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.

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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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November

Out my Window

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November is complicated.

I’m sitting in front of my computer next to a window which looks out over a small grove of fir and maple trees. With most of the leaves gone, the branches of the maples fan out against a vast blue sky. On the ground, a carpet of saddle-colored leaves glistens as shards of sunlight stream through the trees.

I love the light this time of year. What I hate is when around 3:00 p.m. that light dims to gray, first on the fallen leaves, then up the trees before turning the sky first charcoal, then black. Before I know it, I’m no longer looking out the window at trees and leaves, but at my refection in the glass. And it’s only 4:30 in the afternoon. In another month, it will be 4:00, leaving me in darkness for the next fifteen hours.

November is the month where Nature pares down, lets go, buttons up, readies itself for the storms to come. Except for some remaining kale (which I’m not sure I can eat any more of) my garden is bare. The landscaping crew has removed the leaves from the lawn. I’ve cut back the shrubs. There’s less color, more emptiness.

Like the maples outside my window, I’m losing my color, my sap, my strength. Like them, I have no control over these changes. I’m entering the season of my life when I can no longer shoot a basketball, climb a mountain, dive into a wave, lift my grandchildren.

I’m also intentionally paring down. I’ve stopped “discussing” politics with people whose views on COVID, race, and global warming I find repugnant. And speaking of repugnant, I no longer watch sports on TV because of the announcers and the commercials. As I ready myself for what lies ahead, I find myself rereading the books (The Lord of the Rings, the essays of E.B. White and Frederick Buechner) and listening again to the music (Dylan, Leonard Cohen, Mozart’s Requiem, Beethoven’s Missa solomnis) I love.

On the other hand, November is a time of abundance. My garden produced well, and we have enough tomato sauce and tomato soup to last us until next summer. I suspect I could be making kale smoothies until then as well. November is Thanksgiving dinner, with a bounty of turkey and stuffing and mashed potatoes and gravy and squash and beans and turnips and cranberry sauce and pumpkin and apple pie. November is feeling the abundance of family, some of whom I haven’t seen for two years, but who’ll hopefully arrive this year so that we have to bring down chairs down from the bedrooms and up from the TV room and my office so that everyone can have a place to sit.

Perhaps because I could very well have died two years ago from a heart attack, I find I now have a greater abundance of gratitude for each day—for my family and my friends, for my twelve-step groups, men’s groups, and writing groups that nourish me.

Amidst this abundance, however, I also feel a sense of loss for those members of my family and my friends whom I can no longer see. For me, November is the month of deaths, probably beginning with the assassination of John F. Kennedy when I was in college, an event which marked the end of my childhood. My father, a grandmother, and my mother-in-law all died in November.

November is hunting season: a time for legalized killing. For many years, I hated this time of year. My in-laws had a camp on an ocean bay, surrounded by acres of woodland—a beautiful spot. Except in November, when hunters from all over New England and New York took over the woods. For years, whenever I thought of November, I thought of a Saturday afternoon when my first wife, my young daughter, and I drove down the three-mile road to her parents’ camp. As we rounded a corner, on my right were four or five guys in blaze orange caps crouched on a hill, sighting their 30-30s across the road to the field on our left and some apple trees at the edge of the bay. When one guy saw us, he lowered his rifle to take a drink from a brown bottle. The rest just held their rifles steady. The Viet Nam War was still going on, and all I could think of was that I was driving along the DMZ. I felt helpless and afraid.

I thought of that afternoon and that fear and powerlessness many times several years later during the November my daughter went into the hospital for the last time because of the cancer that was ravaging her body.

That was the November my second wife and her children came to see Laurie. For Mary Lee’s sons, it would be for the last time. Before going to the hospital, we had a Thanksgiving meal at the Ronald McDonald House with Henry, who was getting radiation for prostate cancer and his wife Martha; Jennie (only five, being treated for a brain tumor), her mother, and Jennie’s stuffed penguin, Opus, sitting on the chair between them; and Dave Shepherdson, a potato farmer from somewhere in Aroostook County, whose nineteen-year-old daughter was in the hospital because her transplanted kidney, the one Dave had given her twelve years earlier, was failing.

And yet, my painful recollection of that Thanksgiving at the Ronald McDonald House and my sorrowful memories of my father, grandmother, and mother-in-law all dying during November have at some point in the last ten years or so—like that optical illusion of the two candle sticks which turn into a face if you look at it long enough—become cause for gratitude. Besides recalling my father’s death, for example, I think of the times he played baseball and basketball with me, our fishing trips. Yes, I still recollect Laurie lying in the hospital, but I also see her walking on the seashore, playing the piano, painting a picture.

In other words, November has become not only about death but about honoring and giving thanks for what St. Paul called those “clouds of witness” and the gift of life.

It’s complicated. But I’ll take it.

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Slowing Down

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For just about all my life, I’ve walked along at three miles per hour. I know this because I used to time myself. Sometimes, I also used to count steps (for years 95 per minute, 10,000 per day).

Now, however, approaching the age of 80, I’m finding that my walking speed has fallen to just over two miles per hour and I’ve stopped counting steps.

And that’s just the tip of a lumbering iceberg. It takes me longer these days to do my exercises before breakfast, eat my breakfast, go through my emails, write a blog. Because I’m always looking for my keys, it takes me longer to get in the car. On the highway, every other car seems to whiz past. On the sidewalk, almost everyone walks around me. At the grocery store, people all seem to be in a hurry, and back home, on television, personalities seem to be talking like machine guns. My grandchildren leave me far behind when we’re outdoors, and indoors, they race through board games far too complicated for me to understand.

And you know what? I’m enjoying it all.

I think I began to slow down after my heart by-pass surgery two and a half years ago. Not immediately afterwards, because in the months that followed, I kept notes on my walking speed, heart rate, and blood pressure, trying to get back to what I once could do. No, it was when I’d reached all my old benchmarks that I realized I didn’t want to work so hard. I’d been given my life back.  It was time to pay more attention to the time I had left.

After years of starting each day with 20-30 minutes of sit-ups, push-ups, leg lifts, and back raises, I started another program based on posture and balance. Part exercise, part meditation, part philosophy, the teachings run counter to everything I ever learned about exercise: less is better than more, nothing should ever hurt, slow is better than fast. Instead of hearing the voice of my eighth-grade coach roaring in my ear: “Come on, Wile, move it, do more!” I hear my teacher whisper, “You’re trying too hard. Relax…” One reason it’s taking me longer to exercise these days is that one movement from my back to my side can take five minutes. But all the time, I’m becoming more and more aware of how everything everywhere in my body connects, and I’m learning how to relate bones and muscles in ways I never knew I could, in part because I’m finding parts of my body I never knew existed (the 7 bones of my cervical spine, for example). Becoming more aware of these connections and relationships makes me more aware of how the universe coheres, everything from the galaxies wheeling around the heavens to the roots of the trees in the wooded land trust behind my house to the quarks and leptons wheeling around in both my body and my grandchildren’s.

Speaking of the land trust behind my house, until recently, the distances I walked along the trails were determined by how much time I had and how far I figured I could go in that time. Now, I just head into the woods. Strolling down the path to a pond created by the run-off water directed through all the various drainage systems in our housing complex, I often see a blue heron fishing in the weeds. Walking slowly, quietly, I’m able to observe it—the stately posture, the focus, the grace—without frightening the bird into flight the way I used to. Time seems to stop.

After the pond, I enter the woods. This time of year, I notice the autumn sunlight slanting through the trees, highlighting the yellowing bracken in ways that always make me think of the British Isles. I stop for a bit, smelling the piquant aroma of the fallen leaves and decaying trees strewn around me. That’s when I start noticing all the mushrooms: red, white, black, brown, pie-shaped, trumpet shaped, button shaped, smooth, bumpy, crinkly…

I don’t know my mushrooms, certainly wouldn’t try eating any, but that doesn’t stop me from poking along, taking pictures, dropping to my knees (not a real problem; it’s getting up that’s hell) to inspect more closely.

When I get home, I realize it’s taken me as long to walk one of the shorter loops in the woods as it used to take to walk a longer one. I also know I’m happier than if I’d walked the longer one, eyes straight ahead, counting steps, pushing myself and ignoring the life around me.

That I’m also slowing down these days in my ability to remark or respond to others may not be such a bad thing either. The one thing I used to be able to do was come up with the fast retort or comeback—many I regretted as soon as they came out of my mouth. As a teacher, I had no trouble talking for an entire class period, often after the bell had rung and the kids were headed toward the door. These days, I’m finally learning how to listen, and to wait (which, by the way, is a 12-step acronym for “Why Am I Talking?”) before speaking at the various meetings I attend.

And, you know, folks, it’s amazing how much wisdom I can hear when I’m not talking or thinking about what I’m going to say next.

I used to love the Dylan Thomas poem “Do not go Gentle into that good Night,” in which the poet uses nighttime as a metaphor for death, and anguishes over his father’s acceptance of it, urging his father to “Rage, rage, against the dying of the light.” Yes, I used to think, this is how I want to die: skydiving from an airplane or climbing a mountain, pushing myself right up until the end.

 Now, however, I think that when the time comes, I want to stop and look at that dying light. If it’s anything like the waning light in October, it will be beautiful.

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A Meditation on Meetings

Jakobspilger,

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Looking at the title, you might think this blog is about business meetings or faculty meetings or town meetings. A blog where I quote Dave Barry: “If you had to identify in one word the reason the human race has not achieved, and never will achieve, its full potential, that word would be ‘meetings.’”

I could tell you about my first high school faculty meeting in Vermont in 1965 and the two items on the agenda: 1.) a guidance department recommendation to change the students’ cumulative averages from numbers to letters—in other words, instead of graduating with an 86 average, the student would have a B average—and 2.) a faculty committee recommendation that the high school have “differentiated diplomas,” showing whether the student had taken advanced placement, college, business, or general courses. And I could say that after over an hour of discussion, we voted to accept the guidance department’s recommendation and to table the diploma question for another meeting.

I could fast forward 32 years to Maine and the first faculty meeting of the year and the two items on the agenda: 1.) a guidance department recommendation to change the students’ cumulative averages from letters to numbers—in other words, instead of graduating with a B average, the student would have an 86 average—and 2.) a faculty committee recommendation that the high school have “differentiated diplomas,” showing whether the student had taken advanced placement, college, business, or general courses. And that after over an hour of discussion, we voted to accept the guidance department’s recommendation and to table the diploma question for another meeting. And I would add that I left this meeting thinking it was time for me to leave public education.

But I don’t want to write about those kinds of meetings.

Looking back at my journal, I see that a few pages before I started writing about our cruise down the Rhine this summer, I quote Pico Iyer, one of my favorite travel writers: “Travel is at heart about the meeting between one soul and something she doesn’t know, and that encounter will never grow old or disappear.”

This is the kind of meeting I think all of us, whether we travel to Europe or to the grocery store all crave: an encounter to give life meaning.

Later in my journal, I describe a statue in Speyer, Germany entitled Jakobspilger, German for St. James’ Pilgrim. Speyer is part of the Camino de Santiago, the famous pilgrimage route to the Spanish town of Santiago de Compostela, where, according to Christian tradition, the Apostle Saint James was buried. Rereading my journal now, I realize that for almost six years now (Good Lord!), I’ve been blogging about my various travels—through both exterior and interior landscapes—as a pilgrimage.

And, I can see, as meetings.

In front of Jakobspilger’s long staff, an inscribed biblical verse from Hebrew 13:14, reads, in translation: “For here we have no lasting city, but we seek the city which is to come.” I think of my pilgrimages to so-called “thin places,” where the distance between the secular and the holy, the cities that don’t last and the city which will, shrinks and I’ve met—albeit briefly—the eternal.

Sometimes, it’s a case of immediate recognition: my first glimpse of the Scottish island of Iona rising out of the mist sent chills down my spine, as did my first look up through California’s redwoods. I felt a vital connection, a spark of divinity, bringing me to life.

Closer to home, I’ve always felt more alive this time of year. While, as you can probably tell, I disliked faculty meetings, I always looked forward to meeting my students for the first time. My life was transformed by these meetings, and I’d like to think theirs were as well. Even now, I feel a little more alive watching my grandchildren begin a new year and despite the continuing threat of COVID, evince the same excitement I felt both as a student and as a teacher.

First Day of School 2021

Of course, not all encounters between “one soul and something she doesn’t know” are holy, or even pleasurable. Meeting death for the first time when my daughter died of cancer was the most painful experience of my life. And in her suffering during the nine months leading up to her death, I met Evil, felt it as a tangible presence: obscene, grotesque, and powerful.  These encounters also immediately changed my life.

More often, however, my most important meetings have taken me weeks, months, or years to recognize as being life changing. My favorite of all the resurrection stories in the Bible is that of the two disciples of Jesus walking on the Road to Emmaus after the crucifixion who meet Jesus and don’t recognize him until later, in “the reading of scripture and the breaking of the bread.” I’ve been married twice and in both cases, my first meeting with the woman with whom I would live “for better or worse, in sickness or in health,” for twenty and thirty-five years respectively made little or no impression on me.

When I was there, I hated the old city of Jerusalem, its heat, its religious tensions, its commercialism. Yet in the following weeks, I began to realize I had a clearer understanding of the complexity of Israeli and Palestinian relationships, that I understood the Bible differently (God, people then must have had legs of steel to walk up and down all those hills, and no wonder water was so important!) and that Jesus’s crucifixion and resurrection made sense in ways it never had. Another encounter that, as Pico Iyer says, “…will never grow old or disappear.”

And then there are the times when I’ve met someone again for the first time. In some ways, I find these meetings the most satisfying. Students I taught forty years ago who reappear in my life as wise and witty adults. Old high school classmates (my 60th high school reunion is coming up), some of whom I never had much contact with, but whose Facebook posts make me laugh and cry.

The 45th High School Reunion

My wife, who surprises me every day. And, thanks to working my 12-step program, the me I’ve never met before, the one I’ve hidden for years behind any number of personas.

All of these engagements educate me, help me grow, even at my age.

So why are the other meetings so enervating? I’m not sure. I don’t think it has to do with size; I’ve had important 12-step and men’s group meetings with over twenty people in them. Rather, I think it might have something to do with whether our meetings are about making external changes—to numbers, letters, diplomas—or about personal transformation. In Al Anon or our men’s group, for example, there’s no trying to solve anything. There’s sharing instead of discussing. People speak from their hearts and not their egos.

Which shows me—and this is hard to write for someone who’s spent his life setting goals and trying to reach them—that being alive, really alive, is more about souls than it is about goals.

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Rhine Diary

The Middle Rhine

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7/25: Amsterdam. We’re here. Right up until the plane took off, I wasn’t sure this trip would ever happen. Over the last two years, I’ve booked two cruises and had to cancel both. This spring, I had a painful bone spur in my heel. For the last two weeks, I’ve been reading and worrying about flooding along the Rhine. And after two years of staying at home, I find myself anxious and reluctant to travel to another state, let alone another continent.

On the plane from Boston, I started reading Sharon Salzburg’s Real Change, in which she talked about our three responses to stress—flight, fight, and freeze—and I realized how frozen I’ve been during this pandemic.

This was painfully clear at Logan Airport. The driver of our shuttle from the hotel let us out at the wrong terminal, so that by the time we got to the ticket counter there was a pretty good line. Once at the counter, we were told we needed to fill out a special COVID questionnaire to get into Ireland (never mind that we were only in Ireland to change planes), and that this form needed to be filled out on our iPhones.

That was when I literally froze. I couldn’t get my fingers to work and had to have Mary Lee do the damn thing for me. By taking so long, we got the last two seats in the back of the plane, which meant being the last off the plane in Dublin, which meant running (or what passes for running at my age) from one end of the airport to the other, which meant barely making our connecting flight.

But after meeting the nice folks at Viking and walking the streets of Amsterdam over the canals, I can feel myself thawing a bit, feel myself flowing with the pedestrians, bicyclists, and cars past people sitting in front of cafes and coffee shops.

7/26: We’ve started our cruise on the lower Rhine, stopping at Kinderdijk to look at 18th Century windmills, used to keep water out of these lowlands. Along the Rhine delta, many trees and bushes along the banks are still under water after the floods, and last week part of this cruise had to be canceled because of rapid water.

Still, I’m finding being on the river more serene than I’d thought. I shouldn’t be surprised, since I’ve always found rivers calming. I grew up by a river, and I’ve often imagined my life as part of a river flowing from my forebears to an indeterminant future just around the next bend. This morning, Mary Lee and I meditated on our little balcony outside our stateroom, and I watched the Rhine through half-closed eyes and felt myself rocked. Held.

7/27: Cologne. Our excursion this morning was primarily through the 14th-century gothic cathedral, one of the few buildings not destroyed in WWII by Allied planes. Supposedly, it holds the bones of the Magi and was a site for pilgrimages in the Middle Ages.

Cologne Cathedral

For me, however, it was finding the Kathe Kollwitz Museum during our free time this afternoon which was my pilgrimage. Kollwitz, the German artist who worked with painting, printmaking, and sculpture, and whose son Peter was killed in World War I, showed me how powerful art can be in helping to overcome grief. Reading Kollwitz’s diaries of her seventeen-year struggle to create a monument to her son inspired me to keep working on my novel, Requiem in Stones, based on the death of my own child.

7/28: Koblenz: Woke this morning to a change in landscape: more hilly, rocky, and wooded. Koblenz is 70 kms from Weilburg (pronounced, I find, “Vile-borg”), where my paternal ancestors originated before moving to Nova Scotia in 1750. No time to visit, but I’ve got it on my bucket list.  

Koblenz, like Cologne, was 90% destroyed in WWII, so I didn’t feel as if I were looking at the physical layering of history the way I did, let’s say, in Turkey, where stones from churches, mosques, or palaces from one era were used in erecting new buildings. Instead, we were looking at Germany’s efforts to incorporate—layer, if you will—its past into its national consciousness, especially its treatment of Jews. Today, for example, we saw copper inserts in the sidewalks in memory of local Jews who were killed during the war, as well as modern art and sculpture looking at eras of German history.

This afternoon, what’s called the Middle Rhine carried us by 16 or 17 castles. Again, the sense of floating through history. The views of castles rising out of the mountains, sloped with vineyards were magnificent.

One of the many castles on the Middle Rhine

Another great regional meal on board ship and a glass-blowing demonstration and presents for my brother and sister and us. Again, the power of art.

7/29: Speyer. Walking tour, courtesy of “Hermann, the German,” 89 years old, who biked two kilometers to meet the ship and guided us on a two-hour walk through the town before biking home. Hermann talked from personal experience about post-war Germany. He was a schoolboy in the Nazi era, wearing a brown shirt because if he hadn’t, he wouldn’t have been able to go past elementary school. His father was a German soldier who spent two or three years after the war in a French prison camp.

Hermann the German

Listening to the Germans talk about their past, especially their Nazi past, helps me be more more honest about those less pleasant parts of my life, and I think we in the U.S. can learn much from Germany in how to name and accept our past genocides.

7/30: Strasbourg. Brief trip into France. Actually, since 1870, Strasbourg has been part of Germany twice and part of France twice. The Cathedrale Notre Dame de Strasbourg is another church that was at one time the highest building in Europe. The churches I’ve seen so far on this trip show me how religion almost always becomes politicized. They may contain stained glass pictures from the Bible, but I also saw statue after statue of some general or king in armor wielding a sword. After seeing these churches, I shouldn’t find the political agendas of Fundamentalists unusual.

The Cathedrale Notre Dame de Strasbourg

In our free time this afternoon, Mary Lee and I wandered beside the canals before eventually stopping in a square for hot chocolate (me), coffee (her), a croissant, and people watching. Scribbling in my notebook made me feel like Ernest Hemingway—another (for better or worse) huge influence on my life—writing in La Closerie des Lilas, in the Montparnasse quarter of Paris in the 1920’s.

7/31: Breisach and the Black Forest. More cruising into my past. Germany’s Black Forest reminds me of Idaho’s Payette Forest. ML and I joined a hike to a waterfall, another rejuvenating image for me. I’m sure we were the oldest ones on that hike. I alternate between feeling old and decrepit and old and pretty healthy.

Mary Lee

8/1: Basal, Switzerland. Today we said good-bye to Rene and Maria and Marina and Ada and Ann Marie and the rest of the staff and left our cruise for our two-day extension to Lucerne, Switzerland. For many years, I worked summers with tourists, and I know how much work goes into making vacations run smoothly. These folks were good.

Basal

On the balcony outside our stateroom waiting for the bus to Lucerne, I read more of Sharon Salzburg’s Real Change: “When I want to summon strength and power in the midst of awfulness and hate, I contemplate water. [Water is]…always changing, in motion, yet revealing continual patterns of behavior.”

I’ve found these “continual patterns” fascinating on this trip, from my reintroduction to the serenity of rivers, to my renewal of my love of Kollwitz and Hemingway, to my feeling part of the river of Wiles flowing from Weilburg, to my continued love of streams and forests, to my summers working with tourists in Bar Harbor, Maine.

Salzburg also wrote that yes, water can freeze, but it can also thaw. And I feel thawed out. My goal is to continue feeling this way.

This morning at breakfast, we looked across what is now the Upper Rhine to the other shore to see a naked man emerge from the river, where he’d been for a swim, and walk down a boardwalk to his clothes. Most people found the guy hilarious. I, however, saw him as an icon for starting each day rising from a river, naked, newly-born.

Metaphorically, of course. I don’t even take my shirt off at the beach anymore.

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Smoke & Memories

My fifteen minutes of fame (Or, after two hours of having my picture taken, this is the best she could do)

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The other evening just before sunset, I was watering my little plot in the community garden, when I smelled the rich, burnt odor of pipe tobacco. Without turning around, I knew it was Madison, whose plot is next to mine. Madison is the only pipe smoker I know these days—another example of how much the world has changed during my over three quarters of a century on this planet.

When I was growing up, almost everyone smoked. Smoke hung in the air in movie theaters, teachers’ rooms, lobbies, airplanes, trains, buses, hotel rooms, dance halls, any place where people congregated, apart from church sanctuaries and classrooms (and come to think of it, when I was a graduate assistant teaching in college, my students and I smoked there, too).

My father started smoking about the age of twelve and continued until his death at 66 from oat cell carcinoma—a highly malignant form of lung cancer that occurs only in smokers. One of my most vivid memories is of him sitting in the living room flicking ashes into a huge glass brown ashtray as he drank Blue Ribbon and smoked his Camels, watching The Gillette Friday Night Fights on our black and white Philco, while I sat on the couch, eating my bologna sandwich, aware at some level of being initiated into the male world of razor blades and beer and violence and cigarettes.

My grandfather Lufkin’s cigar was part of him, like his railroad cap, his glasses, and his hearing aid. He never put his cigar down. Wisps of smoke leaking from the corners of his mouth, he’d polish the chrome portholes of one of the Buicks he bought every two years, run a pine board through the table saw in his workshop, and point out tufts of grass I’d missed clipping along the side of the garage.

My first smoke was a cigar—a Phillies Cheroot, whose TV ads featured cowboys and wide-open western prairies before the Marlboro Man galloped into the scenery. I can’t remember who gave me that cigar, but I remember being at the local carnival with Spider and Willie and Goose and Marty–maybe even Pea Soup and Wild Bill–sauntering through the rides and the games and fun houses, looking for girls. As we paused in front of the Giant Swing to light our cigars, I met Susan, who was to become my first love, coming with her friends from the opposite direction.

After Susan and I broke up, I bought a pipe because, along with my pin-striped shirts and chinos with a buckle in the back and dirty bucks, I thought it made me ready for college. I smoked that pipe, filled with a cloyingly sweet tobacco called Rum and Maple, until I filched a pack of Dad’s Camels from the carton he always had in his bedroom closet, and spent one afternoon in front of a mirror imitating the way he smoked—wedging a cigarette into the V between my index and middle fingers, casually raising my hand to his mouth and inhaling slowly, drawing the smoke deep into my lungs, trying to exhale with a satisfied sigh as smoke seared my lungs and tears rolled down my face.

But I got the hang of it, and the next day I bought my own Camels. And after about a week, I was smoking a pack a day, just like Dad.

I was a man.

But cigarettes lost their appeal, when, after four years of two packs a day and summers inhaling smoke as a fire fighter, my lungs could no longer take unfiltered Camels. By then, however, I was hooked and it took another fifteen years of cutting down, switching brands, stopping, starting again, cutting down again before I could throw away what were now called cancer sticks.

I went back to my pipe. Which became my hundred pipes (no, really: I counted them once)—meershams, corn cobs, long-stemmed clay pipes, pipes with special filters, carved pipes with caps, a Sherlock Holmes Calabash—along with pipe racks (some I’d made myself), pipe cleaners, pipe scrapers, pipe sweeteners, tobacco pouches and tobacco jars. I had my own special blend of tobacco, thanks to the Blue Hill Tea & Tobacco Shop, which I may have kept in business.

In the teachers’ room

I used to think my pipe enhanced my teaching persona, along with my suits and vests and ties and matching pocket handkerchiefs, but I wonder now if spending all that time collecting and fiddling with my pipes wasn’t a way to avoid dealing with the disintegration of my first marriage, a way to lose myself in smoke.

After I remarried and moved back to the town in which I’d been raised, I threw away my pipes, started jogging, and mixed granola instead of tobacco. Then, Mary Lee and I bought my grandfather Lufkin’s house. One night, just after we’d moved in, I was in the garage besides my grandfather’s workbench, when I swore I could smell the fragrance of Grampy’s cigar. The next afternoon I walked to the corner store and bought a package of Phillies Cheroots.

The next time Mary Lee and I were visiting her parents in Cambridge, Massachusetts, I took a walk into Harvard Square and discovered Leavitt and Peirce, a well-known tobacco store. I went in, bought a small Hoyo de Monterrey, and went upstairs to where a couple of men—Harvard professors, I decided—were talking philosophy, playing chess, and smoking big cigars.

For this country boy from Maine, large, expensive hand-rolled cigars became the doorway into a new world of intellectual sophistication. And when, a few years later, a national magazine called Cigar Aficionado accepted my essay “Smoking on the Back Porch,” cigar smoking became the source of my fifteen minutes of fame (John Travolta appeared on the cover; I was—thanks to a two-hour photography session—on the back page), not to mention the source of one of my few substantial paychecks for a piece of writing.

In that Cigar Aficionado piece, I quote Ecclesiastes: “To everything there is a season.” Cigar smoking, which I thought had been a contemplative practice, eventually started to get in the way of real contemplation, and on my sixtieth birthday, I had my last cigar. And have had no desire to smoke since.

But I still dream about smoking again. And even now, thinking about this habit/practice/hobby/whatever that killed my father (and also my other grandfather, another heavy cigarette smoker), scarred my lungs, and cost me I can’t calculate how many thousands of dollars, I’m filled with warm and fuzzy memories.

Go figure.

I think what may attract me these days to the smell of Madison’s pipe is that smoking reminds me of important transition points in my life—entering adulthood, going to college, becoming a teacher, learning to be a writer—as well as important people, such as my father and grandfathers. All of which and all of whom made me who I am today.

And I’m happy I to be that person.

I’m also happy he no longer smokes.

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Confessions of an Introvert

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Recently, at the men’s group I help facilitate, I said that all through the pandemic, I’d been thankful for being an introvert. Except for not being able to be with my grandchildren, my life hadn’t changed all that much: I wrote in the morning, I walked in the afternoon. I noodled on my banjo, read, and watched old movies on TV. Now that the pandemic is winding down, however, I admitted I’ve been struggling to reenter society. The pace of life has picked up, the world seems louder, and I have difficulty talking with people face to face.

“You’re an introvert?” said a guy I’ve known for almost twenty years. “I’d never have known that.”

Which surprised me at first, until I realized how often in my life I have tried to cover up my need for solitude, my dislike of large groups, and my discomfort around loud people because of feeling there was something wrong with me.

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One of my earliest memories is of crawling into a cupboard next to the chimney in our living room and curling up in the dark next to the warm bricks. As I wrote in last month’s blog, I used to spend a lot of time as a boy nestled in my favorite pine tree watching the clouds. On weekends and when I was sick, I loved to curl up under the covers of my bed and listen to “Bobby Benson of the B-Bar-B,” “Sky King,” “Sergeant Preston of the Yukon,” and any number of other radio shows.

All that changed when I moved from the two-room primary school just up the street to the third grade in adjoining elementary and junior high schools. Suddenly, I was thrust into an intimidating world of sixth, seventh, and eighth graders, and because in those days students routinely repeated grades, some of these kids were fifteen and sixteen years old. Bullying was common. I started waking up early in the morning fearful that Freddy Fitts would twist my arm behind my back and make me cry, the way he had with my classmate Roland.

That’s when I discovered the value of safety in numbers. I joined a gang of guys who used to go around picking on solitary kids. It was mostly verbal (which still doesn’t make me feel any better about some of the things I used to say), and I discovered I had a knack for the quick cutting remark. (See previous parenthetical comment.) Instead of a twisted arm, I got laughs. When I began playing sports, I hung around with teammates, which fed my ego because athletes were looked up to.

In high school, there were always friends at my house, a party or a dance every weekend, and joyriding around town in between. I was selected as “Class Wit.”

Still, I occasionally snuck off by myself, sat by the river at the foot of the hill where I lived, and listened to the water and watched the birds. It’s interesting to me that looking back sixty-plus years, I remember those times by the river more clearly than I remember parties I went to or dances I attended.

It was in college that I reverted to my introverted self, not because I wanted to, but because I never had the knack (and still don’t, I’m finding as I go back into the world) of meeting new people. While my old high school classmates were joining fraternities, I sat in the back of the college den unable to break out of what I felt was a locked room, convinced I was a failure for not being outgoing and popular.

After college, I found the perfect place to retreat into my self: on stage. (I’m not alone; I’ve read about I don’t know how many actors, singers, and comedians who are deeply introverted). My stage was my classroom, where I dressed in flashy sport coats, bell-bottomed trousers, bright matching ties and pocket handkerchiefs. I arranged the chairs so that I was center stage. All of which to project confidence and wisdom. Every teaching day was like disappearing into an Iron Man suit. I felt invincible.

Until one day, I found Iron Man’s hands around my neck, twisting the life out of me.

I left my job, my wife, my daughter, my house. I remarried a woman who loved what she called (and still does) “silence and slow time.” Together, we began to practice meditation. (I remember the first time I tried to meditate, I felt foolish. I imagined old high school classmates and my students calling me crazy, until I realized, no, I’ve been doing this all my life.) Mary Lee and I started going on silent retreats, making pilgrimages, or just traveling. Almost always alone, seldom on tours, avoiding for the most part the usual tourist spots.

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Last week, I was telling another introvert about how often—and apparently successfully—I’ve hidden my introversion, and she recommended the book Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking by Susan Cain. I haven’t finished it yet, but I’m fascinated, and somewhat relieved, by the way the author shows how this country changed its 19th-Century emphasis on ‘character’ to—thanks in large part to Dale Carnegie’s How to win Friends and Influence People—a 20th Century obsession with ‘personality,’ to the point where shy children have been stigmatized, even given drugs to make them more outgoing.

I imagine some of you reading this know better than I how difficult it can be to grow up as an introvert. How people often equate being shy with being weak. I remember a principal I worked for who wrote in his evaluation that I was “diffident,” a word I had to look up. When I found it meant “lacking confidence, timid, shy,” I challenged him. Come to find out, he wasn’t talking about my classroom teaching, he was talking about the way I’d chaired a faculty meeting on accreditation, something I’d never in my life done before. (My next principal, by the way, at my going away party when I left the school, called me “One of our towering presences.”)

So how does any of this help me resurface after over a year of “silence and slow time,” especially into a world that has grown louder and more aggressive (i.e., January 6)? Well, even as I was writing the last paragraph, I realized that there’s still part of me that believes introverted means weak and that I need to hide behind some kind of extroverted persona. One of my temptations in these blogs, for example, is to pose as more of a world traveler than I am. (I’ve lived 74 of my 78 years in one state, of heaven’s sake.)

Enough people have told me that I’m a good teacher that I believe it, but if so, I continued to be a good teacher after I stopped wearing the matching neckties and pocket handkerchiefs. I didn’t need to pose. I just enjoyed teaching.  And I don’t need to pose as a wandering adventurer to approach this new post-COVID world with the curiosity, even wonder of a pilgrim. I can accept, even relish, being an introvert and try to maintain the more leisurely pace of the last year or so, making time for plenty of solitude with the God-of-my-not-Understanding. I can become more involved in my Al Anon and Adult Children of Alcoholics groups, which are made up predominately of fellow introverts (which makes me wonder how much of being an introvert is nature and how much is nurture or the lack thereof).

And I can keep calling this blog “The Geriatric Pilgrim.”

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The Climbing Tree

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In my early childhood, one of my favorite places in the world was at the top of a pine tree on the edge of the field behind our house. This tree was probably pretty small, but in my memory it loomed over me. I remember the first time I made it to the top, I felt as if I’d been climbing for an hour and that my head was almost in the clouds. At the top of the tree, I found where a couple of branches had made a saddle, and from then on, I’d climb up, wedge myself into the branches, lean back, and watch those clouds. Sometimes they were dragons for me to conquer, sometimes ships to sail, sometimes castles where a great king (my first image of God) lived.

Sometimes the wind blew, rocking me back and forth. Usually, I could hear the river at the foot of the hill. As I grew older, I’d wonder who or what made these clouds and the wind and the river, which led to curiosity about who or what made me.

I thought of “my tree,” the other day as I stood at the foot of a tall (and this one is tall) pine tree in the woods near our house, looking up at my eight-year-old grandson climbing from branch to branch. But while part of me was filled with nostalgia, part of me was scared to death. What if he slipped? My god, he might impale himself on that sharp limb below him. Oh, shit! Is that next branch safe?

Well, he didn’t try to make it to the top and he came down safely and I didn’t say anything, so we were both happy, but on the way home I got to thinking about how fearful I’ve become these days.

I don’t like it.

I’ve written before in these blogs about fear. In one (https://geriatricpilgrim.com/2019/07/) I talked about fear being an acronym for “false evidence appearing real.” These days, however, my greatest fears are various manifestations of something very real: my mortality.

These fears probably began with the death of my eighteen-year-old daughter Laurie thirty-two years ago—at least, that’s when death for me became a reality instead of a concept. But it wasn’t until twenty years later that the deaths of other people I knew and liked and loved started falling on me, first, as an occasional raindrop, now steady precipitation—my classmates Marty and Tom, Laurie’s mother, my wife’s parents, my mother, more and more classmates like Roger and Scott, Diane and Audrey. Then, two years ago, I, whose cholesterol levels, heart rate, and weight were all great, needed bypass surgery. Three months later, my former brother-in-law, who walked, swam, played tennis, and lifted weights, apparently in perfect health, suddenly dropped dead of the same kind of heart blockage that I’d had.

Not only did that make death real, it made death something over which I—always a control freak—have no control over. And that’s probably what really frightens me.

I realize the first thing I think about when I wake up in the morning are all the bad things that might happen today to me or to someone I love. Will that ache in my shoulder turn out to be a heart attack? My wife’s getting these serious pains in her knee. What if she has Parkinson’s or becomes wheelchair bound? The wind’s blowing—what happens if that tree in the back yard falls on the house and kills Mary Lee or me? I can’t find my keys again. Does that mean Alzheimer’s?

Now, so far none of that has happened. My life is good. I often go to bed at night grateful for the day. Why then can’t I wake up in the morning feeling the same way?

I suspect I’m still fighting being mortal, still trying to do the things I used to be able to do, still attempting to control the things—like my body—I used to be able to control. I need to be spending a little more time with the Serenity Prayer: “God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and wisdom to know the difference.”

So then, what can I change? What do I have control over?

I do have some control over how I die: my state has a “Death with Dignity” law. But at this point, I’m more interested in how I live until that time, and I don’t want to spend my remaining days awfulizing about all the nasty things that could happen until my death.

Maybe what I need to be asking as time grows short and I age and break down is what’s most important to me? What do I want to be able to do as long as possible?

Well, one of the things that’s important to me is to be able to look at life the same way I did when I used to climb that pine tree. I had a destination. I looked up instead of down. I didn’t mind if I got splinters or a little pitch on my hands. And once I went as far as I could, I used my imagination and wondered about creation.

Okay, I can’t go as far as I could, even a year ago. (Have I told you about my heel spur?) But I can work on looking up instead of down (or as I age, ahead instead of back. I still think most of my fears of the future go back to anxieties passed on to me by my parents). I can still have a destination (a word, remember, that means purpose as well as place)—an essay or poem to write, a book to read—even if, like Stephen Hawking, I might have to write on a computer by twitching my cheeks, or “read” through audiobooks. I don’t mind a little pain or not looking young any more as long as I can still be as curious about the changes in my grandchildren as I was about the changing shapes of clouds. I can still find beauty and wonder in nature (I just stopped writing to take a picture of our azalea bush), even if I might have to ask someone someday to wheel me outside to experience it.

That’s all worth looking forward to. Worth living for.

I think it’s time to stop asking myself in the morning, “What can go wrong today?” and start asking, “What is my destination today? What can I be curious about? Wonder at?”

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While Holding the Cat (Or: Wile, Holding the Cat)

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The beginning of Holy Week—the week of Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and Easter—and I’m sitting in a chair looking the window, trying to drink a cup of tea while holding our cat, Zeke. Not an easy task, especially since Zeke can’t seem to get settled, but during this year of COVID-CRUD, the two of us have bonded, probably because I have more patience than I did a year ago, so I wait him out.

Which is sort of what I get to thinking about. If I rise halfway out of my chair (which I can’t because Zeke has finally curled up on my arm), I can look through the window down to some crocuses poking through the ground. Spring is here, along with Easter and all it signifies about resurrection and new hope. Mary Lee and I have been double-vaccinated, and for the first time in a year, the grandchildren are coming to spend the weekend with us.

And I’m not sure I want any of it.

I think of the little delights of the previous year—not the big delights like reading and writing and flailing away at my banjo, those will go on no matter what—but the little delights that I’d never have noticed if I hadn’t had more time to consider them:

The squirrel who nearly every morning while I do my exercises bounces from the limb of one fir tree across the hollow in the back yard to the limb of another fir, making the trees look like they’re dancing.

The wooden butter knife I use to scrape the sides of the cone filter when I make coffee that always reminds me of Jeff, the guy who made it: a free spirit and real artist with wood, as well as someone I used to play music with, BCE (Before the COVID Era).

 The painted little wooden bird houses on my neighbor’s fence, which at first I thought were really kitschy until she told me her granddaughter had made or at least painted them for her, which suddenly made them really, really cute.

The pale yellow remains of the last remaining pumpkin I grew last year and kept on the dining room table until after Thanksgiving when I put it on the patio where the squirrels (probably including the one who bounces across the gully in the morning) ate the insides out of, so I threw the shell into the hollow where it still lies, weighing only a few ounces but still holding its shape.

Seeing my old friend Andy on Zoom, which is a bitter-sweet delight, since he’s battling Parkinson’s and is himself only a shell of the witty, intelligent man he was when I first knew him but who continues to handle his decline with a grace that I can only hope to maintain should anything like that ever happen to me.

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It’s probably some form of mental inertia, but I tend to grow comfortable, even in my discomfort.

Sitting in my chair, petting Zeke, I recall his predecessor, Koshka (which is the Russian word for cat—actually, female cat, which Koshka wasn’t, but we didn’t know it at the time [that the word meant female cat, not that we didn’t know Koshka’s sex]) whom we bought as a kitten after my daughter Laurie was diagnosed with cancer. In Laurie’s last visit to our house, shortly before she went into the hospital where she spent the last two months of her life, I took a picture of her holding Koshka (probably what turned me from a dog to a cat lover).

In the following years, Koshka grew to twenty pounds of CAT, his size enlarged by his being part Maine Coon and having the tail the size of a furry zuchini. He was an imposing presence, not unlike my grief, and his moods seemed to mirror mine. If I felt isolated and withdrawn, he disappeared; after I began meditating, he’d jump into my lap and curl up, his breathing a match for mine.

During one particularly bad time when Laurie’s absence was a palpable ache in my heart and I was angry at everyone and everything, he developed a urinary infection, and I remember the time his howling woke us up in the middle of the night, and I saw him standing with his back arched in the middle of our bedroom floor, staring at the cross on our meditation alter, sounding as if he were screaming to God, “Why hast thou forsaken me?”

As years passed and my bouts of intense grief grew less frequent, Koshka dropped to about 12 pounds and lost all but four teeth. But as if to remind me that grief is the gift that keeps on giving, the summer before he died, somewhere around my daughter’s birthday, he got in a standoff with another cat who’d wandered into the yard, and, when I tried to pick him up, sank one of his four teeth into my arm, sending me to the hospital (missed an artery by 2 cms.).

Twenty years after Laurie’s death, when Koshka fell in the bathroom on his way to the litter box and refused to leave and we called a vet to come to the house to help him die peacefully, I grieved for a week—not, I realize now, for an old cat, not even for my daughter, but for the loss of the grief that had defined me for twenty years.

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Zeke lifts his head, which is his way of telling me he wants to be scratched under his chin. In size and temperament, Zeke is as similar to Koshka as a chickadee is to a turkey vulture. Unlike Koshka, who used to breathe with me in my lap while I was meditating, Zeke is usually scratching frantically in his litter box at that time of the day. Which, I’ve decided pretty much reflects what’s going on in my mind lately. I too, have been a little frantic, scratching in the litter box of my mind, worried about my various aches and pains (Leonard Cohen: “I ache in all the places where I used to play.”), my grandchildren’s future, the end of democracy in this country, etc. ad nauseam. Which is probably why I’m apprehensive about the coming of Easter (my favorite Easter gospel is Mark, where the women “fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.” That’s sure as hell what I would have done.)

But Zeke has calmed down these days. At least, that’s what I think until his mysterious eyes, which have been mere slits, widen, and he bites my hand and scampers away. The next thing I know, he’s batting a toy mouse at my feet, as if to say, “Come on, Wile, get off your ass. Stop looking out the window at the world and get outside and enjoy it. Get ready for those grandchildren!”

Okay, okay. Time to rise. Sometimes you get resurrected whether you want to or not.

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Have Snakeskin, will Travel

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Over the past 30 years, I’ve made many retreats to monasteries. The silence, punctuated by worship several times a day, slows me down, increases my awareness, and keeps me centered. All of which have helped me live comfortably during this last year of COVID-enforced isolation.

But as much as I love monasteries, I’ve never had any desire to be a monk. There’s the celibacy thing, for one thing, but also the fact that, at least in the monastery I’m most familiar with, the Brothers clean out their cells every year, discarding everything but the bare essentials. As one Brother explained, “Refraining from possession helps us remember the transient nature of earthly life.”

Well, I’ll admit it. I want my possessions. The room in which I’m writing this is full of them. I have bowls of stones from the various pilgrimages Mary Lee and I have made, a hat covered in hat pins from states and countries I’ve been to, and a budding collection of banjos. I also have random things: a wooden plate made by my father, a few joke books written by an old friend, now deceased, a pencil holder that used to belong to my father-in-law…

And a snakeskin.

Almost 60 years old, the skin rests on my bookcase, brittle, brown, and bent. When I pick it up, it crinkles like old parchment. Some of the translucent scales underneath, looking like fragments of old scotch tape, have fallen off (another came off now). I can’t think of anybody who’d want the damn thing except me. And I wouldn’t part with it for $1000.

As I run my fingers over the mottled brown and yellow skin, the years fall away and it is the summer of 1963. I am slowly coming down a steep slope of something between a hill and a mountain in the Payette National Forest in Idaho. Below me is the third fork of the Salmon River. (Often called “The River of No Return.” If you can, check out the 1954 movie by that name starring Robert Mitchum and Marilyn Monroe.) As I descend, picking my way through blackened rocks and burned shrubs and grass, I begin to encounter small groves of Ponderosa Pine and Douglas Fir, which I check to make sure aren’t smoldering. But they’re fine. The fire didn’t get down this far.

I’m working on a Hotshot Crew based in McCall, Idaho, a small touristy town on the edge of Payette Lake (something like 5,000 people and eight bars) about thirty miles from here. Our crew is a regional crew, which means we’re flown to any state in the upper western United States that has a large forest fire. The term “hotshot” describes those who work on the hottest part of a forest fire. Our primary job is to dig a fire line around the fire. We have a crew of eighteen, plus a crew chief, Paul, an assistant crew chief, Tex, and a scout, Dave Bodley, “Bo Diddly,” we call him, a bear of a guy who goes ahead with a chain saw, cutting down limbs, clearing a path through fallen trees. Then, we follow in a line as close to the fire as we can get. Twelve of us carry pulaskis, a tool which combines an axe and a hoe in one head on a three-foot handle, to scrape the forest duff and chop roots.

Pulaski (from Wikipedia}

The remaining six of us have shovels to scrape and widen the fire line to about three feet or more. The idea is to cut a fire line and walk at a steady pace at the same time for as long as needed, sometimes for up to twelve hours. Once the fire is contained, we go into the burned areas and put out individual hot spots by scraping the burning coals from the trees or shoveling dirt on the flames or just digging smaller fire lines and letting the fire burn itself out. Then, when the fire’s under control, we let the locals mop up what’s left and head back to McCall.

Headed out. (Wikipedia)

Except this time we’re the locals. The Payette is our own National Forest, and after we contained the blaze, I volunteered to stay behind with Tex, Birddog, and Mike for two or three days to make sure we didn’t miss any remaining fire.

So we have two or three days to hike up and down the hills looking for smokes, swim in the chilly waters of the Salmon River, have Pulaski throwing contests, play poker around a campfire, and hunt rattlesnakes. These rocks and ravines are home to all kinds of snakes who like to come out in the afternoon and sun themselves, and I want to catch a rattler.

Despite the fact that this is my second summer on the job, I’ve never run into one. Part of our training has been to learn what to do if bitten and I have a snake-bite kit in my backpack, but so far, all I’ve seen are bull snakes, who look like the Northern Pacific Rattlesnakes that live here, but don’t have the rattles.

Then, on the ground ahead of me in front of an opening in some rocks, I see a snake. I inch my way closer, but I still can’t tell what kind it is. In addition to having rattles, rattlesnakes’ eyes are more like cat’s eyes than those on a bull snake, but I’m not near enough yet to tell.

When I’m maybe a couple of yards away, my foot crunches some gravel. Within seconds, the snake coils, raising its arrow-shaped head and tail. I hear the rattling. Without thinking, I take a giant step forward, swing my Pulaski over my head and drive it down through the snake, slicing it into three pieces.

The smallest piece is the head. I poke it with the Pulaski, noting its long thin tongue outside its mouth. I take the other two pieces to camp. Tex shows me how to skin them, and hang the skins up on a branch to dry in tomorrow’s sun. That night we have a rattlesnake appetizer (and yes, it tastes like chicken) to go with our canned Vienna sausages. Two days later, I take the largest skin, about 15” long, with me.

I know my life is transient—“like grass,” as the Psalmist says. Which is why I need to spend what’s left of it looking at more than the small grove of fir trees out my back window. Especially in this year of not being able to travel physically, I need a wider view. Of 10,000-foot mountains and a river full of cutthroat trout, bull trout, rainbow trout, mountain white fish, sockeye salmon, Chinook salmon, steelhead, smallmouth bass, squawfish, sucker, and sturgeon. Of guys from California, Oregon, Washington, Utah, Texas, Oklahoma, Nebraska, Utah, and Colorado, with names like Bo-Diddley, Birddog, Tex, Spankie, and Alfalfa.

 A view that encompasses not only space but time: when I had a different name, “Froggie,” because of the way I hopped when I was first learning to dig a fire line; when I could dig that fire line for twelve hours and then walk another ten miles out to a cattle truck taking me to the airport; when I could flip a Pulaski fifteen feet and stick it into a pine tree. When the stars at night seemed to be so close that I could reach out and grab one any time I wanted.

All of which I can access by simply holding objects like a dried-up snakeskin in my arthritic hands. Suddenly, I am standing on the top of one of those 10,000-foot mountains, gazing over the vast landscape that is memory.

3rd Fork of the Salmon River. (Wikipedia)

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