“The Road goes ever on and on,
Down from the door where it began …”
—The Lord of the Rings
Seven years ago this month, I published my first Geriatric Pilgrim blog. As it turns out, this is now the month that my book, The Geriatric Pilgrim: Tales from the Journey, based on fifty of the 130 reflections/musings/essays/memoirs/whatever I’ve posted over the last seven years, comes on the market.
When I decided to pull these essays together, I thought it would be a simple matter of picking out the ones I liked best and putting them down in the order they were written. Instead, creating this book became its own pilgrimage, and like any pilgrimage, the journey was both more difficult and at the same time more rewarding than I’d expected.
Writers about pilgrimage agree that pilgrimages are about the often-uncomfortable experience of beginning again. The first thing I realized as I read over my blogs is that a lot has changed since November of 2015. Barak Obama was still President of the United States. Few people wore masks except on Halloween or to rob banks. When we talked about getting our shots, we meant flu and shingles shots. Women’s right to abortion was taken for granted.
I, too, have changed. Looking at my first blogs, I saw that I was concerned, possibly even obsessed, with the differences between pilgrimages and vacations, but that over the years I’d discovered that any journey could be a pilgrimage. In 2015, I’d just started attending Al Anon meetings but had not begun attending the meetings of Adult Children of Alcoholics, meetings that opened my eyes to years of denial about my alcohol/anger-fumed childhood.
In those early writings, I worried I wasn’t a good grandfather to my, at the time, four grandchildren. I fretted about my deteriorating back and that I was four inches shorter than I’d been in high school and that I could no longer put a basketball in a hoop. And, as I had since my daughter’s death, I was struggling with the way my body chemistry changed this time of year, because the lengthening shadows and 4:00 p.m. sunsets reminded me of when I was living at the Ronald McDonald House in Bangor, Maine, and watching Laurie die.
Those feelings, too, have changed.
I decided to rewrite these blogs to reflect where I am and who I am now: an 80-year-old man working his 12-step programs, grateful for his now five grandchildren, for his health, which, thanks to a repaired heart and an exercise program that has relieved much of the back pain he’s had since he was in his early thirties, is in some ways better than it was seven years earlier. A man who’s learned to navigate the emptiness left in his heart by his daughter’s death, and to recognize and be grateful for the numerous graces which he’s experienced on his journey over the last seven years.
All of which meant that I felt as if I were beginning the writing all over again. Many of the revised musings that make up The Geriatric Pilgrim: Tales from the Journey are almost complete rewrites. For some of them, I combined two, even three earlier blogs. Even some whose whose content and structure remained the same took as long to revise as they did to write because I saw sentences that needed to be simpler or that I hadn’t used the right word.
And then there was putting these essays in an order that made sense. I no longer wanted to set them down in the order they’d been written. I decided to put all the physical pilgrimages Mary Lee and I made together—all the St. Cuthbert’s Way essays with each other, all the Iona essays, etc.—followed by those dealing with my internal journeys—all those directly dealing with Laurie’s death, all those on aging, a collection of living with COVID essays ….
So, I took a deep breath and began moving the pieces around like a mosaic, trusting in my intuition. I hope it works. If not, well, it’s hard to get good help these days.
One important characteristic of pilgrimages is that they are made in homage to someone or something greater than ourselves. But as I re-read my earliest blogs, I saw that, although I never came right out and said so, I was chaffing at this relationship with my Higher Power. Yes, I’d been going on religious retreats for the previous twenty years; yes, I’d been meditating for that long; yes, I could honestly say I believed in God. But I was still angry at God for taking Laurie from me, still inclined to leave God behind when I left my meditation corner or retreat house, still judging other people (not to mention myself) as if I were God. I found that reworking these blogs for the book helped me focus on God not as a problem to be solved but as a reality that I’d experienced.
And that experience had been, I saw in rewriting my reflections, one of healing, which is another characteristic of the pilgrimage experience. Before I began posting the blogs, I read many books by writers who’d walked the Santiago de Camino from France to Spain or hiked or biked from England to Jerusalem or walked across Afghanistan or India in search of spiritual or physical healing. Pulling my blogs together revealed to me not only my physical healing from a blocked left main artery in my heart and relief from chronic back pain, but my continued healing from grief. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: the pain of losing a child never, never, never goes away. But, as I’ve also written, healing doesn’t mean curing. Healing means being more whole. It means accepting that pain is part of the game, part of being human, part of what it means to love. Accepting my pain has meant that I no longer dread this time of year. Laurie’s death has become like the sky over my head: always there, sometimes storming, sometimes even a hurricane, but also sometimes bracing and beautiful.
And by recognizing my healing, I’m far more likely to write about my experiences as a way to pay homage to—in the words of Dag Hammarskold, former Secretary General of the United Nation—“Thou whom I do not know but whose I am.”
Which has given me hope. Looking back at my life through these blogs, I see I’ve survived growing up in an alcoholic family, a dysfunctional first marriage, the death of a child, heart disease, and countless stupid decisions to find myself eager to get up every morning. And I realize I’m just one illustration of humanity’s God-given capacity not only to survive famines and plagues, wars and tyrants, but to flourish.
Finally, pilgrimages are about relying on the kindness of those we meet on our journeys. One thing I didn’t change in writing the book is my gratitude for the aid of others: friends, family, teachers, spiritual directors, sponsors, who’ve always appeared when I’ve needed them. Not only is The Geriatric Pilgrim: Tales from the Journey an homage to my Higher Power, but to my wife Mary Lee, who’s been my companion on just about every retreat and pilgrimage I’ve made, including the writing of both blogs and book.
I am blessed.
And, as Phillip Cousineau writes in his classic book The Art of the Pilgrimage—he calls this “the pilgrim’s law”—“You must share whatever wisdom you have been blessed with on your journey… The story we bring back… is the gift of grace …”
Which I keep trying to do, along with the wish that you will be inspired to see your life as a pilgrimage, one that will give you hope and healing.
See you along the road.