The Climbing Tree

#

In my early childhood, one of my favorite places in the world was at the top of a pine tree on the edge of the field behind our house. This tree was probably pretty small, but in my memory it loomed over me. I remember the first time I made it to the top, I felt as if I’d been climbing for an hour and that my head was almost in the clouds. At the top of the tree, I found where a couple of branches had made a saddle, and from then on, I’d climb up, wedge myself into the branches, lean back, and watch those clouds. Sometimes they were dragons for me to conquer, sometimes ships to sail, sometimes castles where a great king (my first image of God) lived.

Sometimes the wind blew, rocking me back and forth. Usually, I could hear the river at the foot of the hill. As I grew older, I’d wonder who or what made these clouds and the wind and the river, which led to curiosity about who or what made me.

I thought of “my tree,” the other day as I stood at the foot of a tall (and this one is tall) pine tree in the woods near our house, looking up at my eight-year-old grandson climbing from branch to branch. But while part of me was filled with nostalgia, part of me was scared to death. What if he slipped? My god, he might impale himself on that sharp limb below him. Oh, shit! Is that next branch safe?

Well, he didn’t try to make it to the top and he came down safely and I didn’t say anything, so we were both happy, but on the way home I got to thinking about how fearful I’ve become these days.

I don’t like it.

I’ve written before in these blogs about fear. In one (https://geriatricpilgrim.com/2019/07/) I talked about fear being an acronym for “false evidence appearing real.” These days, however, my greatest fears are various manifestations of something very real: my mortality.

These fears probably began with the death of my eighteen-year-old daughter Laurie thirty-two years ago—at least, that’s when death for me became a reality instead of a concept. But it wasn’t until twenty years later that the deaths of other people I knew and liked and loved started falling on me, first, as an occasional raindrop, now steady precipitation—my classmates Marty and Tom, Laurie’s mother, my wife’s parents, my mother, more and more classmates like Roger and Scott, Diane and Audrey. Then, two years ago, I, whose cholesterol levels, heart rate, and weight were all great, needed bypass surgery. Three months later, my former brother-in-law, who walked, swam, played tennis, and lifted weights, apparently in perfect health, suddenly dropped dead of the same kind of heart blockage that I’d had.

Not only did that make death real, it made death something over which I—always a control freak—have no control over. And that’s probably what really frightens me.

I realize the first thing I think about when I wake up in the morning are all the bad things that might happen today to me or to someone I love. Will that ache in my shoulder turn out to be a heart attack? My wife’s getting these serious pains in her knee. What if she has Parkinson’s or becomes wheelchair bound? The wind’s blowing—what happens if that tree in the back yard falls on the house and kills Mary Lee or me? I can’t find my keys again. Does that mean Alzheimer’s?

Now, so far none of that has happened. My life is good. I often go to bed at night grateful for the day. Why then can’t I wake up in the morning feeling the same way?

I suspect I’m still fighting being mortal, still trying to do the things I used to be able to do, still attempting to control the things—like my body—I used to be able to control. I need to be spending a little more time with the Serenity Prayer: “God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and wisdom to know the difference.”

So then, what can I change? What do I have control over?

I do have some control over how I die: my state has a “Death with Dignity” law. But at this point, I’m more interested in how I live until that time, and I don’t want to spend my remaining days awfulizing about all the nasty things that could happen until my death.

Maybe what I need to be asking as time grows short and I age and break down is what’s most important to me? What do I want to be able to do as long as possible?

Well, one of the things that’s important to me is to be able to look at life the same way I did when I used to climb that pine tree. I had a destination. I looked up instead of down. I didn’t mind if I got splinters or a little pitch on my hands. And once I went as far as I could, I used my imagination and wondered about creation.

Okay, I can’t go as far as I could, even a year ago. (Have I told you about my heel spur?) But I can work on looking up instead of down (or as I age, ahead instead of back. I still think most of my fears of the future go back to anxieties passed on to me by my parents). I can still have a destination (a word, remember, that means purpose as well as place)—an essay or poem to write, a book to read—even if, like Stephen Hawking, I might have to write on a computer by twitching my cheeks, or “read” through audiobooks. I don’t mind a little pain or not looking young any more as long as I can still be as curious about the changes in my grandchildren as I was about the changing shapes of clouds. I can still find beauty and wonder in nature (I just stopped writing to take a picture of our azalea bush), even if I might have to ask someone someday to wheel me outside to experience it.

That’s all worth looking forward to. Worth living for.

I think it’s time to stop asking myself in the morning, “What can go wrong today?” and start asking, “What is my destination today? What can I be curious about? Wonder at?”

# #

While Holding the Cat (Or: Wile, Holding the Cat)

#

The beginning of Holy Week—the week of Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and Easter—and I’m sitting in a chair looking the window, trying to drink a cup of tea while holding our cat, Zeke. Not an easy task, especially since Zeke can’t seem to get settled, but during this year of COVID-CRUD, the two of us have bonded, probably because I have more patience than I did a year ago, so I wait him out.

Which is sort of what I get to thinking about. If I rise halfway out of my chair (which I can’t because Zeke has finally curled up on my arm), I can look through the window down to some crocuses poking through the ground. Spring is here, along with Easter and all it signifies about resurrection and new hope. Mary Lee and I have been double-vaccinated, and for the first time in a year, the grandchildren are coming to spend the weekend with us.

And I’m not sure I want any of it.

I think of the little delights of the previous year—not the big delights like reading and writing and flailing away at my banjo, those will go on no matter what—but the little delights that I’d never have noticed if I hadn’t had more time to consider them:

The squirrel who nearly every morning while I do my exercises bounces from the limb of one fir tree across the hollow in the back yard to the limb of another fir, making the trees look like they’re dancing.

The wooden butter knife I use to scrape the sides of the cone filter when I make coffee that always reminds me of Jeff, the guy who made it: a free spirit and real artist with wood, as well as someone I used to play music with, BCE (Before the COVID Era).

 The painted little wooden bird houses on my neighbor’s fence, which at first I thought were really kitschy until she told me her granddaughter had made or at least painted them for her, which suddenly made them really, really cute.

The pale yellow remains of the last remaining pumpkin I grew last year and kept on the dining room table until after Thanksgiving when I put it on the patio where the squirrels (probably including the one who bounces across the gully in the morning) ate the insides out of, so I threw the shell into the hollow where it still lies, weighing only a few ounces but still holding its shape.

Seeing my old friend Andy on Zoom, which is a bitter-sweet delight, since he’s battling Parkinson’s and is himself only a shell of the witty, intelligent man he was when I first knew him but who continues to handle his decline with a grace that I can only hope to maintain should anything like that ever happen to me.

#

It’s probably some form of mental inertia, but I tend to grow comfortable, even in my discomfort.

Sitting in my chair, petting Zeke, I recall his predecessor, Koshka (which is the Russian word for cat—actually, female cat, which Koshka wasn’t, but we didn’t know it at the time [that the word meant female cat, not that we didn’t know Koshka’s sex]) whom we bought as a kitten after my daughter Laurie was diagnosed with cancer. In Laurie’s last visit to our house, shortly before she went into the hospital where she spent the last two months of her life, I took a picture of her holding Koshka (probably what turned me from a dog to a cat lover).

In the following years, Koshka grew to twenty pounds of CAT, his size enlarged by his being part Maine Coon and having the tail the size of a furry zuchini. He was an imposing presence, not unlike my grief, and his moods seemed to mirror mine. If I felt isolated and withdrawn, he disappeared; after I began meditating, he’d jump into my lap and curl up, his breathing a match for mine.

During one particularly bad time when Laurie’s absence was a palpable ache in my heart and I was angry at everyone and everything, he developed a urinary infection, and I remember the time his howling woke us up in the middle of the night, and I saw him standing with his back arched in the middle of our bedroom floor, staring at the cross on our meditation alter, sounding as if he were screaming to God, “Why hast thou forsaken me?”

As years passed and my bouts of intense grief grew less frequent, Koshka dropped to about 12 pounds and lost all but four teeth. But as if to remind me that grief is the gift that keeps on giving, the summer before he died, somewhere around my daughter’s birthday, he got in a standoff with another cat who’d wandered into the yard, and, when I tried to pick him up, sank one of his four teeth into my arm, sending me to the hospital (missed an artery by 2 cms.).

Twenty years after Laurie’s death, when Koshka fell in the bathroom on his way to the litter box and refused to leave and we called a vet to come to the house to help him die peacefully, I grieved for a week—not, I realize now, for an old cat, not even for my daughter, but for the loss of the grief that had defined me for twenty years.

#

Zeke lifts his head, which is his way of telling me he wants to be scratched under his chin. In size and temperament, Zeke is as similar to Koshka as a chickadee is to a turkey vulture. Unlike Koshka, who used to breathe with me in my lap while I was meditating, Zeke is usually scratching frantically in his litter box at that time of the day. Which, I’ve decided pretty much reflects what’s going on in my mind lately. I too, have been a little frantic, scratching in the litter box of my mind, worried about my various aches and pains (Leonard Cohen: “I ache in all the places where I used to play.”), my grandchildren’s future, the end of democracy in this country, etc. ad nauseam. Which is probably why I’m apprehensive about the coming of Easter (my favorite Easter gospel is Mark, where the women “fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.” That’s sure as hell what I would have done.)

But Zeke has calmed down these days. At least, that’s what I think until his mysterious eyes, which have been mere slits, widen, and he bites my hand and scampers away. The next thing I know, he’s batting a toy mouse at my feet, as if to say, “Come on, Wile, get off your ass. Stop looking out the window at the world and get outside and enjoy it. Get ready for those grandchildren!”

Okay, okay. Time to rise. Sometimes you get resurrected whether you want to or not.

# #

Have Snakeskin, will Travel

#

Over the past 30 years, I’ve made many retreats to monasteries. The silence, punctuated by worship several times a day, slows me down, increases my awareness, and keeps me centered. All of which have helped me live comfortably during this last year of COVID-enforced isolation.

But as much as I love monasteries, I’ve never had any desire to be a monk. There’s the celibacy thing, for one thing, but also the fact that, at least in the monastery I’m most familiar with, the Brothers clean out their cells every year, discarding everything but the bare essentials. As one Brother explained, “Refraining from possession helps us remember the transient nature of earthly life.”

Well, I’ll admit it. I want my possessions. The room in which I’m writing this is full of them. I have bowls of stones from the various pilgrimages Mary Lee and I have made, a hat covered in hat pins from states and countries I’ve been to, and a budding collection of banjos. I also have random things: a wooden plate made by my father, a few joke books written by an old friend, now deceased, a pencil holder that used to belong to my father-in-law…

And a snakeskin.

Almost 60 years old, the skin rests on my bookcase, brittle, brown, and bent. When I pick it up, it crinkles like old parchment. Some of the translucent scales underneath, looking like fragments of old scotch tape, have fallen off (another came off now). I can’t think of anybody who’d want the damn thing except me. And I wouldn’t part with it for $1000.

As I run my fingers over the mottled brown and yellow skin, the years fall away and it is the summer of 1963. I am slowly coming down a steep slope of something between a hill and a mountain in the Payette National Forest in Idaho. Below me is the third fork of the Salmon River. (Often called “The River of No Return.” If you can, check out the 1954 movie by that name starring Robert Mitchum and Marilyn Monroe.) As I descend, picking my way through blackened rocks and burned shrubs and grass, I begin to encounter small groves of Ponderosa Pine and Douglas Fir, which I check to make sure aren’t smoldering. But they’re fine. The fire didn’t get down this far.

I’m working on a Hotshot Crew based in McCall, Idaho, a small touristy town on the edge of Payette Lake (something like 5,000 people and eight bars) about thirty miles from here. Our crew is a regional crew, which means we’re flown to any state in the upper western United States that has a large forest fire. The term “hotshot” describes those who work on the hottest part of a forest fire. Our primary job is to dig a fire line around the fire. We have a crew of eighteen, plus a crew chief, Paul, an assistant crew chief, Tex, and a scout, Dave Bodley, “Bo Diddly,” we call him, a bear of a guy who goes ahead with a chain saw, cutting down limbs, clearing a path through fallen trees. Then, we follow in a line as close to the fire as we can get. Twelve of us carry pulaskis, a tool which combines an axe and a hoe in one head on a three-foot handle, to scrape the forest duff and chop roots.

Pulaski (from Wikipedia}

The remaining six of us have shovels to scrape and widen the fire line to about three feet or more. The idea is to cut a fire line and walk at a steady pace at the same time for as long as needed, sometimes for up to twelve hours. Once the fire is contained, we go into the burned areas and put out individual hot spots by scraping the burning coals from the trees or shoveling dirt on the flames or just digging smaller fire lines and letting the fire burn itself out. Then, when the fire’s under control, we let the locals mop up what’s left and head back to McCall.

Headed out. (Wikipedia)

Except this time we’re the locals. The Payette is our own National Forest, and after we contained the blaze, I volunteered to stay behind with Tex, Birddog, and Mike for two or three days to make sure we didn’t miss any remaining fire.

So we have two or three days to hike up and down the hills looking for smokes, swim in the chilly waters of the Salmon River, have Pulaski throwing contests, play poker around a campfire, and hunt rattlesnakes. These rocks and ravines are home to all kinds of snakes who like to come out in the afternoon and sun themselves, and I want to catch a rattler.

Despite the fact that this is my second summer on the job, I’ve never run into one. Part of our training has been to learn what to do if bitten and I have a snake-bite kit in my backpack, but so far, all I’ve seen are bull snakes, who look like the Northern Pacific Rattlesnakes that live here, but don’t have the rattles.

Then, on the ground ahead of me in front of an opening in some rocks, I see a snake. I inch my way closer, but I still can’t tell what kind it is. In addition to having rattles, rattlesnakes’ eyes are more like cat’s eyes than those on a bull snake, but I’m not near enough yet to tell.

When I’m maybe a couple of yards away, my foot crunches some gravel. Within seconds, the snake coils, raising its arrow-shaped head and tail. I hear the rattling. Without thinking, I take a giant step forward, swing my Pulaski over my head and drive it down through the snake, slicing it into three pieces.

The smallest piece is the head. I poke it with the Pulaski, noting its long thin tongue outside its mouth. I take the other two pieces to camp. Tex shows me how to skin them, and hang the skins up on a branch to dry in tomorrow’s sun. That night we have a rattlesnake appetizer (and yes, it tastes like chicken) to go with our canned Vienna sausages. Two days later, I take the largest skin, about 15” long, with me.

I know my life is transient—“like grass,” as the Psalmist says. Which is why I need to spend what’s left of it looking at more than the small grove of fir trees out my back window. Especially in this year of not being able to travel physically, I need a wider view. Of 10,000-foot mountains and a river full of cutthroat trout, bull trout, rainbow trout, mountain white fish, sockeye salmon, Chinook salmon, steelhead, smallmouth bass, squawfish, sucker, and sturgeon. Of guys from California, Oregon, Washington, Utah, Texas, Oklahoma, Nebraska, Utah, and Colorado, with names like Bo-Diddley, Birddog, Tex, Spankie, and Alfalfa.

 A view that encompasses not only space but time: when I had a different name, “Froggie,” because of the way I hopped when I was first learning to dig a fire line; when I could dig that fire line for twelve hours and then walk another ten miles out to a cattle truck taking me to the airport; when I could flip a Pulaski fifteen feet and stick it into a pine tree. When the stars at night seemed to be so close that I could reach out and grab one any time I wanted.

All of which I can access by simply holding objects like a dried-up snakeskin in my arthritic hands. Suddenly, I am standing on the top of one of those 10,000-foot mountains, gazing over the vast landscape that is memory.

3rd Fork of the Salmon River. (Wikipedia)

# #

Graying

#

It’s a cold day in February and I’m sitting at my desk looking out at a gray world: gray sky, gray snow, gray road, even a couple of gray squirrels frolicking in the faint gray shadows of the trees in the hollow beside the house. (Sorry, they scampered out of the picture above.)

I start thinking about gray…

I’m of an age where almost all of my friends are gray, which reminds me of those great lines by Leonard Cohen: “Well, my friends are gone, and my hair is gray./ I ache in all the places that I used to play.”

Yup. The last time I played ball with my grandson, my shoulder hurt for two days. A good day’s work would kill me.

Googling what people have to say about gray, I find the comments often bleak. There’s a bluegrass song with the haunting refrain: “There’s nothing quite as lonely as the cold gray light of gone.” Besides loneliness, gray is the color of prisons, winter (“The gray dawn slaughters / the promise of Spring / Winter’s desperate last goodbye”: Kurt Philip Behm), boredom and conformity (I recall a novel, later made into a movie, called The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit, an indictment of 1950’s American values).

People often want to change gray to something more colorful. They look to others—from American writer Jane Bernstein: “You smiled. It was like the sun breaking out on a gray day”—or urge you to do it yourself—motivational speaker Allen Klein: “Your attitude is like a box of crayons that color your world. Constantly color your picture gray, and your picture will always be black.”

Speaking of coloring, 75% of American women over the age of 35 color their hair, and 11% of American men. One reason why, according to one source I found, is that graying hair is often the first sign of aging. People look in the mirror and suddenly they see their parents or grandparents. Judging from what I see on television, gray hair goes along with COPD, arthritis, and Depends.

The thing is, I love my wife’s gray hair. Actually, I like gray hair, period. And interestingly enough—at least to me—is the fact that the percentage of women over 60 who dye their hair shrinks to 55%. Maybe the lesson here is that it’s okay in our culture to begin to age after the age of 60.

As I think about it, I just plain like the color gray. That I’m not alone makes me feel better. Leonardo DaVinci apparently said that a gray day provides the best light for painting because it makes other colors stand out. That’s certainly true in New England in the fall. Nothing brings out the red, orange, and yellow foliage like a gray day, especially if there’s a little gray fog drifting through the trees.

French author and Nobel prize winner Andre Gide takes gray to another level when he writes, “The color of truth is gray.”

I think of how I was raised to see the world in black and white, like the photographs I have of myself as a kid. There was us and them, good guys and bad guys, white hats and black hats, red-blooded Americans and cold-blooded Communists… Now, however, I see life as far more often a mix of black and white—i.e. gray.

And it’s how they’re mixed that fascinates me. Despite a rather notorious (I gather; I haven’t read it) book that talks about 50 shades of gray, my on-line research tells me the human eye can distinguish 32 shades of gray. That’s still a lot. If I go to a paint store, I can find some 30 shades of gray, with names like Gainsboro, Spanish, Manatee, Davy’s, Mole, and Regent. Looking out the window at the sky, I can see a blue-gray horizon, turning to smoke gray, then ash-gray, swirled with charcoal. Or maybe the swirls are gun-metal gray… Pewter?

“Most consequential choices involve shades of gray,” wrote former U.S. Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner. That’s certainly been true in my life. I used to think of divorce as evil—black, a sin—until I had to balance that with my emotional and physical health.

I always thought suicide was wrong, until I read articles about people diagnosed with Alzheimer’s or ALS who decided for the sake of their family to go to a place where they could get help with an assisted suicide. Now, I’m not so sure what I’d do if I found myself with a similar disease.

Abortion? Reading the Bible? The death penalty? Shades of Gray.

The former U.S. Treasury Secretary went on to say, “…and some fog is often useful in getting things done.” I’m not sure how that translates into monetary policy, but it’s exploring foggy shades of gray that drives me to write, and whatever creativity I have emerges from that exploration.

When I first started teaching writing in the middle 1960’s, English teachers stressed the Five Paragraph Essay (as a matter of fact, I taught from a text with that title), where students were expected to start with a thesis—a statement summing up the main idea of the essay—put that in a sentence at the end of the first introductory paragraph, then write three paragraphs illustrating why the thesis was valid, followed by a concluding paragraph summing up what they’d already written. The problem was, I found that when I tried to write that way, I lost all my creativity because I was starting with what I knew, not what I didn’t know. Writing to discover changed the way I wrote and way I taught writing.

Maybe it’s because I’ve spent almost all of my life living on the foggy coast of Maine, but I’m uncomfortable without clouds. Without gray. I still remember the merciless sun glaring down in Israel, casting everything in a harsh light, as if it were scalding my bones. I much preferred the hazy, shimmering light on the Scottish island of Iona, which gave the heather, the hills, the stones, the sheep an ethereal glow. Or the thick blanket of fog that crept up the ravine at sunset in Big Sur, California and then turned pink before enveloping my hermitage.

Likewise, I’m really uneasy with certainties. People who proclaim some “Truth”—whether about theology, politics, or education—scare the hell out of me.

After spending much of my life searching for answers, I find that as I’ve grown grayer, I’m happier today with the questions—questions and watching squirrels play in the fir trees under a sky of a blue-gray turning to smoke gray, then ash-gray, striated with charcoal or gun-metal or pewter.  

I’d just as soon have some warmer weather, though.

# #

Putting Away the Past

#

“…. by participating in a ritual, … you are being, as it were, put in accord with that wisdom, which is the wisdom inherent within you anyhow. Your consciousness is being re-minded of the wisdom of your own life. I think ritual is terribly important.” Joseph Campbell

#

It’s January 7, the day after Epiphany. Yesterday, Mary Lee and I watched goons in red hats knock our democracy to its knees. Still, as I’ve done on today’s date for I don’t know how long, I put on The Christmas Revels, (a CD; we wore out the tape we bought right after we’d seen a performance of this Solstice celebration over thirty years ago) and begin to take down our Christmas tree, removing the ornaments, packing them away for another year.

“Wassail, wassail, all over the town…”

We take off the unbreakable ornaments first. Most of them come from our travels: several woolen sheep of various sizes and a wooden long-haired highland cow from Scotland, probably our favorite country to visit; a couple of olivewood Jerusalem crosses from Israel; a weighty wooden St. Nicholas from Cambridge, England; and a porcelain nazar, an eye-shaped Turkish amulet believed to protect against the evil eye, which we bought in the Grand Bazaar in Istanbul. (And which for some reason, I can’t get to print. You’ll have to Google it.)

“Here come I, Old Father Christmas…”

Putting them away in the bottom of the box, I think of Columba’s Bay on Iona, the cobweb of streets in the Old City of Jerusalem, drinking “Green King Ale” in The Champion on the Thames with Dick and Janet Graham, sharing Turkish meze platters with our friends Lynne and Finlay. Later today, I might dig out a map or a travel guide to expand a snippet of memory into a full narrative, some of which might even have actually happened. If not, so what? It’s my memory.

“The boar’s head in hand bear I…”

Next, we take off the homemade ornaments from the children and grandchildren. Mary Lee’s sons used to make God’s eyes—you know, running different colored yarn around various sized crosses. We’ve also got decorations showing their growth into adulthood: a couple of felt cats named for Jeremy’s first two pets that followed him around from one apartment to another, and—perhaps our most unique ornament—a soft brown diarrhea microbe, which was from Jeremy’s wedding to a professor whose PhD is in Tropical and Diarrheal Diseases.

Our most recent additions to the tree are from last year, when all four grandchildren were into fuse-beads, which for those of you who haven’t played with grandchildren lately are colorful beads arranged on a plastic pegboard to form a pattern or a shape and then fused together with a clothes iron (which is, quite frankly, the only time we’ve used an iron in the last 20 years).

“There was a pig went out to dig,

Chris-i-mas Day, Chris-i-mas Day…”

Many of the more fragile ornaments come from our childhoods and get wrapped in tissue paper. Mary Lee has an angel that her mother remembered from when she was a girl, making it around a hundred years old. I’ve got a couple of glass ornaments from our family tree, as well as a plastic Santa Claus on skis from the 1940s that I’m pretty sure came with a six-pack of Coca-Cola, which I used to drink in vanilla ice cream floats on Christmas Day after we’d opened our presents (which would have been about 9:00 in the morning. Yeech!)

“The holly and the ivy…”

Perhaps because my parents grew up in homes where Christmas was fraught with alcoholism and other family disfunction, they tried hard to make sure their children’s Christmases were happy ones. And on the whole, they succeeded. For me, Christmas is a time to remember and honor my family, not just my parents and siblings, but the extended family of which I am a part.

“Dance, then, wherever you may be

I am the Lord of the Dance,” said he…”

The two ornaments Mary Lee gave me for our first Christmas together go in their own boxes: a red ball—naturally—for the Boston Red Sox and a silver and green one for the Boston Celtics. Both teams have had their ups and down over the last 35 years, but by in large, they’ve done well. Mary Lee and I have also had our ups and downs, but I think we’ve done even better.

“Nowell, nowell, nowell,

Nowell sing we clear!…”

My most prized ornament, and I usually pack it away last so that it’s right on top to put on first next year, is a cloth ornament my daughter Laurie embroidered for Mary Lee and me for our first Christmas together. She was sixteen at the time, two years away from the cancer that killed her. Wrapping the ornament, I see by her signature on the back that this was the year she called herself by her middle name, “Leigh.” A time when a future of limitless possibility seemed to lie before her.

“On the first day of Christmas, my true love sent to me

A partridge in a pear tree…”

It usually takes just about as long to put away the ornaments as it does to listen to the entire Christmas Revels, which I’ll also set aside for another year. These songs and dances celebrate the fusion of Christianity and the pagan festivals surrounding the winter solstice and the rebirth of the year. In many ways, they are a dance of light and dark, death and life, past and present.

I’m packing away, then, not only ornaments but memories and stories, both happy and sorrowful. And while I think it’s important, especially as I age, not to dwell on the past but to focus on the present and the future, these ornaments will stay with me throughout the rest of the year in some closet of my subconscious, subtle yet constant reminders that what has saved me before in times of grief, illness, and addiction—faith, family, friends, the natural world, art and music—can save me in today’s lethal political climate, can save me in the future.

They give me a reason to want to live. They give me hope.

“God bless the master of this house,

With happiness beside,

Where’re his body rides or walks

His God must be his guide,

His God must be his guide.”

# #

Showing Up

Photo curtesy of Heather Spring

#

A friend—I’ll call him Gary—has neighbors whose twenty-year-old son recently died in an automobile accident. Because Gary knows I’ve lost a child, he asked me if I had any advice on what he could say to them. Although I shy away from giving anyone advice on grieving (more on that later), I did send him some thoughts about what helped me and also what made things worse in the years immediately after Laurie died. A month or so later, he wrote to thank me, that what I’d written was showing him how to be with his neighbors in ways they seemed to appreciate.

Because it seems to have helped Gary, and because we are entering the holiday season, which for many of us grieving parents is the hardest time of the year, and because this year is especially hard (As I write this, 284,000 people in this country have died from COVID 19, which means, even granting the death rate is higher for older people, possibly that many grieving parents), I’m going to pass on what I emailed Gary for any of you who know someone who is grieving the loss of a child this year..

#

My experience and reading both say that it’s not what you should say to parents when a child dies but what you shouldn’t say. Even the most well-meant words can ignite anger and shame.

For example:

• “Let me know if there’s anything I can do to help.” The first time I heard someone say this to me after Laurie died, I thought, Yeah, my life is a mountain of rubble and you want me to think of things for you to do? Well, screw you!

• “How are you doing?” How the hell did I know? My entire world—my values, my belief in God, my image of how the world works—had just been obliterated. Often, I would mumble, “Fine.” Later, I joined a 12-step program and learned that means, “Fucked up, Insecure, Numb, and Empty.” Which was about right.

• “Be grateful for the time you had together.” This is like telling someone who’s just had both of their legs blown off to be thankful they used to be able to walk.

• “Everything happens for a reason.” This is another comment that still has me pounding the walls, along with, “God doesn’t give you anything you can’t handle,” or “God must have wanted another angel in heaven.” Well, if God is that kind of super sadist, you can send me to Hell.

• “I know exactly how you feel.” Usually followed by, “When my grandfather/Uncle/mother/ dog/ died…” I’m sorry, but if you really knew how I feel, you’d shut the hell up.

• “Grief just takes time.” How is that supposed to help me get through the day, let alone nights that are five years long?

• “You need to get on with your life, get back to normal.” I first heard this a month after Laurie died. The most recent time was about a year ago.  My response hasn’t changed: This is my life. There will never be anymore goddamned “normal.”

• “At least she’s no longer suffering.” Or “she’s at peace.” And I’m still grieving like hell, thank you very much.

It’s not that some of these are necessarily bad advice. Thirty years after Laurie’s death, I am happy for the time we had together. The effects of grief do lessen over time. I do think she’s in a better place. I have moved on, and while my life has never returned to “normal,” it is in some ways more joyful.

But when I’m grieving I don’t want advice, even the most well-intentioned. In my shame and my anger, your advice makes me feel that you’re on some kind of pedestal of knowledge looking down on me, and I’m just that much more isolated in my grief.

What I need is to feel is that you’re beside me.

#

So, is there anything you can say? Not much. Maybe something along the lines of “I’m thinking of you and wish there were words to comfort you.” I did find it helpful to have people ask me what happened, and more helpful if someone asked me about Laurie in ways that I could talk about what a beautiful, compassionate kid she was. I was particularly grateful if someone who had known my daughter had a story to share with me about her. I was grateful for flowers and for donations made in Laurie’s name, not only to the Cancer Society and the Ronald McDonald House, but also to Pilgrim Lodge Summer Camp and Amnesty International, two of Laurie’s favorite activities.

Some writers about grief suggest providing information on grief counselors or helping parents plan some kind of memorial. Although I later sought counseling and bought a memorial stone for my daughter to place in our family cemetery, I didn’t want any of that at first. For over a year after Laurie’s death, I just wanted to be left alone. But at the same time, I wanted to know someone was there when I needed them.

Bottom line: it’s a question of doing, not saying. What can you do for the grieving parent—cards, flowers, meals? Can you give them a call every week or so simply to say, “How about those Red Sox?”

It’s especially important not to disappear after the first month or so. That’s just another way of saying “You need to get on with your life.”  

Let them grieve. Listen. Don’t judge. I met with a woman for almost a year after her son died—gave her all kinds of advice, books to read, and so forth. A few years later, I ran into her and she said how much I’d helped her.                         

“Anything I said in particular?” I said, looking for guidance on what to say to others. “I don’t remember a damn thing you said,” she told me. “All I remember is that you cared enough to have lunch with me once a week.”

So, I never give advice to anyone who’s grieving unless they ask for it. I’m also leery enough about giving advice to people who want to help someone in grief to caution that everyone grieves differently and, as a general rule, men grieve differently than women (which contributes to the higher-than-average divorce rate among grieving parents.)

But if I were to give you any advice, I’d simply say, shut up and show up.

# #

Just Pondering

#

Recent entry in my dream journal: “I’m walking along a winding dirt road through some woods. The trees loom tall, redwoods, perhaps, but stand closer together. I can see nothing in them. All is dark. At first, I’m frightened by what might be in these woods, but gradually, I become curious. I decide to leave the road and enter the darkness.”

I started keeping a dream journal about a year ago, after attending a four-week program on dreams, using the theories of Carl Jung, the great Swiss psychologist and psychoanalyst. Jung felt that dreams were our private myths and served to help heal us by showing us how to live to our fullest potential. I write my dreams down to help me try to figure out what might be spawning them and what they’re trying to tell me, keeping in mind that for Jung, the goal is not to interpret dreams so much as it is to, as he said, “amplify” them, expanding or increasing the meanings we might give them.

The most obvious interpretation of this dream is that the dark woods are the dark woods of my mortality. Another high school classmate has died recently of a heart attack. A year and a half ago, I had heart bypass surgery. I recovered, feeling better than I’d felt in years. Three or four months ago, however, I had a day when I had some tightness in my chest and my legs felt heavy. Even when the tightness went away, walking for the next day or so was like slogging through Maine’s mudflats. Since then, I’ve had periods of light headedness and my heart rate has dropped in the morning to below 50 bpm and jumped during normal walking, sometimes to over 130 bpm. I tire more easily.

So, I contacted my heart doctor, who asked me to wear a monitor for two weeks and have a stress test. As we did a year and a half ago, Mary Lee and I had some serious discussions. Once again, I showed her where all the financial stuff is.  I thought again about what I want printed on my funeral bulletin and grew misty-eyed in thinking about not being able to watch my grandchildren become adults.

But earlier this week, after I’d had the stress test, pounding the treadmill and watching on a monitor images of my heart that looked like cartoon sea creatures, the doctor said my heart looks to be in great shape—that if it was possible to ace a stress test, I did.

 So perhaps the dark woods of my dream don’t represent my physical mortality, but the death of life as I’ve lived it for nearing eighty years. I mean, even if my light-headedness and heart fluctuations can be corrected, I know that I can no longer walk as far or as fast as I could even a year ago, and that all those lessons I learned in my athletic days—“suck it up!” “Go through the pain!” “Move it, Wile, faster, faster!” —not only don’t work anymore, they could kill me. I will have to learn to live with heart issues just as I’ve had to learn to live with back problems.

Equally, if not more important, I’m going to have to accept that values I’ve held all my life—respecting the dignity of others, working together for the common good, the value of education, hospitality, self-sacrifice—seem to be becoming more endangered species in today’s divisive culture. I’m not sure I will ever feel completely safe in this country again.

That I’m afraid of the dark woods in my dream—whether they represent my body or my values—makes sense, but that I can be curious about them to the point of actually wanting to enter the darkness?

Maybe that’s exactly what I need to do. My 12-step sponsor and I often talk about how important curiosity can be in my life as a way to overcome my tendency to be judgmental of others and of myself. Judgment, she says, is narrow, limiting, and leads to anxiety when I judge I’m being threatened. Curiosity, she says, will be expansive, giving me room to grow.

Still, replacing fear with curiosity seems like a tall order.

#

And maybe I don’t need to. In one of those moments of synchronicity that often come when I’m writing these blogs, I was looking through my old journals a while back and ran across a postcard I’d picked up at a retreat a couple of years earlier. At first it seemed a sweet picture—a naked child reaching out towards a hummingbird—until I discovered that the artist, Holly Meade, titled her woodcut “Pondering Death.” I’d pulled the picture out of the journal and stuck it in a folder of ideas for future blogs.

Pondering Death. Woodblock & Linoleum Prints by Holly Meade

I examined the postcard again, treating it like another dream. Death, in the figure of the bird, is small but bright red, the only color here besides black and white. The hummingbird still looks alive to me. Or maybe the red is to make it not alive, but real. The child, who could be male or female, is naked, vulnerable. The way the hair falls keeps the young person totally focused on the bird, yet the way the hair is sharply cut creates a palpable space between child and bird, between life and death.

Most of all, I’m struck by how the artist shows the act of “pondering” in the body rather than in the face. The boy or girl squats, one hand reaching out, as if to hold the bird, but barely touching it, the other hand stretched behind for balance, as if to keep from falling.

In fact, everything in this woodcut seems in balance: male and female, sitting and standing, reaching out and drawing back, curiosity and fear.

Maybe my dream of the dark woods is not so much about replacing fear with curiosity, but of pondering them both without judgment. My doctor told me that I was wise to let him know of the changes in my heart, by which I take it that a little fear is a good thing. The trick is not to let fear close me off and to cultivate that part of me that retains a childlike sense of curiosity, wonder, enthusiasm, and delight about what lies around me.

And maybe, since this is the week of Thanksgiving, I can set my fears aside at least for a few days and be not only curious, but grateful for my family, my writing, my banjo, my daily walks (albeit taken more slowly), and the other graces that abound in my life.

After all, in that dream, I don’t actually enter the dark woods. I’m still walking the road. (With a break now and then.)

#

Inertia

#

Inertia. Physics. A property of matter by which it continues in its existing state of rest or uniform motion in a straight line, unless that state is changed by an external force.

#

                        … what tried to climb up the back stairs

                        of heaven’s mansion falls back, caught

                        on the trellis, hemmed and hawed, snagged

                        and stunted to the gravity field, that

                        unforgiving inertia which we call “ourselves.”

                                                            Rebecca Seiferle, “Law of Inertia.”

#

I’m walking into the woods behind my house, past what is usually a pond, but what is now, thanks to a dry summer and early fall, nothing but a mud hole. I stop and gaze at the cracked clay, the animal tracks, the half-buried rocks and sticks …

I know now where the expression “stick in the mud” comes from. That’s me these days. Seven months into the pandemic, I’m less and less wanting to go to the store, take a drive—hell, today, even walking in the woods feels like a chore—and when I do go out, I usually find somebody to be irritated with: someone without a mask, somebody cutting me off in the parking lot. I’m sleeping more. I’m spending even more time that usual on YouTube, mired in the 50s, hanging out with Dion, Jerry Lee, Buddy, and Sam Cooke, longing for the good old days.

#

Seeking to climb out of this mudhole of inertia, I go to my journals to try to recapture some of the sights, sounds, and smells of a pilgrimage or two, enjoy some of the excitement, feel some of the growth I’ve experienced in past years.

But what I notice is how many pages I devote to my apprehension before these trips, how often I write about rearranging my office or bookshelves in the days leading up to departure as if I were settling in instead of going anywhere. For example, in looking at my journal for the last extended trip Mary Lee and I took, to Tanzania, I see that I spent almost as many pages worrying about the trip as I did in describing the trip itself. “I say I’m trying to be open to what’s next,” I write, “but so far I’m not succeeding, only closing up, trying to lose myself in novels, YouTube, and Netflix. And I’m tired, even before our trip begins, not sleeping well.”

Mmm. Sounds like what’s going on in my life now.

I worried I was too old for an 18-hour plane ride and hikes at 6-9 thousand feet. I felt unsure of how to act in another culture, frightened of coming across as an ugly, Trump-loving American. And I spent the day before we left finding a new place for the heater in my office, moving a radio upstairs, working on a new blog about growing up in a small Maine village—all efforts to do something—anything—other than deal with my anxiety. All efforts to stay put.

In other words, I was afraid.

I’m not sure I’ve ever thought much about what an important a part fear plays in inertia, at least the kind of inertia I’m stuck in these days. When I haven’t been mucking around with YouTube, I’ve been reading how previous pandemics have changed the course of history—from the plague (probably typhoid) of 438 B.C.E. which weakened the Athenian army so that it fell to its enemy Sparta, through the Justinian Plague of 541 A.C.E. which led to the rise of Christianity, through the Black Death of the 14th Century which led to the weakening of Christianity and the rise of the middle class, to the almost complete extinction of American indigenous people from European diseases, to the convulsive social changes of the 1920s after the 1919 pandemic. Periods after pandemics, I see, are often filled with violence, especially against scapegoats like early Christians, Jews, Native Americans, immigrants, and Black people.

Which is probably why I want to cling to the past, go back to those good old days when I was oblivious to much of the world around me.

#

But as my journals show, once I’m able to pull myself out of my inertia, my anxiety, and enter into the not-knowing of the pilgrimage experience, I grow in ways I never thought possible. Once I was able to start looking outside of myself instead of spending my time focused inward (another definition of inertia, come to think of it), those ten days in Tanzania became one of the highlights of my life.

And it’s possible that after this pandemic, humanity will make a great leap forward, become more global, learn how to work together, eliminate violence. As my Quaker friends say, “Sometimes, way has to close before way can open.”

I don’t know, of course, which is why, until change actually happens, I remain stuck in that “unforgiving inertia we call ‘ourselves,’” as poet Rebecca Seiferle puts it.

Looking at that line, I’m struck by the word “unforgiving,” which to me usually means not showing mercy, not allowing for mistakes or weakness.  And I wonder if, since I can’t overcome my inertia, maybe I could be a little more forgiving of myself for being fearful about the world today.

Maybe even go a little further than forgiveness?

Besides old journals, I like to look at old photographs. On my computer, just up from the picture I took of the mudhole that used to be a pond, I see a picture I took when Mary Lee and I met her son and his family for a socially distant get-together with the grandchildren on the shore. It was low tide. When we got there, the children were already wading in the mud, looking for clams and horseshoe crabs, mud on their hands, their faces, trying to run without falling, laughing.

Looking at the photo now, I feel a sudden sense of joy. I realize I need to accept the fact that these are difficult times and that I can’t know how they will turn out. According to Newton’s first law of motion, sometimes called the law of inertia, inertia can only be overcome by some external force. I have no idea, nor do I have any control over, what kind of force—a vaccine? a bomb? riots?—will end this seven-months-and-counting pandemic. Or, for that matter, if, at the age of 77, I’ll be around to see whatever does happen.

But, instead of slogging through the mud of inertia, maybe I can find ways to keep moving, even play in it.

Here’s an idea. If I can’t stop watching Dion and the Belmonts, perhaps I should sing along with them? Snap my fingers? Learn the choreography?

Want to join me? Altogether now:

Dun dun dun dun dun dun dun dun dun dun dun dun dun d-d-duh-duh-duh

“I wonder why-y-y, I love you like I do.

Dun dun dun dun dun dun d-d-duh-duh-duh …

# #

My New Frontier

JFK at the University of Maine—1965 Yearbook

#

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.

#

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.

#

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.

#

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.

 …

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.

#

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

# #

Playing in the Woods Behind my House


#

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.

#

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.

#

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.

#

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.

#

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.

#

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).

#

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.

#

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.

#

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.

#

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.

#

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.

#

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.

#

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.

#

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.

#

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.

#

“… if nature’s cruelties know no limits,

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

#

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.

#

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.”

#

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?

# #