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The Fable of My Life, an epilogue in Praying Your Story
William Cleary

Tom and Neil Cleary  

Bill and Roddy





In Oct. 2005 son Neil (left) was Best Man at Tom's marriage -- to Amber DeLaurentis and all three  sang at the ceremony, and at the reception.  Their parents couldn't have been happier.






In l976 when you stepped up into Hopkins Bookshop, you found yourself in a tunnel-shaped space colored with earthen shades of orange and green, and the prevailing smell of garlic—which came from the sub shop next door linked to us by a common basement, a dank stone-edged cave where we had our office. The upstairs was bright though, and a 40-foot mural outside carried our orange and green motif down the side-street alley.

You would have seen all this in Burlington, Vermont, in the little state's most bustling city, a bookstore located right across from City Hall, and situated on the last block of a 4-block "Church Street" leading up to a red brick colonial church with "1816" high on its clock tower.

On a good day greeting card displays would be spinning, a rabbi would be browsing among our Jewish books in the window, two nuns from one of the nearby Catholic colleges would be asking for new titles by Schillebeeckx and Rahner, while my wife (a part-time campus minister at the University of Vermont, just up the hill) would be activating the clumsy ching of our brass cash register, and Yours Truly would be sitting on the steps leading up to our children's section reading the Narnia Tales to two pre-school children who clearly resembled both me and the check-out lady
If the poet Hopkins (whom we named our store after) is on target when he states that "every mortal thing deals out that being indoors dwells, selves, goes itself, proclaiming 'what I do is me,' " this whole bookstore scene is a snapshot of my "self" at age 50, in the virtual middle of a "fabulous" life. On my face one might read the intensity lines of one who had been a Jesuit for twenty two years, who married at age forty three, and had become the father of two challenging sons. My bride had been a Religious Sister, a Ph. D. candidate in theology at Fordham University at the time, and the kind of intellectual who could combine great common sense and an avid feminism with solidarity with the marginalized. We have been blessed as spiritual companions for 32 years, and when my personal fable is over and has become just another animated film in heaven, Roddy will be featured there as my life's sunshine, my soul's daily sacrament, and my heart's home.

Though this book is about making sense of your life, my essential self, my meaning, still eludes definition, fading in and out like the misty Northern Lights that sometimes shine at night in these parts. Perhaps I would call my self essentially a dreamer, a kind of foolish young farmer who assiduously planted cash crops – soy beans, alfalfa, tobacco, sugar cane – unaware that at midnight sweet Mother Demeter would come by and charm his plantings into becoming spinach, corn, melons and grapes: a salad, a main dish, a dessert, and a wine.

For instance, my life makes sense now despite the fact that, while I've had lots of good luck, much of what I tried to do failed. In my earliest days as a Jesuit, though no-nonsense Father Gschwend, my novice master, tried continuously to get me into the role of an Ignatius Loyola or a Francis Xavier, I secretly, compulsively, was becoming Bing Crosby. The song "Goin' My Way" still brings tears to my eyes, so important did it figure in my early subliminal motivations. I was good at singing, I could play the piano, I could act: Bing was my role model. I couldn't help myself. We both looked great in a Roman collar.

My next important work was to study, and that required heroics as well, filling a total of 13 college-level years with books, papers, dramatics, music, liturgy, languages, meditations, disputations and above all – and most sweetly – conversations. We filled in all our non-study time with talk, and that more than anything else was my most satisfactory educational experience.

Finally ordained a priest in l960, I soon left for the Korean missions, to teach English and music at Sogang University. There life became wildly exciting and satisfying: the devastated third-world country, the eager friendly students, music to create, the language to learn, our own church renewal of Vatican Council Two, teaching, traveling, writing: my first book accepted by a New York publisher.

All this came to an end in l966 when my dream of an agency for Jesuit writers in New York City was handed over to me to implement. It took several years and lots of travel. In l968 once my Writers Agency task was done and given to others, instead of returning to Korea, I and a Jesuit friend dreamed up a movie company, creating short discussion films for use in our American schools. The company floundered at first and then succeeded, and exists to this day though both the founders have long ago left the Jesuit Order.

In l972, now the father of two, I took a managerial job in a Washington, DC, bookstore, and three years later (after the store was held up five times) started my own in Vermont. The world of religious books enabled my wife and I to remain up to date in theology and spirituality, not to mention being acquainted with the new music that was coming alive within institutional Christianity – to which I dreamed of contributing.

My dreamer-self continued to plant cash crops. During the Sandinista Revolution in Nicaragua in the early '80's, three outstanding Catholic priests were given key governmental posts there – Foreign Minister, Minister of Culture, Minister of Education – and I dreamed up a whimsical song, then a 15-minute video, entitled "Padre Ernesto." The song dramatized the work of these priests and the great ideals of that ill-fated revolution. I thought my music could satisfy my need to contribute to the cause, but no such luck. People around me (my wife, for instance) were spending weeks and weeks in that Central American country, helping bring its idealistic dream to life. I found myself sucked into a cotton picking brigade, and in no time, I was flying south at the risk of my life.

I survived – barely—the heat and rodents of that work, but as I settled into my seat in an American Airlines plane jetting out of Miami after just two weeks picking cotton, I could not have been more exultant. Not only was I still alive, but three promising stars sparkled in my professional sky: my politico/religious song group had a Cleary-music gig in Los Angeles, opening for Judy Collins; I had a contract for a song album with the biggest religious music publisher in the U.S.; and the Asia Society had agreed verbally to stage my Korean musical off-off Broadway. "Each mortal thing does one thing and the same: deals out that being indoors each one dwells, selves. . . ." I felt at that moment that I was about to deal out my truest being, about to selve grandiloquently.
None of it happened. Over the next months each star fell from my sky in its own melancholy way. Why was this happening, I asked myself, unaware that sweet Demeter was continuing her wily work.

For a full-figured dreamer like myself, it was this pattern of sobering disappointment that became a theme in my work life. My campaign song for candidate Geraldine Ferraro which cost thousands of dollars to make and six months to promote, got nowhere. My anti-drug film "Everybody's Goin' Where I've Been" went nowhere also, even after the U.S.Army said they loved it and began talking of a six-figure purchase. The campaigns to prevent aid to the Contras, to forestall the Iraqi War, to aid the passing of the Equal Rights Amendment, all failed. Even Cliff Robertson's voice could not make a hit out of a little anti-war film, "Holy War". My long novel about Korea did not impress some thirty publishers. Despite all this, I have to admit to many charmed outcomes -- especially in the lovable personal warmth and jazz inventions of pianist son Tom, and in the passionate and downhome compositions of singer/songwriter son Neil. They remind me daily of the sweet fable of my life, the inept farmer surreptitiously assisted by heaven.

In the great scheme of things, my personal niche of belonging is modest, I believe. Bill Cleary belongs to that scheme mainly due to his active streak of inventiveness. The products of my creativity have not been world shaking ideas or stratospheric spiritual leadership, but most often just an elaboration on the philosophy and religion that have made up my ever-changing spirituality. Here my chief claim has to do with what is called "prayer" – but that includes for me every kind of approach to the Divine Mystery itself, speaking into its silence, trying to feel comfortable with its darkness. My first book (Facing God, written in Korea) elaborated 20 different ways to spend time in meditation (I was finding it hard to do.). My second book (Hyphenated Priests) predicted an end to professional "priests" who had no other profession but ministry; the book gave life-style accounts of a dozen priest-professionals—thus "hyphenated" – priest-lawyers, priest-professors, priest-scholars.

Next I became a hyphenated priest myself, a priest-filmmaker. I worked on just 4 films at that time, but one of them (Me and the Monsters) luckily hit just the right note for public schools, and has been used by them for 27 years. If I have made any significant mark on my milieu, it is through this 10-minute children's film on fear. At the time I made it, my personal life was changing dramatically as I was taking on a secular lifestyle. After I lost confidence in filmmaking (not knowing how successful it would eventually be), I began bookselling, a profession that occupied me for 15 years. When we finally sold our store in l985, I began to write and compose full time.

Since then publishers of spiritual books, musical tapes, and faith development videos have found my whimsical products coming through their transoms, and some have been gracious enough to publish them. Praying Your Story, my most recent book, has helped me look positively on it all and hope for the best. May it help you do the same.

So the naive farmer continued to plant seeds of many kinds: but only heaven can -- and will -- make sense of it. For many another human perhaps that has to be life's only appraisal, penultimate but hope-filled.

Nowadays, at age 75, I labor on – with projects always awaiting attention in my studio of dreams, a computer folder called "workroom." I am in there every day, eagerly selving away. Still, once a month, at the Burlington Health and Rehabilitation Center, with 15 wheelchairs pulled up around my top-opened piano and my uncertain Irish tenor singing out "I'll Take You Home Again, Kathleen" or even "The Bells of St. Mary's" with other quavering voices all coming alive around me, Father Time gets stopped in his tracks and whisked back 50, 60, or 70 years, I feel at that moment that my life is fabulous. I have almost become the Bing Crosby of my dreams, though now no longer dressed like Father O'Malley. It seems that, for the musical time-outside-of-time, trouble and pain all forgotten, memories are awakening again filled with romantic dreams, still alive in the land where anything's possible. #


Tom and Neil Cleary  

Bill and Roddy





Bill's musical CHUN HYANG SONG was performed at Seoul's Co-Ex Convention Center in July 2006, and Roddy and Bill were there.  Bill wrote the play for his Korea English class in 1964, and saw it performed at the Seoul Olympics in 1988 as well.





from Praying Your Story by William Cleary


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