Wednesday, November 10, 2010

A good tale!

Warning - the following is political. If you are one of my liberal friends read on. If you are one of my more conservative friends - and yes I proudly have some very good friends who do not share my views on everything! - read on only if you are in a forgiving mood!

This was just too long to put on Facebook!


Life After Politics

After losing a senatorial election, the writer finds redemption in monks and fruitcakes

In election year 2002 I ran for the United States Senate. I was the Democratic nominee from South Carolina to succeed the legendary J. Strom Thurmond (R-SC). The venture was quixotic at best. As every schoolchild knows, the states are divided for political purposes into two groups: The red states are the Republican states, and the blue states the Democratic states. South Carolina is easily the reddest of the red states — redder than red, crimson, fuchsia, magenta. A color all its own. Unsurprisingly, I lost.

Soon after losing the election, I trudged burro-like back home to Charleston. With me were Zoe, my wife of forty years, and our two surrogate children, a small gray kitten named Maggie Pennington, and Neil Diamond, a ten-year-old canary. Within days of our arrival, little Maggie escaped and was run over by a car. Her short life ended in Zoe’s arms. The next day, Neil Diamond fell from his perch like a stone and expired without a chirp. I, myself, was rapidly closing in on my biblically allotted threescore years and ten. For all practical purposes, I was broke, unemployed, and homeless. Near the end of the campaign, Zoe had said that if I lost the election I would have to move to some other state. I couldn’t help but notice she had said I would have to move — not we would have to move. I was enveloped with the dread of becoming uninspired. Who would ever have imagined I would find redemption in, of all places, a Trappist monastery?

Dispirited and despairing, soon after we arrived in Charleston I awoke early one morning on the second floor of the diminutive carriage house we were temporarily renting (in less elegant environs than Charleston, carriage houses are called garage apartments). The weather matched my melancholy mood. Unseasonable frigid temperatures gripped Charleston. A freezing rain was falling. I stumbled outside, found a nearby vending machine, and bought a copy of the Post and Courier, the local newspaper, which had enthusiastically endorsed my opponent in the campaign. In fact, I got two copies of the newspaper, one for me and one for Zoe. I find, when buying newspapers from vending machines, that you can get multiple copies for the price of one. No point, I thought, in maximizing the profits of a publication that had supported my opposition.

That particular morning, the Post and Courier contained a mildly interesting feature story about Mepkin Abbey, a Roman Catholic monastery forty-five miles west of Charleston, where twenty-nine Trappist monks live a communal life in prayer, poverty, and solitude. The property is historic. Mepkin was the plantation home of the early American patriot Henry Laurens. His ashes are buried at Mepkin in a picturesque cemetery overlooking the Cooper River, which, as all South Carolinians know, flows together with the Ashley River at Charleston to form the Atlantic Ocean.

Like other South Carolina plantations, Mepkin fell into the hands of Yankees after the Civil War. The property was ultimately purchased by Henry Luce, founder of Time, Life, and Fortune magazines, and his distinguished wife, Clare Boothe Luce. In 1949, they donated a large portion of Mepkin for the founding of a monastic community. The Trappist monastery was established there the same year.

According to the Post and Courier story, the monks of Mepkin Abbey, in an unprecedented departure from their life of solitude, had undertaken an uncharacteristically worldly endeavor: They were making fruitcakes, and one of their number had been designated to meet visitors at the gates of the monastery and converse sufficiently with them to sell the fruitcakes for the modest sum of eight dollars each. I immediately sprang from my lethargy, determined to find Mepkin Abbey and buy a fruitcake from the monks. I have never much liked fruitcake. Actually, I hate fruitcake. For me, it is the rare Christmas gift I can never bring myself to re-gift. But now I had a purpose in life. Perhaps that’s a little overstated. At the least, for the first time since the election, I had something to do.

I departed on my doubtful pilgrimage, driving endlessly through the bowels of the South Carolina Lowcountry, stopping at every country store and crossroads to ask directions, and trying hard to forget election year 2002. My progress was substantially impeded by the terribly inclement weather. Clouds hung oppressively low in the heavens. The freezing rain continued unabated. Fog shrouded the swampy landscape. The tangled branches of towering live oak trees on either side of the road wove themselves together to form tunnels for me to pass through. At last, the stone gates of Mepkin Abbey loomed before me. Edgar Allan Poe’s House of Usher was never more imposing, or should I say spooky? Just as the Post and Courier had reported, the designated monk was waiting for me, as if he had been anticipating my arrival for his whole life. Perhaps he had been.

He was dressed in the traditional habit of a monk, a simply constructed garment of rough brown sackcloth, with a floppy hood and a rope sash tied loosely at the waist. I imagined him to have once been a titan of business or industry or, perhaps, one of the Masters of the Universe described by Tom Wolfe in The Bonfire of the Vanities, now determined to repent and forsake the world and all its mortal pleasures. I could scarcely see his face. His eyes seemed to glow like smoldering embers in the scant illumination beneath his hood (or maybe that was my imagination). I got out of my car and handed him a five-dollar bill and three singles. Silently, he handed me back a fruitcake, wrapped in brown paper. I did not speak. Nor did he. Somehow small talk seemed inappropriate. Then, just as I was about to leave, he leaned so close to me I could feel his warm breath on my cold face. He spoke.

“We all voted for you,” he said.

“I’m amazed,” I stammered. “I had no idea y’all voted.”

“Oh yes, we always vote,” he said, “and we voted for you.”

“That makes me think God is a Democrat,” I said.

He leaned even closer and whispered in my ear, “God is a Democrat.”

At that very instant, the rain stopped, the skies opened, and the sun shone forth. On the way back to Charleston, with the redeeming words of the talkative monk ringing in my ears, and his fruitcake on the seat beside me, Johnny Nash’s timeless lyrics played on the car radio: “Gone are the dark clouds that had me blind / It’s gonna be a bright, bright sunshiny day.”

I most definitely had my groove back.

1 comment:

Pat said...

I never doubted it :)