Driftwood in the Time of Coronavirus

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On what would be the last day of Maine’s state parks being open to the public, Mary Lee and I walked down over the rocks to the beach at Reid State Park at the south end of Georgetown Island. It was just past high tide. Waves rose into the air, crested in green and white waves before throwing a blanket of bubbling white foam over the beach and then receding, leaving a skim of white to disappear into the sand just as the next wave frothed in.

We walked to the waterline and headed up the beach, often having to veer away as the water rushed at us. Along this threshold between sea and land, I walked, as I often do these days, on the verge between past and present. Somewhere in an old family album upstairs, I have a picture of me here on this beach. I’m probably seven or eight years old running from a wave that towers over me. In a more recent album, I have a picture of Mary Lee, her two sons, and my daughter, Laurie, jumping in the waves. I remembered that day, throwing myself into the water, feeling myself lifted and carried backwards, experiencing a moment of panic before being dashed against the sand.

Thanks to working a couple of twelve-step programs, they don’t happen as often, but I still have moments of terror when I don’t feel I’m in control, whether it’s being buffeted by waves, keeping my daughter from dying of cancer, or—these days—controlling the spread of coronavirus.

Maybe that’s why I come here. The beach is like an inoculation, in which I’m given a small amount of whatever I need healing from: in this case, the fear of being helpless.

At the end of the beach, waves broke over a rocky point of land, spuming into the air.

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A small cove in front of the rocks was strewn with driftwood—some of it eight, ten, even twelve feet long and over a foot in diameter. Logs, in other words, many bleached almost paper-white by sun and sea and salt. Carried in by the power of these waves, they now rested in nests of dried seaweed. Some smaller pieces of wood had been driven into the sand as if thrown by some giant; some lay broken on the beach.

It was hard not to think of bones or bodies, especially in this time of rampant disease. I recalled my grandmother telling me of waiting at the Marlboro Massachusetts railroad station for a train during the flu epidemic of 1918-19. Behind her on the platform, she said, caskets were stacked like chords of wood. (It’s possible that she was pregnant with my father then. Dad was born in August of 1919 and named for his uncle, who’d died of the flu in January of that year.)

Saying a prayer that my grandchildren would not have similar memories, I sat down on a driftwood log, leaned back, and felt the sun on my neck. I picked up a broken stick of driftwood, split, cracked, and deeply lined, jagged at both ends. One of my writing mentors, Barbara Hurd, in her book Walking the Wrack Line, defined a wrack line—that point where the high tide deposits organic matter and other debris—as the boundary between the broken and the whole. That’s a line I’ve not so much walked along as been blown back and forth across, one day feeling whole and healed, the next day feeling wounded and broken.

I ran my hands over the stick. It was satin-smooth, its grain highlighted by the sun. I’m not entirely sure why, but I find beauty in broken things. Maybe because of the different ways things can be broken. For example, the deep cracks, the gnarls, the crags, the ragged ends, the sheen, the colors of driftwood come from its friction with the world through long travel. From its pilgrimage, if you will. Looking over at the driftwood around me, I saw that none of them was the same; they had assumed an individuality they never had when they were growing as part of the dark line of trees I could see on the horizon.

I think the same is true of people. For me, faces get more interesting and more beautiful as they age. And it’s the different ways we are broken that gives us individuality, makes us as Mister Rogers used to say, “special.” Which gives me hope that while we may be broken by—and yes, die from—this disease that is sweeping the world, we as a world will go on and become more beautiful than ever.

But as I looked down the beach, my optimism was swept away by a wave of people rolling towards me. When Mary Lee and I had arrived, the beach was almost deserted. Now, people seemed to be flowing from the parking lot, many of them young, none of them observing any kind of six- foot distancing, laughing, pushing, kicking, or throwing seaweed at one another. Yes, I hope that after this disease passes there will a tidal shift in consciousness, that we will learn to live together, that since the disease is not intimidated by wealth and power, we will see that we’re all in this together and we need to share our resources more equitable, that since so many people are now isolating themselves in order to protect not only their own loved ones but people they don’t know, we will expand our vision of “community” to include the whole world.

But how do I know that coronavirus hasn’t just increased the wealth of the 1% and that when it’s over things will return to normal—that this virus will have no more effect on the way we live in this country than the school shootings have had on our gun control policies? Or worse, that the world will come to resemble those apocalyptic movies like The Road, The Book of Eli, or Mad Max?

As the young people streamed past, I turned away and looked behind me, and saw the number of neat things people had created out of the driftwood. Suspended by old twine from a teepee of driftwood, a faded and pitted lobster buoy gently swayed in the wind.

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There were several teepees and lean-tos. Someone had made a giant chair. I recalled that at home, I had a walking stick that I’d fashioned a couple of years ago from driftwood from this beach.

A reminder that as long as there are people, people will create. They will build shelters; they will make art. With whatever they have.

I felt better again. I may be helpless against the disease, but I’m not powerless over my response to it.

It was time to leave while I was ahead, while I could believe that no matter what riptides or rocks, waves or storms I run into, no matter how else I am broken, I will eventually be borne into a cove of serenity.

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Sifting Ashes

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                        Grant that these ashes may be a sign of our mortality and penitence ….

  • “Ash Wednesday Liturgy,” Book of Common Prayer

I return to my pew, ashes feeling like paste on my forehead, past the smattering of people scattered throughout the church, their faces already smudged between their eyes, my mind sifting through ashy thoughts of age and mortality.

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Love is the fire, and sighs the smoke, the ashes shame and scorns ….

—Robert Southwell

When I was growing up in a small Maine town in the 1950s, the only church that observed Ash Wednesday was the Catholic Church. (Those snooty Episcopalians drove to a more affluent community.) Which confirmed for my family and many others in town that Catholics were not like (meaning not a good as) us Congregationalists and Baptists. My great-grandfather told his daughter he’d rather see her dead than marry the Catholic man she loved, and when she did marry the man, her father never spoke to her again. On Ash Wednesday, we kids looked out of the corner of our eyes at the Catholic kids with the smudges on their foreheads as if they’d somehow become lepers with signs proclaiming them “Unclean.”

There was a lot of “Us and Them” in those days. In the newspapers and on TV, I read about Red-blooded Americans versus Dirty Commies; on Saturday afternoons I saw westerns with the White Hats against the Black Hats and science-fiction flicks with titles like Them; and on Friday night at the gym, there were our Good Guys versus the neighboring towns’ Bad Guys.

Thus, I started climbing what Courage to Change, an Al-Anon daily reader, calls “The Ladder of Judgment,” where everyone is somehow either below me or above me— economically, physically, intellectually, spiritually—with God far, far away at the top. Comparing myself to others—judging them, judging myself—has become a life-long addiction, isolating me from people, from God, even at times, from myself.

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                                                A bucket of ash

                                                and smoke

                                                gone

                                                into the air.

                                                                        —David Budbill, “Smoke and Ash”

Still, I have a nostalgia for ashes. I don’t think I ever light our charcoal grill without remembering that one of my first jobs around the house when I was growing up was to take the trash to the back yard and burn it in an old oil drum set on top of cement blocks. After pulling the newspapers apart (because if I didn’t, they didn’t burn completely and my father had a fit), I lit the trash with a kitchen match. Then I’d usually stand for a while watching the smoke billow out of the oil drum. In winter, it was a lousy job, but most of the time, I liked being outside by the fire. I still do. There’s something primordially comforting about a fire.

Every few weeks, my father would shovel the ashes into a large pail and either take them to the town dump, or save them for winter, when he’d spread them on the icy driveway. I also remember Dad, who moon-lighted as sexton at our church, in his topcoat and fedora methodically dipping his coal shovel into a bucket of ashes from the furnace on Sunday mornings and spreading the cinders across the icy sidewalk so that no one would fall going into the service.

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                        … I marle what pleasure or felicity they have in taking their roguish tobacco. It is good for nothing but to choke a man, and fill him full of smoke and embers. 

                                                                        —Ben Jonson, Every Man in His Humour

 I grew up surrounded by ashtrays. I recall square ashtrays and round ashtrays, glass ashtrays, wooden ashtrays, metal ashtrays. I remember a bumpy white ashtray in the dining room, and a small clear glass ashtray on the toilet tank in our bathroom and a matching one beside the bathtub. In the living room stood a metal stand holding a large glass brown ashtray beside Dad’s chair, where, on Friday nights, he sat and drank Blue Ribbon and ate Spanish peanuts and smoked his Camels, watching The Gillette Friday Night Fights on our black and white Philco. One memory I have of my mother is of her standing in the kitchen, ironing, with a cup of black coffee and a cigarette smoldering in an ashtray, singing along with Bing Crosby’s voice on our old record player: “Where the blue of the night meets the gold of the day  …”

My senior year in high school, the day after my last varsity basketball game, I filched a pack of Dad’s Camels from the carton he always had in his bedroom closet. I spent one afternoon learning to inhale and the next forty years trying to quit, something I remember every time I pant and gasp and puff walking up a hill.

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Through [cremation] … the body is reduced to its basic elements, which are referred to as the “cremated body” or “cremated remains.”… Depending upon the size of the body, there are normally three to nine pounds of fragments resulting.

                                                                        — cremationinfo.com

The purpose of Ash Wednesday, which marks the beginning of Lent, is to remind us of our mortality—Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return. At my age, coming off heart surgery, watching friends die, I don’t need much reminding.

This year, I find myself wondering what will remain of me after my death. I don’t mean how many pounds of “cremains,” but what will I leave behind for others? A few published stories, a novel, hopefully another book or two. Far too many photograph albums. But I think it was Maya Angelou (it was; I just Googled it) who said, “At the end of the day people won’t remember what you said or did, they will remember how you made them feel.” And in this season of penitence, I realize that it’s not so much what I’ve done wrong in my life that I regret, it’s what I haven’t done to make people feel better that gnaws at me.

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[Ashes form because]…almost everything in nature is what chemists call “heterogeneous”—that is, its composition is not uniform. For this reason, not every part is “pure” substance and will not burn.

                                                                                    —Caveman Chemistry

But I’m realizing in my “golden years” that to be human is to be, as us Protestant kids used to see the Catholic kids, “unclean,” in the sense of being impure, of being “what chemists call ‘heterogeneous.’” Looking back over the pilgrimage of my life, I see that it has been a mix of good and bad, joy and sorrow, celebration and penitence, things done and things left undone. Moments such as watching smoke waft into the sky that still comfort me; moments such as inhaling smoke that have scarred me for life.

And maybe what I want to leave behind for my grandchildren from what time I have left before I become three to nine pounds of ashes, is an example of living as if there is no Us and Them, only Us.

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Waldo and Henry

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Several years ago, when my wife Mary Lee and I were getting ready to go on a hike from Melrose, Scotland to the Holy Island of Lindisfarne off the coast of England, we drove over to our friendly L.L.Bean store and bought hiking poles. Now, Mary Lee had been using what she called walking sticks for at least ten years. Her doctor had recommended them to her as a way to build upper body strength on her early morning walks, while at the same time reducing wear and tear on her hips and back. Although I thought what Mary Lee’s doctor said might make sense for her, I didn’t need any help walking, thank you very much, and, based on her experience, I didn’t want to hear one more clown ask where my skis were.

But a 72-mile hike was different, so we both bought adjustable hiking poles with these little shock-absorbers in them to provide further cushioning. They also have straps into which you insert your hands, one for the right hand and one for the left. Maybe because I don’t have a lot of human friends and I’m not big on pets, I often name possessions. (My banjo, for example is “Joy” and our car is “Tembo”—Swahili for “elephant”). So I named my right hiking pole Waldo and the left one Henry.

Waldo is the name Ralph Waldo Emerson’s friends called him. I’d recently read Robert D. Richardson Jr.’s book on Emerson called The Mind on Fire, which brought back memories of how important this nineteenth-century American philosopher and writer had been to me at one time. When I was teaching American literature and before I started attending church again, Emerson’s essay “Nature” inspired me to take long Sunday afternoon walks through the woods of Down East Maine in search some kind of “spiritual” life, and I’m still more likely to feel in touch with the Holy in the woods or by the seashore or on a mountain than I am in the grandest cathedral.  Later in my life, as I began to feel more and more tied down in a loveless marriage and living in a town I detested, Emerson’s essay “Self-Reliance,” with its emphasis on discovering one’s true self and attaining independence, had helped give me the courage to leave both marriage and town.

From The Mind on Fire, I learned that Emerson, often portrayed as the passionless “Sage of Concord,” was a family man and good neighbor whose life was marked by grief. His first wife had died at the age of twenty, and, after he’d remarried, his first son, Wallie died from scarlet fever at the age of five. I resonated with the story that in the last hours of Emerson’s life, forty years after his son’s death, someone heard him breathe, “Oh, that beautiful boy!” As we grieving parents know, the grief never goes away, and when it hit me during our hike, it was helpful to have Waldo at my right hand.

One of Emerson’s neighbors was Henry David Thoreau whom Waldo befriended throughout Thoreau’s life, hiring him to do odd jobs around the house, inviting him to dinner once a week, even during the two years that Henry was living what he portrayed in his classic book Walden as a solitary life on the shore of Walden Pond.

I first discovered Thoreau during what I call my Kerouac years in college, when I read his famous line, “The mass of men live lives of quiet desperation,” thinking it described everyone but myself until those unhappy years in Down East Maine. After I fell in love with a woman from Colorado and I met her in Boston for an October weekend in New England, we shared tins of sardines on the shore of Walden Pond, where I read to Mary Lee from Walden: “Go confidently in the direction of your dreams! Live the life you’ve imagined.”

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Mary Lee at Walden Pond, 1985.

Fifteen years or so after that, I took a retreat day and my tattered copy of Walden and drove to Concord, where I spent the day walking around Walden Pond, stopping periodically to read from the book and write in my journal. I got there early, and a morning mist hung over the water. I walked for a while and then sat on a rock, reading and staring out over what little water I could see. Out of the mist, a canoe appeared with two elderly (probably the age I am now) women in it. As they neared, sun parted the haze, highlighting the woman in the bow of the canoe: her plaid shirt and denim jeans, her lined and leathery face framed by a red hat and bandanna. I pulled out my journal and wrote how cool I thought it was that the women were so active at their ages.

These days, I think it’s even cooler.

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I used Waldo and Henry on our trek through Scotland and England, and found, as Mary Lee’s doctor had said, how much easier it was to walk with them. They gave me a boost up the hills. They supported me on the way down. Several times they kept me from falling into the mud. I found myself talking to them, which isn’t that unusual: I not only name inanimate objects, I talk to them (especially recalcitrant jar covers—come on, damn you, open!), but I also discovered I was listening to what they had to say back—Okay, slow down here… Come on, you can make it up this hill. Move!

Since then, Waldo and Henry have accompanied me on hikes through the saguaro in Arizona, along the rocky coast of Maine, through the poison ivy along the riverbanks in Massachusetts. I’ve given them baskets to use when I go snowshoeing. They’ve come to symbolize a spirit of adventure, of pilgrimage. (After all, most images of pilgrimage show the pilgrim with a staff. The trouble is, a single staff throws my back out.)

A couple of years ago, I started using Waldo and Henry after winter storms to keep me and my increasingly fragile bones from breaking. This winter I’m using them almost all of the time for my walks. I say it’s because of the ice, but the fact is, I just feel better when I use them. I don’t have to soak my back after walking. My knees don’t ache. So as much as I hate to say it, Waldo and Henry are coming to represent my aging body. I notice people at church using hiking poles to get up and down the aisles and I see my future.

They also indicate my need for help, my need to admit that I’m not as independent as I like to think I am. The irony is, I’m more confident in who I am, less concerned with what other people think about me. When I hear, “Where are your skis?” I smile and say, “Oh, I knew I forgot something.”

In some ways, then, I’ve become more self-reliant. I think the real Waldo and Henry would like that.

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Sauntering Through Change

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Saunter: to walk with a leisurely gait; stroll

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“Do you know the origin of that word ‘saunter’? It’s a beautiful word. Away back in the Middle Ages people used to go on pilgrimages to the Holy Land, and when people in the villages through which they passed asked where they were going, they would reply, ‘A la sainte terre, to the Holy Land.’ And so they became known as sainte-terre-ers or saunterers. Now these mountains are our Holy Land, and we ought to saunter through them reverently, not ‘hike’ through them.”—John Muir

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Living almost all of my life in Maine, and over half of it within fifteen miles of where I grew up, I’ve previously used pilgrimages, retreats, and travel to give myself a change from familiar landscapes. Now, however, even though I’m still living in the same place doing the same things and haven’t been out of New England in almost a year, I find I’m continuing to travel—this time through the craggy mountains of change itself.  I’ve started thinking of this journey as another kind of pilgrimage, especially after looking again at Christine Valters Paintner’s eight characteristics of the pilgrimage experience.

  1. Hearing the Call and Responding. Everywhere I look these days, I am confronted by change. Friends are dying—three in the last six months—others are having various medical procedures, and I’ve recently had open heart surgery. Perhaps even harder to get my head around, life as I’ve known it for most of my existence—political life, religious life, cultural life—is gone. Coming to grips with technology is one thing; understanding why this country is tearing itself apart is another. How do I respond?
  2. Packing lightly. Certainly not with many of my old ways of thinking; they no longer serve. Values I’ve held for years, such as compromise and reason, no longer seem to work. I’m trying to simplify and focus on the eternals—love, a God-of-my-not-Understanding, and, I’m finding, the process of change itself.
  3. Crossing the threshold. But while my old ways of life are gone, new ways haven’t yet revealed themselves. A friend who winters there once referred to Florida as “God’s waiting room.” Well, you don’t have to live in Florida to be there. My question is “How do I wait?” I’m not ready to spend what time I’ve got left leafing through old issues of People magazine (I am reading a lot of Buddhist stuff these days about impermanence.) And the answer, I guess, is to wait with hope. As someone who turns 77 this year, I take heart from the author and psychologist Florida Scott Maxwell’s writing about the difference between her 70s and her 80s:

 “I was astonished to find how intensely one lives in one’s eighties. The last years        seemed a culmination and by concentrating on them one became more truly oneself. Though old, I felt full of potential life.”

  1. Making the Way by Walking. I’m still walking (although this winter, I’ve moved indoors to a treadmill). That’s not an issue. My big challenge these days is to keep my eyes looking ahead and not backward. Ram Dass in his book Still Here, written after a stroke that left half of his body paralyzed, says, “As we get older, the tendency to dwell in the past becomes more enticing.” The reason is fear. “Our apprehension about the future,” he writes, “is synonymous with our fear of change … age and the loss of control.” I’m also finding that when I wallow in the past, nostalgia soon becomes resentment (and isn’t that another kind of fear?), and I become just another bitter old fart.
  2. Being uncomfortable. As for all of us geriatrics, I suppose, my physical discomforts—back, bowels, teeth, toes—seem to increase daily. Catching a glimpse of myself in a shop window or a restaurant mirror induces acid reflux. Even in my town, my church, I feel like a peregrini, a “stranger,” from which the word “pilgrim” comes. As I’ve said (we geezers tend to repeat ourselves), I also feel like a stranger to today’s politics, religion, and culture. I don’t understand half the ads on TV. Speaking of which, recently, for the first time in a year or so, I went to see a movie in a theater. The paper said the movie began at 3:30. After over thirty goddamn minutes of ads and previews, the movie started at 4:00.
  3. Beginning again. Once more, Ram Dass: “Unless we make a conscious effort to live with ‘beginner’s mind,’ coming to each experience fresh, we find the accumulation of our years can become a ball and chain.” For him and for other writers I’m reading these days, “beginner’s mind” means living in the present moment where time does not exist. Staying in the moment, however, is really really hard, and I think one reason I was so drawn to the John Muir quote on “sauntering” is that the word suggests to me both movement and paying attention, being in the moment. Thinking of those times when I’ve been sauntering through the woods or by the shore gives me a frame of reference for sauntering through the rest of whatever time I have left on this earth.
  4. Embracing the unknown; to relinquish certainty and control. Well, the second part of this is a given these days. I have less and less control over either my own body or the world around me. But to embrace my diminishments? Welcome whatever comes? Raised in an alcohol family, having had a child die of a rare cancer, I have always looked at the world as a scary place. So far the best I can do, thanks to my 12-step programs, is “accept the things I cannot change.” Acceptance, however, isn’t welcome. But I am learning that the less control I have over my life, the more I need to ask for the help of others, something I’ve struggled with doing all my life, but which, if I stop and think about it, I’ve always relied on—from the help of my parents when I was a kid and coaches when I started playing sports, to the help of counselors and spiritual directors after my daughter died and mentors and other writers when I decided I wanted to stop teaching writing and actually write. These people I can welcome and embrace.
  5. Coming home. At my age, references to “home” make me think of the hymn so often played at funerals (Oh, I haven’t mentioned how many funerals I’ve attended this last year, have I? Let’s just say a bunch.)

Going home, going home,
I’m just going home.
Quiet-like, slip away-
I’ll be going home.

But I’m in no hurry to get there. So I’ll try to saunter along, stopping now and then to play with my grandchildren, flail away on a banjo, and enjoy the views, if not one moment at a time, at least one day at a time.

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Walking at Sunset

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After a wonderful but hectic Thanksgiving, Mary Lee and I spent a weekend on retreat at the Episcopal monastery of Society of Saint John the Evangelist in Cambridge, Massachusetts, a place we’ve been coming to for twenty-five years in search of silence and slow time. On Saturday afternoon, because the sun sets in this part of the world around 4:00 p.m., I decided to catch the last daylight and take a walk before Evening Prayer.

As I left the monastery, the sun was buttering tiers of purple clouds over the Boston skyline. I jay-walked across Memorial Drive, turned right, and joined the joggers, walkers, and cyclists on the path along the Charles River—a mix of races I don’t see in Maine, some talking into microphones and headsets, others conversing with one another, possibly in Chinese.

After about a quarter of a mile, I passed the Riverside Boat Club. I turned left to cross the Eliot Bridge, pulling up the collar of my coat against a raw wind coming down the river. The late afternoon sun and clouds reflected in the rippling waters of the Charles, the lengthening shadows of the sycamores, and the dank, November wind all churned up memories of another wind coming down another river thirty years earlier. I saw myself walking back from the Eastern Maine Medical Center to the Ronald McDonald House after spending the day watching my eighteen-year-old daughter die a little more from the cancer ravaging her body. I recalled the Christmas tree sellers in their vans and pick-up trucks in Cascade Park at the bottom of the hill across from the Penobscot River and how Christmas seemed at the time like some horrible joke played on the human race by a sadistic god promising peace on earth, good will to all, and then inflicting more war, poverty, disease, and death on us suffering buggers.

Now, however, I realized as I turned left after the bridge and started walking along Storrow Drive, that although I could still vividly picture details from my walk back from the hospital—the seagulls circling over the river, the mansard roofs on the houses—I could no longer feel the anger, confusion, and shame that once consumed me. Thanks to prayer and meditation and spiritual direction—much of which happened at the SSJE monastery—I’ve had joy as well as pain since Laurie’s death. Last summer I had heart surgery which has given me renewed hope that I may be around to watch my grandchildren grow up.

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The sun dropped, gilding the tops of buildings on my right. The clouds became red and gray. Just outside a patch of skim ice near the shore of the river, a dozen geese floated tranquilly, while on the other side of me, rush hour traffic hurdled by. Horns honked.

The geese reminded me of my father-in-law, George, who used to urge his employees to work like ducks on the water: calm and serene on the surface, paddling like hell underneath. He was the one who introduced me to this walk around the Charles; he made it almost every day. One of the most gracious men I’ve ever known, he and his wife Elaine retired to Cambridge to an apartment just three doors down from the monastery, which made it that much easier for Mary Lee and me to become part of the SSJE community.

Hearing the whooshing traffic, I recalled that George used to carry a plastic bag with him when he walked here, collecting what he called “street glass,” bits of broken head and tail lights from the innumerable accidents caused by Massachusetts drivers along Memorial and Storrow Drives. By the time Elaine died and George left 985 Memorial Drive for a retirement community in Lexington, he’d collected enough colored glass and plastic to fill I don’t know how many glass jars, which reposed on bookcases and windowsills all over the apartment.

Looking across the river back at Memorial Drive, I imagined Elaine, standing in front of her window, holding her glass of gin, watching the sunset behind me before heading back to the kitchen to finish preparing another of her gourmet dinners. She used to rate sunsets; I thought she might give this one a “7” or an “8.” So I made it a “7.5.”

When she died, her service was held in the monastery, and I remembered the Brothers’ chanting, and the reception back at the apartment, monks mingling with the family of academics, doctors, and journalists I married into. When George remarried, four years later, it was in the monastery, as was his funeral ten years after that.

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The SSJE Monastery from across the Charles River

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Crossing the Weeks Foot Bridge in front of Harvard’s Leverett and Dunster Houses, I realized what an important part the monastery and the Brothers have played in my life for the last twenty-five years. I walked back Memorial Drive, past Winthrop and Eliot Houses, through John F. Kennedy Park, recalling my spiritual directors who guided me along the rocky road of grief—showed me that I couldn’t keep thinking of Laurie as some photograph in an old album, that if I actually believed in this thing called resurrection,  I needed to father an ongoing relationship with her, think of her as being somehow present, here and now.  And indeed, the first time after her death when I felt her touch was as I sat at a desk in one of the guest rooms of the monastery.

I thought about how my retreats and pilgrimages intertwine, like the design on the Celtic cross tattooed on my forearm. Yes, I go to the monastery on retreat to withdraw from what Jesus and St. Paul call “the world,” but I’m also making a pilgrimage to answer a call, draw near the sacred, find a source of healing, and pay homage to those I think of as the saints in my life: Laurie, George, Elaine, the Brothers who have died, like Brother Eldridge, who helped me see that like the Father in the Parable of the Prodigal Son, I can wait in continual hope for my child, sending out my love in the confidence that she’ll receive it, or Brother John, my first spiritual director, who told me, “No, I can’t help you cut down on your drinking, but if you decide you want to quit, I’ll do everything I can to help you.” Or those Brothers who continue to buoy me, like Brother Curtis, the first monk I ever talked to here, and Brother James, whom I’ve watched lose hair, put on thirty pounds, and become Brother Superior at SSJE.

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By the time I opened the gate and entered the monastery courtyard, the sun had disappeared; inky layers of clouds, however, were still striated with gold. Streetlights glowed and lambent windows in the apartments along Memorial Drive looked warm and urbane. The illuminated cross in front of the door to the guest house welcomed me home. Although I’d been gone less than an hour and had walked maybe two miles, it felt like a much longer journey.

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Of Luck and Grace

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The First Thanksgiving, 1621—J.L.G. Ferris/The Foundation Press, Inc./Library of Congress

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The first time I ever heard about “pilgrims” was as a kid learning about some people by that name who sailed to America to have Thanksgiving dinner. Later, I learned it was a little more complicated than that—that these people were actually “Separatists” who had broken from the Church of England and come to this country by way of Holland in search of religious freedom. But they thought of themselves as pilgrims (the first child born in the Plymouth Colony was named “Peregrine,” which means pilgrim), travelers on a journey to find a home where they could worship the God of their understanding. The name stuck.

My sister tells me that she, my brother, and I are the descendants of John and Priscilla Alden and George and Mary Soule, couples who came over on the Mayflower, which may account for why I think of myself as a pilgrim and why Thanksgiving is my favorite holiday of the year. It’s a day to be with family and to give thanks.

This year, however, besides counting blessings, I’ve also been thinking a lot about luck.

Last spring, when I happened to mention to my family doctor during a routine follow-up to an earlier procedure that I was getting more and more out of breath, he told me to get a stress test and get it soon. Which I did and which led to an arterial catheterization which led to by-pass surgery. Now, I feel great. I have more energy than I’ve had in years.

I want to thank God for my good fortune, feel that I’ve been blessed. Except: as anyone who’s read this blog knows, the pivotal point in my life was the death of my eighteen-year-old daughter in 1988. Laurie didn’t smoke, didn’t drink, didn’t even eat meat. Still, she was the victim of Primitive Neuroectodermal Tumor, a rare and virulent cancer that when it strikes, usually attacks much younger children.

So how can I thank God for my life, while letting God off the hook for Laurie’s death?

Since my surgery in July, two men whom I’d known fairly well dropped dead from the same type of blocked left main artery that I had. Both men were active; both seemed healthy; neither was overweight; both died while exercising. Why am I still alive and they’re not?

I’m reminded of the evening of September 11, 2001, when our church held a meeting for all those who wanted to respond to the bombings of the twin towers and of the pentagon. At one point, a woman—let’s call her Agnes—rose and said that her son had been working that day in the South Tower, but that he was safe. “I want to take this opportunity to thank God for protecting my son four times.” Agnes said. “God showed him the way down the stairs. He moved him out of the way of fallen debris twice. He provided my boy with a private boat to offer him a ride across the river to Hoboken. I’m so grateful!”

I was happy for the woman. I was sure her son was a great guy. But I asked myself then and I ask myself now: why did God save him and let 7,000 other people die?

So although I want to thank God for my being able to be sitting here tapping out this blog instead of moldering in an urn under the snow in our family’s cemetery plot, I have to think that I was lucky, just as my daughter was unlucky enough to carry the wrong combination of inherited DNA to make her susceptible to the cancer than killed her.

Does this mean I’m not grateful this Thanksgiving? That I don’t think my Higher Power affects my life? That I’m not blessed?

Absolutely not.

As I think about how “unlucky” I was when Laurie died, and how “lucky” I am now, I find a common thread. In both instances I’ve seen, as I usually don’t, just how precious, how holy life is. I’ve never enjoyed the autumn foliage as much as I have this year. I don’t even mind (much) standing in line at the grocery checkout line.

I’m also aware, even though it’s hard to articulate, of a growing sense that this life is always being renewed, even reborn. That what I, as a Christian, call resurrection didn’t just happen once to one person, but happens to all of us many times. Someone said to me the other day that I looked like a new man. Well, in some ways, I am. I have a new heart.

Getting that new heart was at times painful; still, it was nothing like thirty years ago, when Laurie’s death broke me open. But although that hurt in ways I hope I’ll never have to feel again, her death also opened me to receive love and joy that I’d never experienced before in my closed off, child-of-alcoholic, New England male life. And it’s this experience that I’m guessing we’ve all had sometime in our lives—where from somewhere we get the strength not only to carry on but also to laugh and sing when by rights we ought to give up and die—that I give thanks for.

Which I think is the difference between luck and Grace. Luck depends on circumstances. Grace, on the other hand, is there for everyone all the time.

So I’m looking forward to Thanksgiving. This, despite sorrowful memories of my father, one of my grandmothers, and my mother-in-law all dying during the week of Thanksgiving, and a painful recollection of a Thanksgiving at the Ronald McDonald House after which Laurie’s two stepbrothers saw her for the last time. Or maybe those deaths actually help make the celebration more joyous. That when Mary Lee’s children and their families and her sister and sometimes her family come, we are surrounded by what St. Paul calls “Clouds of Witness.”

That these loved ones died, that my daughter-in-law is about to undergo surgery for cancer, and that one of my grandchildren is emotionally scarred from having been abused by her pre-school teacher is probably a matter of bad luck. That for the most part our families have the health and the means to come to our house for Thanksgiving and that Mary Lee and I feel well enough and are financially secure enough to host them is probably a matter of good luck. But that we are able to celebrate, to laugh, to cry, to love together is, I believe, a matter of Grace.

When I was finishing this blog, Mary Lee sent me a daily reading for November 22, 2019 (the anniversary of John F. Kennedy’s assassination, appropriately enough) from a website called gratefulness.org.

Grief and gratitude are kindred souls, each pointing to the beauty of what is transient and given to us by grace.—Patricia Campbell Carlson

Yup. Happy Thanksgiving, y’all.

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Another Thanksgiving, a few years later…

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Of Smells

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“Nothing revives the past so completely as a smell that was once associated with it.”

—Vladimir Nabokov

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One of the joys of being 10 weeks past heart surgery is that I can resume daily walks, especially in the woods not far from where I live. And this is a great time of year for it. The leaves are beginning to turn, the air is drier, and the blackflies are gone. But I’m interested that the first thing I noticed when I entered woods after over two months were the smells: the musky, fecund tang of fallen leaves and pine needles, yellowing bracken, and decayed trees. Not only did the smells welcome me back into the present, they took me back to walks through Scotland and England, California, Massachusetts, Vermont, and even further back to the Ponderosa forests of Idaho during my college years and the piney woods behind my house when I was growing up.

Our sense of smell, I’m told, is linked to the part of our brains that processes emotions and memories. Probably every college English major (even if, like me, they’ve never read it) knows that Marcel Proust’s Remembrances of Things Past begins when the narrator tastes a cookie called a madeleine dipped in tea, which triggers seven volumes of memories.

Fear not, gentle reader, I’m not about to attempt anything of that magnitude, but I do feel compelled to ponder a few memories—some pleasant, some not so pleasant—I tripped over the other day as I sauntered through the woods.

I don’t think any smell evokes happier memories than the smell of baking bread. (I’m told real estate agents tell people who want to sell their houses to fill them with the smells of baked bread prior to showing them to prospective buyers.) Every Saturday morning when I was growing up, my mother would bake bread for the week, filling the house with the aroma of love and security. Having spent the last couple of years working with a sponsor in a twelve-step program, I find it healing to remember that in spite of the emotional scars I carry from being raised in an alcoholic family, I was always loved and cared for.

It’s probably nostalgia, but remembrances of my growing up are filled largely with happy smells: the smell of hay and cows and horses in my great-grandfather’s barn, the smell of fried onions and potatoes in my Nanny and Grampy Lufkin’s house, the smell of perfume and cigarettes in Nanny Cleaves’s apartment, the smell of  Aqua Velva, my first aftershave lotion, the White Shoulders perfume my first girlfriend Susan wore, even the smell of wet towels, dirty socks and jock-straps in the locker-room underneath the gymnasium where I spent so much time playing basketball. (Okay, that memory’s definitely nostalgia.)

Conversely, no smell brings back more pain than the smells of shit and disinfectant in nursing homes and hospitals (where between visiting others and my own stay I’m spending more and more time these days), which invariably take me back to the two months when my daughter lay in the hospital dying of cancer—a time of fear, loneliness, and guilt—literally a shitty time.

Memories of my unhappy college years come enveloped with the acrid smell of the Old Town Paper Company blown by a stiff wind down the Stillwater River in 10° temperatures, as I pulled my collar up and stumbled my way across campus to classes I never figured out how to study for, filled with students I felt no connection with, and who, I was convinced, disdained me. And the last years of my first marriage seem in my mind’s nostrils as rank as the dregs of the pipe tobacco I used to smoke during those years.

These days, I love the smell of Mary Lee beside me in the morning, of my hot chocolate in the afternoon, of popcorn in the evening. Of seaweed and mudflats along the Maine Coast. Of dirt in the spring. Of going into the school building to pick up my grandchildren and the smells of chalk and disinfectant and young bodies taking me back to my years as a public-school teacher. And speaking of grandchildren, is there anything more uplifting than the fresh, slightly sweet smell of a newborn child?

On the other hand, I hate the heavy perfumey smell when I enter the Maine Mall, damp cellars (probably because they remind me of the cellar I lived over for twenty-two years), car exhaust on a hot day, and now, the smell of the antibiotic Mupirocin, with which I had to swab my nose prior to and after this summer’s heart surgery.

Recalling smells revives memories of my various pilgrimages and retreats even more than photographs. The exotic and sometimes stomach-churning smells of the Old City of Jerusalem—schwarma, spices, and pita bread mingled with the dust of centuries of pilgrims.

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The aroma of apple tea in Turkey. The salt-laden breezes on Iona. The tangy musk smell of the cow pastures through which Mary Lee and I hiked St. Cuthbert’s Way. The dry smoky smell of Tanzania. One of my first memories of the Episcopal monastery in Massachusetts with which I’m associated is the smell of incense wafting up from the altar into the stony steeple.

At this time of year, the woods are full of smells, full of ambivalent emotions. Fall in Maine is when the trees let go of their leaves, which brings for me not only nostalgia, but also a kind of grief. I’m well into the autumn of my life, which, along with the recent surgery, has me thinking about my mortality. So many of the smells in the woods I’ve started walking again arise from dead and dying vegetation. And yet, autumn is also the season I always feel most alive, and never more so than this year, as I find my strength (not to mention gratitude) returning. Yes, the leaves and needles and branches under my feet are dying, but at the same time the decay upon which I walk and which I smell teems with the seeds of regeneration—not only the forest’s, but also, I like to think, mine as well.

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