Earning Grace

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In one of my early blogs—https://geriatricpilgrim.com/?s=Gifts—I talked about my difficulty accepting grace—which I defined as God’s gifts to us, gifts we haven’t earned, gifts we receive simply because God loves us unconditionally. Still, I wrote, looking back at the pilgrimage I’d been on since the death of my daughter, I could see any number of places where I’d received grace.

Less than a year later, just before I submitted it to the publisher, I decided to subtitle my novel, Requiem in Stones, “A novel of grief and grace.”

So you’d think I’d figured it out.

But no, I continue to wrestle with the concept of grace—where it comes from, how we get it, and especially, how we recognize it. It’s one thing to look back at my various journeys and see moments of grace, but these days, as I grow more concerned with the future, not only with my own growing decrepitude and eventual death, but also with the illnesses and deaths of those I love, I want—no, need—to know if it’s possible, and if so how, to open myself up to grace, appreciate it during, not just after the fact.

Especially since I’m still not sure what grace is.

Maybe I’m just struggling because I’m a man. “Men don’t respect anything they get for nothing…,” writes Richard Rohr in On the Threshold of Transformation, his book of daily meditations for men. But I suspect both men and women of my generation, or at least those of us raised in Puritan New England, have trouble with grace. “There’s no such thing as free lunch,” my friend Joe used to say.

And yet, at some level I know better. God/Life/the Great Intangible/my Higher power has given me any number of free lunches.

So how do I reconcile these apparently conflicting concepts? How do I decide whether grace is simply received or if it’s earned?

Or—new thought—can grace be both gift and something earned, or at least prepared for?

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As usual, when I start seeing my life as a pilgrimage, I get my answer.

Writers on pilgrimage agree that preparation for pilgrimage is an important aspect of the pilgrimage itself. “…[P]reparation no more spoils the chance for spontaneity and serendipity than discipline ruins the opportunity for genuine self-expression in sports, acting…,” writes Philip Cousineau in his classic, The Art of the Pilgrimage. Cousineau advises a balance of planned and unplanned time. He talks about reading sacred texts and myths connected to where the pilgrim is going, ritual ceremonies before leaving, meditation on the purpose of the trip, appropriate music, even a ritual meal. Most important, Cousineau says, constantly remind yourself of the purpose of your journey.

My wife Mary Lee and I have tried to follow his advise. On our pilgrimages, even short ones to retreat houses less than a hundred miles away, we try to spend the week before gathering readings, whether it’s Fred Brancato’s Ancient Wisdom and the Measure of our Days—on my “To Read” list for months—to take to the retreat house; or, when we walked St. Cuthbert’s Way, reading about St. Cuthbert and the Holy Island of Lindisfarne. When we went to San Francisco, I reread Jack Kerouac’s On the Road beforehand, and his Big Sur on the way home. We have our ritual practices: increased meditation, especially on the purpose of the upcoming trip, cleaning our water bladders and back packs, buying postcards to leave at places we stay, sending our itineraries to family. We have ritual clothing: travel shirts and vests (both with lots of pockets) that we wear only on pilgrimage. Ritual meals: eating at “The Friendly Toast” in Portsmouth, New Hampshire on the way there and at “Pat’s Pizza” in Yarmouth, Maine on the way home. When we were getting ready to walk St. Cuthbert’s way, we increased our walking distances, I went to a podiatrist for orthotics, and we both saw our doctors for check-ups. When we went on a winter pilgrimage to our favorite retreat house, I bought new bindings for my snowshoes and new long underwear.

All of which, I think, helps us to be open to the unexpected, both good and bad—my back pain and the northern lights at the retreat house, the cow shit and gorgeous vistas along St. Cuthbert’s Way, the lack of buses and the plethora of great food in San Francisco—and turns a simple trip into a pilgrimage.

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But how do I prepare to be open to whatever’s around the bend in my pilgrimage into older (I’m already old) age? When I look back over the almost thirty years since my daughter died, I can see I did make preparations that helped open me to grace and healing. The thing was, I didn’t know it.

For example, one of the first things I did was to inadvertently follow Cousineau’s advice and create ritual space for ritual ceremonies. The day after Laurie’s death, I turned what had been the bedroom she stayed in when she visited us into what I called my “den,” complete with candles that I burned every night, while I wrote in my journal—both of which I still do. I read scripture, books about grief, especially about parents after the deaths of their children, and books on spirituality and prayer.

At first, my intention for all this—my “purpose for pilgrimage,” if you will—was to try to answer the question “Why?” Why did my daughter, who’d never smoked, never even ate meat, exercised, and did everything you’re supposed to do to live to be a hundred, have to die from this rare cancer at eighteen? Which led me to a confrontation with God, at least the God of my understanding: a sadistic bastard, who got His (and God was definitely a He then) kicks torturing innocent children. From there, I was introduced to Centering Prayer, which I decided was a way to hear what God had to say back to me, and from there, to a series of mentors and teachers who helped open me to grace and healing.

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One of those mentors was a sailor, and I recall her telling a group of us that she didn’t sail her boat; God did: God provided the wind and the water. What she did was learn how to use the sails and the tiller and the other stuff to maximize what God provided. Which reminds me that for much of my life (until my back said, “no more”), I worked in gardens, planting and harvesting greens, tomatoes, squash, cucumbers, potatoes, peas, beans, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, and flowers. Still, I didn’t grow the vegetables and flowers; what I did was prepare the soil, do the groundwork, and pray for the right combination of sun, rain, and temperature—all of which I had no control over.

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And maybe it’s by doing the groundwork that one “earns” grace.

If so, what can I do to ready myself for the grace that past experiences, past pilgrimages, tell me will accompany me to the nursing home, and to Riverside Cemetery where my ashes will be interred? What can I read? What rituals should I observe?

And most important, what purpose do I keep before me for whatever life I’ve got left?

One of the most haunting lines I’ve read lately is from Richard Hoffman’s new collection of poetry, Noon Until Night: “I seldom knew that I was happy.”

I don’t want to say this on my deathbed.

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Of Pilgrimage and Creativity

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Most authors who write about pilgrimage recommend carrying some kind of a journal in which to record your impressions. I’d go a step further and suggest you write about not only what transpired during the pilgrimage itself, but also what was going on before and afterwards. This way, you can see if the trip really was a pilgrimage—an inner journey as well as an outer one—or simply a vacation.

I realized this the other day when I looked at my journal from 1995. Reading it, I saw that the year had been a pivotal one for me, and that the year itself had pivoted around a trip Mary Lee and I made to Key West and the Ernest Hemingway Mansion.

Before we went, my journal was filled with quotations about art and creativity—for example, Ralph Waldo Emerson’s saying, “The creation of beauty is art”—coupled with paragraph after paragraph lamenting that my own writing was stifled and stale:

“Five years ago, I told myself it would take 10 years of constant writing to develop any skill and that there would be huge obstacles along the way, and now after five years, here are the obstacles, but not the obstacles I imagined: criticism, rejection slips, time. There’s just this feeling of lethargy. I have trouble even reading a short story, let alone writing one.”

Since I had begun writing fiction after the death of my eighteen-year-old daughter from cancer, in some ways to create something to take her place, in some ways to honor her interest in art by trying to carry on her creative legacy, this lethargy contributed to the shame I felt for not being a better father. I couldn’t protect her while she was alive, and now I couldn’t honor her after her death.

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When Mary Lee and I visited Key West, the Hemingway Mansion was not my top priority. Like a lot of readers and writers, I no longer worshipped at the altar of Ernest Hemingway. His writing, with the exception of a few short stories and a couple of novels, now seemed a funhouse parody of masculinity. I wanted to see beaches, nightlife, cool restaurants. Still, in my journal, I recalled that before there was Jack Kerouac as an influence in my life, there was Hemingway, not so much for his writing, but for his star power. I write about sitting in Snap Moxcey’s barber shop looking at Life Magazine and photographs of Hemingway in Africa posing with the big game he’d shot, Hemingway at the bull fights in Spain, Hemingway with movie actresses Ingrid Bergman and Ava Gardner, Hemingway piloting his boat, Pilar, in the Caribbean. It was then that I first began to picture myself as a writer, on the cover of Time magazine after winning the Nobel Prize for literature, standing under a spruce tree on the rocky coast of Maine staring out to sea.

But when we toured the mansion, it wasn’t Hemingway’s fame that fed my sense of failure; it was his creativity:

“2-21-95: How all occasions do inform against me! Regardless of how one feels about old Papa, the house is a monument to the creative impulse. The African art, the marble cutting board in the kitchen, the headboard of his bed created from the hand-carved gate of some Spanish monastery, his fifty 6-toed cats, the fountain fashioned from a large vase and part of the men’s urinal at “Sloppy Joe’s Bar,” his workroom connected by a cat-walk from the house, which apparently only he navigated, the animal trophies on the wall—all show a powerful and imaginative mind, at least compared to mine.”

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One of the values of a pilgrimage, however, is that it helps you regain what some writers call your “beginner’s mind,” that you return home with renewed awareness, and that you start to strike out on a new path.

I knew none of this, but I see that on the plane ride back home from Florida, even as I continue to lament my lack of creativity, I used my journal to write drafts of essays for an application to a Humanities Institute program called “Shaping Identities: Autobiography and the American Experience,” which asked me to look at my life as a mirror of our nation’s experiences. I began to see not only how McCarthyism, the cold war, the Kennedy Assassination, and Viet Nam had impacted my life, but also how the research I’d been doing on the house I’d bought from my grandmother mirrored my experience of Laurie’s death, in that every owner of this house prior to my grandparents had lost at least one child.

After that, my journal entries begin to focus more about my spiritual life than on my writing life. Instead of lamenting rejection slips or sounding envious of the success of a member of my writing group, I have notes from a series of retreats at the Society of Saint John the Evangelist, an Episcopal monastery in Massachusetts. I have notes from Brother David Allen’s retreat on Julian of Norwich, a talk Brother James Koester gave on George Herbert, and—what fascinates me now—pages of notes from Brother Martin Smith’s retreat called “Co-creating with God.” Brother Martin defined creativity as making meaning out of chaos. The Genesis creation story, he said, tells us that all creativity comes from God. And, he continued, God expects creativity back from us. “We are not on this earth to execute some master plan,” my notes read. “God is not going to tell you the meaning of your life. God wants the two of you to create it together.”

Nowhere in my journal does it appear that I saw the connection between the program on “Shaping Identities” and Brother Martin’s retreat, but it seems to me now that this was when I began to look at writing as a way for me to find out more about myself and my grief, shape it, concretize it, and give it meaning.

In what seemed at the time like another unrelated event, I took a workshop through Maine Writers and Publishers on journal writing, learning new ways to use my journal, so that the later pages of this 1995 journal are full of dialogues with my fears, my monsters, my journal itself, lists of goals, obstacles to my goals, dreams, sketches, diagrams, floor plans.

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All of which, I would say now, prepared me for the end of 1995, and bilateral hip surgery. Laid up from November to the end of the year, I read Thomas Merton’s Seven Story Mountain about his leaving a promising writing life in New York City to become a Trappist monk in Kentucky, and ended my journal for 1995 by reviewing the year and contemplating my own future. I saw that I’d grown more that year than I’d previously thought, but that, rather than linear, my growth had been circular, like climbing a mountain in a spiral motion, passing the same spots, but at different levels, gaining a little greater perspective each time. For example:

“…I notice that once I stopped obsessing about publishing and quitting teaching to become a WRITER, I started enjoying writing again. I am still a teacher more than I’m a writer. What I need to work towards is the idea that I’m a Christian more than I am a teacher. When I’ve lived the year this way, the year has been satisfying; when I haven’t…I’ve fragmented into these tiny “selves,” banging into each other like drunken pigmies….”

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Twenty-two years later, although I still waver in my faith, I continue to believe that creativity, no matter what form it may take, rather than fame is the way to give meaning the world. And creativity begins with seeing the world through new eyes, which is one of the values of pilgrimage. Even if I don’t perceive any new awareness at the time, I can look back through my journal and see where I crossed a threshold to some new understanding, which helps me recognize a pattern to what seemed at the time like chaos.

Which helps me believe that “Yes, Ricky, there really is a God.”

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Finding My Parents

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My parents’ wedding: December 25, 1941. Dad was 22 years old; Mom, 19.

“The spiritual journey is about discovering our birthright, our beginning, with the same excitement of an orphan or adopted child looking for his birth parents.”

—Richard Rohr

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I was in my sixties before I discovered who my parents were.

Until I was thirteen or fourteen, I’d accepted the man and the woman with whom I lived as my parents, but once I hit adolescence, it was clear that there was no way this carpenter who lived in overalls and drank Narragansett Beer and his wife who seemed to spend her time gossiping on the telephone could be my real parents. No, I was like a prince in a folk tale, stolen at birth by a wicked witch and given to some peasants named Lester and Florence to raise in poverty, but who somehow knew he had the blood of royalty coursing through his veins.

My sense of frustrated entitlement grew once I left for college. Lester and Florence had never been to college, nor had anyone else in their families, which was just another clue that they weren’t really my parents.

I recall my anger at Lester one Christmas when I was home for the holidays. I talked him in to watching Dylan Thomas’s A Child’s Christmas in Wales on PBS. “What kind of nonsense is this?” Lester muttered as he lay on the couch, a beer resting on his gut. You’re such a lout! I thought.

Florence, on the other hand, kept asking questions, prying into my private life—“How are your courses?” “Are you dating?” “What do you plan to do after college?”—each question a reminder that my grades were mediocre, I had no idea what I wanted to do after I graduated, and that I was lonely as hell.

In other words, Lester wasn’t interested in my life, while Florence couldn’t keep her nose out of it.

After I got married, I tried to put as much distance between these people and myself as I could. My wife, and later, my daughter, and I seldom visited, and when we did, I could barely wait to leave. Lester was becoming more and more critical of everything and everybody. He wouldn’t stop smoking, and would wake us up at 4:00 in the morning with these coughing fits. He was drinking more, and usually fell asleep in the evening about 7:00, so that any attempt at conversation took place over the sound of a good-sized buzz saw.

After four years of asking my wife and me, “When am I going to be a grandmother?” Florence now asked, “Is Laurie going to have a brother or sister?” A reminder that my wife had told me—to my disappointment—that she didn’t want any more children. Even though neither of them said anything to me, I could see that Florence and my wife didn’t get along. I’d catch Florence looking at me with pity whenever my wife would criticize me or I would snap at her, and I knew Florence felt that my marriage was in trouble. She’d talk about what was going on at the church we’d all gone to, and I could feel her criticism for not being active in my own church.

When Lester died at the age of sixty-six of oat cell carcinoma—a highly malignant form of lung cancer that occurs only in smokers—I had too many other things on my mind to feel particularly upset. My marriage had just broken up and I’d fallen in love with another woman, who was planning to move from Colorado to Maine to join me. Then, two years after I remarried, my daughter died of cancer, and I spent the next fifteen years in solipsistic grief, too absorbed in sorrow to think of either of my parents.

Some twenty years after Lester’s death, however, as I began to approach the age he was when he died, I began to think about him more and more, even dream about him. I started to peruse photograph albums, read old newspaper clippings, searching for the father I felt I never had.

And I found him. In memories of his showing me how to play baseball and basketball; of recalling him at all my little league games and high school events. How when he and my mother would visit my first wife, our daughter, and me, I’d take him fishing; how, the weekend I left my first wife and drove to my parents because I couldn’t think of any other place to go, he took me fishing in his boat; how, the last time I saw him, in bed and riddled with cancer, he reached up and clasped my arm, and tried to smile.

I began to realize the difficulties my father had faced growing up. Of having to live for eight years—years Dad never talked about—in what 1920’s Massachusetts called “A Home for Wayward Boys,” while his mother, who’d divorced Dad’s father for beating their son with a belt, worked at a W.T. Grant’s department store, and visited him on weekends. Of moving to Yarmouth, Maine when his mother remarried, where, because of having had little education, he was placed in classes two years below other students his age. Of spending five years in the Army during WWII, two of those years in Europe away from my mother and me.

I learned in talking with my mother what I’d forgotten: that that Christmas vacation when I’d been so angry at my father for not understanding Dylan Thomas, he’d just been let go by the construction company he’d been working for, and was facing the winter with no job and three children to feed, one of whom had goofed off enough in college to lose his scholarship.

And in learning about my father, I began to understand my mother. Her struggles growing up in an alcoholic family. Her fear as child of inviting friends into her house, because the one time she did, her father walked into the living room drunk and naked. (Small wonder she never learned about boundaries!) Her mother’s acid tongue and spend-thrift habits. Being smart enough to go to college, but never having the money. Spending her life overcoming her shame by striving to be in complete control, while always presenting herself as sunny and confident, so that by the time she retired from her job at a large insurance company, she’d become an administrative assistant, while at the same time, holding every position in her church but pastor. A woman on her deathbed (and April 30th was the third anniversary of her death), who smiled at every nurse, and who was disappointed in herself for not being able to endure her pain without drugs.

So I found my mother and father at last, two people brought together by hardship and shame, who together built a life in which they raised three children in the kind of stable environment neither of them ever had for themselves.

My regret, of course, is that it took me so long to find them, and that, in the case of my father, especially, I was never able to tell him how much he’d meant to me.

Still, it’s been an exciting search, for in finding my parents I’ve also found my birthright. We don’t talk a lot about birthrights these days, but these rights or privileges to which someone is entitled by birth used to be very important, especially when it came to property or inheritance. My birthright was certainly not anything material, but rather something my parents created together and then passed on: the example that love can overcome shame, can even reach across the chasm between life and death.

Something I hope I can pass on as well.

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Last picture of my parents: October, 1985. Dad died two months later.

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