My New Frontier

JFK at the University of Maine—1965 Yearbook

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Recently, Mary Lee and I met her son and his family at a state park halfway between our respective homes for a rare face-to-face visit. After lunch, during which Mary Lee and I stood six feet from the picnic table, I pitched a plastic ball to my 8-year-old grandson who’s developing into a pretty good left-handed hitter. Both of us wore our masks. When the families left a few hours later, we gave each other “virtual hugs” and blew kisses.

As I was pitching to John, I started wondering how this pandemic will mark him, his sister, and their generation. Which led me to thinking about “defining moments,” those events that have transformed the political, cultural, and social landscape of our lives. From there, it was the blink of an eye to thinking about my own defining moments. The first one I thought of was President Kennedy’s assassination.

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When I was eighteen, the speeches of John F. Kennedy were neon signs lighting my road to adulthood: “We stand today on the edge of a New Frontier” … “My fellow Americans, ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country”…  “Conformity is the jailer of freedom and the enemy of growth.” The man spurred my imagination. I decided I would live a life of adventure, passion and danger. After high school, I started traveling, first thumbing rides around the state, then around New England and New York. I entered the University of Maine’s forestry program, through which I found a summer job working on a hotshot crew out of McCall, Idaho, saving my country from forest fires and myself from conventionality.

The trail of the rugged individualist, however, turned out to be a difficult hike. While I might have loved working in the woods, I hated the class work and almost flunked out of college after my freshman year. Because I liked to read, I switched my major to English, but my grades remained low. I’d grown up in a small town where everyone knew me; I’d never learned how to meet new people. My mother was a controlling woman whose desire to protect her children kept me tied to her apron strings in ways I wouldn’t understand for fifty years. I watched former high school classmates join fraternities and sororities, disdaining them for being weak-spined conformists while at the same time envying their apparent happiness.

And then in October 1963, I watched President Kennedy descend in a helicopter’s whirlwind and walk bareheaded through the blowing dust of the track around the University of Maine’s football field like Apollo, his hair never moved. Standing in the shadow of the stands as October sunlight haloed JFK, his voice fanning my flicking dreams of fame, I decided to join the Peace Corps after graduation, then become a writer, with my picture on the cover of Time magazine for winning the Nobel Prize for Literature, dividing my time between Ernest Hemingway’s Paris, Jack Kerouac’s New York City, and an island off the coast of Maine.

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A month later, I was leaving the Student Union when I heard a voice say, “Did you hear? Kennedy’s been shot!” I rushed back upstairs to a TV, arriving just in time to hear Walter Cronkite intone, “From Dallas, Texas, the flash, apparently official: President Kennedy died at 1 p.m. Central Standard Time.”

I spent the weekend sitting in the dark of my dorm’s television room, watching the arrival of the plane from Dallas to Washington bearing the President’s dead body … the closed casket draped in black crepe lying in the East Room of the White House … the horse-drawn caisson carrying Kennedy’s casket down Pennsylvania Avenue to the Capitol … gray figures marching to the steady beat of funeral drums into Arlington Cemetery.

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After the burial service, I stuck a cigarette in the corner of my mouth and walked through the mist and fog and the almost empty campus. I tried to imagine myself as Kerouac’s Sal Paradise walking through a dying America.

Through the fog, I heard the voices the Kingston Trio, a popular folk group of the time, either their recording, or—more likely—a television retrospective on the Kennedy years:

Some to the rivers and some to the sea.

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This is the new frontier.

This is the new frontier.

On the lawn by Sigma Nu Fraternity, the few remaining leaves of a maple tree hung like flags at half-mast.

I walked up a hill to Deering Hall, where I’d suffered through those forestry classes. I’d thought the one good thing to come out of that miserable year was the chance to fight forest fires out west, but now I realized how I’d never fit in. Most of the other guys on the crew were from rural southern or western towns and had never heard of Hemingway or Kerouac. Many were racists; most disliked the Kennedys. They could, however, play poker and the previous summer, I’d lost almost half the money I’d earned.

The mist turned to steady rain. I lit another cigarette and pulled the collar of my jacket around my neck. I suddenly knew I wouldn’t be going back to Idaho again. In another flash of awareness, I saw that in order to become a world-famous novelist, I was going to have to write a novel and I had no idea how to do it.

The cigarette tasted lousy and I flicked it on the sidewalk. I watched the red glow fade and smolder, along with my dreams of wandering the world, battling conformity, and winning the Nobel Prize.

I had not cried all weekend, but now I was sobbing. For the first time in my life, death was real.

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Looking back, I can see myself crossing a different new frontier, the frontier of grief. And I think it’s these moments of grief—whether they be the Kennedy Assassination, the Great Depression, or our own personal tragedies—that define us.

So, how did Kennedy’s assassination define me?

I became cynical about politics and “great” men and women. I never joined the Peace Corps, never again looked to a political figure for any kind of guidance on how to live my life. Instead, I’ve found my inspiration from literature, philosophy, and spirituality. But even here, I’m suspicious of literary or spiritual gurus.

After three years of looking for adventure, I began looking for security, which at first, I thought meant love. A year after the assassination, I was engaged, and I married two days after graduating from college. In retrospect, it was a mistake to equate security and love. The marriage ended. But through a happy second marriage I learned love is its own adventure, more important to the world—my world anyway—than having one’s picture on a magazine or owning three houses around the globe.

And how will Coronavirus define my grandchildren? I don’t know how they will be scarred. They may become hypochondriacs, isolated behind their electronic devices, or huggers working to bring about a socialist revolution. All I can do is surrender my fears for their future over to the God-of-my-not-understanding, hoping these kids will discover before I did how it is love which defines us more than any historical moment.

Playing COVID Ball

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Playing in the Woods Behind my House


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When I was a kid, I used to play in woods behind my house. Seventy years later, I play in the woods behind my house.

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My woods these days, operated by the Brunswick/Topsham Land Trust, encompass five miles of trails that wind through deep forest and Sandplain Grassland, along and across creeks and pools, past an active farm and a community garden. One trail leads to a stone quarry, another to a stone labyrinth.

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Every now and then, I’ll reread one of Thomas Hardy’s novels—Far from the Madding Crowd, Tess of the d’Urbervilles, Return of the Native. What I especially like, because it’s so true for me, is that in his novels the setting is a living character more than an inert backdrop.

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For me, the woods are feminine. I understand why nature is called Mother. Entering the vaginate opening to a woodland trail is for me both sacred and sensual. I feel embraced by silence and the fecund smells of pulsating life.

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Two years ago, one late afternoon, I had just finished walking the labyrinth in the woods, when a young man and woman came down the path. He carried several cameras and she was dressed in some kind of long, flowing dress, not something you usually see in the Maine woods.

He said hello, and then walked past me, ignoring the labyrinth itself to the stones in the center. “Yeah, these will be great.”

He helped her stand on one of the stones and began taking pictures. I walked away but as the trail turned, I looked back to see her thrust a leg out from the dress. When the trail turned again, I looked back through the woods to see a naked back and the dress down to her waist. Fighting the urge to remain, I kept walking but couldn’t resist one final last glance back to behold her standing nude on top of the stone bench.

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Two monarch butterflies are playing tag in the blueberry bushes and the bracken on Sandplain Grassland. I’d never paid much attention to bracken until after Mary Lee and I hiked St. Cuthbert’s Way in Scotland and England. There these ferns grow tall and thick and as we hiked through, we talked about that scene involving a phallic sword in Thomas Hardy’s Far from the Madding Crowd where Bathsheba Everdeen meets Sargent Troy in a hollow surrounded by bracken. Then, when we returned to Maine and walked these trails, I noticed all kinds of the stuff (bracken, not swords).

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Looking over the bracken and blueberries, I see the sprawling brick building where I taught for my last two years as a high school English teacher. If I look closely I can see myself looking out the window of my classroom to where I’m standing now, wondering what it would be like to be here, looking back at the high school. Our eyes meet. Mr. Wile tells me how he envies my freedom to be able to walk these trails on a Thursday morning; I tell him how proud I am that he’s a teacher.

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The B/T Land Trust maintains a number of bridges in these woods. Perhaps because of having been a teacher for forty-five years in high school, college, adult ed programs, homeless shelters, and churches, I find bridges represent what teaching is all about: providing a way for someone to cross from where they are to where they want or need to be.

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As much people seem to want to complicate my job, teaching for me has always been simply me saying to others, “See that? Isn’t that neat?”

And when I see the eyes light up, or someone says, “Yes! I get it. It is neat!” the feeling I get is right up there with sex.

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Part of the trail loop behind the high school is used for cross country meets and in the years B.C. (Before COVID) someone spray-painted the roots across the trail every autumn, making them easier to see to avoid turning an ankle.

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Roots fascinate me, especially the mycelium, the underground fungus network that enables trees to increase their functional root surface so they can take in twice the nutrients they could with just their roots alone. The fungus not only penetrates and envelops the tree’s roots, but also allows its web to roam through the surrounding forest floor, connect with other trees’ fungal partners and roots. A network is created, and now it’s easy for the trees to exchange vital nutrients and even information.

Although I don’t much like to think of myself as a fungus, it’s another good image of what teachers do.

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Crystal Springs Farm trails have no grand vistas, no purple mountains’ majesty, no waves crashing upon rugged rocks. The beauty here is subtle and often partially hidden under branches and bracken: lady slippers, star flowers, violets. It’s a delicate beauty, reminding me how delicate and beautiful life itself is.

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And often overshadowed by death. Sometimes, when I walk in the woods after a storm, I will find a tree blown down across the trail. Fallen trees, especially large fallen trees, fill me with awe. These trees are usually a hundred or so years old and they leave an emptiness that hasn’t been there for a century. I think of the trees that have fallen across my paths through the years—plans that have blown down, a marriage that rotted and died, a daughter struck down before she’d fully grown, and the emptiness I still feel.

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Many of the dead and dying tree trunks are split and broken in strange and grotesque and even beautiful ways. Not unlike some of broken people I know who are among the most beautiful people I’ve ever met.

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But if life itself in these woods is delicate, the desire for new life here is robust. In a matter of weeks, new growth replaces the emptiness in the forest after a tree goes, and when a tree falls across the path blocking my way, it doesn’t take long for another path to develop around it. I’ve been responsible for some of those new paths, just as I’ve had to carve out other new paths in my life around downed dreams and broken relationships. All of which have led to me to where I am now, and for which I give thanks.

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“… if nature’s cruelties know no limits,

neither do the boundaries of its grace.”— Laurie-Anne Bosselaar

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Most of my walks begin or end at a pond between where I live and the entrance to the B/T Land Trust Trails. I don’t think anything so makes me aware of the rhythm of shifting seasons as this pond: peepers here in the spring, ducks in early summer, mud and discarded toys in late summer, variegated foliage and yellowed grasses in the fall, and a white expanse of the snow in the winter. From tadpoles to broad tailed hawks and blue herons, from green buds to orange and red leaves, from kids (and at least one adult I know) sailing pieces of wood on its waters to kids (and at least one adult) making snow angels on its ice, this pond sings of both change and continuity.

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Soapbox time: We have a lot to learn from trees and roots and the mycelia, ponds and mud and grasses and wildlife. In the face of the rampant individualism that’s scaring the hell out of me these days, I think the world needs a new and deeper sense of connectedness. I don’t reject either the special gifts or the unique spiritual journeys of each person, but I’d love to see each of us, each “I,” dive into the very roots of our being—dive down into the ground to the point where our trunk spreads its roots organically into the branching mycelium network of “We.”

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For over thirty years, one of my favorite writing assignments has been to ask people to describe their querencia, a Spanish word meaning the place from where you draw your strength; where you feel at home; the place where you are your most authentic self.

            I’ve told you mine. What’s yours?

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