On Diminishments

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The other day, Mary Lee and I took two of our grandchildren to a nearby playground. There, lying on the tarmac under a basketball hoop, was a basketball. Now, I spent part of almost every day from the time I was fourteen until I was eighteen with a basketball in my hands, and I continued to play competitively until I was in my thirties. Obeying some ancient siren’s song, I picked up the ball and flicked it towards the basket.

The ball went maybe two feet in the air, came back, and hit me on the head.

I recently read a book on aging in which the author used the word “diminishments” to describe what happens as we grow old. (I’d tell you the name of the book and the author, except I forget both, and I can’t find the book anywhere. Which isn’t unusual these days. I spend part of each day looking for something I’ve lost. What is new, though, is that lately, I’ll lose something, try to figure out where I left it, and realize I’m staring right at the goddamn thing.)

Eyesight, hearing, strength, reflexes, libido—all become diminished. I’m guessing most of you reading this know all too well what I’m talking about. You know the sinking feeling of having someone with gray hair offer you his or her seat on public transportation, of struggling to bend enough to get your socks on in the morning, of hating to drive after dark because the lights hurt your eyes. (Or, in my case, taking out a bank loan to buy a new car and then scrapping the side of it because I didn’t judge how close my new car was to a stone wall. But then, I expect you have your own story about aging to tell. When my father-in-law was in his seventies he used to say he was in his “anecdotage.”)

I’ve written here a number of times about how the pilgrimages I’ve made have made me aware of my diminishments: of being passed on the trail by everyone from eight to eighty, of gasping up hills, of falling down mountains. Indeed, most of the writers I’ve read on pilgrimage say that pilgrimage is really about diminishments, of purposely leaving parts of yourself behind in order to become more spiritually attuned to the world around you.

In fact, all of the spiritual traditions I’m familiar with talk about the need to let go of attachments, so I’m trying these days to find benefits in my diminishments—“Let go and let God,” as the twelve-steppers say. And I do think my physical and mental diminishments have allowed me to let go of some things that need letting go of.

I no longer search out mirrors or store windows to check my appearance—sometimes in admiration, sometimes in disgust—no longer obsess about my weight, no longer change hairstyles or grow and then shave off beards. I’ve given up climbing mountains, let go of feeling I should pick up the check when I go out to lunch with someone. I’ve accepted that my shoulders are not going to get any wider, my pot belly any smaller, and I’m not going to gain back the four inches I’ve lost since I played basketball. I no longer feel I need to write the Great American Novel.

I’m losing the need for approval. Like many people, I have always defined myself by what I do, but my well-being has been determined by what I imagine others think of what I do. One of the things I hated about cocktail parties (something I’ve very happily let go of) was when some doctor or lawyer or CEO would ask me, “And what do you do?” Often, despite the fact that my job usually gave me pride and purpose, I’d hunch my shoulders and mumble something about being “just a high school teacher,” as if teaching were the twentieth century equivalent of leprosy.

Writing for publication means receiving rejection notices. It goes with the territory. But for someone who has always needed the approval of others, each rejection felt as if I were being rejected as a person.  That fear of rejection is diminishing, and I feel freer than I ever have before.

But it’s still hard not to define myself by what I do, even if what I do has been diminished. Almost my first thought in the morning is “What am I going to do today?” And almost my last thought at night is “What did I do today? Did I write? Get exercise? Spend time in contemplative prayer? Play the banjo or guitar? Show Mary Lee how much I love her? Help somebody out?”

Don’t get me wrong. All of these are good to do, but I’ve found over the years that defining myself even by worthy activities has led to shame—why didn’t you do them better, you dolt?—judgmentalism—why didn’t you do more?— anxiety—am I going to be able to find time to do everything I want to do today?—all leading to a solipsistic preoccupation with self.

On the other hand, the few times that I’ve been able to focus more on being than doing, I find myself more grateful, more aware of grace in my life. I still don’t understand what I think of as the Great Mystery, but I’ve lived long enough to have experienced it.

I know that. My ego, however, doesn’t. And doesn’t want to. My ego says this “Let go and let God” stuff is weakness. “Stop doing and you’ll die!” it tells me.

Well, guess what? I’m going to die anyway. And maybe the real lesson of my diminishments is to remind me—more and more often these days—of that fact, and that I need to spend what time I have left being open to recognizing grace and being grateful for the joys I’ve experienced, most of which—Mary Lee, her children, my daughter, my grandchildren, my parents and siblings, music, Nature—I’ve received regardless, even in spite of, anything I ever did.

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My diminishments point out the need to surrender to my Higher Power/Great Mystery/God/Whatever while I’m still able. I’m struggling, but this week I’ve started to ask myself in the morning, “What do I get to do today?” Maybe it’s just semantics, but I’ve found the change helpful. Also helpful is remembering I’m making a pilgrimage, not a hundred-yard-dash. As Richard Rohr writes: “The surrender of faith does not happen in one moment, but is an extended journey, a trust walk, a gradual letting go, unlearning, and handing over.”

I’ve got time. I’m not that diminished yet.

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Up the Hill

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Via Dolorosa, Jerusalem

“I lift up my eyes to the hills…”—Psalm 121:1

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Many popular travel books describe the joy of climbing mountains. I’ve done a little of that, but for the most part, I prefer hills. Walking up a hill requires less physical effort, so I’m more aware of the view and less aware of how much my legs hurt or where to put my feet or that I’m afraid of heights. The scenery tends to be more familiar than from a mountain top, yet at the same time, as I climb a little higher, I get a different perspective, see the familiar in a new way.

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Ten years old, I run from my house on the side of Bridge Street hill up to Main Street. Cresting the hill is like opening the door to a huge and wonderful world. Depending on the time of day or the time of year, I can go left down to Vaughn’s Pharmacy and have a root beer, or continue to Pride’s Market for a candy bar. I can go right to the movie theater and watch Hopalong Cassidy, or keep going to grade school. I can go straight across the street to church, or cut around the church to the ball field. Any direction will get me to one of my friends’ houses.

Food, education, God, sports, and friendship—values I still prize— are all just up the hill.

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For four summers in high school, I walk up the hill to meet Willy and Scott. We amble down Main Street, past the boat yard and then up Pleasant Street hill to go to work in Bornheimer’s Market Garden, where I grow four inches, turn as brown as a walnut, and broaden my education far beyond what I learn in school. I gain knowledge of dirty jokes, what putdowns are okay and which aren’t (no mothers!), and, during lunch hour, how to improve my jump shot. I also unearth the joy of being out of doors, the self-confidence that comes from being in good physical condition, and the satisfaction of finishing a difficult job. I plant plans for my future and cultivate friendships that will continue into that future.

Oh, and I also learn to like eating vegetables.

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Much of what I know about the up and down nature of love and lust and loneliness comes from walking hills. Going to and from my high school girl friend’s house means walking up and down Willow Street Hill. At first, I feel as if I’m floating instead of walking, until the afternoon Susan and I break up, and life becomes for a time all downhill. I follow the same path in 1972, when my wife, my two-year-old daughter, and I move into a brand-new house at the top of Main Street in Ellsworth, Maine. At first, the house represents our chance to build a future together as a family. Then, as the cellar walls crack and wind blows around the windows, our neighbors party loudly into the night, and the lawn turns brown in the summer, I realize the cracks and the leaks in my marriage, how often we fight into the night, and how love can wither. Going up the hill to my house becomes more and more difficult.

But when, remarried, I return to my home town to buy what was for fifty years my grandparents’ house just around the corner from “The Meeting House on the Hill,” I rekindle the joy and wonder I used to experience when I was a kid going up hills. I finally learn what it means to love someone and be loved in return.

I will need that love in the coming years, as my life becomes an uphill struggle with the deaths of my father, my grandmother, and my daughter, all within four years of one other.

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In the old city of Jerusalem, I stumble up the Via Dolorosa, traditionally the street where Jesus was forced to carry his cross to his crucifixion, following Franciscan Brothers on their Friday “Walk of Devotion” to the Church of the Holy Sepulcher. It’s hot and the narrow street is steep and crowded and everyone seems to be yelling at me to buy a sheepskin or an icon or a plastic model Israeli airplane. Suddenly, in my mind it’s December, and I’m walking alone from the Ronald McDonald House to the Eastern Maine Medical Center where my eighteen-year-old daughter lies dying of cancer—up an icy hill past lonely gray houses with mansard roofs and an obscene spray painting on the side of an abandoned brick building, which in two years will become the setting for a Stephen King movie.

A hill in Jerusalem, a hill in Bangor, Maine: both physically and psychologically difficult, surrealistic, full of meaning that I won’t grasp for years, and yet which will mark me, turn me into the person I am today.

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Almost twenty years later, Mary Lee and I walk St. Cuthbert’s Way, from Melrose, Scotland to the Holy Island of Lindisfarne off the east coast of England. We spend the summer preparing for our sixty-two-mile pilgrimage: we read books on St. Cuthbert, we walk from four to ten miles a day, we increase L.L. Bean’s profits for the year. What we don’t plan for are the hills. Funny, they didn’t look that steep on any of the YouTube videos we watched. At some point, laboring up Wideopen Hill, gasping for breath, I realize that while the hills may not be any steeper than many I’ve climbed in my life, I and my lungs, scarred from years of smoking, are older. I see in the low clouds rolling over the heather, perhaps for the first time, my mortality.

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These days, any time I want to be reminded of mortality, I have only to walk up Bridge Street Hill past my old house. By the time I get to Main Street, my lungs are burning and my legs feel like anchors. Most of the time, growing up, I never even thought of Bridge Street as a hill. Still, as the hills in my life—both emotional and physical—keep getting steeper, it helps to think of them as part of a life-long pilgrimage, seeing some of the same views, the same people, but from a little higher perspective, while at the same time looking back to see wrong turns I’ve taken, and also times when I might have taken a wrong path toward disaster, but didn’t.

These hills also make me curious to see what kind of world will open for me when I crest that last one.

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Along St. Cuthbert’s Way

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