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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.)
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.