Negotiating the Past

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I suspect the past

does not resemble its photos.

—Richard Hoffman

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So I was all set to call this week’s blog, “Past as Prologue.” My first paragraph was going to tell you about the second day of a seven-day walking pilgrimage along St. Cuthbert’s Way, when, still apprehensive about being able to complete the 62-mile trek from Melrose, Scotland to the Holy Island of Lindisfarne off the east coast of England, I looked back across a newly mown field to the Eildon Hills my wife Mary Lee and I had climbed the day before and thought, Hey, I climbed those. I can do this!

In the next paragraph, I’d planned to quote one of the Brothers at the Society of Saint John the Evangelist, who said in a homily that hope is not about the future so much as about the past: that it is from our past experiences we gain the strength and the knowledge to give us hope for the future.

From there I figured I’d continue with all the ways my past has helped me deal with everything from canceled plane flights to the death of my daughter to the challenges of aging.

And then this skeptical voice in my ear said, Wait a minute. Are you sure the past has always been that helpful?

I recalled how when Mary Lee and I began our St. Cuthbert’s Way pilgrimage in Melrose, we’d had a hard time finding where the damn walk begins. You’d think it would have been easy to find. The village is small and the St. Cuthbert’s Way markers are distinctive. But the sign that marks the turnoff from the street is tiny and part of a brick wall, and Mary Lee and I missed it several times. Each time, I grew more and more panicky. What do you expect? another voice—my judgmental one—chided. You’ve always been a loser. You’ve never been able to do anything right. You might as well go home. Memories of years of falling off my bicycle before I was finally able to learn balance, of fouling out of a basketball game in 19 seconds (some kind of record, I’m sure), of being jilted by girlfriends swarmed through my head until I heard Mary Lee call, “Hey, I found it. It’s down this alley.”

Which started me thinking about the times when the past, rather than make me hopeful, has made me feel hopeless. A few weeks ago, the Al Anon group I attend was talking about resentments. As I thought of mine—usually against people with more money than I have, people who haven’t worked as hard as I have, people who just seem to have more luck than I do—I realized that every one of these resentments was passed down to me by my parents. The shame of growing up in an alcoholic family has been the driving force in my life, dictating the vocation I followed [See my previous blog], my nightmares (always some situation where I’ve lost control and feel humiliated), my difficulties identifying and talking about my emotions.

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As I understand it, memories are snapshots our brain takes of each moment, which it then files away until we retrieve them. What seems to be in doubt is why we retrieve certain memories and not others, and what we do with these memories once we do retrieve them.

I know that sometimes, we—I, at least—change them.

Racked with guilt after the death of my daughter, for example, I found it impossible to recall any of the good times I’d had with Laurie, only those times when I’d spoken harshly to her or spanked her, times when she’d been angry with me, times in which I failed her in some way.

And then there was the afternoon, about a year after Laurie’s death, when my grandmother, Nanny Cleaves, lay dying in a nursing home. I stood by her bedside looking through a window on the town in which I’d grown up and suddenly recollected a scene thirty-five years earlier. The memory was vivid: I sat at a folding counter-top my father had built in front of a tall window with light green curtains that looked down the street to the river. I was eleven years old, pudgy with smooth round cheeks and blond highlights in my crew cut, wearing a jersey with horizontal stripes, corduroy pants that whistled when I walked, and black P.F. Fliers. I had sheep-like brown eyes that I kept focused out the window as I ate my bologna sandwich, trying not to think about my mother, who was in the hospital because the baby she’d been carrying inside her had come out too early and died.

Nanny, who had come to stay with us kids while Mom was in the hospital, stood behind me. Her shoulders were broad and her bosom was massive. Her arms looked like thighs, too big for the short-sleeved flowered dress she wore. Her hair was short and parted like a man’s under a hairnet. Her mouth was a straight line. Her eyes were hard and black. She spoke in her flat, Maine voice: “If you’d carried the laundry for your mother the way you were supposed to, she wouldn’t have lost that baby.”

I didn’t look at her. I ate my sandwich and tried to think about playing baseball after lunch, but her words stung and my eyes burned.

At the nursing home window, I turned and stared across the room at my grandmother. I heard her labored breathing. I thought of those afternoons I’d listened to my daughter’s breathing—ash…es, ash…es—and of the rattling in her lungs the night she died. My cheeks burned with guilt and rage as I thought of how my grandmother had accused me of murder.

I never questioned that memory—never doubted what I’d heard my grandmother say—until fifteen years later, when I was recording some of my now-eighty year old mother’s memories, and she talked about her miscarriage of a five-month baby girl in the kitchen of our house and of how she’d almost died of ensuing infection.

“I’d been helping your father carry lumber up to the second floor so that he could add on to one of the bedrooms,” she said. “And I overdid it.”

When I told her of my guilt for not having carried laundry, she said, “That was never one of your jobs. You were usually in school when I was doing laundry.”

And I realized that what Nanny had probably said to me was that when Mom came home from the hospital I would need to help her around the house, especially with lifting things such as laundry baskets. But in my grief that year after Laurie’s death, I remembered not the actual events of thirty-five years earlier, but an eleven-year old boy’s solipsistic sense of responsibility.

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All of which is not to say that the past hasn’t helped me live in the present. I wouldn’t write so much about my past if it didn’t help. But I am aware in ways I wasn’t before I started writing this week’s blog that the past is something that needs negotiating.

A little, I guess, like negotiating the hills and animal pastures of St. Cuthbert’s Way. The walk is definitely worth taking, but there are some shitty places you have to walk through, mud holes in which you can get bogged down.

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I’m sure I’ll still use the past as a way to guild me into the future; I just need to be careful about getting bogged down, either by sentimental nostalgia for a time that never existed except in my imagination (a real problem as I get older) or by the baggage of seventy years worth of wounds, some of which I’ve also fabricated.

The trick, I suppose, is to keep one eye looking back at the Eildon Hills, and the other looking ahead to the Holy Island.

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Work as Pilgrimage

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“Work…like life, is a pilgrimage, a journey in which we progress not only through the world but through stages of understanding.” David Whyte

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A friend who knows I write this blog recently gave me David Whyte’s book, Crossing the Unknown Sea: Work as a Pilgrimage of Identity. “Work,” writes Whyte, is “an opportunity for discovering and shaping the place where the self meets the world.” Even as we are shaping the work we do, he says, our work is shaping us.

I’ve always thought I should separate who I am from what I am, always disliked the fact that when I meet people for the first time, one of their first questions is invariably, “What do you do?” (Or now, “What did you do?) But this book has me pondering how much the work I’ve done has made me—shaped me, if you will—into the person I am today.

For most of my working life, I’ve been, in one form or another, a teacher—a vocation, I now see, I was cut out for. I still remember the jolt of energy I felt my first day of teaching, when I overheard a kid whisper to another: “Hey, he’s pretty cool!” And for the next thirty years, seeing faces light up after I’d shown kids something in a Hemingway short story, a Frost poem, or a Shakespearean play was one of the greatest feelings in the world. Right up there with sex.

I can certainly see how I shaped my work, especially during the first half of my teaching career. As head of the English Department at Mount Desert Island High School on the coast of Maine, I helped instigate and administer a new English curriculum, which included two Advanced Placement English programs that, one state evaluator said, rivaled the curriculum at Phillips Exeter Academy.

But I’ve never realized before now that at the same time I was shaping the curriculum, this curriculum was shaping me. During those years, I created a persona based on the college professors I admired. Driven by the shame of growing up in an alcoholic family, teaching at MDIHS gave me the respect I craved, even to the point of becoming intimidating. At a time when teachers were dressing more and more informally, I wore suits and vests and ties with matching pocket-handkerchiefs. I assigned abstruse literary works by William Faulkner and James Joyce; I covered student compositions with acerbic comments, which more than once reduced school valedictorians to tears.

I became a local legend at MDIHS. And, for a while, I loved it.

Then suddenly I was suffocating. “I have become everything I hate,” I wrote in my journal. My teaching persona felt more and more like a body bag. This urge to break out of what seemed like prison led to the break up of my marriage, which, ironically, had been weakened over the years by the amount of time I’d spend preparing lessons, correcting compositions, and designing English programs.

Finally, I left MDIHS in the middle of the school year to marry another woman and live in southern Maine.

Since then, I’ve looked back at those fifteen years as misspent, seen myself as phony, blamed myself for hiding behind walls. Overlooking the students from those years who still write to me, I’ve focused only on the students I failed by not taking into account a horrific home life or a major learning disability.

Whyte’s book is helping me understand those years differently: “…often it is simply the nature of things that walls that once served and sheltered us…only imprison us when we have remained within their confines for too long.”

The book also shows me how I broke out of that prison. Whyte talks about our need for “an outlaw figure,” an image from our youth to emulate of someone who represented freedom, who seemed to live outside society’s walls. I see now that for me that figure was a composite of the writers I’d been teaching—Hemingway, the Romantic poets, Thoreau—and whom I began to understand not as puzzles to be solved, but as writers, seeking to understand the world around them. At MDIHS, remembering my own high school dreams of being the next Ernest Hemingway, I’d started a creative writing elective, which became the one place I could catch my breath. After I remarried and found a new teaching position at Brunswick High School, I created another creative writing class, open to all students, so that I had “special needs” kids sitting next to the advanced placement students. When offered the chance to teach senior A.P. English again and become English Department head, I turned both offers down. “We must,” writes Whyte, “give up exactly what we thought was necessary to protect us from further harm.” Whether by accident or grace or something, I realized that to put on my old persona would like sentencing myself to life a behind bars.

After the death of my eighteen-year-old daughter from cancer, it was impossible for me not to look at some of my more unpleasant students and think, “Why the hell are you alive when my daughter is dead?” I found it harder and harder to teach at the high school level. Driven also by my own need to write, I took early retirement from public education, thinking that my teaching days were over. But to bring in money while I went back to school, I started working in a writing center at Bates College. I soon came to enjoy working with college students, not seeing myself as a font of wisdom standing in front of a classroom, but as a pair of ears sitting beside them.

Even after receiving my MFA, I continued at Bates for another ten years. During that time I began facilitating spiritual writing groups at my church, which I continue to do. Then after leaving Bates, I started volunteering at the Gathering Place, a day shelter for the homeless and materially poor in Brunswick. After a month or so there, I was sitting with a guy and we started shooting the breeze. He told me he’d lost his construction job and was living in the homeless shelter. I said I’d been a teacher.

“What’d you teach?” he asked.

“English,” I said. “Literature and writing. I really liked teaching creative writing.”

“Why don’t you offer something like that here?” he said. “I’ve got a lot I’d like to say.”

And I’ve been doing “something like that” now for over five years.

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Looking back on my career as a pilgrimage, I see that I began teaching by working my damnedest to appear powerful, wise, and in control, and that I’m ending it sitting with others in my various writing groups, all of us “writing to discover” some of this mystery we call life.

So maybe Whyte is right when he says that we shape our work, and are in turned shaped by the work we have done. If so, I count myself fortunate to have spent my life working at a job I’ve almost always enjoyed, work which may have shaped me to become more vulnerable and more open, even though I have a long way to go.

But hell, that’s what a pilgrimage is for, isn’t it?

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