Finish Lines

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One of the many things in life I don’t understand is why so many people enjoy watching gymnastics and figure skating.

Granted, the athletes are graceful and powerful. Their bodies perform in ways I can’t imagine mine ever doing. What I can’t fathom is the scoring. To give one participant a “9.2” and another a “9.1” makes no sense to me. I want the team that scores the most points to win, the person who crosses the finish line first to be the victor.

I need finish lines in my life. I don’t have to finish ahead of you; I don’t even necessarily need to finish (although not finishing what I start does piss the hell out of me), but I do need a destination, a goal toward which to go.

One reason I like thinking of myself as a pilgrim is that all pilgrimages have destinations: a holy site, a family homestead, a place that calls you for some reason. I admit the journey is usually more important than the destination, but without the destination, there is no journey. At least not for me. “Not all who wander are lost,” wrote J.R.R. Tolkien, but some like me who wander usually are. Even when I go for a walk in the woods behind my house, I have a destination in mind—Okay, today I’ll do the Blueberry Loop across Pleasant Hill Road—and while it’s okay to change my mind—Nah, I think I’ll do the Ravine Trail instead—I’m just swapping one destination for another. Anytime I’ve just wandered I’ve either gotten lost or come home with ticks.

When I taught, my destination was the class room, and every lesson plan had a finish line. Now in retirement, I still need a daily destination. Four days a week, I plan to be at my writing desk in the morning. Wednesday it’s Men’s Group and Al-Anon. Sunday, I go to Church. Another day I head out for the farmers’ market or the hardware store or the woods or the site of this week’s jam. One of the beauties of retirement is that I can change that destination—even go nowhere—any time I want, and I often do. But the point is that I have a target to help give direction to my days.

I can hear some of you groaning, “My God, what a regimented existence. I could never live that way.” Well, the two times in my life I haven’t had any goals—in college before finding the world of writing and literature, and after my daughter Laurie died—I’ve been confused and depressed to the point of being nonfunctional.

It was after Laurie’s death that I learned about the word “disoriented,” as it pertains to the loss of a child. The word “orient” comes from the French s’orienter which literally means to face the east (or orient), and which came to mean “to take one’s bearings.” Western churches were built with their altars facing east towards Jerusalem, signifying that Christians orient themselves—their beliefs, their conduct—around the Bible and the teachings of Jesus. Today, we use the word to refer to whatever customs, moral standard, or value system we use to guide us in our day to day activities. We are oriented by a world view, a particular lens through which we see things. When a child dies, that lens is shattered. Everything we believe, all our assumptions, lie in rubble. We have no point of orientation. We can lose our perception of time, place, and identity. I’ve read it takes on an average of two to four years (in my case it was three) for parents to begin to reorient themselves, find a new point of reference.

Which is why, I think, most grieving parents need a project after a child dies. Whether it’s building some kind of memorial, establishing a foundation in our child’s memory, writing a book, planting a tree, or getting a tattoo, we need a destination, a finish line, something toward which to journey.

As I’ve written many times in these blogs, after Laurie died, I became drawn to contemplation and meditation, to Buddhism and the Christian mystics. For many years, I struggled because there seemed to be no goal, no finish line. Indeed, much of what’s on the market these days on contemplation and meditation stresses the need not to have a goal. Simple “awareness,” you will read, is what you should practice.

But it wasn’t until I started focusing on my higher power, the God of My Not Understanding, as a sort of final destination that I was able to feel grounded, then healed. Now, for twenty minutes once or twice a day, I sit in what I call contemplation, but think of as an interior pilgrimage toward the Great Mystery. I never reach my goal, sometimes feel as if I don’t even take a step, but I need that destination, that finish line.

The genius of programs such as Alcoholics Anonymous and Al-Anon is that they clearly lay out a spiritual journey toward a destination—twelve steps toward what’s often called serenity. And one of the first things you learn is that the steps are in order. You need to start with step one—“We admitted we were powerless over alcohol, and that our lives had become unmanageable”—before you can go to the next step and the step after that until you get to number Twelve—“Having had a spiritual awakening as the result of these steps, we tried to carry this message to others, and to practice these principles in all our affairs.”

Working the steps, then, is looking toward a kind of finish line. Crossing this finish line doesn’t mean you’re finished. Long-time members tell me that you just start over again at a different level, sort of like finishing the first heat of the Olympic trials and moving on to the next heat, until eventually, you get to the Main Event.

At my age, the Main Event—what poet A.E. Housman called “the road all runners come”—is fast approaching. Will that be the final finish line? I can’t believe it is, maybe because I just can’t imagine my life—or death—without another finish line to head towards. Life, I read, is always evolving; the universe is always expanding. Why not death?

Or maybe I’m wrong and in death I will finally just be.

Then, perhaps I’ll understand gymnastics.

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I’m giving my granddaughter a “10.”

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Roots

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“A tree stands strong not by its fruits or branches, but by the depth of its roots.”

— Anthony Liccione.

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Trees have always called to me, from the white pine tree I used to climb behind my house as a kid, to the stately Douglas Fir and Ponderosa pine I fought forest fires to save when I was in college, to the four-trunked maple tree in the back yard of my home for over twenty-years, to the mighty redwoods I visited a few years ago. Lately, though, I’ve been thinking more about the roots of trees than their trunks or branches, perhaps because I’ve been thinking a lot about my own roots.

In doing some reading about trees, I find that their roots can branch out seven times the height of the tree. When these roots interweave with other roots, they create a single organism. “You can think of a [tree] trunk as really fingertips on a buried hand,” writes ecosystem ecologist Dylan Fisher. The 106 acres of quaking aspen in Fishlake National Forest in Utah are all connected by one 80,000-year-old root system known as Pando, or The Trembling Giant. The trunks, branches, and leaves connected to this system weigh in at 6,600 tons, making this the heaviest known organism on earth.

In thinking of my own roots, I find they also spread out as least seven times beyond the family trunk. My trip to Canada last fall introduced me to an interconnected web of Wiles I never knew existed, stretching throughout southcentral Nova Scotia. My sister spent last year engaged in a genealogical pilgrimage, and has traced the names of our immediate family—Wile, Cleaves, Bennett, and Conrey—back to Reeds, Pooles, Hitchcocks, and Crocketts,  back further to  Whitneys, Davises, Rosses, and Hamiltons, and before that to Giles Corey, the only accused witch in Salem Massachusetts to have been pressed to death instead of hung (his last words were supposedly, “More weight!”), and Priscilla and John Alden (“Speak for yourself, John Alden”). Branching further back to England, my roots include Franklins, Densytes, and Mullins; and in Germany, the Weils, one of whom— Johann Frederich—emigrated to Nova Scotia.

Trees survive through their roots. Fungi infiltrate roots, not to attack but to partner with them, sharing nutrients across threads of what are called fungal hyphae that form what’s known as a mycelium web—a kind of underground internet, linking roots of different plants, helping one another with not only food, but information.  Jennifer Frazier, writing in Scientific American, describes how plants being eaten by herbivores release chemicals that are sensed by neighboring plants, who then increase their defenses. Paper birch send carbon to Douglas-fir seedlings, especially when they are shaded in summer, probably enhancing their survival. In spring and fall, the Douglas-fir return the favor when the birch have no leaves.

And what’s my mycelium web? What nourishes me, gives me information, helps me survive? I have survived as long as I have because of my second wife, Mary Lee, who has been a beacon of love during the darkest days of my life and who continues to nourish me with laughter, eros, food, and friendship. Her children, her grandchildren, her friends, her sister and her sister’s children all grace me with their affection.

My oldest community is made up of the friends I grew up with, many of whom I still get together with regularly, either in person or electronically. Through them, I’m fed not only through stories that no one else but us know (and we’d just as soon keep it that way), but also by the sharing of our pilgrimages through life—our ups, our downs that both sadden and gladden my heart.

There are the teachers I’ve taught with who continue to inspire me with their wisdom, the writers in my various writing groups who educate and challenge me to, as Herman Melville put it, “dive deeper,” the musicians I jam with who bring song and rhythm to my life, the folks I take Communion to in nursing homes who sustain me with their inner strength and perseverance. The writers I’ve read, the records, tapes, and CDs I’ve listened to, the chocolate I’ve eaten. There are the pilgrims I’ve met as I’ve journeyed to my roots, whether they be family homesteads in New England and Nova Scotia or the roots of my faith in Jerusalem, Ephesus, Iona, and Lindisfarne.

More and more as I age, I find my roots sustained by the unseen and the silent. “Everything you see has its roots in the unseen world,” wrote the Persian poet, Rumi. The Jewish Kabbalah’s mystical Tree of Life is pictured with its roots in heaven and its branches and leaves reaching down toward us. Many of the communities that nurture me are connected with this unseen world: my church, the Episcopal monastic order to which I’m an associate, the interfaith organization of contemplatives I belong to, the men’s group I attend Wednesday morning and the Al-Anon groups I attend.

During a recent Quiet Day at my church, I realized that one reason I’ve become concerned with roots is because mine have stopped growing. My only child died of cancer. My brother is gay. My sister’s only son and his wife cannot have children. Thus, my family name ends with my brother and me, and my family tree ends with my nephew and his wife. I found myself drawing the follow picture:

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But even dying trees can support not only their own species but other species as well. For example, according to Jennifer Frazier, when Douglas-fir begin to die, their roots, through fungi, send food to young ponderosa pine battling to survive.  I’d like to think that I might also nourish others who are struggling, through the stories, laughter, love of silence, perseverance, and music that have fed me through the years.

Probably one of the purposes of these blogs, come to think of it.

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And if you liked this blog, you might also be interested in reading:

“Call to the Redwoods”: https://geriatricpilgrim.com/2016/08/22/call-to-the-redwoods/

“Rooting Around”: https://geriatricpilgrim.com/2017/10/02/rooting-around/