Our Embedded Remains

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A Wall in Selcuk, Turkey

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Of course, not every trip needs to be a pilgrimage.

I know, I know: given the title of this blog and the pilgrimages and retreats I’ve described over the last year and a half, you’d think the only worthwhile journeys I’ve ever made have involved intense planning, a degree of discomfort, and an even greater degree of “spirituality.”

But a few years ago, Mary Lee and I had a wonderful trip to Turkey. Our purpose was to visit friends and to escape a Maine winter that had extended, as it often does, into April. For a week, we were chauffeured around and fed royally by Lynne and Finlay, who, after teaching in Istanbul for ten years, had bought a home in Selcuk (as in “sell-chuck”) in the western part of the country. I hadn’t prepared for the trip and knew next to nothing about Turkey, except that the apostle Paul, one of Christianity’s heroes, spent a lot of time there.

I had no idea that the ancient city of Ephesus, where Paul lived for a while and for whom he wrote one of his Epistles, is part of Selcuk. Nor did I know that Selcuk is also the site of several other holy places: The Temple of Artemis, one of the Seven Wonders of the ancient World; the Basilica of St. John, built on the tomb of John the Beloved Disciple and author (perhaps) of the Bible’s Book of Revelation; the Home of the Virgin Mary, where Jesus’s mother is thought by pilgrims to have spent her last days; and Isa Bey Mosque, which dates from the fourteenth century.

And perhaps because I didn’t come to Turkey as a pilgrim, or perhaps because the hordes of tourists—a lot of Asians, Germans, and Australians—reminded me of the tourists in Old Orchard and Bar Harbor in Maine, none of these places ever felt to me particularly holy.

What I did feel was a palpable sense of history. For centuries, Turkey has resided at the crossroads between Eastern and Western cultures. Part of Istanbul is in Europe and part of the city is in Asia. Turkey is where Noah’s ark is supposed to have come to ground after the flood. The Grand Fortress of Selcuk rests on the site of castles going back to before 5,000 BCE.  Before becoming a republic in 1923, the country was, at various times, part of Greek, Roman, Christian, and Islamic empires.

And I’m not exaggerating when I say this history is palpable; visitors can see and touch it. Turkey’s historic civilizations are literally embedded in one another, stone next to stone, sometimes in strange ways—carved marble cornices in the middle of granite walls, for example.

This embedded history is clearly evident in Selcuk. You find very little left of the Temple of Artemis, once known throughout the ancient world for its mix of classic Greek and near Eastern design, because after its final destruction in 262 CE, its marble stones were used in construction of later buildings, including the Basilica of St. John. And when the Basilica became unusable after a fourteenth century earthquake, some of its stones, along with stones from the Temple of Artemis were used in building Isa Bey Mosque in 1375.

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What’s left of the Temple of Artemis. In the background: Isa Bey Mosque, the Basilica of St. John, and the Grand Fortress of Selcuk.

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Even on vacation, however, you can never entirely escape your own history. Seeing, touching, the stones that make up Selcuk’s past, I couldn’t help but wonder if, just as Turkey’s civilizations were built using the remains from previous cultures, who I am today isn’t built of some of the destroyed remains of previous selves I’ve reassembled.

I thought of when, a year or so after my eighteen-year-old daughter Laurie died of cancer, I’d read a review in the New Yorker by Terrence Rafferty of the movie, “Black Rain,” about the survivors of the destruction of Hiroshima in WWII, and how I’d identified with the way Rafferty described them:

They “…live in a perpetual state of suspension, a constant twilight. Their survival is too tenuous to give them much joy; it’s more like a wary, static persistence… They’re contaminated by uncertainty, and every gesture they make, every word they speak, is halting, self-conscious, tentative.”

I’m guessing that anyone reading this who’s lost a child understands what Rafferty is talking about. Your entire world—your past, your present, your future—is destroyed. All your old landmarks become rubble, and you have no point of reference, nothing to guide you. You wander lost and fearful.

But maybe one of the ways we grieving parents survive is by embedding parts of our old, destroyed selves into transformed ones, possibly becoming stronger in the process.

I was raised in the Christian tradition. If I could draw pictures of my early faith, they would resemble a child’s book of an idealized 1950’s small town, filled with quaint Andy Griffin meets Ozzie and Harriet characters. God was, like my pastor and next-door neighbor, Scotty Campbell, a nice guy who winked and always seemed to be around, even when your parents were busy. As I grew older, I replaced those images with a Sierra Club calendar of majestic, forest-covered mountains glowing in a brilliant sunrise, filled with possibility. When I met Mary Lee, I added more images to include her, the two of us being guided along bucolic trails by a creative, loving Presence.

And then I learned that God was capable of creating not only purple mountains’ majesty but cancer cells. At first, God disappeared, then reappeared as the Great Saddist, inflicting pain on innocent children. Eventually, God became the Great Opponent, with whom I, like the Biblical Jacob, wrestled, until I finally surrendered to what I now think of as the Great Mystery of Grace.

Today, I realize that should I try to blueprint my faith, it would look a lot like some of the buildings Mary Lee and I saw in Turkey, with images of God as caretaker, God as creator, God as opponent, God as mystery, God as lover, embedded—along with sorrow and joy, doubt and faith, shame and compassion, grief and hope—into one edifice.

Sort of the way, come to think of it, a pilgrimage can sometimes become embedded in a vacation.

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The Annual Pilgrimage

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In the 1950s and 60s, high school basketball was the king of Maine sports. Communities rallied around their teams and the twice-weekly games were the social events of the season. Fights broke out, tires were slashed, romances—even marriages—began and ended before, during, and after the games.

One of the highlights, not only of the winter, but of the year, were the high school basketball tournaments. Not only did schools shut down for the week, businesses closed. Some townspeople took their vacations in February, not to fly to Florida but to drive to Lewiston, eat at Stickino’s Restaurant, and watch the Western Maine Basketball Tournament at the Memorial Armory.

I first heard the call to become part of what I now think of as the annual pilgrimage to Lewiston in the eighth grade, when I began playing basketball. By the following year, while I might have gone to church on Sunday and listened to my pastor and next-door neighbor, Scotty Campbell, tell us about a loving God, my real worship service was in my backyard, shooting my new yellow Voit basketball into the hoop my father had put up over the garage door. My scriptures were the sports pages of the Portland Press Herald and the Portland Evening Express. My icons the pictures I cut from Sport magazine: Hot Rod Hundley, Jungle Jim Loscutoff, Bill Russell.

The twenty-six-mile drive from Yarmouth to Lewiston took us small-town kids into another world: a city of bright lights and dark alleys, where everyone, it seemed, spoke French, and tall spires of stone churches loomed against the horizon. The Memorial Armory itself, built in 1922-23, also stone, cavernous, inspired an even greater feeling of awe.

But as with any good pilgrimage, it was the journey itself that was as important as the destination. Riding on the team bus, I learned about sex (even though at least half the information was wrong), what makes a good joke, and any number of songs. I learned how to hold my own swapping insults—what we called “cutting”— and I made friendships that continue to this day.

The first time I walked into the Armory, I realized at some level I’d crossed the threshold into what today I would call liminal space—out of ordinary time, neither past nor present nor future. The smell of smoke, sweat, and popcorn was like incense to my nostrils. My ordinary life—my family, my interests in music and reading, even my fantasies about girls—dissolved, and I was completely in the moment, focused only on the other team, the basketball, the basket.

In those days, the Western Maine Basketball Tournament was comprised of eight teams each from small, medium, and large schools. The teams with the best win/loss records played those with lesser records, with the winner going on to play other winners until there was only one winner left: the Western Maine Class S, M, and L Champions, who would then face the Eastern Maine Champions in the even bigger cities of Portland or Bangor. Every game was a 32-minute morality play, complete with heroes—our guys—and villains—their guys. There were always upsets, increasing the drama. And, of course, there were more losing teams than winning ones: one of life’s great lessons.

Pilgrimage is about dealing with disappointment, learning from mistakes. It’s interesting to me that during the four years I played basketball for North Yarmouth Academy, the town’s high school at the time, our team lost no more than maybe a dozen games, and yet I remember the losses far more than the victories. For three years, NYA won its first tournament games and then met Freeport in the Western Maine Finals, where we lost every time. During my senior year, we finally beat Freeport, as well as all the other teams we faced in the Western Maine Tournament, besting Cape Elizabeth to win the Class L Championship. I remember little about any of those games. What I do remember vividly, even 56 years later, is our loss to Orono in the State Championship. I can tell you the score—74-52—as well as where I scored each of my 10 points—one long jump shot to start the game, two foul-line jump shots, one put back off a rebound, and two foul shots.

Pilgrimage, however, is also about beginning again. For me, the next basketball season started the day after the tournament ended. I estimate that during my four years in high school, I had a basketball in my hand 350 days a year. I was always looking ahead to the next year. Playing basketball gave my life a meaning and a purpose. It gave me hope.

One reason I had such a hard time adjusting to college was that once I stopped playing organized basketball, I no longer had the next season to look forward to, nothing to work towards. This turned out to be a great lesson, one I’ve needed, still need more than ever these days: for serenity, I have to have a goal—some kind of basket, if you will—to shoot for.

As a teacher, I continued to attend the high school tournaments, now as a spectator, watching the game change, observing some of my former opponents in the crowds or refereeing the games. And I still watch the occasional tournament game on Maine’s Public Television channel.

I watch as some people go to church occasionally, as reminders of how the experiences of my youth have molded me. For example, there was always a spiritual component to basketball for me. Those many hours I spent shooting my yellow ball into the make-shift hoop—the sense of first extending and then leaving myself, as if the ball were part of me, so that releasing the ball toward the basket was like soaring into the air, leaving the secular world behind—I see now as precursor to years of meditation.

And after my daughter died from cancer, I found myself thinking of Mr. Beal, my first basketball coach, and the way he had driven me. I heard his voice sometimes in the morning, “Come on, Wile, move it!” and I began to think of my grief as a basketball opponent, one I needed to work as hard to defeat as I had had to work to beat Freeport.

Except for some rural parts of the state, basketball is no longer king of Maine sports. Hockey, football, soccer, lacrosse—both men’s and women’s teams—all draw big crowds. A good thing, I think. (People who talk about the good old days seem to forget how few opportunities there were then for women to participate in much of anything except cheerleading.)

And while I’m sorry the Lewiston Armory no longer hosts high school tournaments, I’m glad to see it is still hosts recreation programs, gun shows, the “Androscoggin Falls Angels Roller Derby League,” and, once a year, large numbers of the Somalis now residing in Lewiston who gather to celebrate Eid al-Fitr, the end of Ramadan.

Nice to see that the Armory remains a destination for pilgrims.

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