the time has come to simply stop.  Whatever the reason, at least for the moment, the sweet birds no longer sing." (p. ix)


It was difficult for me to read these lines.  Eighty years old?  It is hard for me to imagine Buechner no longer writing a book.  There is something about his writing that causes me to think way beyond the words on the page to my life and those who in some way have been a part of my life.


In the book, he tells the story of a journey he took in 1950 at twenty-four years of age.  He left for Europe aboard a British freighter named the Rialto.  He tells of walking onto the deck one night and finding an officer of the ship "… peering into the dark through binoculars."



… He told me he was scanning the horizon for signs of other ships, and the way to do that, he explained, was to look not at the horizon but just above it.  He said you could see better that way than by looking straight on, and I have found it to be an invaluable truth in many ways.  Listen not just to the words being spoken but to the silences between words, and watch not just the drama unfolding on the stage but the faces all around you watching it unfold.  Years later when preaching a sermon about Noah, it was less the great flood that I tried to describe than the calloused palm of Noah’s hand as he reached out to take the returning dove, less the resurrection itself than the moment, a day or two afterward, when Jesus stood on the beach cooking fish on a charcoal fire and called out to the disciples in their boat, "Come and have breakfast." (p. 29)

How very true!  I have learned that one can learn a great deal about someone by looking just above the horizon.  Yes, one can learn something from their words.  Yet, I’ve found one can learn a great deal by watching how they function in the various systems in which they have a role (i.e. family, church, their town or city).  How do others within these systems react to this person?


For example, you might learn something about a person by listening to what he/she says about marriage and family.  You might learn more by just watching the family.  How do his children respond to him?  Do they appear to have an emotional connection with him?  What about his wife?  How do they seem when they are together?  What are they like when they are in one another’s presence?

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13 thoughts on “Frederick Buechner — The Yellow Leaves

  1. Yellow Leaves. Why I remember reading that part of that book. But I remember nothing else of the book, nor where I was when I had it in hand, nor whose it was. I’m going to put it on hold at the library! (Aside: I tagged you, for better or worse.) 

  2. Reading this post made me wonder how difficult it must be to wake up in Buechner’s world.
    I wonder what it is like for him to sit at his desk and look around the office at the tools he has used in his illustrious career–well-worn tools which have aided him in writing a shelf full of books. It is then that I am struck by the grace with which he seems to be handling his current capabilities.
    It is also at this point that I begin to frame a response to the questions you raise at the conclusion of your post. I imagine the people in his world respond to him with love and grace, for this is the manner in which he conducts himself.

  3. Yes Jim, thank you for this.  What a rich reminder.  It has made me think of two things today.  First off in dealing with conflict, how often we let the presenting issues define the conflict when usually below the surface (or above the horizon) lurks the real thing. And secondly, I love that this gives us a reason to live out our discipleship in expressable and tangible ways – incarnationally.  Being Jesus in the world, in the community of faith, in the relationship, in the family, in the ………
    Your blog is a key part of my spiritual practices and thanks for providing us food for thought.

  4. Arlene, I really like what you said regarding conflict.  As one of my daughters told me the other day regarding the conflicts she has seen friends experience: "The issue is rarely the issue."Yet, as you note, so often we will focus of what is really matters that are really not the issue that is fueling the conflict.Thanks!

  5. Arlene and Jim:  As a relatively young father, I’m just starting to learn that with my six-year-old.  Thank God that he’s teaching me now and not twenty years from now…Jim, thank you for this.  I’ve been gently urged by various folks to get into Buechner’s work, and this has taken me a little bit closer. 

  6. Peter,What a gift you must be to that six-year-old.  How fortunate this child is to have a father who is willing to grow, learn, and pay attention to God. Thanks for your comment.

  7. I treat Buechner writings  the same way one values rare bottles of fine wine. I have most of his books and I dip in every once and awhile, but am aware that there is a Finite supply. Thanks for the post, must dip in again soon.