The Fugitive in the Photo

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While I’ve written quite a bit in these blogs about the difference between pilgrimages and vacations, there are, of course, other reasons to travel: education and escape, for example. The man in this photograph would probably tell you he’s traveling for educational reasons; I think, however, he’s a fugitive, trying to escape his past and his pain.

According to the journal I kept for this trip, this photograph was taken on Saturday, July 21, 1990. The place is Stratford-Upon-Avon, and the guy is standing in front of Shakespeare’s birthplace. His wife Mary Lee (who snapped the picture) and he are in England, taking a summer program called “Shakespeare’s World.” That evening, along with the rest of their winter teacher/summer student classmates, they’ll watch the Royal Shakespeare Company’s production of “Much Ado About Nothing,” before getting on the bus and returning to Cambridge University for another week of classes.

When I first looked at the man in this photograph, I noticed our similar tastes. We both wear hats (not crazy about the one he’s wearing, but he likes it), we both prefer chinos to blue jeans, and we both keep a notebook in our shirt pocket. Although the snappy cap and the camera suggest he’s a tourist, he, like me, hates identifying himself this way, maybe because we both grew up in Maine, “Vacationland,” where we learned to disdain visitors we called “summer complaints.”

As I continued looking at the photograph, I began to notice differences between this man and me, some of which only I would know. For example, he’s taller than I am by several inches, and his face is freer of wrinkles, lines, and age spots. He doesn’t have a fatty lump on his back. He’s got a beard, which as I remember, grows and wanes almost as often as the moon. Same with his hair, which I don’t have much of any more.

When I decided to write about the picture, I was hoping to discover that the journey to Stratford shows that he thinks of himself the way I do these days: as a pilgrim. After all, what English teacher doesn’t feel a deep connection with Shakespeare? But deep down I knew words like “pilgrim” and “pilgrimage” aren’t part of his vocabulary. He and Mary Lee have just decided not to stand in the long line going into Shakespeare’s birthplace. He’d much rather leave, watch some street entertainers, and get another pint at a nearby pub called the “Slug and Lettuce.”

No, the man thinks of himself as an academic, a teacher. After all, teaching has been the only fulltime job he’d ever held, and he’d been doing it for twenty-five years. Writers are his heroes, and watching a student’s eyes light up when he’s able to connect him or her to Macbeth or Romeo and Juliet is one of  life’s great pleasures, along with sex and booze. When he and Mary Lee were looking at travel opportunities, they chose an academic program, in order to—as they wrote in their applications to their respective school boards for continuing education credits—improve their teaching.

The problem is the man in the photograph is not sure he wants to teach anymore. Certainly not in high school, where his seventeen and eighteen-year-old students remind him of his daughter. He has no patience with their excuses, their backtalk, their acting up. “Why are you alive,” he wants to yell sometimes, “and my brilliant, sensitive, compassionate daughter is dead?”

The truth is that what this man wants to do this summer is escape from his pain. The more I gazed into the photograph, the more clearly I saw a pale, halting, self-conscious man, picking at his camera strap as if it’s part of a straight jacket, waving his arm as if he wants to fly away.

Except that he has no idea which direction he wants to go.

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Dictionary.com defines “fugitive” as “a person who is fleeing from prosecution, or intolerable circumstances.” Both are true of this man. Since his daughter’s death a year and a half earlier, he has prosecuted himself mercilessly, convinced that his divorce and remarriage caused his daughter’s cancer. And life has become, if not intolerable, than unpleasant—a wary, static existence, punctuated by waves of pain, less frequent than before, but as a result, more unexpected, stronger. He and his wife eye each other warily from behind their respective barricades, as careful with their words as with sticks of dynamite, afraid some careless comment might light the fuse and blow their marriage to pieces.

Besides trying to get away from his students, his unhappy home life, and his guilt, he’s also trying to flee from God. At least, the God of his understanding: a Super Saddist, who gets His kicks torturing innocent eighteen-year-old girls. It would be easier if he didn’t believe in God at all, but he tried that, tried to disappear into Albert Camus’ existentialism, but he can’t. So he alternates between raging at God and running away, like Jonah.

And like Jonah, he’s finding out, there is no escaping the past. Three weeks into the program, his wife is missing her two sons spending the summer with their father in Colorado, upset that, because of the time difference, she hasn’t been able to talk to them on the phone. Which always triggers this nasty voice in his head: “Well, they’re alive, aren’t they?”

He’s sick of feeling the stab in his heart from the question, “How many children do you and your wife have?” and when one woman in the program looked at a photograph of his wife’s son and remarked on how much Jeremy looked like both Mary Lee and him, he thought he might barf up his Green King Ale. Instead of Shakespeare, he keeps hearing F. Scott Fitzgerald: “So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.”

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While I feel sorry for the fugitive in the photograph, I also want to tell him that he will return from England carrying the seeds of his rebirth. Part of the Shakespeare program is to visit English cathedrals, and by the time he leaves England, he will have spent time in St. Benedict’s, King’s College Cathedral and St. John’s College Cathedral in Cambridge, Salisbury Cathedral, St. Mary’s in Bath, Peterborough Cathedral, Ely Cathedral, and Holy Trinity Church in Stratford. Because for most people these days, these are places of historical, rather than spiritual sites, he doesn’t connect them with his anger and fear of God; rather, he will find in these old cathedrals a certain peace, and also a certain hope. He will see ancient buildings comprised of stones even older, created by a confluence of spirit, sweat, intellect, and prayer. Many are in a state of continual renovation, and he will start to wonder if the fact that these ancient stone monuments to God and the human spirit need to be—and can be—periodically repaired from damage may offer hope that he can rebuild his own life.

Returning to Maine, recalling these three weeks, he will see in these remodeled cathedrals that he needs to come up with not only a goal, but also a blueprint for getting there. The following fall, he will get learn about Centering Prayer, which becomes his handbook of instructions for not running from his fears, to simply watch them, watch himself react, and then let them go. He will, in the words of the twelve-step program he joins, “Let go and let God.” Not God the Super Saddist, but God the Great Embrace.

My journal tells me that after Mary Lee took this picture, we walked through the park by the River Avon to Trinity Church, where Shakespeare is buried. The church, like everywhere else in Stratford, was full of people, but, I write, the mood was far less frenetic. That’s because (and I quote from my journal), “…as Mary Lee said, they were pilgrims, not tourists.”

I’m pretty sure this was the first time, I ever heard anyone I knew talk about someone’s trip being a pilgrimage.

It was certainly not the last.

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Winter Pilgrimage

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“What does someone do on a retreat, anyway?”

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2-16-17: The sun sets, a glowing ball pulsating through the bare birches and maples. A stiff northwest wind whips dervishes of snow across the field between two stone walls. The bare trees form a network of branches across a pink and blue sky.

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Someone sat in his hermitage, reading a book on the spirituality of aging and nursing a bad back. Funny how his back often began to act up when he went on retreat. And he’d been relatively pain-free this winter, too.

Occasionally, he wrote in his journal: the view from his window or notes from the book. He jotted down what the author of the book called the “gifts” of aging: a greater capacity to love and be loved. Greater ability to receive and connect with others. A greater sense of freedom.

Well, maybe. Of course, his ability to make love had diminished, the number of people he’d always connected with had shrunk, and his chances to enjoy his freedom were fewer.

He thought about the author’s emphasis on letting go as we age. He’d been practicing letting go in his meditation for over twenty years, and on his Wednesday AlAnon meetings he often sat before the slogan “Let Go, and Let God,” printed in neon-green block letters. Yet he still had trouble, still found himself as he sat in what was supposed to be contemplation, muttering, “Let go… let go… LET GO… LET GO, GODDAMN IT!”

He copied a sentence from the book: We cannot know the great mystery, but we can experience it.

Absolutely. After almost 74 years of experience, his life was still as great a mystery as ever. Including why the hell his back ached so much.

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2-17-17: Waning gibbous moon setting in the morning sky. The wind whistles around, rattling windows and doors.

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Returning from morning prayer, he fixed what, over the twenty years he’d come here on retreat, had become his standard retreat breakfast: granola and an English muffin slathered with peanut butter. He gazed out the window and listened to the wind. He thought of the Brothers, how they were aging, like everyone else he knew, and of the young interns here at the retreat house. If there were a word to describe them as a group, it was “intense”—the young man with the gangly, adolescent body and the 60-year-old cultivated English voice, who, when he crossed himself, looked like a sailboat tacking into the wind; the short, androgynous young person with a heavenly, boy’s-choir voice, who knelt on the hardwood floor during communion; the gypsy-looking lad, who wore a silver and black scarf in any number of ways, and who kissed the chalice instead of drinking from it.

My God, he thought, they could be my grandchildren.

Which reminded him of his daughter, dead now for twenty-eight years. He said good morning to her, and felt a hot iron poker stab his lower back.

He opened his book on the spirituality of aging.

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2-17: Buffeted by a wind down the Merrimac River from Canada or Hudson Bay or points north, Jesus hangs on a pine tree, keeping watch over the snow. Open water. Ice hugs the shore.

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After snow-shoeing across the field in front of the hermitage into the woods, he followed the riverbank up to a high point where there was a bench that looked upon a bronze statue of Jesus on the cross and the Merrimac River snaking its way north. He brushed snow from the bench, sat and adjusted one of the bindings on his old wooden snowshoes. Twice the size of the newer ones, they were awkward things to walk in, but his grandfather had given them to him almost 60 years earlier, and he wasn’t ready to give them up.

He thought of the last time he’d seen Grampy: in the hospital, coughing up phlegm, yet still smoking. His father had died the same way. When doctors asked him about his family history, he said that all the women lived into their 80’s and 90’s, but that the men had died in their 60’s from bad habits.

He thought a minute and realized he’d already outlived every man in his family but two.

Feeling the wind, he pulled his hood around his head, and practiced watching himself watch a cold sunlight splash across Jesus’ compassionate face.

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2-18: A star or planet that appears twice the size and brightness of the others hangs over the river. After a sunset of blues and reds and pinks, bright clouds circle into the evening sky like northern lights.

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That night at dinner, their music had been a CD of a violinist—well, more of a fiddler, actually—playing traditional hymns. As he listened to “What Wondrous Love is This?” he saw his daughter, probably around ten, and himself trekking the woods of eastern Maine. Then, walking down the road from the main house to the hermitage, staring up at a glorious night sky, he’d had a vision of his daughter welcoming him into Eternity.

When he opened the door to his hermitage, he suddenly saw the elephant on the retreat, the one he’d come here carrying (No wonder his back hurt!): his fear of dying. Not so much death itself, but the events leading up to death: diagnosis, struggle, pain, loss of control, saying good-bye to his wife and her children and grandchildren whom he loved so much.

Was this fear part of learning how to die, as the author of his book recommended, or was he needlessly obsessing over something he had no control? Should he work to follow the wisdom of the Shawnee prophet, Tecumseh, whose words he’d copied into his journal earlier that day: … when it comes your time to die, be not like those whose hearts are filled with fear…Sing your death song and die like a hero going home? Or should he simply ask, “God, give me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change…” and focus more on enjoying the time he had left?

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2-19: A ‘V’ of geese flies across the field toward the Merrimac. Snow melts in the bright sun.

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On this, the last morning of his retreat, he decided to skip morning prayer and spend a half-hour or so in front on an icon in the hermitage prayer corner of Mary and the baby Jesus. Eventually, he became aware that even as Mary held her child, her hands were already open, as if preparing for him to leave her. He watched the Christ child stroking his mother’s face, and recalled the last time his daughter had been conscious enough to recognize him: on her hospital bed, two days before she died, four catheters puncturing her body, one of which was filling her with what her doctor said was “more morphine than I’ve ever given anyone.” She’d groaned and he’d gone to her bedside. She opened her eyes, saw him, and stroked his face. “You need a shave,” she’d slurred, and then dropped into something between a coma and a drug-induced sleep.

He thought again of the need to let go, even of our children, even of our lives, and at the same time, of the presence of love that continues, that endures, that is stronger than death.

Later in the day, he packed his things, stripped and remade his bed, vacuumed the hermitage. His backache was almost gone. Taking his suitcase and backpack to the car, he watched the geese flying overheard and recalled a snatch of psalm:

For I am but a sojourner with you

a wayfarer, as all my forbears were.

Turn your gaze fro me, that I may be glad again

before I go my way and am no more.

He got in the car, inserted Leonard Cohen’s last album, the one he made while dying of cancer, and continued on his pilgrimage.

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