The Path is Made by Walking

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Wanderer, there is no path,

the path is made by walking.

—Antonio Machado

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Mention “pilgrimage” and folks usually think of walking the Santiago de Compostela or similar perambulations. Walking is synonymous with pilgrimage. In the Middle Ages, Chaucer’s Canterbury pilgrims walked to the tomb of Thomas Becket, while serious pilgrims walked from Europe to the Holy City of Jerusalem. The practice of walking the labyrinth began then in order that older or more infirm pilgrims who couldn’t make it to Jerusalem could at least take their own spiritual walk.

So maybe one reason I’ve come to see my life as a pilgrimage is that I’ve spent a large part of it walking.

As kids growing up in Yarmouth, Maine, we walked to the school, to the store, to the ball field, to work. When I had back surgery in 1978, I was told to walk ten miles a day for three months, which I did, even though those months were January, February, and March. When I moved back to Yarmouth, I began walking around town, one foot in the twenty-first century and one foot in 1955. Now living in Brunswick, Maine, I often walk the two miles to and from down town. I co-facilitate a contemplative silence group, where we practice not only sitting but also walking meditation: focusing on raising, lifting, pushing, dragging, touching, and pressing down each foot—to remind us that the body is always in the present moment.

And some of the major formative experiences of my life—the joy of first love, the pain of homesickness, the surrealistic disorientation of grief—have come while I was walking.

Whenever I hear Johnny Mathis sing “Misty,” I am immediately pulled back to an autumn Sunday in 1959, walking home from an afternoon with my first girlfriend. Floating was more like it, down Spring Street to East Main, to Willow, to Bridge Street, past white houses shaded by leaves shining ruby and golden in the sun, the smell of burning leaves like incense, buoyed by the taste of Susan’s lips, the feel of her breast in my hand, the smell of her “White Shoulders” perfume, and the memory of Mathis’s high tenor: “Oooonnnn my own, would I wander through this wonderland alone…” playing on her hi fi as we kissed.

On other Sunday, November 24, 1963, I walked through the evening mist and fog and the almost empty campus of the University of Maine at Orono, still in shock after the events of the weekend: Walter Cronkite’s voice, “From Dallas, Texas, the flash, apparently official: President Kennedy died at 1 p.m. Central Standard Time”; the closed casket draped in black crepe lying first in the East Room of the White House before being taken by the horse-drawn caisson to the Capitol Rotunda; the subsequent killing of a puffy-eyed Lee Harvey Oswald; the funeral procession.

I remember walking past Dunn Hall and Hannibal Hamlin and Oak Hall, standing like silent spectators at my one-man procession, the afternoon’s funeral drums beating in my head—dum dum dum da dum—trying to feel like Jack Kerouac’s Sal Paradise surveying a dying America, but instead, feeling like a twenty-year old hick from Maine, lost and unhappy. Following the sidewalk down the hill, through some white birches looking ghostly in the misty light cast by the street lamps, past Sigma Nu and Beta Theta Pi fraternities. Past the President’s house, where on the lawn, the few remaining leaves of an oak tree hung like flags at half-mast. Past the Women’s Athletic Building and Deering Hall to the UMaine farm buildings with their smell of hay and shit and the sounds of horses moving in one of the barns. The mist turned to steady rain. I lit a cigarette and pulled the collar of my jacket around my neck. I realized that not one person in the entire world knew where I was, or, more important, cared, except for my family. A feeling of loneliness such as I had never felt before, full of emptiness, longing, and sorrow cascaded over me. I began to cry.

During the months of November and December of 1988, I walked a mile each way back and forth between the Ronald McDonald House in Bangor, Maine to the fourth floor of the Eastern Maine Medical Center, where my eighteen-year-old daughter lay dying of cancer.  I especially remember the walk back, through what I still think of as the bowels of the hospital. Confused and angry after a day by Laurie’s bedside watching her slip further and further away from me, I’d take the elevator to the main lobby, walk through a waiting room, around a corner and down a corridor lined at first with photographs of lighthouses and lobster boats, and then with memorial plaques hanging like rows of wooden shields along the wall. Often, I’d pause here, read a name or two, and wonder how long it would be until Laurie’s memorial plaque joined them. (About a year as it turned out.)

Past a row of gray lockers, the cinderblock walls turned to brick. I’d come to the laundry rooms, passing men and women in light-blue coats and plastic hairnets, looking like zombies in the dim florescent light as they pushed carts, baskets, and gurneys. Further on, metal and wooden doors marked Records Retention Center Office, Respiratory Medicine Office, Hospital Staff Only, Procedure Room #1, Procedure Room #2. Machines hummed. The corridor turned left and narrowed. The lighting grew dimmer, the air damper. Pipes and valves clunked overhead. More rooms: Data Processing, Computers, and Housekeeping Maintenance. When I turned another corner into a still narrower corridor, the walls closed in on me, and it was here I sometimes heard voices of people walled up like victims of an Edgar Allen Poe short story, sensed ax murders following me down the hall.

Just when it seemed the corridor would dead-end, a turn to the left led me to a narrow door, where I’d suddenly feel excreted out into a parking lot by a river, the light, even on the darkest days momentarily blinding me. But when my eyes adjusted to behold the cascading water and the russet oak trees and white birches on the river banks, their beauty was more painful than the ugliness I’d been living with for the previous six hours.

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These days, I do a lot of walking with grandchildren. Research has shown that babies are happiest when they’re carried while parents, grandparents, or the like are walking at a speed of three to four miles an hour. I know one grandfather who’s pretty happy at this speed as well.

I’m also finding that walking with older grandchildren is a good reminder that, as Christine Valters Paintner writes, “Ultimately, the pilgrimage journey asks us…to relinquish our grasp on certainty and control.” Have you ever tried taking a two-year-old and a four-year-old on a walk? They go where they want to, not where you do. Do you have someplace you need to be? Tough. Time does not exist.

But Valters Paintner goes on to say, “In that process we allow ourselves…to receive gifts far bigger than our own limited imaginations could ponder.” Amen. My grandchildren notice everything, and usually with a delight I’d long forgotten. What is more beautiful than a child’s smile? More joyous than her laugh?

Most of the paths I’ve walked have been well-worn ones. I’m guessing most of you have also walked (if not physically, then emotionally) paths of love, sorrow, happiness, and grief. But I also suspect each of us still has to find our own way forward along these paths—walk them as if they’ve never been walked before.

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The Eagle

LOCAL BALD EAGLE GEE

I’m due at the Winter Harbor, Maine Library in an hour to do an “author talk,” but the drive up from Brunswick didn’t take as long as I’d thought it would, so I have time to kill. Obeying a sudden impulse, I keep on driving another 10 miles along Route One until I come to a small sign, “Gouldsboro Point,” and take a right down a road I haven’t been on for 30 years.

My journey changes from self-promotion to pilgrimage.

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Once upon a time I lived and taught not far from here. On weekends and school vacations, my first wife, my daughter, and I drove down this road to my wife’s parents’ cottage of weathered shingles, perched on a grassy bank overlooking Gouldsboro Bay, one of Maine’s more secluded coastal indentations.

To me, “the Point” was a spiritual, even mystical place, where I could adore a mostly unspoiled Nature. I loved wandering the woods—ten square miles of spruce, birch, and maple trees, bounded on three sides by roads and on the fourth side by West Bay, which juts from Gouldsboro Bay like the claw from a lobster. Summer, fall, winter, spring—the season made no difference. The pungent smell of autumn leaves, the anthems sung by a June breeze through the spruce trees, the caress of the sun or the rain or the snow on my face called to a longing inside me.

And then, as my marriage began to sink beneath swells of bickering and troughs of silent condemnation, these weekend walks in the woods became a life raft: both an escape from the rest of the week and a call to another life, although at the time I couldn’t have told you what that other life might be.

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Today, the road down to Gouldsboro Bay is both eerily familiar and startlingly strange. There must be twice as many houses as I recall—one and two-stories with large windows and long driveways that contrast with the faded white houses that have been here for probably a hundred years or more. Rounding the bend at the end of Gouldsboro Bay, I see a new pier thrusting into the water with a large yacht tied up beside it.

Driving a few hundred yards further, I see the cottage where I spent some 20 years’ worth of weekends and holidays. It has new siding and a second story now. Across the road, where I used to enter the woods for my weekend walks, stands a large log cabin.

Which gets me thinking about the logging roads behind the cabin I used to walk, and the day I followed one of them past some old cellar holes and gnarled apple trees until I saw West Bay in front of me, high tide twinkling in the sun.

I remember turning right and re-entering the woods, up a faint path that ran along a bluff overlooking the bay, then stopping to walk under a canopy of spruce trees toward the bay to get a better view of the water. Standing in cool dark shadows under a huge spruce, I gazed across the glittering bay. I don’t recall what I was thinking about—probably daydreaming about travel or writing fame or sex or my unhappy marriage—until I heard a muffled noise—almost a thud—that seemed both faint and powerful at the same time. The air around me shifted perceptively, and then part of the shadow moved.

Twenty feet above my head, dark wings extended to over six feet across, the interlocking feathers a kaleidoscopic pattern of browns. Tapered wingtips separated and lengthened like sepia colored knives. A white tail fanned, lifted. One flap of wings sent the bird away from the trees, its legs down, curved talons extended. As it arced, I beheld a massive white head, a yellow hook of a beak, and one black eye under a furrowed brow. Then the eagle caught a thermal of wind and soared into the sky, and slowly began to circle the bay.

I felt numb or dumb for a moment—Gee, wasn’t that an eagle that just flew off over my head?—followed by an excitement that was a mix of joy and awe —God, that was an eagle that just flew off over my head! My legs trembled as I stood on the embankment and watched the bird become a tiny cross in a royal blue sky. Even after the eagle vanished over the islands at the end of Gouldsboro Bay, my heart kept up its tattoo. A small waterspout churned across the bay, raising white caps. Seaweed undulated below me. The world seemed to be dancing and I wanted to dance with it.

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As I turn around in the driveway to the log cabin across the road from my former in-law’s cottage, I remember my excitement at just seeing an eagle at a time when, because of pesticides and other pollutants, only about 30 pair lived in the entire state. I recall the grace with which the eagle took flight. I recollect my mixed feelings of fear and awe and joy. But as I drive back towards Route One, what I remember most is the dead weight of sadness and frustration I felt when I tried to tell my wife what I’d experienced.

“That’s nice,” she said. “But I wish you’d stayed here and helped me paint the porch railing. Now I’ll have to finish it next week. Wash your hands. It’s almost time for supper.”

I know many people prefer to make their pilgrimages alone. Some writers say all real pilgrimages are solitary experiences. Maybe so, but today I see that being under the eagle’s wings might have been my first realization of how much of the longing I’d been feeling on my woodland walks had been for someone to share my joy and my sorrow, my uncertainty and my plans. I think of my loneliness on those nights when my first wife and I drove back from the Point to our house, funereal distance separating us like a fogbank, and then I recall the night I met my second wife, Mary Lee, when we talked until three in the morning about everything from snake hunting to God. Our letters to each other sometimes reached thirty pages a week. I wish she were here now, even though I kissed her good-bye only a few hours ago and will kiss her hello tonight.

I realize it’s when I isolate myself that I get into trouble: not only how often I get lost when I walk alone, but also after my daughter Laurie’s death, when I retreated into my den with a bottle of scotch, when my guilt and my anger alienated me from my family and friends, when I stopped going to counseling because I was convinced that my story was worse than anyone else’s, when I miss a few weeks of my twelve-step program, when I don’t meet regularly with a spiritual director.

I don’t know about you, but I need to share not only my anger, shame, and confusion, but also my happiness, dreams, and successes with someone else, someone who can make me feel that what I’m experiencing matters.

Which is why I think most of us need a spouse, a partner, a good friend. Why a lot of us need God.

I’m back on Route One now, heading for Winter Harbor—looking forward to talking with people about my writing, but anticipating even more getting home and telling Mary Lee about my day.

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