Holiday Hope

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A few weeks ago, I made a pilgrimage to Mount Desert Island, where I once lived and worked, to attend a five-day contemplative retreat. During the first session, our facilitator asked us to share a particular concern we’d brought to the retreat with us. When it was my turn, I found myself saying I worried that during what is traditionally a time of hope, I’d lost hope in the future of this country. At almost 75, I said, I wasn’t that distressed about my prospects, but I worried about those of my grandchildren.

I also said that this time of year has always been a hard for me to be hopeful because my daughter died on December 23, 1988, and for the past twenty-nine years, the increasing darkness outside mirrors the increasing darkness inside of me as I recall the two months I spent living at a Ronald McDonald House, walking back and forth to the hospital to sit by Laurie’s side watching her grow weaker every day.

Since that retreat, I’ve been thinking a lot about hope and about Laurie, and as strange as it might sound, I’m finding the more I look back over the years since her death, the more hopeful I am for my grandchildren and for myself.

One of the questions I asked myself after Laurie died, was “How am I going to survive this?” Well, my pilgrimage through grief hasn’t been easy, for me or my family. I still stumble in anger, still get mired down in resentments. But looking back over the twenty-nine years, I can also honestly say that I have discovered grace and joy and a peace that, as the Christian Apostle Paul wrote, “passes understanding.”

I’m not entirely sure where this serenity has come from, but so far, I can think of four possible sources, four reasons to give me hope, four legacies I want to pass on to my grandchildren for their futures:

The Strength of Family. I grew up in a family scarred by alcoholism, abuse, and abandonment. Some of those wounds were passed on to me and my siblings, and I’m still in recovery, still realizing how this background has influenced my behaviors over the years, from my own addictions to my arrogant and judgmental attitudes. But the work I’ve been doing lately in my twelve-step program has also shown me that I’ve reaped the benefits from having two parents who overcame their own hideous childhoods, who loved me, sacrificed for me, and, above all, gave me some of my character traits I’m most proud of, including the strength to overcome the loss of a child.

I want to pass that strength on to my grandchildren.

The Dynamic Detachment of Nature. I’ve spent some of the most “spiritual” moments of my life struggling up mountains, sweating in deserts, snowshoeing in bitter cold, and peering through ocean fog. What makes these landscapes spiritual for me is that they make me feel small and insignificant. The ocean is going to break over the rocks no matter if I’m filled with joy or filled with grief; the sunrise will paint the clouds pink regardless of what happens in Washington. Yes, Nature is filled with death, disease, and violence, but even in death it teems with life. One of my favorite images from hiking Saint Cuthbert’s Way from Scotland to England is of a blown-down tree, its roots exposed. The tree’s branches have grown into four new trees rising from the decaying trunk. That force, that instinct to grow and blossom and bloom, drives, I think, all life.

I need to remind myself that force runs through my grandchildren, giving them the power to flourish, no matter what obstacles they’ll face.

The Healing Power of the Arts. Before Laurie died, about the only writing I’d done was in my journals. I was an academic. My goal was to do more work for the College Board as a consultant. But after Laurie’s mother and I divorced, Laurie, who had also been focused on academic studies, swapped her L.L. Bean skirts and blazers for long sweaters and jeans, dyed a pink stripe in her hair, painted her fingernails black, and took up art, going to summer art programs, and planning to study art in college. After her death, I began going to summer writing programs, took early retirement from public school teaching, and went back to school for an MFA. Writing helped me identify my feelings, and became a way for me to harness my anger and my shame by writing a book and then revising it through God-knows how many rejection slips. More important, writing, like the banjo I wail on, like Laurie’s watercolor that hangs over my desk, reveals to me an essential order to what often seems, especially after a great loss, a chaotic and meaningless universe.

My grandchildren love to listen to stories, love to tell stories. It’s apparently natural for them to build and color and draw pictures. I want to nurture those instincts.

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The Chuckle in the Dark. In A Grief Observed, popular theologian C.S. Lewis recorded his anguish over the death of his wife. Never intending his words to be published, he railed against God for the suffering and pain his wife had endured, and for the sorrow that was tearing him apart and demolishing everything he’d previously believed about God. Gradually, however, he experienced an “impression which I can’t describe except by saying that it’s like the sound of a chuckle in the darkness. The sense that some shattering and disarming simplicity is the real answer [to the mystery of suffering and death].” The retreat that I participated in a few weeks ago focused on the works of an anonymous 14th century writer who felt that the only way one could experience God was in what he called a “Cloud of Unknowing.” Since the loss of my child, my experience of God/my Higher Power/ the Eternal/Whatever has been through subtraction rather than by addition. I’ve lost all I ever learned about God, especially the idea that God is some compassionate Superman: all-loving, all-powerful, and all-knowing. And like C.S. Lewis, like the anonymous 14th century author we discussed, as I’ve lost those images of God, I’ve experienced an unfathomable serenity, one that has lasted this year well into the holidays.

I’m still not optimistic about the future of this country. I’ve read too much history about the rise and fall of empires not to feel that our nation is in decline, if not free-fall. But over the last few weeks I’ve discovered a difference between optimism and hope. Hope—for me anyway—is as much about the past as it is about the future. Hope looks back and grieves the reality of death, disease, decline, and destruction but at the same time, hope gives thanks for a life filled with the grace not only to survive but to thrive.

Which gives me hope my grandchildren will do the same.

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Companions on the Road

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On our way to Israel, 1997

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God bless each of us as we travel on.

In our time of need

May we find a table spread in the wilderness

And companions on the road.

  • — Iona Abbey Worship Book

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When I first began reading about pilgrims and pilgrimages, I formed an image of a solitary figure, staff in hand, striding over the landscape. And indeed, many authors that I’ve read on pilgrimage seem to have wended their ways by themselves.

I, however, have no desire to go on any kind of pilgrimage alone.

I recall when Mary Lee, my companion for the last thirty-three years’ worth of pilgrimages, and I had stopped to rest along our walking pilgrimage of St. Cuthbert’s Way from Melrose, Scotland to the Holy Island of Lindisfarne off the east coast of England, and a woman passed us going the same way. Head down, so that all I could see at first were the red tints in her hair, she was engrossed in a map encased in plastic hanging from a lanyard around her neck. A compass attached to a mirror dangled from another lanyard around her neck, and a GPS hung from her belt. She appeared startled, even frightened, to come upon us. She said her partner was hiking toward us from the town of Fenwick and that she hoped they would soon pass each other as he walked to Wooler behind us to pick up their car, which she’d left for him.

“This way we don’t have to wait and pay for public transportation to get back to our car,” she said.

“That sounds like a clever idea,” I said.

But the more I thought about it, the more I thought the woman and her partner weren’t being clever at all. The woman was obviously nervous about getting lost. I doubt if she saw much of the beautiful landscape around her. Several times a day either Mary Lee or I would say, “Now, do we go this way?” or “Hold up. I think it’s this way.” We were continually pointing out to one another a view or a strange bird or a gnarled tree the other had missed.

While we passed much of our time in silence, we also reminisced, made up stories, and sang. After several months of dealing with my mother’s death and her father’s moving into assisted living, we got a chance to debrief, restoring and building a deeper relationship, and I wonder if not only the trip itself but also preparing for it and talking about it afterward was part of the “holiness” one associates with pilgrimage.

It was also fun watching Mary Lee climbing over those stiles in a hiking skirt.

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I think of other companions on our pilgrimages, who have sustained us and whom we have sustained.

There was Paul, a young curate with a goatee, at Saint George’s Cathedral in Jerusalem. When Mary Lee and I, jet-lagged and overwhelmed by the strange sights, sounds, and smells of an alien culture, arrived to stay in the guest house, he invited us to go into the old city of Jerusalem with him, guiding us through the labyrinthine streets, recommending places to eat, and introducing us to local shopkeepers.

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Paul and Mary Lee

There were Dick and Judith Graham from Indiana, whom we met at Mrs. Jenkins’ Bed and Breakfast in Cambridge, England, and who invited us to share the day with them and their rented car. In the morning, we toured Cambridge, and in the afternoon, drove out to the ash-gray ruins of a twelfth-century castle at Saffron-Walden, after which we’d walked an outdoor labyrinth that according to the guidebook measured exactly 5280 feet, none of which Mary Lee and I would ever have seen without them. After Judith flew back to Indiana, we tried to return the favor by making Dick our constant companion during a three-week Elizabethan Studies program, introducing him to Daddy’s Sauce for his scrambled eggs, and taking him with us punting on the Cam and searching the pubs of Cambridge for the perfect pint.

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Dick punting us down (up?) the Cam.

Both times Mary Lee and I stayed on the island of Iona off the west coast of Scotland, we stayed at Duncraig Guest House, where we befriended and were befriended by pastors, rectors, poets, visual artists, and two delightful spinster sisters. Mary Lee learned about Christian exorcism, I learned about puffins, and everyone else learned about Maine.

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But if the companions I’ve met on the various roads through Israel, Scotland, and England have been helpful, the companions I’ve met on my pilgrimage through the grief and grace of losing a child have been essential.

Like Mary Lee on St. Cuthbert’s Way, Paul in Jerusalem, or the Grahams in Saffron-Waldon, my companions in groups such as Compassionate Friends, the Center for Grieving Children, or my Twelve-Step program give me another set of eyes to help me see the support available or the beauty and love I might have missed because, like the woman we met between Wooler and Fenwick engrossed in her maps, I have my head down, absorbed in my grief, nervous and fearful about the path I’ve found myself on.

I need someone like Paul, who knows the territory, knows how to negotiate the dark, twisted passages my mind can take me, shows me how to get sustenance, introduces me to others who can also help. Instead of puffins, these companions introduce me to writers, speakers, who broaden my awareness, and I, hopefully, do the same for them, whether it be recommending Daddy’s Sauce or a writer I especially admire.

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One such writer is Christopher Wiman, author of My Bright Abyss: Meditation of a Modern Believer. “I never feel closer to God than when I’m in conversation with someone about God,” he says, reminding me that companions are essential on any kind of spiritual journey.

Mary Lee and I have just returned from a five-day silent retreat, where we spent much of our time sitting in contemplative prayer with eight other companions. Sitting together in contemplation, we literally feed not only off each other’s silence but also off God’s.

This feeling of being fed makes sense, because the word “companion” comes from the Latin, meaning “one with whom I break bread.” I’m writing the first draft of this blog in a local coffee shop, sitting across the table from Mary Lee, who is trying to finish both her half of our muffin and the book she’s supposed to read for her upcoming book group. I don’t think we’ve spoken in the last hour. And yet for that hour she’s supported me, fed me, in ways that even a Morning Glory muffin cannot do.

There was a time in my life when I thought that being a real man meant being strong, silent, and self-sufficient. My dream was to live by myself and my black lab on an island off the coast of Maine.

Thank God, not all dreams come true.

I’m more of a cat person, anyway.

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White Mountains, 2016

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