On (Being) Bridges

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I grew up in a house on Bridge Street. As a child, I probably got spanked more for going down to the concrete bridge at the foot of the hill than for anything else. But in spite of my mother’s hairbrush, I couldn’t not go there. I’d meander halfway across the bridge and look over the railing on one side to the Royal River, coming down from where I didn’t know, cascading over a waterfall, and running under me; then cross to the other side of the bridge and gaze at the water flowing over rocks and disappearing around a bend to someplace else I couldn’t imagine.

Later in high school, I was still standing on the bridge, watching the river rush beneath me, but now picturing it gliding past the boat yard, into Casco Bay and the Atlantic Ocean, and on to exotic places where I wanted to go.

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(Royal River, Yarmouth, Maine)

I continue to love bridges, whether it’s one of the small footbridges on the trails of the Topsham-Brunswick Land Trust behind our house, a suspension bridge over the River Tweed in Scotland, or the world’s longest elevated pedestrian bridge, 1.28 miles long and 212 feet above the Hudson River from Highland to Poughkeepsie, New York. My photograph album is full of pictures of bridges from St. Cuthbert’s Way, retreat houses from Massachusetts to California to Canada, and from around Maine.

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(Along St. Cuthbert’s Way, England)

There’s no feeling quite like being on a bridge. Taking your first step on to a bridge, you know you’ve left firm ground. Your footing is just a bit unstable. Some bridges are dizzying. I’m always a little uncomfortable (how uncomfortable depends on the height of the bridge) but at the same time excited. Even on the smallest bridge in the thickest woods, the view is wider, and, of course, on a bridge like the Hudson River Pedestrian Bridge, the panorama is stunning. My senses are keener, my mind more awake, probably because I almost always pause when I’m on a bridge, sometimes to admire the view, sometimes to consider where I’ve been and where I’m going.

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(View from the Highland to Poughkeepsie Bridge)

Bridges are great examples of being in liminal space. I’ve written before about the importance of liminal space in my life— http://richardwile.com/2017/01/betwixt-and-between/ —those times when I’ve been, as it were, on a bridge between one job and another, one marriage and another, and, the most important bridge of all, the nine months between my daughter Laurie’s diagnosis of cancer and her death—probably the most dizzying, unstable time in my life. And also, probably the most important for making me the person I am now.

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(St. Cuthbert’s Way Again. This time in Scotland…I think)

Today, however, I’m thinking of people as bridges: those people who have helped me cross from one stage of life to another. Many were teachers and coaches. Often they made me uncomfortable (my eighth-grade teacher and coach Mr. Beal scared the hell out of me) because they pushed me harder than I wanted to be pushed. The old ground on which I’d been walking suddenly wasn’t there, and I was shaky, sometimes dizzy. (I remember my head swimming when Professor Wence handed me back my first college English essay, dripping in red ink and marked “Content: C- /Grammar: D- /Spelling: F.”) But they always expanded my view, woke me up to new worlds, whether it was Mr. Hanson in high school revealing that there was more than one political party in this country besides the Republicans, or Professor Bogarad in grad school showing me the world of Milton’s Paradise Lost, or Mike Steinberg twenty years ago introducing me to something called creative nonfiction.

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(Footbridge, Mabou, Cape Breton, Nova Scotia)

It’s probably because of my admiration for these bridge people that for over fifty years, I’ve been, in one form or another, a teacher, trying to be that a bridge between my students and a larger world, be it an adolescent’s first sight of Shakespeare’s genius or the world of the past my retirees want to reopen and pass on for their children and grandchildren. To be able to see the eyes of a student of any age light up as they say, “Hey, I’ve never seen that before! This is cool!” is an experience like no other.

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(Railroad Bridge between Auburn and Lewiston, Maine

I’m still looking for people to serve as bridges to new worlds. Not surprising, I suppose, is that the new world I’m most interested in these days is the spiritual one—what some in my age group would call the next world. I have no idea what this next world looks like, any more, I suppose than at five years old, I knew where the Royal River went. But I’m relying on people to give me at least a glimpse of it: people like Franciscan writer Richard Rohr (https://cac.org/richard-rohr/richard-rohr-ofm/);  Thomas Merton (http://merton.org/chrono.aspx ); the Brothers of the Society of Saint John the Evangelist, the Episcopal monastery in Massachusetts (https://www.ssje.org/);  my rectors, Jonathan, Dan, and Carolyn; and the Northeast Guild for Spiritual Formation, an interfaith contemplative organization (http://www.northeastguild.org/).

(And yes, I’m trying to be a bridge here. Check these websites out.)

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(Somewhere in Maine. I’ve forgotten Where.)

When I was living on Mount Desert Island, one of my favorite things to do besides teaching, was to walk the 45 miles of carriage roads that John D. Rockefeller Jr. built between 1913 and 1940. I still go back now and then to walk them again. Walking or biking those roads, you can see sixteen bridges, each one unique and beautiful. (I think I’ve seen them all.) The view of woods and water and rocky cliffs from each is spectacular, but so are the bridges themselves—a reminder of the unique beauty of serving as a bridge for others to cross.

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(One of J. D.’s Carriage Road Bridges)

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Here Comes the Judge!

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Pilgrimages are about traveling light, leaving old patterns of behavior behind, opening yourself to new gifts. And I do pretty well. Except for the Judge. No matter where I go, I just can’t seem to leave the bastard behind.

I’m in the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem, or Salisbury Cathedral in England, or Iona Abbey in Scotland, magnificent symbols of the holy, created by a confluence of spirit, sweat, intellect, and prayer, and all I’m aware of are the tourists around me following guides like schools of mackerel. Instead of paying attention to God, I’m listening to this voice: Aren’t you glad you’re not one of them?

Or I’m on retreat, in search of silence and serenity, watching the Brothers at whatever monastery I happen to be at, envious of how much more at peace they seem to be than I am, and I hear, Why can’t you be that centered? Maybe if you shaved your head the way the monk over there has, you’ll achieve union with God.

Or I’m hiking St. Cuthbert’s Way or climbing a mountain in New Hampshire, trying to become one with nature, and I hear someone behind me on the trail. I glance over my shoulder and see a guy who looks like he’s been carved from the side of this mountain. He’s catching up with you, the Judge says. You have to go faster! I try to pick up my pace. I don’t to get off the trail until I absolutely have to. Then, as the guy strides by me, the voice behind my right ear, soft but certain, slow and confident—a lot like Clint Eastwood’s— says, Why can’t you look like that guy?

I’ve certainly tried. Over the years, depending on whom I’ve wanted or not wanted to be, I’ve gone on diets; I’ve changed haircuts, grown and cut off sideburns, goatees, shaped beards, and Grizzly Adams beards; I’ve taken up, and given up, cigarettes, pipes, cigars, snuff, scotch, gin, bourbon, hand-crafted beers, jogging, weight-lifting, several religions, a number of meditation techniques, Tai Chi and Qigong, yoga, scraping my tongue, neti pots, and hanging upside down.

The Judge remains unimpressed.

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Besides pilgrimages and retreats, he is most likely to show up when I’m in social situations, such as class reunions, coffee hour at church, and parties. At my side, he leans in, pointing up to some people in envy, pointing down to others in disdain or pity, as if he and I were on some kind of ladder.

He was a powerful presence in the times when my life most seemed in chaos. During my first two years of college, when I had no idea of who I was or where I was going, the Judge sat with me in the back of the college den, disdaining the frat boys and sorority gals for being conformists, while telling me not to go back to my dorm because it was filled with losers. And after my daughter died of cancer, the judge convicted me of murder, sentenced me to a life of guilt because I’d caused Laurie’s death, either because I’d left her mother for another woman, or because I hadn’t left her mother soon enough.

I suspect the Judge was appointed by my alcoholic family, where “What will the neighbors think?” was the household mantra. If you appear to be in control, you are.  At the same time, judging is a way to keep people and situations at a distance. If I’m judging people, I’m not vulnerable to what they may say or do (another way to be in control). I can barricade myself behind the judge’s bench above the rest of the court, distant, respected, sarcastically wielding my gavel.

Never mind that the Judge has often kept me from being fully present to people, to the beauty of the world around me, to joy.

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Still, if you go on enough pilgrimages, something is bound to rub off. A few weeks ago, when Mary Lee and I were traveling on Cape Breton Island, Nova Scotia, the Judge pointed to the boney bicyclists pushing themselves up and down the rugged hills, and told me that when I got home I needed to lose 10 pounds (15 would be better). You ought to get one of those racing bikes, he said, or start walking ten miles a day.

For some reason—I’d like to think it was the grace that can come on a pilgrimage—instead of reacting immediately, I thought, well, the Judge usually shows up when I’m self-conscious or anxious about something. What’s been going on in my life lately? Alright, I’ve been writing about mortality in one way or another all year. Since April, I’ve seen three people my age die, and several more go into the hospital for major surgery. Could it be that I’m apprehensive about my own death, and I think that if I could just look like those healthy bicyclists, I might not die, at least not yet, and well, maybe I ought to get my neti pot out again…

And suddenly, the idea that I could diet my way to eternal life was funny. I thought of the old Rowan and Martin television show, Laugh In, and Sammy Davis, Jr., dressed in a long white wig and black robes, swinging his arms and strutting like a turkey, crying, “Here comes the judge! Here comes the judge! Here comes the judge!” (If you want to see for yourself, check out https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cODhv5MFZkA)

Later that afternoon, as Mary Lee and I walked a nice, level trail along the Cape Breton shore, instead of the other mantras I sometimes use when I walk, I tried that one, synchronized with my breathing: (breathe in) “Here comes, (breathe out)… the Judge.” “Here comes … the Judge.” I might even have strutted a little.

I didn’t hear much from him the rest of the trip.

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Rooting Around

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“To be rooted is perhaps the most important and least recognized need of the human soul.”

—Simone Weil

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By the shore of the Minas Basin, Nova Scotia I’m walking a classic, seven-circuit labyrinth. In Tangled Garden, outside of Grand Pre, I circle through lavender, mint, thyme, blue stem, heather, rosemary, ferns, and other herbs I don’t recognize. Each breath I take is scented. Monarch butterflies flitter between plants.

I’m starting to appreciate walking labyrinths, learning to recognize their pattern in my daily life. The spiral, mystics say, is sacred. Their geometry (sometimes called the Fibonacci sequence) recurs at every scale of existence, from the arrangement of DNA to the coils of the brain to fingerprints to plants to the formation of stars in their nebulae. Walking a labyrinth is fraught with twists and turns, as is life.

As has been the morning.

Leaving Halifax, I thought Mary Lee and I would stop to see my great-grandfather’s grave on our way to Wolfville. I knew that Enoch Wile’s stone was in the East Gore Cemetery. I knew where East Gore was. I knew what the cemetery looked like. I knew how to get there. But apparently, I missed a turnoff, and labyrinth-like, we drove up to Maitlin on the Bay of Fundy, circled over to Noel, and back down again through West Gore, and then Gore, and finally to East Gore, which consisted of a meeting hall, a grain silo, and a former church now serving as a food pantry. Figuring a church would be in close proximity to a graveyard, I stopped the car and walked around the building, seeing nothing. I got back in the car and started driving in circles past the occasional farm and one hell of a lot of trees. Eventually, I came to a dirt road marked “Settlement” which I remembered seeing when I stopped at the church. This must be the other end, I thought, so I took it, thinking maybe an old cemetery would be on an old road. The road narrowed and curved and narrowed some more, then dipped down over a bridge marked “Road Floods” before coming out back at the church. Still no cemetery.

“Now where?” I asked my wife. As I looked to her for advice, I saw over her shoulder, across the road and up a hill, an arched gate reading “East Gore Cemetery.” We had passed it three times without noticing.

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In the center of the labyrinth of Tangled Garden is a large upright circle of woven herbs, through which I gaze across the historic dyke lands of Grand Pre to the Minas Basin, which, at low tide, looks like an expanse of desert. In 1755, this area was the site of the British expulsion of French Catholic Acadians who refused to swear loyalty to England. Families were broken up. People were pulled from their roots.

I think of finally finding the center of my labyrinthian drive this morning, standing in front of Enoch Wile’s gravestone, discovering roots I never knew I had.

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As I wrote in the last blog, one of the reasons for coming to Nova Scotia was to try to find out more about my Grandfather Lyman Wile, whom no one in my family ever talked about because my grandmother left him when my father was four years old. With the help of my sister, who’s become interested in genealogy, I learned that Lyman’s father was Enoch, and that Lyman had fifteen brothers and sisters. I found that south central Nova Scotia is filled with Wiles: there’s a Wileville, a Wile Settlement, a Wile Lake, and several Wile roads. I discovered yesterday in Halifax that all of these Wiles go back to one Johann Frederich Weil from Germany, who was one of several thousand “Foreign Protestants,” brought over by the British (whose King, George II, had grown up in Germany) in 1750 to settle Nova Scotia, and to take the place of the Acadians they were deporting.

My mind goes back to Enoch’s grave, which looks out past the church steeple and the grain silo toward the rolling, forested hills of East Gore, and I realize that after my grandmother had left Lyman Wile, she put her son, my father—who’d been named for Lyman’s brother who died in the influenza pandemic of 1918-19—into what was called “a Home for Wayward Boys” for eight years. Dad, then, grew up without any sense of what I’ve discovered was a huge family, and I find myself understanding for the first time some of his character traits that used to drive me foolish: his negativity, his gluttony, his alcoholism. Dr. Sharon Deloz Parks writes that people typically have two major support sources in their early lives—what she calls “threshold people,” who help us cross into another stage of life, and “hospitable spaces,” that provide a sense of home. My father, as far as I can tell, had neither. He was, in the words of theologian Denise Starkey, “spiritually homeless,” which, she notes, is often connected with addiction.

I think of how important my family has been to me, even though I’ve often tried to ignore them. I’ve spent a lot of time, especially since starting to attend Al Anon meetings, aware of how growing up in an alcoholic family has scarred me, but I realize that at some level I’ve always known my family would be there if I needed them. After I told my first wife I was moving out of our house, the first thing I did was call my parents to ask if I could stay with them for a while. When Mary Lee traveled from Colorado to be with me, I knew we could stay with my parents until we found a place to live. And after my daughter died, it was buying my grandmother’s house in the town in which I’d grown up that provided an anchor in what felt like a tsunami of grief. I’ve always known where the center of my internal labyrinth was, even though it’s taken a long circular journey through what bell hooks calls the “geography of the heart” to get there.

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Before leaving the labyrinth, I stop to take a picture of three monarch butterflies. Every year monarch butterflies from all over North American are driven by forces we still don’t understand to make a two-thousand-mile trip home to the Monarch Butterfly Reserve in Michoacan, some hundred miles north of Mexico City, spending the winter together, becoming so many that their collective weight bends the trees. Then they make their separate ways north again in the spring. Not only are butterflies metaphors of the power of family and the journey home, they are symbols of the cycle of life—growing from egg to caterpillar to pupa to butterfly—i.e. life, death, and rebirth.

I’m not sure I feel reborn, but finding the heritage that I never knew I had, feeling a closer connection with my father, has made me feel more rooted. More whole. Healed in some way.

As Mary Lee and I leave Tangled Garden for our B&B in Wolfville, I see the Minas Basin filling with water.

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