In advance of two book signings (at Hennessy’s and at El Bull Pen), Eileen Fischer speaks to the author of “Chelem Papers,” Grant Spradling, about a life well lived.
At 89, writer Grant Spradling has the meaning of life figured out.
The former pastor, bartender, Broadway singer, vagabond and child of the Oklahoma Dust Bowl years says, “The purpose of life is to live.”
He has certainly led an exciting existence, which is still going strong even after a heart attack and open-heart surgery three years ago.
“Life is really quite wonderful,” Spradling says. “In the United States old age gets short shrift. We think life is over when we retire or get to be 80. To me, I’m still learning.”
Spradling is the author of five books, including “David Goes Home,” a coming-of-age story of a gay man in the 1940s through the ‘60s. In his latest work, “Chelem Papers” (Hamaca Press, September 2018), Spradling takes us to his favorite writing spot, the tiny Mexican fishing village of Chelem, Yucatán, where he contemplates life and communes with nature and feisty seagulls on the shores of the Gulf of Mexico giving us his thoughts on growing old, with the emphasis on growing. In an interview from his second home in Amarillo, Texas, Spradling talks about his childhood during the Great Depression, his religious life and losing the love of his life, Clifford Ames, far too soon.
Q: You were born in 1929 in Wetherford, Oklahoma. What was life like back then?
A: Wetherford, about 150 to 175 miles down old Route 66, was the bull’s eye of the Dust Bowl. The agrarian culture shaped my life. My classmates were sharecroppers. Everyone was struggling. But it was a college town; I attended a few years there, and then got a scholarship to Oklahoma City University and Boston University School of Theology. I was ordained in the Congregational Church and was in Attleboro and Cambridge, Massachusetts, for about 10 years. When I was three or four I would ask my mother about religion and how was God three in one. She would answer, “Honey, it’s a mystery.” When I was young, studying theology, I thought I’d understand, but now I’m embracing mystery. As I approach 90, the mystery isn’t daunting to me, it’s beautiful. There’s so much behind it.
Q: You spent some time after your years as a minister traveling the world and running the Foc’sle, a bar in St. Thomas. What was that like?
A: I was 32, my love relationship was on the rocks, I was beginning to question the validity of my ministry, and my former college classmate needed someone to run his bar in St. Thomas, Virgin Islands. I threw Paul Tillich’s little book, “The Courage To Be” (I had become friends with the philosopher), into my rucksack and headed for the Caribbean, the first stop on the way to a year and a half of vagabonding around the world. It was a sleazy, last-chance bar, open sewers and shuttered windows; days and nights were filled with the bing-bang-boom of steel bands — Carnival time. Late one night I watched a small sloop sail out beyond the protective headlands, making for the open sea. I was the little anchorless boat.
Q.: Tell us about following your passion for music and writing, and your life in Key West.
A: I had a loud, high tenor voice and always wanted to be an opera singer. I did Broadway shows and for about two years was in the Metropolitan Opera Studio. I met my partner, Clifford Ames, at a Metropolitan Opera party almost 50 years ago. He was from the Texas Panhandle and had just gotten back from Vietnam. In Key West, I started writing first about religion and art, then went to fiction. Clifford and I became publishers of prints by Jacob Lawrence, a well-known African-American artist at the time. I was chairman of the Monroe County Fine Arts Council there.
Q: During your time in Key West, you took a trip to Mexico in 1987 where you discovered the Yucatán and Mérida.
A: I was knocked out by Mérida. You could rent a room for $1 a day. I went back and forth from Key West for 15 years to a little apartment near the main square and worked very hard on a semi-biographical work of fiction. It didn’t go anywhere, but the Maya culture fascinated me. I wrote a mystery, “Maya Sacrifice,” and it was well received. It is as accurate as it can be about Maya culture.
Q: You own a house in Mérida and maintain a separate work studio in Chelem, where you go to write one to two days a week. What do you love about living in Mexico?
A: The studio’s solitude is totally marvelous. I’m a gregarious person and never had such solitude before, except for the iguanas and seabirds. I spend a lot of time looking at the Gulf of Mexico. There is a good-size community of writers there; Mérida is culturally rich and has wonderful museums.
Q: Your husband, Clifford, died in January 2018. How have you been coping?
A: The plan was for me to go first. Clifford was 15 years younger than I. I feel unanchored. But I also feel less alone than I ever was (because of) the support I have received from friends and family, particularly our Maya houseman, who has been with us for 25 years, and a young student who lives near, who has practically become my caregiver, though I don’t yet feel I need one.
Q: What do you see as the theme of “Chelem Papers?”
A: Accepting old age and being surprised by it.
Q: What do you hope readers take away from your book?
A: A sense that life is not over when it’s over. The human species evolved and kept evolving and came up with the idea to love one another as we love ourselves and love creation. That’s numero uno. The purpose of life is living. I thought I should be something wonderful, like Martin Luther King or Gandhi. I have lived and have life to go. I go out to the garden and feel superbly alive. We have goals, but the purpose of life is to live.