Down From the Mountain

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My ex-smoker’s lungs and I found the climb difficult, but we made it. I stood on a rocky bluff on Mount Desert Island gazing out over Penobscot Bay, thinking of Elizabeth Coatsworth’s poem, View from Cadillac Mountain:

So might a Chinese sage have seen the world,

seen mist and humpbacked islands from a mountain,

with a hawk hanging in a silver sky.

I wasn’t on Cadillac, but on nearby Champlain and although I hadn’t seen a hawk, I’d just had a very nice conversation with a warbler who assured me that, yes, all shall be well and all manner of thing shall be well.

And then I had to come down from the mountain.

Heart rate back to normal, breathing easily, entranced by a view, I didn’t pay attention at first, tripped on a root, and fell, scraping a knee and an elbow. After that, I grew anxious, even shaky. I slipped several times descending from the ledges and acquired a matching set of scrapes on the other knee and elbow. Finally, although I didn’t want to, I accepted the help of two of my companions who took turns giving me a literal hand down the rest of the trail.

“The return home is as much a part of the sacred art of pilgrimage as setting forth and the journey along the way,” writes Sheryl Kujawa-Holbrook, in Pilgrimage—The Sacred Art: Journey to the Center of the Heart. Likewise, those who walk the labyrinth as a spiritual discipline emphasize that getting to the center is only half the journey, and that you must take as much time leaving as you do getting there in order integrate what you have received, nourish yourself to go back out into the world.

But it’s not easy coming down from the mountain, literally or figuratively. I remember a homily given by a young (Hell, everybody’s young these days) minister on the story in Mark’s Gospel, in which three of the disciples follow Jesus to a high mountain, where he is transfigured and Moses and Elijah appear and God speaks. Then Jesus, Peter, James, and John return to an arguing crowd and a young man possessed by a demon. The minister talked of mountaintop experiences: how often we feel transfigured by pilgrimages and retreats where everybody seems filled with love and harmony. “But then,” he said, “we’re thrust back into the real world and all its demons.”

One of the demons I wrestle with is my anger at the death of my daughter. After twenty-five years, I usually do a pretty good job turning this anger over to God, but not always. One spring after spending four days at Emery House, a retreat center run by the Brothers of the Society of Saint John the Evangelist—living in solitude, reading scripture and books on spirituality, meditating before icons in my hermitage, walking woodland paths and attending services in the chapel four times a day—my wife and I drove into Boston to pick up her son, who was a student at Emerson College. As we attempted to get out of the city on Friday afternoon at 5:00 on Storrow Drive in front of Massachusetts General Hospital where five lanes of traffic narrow to two, we found ourselves and our Toyota Corolla jammed next to a shiny black SUV roughly the size and shape of Rhode Island.

trafficAs our compact car sat helpless and forlorn, the SUV inched its way closer and closer until, as it went by, it scraped our rear-view mirror. Just when I was breathing more easily, grateful that the mirror hadn’t been knocked off and the bastard was now in front of me, the door to the SUV swung open and this guy jumps out and starts pounding on the hood of my car. “Look what the fuck you’ve done! Look at the scratch on my door! This is an $800 paint-job!” The next thing I know, I’m out of the car, swearing back at him, while all around us people are yelling and blowing their horns.

So much for taking the love of God back into the world.

How do we, then, as Philip Cousineau says in The Art of the Pilgrimage, “remember to remember” after returning home from our journeys? He cites the “Pilgrim’s Law: … 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.” Which I suppose is the main reason I’ve started writing these blogs. They’re a way for me to relive some of the important moments of my life. But even if one doesn’t start a blog, keeping a travel journal for writing or sketching is helpful not only for remembering the trip, but in paying closer attention during the pilgrimage itself. Later, once I get home, a journal also helps me look at how I’ve been changed and how I might stay that way.

There are other ways, of course to remember. Like everyone these days, we take pictures, and Mary Lee and I have a great time organizing them into albums or collages. We also bring back stones (God, we have a lot of stones!), seeds, feathers, postcards.

One of our favorite ways of trying to keep a pilgrimage part of our lives once we’re back in the daily grind is by continuing to have meals featuring foods we ate: falafel from the Middle East, haggis from Scotland (I actually like the stuff, although it’s hard to find around here), enchiladas from Arizona.

But coming down from the mountain is still tough, both on the knees and on the psyche, probably because I want to see the top of the mountain as the end of my journey instead of the middle. And maybe that’s why Mary Lee and I celebrate another meal when we return from one of our journeys: we stop at our favorite pizza place before we go back to the house. It’s a way to celebrate that home ain’t such a bad place to be, either.

 

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Iona, Scotland, August 9, 2002.

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On what would be my daughter Laurie’s thirty-second birthday, I sit on a ledge by the shore of Columba’s Bay on the island of Iona, off the west coast of Scotland. Waves break on the rocks, ethereal light shimmers around me, and huge white clouds lie low over the water. Some fifteen hundred years ago, an Irish monk landed on this shore with twelve brothers and established the monastery in which Western Christianity was born. Long before Columba arrived, however, Iona was home to Druid and other pagan religions. Some books call this island a “thin place,” where the connection between God and humanity, the eternal and the temporal, is most apparent.

The stones on Iona have a lot to do with that feeling. On Columba’s Bay you are surrounded by stones: yellow, pink, violet, white, gray, and green, sometimes all marbled together in one rock. Some of these stones are almost three billion years old. Holding one of them is the closest I have ever come to imagining eternity.

Sheep bleat in the distance, and four teenagers giggle and scream as they wade in the chilly water. Up and down the rocky beach, more young people in shorts and backpacks—perhaps thirty altogether—pick up stones or sit on stones, walk on stones or throw stones into the bay. Earlier this morning, Laurie’s stepmother and I joined the weekly pilgrimage around Iona’s various holy sites led by staff of the Iona Community, an ecumenical Christian organization. This week is the Community’s annual Youth Conference, and instead of the meditative walk I imagined, Mary Lee and I have found ourselves on a gallop, the young people racing up and down hills and jumping over rocks like mountain goats, while we plod along behind, catching up at the various stations along the way, always arriving at the tag end of a prayer.

Since Laurie died fourteen years ago, only months after  being diagnosed with cancer, I am sometimes more aware of her continued presence in my life than at other times. On the pilgrimage around Iona, I see her in these young people, the way they bounce when they run, the intensity in their eyes when they talk, their uninhibited laughter.

As always, my pleasure in my daughter’s company is tempered by the loss of her physicality. Even if I can occasionally feel her touch, I cannot hold her. I cannot see her face become more interesting as it ages. Emptiness starts to burn, and I lift my eyes to the hills—to the sunlight shimmering over lichen-covered rocks.

Jennie, our student guide, calls us together. “As part of our pilgrimage,” she says, raising her voice above the sound of the wind and the waves, “we take two pebbles from the beach. One we throw into the sea as a symbol of something in our lives we would like to leave behind, while the other we take back with us as a sign of a new commitment in our heart.”

I watch the kids turn and race down over the rocks. I follow, not sure just what I want to leave behind, until I pick up a black and white and red stone, flat and jagged at one end. I feel once more the sharp-cornered ache that I will never—at least in this lifetime—have recompense for the loss of my child. At the water’s edge, I put my index finger around the stone, and dipping my shoulder, skim the rock across the water.

Jutting out into the ocean in front of me, a rocky promontory is layered like a birthday cake, yellow turning to black, then dove-gray, crowned with green-brown grass frosted with pink heather and yellow wild flowers. Splashes of yellow lichen pattern the gray rock. I’ve read that in order to attach firmly to the rocks, lichen manufacture solvents capable of dissolving stone, and it occurs to me that even the ancient stones of Iona dissolve, wash to the sea, and recycle back into rock or some other organic form.

That these stones can be both eternal and transitory is something I can’t fathom, but I decide it is the koan I should take back with me along with a green heart-shaped stone I’ve just picked up.

I put the green heart in my pocket, turn, and clamber up the fifty or so yards of stones rising at an almost forty-five degree angle between the water and a field. The stones shift, slide and sink under my feet. Once, I stumble and fall to my knees. Finally, I give up trying to walk straight up and begin to weave my way back and forth. When I reach the top of the final tier of stones, I turn again and look once more out over Columba’s Bay. I feel Laurie nudge me with her elbow, hear her voice in my ear: “Pretty neat day I painted you, huh, Dad?”

The surf crashes and the layers of stone shift in a chorus of clanks, thuds, clatters, pings, rattles, and taps, a Sanctus that pulls at me as Mary Lee and I trek through the boggy fields, over shimmering hills, past the cairn of Cul ri Eirinn, where Columba turned his back forever on Ireland, and across the Machair, where fairies are said to dance in the moonlight.

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