Playing in the Woods Behind my House


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When I was a kid, I used to play in woods behind my house. Seventy years later, I play in the woods behind my house.

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My woods these days, operated by the Brunswick/Topsham Land Trust, encompass five miles of trails that wind through deep forest and Sandplain Grassland, along and across creeks and pools, past an active farm and a community garden. One trail leads to a stone quarry, another to a stone labyrinth.

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Every now and then, I’ll reread one of Thomas Hardy’s novels—Far from the Madding Crowd, Tess of the d’Urbervilles, Return of the Native. What I especially like, because it’s so true for me, is that in his novels the setting is a living character more than an inert backdrop.

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For me, the woods are feminine. I understand why nature is called Mother. Entering the vaginate opening to a woodland trail is for me both sacred and sensual. I feel embraced by silence and the fecund smells of pulsating life.

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Two years ago, one late afternoon, I had just finished walking the labyrinth in the woods, when a young man and woman came down the path. He carried several cameras and she was dressed in some kind of long, flowing dress, not something you usually see in the Maine woods.

He said hello, and then walked past me, ignoring the labyrinth itself to the stones in the center. “Yeah, these will be great.”

He helped her stand on one of the stones and began taking pictures. I walked away but as the trail turned, I looked back to see her thrust a leg out from the dress. When the trail turned again, I looked back through the woods to see a naked back and the dress down to her waist. Fighting the urge to remain, I kept walking but couldn’t resist one final last glance back to behold her standing nude on top of the stone bench.

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Two monarch butterflies are playing tag in the blueberry bushes and the bracken on Sandplain Grassland. I’d never paid much attention to bracken until after Mary Lee and I hiked St. Cuthbert’s Way in Scotland and England. There these ferns grow tall and thick and as we hiked through, we talked about that scene involving a phallic sword in Thomas Hardy’s Far from the Madding Crowd where Bathsheba Everdeen meets Sargent Troy in a hollow surrounded by bracken. Then, when we returned to Maine and walked these trails, I noticed all kinds of the stuff (bracken, not swords).

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Looking over the bracken and blueberries, I see the sprawling brick building where I taught for my last two years as a high school English teacher. If I look closely I can see myself looking out the window of my classroom to where I’m standing now, wondering what it would be like to be here, looking back at the high school. Our eyes meet. Mr. Wile tells me how he envies my freedom to be able to walk these trails on a Thursday morning; I tell him how proud I am that he’s a teacher.

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The B/T Land Trust maintains a number of bridges in these woods. Perhaps because of having been a teacher for forty-five years in high school, college, adult ed programs, homeless shelters, and churches, I find bridges represent what teaching is all about: providing a way for someone to cross from where they are to where they want or need to be.

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As much people seem to want to complicate my job, teaching for me has always been simply me saying to others, “See that? Isn’t that neat?”

And when I see the eyes light up, or someone says, “Yes! I get it. It is neat!” the feeling I get is right up there with sex.

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Part of the trail loop behind the high school is used for cross country meets and in the years B.C. (Before COVID) someone spray-painted the roots across the trail every autumn, making them easier to see to avoid turning an ankle.

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Roots fascinate me, especially the mycelium, the underground fungus network that enables trees to increase their functional root surface so they can take in twice the nutrients they could with just their roots alone. The fungus not only penetrates and envelops the tree’s roots, but also allows its web to roam through the surrounding forest floor, connect with other trees’ fungal partners and roots. A network is created, and now it’s easy for the trees to exchange vital nutrients and even information.

Although I don’t much like to think of myself as a fungus, it’s another good image of what teachers do.

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Crystal Springs Farm trails have no grand vistas, no purple mountains’ majesty, no waves crashing upon rugged rocks. The beauty here is subtle and often partially hidden under branches and bracken: lady slippers, star flowers, violets. It’s a delicate beauty, reminding me how delicate and beautiful life itself is.

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And often overshadowed by death. Sometimes, when I walk in the woods after a storm, I will find a tree blown down across the trail. Fallen trees, especially large fallen trees, fill me with awe. These trees are usually a hundred or so years old and they leave an emptiness that hasn’t been there for a century. I think of the trees that have fallen across my paths through the years—plans that have blown down, a marriage that rotted and died, a daughter struck down before she’d fully grown, and the emptiness I still feel.

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Many of the dead and dying tree trunks are split and broken in strange and grotesque and even beautiful ways. Not unlike some of broken people I know who are among the most beautiful people I’ve ever met.

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But if life itself in these woods is delicate, the desire for new life here is robust. In a matter of weeks, new growth replaces the emptiness in the forest after a tree goes, and when a tree falls across the path blocking my way, it doesn’t take long for another path to develop around it. I’ve been responsible for some of those new paths, just as I’ve had to carve out other new paths in my life around downed dreams and broken relationships. All of which have led to me to where I am now, and for which I give thanks.

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“… if nature’s cruelties know no limits,

neither do the boundaries of its grace.”— Laurie-Anne Bosselaar

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Most of my walks begin or end at a pond between where I live and the entrance to the B/T Land Trust Trails. I don’t think anything so makes me aware of the rhythm of shifting seasons as this pond: peepers here in the spring, ducks in early summer, mud and discarded toys in late summer, variegated foliage and yellowed grasses in the fall, and a white expanse of the snow in the winter. From tadpoles to broad tailed hawks and blue herons, from green buds to orange and red leaves, from kids (and at least one adult I know) sailing pieces of wood on its waters to kids (and at least one adult) making snow angels on its ice, this pond sings of both change and continuity.

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Soapbox time: We have a lot to learn from trees and roots and the mycelia, ponds and mud and grasses and wildlife. In the face of the rampant individualism that’s scaring the hell out of me these days, I think the world needs a new and deeper sense of connectedness. I don’t reject either the special gifts or the unique spiritual journeys of each person, but I’d love to see each of us, each “I,” dive into the very roots of our being—dive down into the ground to the point where our trunk spreads its roots organically into the branching mycelium network of “We.”

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For over thirty years, one of my favorite writing assignments has been to ask people to describe their querencia, a Spanish word meaning the place from where you draw your strength; where you feel at home; the place where you are your most authentic self.

            I’ve told you mine. What’s yours?

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Creeping Along

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Looking Down from Masada 

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Recently, in an email from the Society of Saint John the Evangelist, the Episcopal monastery with whom Mary Lee and I are affiliated, I read,

The true pilgrim who has found the way says in his thankful heart, “I will run when I can, when I cannot run I will go, and when I cannot go, I will creep.” George Congreve, SSJE (1835-1918).

Shivers snaked down my bent spine. Just a few nights earlier, I had dreamed that I was crawling up the side of a highway in the breakdown lane, traffic whizzing by me to my left, and a drop-off of several thousand feet to my right. Petrified with fear, I inched my way upward. Creeping, if you will.

I have a friend who believes that coincidences are how God speaks to us. I’m not sure about that, but I have read a bit about psychologist Carl Jung’s theory that dreams work to integrate our subconscious and conscious lives, help to heal us, revealing, if not the Holy, at least what it means to be more whole.

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Mandala by Carl Jung. Jung believed that creating mandalas offers a “safe refuge of inner reconciliation and wholeness.”

Back in 1997 Mary Lee and I visited the ancient fortress of Masada situated on a tabletop plateau some 1300 feet above the Dead Sea in southern Israel’s Judean Desert. It’s a kind of holy site—at least to the Israeli army—because during the first Jewish-Roman war from 73-74 CE, Roman troops lay siege to the fort, which ended a year later when 960 Jewish troops committed suicide. The sides of the plateau are almost shear. (It took a year for the Romans to construct a ramp up to the fortress.) We took a cable car almost to the top, which, for someone like me who’s terrified by heights, was bad enough, but notice I said almost to the top. When you exit the cable car, you still have to walk to the top up some narrow steps hugging the side of the mountain. (Just thinking back on them makes my legs shake.)

No way could I walk up them. So I crawled. Two hours later, I returned to the cable car the same way, except I crept down backwards. I didn’t care how long it took or what the hell I looked like.

And for me, who’s spent much of his life concerned with how other people see me, that shows just how afraid I was. Like a lot of people, I was raised to think that creeping and crawling are to be avoided. Only insects, snakes (remember that in the Bible the serpent didn’t slither until God cursed him), and cowards crawl. The only ones who creep are, well, creeps, a word which originally referred to someone you couldn’t trust, a sneak.

But I recalled that in my dream, as I crawled I was totally focused, determined. Scared as hell, but resolved to get to my destination. Which reminded me of reading from the journals of the writer John Cheever (and I can’t find the passage, so you’ll have to take my word for it), that just days before he died of kidney cancer, he crawled up the stairs to his office so he could do his daily writing. And of hearing that the singer Johnny Cash, who not long before he died of respiratory failure brought on by diabetes, cut a track for a song where the engineer had to stop the recording at the end of each line until the singer could get his breath.

I’m sure this is what Brother George Congreve, SSJE, was talking about: persistently following your path, your “way,” at whatever speed you can, even if you’re dying, or as in my dream, you’re in the breakdown lane with cars whizzing by you.

But you don’t need to be dying to take advantage of creeping. I’ve written several times in these blogs about how upset I got when I was hiking and when someone would pass me, especially if that someone looked older than I was. Eventually, however, I discovered that I could actually cover more miles if I slowed down and paced myself, instead of walking as fast as I could, wearing myself out, and needing to stop and rest. I was also less inclined to pull a muscle or strain a tendon. Most important, If I wasn’t pushing myself—head down, body aching—I saw more and enjoyed more of what I saw.

These days, I’m going even slower, working on taking my walks one step at a time, just focusing on the next step. And the next… the next … the next…  It’s a good exercise in living in the moment, which is not only how I’m trying to walk, but how I’m trying to live in these days of Corona Crud. I have no idea when all the restrictions will be lifted, I have no idea who will win the Presidential election or if the result will make any difference. But I can creep along, take one step at a time, and enjoy the view, whether of a stand of pine trees or one of my grandchildren standing on a rock by the ocean.

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Grandson John, complete with mask

Now, in my dream, my destination as I crawled up the side of that highway was a big black motorcycle. What I found waiting for me, however, were two pink and white tricycles.

What the hell was going on there? I’ve never wanted a motorcycle; I think I’ve been on one once in my life. But when I was growing up, motorcycles were what rebels like James Dean and Marlon Brando in The Wild Ones rode—real men who smoked Marlboro cigarettes, and thumbed their noses at conventionality. I think I’ve always associated motorcycles with freedom, independence: values I’ve cherished, especially in my younger days.

On the other hand, tricycles are what my grandchildren have just given up for their first bicycles. Reminding me that I’ve also always thought of creeping and crawling as what babies do. These actions are among our first movements, and most of what I’ve read says creeping and crawling are good for babies. Pediatricians tell us that crawling helps develop and enhance balance, vision, and spatial awareness. I guess crawling also helps connect both sides of the brain.

So perhaps my needs these days have less to do with being independent than with being more whole, enjoying what time I have left in as many ways as possible. And the fact that there were two tricycles in my dream makes me wonder if part of being more whole involves recognizing my need for other people, something I’ve been thinking a lot about in these days of enforced isolation.

Not to mention how intense, even angry, people look on their motorcycles, and how much babies seem to enjoy creeping along.

Boy, would I like to have some of that joy these days.

And maybe that’s what I can learn from my, excuse the expression, “creepy dream.” That in the midst of the fear, whether it’s the fear of being run over by whizzing traffic or of falling off the side of a mountain, creeping along, even as my body breaks down, focusing on just the next movement, can lead not to some macho feeling of “being free,” but to the childhood joy of  simply being.

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About ready to give these away.

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A Few Thoughts on Nostalgia

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“Experience is not what happens to you, it is what you do with what happened to you.”

—Aldous Huxley

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Like many of us geriatrics, I get a lot of email or Facebook posts that draw me back to my youth: photos of Elvis Presley or Marilyn Monroe, cars with fins, unfiltered Camel cigarettes… Or lists of phrases: “Don’t touch that dial,” “Carbon copy,” “You sound like a broken record”; hairstyles: beehives, pageboys and the D.A.; clothing: rolled tee-shirts and jeans, thin neckties, fedoras, poodle skirts, saddle shoes and pedal pushers. I belong to a Facebook group dedicated to sharing memories of my old hometown. Posts begin: “Does anyone remember (insert teacher or local character, restaurant or dance hall), to which anywhere from 5 to 50 people will share reminiscences.

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All of which often evoke in me the emotion psychologists call “nostalgia,” usually defined as the warm feeling we have when we recall fond memories from our pasts. (The word comes from the Latin, meaning “a return home.”)

As with most of my emotions, nostalgia can help me or hinder me, depending on how I handle it.

Nostalgia is a common emotion. According to an online article in the Huffington Post, the average person engages in some kind of nostalgia once a week. People tend to become more nostalgic, the article continues, not only as, like me, they age, but also during times of transition, when one way of life is ending and the next hasn’t begun. I can see that. I used to teach high school seniors and invariably, during the last weeks of May, as their high school years were ending, I would hear them reminiscing, not as I had expected, about their high school years, but about their elementary and middle school years. They often talked about eighth grade, which, again, is a transition year for many students.

So, I wonder if nostalgia isn’t a form of grieving, sort of like the way people talk about someone at their funeral. Both nostalgia and grief show love, keep us connected, not only with the person or place we’ve lost, but with each other. And that’s healthy.

Nostalgia, however, can also be a form of resentment. Something, we feel, is wrong in our lives so we long for the days when whatever that something wrong is simply wasn’t there. This can lead to a nostalgia looks back to a particular time as some golden age, when, to paraphrase Garrison Keillor, “all the women were strong, all the men were good-looking, and all the children were above average.” In Bill Bryson’s book, The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid, he notes that in a survey, Americans picked 1957 as the best time in history to be alive, ignoring the fear that swept this country when the Soviet Union launched the first satellite, or the racial unrest that resulted in President Eisenhower’s ordering federal troops to enforce integration in Little Rock, Arkansas, or the air raid drills as schools “prepared” for the nuclear attack we kids thought could happen at any time. If you were black, gay, or even female, I can think of far better times to be alive than 1957.

Like today, for example.

I find what I call Golden Age Nostalgia irritating, I think because for years, I saw my 1950’s childhood the same way, filled with the smells of home baked bread and the sounds of laughter. Then, after a divorce and struggles to overcome the emotional effects of the death of my daughter led me to several 12-step programs, I started to see how much of my childhood I had repressed, even denied, which led me to repress or deny any kind of nostalgia.

Lately, though, having gained insights into why shame has been the driving force in my life, why I react as I do to confrontation, authority, and strong women, I can also see that as a child I was loved, I was protected, and I was more often than not happy. And It’s okay to feel nostalgic for those times.

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Actually, it’s better than okay. I’m coming to see that nostalgia—usually thought of as being concerned with the past—can provide strength for the future. Nostalgia for my childhood gives me hope that not only my grandchildren, but all the children of this country will overcome this turbulent time’s challenges. While I’m certainly not nostalgic about my daughter’s death, the warm memories I have of her eighteen years of life—her compassion, her creativity, her joy—continue to inspire me. And if I can live happily for the most part after her death, I can live for the most part happily in this time of turmoil and uncertainty. If I can face her death, I can face my own.

Shut up at home, aging, I find myself growing more nostalgic about my past pilgrimages. This, too, I think is helpful. One of the main reasons—perhaps the main reason—for making a pilgrimage is to return home with new awareness and then share it. As Phillip Cousineau, whom I’ve been quoting now for almost five years in this blog, writes, “…you must share whatever wisdom you have been blessed with on your journey with those who are about to set out on their own journey.” And for me, that includes reminding myself what I’ve learned on my pilgrimages about living in liminal space, asking for help, facing the unknown, adapting to the situation, and living in the moment.

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But I still need to be careful, especially during these days of Coronic uncertainty. My temptation—and I’m not alone; I hear it a lot—is to want things to get back to “normal.” Everything I know about history tells me that this isn’t going to happen. No matter what transpires with this disease or other “dis-eases” such as climate change, violations of human rights, and gun violence, there will be no return to “normal,” as we once knew it. And nostalgia won’t change that. All it can do is make us angry and resentful.

Or it can help us change.

The key for me, as one of my 12-step daily readings puts it, is to be able “to look back without staring.” Going back, for example, to 1957 to enjoy a time when, if the times weren’t actually better, I was young and healthy and full of plans for the future—to be able to look at that, take what I can, and leave the rest behind along with tailfins and DA haircuts, violence and bigotry.

Those are “normals” I can live without.

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Where I Should Be

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The Western Wall, Jerusalem

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“I may not have gone where I intended to go, but I think I have ended up where I needed to be.” — Douglas Adams, author of Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy

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A year and a half ago, Mary Lee and I booked a cruise up the Norwegian coast to the Arctic Circle and back along the coast of Scotland and England. Two weeks before we were supposed to leave, I was diagnosed with a “moderately severe” blocked left main artery in my heart, and, as I’ve written about (https://geriatricpilgrim.com/2019/08/), had open-heart surgery on the day we were supposed arrive in Norway. Last winter, we rebooked the trip. In March, COVID-CRUD shut down the world, and our cruise was canceled again. I think it’s not only possible but probable that this is a trip we’ll never make.

Yeah, I’m disappointed, but in looking back at other trips and pilgrimages I’ve made, I can see that there have been times where not going where I planned to go has given me what I’ve needed. Maybe this is one of those times.

I’m thinking of the first day Mary Lee and I walked from our guest house in Jerusalem into the Old City. Our plan was to go to the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, the traditional site of Christ’s crucifixion and burial. But do you think we could find it? We wandered narrow street after narrow street, fighting the heat, the souvenir sellers, the money changers, going, I later found out, in circles. I found myself growing hot, tired, and frustrated, first at Mary Lee for wanting to come to Israel, then at God for making it so hot, and then as long as I was blaming God for things, flashing back to those days when my daughter was dying and each day seemed a confusing maze through which I wandered, alone and lost. Then, all of a sudden we were standing in what seemed like a big parking lot in front of the Western Wall: huge blocks of cream-colored limestone called Jerusalem stone, the remnants of the old Jewish temple. At the base of the wall, men and women rocked and bobbed. I heard chanting. As if the wall were a magnet, I found myself pulled toward it. As I neared the wall, I noticed cracks and veins running through the stones, every cleft stuffed with prayers written on anything from Post-It Notes to legal stationery. I watched a man write on a piece of paper, fold it, and carefully tuck it into a fissure in the wall. He leaned forward and gently touched his lips to the stone. Although I hadn’t planned to do so, I ripped a page out of my notebook, wrote a prayer for my daughter, and tucked it into one of the crevices. It was the most spiritual moment of the entire pilgrimage.

When Mary Lee and I were making plans to see the giant Redwoods in California, we intended to stay for a few days at the same European-style hotel in San Francisco that we’d been in a few years earlier, but it was full, so I chose what I thought was a comparable hotel. Nope, this one was run-down, dirty, and at night, a place for battalions of mosquitoes to gather for R & R. But what I hadn’t known when I made the reservations was that this hotel was just down the street from City Lights Book Store, home for the writers who created what was called the Beat Generation: Allen Ginsberg, Gary Synder, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, and Jack Kerouac, one of the towering figures of my youth. Now, fifty years later, I was beginning to become active in Al Anon. Visiting City Lights, remembering Kerouac’s life, and rereading his books were what I needed to better understand the effects alcoholism has had on me. (See “Pilgrimage to City Lights,” https://geriatricpilgrim.com/2016/07/)

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I’ve just made a list of some of my other plans that haven’t panned out: study forestry and become a district ranger somewhere in the American West; earn a PhD. In Maine Literature and become a professor at the University of Maine at Orono; buy a house on the coast of Down East, Maine and father two children; become chair of the English Department at a large high school in Southern Maine and, when I retire, become a consultant for the College Board; move back to my old home town and become a pillar in the community.

And yet, sitting at my computer on this foggy morning in Maine, I see that if these plans hadn’t failed, my life would be the poorer. (Actually, I’m not sure I’d be alive.) Failing as a forester led me to the healing joy of literature at a time when I was lost and confused about who I was; not becoming a college professor meant I could pass on what I’d learned about college expectations to high school students and feel the joy of watching a light bulb go off in a seventeen-year-old’s head and feeling I’d made a difference in the world; a painful divorce led to the love that I’d been looking for all my life; taking early retirement from teaching meant that I’ve been able to devote myself to creating, which I’ve needed to do to offset living with the death of my daughter; leaving my home town for a second time means that I finally feel that I’ve stepped out of the shadow of my family disease and grown up.

I have friends who would tell me that this shows that God has some kind of master plan for me and that I’m “right where I should be”—that we’re always “right where we should be.” Well, tell that to someone who’s just lost a child, or to a child whose parents have both been killed in a drive-by shooting, or to a father of four who’s just lost his job because of the pandemic or to a woman just diagnosed with breast cancer, or … well,  I hope you get the picture.

No, I’m not talking about predestination or that we live in the best of all possible worlds. I’m describing what seems to me something even more miraculous: our ability (I call it grace) not only to survive, but also to thrive, even when our best laid plans fall through and all appears out of control and hopeless.

And this is what gives me faith not only that my life will become fuller if I don’t go cruising the coast of Norway, but also that we as a species, apparently lost in a pandemic none of us planned for, will grow stronger, wiser, and more compassionate from being where we need to be.

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Up To The Garden

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My “Gahden”

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Inch by inch, row by row,

Going to make this garden grow.

—David Mallett, ‘The Garden Song’

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Once or twice a day, I walk up to our community garden (or as we say in Maine, “gahden”). At my little plot, which is about the size of our dining room table, I’ll examine my row of peas, one pole of beans and six tomato plants. I may pull a few weeds. It’s been dry so I water from the community hose system. Then I walk home, strangely refreshed, more at peace with the world.

I need to be honest here: I’m not a real “gahdnah.” I know many people—some of whom I’m hoping will read this blog—who have an abiding passion for gardening, while over the years, my interest in growing flowers and vegetables has waxed and waned.

Which makes me wonder why tending a few vegetables is so soothing to my soul this year. What do my on-and-off bouts of gardening tell me about the pilgrimage I’m on, the landscape through which I’m traveling?

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From age 13 to 17, I worked in a local market garden. Willian Bryant Logan writes in his fascinating book, Dirt: The Ecstatic Skin of the Earth: “Work, motion, life. All rise from the dirt and stand upon it as on a launching pad.” I certainly rose from that garden dirt. At 13, I was 5’ 9”; at 17, I was 6’2”. But that was only part of the growth. I worked with a bunch of other high school students, guys and gals. We guys spent our lunch hours and after work playing basketball; thus, the garden was my basketball summer camp. The sexes flirted and sometimes dated (and two of my former co-workers have now been married over fifty years), making the garden a school for sex education. I learned to drive a tractor, so the garden was my driver’s ed. Besides sports, we also talked about politics (we were all John Kennedy fans), and so the garden introduced me to a world outside of Maine.

And I sure as hell learned how to work. Workweeks were eight to ten hours a day seven days a week. I learned how to work with next to no sleep. I learned how to work hungover. Some of us from those years still remain in contact, and I’m interested that even though we’re all closing in on 80, we’re all still working at one kind of job or another.

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For fifteen years, I had a big garden—as I recall, about nine acres—in Down East Maine. I raised enough vegetables to feed three families: mine, my in-laws, and my wife’s aunt and her son. From March to November, I spent every spare moment in that garden. I loved it. If you had asked me why, I’d have said it was because I was getting fresh air and exercise, I was helping us eat healthy, and because I could peer across the road at the ocean, or look up and see an occasional eagle, or gaze into the woods and often see deer or fox.

But the real reason I loved working in that garden is because it helped me live in a failing marriage. For sometimes eight hours a day I could escape the passive-aggressive bickering, and then plead exhaustion so I could avoid it further by going to bed. The garden was where I could fantasize about writing the Great American Novel, becoming famous, seducing beautiful women. But the garden was also a place of healing, where, before I understood the importance of meditation, I would lose myself in the moment. (My former father-in-law used to say that I spent five minutes working and two  minutes staring off into space.) The garden was where I could be in control—planning, planting, tending, harvesting, and putting everything to bed—where I could measure success and failure by the baskets of potatoes or sacks of peas and beans I harvested.

After the divorce court pronounced the marriage legally dead, however, my thoughts about gardening were tied up with failure and anger. For the next twenty years, I was very content, thank you very much, to get my summer vegetables at the farmers’ market.

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So what’s happened this year? Why am I once more playing in the dirt, even at such a small scale? And even more intriguing, why, despite the fact that cutworms have killed two tomato plants and five bean plants, rabbits are nibbling my peas, and the peas themselves have decided to climb into the tomato cages instead of up the trellis I made for them, am I enjoying it all?

I think because, as in those years of living in a lousy marriage, I’m in need of escape and healing. This is another lousy time. There’s Coronavirus in the air, protests in the streets and a fascist narcissist (narcissistic fascist?) in the White House. Besides once again helping me live in the moment, as I wrote in an earlier blog (“Mud Season”: https://geriatricpilgrim.com/2019/03/), dirt and mud are themselves natural anti-depressants because the bacteria found in them trigger the release of serotonin in our brains. What I’ve since learned is that dirt is the source of the greater part of our drugs against infectious diseases. Dirt actually neutralizes poisons, and I’m wondering if besides poisons in the ground, dirt doesn’t help neutralize the toxic atmosphere of today’s political climate.

Gardening teaches me that no matter how old or feeble I feel, I can still bring about new growth, still contribute, still learn, perhaps not as exuberantly as when I was sixteen, but more wisely, with the benefit of another sixty years of experience. My little garden is almost entirely compost, made of what I and my neighbors contribute year-round from what I used to think of as waste. But compost tells me that in nature, there’s no such thing as waste. I read somewhere that we ourselves are compost, comprised of dust from stars that have died. Compost, then, is a lot like resurrection: life’s dregs—death, if you will—transformed into the basis of new life.

And as long as I’m being quasi-religious, gardening is a lesson in grace. I can prepare the ground, I can water, I can put collars around my tomato plants to stop the cutworms, but without the help of sun and rain and the right temperatures—all of which are beyond my control—nothing will grow.

Above all, gardening is an act of hope, something I for one desperately need these days. It’s a bet on the future. Not only on this world’s or this country’s future, but on my own.

There was a popular singing group in the 1950s called the Weavers, whose music I still enjoy. (They popularized the song, “Good-night Irene.”) Lee Hayes, who, besides singing bass in the quartet was an avid gardener, stipulated in his will that his ashes be mixed into his compost pile.

I’m thinking about it.

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Our Compost Piles

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In Memoriam

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My sister and brother at our cemetery plot one Memorial Day weekend when we could still be close to each other.

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Many pilgrimages are made to honor saints or other holy people: pilgrimages to Jerusalem to honor Jesus, to Mecca to honor Mohammed, to Bodh Gaya to honor the Buddha, even to Graceland to honor Elvis or Cooperstown to honor the early baseball greats. Of course, we make these pilgrimages not so much for the dead saints as for ourselves.

Simply put, there is something in most of us that needs to honor the Dead.

I’m writing this on Memorial Day, the day we remember those who have died on the battlefield or, this year, those who’ve died of Covid-19. When I was growing up in a small Maine town during the 1950s, it was a major holiday. Our Memorial Day parade also served as one of my first pilgrimages, as, first in the Cub Scouts and then in the Junior High marching band, I walked from the American Legion Cabin in the center of town, first south, stopping at North Yarmouth Academy to honor the dead graduates, then on to the Catholic and Protestant cemeteries at Riverside, back to the Legion Cabin for a break, and then north to the cemetery by The Old Meeting House on the hill.

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Old Meeting House in winter. Photograph by Micah Brown

At each stop, there were prayers, and, if memory serves me, the playing of Taps. The stones of veterans were decorated with flags and flowers, and I’m guessing out of that tradition grew today’s more general practice of families, regardless of their military background, decorating cemetery plots on Memorial weekend.

I think it’s more than just tradition. When my daughter was dying of cancer, she told her mother and me that she didn’t want to be buried; that she wanted her ashes scattered over the ocean. Her mother couldn’t accept her decision, and after Laurie died, Patricia had a traditional funeral and our daughter’s ashes buried in her family’s cemetery in Downeast Maine. Divorced, shattered by Laurie’s death, I didn’t fight my ex-wife’s decision, just stayed away and had a private service on Sand Beach in Bar Harbor where Mary Lee and I waded into the December waters and scattered some burned mementos of Laurie in the waves.

But after I’d spent several angry years grieving Laurie’s death, a counselor told me that having a specific place to mourn my daughter might help me. For a while, I fought the idea, but one Memorial Day, when I was planting flowers on our family’s plot, I found myself needing Laurie there. For the first time, I sympathized with my first wife’s need to have her daughter with the rest of her family. So, I ordered a memorial stone for Laurie, and, indeed, it was healing. The stone gave me a focus for my grief, gave me, I suppose, a feeling of control over the great mystery of death. I could concretize it, decorate it, tidy it up whenever I felt the need.

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Writing today, I realize it’s not merely in cemeteries that I’ve honored the dead who have impacted my life. Looking around my house, I see it full of their presence, and I realize that besides honoring them, I’m keeping them alive.

Of course, photographs are the most common way to keep someone in our lives. Mary Lee and I have pictures of our parents and grandparents in almost every room of the house.  I also have photos of old classmates on the walls of my study and in the spare bedroom where I keep my treadmill. I have paintings which Laurie did on the walls as well as her craft projects on bookcases and end tables. (My favorite is her Fathers’ Day gift to me of eleven small stones painted in different colors, each one with two eyes, standing together in modeling clay on a wooden base, and titled, “Rock Concert.”)

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When my father retired from being a carpenter, he kept his hand in by making a number of wooden boxes, chests, candle and cup holders, all of which I have around the house, along with a wooden plate he carved with an intricate leaf pattern in the days before we had television.

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I have saved letters and emails from my mother where she talks about her childhood, which, along with a tape recording I made of her reminiscences, helps me remember not only her, but my grandparents and great-grandparents. I have a CD made from a tape of my Grandmother Cleaves, who used to play piano for the silent movies and who once had her own local band, “The Charmers,” performing at a party at the retirement community where she used to live.

I wear on occasion a turtlenecked sweater that used to belong to Dad, as well as two very loud sweaters that my father-on-law used to own, along with his Harvard crimson beret. Speaking of hats, I wear one of my old friend Scott’s Red Sox caps when I watch television. Until the strap broke, I used to wear my father’s swordfish billed cap, but now I have my own.

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And, although they’re harder and harder to find, I still wear the same kind of forest-green chinos that my Grandfather did. (Oh, and I also have his watch, which doesn’t run but which I can’t throw away.)

For me, these photos and paintings and knickknacks and clothing serve the same purpose as the stones in the cemetery that I’m going to decorate tomorrow (In this time of Corona Crud, I’m waiting until after the Memorial Day rush to avoid the crowds of people): they help me deal with the death that I’m getting closer and closer to, and they are a way to help keep the people I have loved alive.

And I realize all these remembrances are also a way to give thanks for the life I’ve been lucky enough to enjoy: a life filled with blessings I haven’t earned, often coming at just the time I’ve needed to be blessed.

If, as Ann Lamott says, there are only three prayers—“Help,” “Thank You,” and “Wow!”—these are memorials for those to whom I have said those prayers, those who have been the saints in my life, those who have shown me the meaning of the word Grace.

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Laurie Leigh Wile: Self-portrait, 1987

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“To Accept the Things I Cannot Change…”

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Decoupage by Kate Bell (Side One)

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At the beginning of this year, someone (I think it was on Facebook) suggested I pick a word to guide me through 2020. Because I struggle with it whenever I say AA’s Serenity Prayer, I chose the word “acceptance.” So far, I’ve been spending a lot of time grappling with this concept, trying to accept not only the pandemic world I’m now living in, but also myself, which I’m finding is a far more difficult thing to do.

First, I need to be clear about what I mean by acceptance. Look up the word in the dictionary and you’ll find that some of the definitions are “favorable reception, approval, favor,” meanings I don’t … well, I don’t accept. Nor do I agree with the opinions expressed in a blog entitled “Why you should never accept yourself.” The author writes that accepting something means you’re making excuses for bad behavior; that you don’t think that things can be changed or that you don’t want to change; that you’re letting other people tell you who you are, what to believe, how to behave. (This last one seems to me to be a big reason for a lot of the protests these days against stay-at-home directives.) The author of this blog is male, but I recall last year a feminist saying that she was not going to accept that she cannot change the sexism in this country.

I don’t think the Serenity Prayer’s “God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change…” means making excuses for bad behavior. Nor do I think when Michael J. Fox—who’s been battling Parkinson’s disease for almost thirty years—says,  “My happiness grows in direct proportion to my acceptance, and in inverse proportion to my expectations,” he wouldn’t like his disease to go away. Or when musical composer Arthur Rubinstein states, “Of course, there is no formula for success except, perhaps, an unconditional acceptance of life and what it brings,” he’s letting people tell him how to behave.

For me, acceptance means to acknowledge what is, without resisting or denying it, but also without necessarily liking, wanting, choosing, or supporting it. We are in a worldwide pandemic. I don’t like it, but if I don’t accept that, if I try to live my life as if the coronavirus doesn’t exist, I am endangering my physical health. And if I don’t accept that there are people listening to politicians who will say anything to stay in power instead of to doctors who have spent their lives studying diseases, I’m endangering my mental health.

I first learned about acknowledging without approving when I learned Centering Prayer. Cynthia Bourgeault used to tell us that while we were sitting in silence, “resist no thought, retain no thought, react to no thought…” Well, that was shortly after my daughter had died, and I was full of ugly, angry thoughts. One of which was that I was responsible for Laurie’s death, either because I had left her mother and remarried, or because I had stayed with her mother too long and she’d been caught up in the bitter fighting between us. No way, I said, am I going to accept those thoughts.

And I fought that thinking for years, until one night, I finally surrendered them. Okay, I said, at some level I am always going to feel I helped kill my daughter. It was as if a 1000-pound weight had been lifted from my shoulders.

Harder to accept than my character defects, however, are my strengths. As Nelson Mandala said, “Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure…” When someone praises my virtues, I can become terrified. I feel I need to live up to them and that’s scary. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve sabotaged myself by following up on some virtuous act with something dumb or destructive. It’s easier for me to create some unreachable idea of perfection (usually based on some movie hero or athlete or spiritual saint) and then flog myself for not living up to that ideal.

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So, for me, acceptance is not about whether I like what’s going on. I’m also finding that acceptance is not, as some suggest, a passive process. Along with my daily calisthenics and practicing the scales on my banjo, I must actively practice the scales of acceptance. The other day, I was raking some dead leaves from our flower garden, and thought: “Yeah, acceptance is a bit like this—raking out the dead leaves of denial, judgment, shame, guilt, perfectionism so that acceptance (including acceptance of the fact that it may snow tomorrow)—can grow. I can practice acceptance toward what’s happening with the coronavirus, with people whose political views differ from mine, with my aging body, with my character defects and virtues.

And acceptance doesn’t mean I can’t work to change things. I can write letters to my national representatives urging them to stand against irresponsible behavior. I can phone people who are alone, and continue to “see” my grandchildren via Zoom. I can wear a mask in public even if others don’t. I can accept the fact that I’m 77 years old, and still exercise, still eat better. I can—as Cynthia suggested years ago—accept my emotions, while at the same time acknowledging their impermanence. I can tell my inner critic to get lost. I can forgive myself for things I’ve done wrong and work to make amends. I can grieve the loss of my unrealized dreams. And when all else fails, I can fake it until I make it.

Acceptance doesn’t mean that I feel things are always going to be the way they are forever. One good thing about aging is that I’m learning that there’s Chronos, human time, and Kairos, God’s time. For years, I accepted that my body chemistry was going to change between Thanksgiving and Christmas, the months I spent watching Laurie die. And then, two years ago, I realized I was enjoying the holidays. And as I was writing earlier in this blog about always feeling responsible for my daughter’s death, I heard a voice: are you sure about that? In the last few years, I’ve discovered how my family’s history of alcoholism has caused me to want to blame myself for all kinds of things for which I’m not responsible. Maybe Laurie’s death will become one of those things.

So, what does it mean “to accept the things I cannot change”? More than anything else, I think it means being open to Grace, “gifts,” as I called them in an early blog, the undeserved help I’ve received in my life. Acceptance, it seems to me, is a stance that says no matter what comes, I know that the God-of-my-not-Understanding will give me the grace to endure it or to learn from it or to love it. Maybe all three.

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Decoupage by Kate Bell (Side Two)

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Thoughts on a Windy Day

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This is a photo of a greeting card by Pamela J. Zagarenski, ©2012

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                                    Wind shook the windows all night long

                                    And I was still awake at 3:00.

                                    I tried to imagine God singing a song

                                    When wind shook the windows all night long,

                                    But I kept recalling all the things I’ve done wrong

                                    (Which is almost everything, it seems to me),

                                    While wind shook the windows all night long

                                    And I was still awake at 3:00.

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Either because of Divine Providence or coincidence, I’ve just run across this poem (some people write haikus; I play with triolets) I wrote last year while on retreat in Arizona. And today I’m rereading it after we’ve just lost power and winds are expected to gust to 60 miles per hour.

I’m also watching the wind bend the big maple tree in our front yard towards our house, and thinking that until today the one comforting thing about living in this time of Covid-Crud has been my home, and now even that’s under attack.

Maybe the apocalypse really is upon us.

I find myself remembering Hurricane Carol, which swept through Maine in 1953. Back then, I thought hurricanes were pretty neat. The thunder-sound of the river down the hill mingled with the roar of the wind, the way the house shook, was like some big carnival ride. I couldn’t understand why my father was chain-smoking and pacing back and forth in front of the living room window, muttering, “I hope that goddamned tree doesn’t fall on us.”

These days, I understand his fear. While there are the times I still enjoy the wind—the sound of wind chimes on a summer evening, a cooling breeze on a hot day, the smells of the wind off the ocean— more and more, wind makes me nervous and apprehensive. Besides being potentially dangerous, wind is beyond my control. Wind tends to bring disorder, even chaos. Wind seems to make my anxieties more intense.

Is that true? Can the wind affect our behavior? When in doubt, ask Siri. Yes, in parts of the Mediterranean, a warm humid wind called the “Sirocco” has such an impact on behavior that people convicted of murder were once given shorter sentences if the crime was committed while the wind was blowing. In other words, turbulence in the air can lead to turbulence in the mind.

As long as I’ve got my iPhone out, what causes wind, anyway? Okay, it says here that wind results from pressure caused when warm air rises and then is pushed back down by colder air aloft, where the air then then spreads out in the form of wind. I think of my forest fire fighting days, of learning that the intense heat from wildfires can create its own wind. Some, called fire whirls, can be like tornadoes that speed the fire along from treetop to treetop. I think of the night in Wyoming I saw flames hundreds of feet high racing across the tops of the trees, sounding like a locomotive roaring down a track—one of the scariest experiences I’ve ever had.

But while the principle may be the same, I see a difference between the winds from a hurricane or forest fires and the winds of anxiety that I’m feeling these days. Not about when we might get our power back or if that maple tree is going to fall on the house, but about what kind of world my grandchildren are going to live in. As bad as the devastation from a hurricane or wildfire may be, the fear of these disasters is relatively short-lived. Yes, it may take years to rebuild from such calamities, but the anxiety over what will happen ends when the hurricane passes or the forest fire goes out. Perhaps a hundred years from now, people will look back on the time when the Coronavirus blew through our world as being relatively short, but from where I’m sitting there doesn’t seem to be any end in sight. No end of worrying about my health, about people who are struggling to make ends meet, about friends who work in hospitals, about my stepsons who are trying to home-school their children, about my grandchildren and the scars they will carry from all this.

My rector recently sent Mary Lee and me a blog called “Why am I so Tired?” by the Parasol Wellness Collaborative. The author pointed out that deep in the temporal lobe of our brains, just above the brain stem, is a small structure called the “amygdala,” known as the fear center of our brain. It directs the nervous system to protect us. Our heart rate increases, breathing becomes more rapid and glucose is pumped into the bloodstream, all of which helps us in either our “fight or flight” response. The amygdala, however, cannot distinguish between actual and imagined danger. Its response is automatic—outside our control. (Sort of like the wind, come to think of it, but then, most of the important things in life, I’m finding, are outside of my control.) This is why uncertainty is the most stressful condition our bodies undergo. The amygdala keeps stops working, which is what is tiring so many of us out these days.

The blog suggests that the way to deal with this tiring anxiety is not to make it worse by berating ourselves. Take it easy, lower expectations of ourselves, get exercise, ask for help.

Good advice. I look again at my poem from a year ago, and notice how easy it is to blame myself when anything goes wrong. I suppose it’s a control thing: if it’s my fault when I can’t sleep and the wind blows, at least I’ve got a reason for it. I also think of how often in my life I’ve voluntarily taken the blame for something just to smooth things over, whether it’s a family situation or the weather.

And yes, it’s time to ask for help from that God-of-my-not-Understanding I tend to forget about until the going gets tough. More and more, I’m coming to understand why some of my 12-Step buddies refer to “God” as “Gift of Desperation.” So many of us come to our Higher Power only because of a crisis. I know I certainly wouldn’t have the faith I have—would have no idea of God’s Grace—if my daughter hadn’t died from cancer. It’s taken me a while accept the gift of Grace—I’d much rather have Laurie back—but it’s helped me get through the last thirty years. And If I can, with God’s help, survive that, I can survive, if not this virus (who knows?) but the fear of it.

So, it’s time to stop trying to buck these winds and pray for help in riding them out, letting them blow me wherever they will.

Well, look at that. The power’s back.

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My friend Ann”s prayer flags blowing in the wind.

 

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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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