I am rummaging around in my past in Tallahassee, Fla., here for a memorial service for Ned Stuckey-French, a former professor and friend who died too young.

I was a student of Ned’s 16 years ago, when at the age of 38 I had the strange notion of going back to school to study writing full time. This was graduate school, finally embracing without restraint what had been in my heart since I was a child, but had always been afraid to face head on.

To pull back for a moment, I have only known two things all my life: that I wanted to be a father and a writer. Oddly enough, those were the two things I ran from for so long. I became both in Tallahassee, a place so foreign to my Northeastern roots, the Spanish moss dripping off the Live Oak trees as if placed there for some movie set rather than the happenstance of nature.

Cathlin and I had married two years before. She not only said yes to this turn of events, including my saying no to the safety and structure of a high-paying job, she gave me the strength to say yes to confusion, worry, and to a life if not well lived, then at least lived as it was meant for me.

How the mind twists and turns. What began as an ode to my professor now includes a nod to my wife. Well, so be it. We celebrated our 18th wedding anniversary this week, and in a way everything I write is either to or for her. Cathlin is a minister and for a long time I wrestled with that profession, not being religious myself and having first met her long before she turned to the pulpit. But during our life together she not only gave me the courage to take a leap of faith, she taught me how to have faith in myself.

Ned once asked our class why we were there, why writing, why set out on this grueling journey. I went first, the words churning in my head, desperate to be spoken out loud. I said I had never felt completely myself until I found writing, the simple act of watching words appear from beneath the point of my pencil. I wrote, I said, because it had become like breathing. I simply had no choice if I wanted to be whole.

To Ned’s credit he did not pause or panic at this outpouring, or let the words fall too heavily on this class of mostly 20-somethings.

“Bill just testified,” he said. “He showed himself. Who’s next?”

The class continued and I have no recollection of what anyone else said. I had rocked my world and everything else had gone blank.

At Ned’s service I saw his wife, his children and former professors. I listened to beautiful stories well told about Ned, but afterwards I did not linger. Instead, I took to the streets, to walk, drive and bike into my past. I ate food I had once eaten, eavesdropped on accents I had adored and spent time at a taxidermy shop in southern Georgia. I first noticed Harden’s Taxidermy in Thomasville, Ga. when Cathlin and I dropped off our U-haul rental after moving from New York city. The shop caters to local hunters and local animals but it also goes big, the repository of African safaris and Alaskan journeys. There are Arctic foxes on the wall and a huge rhinoceros head featured prominently, along with local boar, deer and snakes.

For Ned’s class, my first attempt at nonfiction, I decided to spend a week at Harden’s, watching, listening and writing about the place and the men who worked there. I drove up every afternoon after class and hung out until closing time.

The place felt smaller now and Ed, the owner, was not around to reminisce with, that is if he remembered me at all. But the smell of glue still overpowered and some of the animals, trapped in time on the walls or mounted on stands on the floor, looked exactly the same. I patted a few snouts, rubbed the bristly hair of a boar and touched the teeth of a coiled rattlesnake.

I also wrote an essay in Ned’s class called Strollering, about taking long marathon walks with my newborn son, Hardy. Moving out of New York city to this quiet city in the deep South had somehow made it seem possible to finally have a child even though we were poorer than we had ever been, me in graduate school, Cathlin working as a hospice chaplain, traveling the back roads and often administering spiritual care in dirt floor shacks. When she began to show, her patients called her the pregnant preacher woman.

Each day Hardy and I would set out in the morning, stop for coffee along the way, and when he fell asleep I would pause by the side of the road to read and write while he rested in his stroller. It was everything I had ever hoped for, right there in a peaceful north Florida tableau.


Ned’s specialty was the essay in all its forms, writing them, teaching them, writing about them. He liked to say it was a journey of the mind, filled with the contradictions of being both personal and public. It had to have form and structure but could also be open to meandering, much like life itself.

He also introduced me to the essays of Edward (Ted) Hoagland, who years later I would discover lived a few blocks from the Gazette. When I finally convinced Ted to write pieces for the newspaper and sent them to Ned, he could barely contain his joy at this turn in our narrative together.

Ned grew up on a farm in Indiana and then made his way to Harvard. While there he was struck by the wealth and privilege of his classmates and after graduation took to union organizing, working as a janitor in a Boston hospital trying to help the hospital workers receive better pay and benefits. From there he became a high school English teacher and eventually the professor that I met.

We all knew Ned’s story, my classmates and I, but not because he wore it on his sleeve like some badge of honor and street credibility. We knew it because that is what we did, teacher and students alike. We told our stories, in and out of class, in hopes of learning how to write them, and in the process perhaps live them more fully.

My journey to the past is interrupted with a text from the present. The family is checking in. My son, now a sophomore in high school, wonders if I can read an essay he is working on for school, and my 11-year-old daughter reports that a boy passed her a note asking her to be his girlfriend.

Cathlin is checking in too. She wants to know how I am doing and to tell me about at an event at her church that day to celebrate the work of eco-theologian Thomas Berry, who died in 2009. The authors of his biography had come to give a talk. As Cathlin tells me about it, I am immediately sent to another part of my past.

Soon after we were married and I left my job, I floundered as I tried to find my new path. I took a temp job as the receptionist in a small office, not knowing who I would be working for. The office turned out to be filled with a group of socially conscious nuns, all liaisons from their orders to the United Nations.

I was still trying to make sense of so many things then, my still hidden desire to write, my advancing age and how my wife’s call to ministry fit in with my own life. I did not consider myself religious or even spiritual, and yet I was married to a minister and working for nuns.

Some of the nuns ran a farm in New Jersey and followed the teachings of Thomas Berry, who preached a return to the earth gospel. These nuns were ahead of their time in terms of organic farming, having started Genesis Farm in the 1970s.

One weekend I set out for this farm for a three-day silent fasting retreat, designed to help guide people at a crossroads. Each of us at the retreat hunkered down in a spot in the woods during the day and slept in a bunk in the cabin at night. We didn’t eat or talk to each other and each day was one long slog with ourselves. No distractions or ordinary rhythms can bring a man to his knees, I discovered.

To pass the time I began building creatures on the forest floor out of twigs and leaves and stones, and inventing their storylines. The creations gradually grew bigger as I switched from sticks to logs, stones to boulders. On the last day I spent a long time on what would become a giant woman, perhaps an inner compulsion to put form to Mother Earth I thought at first. But when I had finished and began to tell myself the story of this woman, I discovered I had created an image of my wife, one that was overcome with sadness.

I realized then that ever since our wedding, a few months prior, we had grown apart. It was a gradual thing, a day-to-day deepening of unease that I didn’t understand mostly because I was unaware. We had known each other since we were teenagers, had lived together for the past two years, and only now, after an actual wedding, did our relationship feel off. I didn’t think marriage would change a thing, but that was my problem I realized, alone out there in the woods. I was trying to still live as if nothing had changed. I had not given myself over fully to marriage, just as I had not fully given myself over to writing.

I spent that night throwing up. The emotions brought forth out in those woods took physical form this way. The next day I traveled back home and sat with Cathlin on the couch of our New York apartment, telling her what I had experienced. And although Oct. 6 is the date of our wedding anniversary, the day my parents call and our children make us cards, our real wedding took place on that day, with just the two of us holding each other and weeping on the couch. Not long after, we moved to Tallahassee.

At the end of Ned’s memorial service I said hello to his wife, Elizabeth, also one of my former writing professors. She was surprised to see me. I had not told her I was making the trip and perhaps she did not know how Ned and I had kept in touch via emails and our shared love of Ted Hoagland. But then again, who among us really knows the effect we have on others, the ones we live with, see every day or especially those we only spend a small portion of our lives with. That is why I traveled back to Tallahassee. To let her know what Ned had helped set loose in me and to revisit that feeling of finally giving over to a journey I had dreamed about my whole life.