Sauntering Through Change

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Saunter: to walk with a leisurely gait; stroll

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“Do you know the origin of that word ‘saunter’? It’s a beautiful word. Away back in the Middle Ages people used to go on pilgrimages to the Holy Land, and when people in the villages through which they passed asked where they were going, they would reply, ‘A la sainte terre, to the Holy Land.’ And so they became known as sainte-terre-ers or saunterers. Now these mountains are our Holy Land, and we ought to saunter through them reverently, not ‘hike’ through them.”—John Muir

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Living almost all of my life in Maine, and over half of it within fifteen miles of where I grew up, I’ve previously used pilgrimages, retreats, and travel to give myself a change from familiar landscapes. Now, however, even though I’m still living in the same place doing the same things and haven’t been out of New England in almost a year, I find I’m continuing to travel—this time through the craggy mountains of change itself.  I’ve started thinking of this journey as another kind of pilgrimage, especially after looking again at Christine Valters Paintner’s eight characteristics of the pilgrimage experience.

  1. Hearing the Call and Responding. Everywhere I look these days, I am confronted by change. Friends are dying—three in the last six months—others are having various medical procedures, and I’ve recently had open heart surgery. Perhaps even harder to get my head around, life as I’ve known it for most of my existence—political life, religious life, cultural life—is gone. Coming to grips with technology is one thing; understanding why this country is tearing itself apart is another. How do I respond?
  2. Packing lightly. Certainly not with many of my old ways of thinking; they no longer serve. Values I’ve held for years, such as compromise and reason, no longer seem to work. I’m trying to simplify and focus on the eternals—love, a God-of-my-not-Understanding, and, I’m finding, the process of change itself.
  3. Crossing the threshold. But while my old ways of life are gone, new ways haven’t yet revealed themselves. A friend who winters there once referred to Florida as “God’s waiting room.” Well, you don’t have to live in Florida to be there. My question is “How do I wait?” I’m not ready to spend what time I’ve got left leafing through old issues of People magazine (I am reading a lot of Buddhist stuff these days about impermanence.) And the answer, I guess, is to wait with hope. As someone who turns 77 this year, I take heart from the author and psychologist Florida Scott Maxwell’s writing about the difference between her 70s and her 80s:

 “I was astonished to find how intensely one lives in one’s eighties. The last years        seemed a culmination and by concentrating on them one became more truly oneself. Though old, I felt full of potential life.”

  1. Making the Way by Walking. I’m still walking (although this winter, I’ve moved indoors to a treadmill). That’s not an issue. My big challenge these days is to keep my eyes looking ahead and not backward. Ram Dass in his book Still Here, written after a stroke that left half of his body paralyzed, says, “As we get older, the tendency to dwell in the past becomes more enticing.” The reason is fear. “Our apprehension about the future,” he writes, “is synonymous with our fear of change … age and the loss of control.” I’m also finding that when I wallow in the past, nostalgia soon becomes resentment (and isn’t that another kind of fear?), and I become just another bitter old fart.
  2. Being uncomfortable. As for all of us geriatrics, I suppose, my physical discomforts—back, bowels, teeth, toes—seem to increase daily. Catching a glimpse of myself in a shop window or a restaurant mirror induces acid reflux. Even in my town, my church, I feel like a peregrini, a “stranger,” from which the word “pilgrim” comes. As I’ve said (we geezers tend to repeat ourselves), I also feel like a stranger to today’s politics, religion, and culture. I don’t understand half the ads on TV. Speaking of which, recently, for the first time in a year or so, I went to see a movie in a theater. The paper said the movie began at 3:30. After over thirty goddamn minutes of ads and previews, the movie started at 4:00.
  3. Beginning again. Once more, Ram Dass: “Unless we make a conscious effort to live with ‘beginner’s mind,’ coming to each experience fresh, we find the accumulation of our years can become a ball and chain.” For him and for other writers I’m reading these days, “beginner’s mind” means living in the present moment where time does not exist. Staying in the moment, however, is really really hard, and I think one reason I was so drawn to the John Muir quote on “sauntering” is that the word suggests to me both movement and paying attention, being in the moment. Thinking of those times when I’ve been sauntering through the woods or by the shore gives me a frame of reference for sauntering through the rest of whatever time I have left on this earth.
  4. Embracing the unknown; to relinquish certainty and control. Well, the second part of this is a given these days. I have less and less control over either my own body or the world around me. But to embrace my diminishments? Welcome whatever comes? Raised in an alcohol family, having had a child die of a rare cancer, I have always looked at the world as a scary place. So far the best I can do, thanks to my 12-step programs, is “accept the things I cannot change.” Acceptance, however, isn’t welcome. But I am learning that the less control I have over my life, the more I need to ask for the help of others, something I’ve struggled with doing all my life, but which, if I stop and think about it, I’ve always relied on—from the help of my parents when I was a kid and coaches when I started playing sports, to the help of counselors and spiritual directors after my daughter died and mentors and other writers when I decided I wanted to stop teaching writing and actually write. These people I can welcome and embrace.
  5. Coming home. At my age, references to “home” make me think of the hymn so often played at funerals (Oh, I haven’t mentioned how many funerals I’ve attended this last year, have I? Let’s just say a bunch.)

Going home, going home,
I’m just going home.
Quiet-like, slip away-
I’ll be going home.

But I’m in no hurry to get there. So I’ll try to saunter along, stopping now and then to play with my grandchildren, flail away on a banjo, and enjoy the views, if not one moment at a time, at least one day at a time.

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