Cruising Through Heart Surgery

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“If you want to make God laugh, tell him about your plans.”

—Woody Allen

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In trying to clean up a bit after what’s been an interesting, to say the least, month, I found the guide for the cruise Mary Lee and I had booked for this summer. Turns out I wound up with a different itinerary.

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Thursday, July 18, 2019: Transfer from Oslo, Norway Airport to Hotel Bristol, Oslo. Oslo is … a medieval and Renaissance gem….

Thursday, July 18, 2019: Drive into Portland as the moon sets over Maine Medical Center. Check in, get a body shave, talk with my anesthesiologist, and then lose consciousness until I feel my esophagus being ripped out. Mary Lee, who’s been waiting for me to come to, tells me the breathing tube has just been removed.

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Friday, July 19 & Saturday, July 20: See gargantuan snowcapped mountains, magnificent fjords, and one of Europe’s largest glaciers, as you travel to picturesque Bergen, an ancient city with deep Viking roots.

Friday, July 19:  ICU, Maine’s gargantuan Medical Center. Awake and panicky. Having trouble breathing. To prevent pneumonia, my nurse gets me up at 3:00 a.m. to sit in a chair until 5:30, when I go back to bed. Visit from P. from my 12-step program who works here. After someone tears drainage tubes out of my gut, I move from ICU to picturesque Room 104. Find the classical channel on TV and leave it on all night.

Saturday, July 20: Never could sleep on my back, just some drug induced Never-Never Land. Wake around 3:00 with a medicinal smell in my nose and a clattering of trumpets from the TV that sounds like a party of drunken horses. Spend the day getting to know my nurse as she escorts me between bed, chair, and bathroom. Decide to write a country & western song, “Lasix and Me.” Apparently, I’ve added ten pounds of fluid in my legs. Using a walker, I head down the hall with the nurse beside me and Mary Lee behind me with a wheelchair, which is good because I have to sit down after about 60 feet. Get my own incentive spirometer. Can barely bring it to 500 mg.

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Sunday, July 21: Bergan, Norway. Enjoy a relaxing tour by deluxe motor coach as you tour the main sites… Hear interesting stories about Bergen’s colorful past…

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Sunday, July 21: Nice visit from my colorful rector, who’s supposed to be on vacation, and B. from Men’s Group, who’s full of interesting stories. Walk without a walker further down the hall and back, but still have to rest in the wheelchair half-way through. Spirometer up to 750 mg. Down two pounds of fluid.

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Monday, July 22: Cruise to Geirangerfjor … Seven Sisters Waterfall…the Suitor waterfall…Eagles Bend towers…

Monday, July 22: Cruise down the hall to 111A, where I now share a room with J. When he orders a lobster roll and French fries for lunch, I almost throw up. Since Thursday, I’ve choked down a bowl of cereal, a fruit cup, and a container of yogurt. No waterfalls, but I do have my first shower. Make it around the nurses’ station without walker or wheelchair, and get the spirometer up to 1000 mg. Nice visits from friends and clergy. My nurse tells me I should go home tomorrow.

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Tuesday, July 23: At Sea: Relax, Renew, Recharge at The Spa. … peruse our Library…

Tuesday, July 23: Maine Med. & Home. Still not sleeping, so I’m awake when they come to give me a chest x-ray at 5:15 a.m. Get word I have a “slightly collapsed” left lung, so go for another x-ray at noon, then wait 20 minutes in what feels like a refrigerated meat locker for transport back to my room. Take another shower to warm up. Finally get word that the second x-ray shows no change and that my surgeon isn’t worried. I can go home. Which means another two hours of paperwork plus getting rid of all the rest of the IV portals and wires. See myself. I look like a zippered pincushion.

Home! Feel as if I’ve gone 15 rounds with a black rhino.

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Wednesday, July 24: Travel among the majestic mountains and fishing villages of the beautiful Lofoten Islands…

Wednesday, July 24: Two hours with R. from home health care. Two concerns: my back, which looks like I might be developing sores that can lead to infection, and my lungs, neither of which seems to be operating at anywhere near capacity. Try to do three ten-minute walks around majestic Willow Grove.

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On a nice note (pun intended), receive more personal mail today than I’ve had in the last six years.

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Thursday, July 25: Tromso, Norway. Meet your local guide and drive through the city known as the “Gateway to the Arctic”…

Thursday, July 25: Don’t quite make a mile around Willow Grove, but following the advice of Dr. R.’s nurse to put a pillow under my arm, am able to sleep on my side and as a result, get the best night’s sleep I’ve had in over a week. Feeling more improvement. After watching me climb stairs, get in and out of bed and get up and down from the toilet, PT person from home health services says I don’t need her.

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Friday, July 26: Honningsvag, Norway. Take in …one of Europe’s most stunning natural sights…. The cliffs of Nordkapp rise more than 1,000 feet from the sea waters and are topped by a large, flat plateau…

Friday, July 26: So much for stunning self-confidence: Today’s nurse, J., is concerned about possible infection in the incisions made in my legs to get the vein for part of the by-pass, so I’m blaming myself for not paying more attention to these incisions and for wearing the same pair of pants for three days. Now, these incisions seem to burn, and my face feels hot. Convinced I have a fever.

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 Saturday, July 27 & Sunday, July 28: At sea. Designed in the spirit of the boutiques along the world’s finest boulevards, we are proud to feature our onboard shops…clothing and handicrafts … jewelry and …cosmetics and skincare products.

Saturday, July 27: a night of catastrophizing. When I went to bed, my feet felt hot and tingly, and within fifteen minutes I’d developed kidney failure, started dialysis, and died. Tried Thich Nhat Hahn breathing exercises, prayers, psalms, replaying the 1961 Class L State Basketball championship game. This morning after two phone calls, one to home health, one to the surgeon’s office, I’m told my options are to ride it out or go to the emergency room. Decide to ride it out. Walk up to the community garden (Mary Lee gives me a ride back.) Something cheerful about gardens.

Sunday, July 28: Best night’s sleep so far. Increase my walking to 15 minutes each time. Feet feel fine, but because I have to have something to fret about, I’m concerned about my faster heart rate.

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Monday, July 29: Shetland Islands… Farmland and dreamy meadows unfold toward seal-dotted beaches. Columnar sea stacks and rocky cliffs… Medieval castles… Shetland ponies…

Monday, July 29: I’ve had three major operations and The Lord of the Rings has pulled me through each time. More aware this reading of the beauty of the language and the underlying sadness that runs through the entire trilogy. Even if the Ring-Bearer is successful against Evil, the world the characters know will fade away. Realize that despite priding myself on my ability to keep growing, keep changing, my life as I know it is slipping away—culturally, politically, physically—and today I want to cry.

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Tuesday, July 30: Orkney Islands.  …embark on a scenic drive to the Ring of Brodgar, the finest known circular stone ring from the early Bronze Age…follow the coastline of Scapa Flow…

Tuesday, July 30: My sister brings over lobster rolls for lunch, as well as the obituary for my great-grandfather Bennett.

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Ever since I got the diagnosis of a blocked artery, I’ve been asking: why me? My cholesterol levels have been low, as has blood pressure, and heart rate. I’ve always been a walker and watch my weight and what I eat. Turns out, you can’t fight your DNA. Grampy Bennett’s obit reads like an autopsy: “at 6:00 p.m. last Saturday night, Clifford Bennett, age 63, died suddenly in his kitchen of acute indigestion. He’d been in good health prior.” Googling “acute indigestion,” I find that up until the 1920’s that was the term for what we now know were heart attacks, often brought on by the same blocked main artery that I had.

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Wednesday, July 31. Edinburgh, United Kingdom. See highlights of Scotland’s capital city…from gracious architecture to a storied castle…

Wednesday, July 31. Our gracious friends J & D bring over supper for tonight: a shrimp and rice casserole with coleslaw. J’s had a stroke, a by-pass, and a valve replacement, and has just taken up rollerblading again.  While I’m inspired enough to try walking without either my hiking poles or a walking stick, I’m not about to get on any damned roller skates, thank you very much.

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Thursday, August 1: At Sea. We invite you to browse our selections of cutting-edge activewear at our onboard shop.

Thursday, August 1: Nice evening walk to water the garden, but then noticed before going to bed that my left ankle was swollen again. Spent the night browsing my Catalogue of Really Ugly, Horrible, Awful Things that Might Happen. Finally took Tylenol and slept until almost 8:00 a.m. Called my twelve-step sponsor and feel better.

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Friday, August 2 & Saturday, August 3: London. Discover Greenwich’s maritime and royal history by foot… Shakespeare’s Globe Theater… West End musicals…Tower Bridge… the London Eye. Return home.

Friday, August 2: Mary Lee is off with one of the grandchildren, so I get up, meditate, go for a walk, fix and eat breakfast by myself—a first! Home health nurse says I’m doing well. Still some “crackling” in my lung and some swelling in my ankle, but I’m walking faster and standing straighter. Can keep the spirometer’s button in the smiley face area for over 5 seconds each time.

Saturday, August 3: the day we should have been flying home, ending our original cruise. For this cruise through heart surgery, I’ve still got at least another month. I don’t know what I’d have learned from those majestic mountains and castles and villages, but I have definitely learned at least two things on this trip I’m on now. First, I’m not in control. Three months ago, I had no idea I had anything wrong with my heart. Now, I don’t seem to have any command over how I’m doing each day, either physically or emotionally; all I can do is surrender my life to the God-of-my-not-Understanding.

Second, I live primarily through Grace, in this case, the compassionate professionalism of my doctors and nurses, the cards and visits and emails from friends, and the unwavering love and support of my family, especially Mary Lee.

Not to mention the Grace to have accepted my surgeon’s advice and not put all this off until next week.

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False Evidence Appearing Real

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“The crowd of people around us suddenly became menacing.”

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I was reminiscing with myself the other day about various pilgrimages I’ve been on and got to thinking about the only one during which I was afraid. It was in 1997, when Mary Lee and I were in Israel. We’d taken a sherut, a minivan-style taxi, from Jerusalem to visit the Church of the Nativity, the supposed site of Jesus’s birth, in Bethlehem. Because Bethlehem was under the administration of the Palestinian National Authority, when we reached the outskirts of the city, the Israeli sherut stopped at a bus stop to let people out for the Palestinian bus into town. On the way, however, we’d been talking with a Palestinian couple—teachers in Europe, I forget where. Their car was in the parking lot, so they gave us a ride up to the Church. Mary Lee and I did our sight-seeing, saw the cave where Jesus was supposed to be born. (Ever since then, I’ve wondered why all mangers at Christmas time look like tropical huts), went to the gift store where we bought an olive wood creche, and then walked out into the square to find the bus.

Only to realize that I had no idea what the bus looked like or where it was. My stomach suddenly knotted. For the first time since we’d been in Israel, I became aware that Mary Lee and I were traveling alone in a strange, war-torn country. The crowd of people around us suddenly became menacing. Then, I heard a voice off to the side: “Hey! You want bus? Over here!”

The voice came from inside a beat-up blue bus hiding behind the corner of a building. The speaker was an unshaven young man of at most twenty years of age. We walked over and tentatively started to board. Before we were even settled, the guy stepped on the gas, his momentum knocking us into our seats. That was when I saw four or five teenage boys in tee-shirts and jeans behind us, their mouths curled with James Dean sneers around their cigarettes.

A cold hand grabbed my heart and squeezed. I envisioned our being kidnapped, forced in front of TV cameras to denounce the United States, and then beheaded or shot. Only when the bus squealed to a stop and an elderly woman got on did I begin to breathe more normally.

It was a good lesson in fear—what I’ve since learned is often an acronym for “False Evidence Appearing Real.” The divided country, the beat-up bus, the scruffy teenagers and their cigarettes (remember when cigarettes were sophisticated?), the speed with which we left the square were all in hindsight false evidence that these were terrorists intent on holding two middle-aged high school English teachers as political prisoners.

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Throughout my life, most of my fears have been mental: fear of abandonment, fear of not being seen (while I’ve struggled with alcohol over the years, my real drug of choice has been the approval of others), fear of ridicule, or just plain anxiety about… well, I don’t usually know what about. To use a twelve-step word, I tend to “awfulize” when anything new happens, creating worse-case scenarios in my head.

What’s helped over the years is recalling my Bethlehem experience, and that, as then, my fears are almost always false evidence appearing real. And the less I know about something, the more my mind will supply the false evidence. Even when I have had something concrete to worry about—my deteriorating first marriage, my daughter’s cancer—being afraid has never helped me change the outcome.

Life has taught me a few ways to deal with my fears and anxieties. One way is to stay in the moment. The Vietnamese monk Thich Nhat Hahn has a number of breathing exercises that I’ve found helpful over the years, one of which is breathing in and out, saying “Breathing in, I calm my body, breathing out, I smile. Dwelling in the present moment, I know this is a wonderful moment.”

Another way is journaling. I once took a day-long workshop in journaling, and one of our exercises was to draw a picture of one of our fears. I drew a huge finger pointing at me and laughing in ridicule. Next, we were directed to give our fear a name (mine was Freddy). Then, we wrote a conversation with our fear. (“Me: Don’t you shake your finger at me, Asshole. I’m not as afraid of you as I used to be. Freddy: That’s what you think, Buddy Boy …”)

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Freddy Fear

A third way, and probably the most effective when I can do it, is to turn my fear over to the God of My Not Understanding. “Courage,” as my twelve-step program says, “is fear that has said its prayers.”

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That I’ve been thinking about our trip to Bethlehem and my various fears is no surprise: I’m starting another pilgrimage. No, not the cruise Mary Lee and I are planning to make next week, but open-heart surgery.

This journey began about a month ago, when during a routine follow-up with my primary care doctor, I mentioned to him that I was having more and more shortness of breath, and that my daily walks—for years a source of joy and relaxation—now felt like climbing Mount Washington with a fifty-pound backpack. “I think we’d better schedule you for a stress test,” he said.

A few days later, after getting wired up and pounding a treadmill for six or seven minutes, I listened to a diagnosis of an “abnormality” in my heart rate. That led to first one and then two arterial catherizations, which revealed that my left main coronary artery is just over the line between “moderately” and “severely” narrowed. Since I have no shortness of breath doing normal activity, doctors have given me the okay (as well as a bottle of nitroglycerine tablets) for the cruise. Then I will have by-pass surgery when I return.

So I’m practicing my Thich Nhat Hahn, journaling (not to mention writing this blog), and spending a lot of time with my Higher Power, trying to hand over my various fears and anxieties about dying, of not seeing my grandchildren grow, of becoming a burden to Mary Lee, yadda, ad nauseum. I’m also trying to let go of my tendency to blame myself—which I realize has always been my go-to way to avoid anxiety by swapping it for guilt—feeling that my narrowed artery is because I didn’t exercise more, eat better, lose the ten pounds I’ve been thinking I should lose for the last fifteen years.

I don’t know what’s going to happen, which, as I’ve written about now for almost four years, is one of the characteristics of pilgrimage, along with hearing the call and responding, crossing the threshold where the old has fallen away and the new hasn’t yet emerged, being uncomfortable, beginning again, embracing the unknown, and coming home (wherever home may be.)

The trick, I’m finding, as with all pilgrimages, is to prepare for the future without living in it, and ignore all the false evidence appearing real.

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The Road goes ever on and on
Down from the door where it began. 
Now far ahead the Road has gone,
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Ebb and Flow

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Minas Basin, Nova Scotia

 

 

 

 

 

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Expose a child to a particular environment at his susceptible time and he will perceive in the shapes of that environment until he dies. —Wallace Stegner

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I think one of the reasons I like to travel is because I’ve lived almost my entire life in one small part of the country: the Maine coast. Like the seamen who used to live here, I want to see the world but then return home—a kind of going out and coming back mirrored in the rising and falling of the tides I’ve grown up with. The ebb and flow of the ocean has embedded itself in my imagination, shaping the way I understand my life.

For example, when I was growing up in Yarmouth, Maine, I used to play—despite my mother’s warnings and wallops with her hairbrush—in what was called “The Black Ash,” acres of black soot and gravel created some twenty years earlier when the town’s paper company, at the turn of the twentieth century one of the largest in the world, burned to the ground, leaving a cavernous wasteland of toxic ash. In college, when I had dreams of becoming the next Ernest Hemingway, I used the Black Ash in my creative writing class as a symbol of how a once prosperous town had died. Today, however, the land is grass-covered and home to a post office, a number of businesses, doctors’ offices, and a large assisted-living facility. Ebb and flow.

What I don’t think I’ve ever realized before now is that for most of my life, I’ve tended to think of ebb as something negative or low, and flow as positive or high: low as in mud flats, empty, weak, enervated, poor; high as in more spiritual, more beautiful, full, at your peak, prosperous.

The thing is, I have great memories of the Black Ash. There were ash-gray canyons peopled with—depending on what movie I’d last seen at Carlton’s movie theater—Indians, space aliens, or Nazis. I’m sure the reason my mother didn’t want me playing there was because the landscape was punctuated with dangerously deep brick wells, but as far as I was concerned, the wells led down to a land of dinosaurs and curvaceous women in leopard-skin bikinis. In the 1950s, when I played in the Black Ash, the town was small and the people friendly. It was a great place to grow up.

When I moved back to Yarmouth as an adult, I took my two step-sons to the Black Ash a year or so before the town began to clean it up and got a chance to relive my childhood.

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But, to be honest, one of the reasons I’ve since moved away again is because I never felt I belonged in the designer coffee shops, chiropractors’ and psychiatrists’ offices located where the Black Ash used to be.

Is high tide better than low tide? If you’re a swimmer, perhaps, but not for if you dig clams for a living. And while I may feel that the current political situation shows this country to be at its lowest ebb, I have conservative friends who feel we are at our highest point in history.

Ebb and flow, then, are relative, not only to each person, but, I find, to all of life. Albert Einstein’s Theory of Relativity and Max Planck’s work in quantum physics has shown how everything is dependent upon everything else. You can’t have an “in” without an “out,” you can’t have an “up” without a “down,” and you can’t have an “ebb” without a “flow.” Everything is relative; everything is connected.  Something the Buddhists have been telling us all along.

My daughter’s death was certainly the lowest point in my life, a time when I felt all my hope, contentment, and well-being had ebbed away. And yet, it is only in the years following her death, that I have felt joy, felt overflowing with happiness. Before Laurie’s death, my emotional life was limited by my New England upbringing compounded by being raised in an alcoholic family. Laurie’s death broke me open. Only by going to the depths was I able to realize the heights, feel the joy of music, grandchildren, and, most important, the physical, emotional, and spiritual love I share with my wife.

A couple of years ago, Mary Lee and I drove through Nova Scotia and spent several hours walking Minas Basin, the site of the world’s highest tidal ranges, where twice a day, the Bay of Fundy ebbs and flows through the Minas Channel between Cape Split and Cape Sharp, completely emptying and filling the Basin. At high tide, the ocean seems vast, while at low tide we walked through a landscape of red sandstone and volcanic rocks, cliffs, and sea stacks. Now you can see ocean vistas like Minas Basin at high tide up and down the Northeastern coast, and you can see sandstone and volcanic rock all over this planet. It’s the relationship between the two landscapes —the tidal range of what can be as much as 50 feet—that makes them both unique and one and the same. Much the same way Laurie’s death has emptied me with grief and let joy into my life.

As I travel further along this pilgrimage through life, I’m more aware of how its ebbs and flows run like water-colors, painting a single picture, one I can only see by looking back, but which gives me hope for what lies ahead.

And I find myself more and more intrigued by the question: Who is the artist painting this picture?

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Watercolor by Laurie Wile

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For more on Nova Scotia, you might be interested in my blogs: https://geriatricpilgrim.com/2017/10/16/here-comes-the-judge/ https://geriatricpilgrim.com/2017/10/02/rooting-around/)

 

 

 

Hats for the Journey

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Mary Lee and I are getting ready for our next trip. This one is a cruise, something neither of us has ever been on before, and one of our concerns is what clothes we should pack. The information we’ve received is helpful—dress casually, plenty of active wear for sun and rain, no jeans at dinner… Still, I’m concerned, especially about what hats to bring.

Hats have always been a part of my life. Many early pictures show me wearing a hat. I started with one of my Grandfather Lufkin’s fedoras, and then graduated to having one of my own. (How many five-year-olds can you think of who had his own fedora?)

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I also remember getting a cowboy hat for a birthday present, and of course, my little league baseball caps. In early adolescence, I played trombone in a Dixieland band called the “Ivy Leaguers.” We wore chinos and plaid caps, both with belts in the back. During my senior year in high school, our basketball coach required us to wear not only a coat and tie to games, but also a hat, because he told us wearing a hat reduced our risk of catching cold.

We had no problem with this (my hat, I think, was an Alpine job with a small feather in the band), for in 1961, all men still wore hats. Men who worked blue-collar jobs wore caps while men who had white-collar jobs sported fedoras. (Usually. One of the things that made Art Carney so funny on the Jackie Gleason show was that his character, Ed Norton, wore a fedora and worked in the sewers.)  Even though he wasn’t employed by the railroad, Grampy Lufkin often wore a blue and white striped railroad cap; a lot of men did. My father wore a khaki colored cap to work in the summer and a green and black checked cap in the winter; then, after he retired and spent a lot of time fishing, he wore a long-billed cap called a “swordfish.” No matter the occupation, however, every man had at least one fedora for Sundays. (Women, too, always wore hats when they dressed up.)

As legend has it, all that changed when John F. Kennedy was elected President. As I understand it, he had a large head and didn’t like hats, so that when he was inaugurated, he eschewed the traditional top hat and went hatless, thus creating a precedent that lasted for several generations.

I still wore hats, however, usually either to keep my head warm in the winter or ward away bugs in the summer. And without really noticing, I added a hat here and a hat there, until today 30 hats hang in the garage by the back door, not to mention another three or four stocking caps tossed in with my gloves. Some hats I take with me on pilgrimage: summer and winter weight Irish caps when I’m going to the British Isles; wide-brimmed sun hats for Israel, Africa, and Arizona.

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For over twenty years, I’ve worn a Tilley Hat, complete with horse-hair hat band, for hiking. When I play the banjo, I wear a fiddler’s cap (sort of like a Greek fisherman’s cap) or an old fedora.

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I have a fedora for church, and all kinds of baseball caps—Boston Red Sox, Portland Sea Dogs (a Red Sox affiliate for those of you not from New England), a blaze orange one for hiking the woods in the fall, and one with a blackfly over the words, “Maine State Bird.” In preparation for summer, I just bought a new Panama.

How did that happen? Why am I so drawn to hats? I read somewhere recently that almost all of us collect one thing or another. One theory is that this desire is instinctual, going back to our early ancestors who stocked food, clothing, and so forth in times of plenty for the times of famine. Okay, but I don’t see a lot of pictures of cavemen in hats.

I know that some of my hats help me preserve the past; for example, my fedoras remind me of the men of my youth that I wanted to emulate. I have baseball caps reminding me of San Antonio, Texas, and of my MFA program. I bought a winter stocking cap in the Old City of Jerusalem when the temperature was at least 90°. The hat I wear most, year-round and both around town and on pilgrimages, is a long-billed swordfish cap that I bought to replace my father’s which I wore after he died until the strap in back broke. It keeps both sun and rain out of my eyes, can be worn under a hood, and, of course, reminds me of Dad.

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One day just before my daughter’s death, before going into a conference room with some of her doctors, I put an Irish tweed cap in a closet by the door, and someone took it—I’m assuming by mistake—and left me a cap like it, only with ear flaps for cold weather. I still often wear it in her memory.

After Laurie died, during probably the worst time in my life, Mary Lee and I went to Colorado for April vacation. There, I bought a cowboy hat and wore it the whole time. The hat made me feel like Tommy Lee Jones, plain-spoken, tough, in complete control. I’ve still got a couple of cowboy hats, one straw and one wool. For some reason, they always make me feel better when I’m upset or anxious about something.

I also find it calming to go out once or twice a year and rearrange hats.

As I think about it, I started adding hats when I began teaching high school English in Down East Maine. At a time when teachers were dressing more and more informally, I wore ties with matching pocket handkerchiefs, double breasted blazers, and bell-bottomed pants, all topped with either that Irish cap I wore before Laurie died, or a wool bucket hat that matched my topcoat. They validated me as “Mr. Wile,” just as, I suppose, my other hats validate me as a hiker, a writer, a musician, or a pilgrim.

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Do I really need this validation, especially now, at my age? Do my hats represent all my “false selves”—cowboy, adventurer, academic, musician, and so on—revealing my inability to get in touch with my real self? Are they a kind of role playing, or a form of security blanket, a way for me to hide from the world?

Maybe. But I’d like to think that they represent—even proclaim—that I am multi-faceted. That, as Whitman wrote, “I am large, I contain multitudes.” Perhaps my hats are a way to ask, “Who does God want me to be today?” That they are a cause to celebrate, not denigrate.

So, what do you think, maybe the swordfish cap and the new Panama for the cruise?

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The Stay at Home Pilgrimage

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Recently, a former (a word I prefer these days to “old”) high school classmate sent me a podcast of Krista Tippett’s Becoming Wise, in which Tippett talks with Paulo Coelho, author of such popular books as The Alchemist, and The Pilgrimage. In talking about his own “pilgrimage of who am I?” Coelho said that since pilgrimage involves leaving our homes and discovering something new—meeting new people, paying attention to the elements, being open to life—we are on a pilgrimage from the moment we are born to the moment we die.

Of course, I loved hearing this since for over three years the idea of this blog has been to talk about the similarities between the pilgrimages and retreats I’ve been on and the everyday trips I’ve made to basketball gymnasiums, a Ronald McDonald House, 12-step meetings, weekly old-time music jam sessions, high school reunions, and family burial grounds. But Coelho has me wondering if I’m paying enough attention to the pilgrimages I make even when I don’t leave the house.

I have one of these thingies on my smartphone that tells me how many steps I make in a day, and I’m proud as hell when I get over 20,000 steps. But lately, I’ve been focusing on just 12 steps. My daily readings, my phone conversations with my sponsor, are journeys of discovery. Not all of these explorations are pleasant. Just as on a hike I can twist an ankle tripping over an unseen rock, or scrap a knee, or, in the case of a recent hike in Arizona, come back punctured with cactus stickers, I can stumble over a repressed childhood memory, scrape my defenses, puncture my ego. Yet all of these wounds have helped me learn to let go of the perfectionism that has tarred and feathered me with shame and resentment for over seventy years.

As Coelho and other writers on pilgrimage have said, it’s the letting go that makes any journey—interior or exterior—a pilgrimage. And it’s those survival tools I learned growing up at home, such as perfectionism, judgmentalism, codependence, solipsism, and the like, that I’m learning to leave behind.

On my various travels, I’ve met new people, some of whom I’ve written about in these blogs. At home, through my 12-step programs and the writing of this blog, I have also met new folks. And I’ve come to see people I’ve known before in new ways. Yes, I knew Brynna, who sent me the Krista Tippett’s podcast, in high school, but not well. Only in the last few years have I come to see what a delightful person she is. While in Arizona, I took an afternoon away from my retreat to have coffee with Richard, with whom I’d grown up, but had had almost no contact with from grade school to about a year ago. Both he and his wife Alexandra are two of the friendliest and most intriguing people I’ve come to know.

Reading new writers has always been part of any of my pilgrimages or retreats, whether in Arizona, Scotland, or here in Brunswick, Maine. Lately I’ve been reading Martin Laird, whose three books on silence have become the foundation for what I euphemistically call my spiritual life; Beldan Lane, who writes of nature in a way that resonates with and through me; the mystery writer  Jo Nesbo; and David Mitchell, author of Atlas Shrugged, The Bone Clocks, and The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet. I’m also reading new works by authors I think of as old friends—Patricia Hampl, Pam Houston—and rereading works like The Aeneid and the novels of Wallace Stegner with new eyes.

The grandchildren are now almost seven, four, and three, and are new people every visit. And so, if I pay attention, is my wife.

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Mary Lee, my companion on all my travels, is on her own personal pilgrimage, and at dinner we sit and talk about our new discoveries that day. My 12-step work on codependency has shown me that If she and I are to keep growing, we need to give each other the space to do so. Especially since our retirements (at least from paying jobs), it’s important for me to see my wife through new eyes, both mine and hers.

It was after my eighteen-year-old daughter’s death from cancer that I began to find solace in traveling. Then, as I began to see parallels between my journeys to other lands and my journey through the landscape of grief and grace, these trips became pilgrimages. Laurie has been dead now for over thirty years, and each year, she becomes less of a memory and more of a daily presence in my life, no matter where I am. There’s part of me that feels guilty for saying this, but I struggle to recall what my daughter looked like. Seeing her picture on the table in the hall with all the rest of my family usually shocks me a bit. The other day, when I was talking with a student from forty-five years ago, now a dentist working on a novel in which an eighteen-year-old girl is dying, I realized as I was telling Chris about how the girl’s father might feel, that I can talk of Laurie’s suffering and death with detachment. Usually, in November and December, the anniversary of the final two months of my daughter’s life, I’m both physically and emotionally fragile. Last year, however, these months were, for the most part, joyous occasions for friends and family visits. Laurie’s suffering and death, her compassion and joy, our walks together, our disagreements, our shared laughter and tears, have all become one breath, inhaling and exhaling, keeping me alive, while making me less fearful of my own dying. Laurie is not in some far-off land, waiting for me to join her at some future time, but here, now, as I’m coming to believe are all our loved ones.

So, does looking at my life as a series of daily pilgrimages make any difference in the larger scope of things? Well, it’s probably not going to solve the immigration crisis or eliminate global warming, but it is helpful for my serenity to look back and see my life as full of mystery and paradox: wounds that heal; forty, sixty, seventy-year relationships that have become new; togetherness built on separation; physical absence and spiritual presence. And it’s this looking back that makes me less afraid of the future, both of my own and of the world’s.

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Mud Season

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“Poor March. It is the homeliest month of the year. Most of it is mud, every imaginable form of mud, and what isn’t mud in March is ugly late-season snow falling onto ground in filthy mud heaps that look like dirty laundry.” —Vivian Swift, When Wanderers Cease to Roam: a Traveler’s Journal of Staying.

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Mud is the most poetic thing in the world. —R. H. Blyth.

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I’ve just returned from what is becoming an annual retreat at the Desert House of Prayer, outside of Tucson, Arizona. But if you want to read about the desert, you should read a couple of my earlier blogs— https://geriatricpilgrim.com/2016/03/07/dont-ask-why-just-ask-for-help/ and https://geriatricpilgrim.com/2018/03/19/return-to-the-desert/.  I’m going to write about mud.

Which was the first thing I thought of when I woke up the morning after returning from my retreat and looked at a brown, wet, New England landscape choked with trees that looked like sticks, the houses dirty and sad, muddy cars sloshing through puddles, splashing up brown water. Later, I walked to our development’s compost pile through a morass of muck that coated my shoes and tracked into the house, the gunky footprints welcoming me to what we call mud season. Which here in Maine can last longer than springtime.

Let’s face it, mud can be depressing on any number of levels. Our language is full of negative responses to mud: we are “bogged down” in work, “swamped” by debts, “mired” in triviality. We don’t want to “muddy the waters,” and we accuse politicians of “slinging mud.” The Psalmist writes, “… the Lord drew me…out of the miry bog, and set my feet upon a rock.”

Speaking of bogs, one of our current President’s campaign pledges was to “drain the swamp in Washington.” Whether or not he’s succeeding or sinking us deeper into “the miry bog” in debatable, but generally speaking, our civilization has tried to move out of swamps, draining them of mud, replacing them with concrete. (Not always successfully. I once owned a house built on old swamp land, and for the twelve years I lived there, the swamp kept inviting itself back, flooding the cellar, leaving a rug of mud on the cement floor.)

Mud is a place of ambiguity. It’s indefinite, uncertain, and we are a culture that values a distinct, separate self, even if it means putting up walls to keep things and people from seeping through. My Puritan ancestors hated swamps, I suspect, because, in a spiritual sense, there’s nothing to hold on to. Everything is fluid, murky. Like the swamp my house was built on, nature is always about to leak through the tight barriers of morality and hard work.

And yet, while on retreat, I spent time going back into my early childhood, doing some twelve-step work, and realizing that my earliest memory is of playing in the mud. Most children, in fact, are drawn to mud; making mud pies apparently gratifies our first creative instincts. And it’s actually good for us. According to a neuroscience journal, dirt and mud are natural anti-depressants, because the bacteria found in them trigger the release of serotonin in our brains.

Mud rejuvenates. When Mary Lee and I were in Israel, we went to the Dead Sea and covered ourselves in mud—something about the slight buoyancy of mud together with traces of pumice scouring off our dead skin cells. I just thought we looked cool.

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And also sort of sexy. Which makes sense because life on this planet may have been conceived in the mud. Adam, we read in one version of creation, was made from mud. In many Native American creation stories, our continent began with mud. Several recent scientific theories—and one not so recent by Charles Darwin— suggest that the early building blocks of life may have been created in a mud puddle of volcanic ash and warm water some 3.8 billion years ago.

Every year mud season brings new life: daffodils poke from the ground and buds swell on the trees. So, we need the mud for what grows from it. At the same time, when you realize that mud is made up of decayed vegetation and rocks that have been pounded for millions and millions of years into silt, every mud season is also a kind of death. More of that messy ambiguity again.

My trouble is not so much where mud season is taking me, but what I have to go through to get there. I’ve certainly gone through my own personal mud seasons: depression, divorce, the death of a child, illness, addictions, crises of faith. I expect you have, too. Times when nothing is clear, when you have no firm foundation, when you seem to sink deeper and deeper into the mire. And yet, out of these times, you find new life, find yourself growing in ways you never expected.

When I returned to school to get an MFA, one of my mentors was Barbara Hurd, who wrote a wonderful book called Stirring the Mud. In mud, she writes, “the boundary between physical and spiritual melts and we see that one is always infused with the other.” She points out that all of us are more than ninety percent water—“liquid mosaics of mutable and transient urges, and we give ourselves headaches when we pretend otherwise, when we stiffen ourselves into permanent and separate identities.”

Maybe I’m supposed to get dirty. Maybe I’m not supposed to be clear about the fluidity of self. Last week on retreat, during our daily meditation sessions, I saw how elusive, insubstantial, and fleeting my thoughts are. Looking back over my life, I can count at least ten different “identities” I’ve assumed over my almost seventy-six years. I used to call these identities “false selves.” Now, I’m not so sure but that these selves simply leaked back and forth through my life, and what made them “false” was that I clung to them instead of letting them flow.

I have not only returned from Arizona to mud season, I have also returned to the Christian season of Lent, which, as I think about it, is its own kind of mud season, a time of ambiguity, of waiting for new life, while watching where I put my feet. As Philip Simmons puts it in his book, Learning to Fall, “The path to resurrection lies through the mud.”

I’m hoping that during this Lent and this mud season, I will be granted the grace to let the mud teach me to be ambiguous, paradoxical, non-dualistic, non-hierarchical, and receptive—that I may learn to play in the primordial soup of possibility.

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Climbing (Part of) Mount Kilimanjaro

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The first morning of my recent trip to Tanzania, I went out on our cabin porch and the first thing I saw was Mount Kilimanjaro, its snow-capped peak rising over a blue jacaranda tree into cotton clouds and a blue sky. It was breathtaking … for a minute or two.

Then my demons woke up. Ever since Mary Lee and I had reviewed our itinerary back in the spring, I’d had apprehensions about the second day of our trip: a hike up part of Kilimanjaro. It wasn’t much a climb, if you were a climber or if you were fifty-five instead of seventy-five, but the idea of trekking eight kilometers (about five miles) up the mountain and then the same distance back at an altitude that began at 1879 meters (or 6165 feet, higher than any mountain on the East Coast of the United States) filled me with not a little trepidation.

Compounded by the fact that I felt I had to do it or I would somehow be a failure, less of a man. All my life I have measured my worth by what I’ve done. Probably because I grew up in an alcoholic family, shame has been the driving force in my life, and the approval of others my drug of choice, far more addictive than booze or caffeine.

That first day, while Mary Lee and I rested from our 18-hour trip by touring a coffee plantation, I kept glancing up at Kilimanjaro—or where I knew the mountain was; most of the day, it was hidden by clouds—wondering, Can I do this? What will people think of me if I can’t make it?

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The next day, Rashid, our guide came to our cabin to pick us up. Short and wiry in his mesh REI baseball cap, sweatshirt, and jeans, he looked about eighteen (although I found out later, he was in his late thirties). During the hour drive to Kilimanjaro National Park, as he talked to our driver in Swahili, I wondered if they were talking about us—okay, talking about me—my pot belly, my hunched back. Climbing a long flight of stairs from the parking lot to the Kinapa Headquarters, my lungs burned and my heart raced. There’s no way in hell I can do this!

While we were taking pictures at the Marangu Gate Entrance, I told Rashid, “Look, my wife and I do a lot of walking, but not much climbing. I’m not sure we can make it to the Mandara Huts and back.”

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Rashid grinned. “No problem,” he said. “We’re here to enjoy the mountain. Poli Poli. Slowly, slowly.”

When I start walking, my tendency is to begin at brisk pace and then slow down when I get out of breath, speed up, slow down…. Rashid set out on about the same pace I use when I’m going from the TV set to the bathroom. I took it personally. What kind of whimp does he think I am? I wanted to speed up. Maybe we could do the whole hike after all.

But Rashid seemed to be enjoying himself. He walked ahead of me, hands behind his back, looking around, a smile on his face. I found I had the breath to ask him questions about his life as a guide. He said he started as a porter. As a guide for the last fifteen years, he’d climbed all eight routes to the summit. When I said it must be dull walking with two old people like us, he replied, “No, I always find something beautiful to see. Kilimanjaro is my office.”

On the plane ride from the States, I’d read that Kilimanjaro has five ecological zones. We were hiking through the second zone of dense rain forest. Huge tree ferns surrounded us. Rashid pointed out sycamore trees, junipers, and some incredible moss called “old man’s beard” hanging from their branches. He showed us red gladiolas, a lily with yellow and red spikes, a yellow hibiscus, and “impatiens Kilimanjaro,” which only grows on this mountain and whose blossoms look like pink seahorses with yellow tails.

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Jambo.” A young woman in a red and brown striped skirt and a bright tourquoise bandanna around her head passed us as if we were standing still. She carried a large knife.

Jambo.” Rashid returned the traditional Swahili greeting. It seemed to me they winked at one another. As she disappeared around a bend ahead, he told us that she was a member of the Chagga tribe, who use the forest for firewood, farming, beekeeping, and logging. I was envious of her youth, her grace, her speed.

Still, when we came to a steep rise, I was grateful for Rashid’s slow pace. Zig-zagging up rocks and roots, I noticed my lungs seemed to have adjusted to the altitude. Rashid began pointing out birds: boubous, hoopoes, hornbills, and my favorite, a turaco, sporting what looked like a purple mohawk haircut on a green head.

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Just before noon, we reached a rest area, which Rashid said was about half-way to the Mandara Huts. Now, I knew for certain there was no way we were going to do all of our scheduled hike. My nemesis Shame pointed his finger at me and laughed.

Six German hikers— beginning, they told us, their ascent to the summit—were finishing their lunch. Rashid and their guide talked in Swahili, while Mary Lee and I ate our sandwiches. As this guide was leaving, he smiled at Mary Lee, “Good-bye, Bibi.” He turned to me, “Good-bye, Babu.”

Rashid smiled. “That means “Grandmother and Grandfather.”

My spirits sank. Shame snickered. What, you think he thought you were Robert Redford in Out of Africa?

I don’t know if my disappointment showed or not, but Rashid added, “In Africa, that is a term of respect.”

I thought, Well, Grandfather is what you are, aren’t you? And aren’t you happy to be one? Then I realized that not only was I a grandfather to four kids under seven, but I could be the grandfather of any of the six German climbers. Our guide Rashid was ten years younger than my daughter would have been if she’d lived.

I had a brief vision of eighteen-year-old Laurie lying on her hospital bed, her labored breathing: “Ash…es, ash…es.” I saw my classmate Scott, one of the best athletes I’ve ever played with, struggling to get out of bed a month or so before he died.

Hell, you’re lucky to be anywhere on this mountain.

Shame was silent.

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We continued upward. The terrain grew steeper, the vegetation less dense. Suddenly Rashid stopped. “Over to your left. Blue monkey. You don’t see them on the ground much.”

Through the trees, I saw a bluish-black monkey ambling up some rocks. Male, probably 15 pounds, maybe two feet long, with another two feet of tail that looked like a piece of rope.

Would I have seen him, I wondered, if I’d been clamoring up the mountain intent only on getting to the Huts?

An hour or so later, we hit the steepest rise of our hike. Rashid said that at the top we’d see a waterfall. Mary Lee and I looked at each other, and I said what I’d never thought I’d hear myself say: “No, I think we’ve gone as far as we need to. We’re ready to go back.”

I don’t think we’d taken more than a few steps down the path before our guide pointed up. “Colobus monkeys!” Through an overhead canopy of leaves, I saw two large monkeys, black with white trim and magnificent white tails, peacefully munching away.

If we’d kept on climbing, I’d have missed them.

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The descent was faster and easier, not only because my lungs weren’t working as hard, but because it felt as if a weight had been removed from my shoulders. As we passed through the forest of variegated flowers, feathery ferns, and lichen-bearded trees, I wondered if what hadn’t lifted was the weight of responsibility to those self-images I keep creating. How often, I thought, have I been a slave to how I want people to see me: the varsity athlete, the Kerouac hipster, the wise, knowing teacher, the grieving parent raging against God, the great writer… always reacting; seldom receiving.

As we made our way down the last slope just before the entrance to Kilimanjaro, Rashid cautioned us, “Poli poli.”

“Yes, slowly slowly. Thank you,” I said, grateful not only for his concern, but also for the gift of the day.

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