The Stories We Carry

(My sister Jaye on our cruise of Casco Bay.)


Once upon a time, before my daughter Laurie was diagnosed with cancer and I began this pilgrimage through grief and grace, I tried my hand at writing a children’s story about Laurie and her best friend, Sharon, who lived next door to us. The girls were both about five at the time, both were the same size, and both wore their hair short, with straight bangs across their foreheads. But while Laurie was fair-skinned and blond, Sharon was dark-complexioned, with the blackest hair I think I’ve ever seen. Sitting together at the picnic table, they looked like Yin and Yang.


My story told of Melilia and Gotha, two little girls, one with blond hair and one with black hair, and began just after some catastrophe had befallen the world —I can’t remember now if it was a nuclear war, or if the earth had been bombarded by asteroids, or if creatures from outer space were stealing children for slaves. Anyway, Melilia and Gotha journey along the rockbound coast of Maine, following the instructions of Melilia’s dying parents, who tell her if she can get to the Celestial Islands off the coast, she will find peace and safety. As Melilia and Gotha struggle over the rocky bluffs, they are set upon by side-hill badgers, so named because the legs on one side of their bodies are longer than those on the other side, which allow them to move quickly around the piles of rocks, the males moving clockwise and the females counter-clockwise. The side-hill badgers are odious and ferocious creatures and Melilia and Gotha might have been captured and eaten had it not been for a pipe-smoking sea turtle—I smoked a pipe in those days—who comes out of the ocean to drive the badgers back to their caves.

I never got any further in the narrative than this and probably would have forgotten all about the story, except that ten years later, I read that Sharon, whose family had moved away earlier, had been murdered, stabbed in the back some fifteen times. Police arrested a thirty-one year old patient at the Augusta Mental Health Institute, who over the last ten years had attacked three different women with knives, but who, for some reason, had been given court-authorized permission to leave the AMHI campus unsupervised for several hours a day.

Three years later, a routine biopsy of a cyst on the back of Laurie’s head revealed a malignant tumor at the base of her brain. Nine months later, two days before Christmas, my daughter died.


All the books and articles on pilgrimage I’ve read stress the importance of traveling light. I agree, but my experience has been that there are also things I have to carry with me. The story fragment of Mililia and Gotha is one of those things; and I’ve carried it now for nearly thirty years.

I suspect many of you carry your own stories.

Right after Laurie died, my story of two innocent girls beset upon by catastrophe was like a great weight. Why couldn’t Laurie’s mother and I have been the ones to die like they do in the story instead our daughter and her friend? Why couldn’t I protect them the way my avatar, the turtle, did? And a celestial home of peace and safety? Hah! All I could see was a world of nastiness and death.

So I tried to throw the story away. I spent a lot of time in my den, drinking myself into forgetfulness. I read existential philosophy, especially Albert Camus’s Myth of Sisyphus, in which the author sees Sisyphus—condemned by the gods to forever roll a rock to the top of a mountain, from where the stone falls back because of its own weight—as representing how humanity tries to impose meaning on a meaningless world, a condition the author labels “absurd.” Made sense to me. To look for any meaning in Laurie’s cancer and Sharon’s murder was, I decided, absurd. Their deaths were statistical accidents, like being struck by lightning. The story of Melilia and Gotha was merely that: a story. Get rid of it, I told myself. Otherwise it will continue to roll back on you, like Sisyphus’s stone.


Except I couldn’t and it didn’t. Although I certainly felt for a long time that I was pushing the same rock up the same mountain, gradually I became aware that I was actually on a journey similar to Mililia and Gotha’s—picking my way along a rocky coastline of shame, sorrow, and despair, beset upon by any number of nasty creatures (many of my own making), but saved by an equal number of protectors—loved ones, counselors, spiritual mentors—who appeared out of an ocean of love when I most needed them.

Which makes me realize—perhaps for the first time—that I’d always envisioned some kind of ocean bay beside Mililia and Gotha on their travels, but had never thought about it because I’ve always taken oceans for granted. Still, the sea has always been for me a source of healing, of cleansing. I grew up in a coastal community in Maine. I first learned to swim in Casco Bay. After living in Vermont for four years, I moved back to Maine because I missed the ocean. When I was teaching, I almost always took the long way home from work so I could drive by water. Whenever I’ve made pilgrimages, I’ve often sought out places close to the sea.

On August 9th of this year, as celebration of what would have been Laurie’s forty-sixth birthday, my wife Mary Lee, my sister Jaye, and I took a cruise around Casco Bay: a mini-pilgrimage, in homage to the young woman we loved. For the first time in years, we cruised by islands that we’d all visited years ago, often with Laurie. It was a great day. Jaye remembered taking Laurie with her digging clams off Little John’s, the two of them plastered with mud and seaweed. Mary Lee remembered the summer of Laurie’s chemotherapy, when we took her and her stepbrothers on a whale watch, and instead of Laurie, it was Mary Lee who got seasick. I recalled coming through the channel between Long Island and Chebeague Island with Laurie and Mary Lee, a wave catching our little sixteen-foot boat and throwing it just inches from a humongous ledge.


Even on pilgrimage you can’t leave the past behind. But I’ve found that what a pilgrimage can do is redeem the past—give it back to you, transformed, healed, enfolded. George Fox, founder of the Society of Friends, or Quakers, wrote in 1647:

“I saw that there was an ocean of darkness and death, but an infinite ocean of light and love, that flowed over the ocean of darkness. In that, I also saw the infinite love of God…”

At one point on our cruise, the captain called our attention to two dolphins playing in the channel between our boat and an island. As I watched them roll and leap and plunge, it seemed to me that I could see Melilia and Gotha riding on their backs, laughing and singing, on their way to the Celestial Islands.


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We Pilgrims

Class Picture

You’re looking at a photograph from one of my high school reunions. The class of 1961 is standing on a beach in front of Sebago Lake, Maine under storm driven clouds that will eventually drive us inside the pavilion and cancel our boat ride. Probably because I’ve started writing this blog on pilgrimage, I look at the photograph and see all of us now as pilgrims, “reunioning” every five years or so to catch up on where our journeys have taken us.

Along the way, most of us have gained weight. Men have gone gray, white, or bald. Some of the women are gray haired and buxom, while others color their hair and show that sinewy look that comes from regular aerobic exercise. Most of the class is smiling. Several of us in the front row don’t know what to do with our hands, so we cross them in front of ourselves, like those paintings of Adam and Eve after they learn about sin and realize they’re naked.

Reunions are a unique combination of past and present. One minute four of us guys rhapsodize about drag racing over the Cousins Island Bridge, while the next minute we compare the fiber contents in our breakfast cereals. Gazing into the picture, I can hear Doug’s HAW HAW HAW booming over the sand the same way it used to echo in the gym when we called him “Spider.” Some of us who used to work in Bornheimer’s Market Garden are chuckling about how many beet greens we’d be able to cut these days. My old jazz band, “The Ivy Leaguers,” remembers our appearance on Channel 6’s “Youth Cavalcade.”

We began our respective pilgrimages by crossing the threshold of the familiar, and going separate but similar ways. At some level, we all wore tie-dyes and long hair, went to Viet Nam, saw Nixon’s name on the ballot and waited in gas lines. We’ve listened to Elvis and Little Richard, Dylan and Baez, the Beatles and the Stones; we’ve given up cigarettes and taken up bottled water, personal computers, and cell phones.

Like all pilgrims, we’ve had to relinquish our grasp on certainty and control. We’ve been to one degree or another broken. Half of us—the national average—are divorced. Most of us have lost our parents, some have lost brothers or sisters, and several of us have lost children.

And then there’s our own decay. We try to make fun of our creaky backs and artificial hips and knees and arthritic shoulders, the hearing aids and pacemakers, but cancer and COPD and CHF are not laughing matters. Almost twenty per cent of our class has died, mostly to cancer and heart failure. I recall Marty, who’d already died from cancer of the esophagus when this picture was taken, and Tom who died from lung cancer shortly afterward. I hear Marty and me singing “Palisades Park” in his uncle’s Ford as we peeled out of the Scarborough A&W Drive-In; I watch Tom and me playing pool at the Pine Tree Billiards Center—“The Tree”—in Portland.

A pilgrimage requires a degree of discomfort, even sacrifice. At least half of the men standing on this beach in front of Sebago Lake served in the military. Most of us—men and women—have put in long hours working to support our families. Some of us are still working. We’ve gotten out of bed in the middle of the night to look after our sick children, taken aging parents into our homes, sat in the hospital with ailing parents, siblings, and children.

But in the process of being broken, we’ve received gifts far greater than we ever could have imagined in 1961: children and grandchildren, the knowledge that we have been loved, the solace of memories, the joy of lasting friendships.

Of course, the fact that we came from a small graduating class in a little Maine town may explain why so many aspects of our journeys look the same. We had no minorities, no “one-percenters,” no refugees, nobody who was not a U.S. citizen, and, as far as I know, nobody for whom English wasn’t a first language. Even our differences reflect a common background. Some of us look back with nostalgia at the way we lived 55 years ago. It’s a rare month that I don’t receive an email or Facebook litany of all the ways our lives were better than those of today’s kids: we worked harder, we were better disciplined, we were healthier, smarter, better looking, and more respectful. Our pleasures were simpler, our food was better, and our music was cooler. Others of us remember the narrow-minded small-town provincialism, the lack of opportunities for women, prejudice against gays (“homos,” we called them), French Canadians, Jews, the closet alcoholism and sexual abuse, the lack of education for those of us with learning disabilities, the jock culture, and teacher brutality.

There are those of us who want to keep things the way we remember them being when we grew up, and those of us who want to eliminate those prejudices and provide more opportunities. At no time is this more evident than during elections years. And because of the acerbic nature of this year’s national campaign, it’s almost impossible to avoid the rhetoric that masquerades as discussion. I cringe every time one of my classmates posts something espousing his or her political stance, no matter the position. (Okay, okay. I cringe more when it’s a view counter to mine, and suppress the urge to hit the “Like” icon when I see something that says what I’ve been thinking.)

But as the philosopher said, this, too, shall pass. We in the class of ‘61 are tied together in deep and special ways. We know things about each other that no one, not even our parents or our spouses or partners, let alone our children, know: sneaking into the Yarmouth Drive-In movie theater by hiding in the trunk of Scott’s car, Craig bouncing a cue ball through the window of George Soule’s pool room, Jerry letting the tarantula out of the jar in Mr. List’s biology class. We share not only a history, but also a private language (“Fire up!” “Walk on it one time!”)

And our small and largely homogeneous class also walks  the larger human pilgrimage. Although we have different ideas of where our journey leads and what it means, we’re all hoping to find our way to a better place. And, as with all pilgrims, no matter where we eventually go, no matter to whom we’ve paid homage, no matter what gifts we’ve received on our journey, we are all eventually called home.

Some are already there. Waiting to welcome the rest of us.