Notes From Squirrel Island

Circa 1940s. Wikipedia (It hasn’t changed much)

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“A journey, in fact, appeals to Imagination, to Memory, to Hope—the three sister Graces of our mortal being.” Sir Richard Francis Burton (1821-1890)

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I copied this quote from explorer Richard Burton into a pocket notebook, where it has remained for the last couple of years, along with any number of passwords, titles of books and movies people have recommended, email addresses, ideas for writing projects, directions for setting up new AV equipment, grocery lists, descriptions of sunsets, coffee shops, beaches, and airport terminals, Al Anon acronyms, and other quotes that have struck my fancy.

I can’t recall when I didn’t carry a pocket notebook and a pen. They are as essential a part of my wardrobe as underwear.

And before I add this notebook to the others going back to 1965, I’ve flipped back through it, trying—often unsuccessfully—to remember where I was when I wrote an entry, why it was important to write it down, and whether it’s important to me now.

What intrigues me is how the Burton quote helps me flesh out another entry a few pages later: a page and a half of description of a trip I made with my wife Mary Lee last July to Squirrel Island, Maine.

For those of you who don’t know, Squirrel Island is a small island in the Gulf of Maine—about 2 square miles, I think—established as a summer community in 1871. Apparently, it got its name not because of its squirrel population but rather because the shape of the island looks like a squirrel holding an acorn. Practically all its inhabitants are summer residents—I think there might be a caretaker or two who live there year-round—and most of the families have been coming to the island for a hundred or more years. The only motorized vehicles allowed are for maintenance workers. A boardwalk circles the island.

Besides beaches, tennis courts, a library, and a restaurant, there is also a chapel.

And for the last several years, Mary Lee has been asked to preach there one Sunday a summer. I go along as eye-candy.

To get to Squirrel Island, you take a ferry from Boothbay Harbor. It’s a nice half-hour trip (another reason I tag along), and this year, I remember the weather was warm and sunny. A nice woman from the chapel Board of Directors met us and took Mary Lee into the church to go over the various technicalities of the service, leaving me to walk the boardwalk until I found an Adirondack chair overlooking the water, where I sat, and, as is my wont, began to scribble in my notebook.

My first line noted the rotten egg smell of low tide, and how a smokey southwest breeze swayed some yellow lilies in front of me. I went on to describe a small harbor of motorboats pointing out to sea and the weathered cottages with gambrel roofs and wide verandas on the shore gazing out at South Port Island.

Reading those lines now reminds me that the first time I ever heard of Squirrel Island was when my Grandmother Cleaves worked summers into early October as a cook and caretaker for an old woman living on the island. I remember Nanny’s letters to me from there when I was in college, and how I chuckled at her rambling stories of people I’d never heard of and the latest gossip from the movie magazines she devoured like popcorn. (“Liberace’s Wig-maker Tells All.”)  Today I know my grandmother was an unhappy woman, the ex-wife of an alcoholic, who for years took her anger out on my brother, my sister, and me, but at the time, I denied the fact that she scared the hell out of me by imagining her as a comic figure. These days, I’m trying to accept that both her acid tongue and her love for her grandchildren were equally true.

My notebook tells me I noticed a seagull “dive-bombing a lobster boat,” and some sparrows chirping in the large mounds of beach roses under a blue sky “scarred with thin white stripes.” I mentioned the distant hum of lobster boats, the cry of an unhappy baby, and the “coo-coo-coo” of a dove. Which made me remember my friend and mentor Al, a retired Episcopal priest, who facilitated our church’s men’s group for many years. I wrote in my notebook of his love of pigeons, and worried about his severe asthma, compounded by heart problems, which had just sent him to the hospital and then to a nursing facility.

Al died about a month later, and I’ve just been asked to read at his funeral. I’m honored. Al was one of the kindest, gentlest men I ever knew, humble, with a great sense of humor. He was also a courageous advocate for social justice and civil rights. He attended Martin Luther King Jr’s March on Washington in 1963 and organized transportation from Newark, N.J. to the 1965 March from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama. He continued to work for equal rights for all, and in his last years wrote passionate letters to the editor urging us to become better stewards of our planet. He approached his death with dignity and curiosity, looking forward, he said, to the next stage in the journey. I hope to have the same attitude when it’s time for me to pass on.

I made more notes of white moths dancing over some sumac bushes and of a middle-aged woman in a black and white sleeve-less jersey walking her terrier along the boardwalk,  but when I heard the church bells from the chapel ringing out the old hymn, “Let Jesus Christ be Praised,” I thought again of Al, who, a year or so earlier, had written a children’s book, Soren’s Story: A Parable About Bullies and the Peaceable Kingdom.

As the full title makes clear, the book is not only about pigeons, but also about the dangers to children of bullying. I suspect Al, who had come from a dysfunctional family, had suffered bullying himself.

Soren’s Story ends in an old church, not unlike the one on Squirrel Island. Here’s the conclusion:

“Nor did anyone quite know how to explain it, but the great bell in the meeting house tower, long silent, began to move and then to swing and ring out ….

‘Hope on,’ it said. Gong!

            ‘Do justice and love kindness.’ Gong!

                        ‘Take courage and confront evil,’ it rang out. Gong!

                                    ‘And remember mercy.’ Gong!

                                                ‘For there is no future without forgiveness.’ Gong!”

 Reading notes from my Squirrel Island journey, I realize the truth of Sir Richard’s words. Memory takes me back to that day, imagination leads me to my grandmother and Al, and I’m hopeful. As I’ve written in these blogs before, hope for me is not based on some expectation of the future, but on what I’ve learned from the past. Keeping these various notebooks and going back to them, I can see where I’ve struggled, where I’ve been blind, where I’ve been down-right wrong, and yet how I’ve not only survived but thrived afterward. I can also sometimes see where I’ve had inklings of God of my not Understanding, often through mentors like Al, who give me hope that even in this time of threats to our country, both from home and abroad, in this time of one climate disaster after another, love, kindness, courage, and forgiveness can ring out.

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Weeding

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It’s 4:30 in the afternoon and the temperature is still over 80°. A breeze blows from the southwest, making the air feel even hotter. Black flies swarm around my floppy hat as I crawl through the dirt, weeding pumpkin plants. Every few minutes I need to lean back and stretch my aching back. My hand is cramping.

And I’m as happy as a clam at high tide.

From the swamp on the other side of the road by our community garden, sparrows and cardinals chirp and whistle. I listen and drop back to my hands and knees to pull up small bunches of crab grass, pigweed, and plantain. I’ll let the milkweed grow for the butterflies which should be here soon.

I’m not entirely sure I know why I enjoy weeding. I never used to. When I was in high school, working summers in a market garden, weeding was the worst job there was. I’d start out bending over, then drop to my hands and knees, then to my elbows, then to one side, and the next thing I knew I’d be asleep.

But now, far less agile and able than I was at seventeen, there’s something satisfying about seeing a weedless garden. Unlike grandparenting or writing or even playing my banjo—all things I enjoy—I can see immediate results. I really don’t have a lot of control over how many pumpkins I’ll get this fall. That’s up to how much rain and sun we get and whether animals chew things up. But I can control the weeds.

At least if I get them early. Once weeds take root, they take over, sending roots deep into the soil, so that when I pull the weed, the root remains, sending up new weeds, sometimes the next day, and I don’t have the strength anymore to wrestle them out of the ground. Then, my self-satisfaction turns to self-deprecation: Why didn’t you get those damn things earlier? You’re a failure as a gardener, just as you’re a failure at everything else.

So not only is it important to weed the landscape in which I move, I need to weed the landscape in which I think—those weedy thoughts that clutter the garden of my mind.

 While I have a lot of trouble with many parts of the Bible, I’m continually drawn to the parables of Jesus, and in two them, Jesus talks about weeds. In the Parable of the Sower, a farmer is sowing seeds. Some seeds fall on rocky soil, some on weedy soil, and some on good soil. The first seeds don’t grow on rock, the second seeds come up but are choked by thorns, while in the good soil, the seeds produce abundantly.

As Jesus explains, the sower represents someone sowing the word of God. Some who listen are like those who hear the word joyously but can’t take it in and grow from it because they “have no root,” as one of the gospels puts it.  Then there are those who hear the word, grow a bit, but then “the cares of the world and the deceitfulness of riches and the desires for other things enter in and choke the word, and it proves unfruitful.”

That me. How many times have I choked on “cares” and “desires for other things”! The Old Farmer’s Almanac lists 13 common weeds in Maine. I can easily come up with at least that many cares and desires that have choked my ability to become like those in the parable who “hear the word and accept it and bear fruit, thirtyfold and sixtyfold and a hundredfold”: from my sense that nothing I do is ever good enough to my judgmentalism of myself and others to my need for control and an even greater need for the approval of others to my passive-aggressive sarcasm to my perfectionism to…

I think that’s why, for me, any kind of spiritual growth has involved subtraction rather than addition. Whether it’s through meditation, Feldenkrais exercises, or working the 12-steps, I’m weeding rather than planting—trying to remove what 12-steppers call “defects of character.”

But, as 12-steppers know, we can’t do this ourselves. Step Six says, “Were entirely ready to have God remove all these defects in character,” and Step Seven says, “Humbly asked God to remove our shortcomings.”

Which gets me to the other parable Jesus tells, the parable of the wheat and the weeds.

In this story, a man plants wheat seed in his field. That night, while everyone is asleep, the man’s enemy plants weeds among the wheat (which, I guess did happen in those days). Later, when the wheat grows, so do the weeds. Then the man’s servants come to him and say, “Do you want us to go and pull up the weeds?” He answers, “No, because when you pull up the weeds, you might also pull up the wheat. Let the weeds and the wheat grow together until the harvest time. At the harvest time I will tell the workers first, to gather the weeds and tie them together to be burned, and then to gather the wheat and bring it to my barn.”

I like the parable. What I don’t like is the interpretation of it attributed to Jesus. The man who planted the good seed in the field is supposed to be Jesus, and the field is the world. The good seed are the people in God’s kingdom, and the weeds are the people who belong to the “Evil One.” The enemy who planted the bad seed is the devil. The harvest is the end of time, and the workers who gather are God’s angels. At the end of time, Jesus will send his angels, and they will find the people who cause sin and all those who do evil, take those people out of his kingdom and throw them into the place of fire. Then the “good” people will be taken into the kingdom of God.

This interpretation of separating “good” people from “bad” and condemning those bad folk to eternal hell fire not only seems contrary to Jesus’s other teaching about loving your enemy and his compassion for tax collectors, prostitutes, and other sinners, but also—it seems to me—cultivates self-righteous and judgmental behavior about who’s “good” and who’s “bad,” which, as I’ve already said, are some of the weeds in my interior garden.

So, for me, what the parable promises is that at some point—possibly at my death, possibly in some afterlife— those weeds that I struggle with, that I’ve let get out of control for the past 80 years, will be removed, and that what remains will be something pure and shining like wheat in the sun. (Or pumpkins in the field.)

In the meantime, I’m trying to pull out the newer weeds, asking myself the following questions:

—What seeds have I planted for the future?

—What recent weeds—complacency, smugness, procrastination, and the like—have taken hold and need to be pulled out for these seeds to grow and produce?

Now weeds I’m happy to send to “the place of fire.”

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My Father, Shoveling

Dad, around 1958, with his first new car

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Every Fourth of July, my father shoveled shit. At least that’s what I remember, although our septic tank probably didn’t back up more than three times altogether. Still, in my memory, my father’s shoveling shit was as much a part of Fourth of July in the 1950’s as the intermittent popping of firecrackers during the day or the town fireworks display in the evening.

Nine or ten or eleven years old, I would watch my father methodically digging down three or four feet through the rocks and clay that lay under the grass in our back yard: stepping down on the shovel, lifting the dirt, pausing, turning the head of the shovel to drop the dirt where he wanted, then reversing the arc downward.

He talked to himself, his voice raspy from Camel cigarettes: “Goddamn septic tank (step down) … What’s the friggin’ use (lift up) … Work all week for chicken shit (turn) … Shovel more shit on the holidays (drop) … Some goddamn life” (swing down) …. He cursed this country’s education system for not preparing him for a trade, cursed World War II for taking five years from his life, cursed Will Franklin who’d stayed home during the war and made money in real estate and who was probably lying in the shade right about then, drinking beer.

Somewhere in Europe, probably 1944

On Fourth of July, when he shoveled shit and the sun rose to the top of the maple trees in the front yard, my father removed his sleeveless under-shirt. When the sun got directly over his head, he ran water on the undershirt and tied it around his head. When he got to the septic tank, he pulled a pint of cheap whisky from the pocket of his overalls, and took several swigs before using a crow bar to pry open the rusty cover of the tank. I stood in the shade of our apple tree, away from the smell, hearing my father’s distant, dry voice: “Jesus H. Christ from Baltimore! How much toilet paper do you kids use at one time, anyway?” Feeling then as if it was my fault that my father had to shovel shit on his only summer holiday, just as it was my fault for needing new shoes, my fault that we ate fried bologna while Will Franklin’s family ate steak.

Yet what strikes me now is that in some weird way my father was, if not happy, then at least content. Perhaps shoveling shit confirmed his conviction that God and Circumstance had conspired to make his life as shitty as possible. Beaten by his father until his mother took him and moved out, put in what 1920’s Massachusetts called a “Home for Wayward Boys” for four years while she worked in Grants and searched for another husband, taken to a small Maine town when she did remarry where he struggled in school and lived the rest of his life working sometimes two jobs to support his wife and three children, he was convinced he lived in a world of injustice—where life handed out unearned advantages to some and unwarranted disadvantages to others … like himself.

Or perhaps, in spite of considering himself a failure, he knew his family loved him, and if he had to clean up their shit, well, that was better than living in the Home for Wayward Boys or in an Army barracks.

Or maybe his spirits were simply jacked up by half a pint of rot gut whisky.

For whatever reason, I remember my father singing as he and I carried the shit, the smell dancing in waves over our buckets, down back of our yard to a ditch that ran to the river that carried shit from septic tanks all over town to the ocean:

“God bless America,

Land that I love

Da da da da, dum de dum dum,

Da da da, dum de dum, da da da.”

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1986 or so. One of the last pictures of Dad. With Mom.

Being Curious

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I’m guessing most of us started out life as being curious.

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         When I was going over my last blog before clicking “Post,” I lingered on the beginning of the sentence: “Looking at life as a pilgrimage has taught me to be curious…” If I’d read that sentence even a few years ago, I would have thought, So? What’s so special about curiosity? Now, however, I’d rate curiosity right up there with oatmeal, ice cream, and baked beans as keys to a long and healthy life.

            I’m guessing most of us started life being curious. I certainly did. I’m told I ran away from home for the first time when I was three. (The family story goes that that I wound up in a police station, and when my mother called the police who told her where I was, she rushed in to find me looking up from a magazine and saying, “Look, Mommy, a turkey!”) But after a series of spankings for running away, or for playing by the polluted river below our house, or for swimming in said river, or for playing in a large expanse of rubble known as “the Black Ash,” I began to see curiosity as a kind of sin, a crime against respectability and decency.

            When I hit my quasi-rebellious adolescence, my mother’s curiosity meant her snooping into my business. Questions like “Where did you go? What did you do? Who were you with?” used to set my teeth on edge as I replied: “Out… Nothing… Nobody special.”

            Although I remained curious—about sex, alcohol, the world outside of Yarmouth, Maine—the sense that I was committing some sin remained with me, not only against propriety but against my gender. Although I didn’t think about it at the time, I realize now I’d begun to equate curiosity with nosey women, like my mother. Years of domineering male coaches, two years working on a forest fire prevention crew and two years of ROTC had taught me that men, real men, weren’t supposed to be curious; they were supposed to follow orders and “be prepared,” as John Wayne and the Boy Scouts put it.

            After that, I don’t think I gave curiosity much thought until about five years ago. Certainly, looking back over those intervening fifty years, I can see myself being curious—I got three college degrees, divorced, remarried, traveled—but I never thought one way or another about why. I just did those things. Then, one day after I’d started working the 12 Steps, I was telling my sponsor how every year for the previous thirty years, as the anniversary of my daughter Laurie’s death approached, my body chemistry changed.

“Well,” said my sponsor, “what would happen if this year you stopped having any preconceived ideas about your reactions and decided to be curious about them?”

            Good student that I am, I tried it, and while there were some sorrowful moments, especially on the actual anniversary of Laurie’s death, I also had some joyful times—free from guilt—trimming the Christmas tree and watching the grandchildren get ready for Santa Claus.

            My sponsor gave me other ways to practice curiosity: going for a walk without a destination. Trying new foods. Asking more questions. Listening more and talking less. (Perhaps my greatest challenge!)

            Since then, I’ve tried to be consciously curious. Which this week has meant being curious about the word “curiosity.” And I’m fascinated by how the various uses of the word mirror my own experience.

            The world originally came from the Latin, cura, meaning “care, concern, trouble.” “Incurious,” on the other hand, used to mean “negligent, heedless.” And what’s interesting to me, especially when I recall my deep-seated feeling that somehow being curious was sinful, is to read that in the early Christian church, acedia, sometimes defined as spiritual sloth, sometimes as boredom (which I’d call lack of curiosity) was a major sin. Writing recently on acedia, theologian Frederick Buechner says, “To be bored to death is a form of suicide… to be bored is to turn down whatever life happens to be offering you at the moment… You feel nothing is worth getting excited about because you are not worth getting excited about.”

But then, as Maria Tatar writes in her book, The Heroine with 1,001 Faces, western culture came to criticize curiosity. The Powers That Be­—i.e., the Church—saw curiosity as a form of snooping and prying, going where one doesn’t belong, disobedience. And of course, the good Fathers of the Church almost always connected curiosity with women. Witness Eve in the Bible, who, eating the forbidden fruit of the Tree of Knowledge, commits “Original Sin,” or Pandora, who opened a jar (which somehow over the years became a box) filled with “countless plagues,” and loosed evil upon the world.

Walter Crane, illustration for Nathaniel Hawthorne’s A Wonder-Book for Girls and Boys, 1893

Jump ahead to the 19th century, and curious women—Anna Karenina, Emma Bovary, et al.— become subjects of a new literary genre, the novel of adultery. Besides dying for their infidelity, these literary heroines turned “curiosity” into a euphemism for “erotic” and “pornographic,” and, according to Etymology Online, the word is still often used to mean “eager to know, inquisitive …in a bad sense.” Think of the image of the old lady behind the curtain with her binoculars spying on her neighbors etched into our culture. (And of course, there was my mother.)

Today, however, we live in a culture that seems once more to value curiosity. Einstein supposedly said he wasn’t unusually smart, just “passionately curious.” “Be curious,” intones Tortein Hagen, President/CEO of Viking Cruises. Comedian and raconteur Stephen Fry, writes, “Incuriosity is the oddest and most foolish failing there is.”

  I wonder if the difference between curiosity as annoying, even harmful, and curiosity as leading to extraordinary benefits to humankind doesn’t go back to the word’s early connection with caring and concern: whether one is curious to know solely for the sake of knowing—for puffing up our egos, often at the expense of others—or knowing for the benefit of others.

And my twelve-step sponsor tells me to be curious because curiosity helps me care for myself. It has. Curiosity keeps me open to joy, less withdrawn, walled up, isolated. I am less stuck in the past, which means less critical of the present. I have fewer resentments. Fewer anxieties.

Recently, one of my geriatric friends sent a video of a song, “Don’t Let the Old Man In,” by country singer Toby Keith. Keith wrote the song as a tribute to Clint Eastwood, who, on his eighty-eighth birthday, was directing a new movie, and who when asked how he kept going, replied, “I get up every day and don’t let the old man in.”

Clint Eastwood in The Mule. 2018

Now, I have a lot of respect for Eastwood (well, I’m not crazy about his politics), and the video is good, but instead of trying to avoid the Old Man, I think I’d rather invite the Old Man in for hot chocolate and ask him questions about how he’s coping with his age—the benefits, the drawbacks. We might compare a few notes.

            To pick up on what I wrote in the last blog, seeing myself as pilgrim prods me to be as curious about the various landscapes through which I walk every day as I am when I’m walking through Scotland or Tanzania.

            And that includes the landscape of aging.

           

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Leaving “the Little Lightless Caverns”

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I waste too much time in the little lightless caverns of my own mind.”

—Christian Wiman

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            My first wife used to say to me, “Rick, you think too much.”

            It pains me to say it, but she was right. I can turn anything into a problem to be solved: what I want for breakfast, what clothes I want to wear for the day (I’m retired, for godssake, who cares what I wear?), where I want to go for a morning walk, whether I want to go first to the grocery store and then to the hardware store (well, the grocery store is closer and if I get delayed there, I can always wait until tomorrow to do the hardware store) or go first to the hardware story and then to the grocery store (but because the grocery store is closer, I need to get the refrigerated items home before they spoil).

            So that by lunchtime I’m tired out (and then do I want a nap or should I read?).

            Minor stuff, I know, but as I look back at my life, I see that overthinking has caused me and those around me serious problems. Part of the reason I almost flunked out of college was because I waffled about not only what career path to follow, but also whether I wanted to join a fraternity, ask Ginny out or Pat, hang out with jocks or artsy types, take a year off.

            In later years, I agonized over if I should get married, go to graduate school, take a college or a high school teaching job, join a church (what denomination?), join the Rotary, or tell my first wife I was unhappy in our marriage.

            After my daughter died, my mind became a prison. When all my efforts to understand why a previously healthy and happy 18-year-old should suddenly die from a rare cancer—radon in our water supply, McDonald’s cutting down rain forests, accident, fate, God wanting “another angel in heaven,”(all reasons people gave me)—failed, I decided I had to be the one to blame, either because Laurie’s mother and I divorced or because we didn’t divorce soon enough. For several years, the only relief I could find was through alcohol and anger, both of which threatened not only my life but the lives of those close to me.

            As I’ve written before in these blogs, I credit meditation with first helping me see the destructive nature of thoughts and to unload much of my anger and shame—give it to God, as one of my first mentors suggested.

But meditation can become its own “little lightless cavern,” as poet Christian Wiman calls his mind: a place to escape an argument or a fear or a resentment by retreating into old patterns of thinking. (What will I have for breakfast, what shall I wear today…)

            So, what else has helped?

            Seeing myself as the Geriatric Pilgrim has become more than a literary conceit. Looking at life as a pilgrimage has taught me to be curious, to look for surprises, to live without planning every single detail, to put myself in uncomfortable situations (even if it’s just going for a walk and having no destination or closing my eyes before grabbing a shirt to wear for the day). I’ve learned to embrace the unknown—including a Higher Power totally outside my understanding, and to look for evidence of that Higher Power—what I would call grace—all around me.

            A pilgrimage always involves some type of movement, whether it’s walking Saint Cuthbert’s Way or walking downtown. Despite having grown up playing sports, I’ve never paid more attention than I do these days to movement. Yes, regular exercise has long been known to improve and maintain key aspects of cognitive function such as attention, learning, and memory, but neuroscientist Daniel Wolpert posits that our brains evolved, not to think or feel, but to produce adaptable and complex movements. He points out that it’s a lot easier to create a computer that thinks than to create a computer which can move anything like we do. (If you’d like to learn more see https://www.ted.com/talks/daniel_wolpert_the_real_reason_for_brains.)

For the last year and a half, I’ve been practicing the Feldenkrais Method of exercise therapy, learning to reorganize connections between the brain and body, which has improved both the way I move and the way I think, helping me pay less attention to my mind and more attention to my heart and my gut—my instincts.

            The slogans of Al Anon, the 12-step program for families and friends of alcoholics, have become my roadmap on this pilgrimage out of the caverns of my mind. When I first started attending meetings and saw slogans set out on the floor, I thought, “God, how simplistic!” Another example of how thinking can mislead me. Try following a few of these slogans and see how simple they are. To give just one example, let’s look at “One Day at a Time.”

            What’s so hard about that? Well, for someone like me—and, I find, many people who’ve grown up in alcoholic families, who continually try to anticipate and resolve every problem they think they may encounter, attempting to make decisions on information they don’t have—it’s damn hard. Instead of responding to what’s in front of me, both the challenges and the gifts that come my way, I’m obsessing about all the possibilities (most of them bad) that might befall me, even though, looking back over the almost 80 years of my life, I can say that not once did any of this preparation spare me a single moment of pain. In fact, it just lengthened my suffering.

            Still, at my age, it’s hard for me not to think about—which in my case means understand, anticipant, awfulize—my death. It was helpful this week to hear a podcast in which Ariel Burger, protégé and friend of Holocaust survivor and Nobel Peace Prize recipient Elie Wiesel, talk about Wiesel’s teaching that there are no answers to life’s big questions, only responses.

            So, I’m trying to respond to these questions by breaking them into small daily tasks. Instead of trying to answer the question, how can my grandchildren survive in a world that seems to be hurtling toward destruction, I focus what I can do with them today. If I’m worried about the Supreme Court or the swelling in my jaw, what can I do about either one today? Call my senator? Pop into the walk-in clinic (which I did this weekend. It’s “an obstructed parotid gland”)? Then it’s time to go for a walk, pick up a banjo, write a poem or a blog. Get out of my head.

            In other words, as one of the AA’s oldest slogans puts it, “Move a muscle, change a thought.”

            And leave a little lightless cavern.

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A Walk in the Rain

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I haven’t taken a walk in the rain for years, but after sitting in front of a computer screen for what seems like a week, I need some air. Putting on my rain gear—jackets, pants, and boots—I feel old, stiff, bent over. As dreary as Maine in mud season on a rainy day.

I used to walk in the rain a lot, especially during what I refer to as “my other life.” I did it to escape a failing marriage, which I remember as one rainy day after another anyway. I walked in the woods and along the rocky ocean shores in Down east Maine, feeling the rain and fog against my face, smelling the sea, and hearing the loons’ mournful cry out of the fog, “ooh, ooh, oooooh.” Wet rocks glistened, as if they were crying, and more than once I slipped or fell trying to walk on wet seaweed. All of which mirrored how I felt about my life.

I remember my tears as I walked in the rain, usually head down, hunched over, my hands deep in my pockets, back to the Ronald McDonald House from the hospital where my daughter lay dying of cancer, the cold wind off the river blowing pellets of fear into my heart.

But there’s no ocean shore here, no river, just a housing development and a lot of puddles. As I walk out the door and into the street, reflections of the trees overhead in these puddles double the number of branches so that I feel surrounded by trees, lost in trees above and below me. It’s a strange sensation, but not at all an unpleasant one, a disappearing into the landscape, and I find myself wondering if, when I die, death isn’t going to be something like this. If it is, I think, it won’t be so bad.

Earlier in the day, it rained hard, but now the rain is light, tap-dancing on the hood of my raincoat. I remember Gene Kelly, tap-dancing and singing “Singing in the Rain,” the first movie I think I ever saw in a drive-In theater. This would have been in the early to mid 1950s, and I’m pretty sure the local drive-in had just opened. My parents bundled us three kids into our pjs and the back seat of our 1948 Ford to see what I later studied in a film class as the quintessential movie musical. What I recall most clearly is, as Kelly splashed through the puddles crooning “dancin’ and singin’ in the rain,” (check the scene out on YouTube; I guarantee you’ll feel better), my father muttering, “damn fool’ll probably be in bed for week with pneumonia.”

I start thinking of other rain-songs. When I first began paying attention to music on the radio, there was Johnny Raye, a pre-Elvis teenage heartthrob, singing “Just Walkin’ in the Rain.” A line from a Sinatra ballad comes drizzling down from the clouds: “Here’s that rainy day they told me about…” And when I was in high school, I remember the Everly Brothers singing, “I do my Cryin’ in the Rain.”

The next thing I know, I’m on my knees in wet dirt, cutting beet greens in the rain as it beats a rock & roll rhythm on my yellow rubber slicker. (And were they hot!) God, this memory must be from sixty years ago. For four summers, I worked in a market garden with some high school buddies for a guy who was one of the first in the area to package vegetables for local supermarkets. I still have a faint scar on my left index finger from when my wet knife slipped and added some bloody protein to the beet greens. Still, if the rain kept up and we were lucky, we’d get to work inside, washing greens and flirting with the girls who packaged them, while we listened to the Everly Brothers on a small radio on a shelf in the corner.

Not for the first time, I realize that one of those workdays in the garden would kill me now—that it’s all I can do to kneel and get up, let alone do any work on my knees.

Still, after heart surgery, I’m happy to be able to walk at all.

I decide to cut across behind the houses to the power line, where the remaining patches of ice glisten in last year’s wet leaves.

I head into the woods, still thinking about rain songs (I can’t remember what day of the week it is, but I can remember songs): “Rain Drops,” by Dee Clark. “A Hard Rain’s A-gonna Fall,” by Bob Dylan. “Rainy Days and Mondays,” by the Carpenters. “Have you ever seen the Rain,” by Credence Clearwater Revival.

There’s also Dylan’s “Rainy Day Women,” but that’s about smoking pot. Which makes me wonder if I’m sorry never to have smoked the stuff. Of course, I can do it legally now. There’s a cannabis dispensary just up the street. But the last thing an addictive personality like mine needs is something else to get hooked on. I’ll stick to chocolate. Come to think of it, a cup of hot chocolate would be good when I get home.

It’s raining harder now, more of a tattoo than a tap-dance. I tighten my hood and think back twenty-some years to when Mary Lee and I were in Edinburgh, Scotland in a driving rain, attending the Royal Edinburgh Military Tattoo, the annual performance of military bands on the Esplanade of Edinburgh Castle. Even under a downpour, the place was packed, all of us sitting in our rain gear, peering down at the soldiers who looked like performing undersea creatures in kilts. Despite the rain—or maybe being drenched seemed to make us all feel a little closer to each other, laugh a little more—it was a great evening, one of those joyful times that makes me grateful for the gift of life, despite—or again, maybe because of—the various hardships and disappointments I’ve experienced.

I follow a slippery path up a rise and through the trees to a pond, dimpled today by the rain. The ice is gone, and at the further end, I hear the first wood-frogs of the spring, their breeding calls sounding like ducks quacking. “Winter is over,” they (sort of) sing, “time to make a little love!”

Mmmm. I suddenly feel younger. I start planning this weekend’s date night with my wife.

Somewhere, off to my right, a woodpecker adds more rhythm to the day. Which may mean the grubs and other insects are out or that it, too, is looking for a mate. Either way, another sign of spring.

The rain is letting up, the sky is clearing, and I find myself disappointed. Yes, rain is traditionally associated with crying and sadness, but I feel watered, rejuvenated, if you will, like a withered plant who’s just been tended to.

I head for home, more—do I dare say it?—spring in my step.

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Navigating the Death of an Ex

Several years after her death, I visited the grave sites of my ex and our daughter

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I have been with my parents during their final hours. I have witnessed my daughter take her last tortured breaths. I am watching old friends die almost monthly. Still, I’ve never felt such a mix of emotions as I did when I stumbled across my ex-wife’s obituary in the newspaper.

Happily remarried for thirty years, I’d had no contact with her since our daughter’s death four years after the divorce. Since that time, I seldom thought of my first marriage except as a twenty-year mistake, most of the mistakes being hers.

But now I felt weak. I found myself thinking, if only we’d stayed in our first house instead of moving back to her hometown, we might have made the marriage work. If only we’d seen a marriage counselor. If only I’d gone for a PhD and become a college professor instead of remaining a high school English teacher…

Then I thought, if my ex and I had stayed married, I wouldn’t be with Mary Lee, who showed me what marriage can be, who was the reason I didn’t drink myself to death when Laurie died, who makes me believe God really does exist. There’s no way I could be happier than I am now.

For weeks, I felt like a racquetball, caroming off walls of shock, relief, regret, and gratitude.

But there was no one to talk with about how I felt. No action I could take. When my mother and father died, my brother, sister, and I shared memories. We purchased another stone for the family cemetery to decorate on Memorial Day. After Laurie died, I found groups like Compassionate Friends with whom I could talk. I made contributions for cancer research. I counseled other grieving parents.

But I couldn’t put a memorial stone for my ex-wife in our family lot. And while Mary Lee was sympathetic—she’d spent an afternoon listening to a friend describe her conflicted feelings after her ex died—I couldn’t talk to her about the “if onlys” and the “what ifs” of my first marriage, the experiences only my ex and I shared, especially with our daughter. I was now the only one alive to remember Laurie’s first steps as she stumbled between her mother and me, or my sitting with her mother during our daughter’s first piano recital, or the three of us decorating the Christmas tree.

First steps.

Add loneliness to the emotional cesspool in which I swam.

Then, during a meeting of the 12-step program to which I belong, when my emotions about my ex-wife’s death swarmed like black flies, I shared that when I’d gone away to college, I anticipated getting away from my dysfunctional family, but that my mother’s shame and my father’s angry resentments had come with me. My grades were lousy. I sat alone in the back of the college den, bitterly envious of the laughing fraternity brothers and sorority sisters I saw at the front tables yet afraid to make conversation with anyone around me for fear they would reject me for being the loser I thought I was.

Driving home after the meeting, I realized how being a child of alcoholism had drawn me into marrying the only child from a closely knit family with strong Yankee values who seemed confident and strong, who, I thought, would offer me the stability I craved.

 I started to realize how being that child had also contributed to the breakup of my marriage. How, to keep feeling safe and secure, I never expressed any of my own needs. How I used sarcasm or said, “I’m sorry” without meaning it to avoid arguments. How I worked long hours at school to gain respect from my students and to avoid problems at home. How I built up resentments like building blocks until they finally came crashing down around us.

I found myself feeling not only more compassion for my ex, but also for the marriage itself. We did remain married for twenty years. At least ten of them were pretty good. Most important, we created an intelligent, beautiful, compassionate daughter, who, although she died at eighteen, continues to inspire me every day. There’s no way in the world I could wish Laurie had never happened.

With the help of my 12-step sponsor, I began to see the best way—maybe the only way—for me to grieve my ex’s death was to honor the good times in our marriage and learn from the mistakes I made and not repeat them.

I wrote a letter to my sarcasm, thanking him for helping me get through some ugly times, but saying his services were no longer needed and it was time for him to retire to a condo in Florida.

I worked to become more honest, more open in my relationships with others. Probably because of our struggles to understand each other after Laurie’s death, Mary Lee and I had usually been able to speak openly with each other, but I made even more of an effort. With other people, I tried to listen more, wait (a 12-step acronym, by the way, for “Why Am I Talking?) before reacting, and focus on “I” statements—“I feel…” “I see it this way…”—rather than “you” statements—“You’re wrong…” “You don’t understand…” “You need to …”—when I did respond. (Which has also helped me talk with Mary Lee, come to think of it.)

Since the advent of COVID—and now with the events in Ukraine—I’m learning another lesson from my first marriage. I was drawn to my ex because she made me feel strong and secure. As she and I discovered, however, the world is not a safe place: I brought my dysfunctional family behavior into our marriage; both she and I underwent major surgeries; our daughter died of a rare cancer. Mary Lee and I are in our seventies and although we’re vaccinated and still mask, we’re at risk. I’ve had more surgery; she’s prone to pneumonia. I’m watching more and more friends die from other causes—cancer of the jaw, Parkinson’s, heart disease—and I find myself wanting to hunker down, stay home, or perhaps sell our house and move into a continuing care facility as some other friends are doing because they feel they’ll have more security.

But looking at the failure of my first marriage helps me see real strength comes not from trying to avoid risk, but from living with curiosity, honesty, and love, both for my family and for myself.

Which is why at the beginning of last summer, Mary Lee and I found a window between the waves of pandemic to take a European cruise. I’ve called a contractor to do some remodeling of our house. We both volunteered to facilitate adult programs.

On the Rhine

And in the years to come? I can’t know, of course. I expect that my family’s history of heart disease and cancer will hunt me down. Grieving my ex-wife’s death, however, has helped me see that I can’t let the desire for stability dictate the way I live my life.

Been there. Done that. Didn’t work.

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Winter Memories

1949 view of Yarmouth, Maine (from a Yarmouth Historical Society Calendar)

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I’m fascinated by memory. Not so much as to what it is—something to do with reactivating connections between different parts of the brain that were active at some previous time in my life—as to how it works, especially as to why as I get older, I can remember scenes from my childhood more clearly than I can recall what I had for breakfast yesterday.

I know my memories are triggered by those sights, sounds, smells, and tastes through which I perceive the world. For example, last week we had an old fashioned “blizzard,” (as opposed to the rain/sleet/snow mess we usually get nowadays) and as I sat at my desk listening to wind roaring like the ocean, and looked out at the snow slanting through the fir trees behind our house and swirling in great clouds off my neighbor’s roof across the street, I was transported back to similar sounds and sights as I lay in my bed with the covers pulled up to my ears listening to George Hunter, “The Big Man from Freeport,” (“Well, good mornin’! This is an awful nice kind of a mornin’, ain’t it?”) give the no-school announcements on the radio. We had far fewer snow days back then because most kids lived within walking distance of school and what buses we did have never had to drive that far, so to have a snow day was a special occasion.

Not that I’d stay in bed any longer. A snow day just meant that much more time to play outside with my friends, building snow forts, having snowball fights, skating, and sledding. Last year’s Yarmouth Historical Calendar (that’s Yarmouth, Maine, for those of you reading this in other countries) has a picture taken in 1949 of what’s now called Marina Road, which shows the hill to the right where I remember sledding about that time. Today, trees dot that hill, making sledding impossible.

Marina Road, 1949 (YHS Calendar)
Marina Road, 2022

I have a vivid memory of walking home with some friends after sledding on that hill— the lights of town gilding the buildings in the late winter afternoon darkness—the vision of which somehow reminding me that last week, I read obituaries for two of my school classmates.

Of course, I don’t go running outside these days to play in the snow, but at some point during last week’s snowstorm, I did walk to the mailbox. What was unusual about that storm is that the temperature stayed around 20° instead of getting up into the 30°s as winter storms around here all seem to do in the 21st century, so that the crunch of snow and the cold wind that lifted the hood of my coat off my head and the tiny pellets of snow pricking my face reminded me of the chores I used to do , even on the worst of days: burning the trash in an oil drum behind our house, trying to strike a match with my numb fingers; and taking in the laundry from the clothesline with the clothes frozen solid on the line—trying to get those damned clothespins open and fold frozen pants into the clothes basket.

On my trip back from the mailbox I saw the crew that plows our drives and shovels our walkways arriving.

I seldom, if ever, see anyone plowing a driveway without thinking of my father shoveling our driveway—the slow, methodical way he would make squares in the snow with the edge of his coal shovel before digging in, as if he were cutting squares of cake. By the time I was old enough to help him, Dad had not only his own driveway to shovel, but also the wide walkway to the First Parish Church where, with three children to feed and clothe, he’d taken on a second job as sexton.

One Sunday after a snowstorm, he and I were shoveling out before the church service. I must have been about twelve and I’m sure I wasn’t happy about having to spend Sunday morning shoveling snow and then turning around and having to go to church. We reached the end of the walkway when we struck a ridge of ice under the snow, so that I hit my shovel and lost all the snow before I could lift it. In frustration, I drove the blade of the shovel again and again against the ice.

“Just drop your handle,” Dad said. In my memory, he’s still taller than I am, dressed in a topcoat and fedora.

I looked at him. “What?”

“Drop the handle of your shovel.”

“That’s stupid.”

“Look, just drop the handle!”

So, instead of lowering the handle to change the angle of the shovel’s blade the way he meant, I let go of the handle and watched it fall on the ground.

“You goddam fool,” my father said, in that cigarette-cured voice I can still hear thirty-seven years after his death.

I guess those who study memory and how it works don’t agree on this, but one article I read recently says that our brains don’t store memories, our brains are memories, are continually remaking themselves based on what we’ve experienced. And at the same time, the very act of remembering is also remaking our memories.

Take this last scene with my father, for example. A few years ago, when I was going to my first Adult Children of Alcoholics meetings and recalled that Sunday morning, I felt my father’s negativity and bitter sarcasm, re-experienced my shame for being “a goddamned fool,” shame that has been the driving force in my life. Dad was, I thought, probably hungover. Today, however, aware of his rootless, lonely childhood, and that we didn’t have enough money in those days for him to drink the way he did later in his life, feeling the love in the way he gripped my shoulder the day before he died and realizing I am now thirteen years older than he was that day, I see my father smiling as he looks at the snow shovel I’ve dropped on the church walk, hear “you goddamn fool,” as a term of endearment.

Is one of these memories more accurate than the other? Who knows? What interests me is what the way I’ve reinterpreted the story says about who I’ve become. Most of my memories lately tend toward the nostalgic, even idyllic. Especially toward those people, places, and things that have disappeared from my life. People like my parents and grandparents, places like sledding hills and clotheslines, things like snowstorms, even winters themselves, or at least the winters of my youth. They’re all gone and without memory to keep them part of me, I’d be a little less whole each year.

With these memories, however, which I continually rework, remake, augment, I feel myself becoming more whole as I age. I’m grateful and this gratitude colors, I’m sure, how I experience my past.

Best of all, I don’t have to go out into zero degree weather and bring in frozen laundry to do it.

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Clothes Make the Man

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“Clothes make the man. Naked people have little or no influence on society.”

                                                                        —Merle Johnson, paraphrasing Mark Twain

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I’ve often said that if I were a prehistoric humanoid, I would have been the one to invent clothes, and very rarely does a Christmas go by without my asking for and receiving some new article of attire. This year was no different, and as I opened my present, I began thinking about how the clothes I’ve worn over the years have both reflected my self-image and in turn, shaped it.

My parents, of course, picked my first clothes. They had grown up poor, in what today we call “dysfunctional” families, spending their lives striving to become part of the great American Middle Class. The photograph above shows me at around five years old, probably before heading to church. I suppose I’m cute (although I think I look more like a midget), but I’m also evidence of my parents’ early expectations for me to become an adult with a white-collar job.

Other than vinyl records, the money I earned in high school went towards clothing. Still under the influence of my parents, I was after the “Ivy-league” look: chino pants with a belt in the back, pin-striped shirts, and white or “dirty” (light brown) bucks. These clothes said not only was I going to college, but—far more important to me at the time—that I belonged to the in-crowd of athletes and cheerleaders, unlike my cousins who wore jeans, tee-shirts, and motorcycle boots.

I attended a private high school, but one to which the town had paid tuition until my senior year when it voted to build a public high school. In preparation for the following year when our school would become a private college preparatory facility, the headmaster required all male students to wear coats and ties. In addition, our new basketball coach required that during the season our team wear fedoras or wool alpine hats (mine, as I recall, was dark green, with a plume). I disliked both rules, until I discovered that when our team walked into another school’s gymnasium, the other team found us intimidating. I can’t prove clothing was why we won the Western Maine Basketball Championship, but I doubt if it hurt.

During my senior year, under the influence of a history teacher (referred to by some in town as “that commie in the high school”), I started questioning what he called “middle-class values.” I was also trying to decide what I wanted to do with my life. I spent hours in the guidance office looking at college catalogues. I still remember vividly coming across a colored catalogue. On the cover stood a man with six-foot wide shoulders and a thirty-inch waist, dressed in a red-checked flannel shirt, jeans, and work boots standing by a horse and an Irish setter looking out over a vast expanse of timber-covered mountains. Only after seeing myself in his place did I read the title of the catalogue, “Careers in Forestry.”

What a great way to thumb my nose at conventionality and broaden my shoulders at the same time! By the time I entered the forestry program at the University of Maine the following September, I’d bought six flannel shirts, three pairs of jeans, and a pair of moccasins. (Unfortunately, I couldn’t find a store that sold new shoulders.)

That I was more concerned with the clothes than with the career seems clear when I recall that even after switching my major from forestry to English, I wore the jeans and flannel shirts (none of which ever saw an iron) along with a corduroy sport coat with patches on the elbows. I remained damned if I was going to look like the frat boys and BMOCs in their chinos, sweaters, and penny-loafers.

As I wrote in the last blog, when I became a Graduate Assistant in English at the University of Vermont, I discovered the wonderful new world of academia—an inner sphere of the mind, yes, but also a world in which college professors commanded respect. They appeared (and it took me years to find out appearances can be deceiving) confident, in control. And no one demanded more respect than Stanley Bogart, the Chair of the English Department. Stan was maybe 5’ 6” tall, but I always felt I was looking up at him, primarily I think because he looked as if he’d stepped from a 1968 Esquire magazine: pastel, double-breasted sport coats with matching ties and pocket handkerchiefs or Nehru jackets (if you don’t remember them, look ‘em up), bell bottom pants, and boots with high heels.

When I began teaching at an area high school in the 70s, even as teachers began dressing more and more informally, I emulated Stan, which I found gave me the respect I craved and the confidence I lacked. Putting on one of my flashy sports coats, tying my tie in a Double Windsor, and pinning it with one of my dozen tie-tacks was like putting on a suit of armor before riding out to challenge the dark powers of ignorance.

Until I began to suffocate and left in the middle of the school year to move back to my hometown and marry another woman. I threw away all my ties (except the one I still keep for funerals), grew a beard, and became a “writer.” Still, I cultivated my image—dressed in tan chinos, denim shirts, and a sport coat made from firehose with something like twelve pockets (I still wear it)—that gave me the confidence to apply to an MFA program in creative writing.

When Mary Lee and I began traveling, I started making trips to L.L. Bean for cargo pants, shirts with sunblock, a travel vest, microfiber underwear, and hiking boots. They’re comfortable and they have pockets for all the crap I seem to need to carry, but they also help me see myself as a pilgrim, an adventurer. I often wear them around town or for a walk in the woods, imagining I’m trekking through Scotland or hiking up Mount Kilimanjaro instead of strolling past a duck pond or walking up Arrowhead Drive.

I’ve often come home from my travels with a tee-shirt or sweatshirt: mementos from the journey. Like ancient warriors who used to return with scalps or shrunken heads of their enemies tied around their necks, I wear shirts from “Rick’s Café” in Key West, or “Pike Place Fish” in Seattle when I exercise; they make me proud of my accomplishments and give me more energy.

After buying a travel vest, I bought others: fleece, down, woolen, quilted… They not only have pockets, but they give me all kinds of arm room. Still, if I’m honest, I have to say that my favorites are a vest made in Nepal by Tibetan refugees because I think it helps me meditate, and a leather vest that I wear to go with my fedora when I play the banjo in public.

Looking back over what I’ve written, I can see how clothes have often become costumes, as if I’m in a play—a way to act out my fantasies in a relatively harmless fashion. How clothes can be body masks to hide behind. How clothes give me the illusion of having control over my life.

All of which makes me wonder about this Christmas and the sweatpants and hooded sweatshirt I got.

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Back Story

Stock photograph from the war I avoided.

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For the last fifty years, back pain has been a constant in my life—through two marriages, six jobs, the deaths of my parents, a daughter, and many friends, and into retirement. I’ve had a back fusion, which laid me up for four months (and which did nothing), plus visits to chiropractors, orthopedists, and acupuncturists costing me thousands of dollars. (Ditto.)

It was my acupuncturist, however, who suggested a book to me on the psychology of back pain. I didn’t buy the author’s theory that anger is the cause of all back pain, but I did start a pilgrimage of sorts through my internal landscape of other half-buried emotions to see what I might unearth.

Linear person that I am, I went back to when the pain began.

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In early March, 1968, I received my draft notice to report for an Army physical the following month. I shouldn’t have been surprised. The previous year, the number of U.S. Troops stationed in Vietnam had risen to 500,000 and there were calls for even more troops. The previous summer, I’d been notified that my military deferment for being married and for being a teacher had ended.

 Still, I’d ignored my new 1-A draft card. I was at the University of Vermont, entering my second semester as a Graduate Assistant in English, living comfortably with my wife in an apartment maybe a half-mile from the UVM campus. Academia had opened a wonderful new world for me, an inner world of the mind, removed from outside influences (like war), and I was focused on getting into a PhD program and becoming a college professor.

Then came the draft notice. I didn’t know what to do. One of my teaching-assistant colleagues told me he had contacts in Montreal, just 96 miles away, should I want to defect. I thought about it, but realized I was no conscientious objector; I just thought the war was stupid. My wife, whose cousin had just shipped out to Vietnam, seemed resigned to my going, saying she would move back to live with her parents in Maine and wait for me. (Thirty-five years after our divorce, I wonder if she wasn’t secretly looking forward to moving back in with her parents.)

Well, I decided if I must go, I’ll do it on my terms: I’ll enlist in the Navy, and since if I do that, I’ll have to serve for four years, I might as well become an officer. Which, as I write this, doesn’t make any sense, since, given my age of 25 and my academic background, I doubt I’d have seen combat and my Army tour of duty would have been for only two years. Still, two days after receiving my draft notice, I went down to the Navy recruiting office and signed up for officer’s candidate school. Which meant taking the Navy’s physical examination, which meant going to Springfield, Massachusetts the following weekend.

#

I recall that most of the men taking the physical were younger than I, of various ethnicities, dressed in everything from ripped jeans to hippie tie-dyes to one guy in a suit and tie. Hair length was even more varied. We were given lockers and told to strip to our underwear. I don’t remember all the various preliminary tests except for being so nervous I couldn’t pee in the cup. But I must have eventually because I wound up in a sort of gymnasium in my boxers. A deep voice told us drop our shorts and lean forward while some guys in uniforms went behind us shining flashlights up our asses.

Next, the voice told us to bend over and touch our toes. In the row in front of me was a guy in a back brace. He raised his hand, and the officer motioned for him to get out of line. He yelled, “Okay, anyone who can’t touch his toes because of a back problem, fall in over here!”

For the previous two weeks, I had thought and thought of ways to deal with my draft notice and had only become more and more confused. Now, without thinking, I followed the guy with the back brace to a room on the edge of the floor. Only after I was walking behind him did I realize what I was about to do and remember why I was going to do it.

When I was sixteen, I’d hurt my back in a high school physical education class. My mother drove me to the hospital for x-rays. A young man—probably some kind of intern or maybe a technician—came out to say that I’d broken my back. Of course, I was upset. The guy left, but then a few minutes later a doctor entered. No, he said, you haven’t broken your back, just bruised it. But, he continued, you have a deformity in your back that looks like it could be a break. He called it “Scheuermann’s Disease,” which I’ve since found is a curvature in the middle of the back caused by period of accelerated growth (Two years earlier, I’d grown four inches in a year). My Scheuermann’s was especially pronounced, with two vertebrae jutting noticeably from my spine.

Remember, said the doctor, if you’re ever in an automobile accident it will look like you have a broken back.

After the bruising went away, I forgot all about Scheuermann and his disease. I played basketball and fought forest fires and did every physical activity I wanted to with no pain whatsoever. Nine years later, however, walking behind this guy in a back brace, it all came back to me, so that when I sat down in that room by a desk with another military type, I was ready. Did I have a history of back problems? Yes, ever since I was sixteen. Did it keep me from physical activity? Yes (there was one exercise on the obstacle course that we had when I was in the forest service that I thought I couldn’t do because I couldn’t bend all the way back and touch my head to the ground behind me. Of course, few other guys could do that one, either.) Was I experiencing pain right now? Yes. (And as I sat there, my lower back really did hurt.)

Okay, son, come back here next week and we’ll take some x-rays.

A month after those x-rays, I received notice that my military status had changed from 1-A to 1-Y, which meant qualified only in time of national emergency.

I was home free.

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Except it’s been since that time that I’ve had back problems.

So, is the pain due to guilt? Recently, at a men’s group I belong to, several Vietnam vets were reminiscing, and I came home with my back throbbing. Somewhere, I’d heard the term “survivor guilt.” Going to my trusted Wikipedia, I read, “Survivor guilt … occurs when a person believes they have done something wrong by surviving a traumatic or tragic event when others did not, often feeling self-guilt.”

Could be. The Vietnam war killed two of my classmates in combat, caused a friend to suffer years of depression, another friend to become an alcoholic, and a third to die from cancer caused by the defoliant Agent Orange.

One of my friends during his tour in Vietnam. RIP, Scott.

In many cases of survivor guilt, the article goes on to say, survivors spend a lifetime compensating for the guilt of having survived by doing good things. That military physical certainly changed my goals and values. I returned to the University of Vermont less interested in academics and more interested in helping others. And frankly, I think I did more good in the next two years than I would have sitting at a desk typing Army reports or standing on the bridge of a destroyer. Instead of becoming a college professor, I taught high school students of all backgrounds, some of whom I’ve stayed in contact with for over forty years. I became an active member of a church community, working with youth groups and with the homeless.

All of which I’ve been telling my back.

Does it help? Has the pain gone away?

Yes and no. The pain is still there, but I find simply by my being aware of the guilt that might be causing it (emphasis on “might”; I could be psychobabbling),  my back pain has diminished to back discomfort, discomfort I accept as a consequence of a choice I once made, and a choice I would make again.

“Two roads diverged in a yellow wood …”

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