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Telling Secrets

Tributes are coming in from around the world at the news of Frederick Buechner's death this week at 96. David Brooks' tribute in the NYTimes is particularly poignant.

In the fall of 2006, I flew to Vermont to meet with Fred to discuss my adapting his novel "Godric" to film. The film never came to pass for a number of reasons, probably just as well as my screenplay didn't rise to the level deserving of an adaptation of such a profound and beautiful book, though this will remain among the biggest regrets of my life, that my screenplay wasn't as good as it could've been. But the two separate weekends I spent with him (and the dinners I had with him and Judy at their favorite restaurant in Rupert) will remain highlights of my life. They were gracious to me, a perfect stranger, and Fred's interest in my comparatively insignificant life will remain with me. He was a kind and wise man, and you can see it in his eyes. This was a man acquainted with grief who stewarded that grief and turned it into something rare.

I remember pulling up to their home in the country, his silver Prius parked out front their modest but beautiful home. Fred answered the door, quickly introduced me to his wife Judy who was in the kitchen unpacking groceries, then took me into "The Magic Kingdom," the name he gave his study and which, he was quick to tell me, had been given the name before Walt Disney "stole it" for Disneyland.

We talked for a few hours about his life, his friends, his writing, his family. I asked him if he believed in ghosts, which appeared to take him aback. He thought about it a moment, then said that he supposed he did, if by "ghosts" I meant "spirits."

I wish now that I could recall our conversations over those two weekends more clearly, but what I am left with is a sense of generosity of spirit and his capacious mind. He was thoughtful, disarming, careful, even elusive -- almost shy. And warm. I'm sure he was sizing me up in the process, this guy from Hollywood attempting to put his beloved novel "Godric" onto the silver screen. The fact that he had me back for a second visit I can only take to mean that he liked our first visit and that he was open for a second.

We exchanged several letters over the years, which I have saved. I wish that our friendship had been allowed the chance to grow, but I was too green in the screenwriting business and his book deserved (and still does) a more seasoned and thoughtful treatment than the one I was able to give it back then. Over the years our correspondence grew more infrequent. His life was full, his family was his main concern, and many people were clamoring for his wisdom and attention as he grew older.

I won't forget how he shared with me on one of our last meetings that he had hit a writer's block of sorts and wasn't sure if he'd write another book. Three subsequent books of essays, poetry, and lectures were published, but he never did write another book, and I often wonder about the wisdom brewing just beneath the surface of his eyes during my visits that fall. It wasn't, I think, for a lack of ideas that he didn't pen another book but because he felt that he'd written what he'd needed to write and that not much more was left for him to say, not in writing at least. But his eyes -- they spoke volumes about mystery and mirth, of beauty and sadness, of laughter and of the quiet truth that lies at the heart of things and which was never intended to be obvious. You must search for it beneath the surface of things, and not just with your mind, but with your heart. And this search is what, I think, he called faith.

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