In Memoriam

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My sister and brother at our cemetery plot one Memorial Day weekend when we could still be close to each other.

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Many pilgrimages are made to honor saints or other holy people: pilgrimages to Jerusalem to honor Jesus, to Mecca to honor Mohammed, to Bodh Gaya to honor the Buddha, even to Graceland to honor Elvis or Cooperstown to honor the early baseball greats. Of course, we make these pilgrimages not so much for the dead saints as for ourselves.

Simply put, there is something in most of us that needs to honor the Dead.

I’m writing this on Memorial Day, the day we remember those who have died on the battlefield or, this year, those who’ve died of Covid-19. When I was growing up in a small Maine town during the 1950s, it was a major holiday. Our Memorial Day parade also served as one of my first pilgrimages, as, first in the Cub Scouts and then in the Junior High marching band, I walked from the American Legion Cabin in the center of town, first south, stopping at North Yarmouth Academy to honor the dead graduates, then on to the Catholic and Protestant cemeteries at Riverside, back to the Legion Cabin for a break, and then north to the cemetery by The Old Meeting House on the hill.

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Old Meeting House in winter. Photograph by Micah Brown

At each stop, there were prayers, and, if memory serves me, the playing of Taps. The stones of veterans were decorated with flags and flowers, and I’m guessing out of that tradition grew today’s more general practice of families, regardless of their military background, decorating cemetery plots on Memorial weekend.

I think it’s more than just tradition. When my daughter was dying of cancer, she told her mother and me that she didn’t want to be buried; that she wanted her ashes scattered over the ocean. Her mother couldn’t accept her decision, and after Laurie died, Patricia had a traditional funeral and our daughter’s ashes buried in her family’s cemetery in Downeast Maine. Divorced, shattered by Laurie’s death, I didn’t fight my ex-wife’s decision, just stayed away and had a private service on Sand Beach in Bar Harbor where Mary Lee and I waded into the December waters and scattered some burned mementos of Laurie in the waves.

But after I’d spent several angry years grieving Laurie’s death, a counselor told me that having a specific place to mourn my daughter might help me. For a while, I fought the idea, but one Memorial Day, when I was planting flowers on our family’s plot, I found myself needing Laurie there. For the first time, I sympathized with my first wife’s need to have her daughter with the rest of her family. So, I ordered a memorial stone for Laurie, and, indeed, it was healing. The stone gave me a focus for my grief, gave me, I suppose, a feeling of control over the great mystery of death. I could concretize it, decorate it, tidy it up whenever I felt the need.

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Writing today, I realize it’s not merely in cemeteries that I’ve honored the dead who have impacted my life. Looking around my house, I see it full of their presence, and I realize that besides honoring them, I’m keeping them alive.

Of course, photographs are the most common way to keep someone in our lives. Mary Lee and I have pictures of our parents and grandparents in almost every room of the house.  I also have photos of old classmates on the walls of my study and in the spare bedroom where I keep my treadmill. I have paintings which Laurie did on the walls as well as her craft projects on bookcases and end tables. (My favorite is her Fathers’ Day gift to me of eleven small stones painted in different colors, each one with two eyes, standing together in modeling clay on a wooden base, and titled, “Rock Concert.”)

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When my father retired from being a carpenter, he kept his hand in by making a number of wooden boxes, chests, candle and cup holders, all of which I have around the house, along with a wooden plate he carved with an intricate leaf pattern in the days before we had television.

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I have saved letters and emails from my mother where she talks about her childhood, which, along with a tape recording I made of her reminiscences, helps me remember not only her, but my grandparents and great-grandparents. I have a CD made from a tape of my Grandmother Cleaves, who used to play piano for the silent movies and who once had her own local band, “The Charmers,” performing at a party at the retirement community where she used to live.

I wear on occasion a turtlenecked sweater that used to belong to Dad, as well as two very loud sweaters that my father-on-law used to own, along with his Harvard crimson beret. Speaking of hats, I wear one of my old friend Scott’s Red Sox caps when I watch television. Until the strap broke, I used to wear my father’s swordfish billed cap, but now I have my own.

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And, although they’re harder and harder to find, I still wear the same kind of forest-green chinos that my Grandfather did. (Oh, and I also have his watch, which doesn’t run but which I can’t throw away.)

For me, these photos and paintings and knickknacks and clothing serve the same purpose as the stones in the cemetery that I’m going to decorate tomorrow (In this time of Corona Crud, I’m waiting until after the Memorial Day rush to avoid the crowds of people): they help me deal with the death that I’m getting closer and closer to, and they are a way to help keep the people I have loved alive.

And I realize all these remembrances are also a way to give thanks for the life I’ve been lucky enough to enjoy: a life filled with blessings I haven’t earned, often coming at just the time I’ve needed to be blessed.

If, as Ann Lamott says, there are only three prayers—“Help,” “Thank You,” and “Wow!”—these are memorials for those to whom I have said those prayers, those who have been the saints in my life, those who have shown me the meaning of the word Grace.

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Laurie Leigh Wile: Self-portrait, 1987

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“To Accept the Things I Cannot Change…”

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Decoupage by Kate Bell (Side One)

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At the beginning of this year, someone (I think it was on Facebook) suggested I pick a word to guide me through 2020. Because I struggle with it whenever I say AA’s Serenity Prayer, I chose the word “acceptance.” So far, I’ve been spending a lot of time grappling with this concept, trying to accept not only the pandemic world I’m now living in, but also myself, which I’m finding is a far more difficult thing to do.

First, I need to be clear about what I mean by acceptance. Look up the word in the dictionary and you’ll find that some of the definitions are “favorable reception, approval, favor,” meanings I don’t … well, I don’t accept. Nor do I agree with the opinions expressed in a blog entitled “Why you should never accept yourself.” The author writes that accepting something means you’re making excuses for bad behavior; that you don’t think that things can be changed or that you don’t want to change; that you’re letting other people tell you who you are, what to believe, how to behave. (This last one seems to me to be a big reason for a lot of the protests these days against stay-at-home directives.) The author of this blog is male, but I recall last year a feminist saying that she was not going to accept that she cannot change the sexism in this country.

I don’t think the Serenity Prayer’s “God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change…” means making excuses for bad behavior. Nor do I think when Michael J. Fox—who’s been battling Parkinson’s disease for almost thirty years—says,  “My happiness grows in direct proportion to my acceptance, and in inverse proportion to my expectations,” he wouldn’t like his disease to go away. Or when musical composer Arthur Rubinstein states, “Of course, there is no formula for success except, perhaps, an unconditional acceptance of life and what it brings,” he’s letting people tell him how to behave.

For me, acceptance means to acknowledge what is, without resisting or denying it, but also without necessarily liking, wanting, choosing, or supporting it. We are in a worldwide pandemic. I don’t like it, but if I don’t accept that, if I try to live my life as if the coronavirus doesn’t exist, I am endangering my physical health. And if I don’t accept that there are people listening to politicians who will say anything to stay in power instead of to doctors who have spent their lives studying diseases, I’m endangering my mental health.

I first learned about acknowledging without approving when I learned Centering Prayer. Cynthia Bourgeault used to tell us that while we were sitting in silence, “resist no thought, retain no thought, react to no thought…” Well, that was shortly after my daughter had died, and I was full of ugly, angry thoughts. One of which was that I was responsible for Laurie’s death, either because I had left her mother and remarried, or because I had stayed with her mother too long and she’d been caught up in the bitter fighting between us. No way, I said, am I going to accept those thoughts.

And I fought that thinking for years, until one night, I finally surrendered them. Okay, I said, at some level I am always going to feel I helped kill my daughter. It was as if a 1000-pound weight had been lifted from my shoulders.

Harder to accept than my character defects, however, are my strengths. As Nelson Mandala said, “Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure…” When someone praises my virtues, I can become terrified. I feel I need to live up to them and that’s scary. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve sabotaged myself by following up on some virtuous act with something dumb or destructive. It’s easier for me to create some unreachable idea of perfection (usually based on some movie hero or athlete or spiritual saint) and then flog myself for not living up to that ideal.

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So, for me, acceptance is not about whether I like what’s going on. I’m also finding that acceptance is not, as some suggest, a passive process. Along with my daily calisthenics and practicing the scales on my banjo, I must actively practice the scales of acceptance. The other day, I was raking some dead leaves from our flower garden, and thought: “Yeah, acceptance is a bit like this—raking out the dead leaves of denial, judgment, shame, guilt, perfectionism so that acceptance (including acceptance of the fact that it may snow tomorrow)—can grow. I can practice acceptance toward what’s happening with the coronavirus, with people whose political views differ from mine, with my aging body, with my character defects and virtues.

And acceptance doesn’t mean I can’t work to change things. I can write letters to my national representatives urging them to stand against irresponsible behavior. I can phone people who are alone, and continue to “see” my grandchildren via Zoom. I can wear a mask in public even if others don’t. I can accept the fact that I’m 77 years old, and still exercise, still eat better. I can—as Cynthia suggested years ago—accept my emotions, while at the same time acknowledging their impermanence. I can tell my inner critic to get lost. I can forgive myself for things I’ve done wrong and work to make amends. I can grieve the loss of my unrealized dreams. And when all else fails, I can fake it until I make it.

Acceptance doesn’t mean that I feel things are always going to be the way they are forever. One good thing about aging is that I’m learning that there’s Chronos, human time, and Kairos, God’s time. For years, I accepted that my body chemistry was going to change between Thanksgiving and Christmas, the months I spent watching Laurie die. And then, two years ago, I realized I was enjoying the holidays. And as I was writing earlier in this blog about always feeling responsible for my daughter’s death, I heard a voice: are you sure about that? In the last few years, I’ve discovered how my family’s history of alcoholism has caused me to want to blame myself for all kinds of things for which I’m not responsible. Maybe Laurie’s death will become one of those things.

So, what does it mean “to accept the things I cannot change”? More than anything else, I think it means being open to Grace, “gifts,” as I called them in an early blog, the undeserved help I’ve received in my life. Acceptance, it seems to me, is a stance that says no matter what comes, I know that the God-of-my-not-Understanding will give me the grace to endure it or to learn from it or to love it. Maybe all three.

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Decoupage by Kate Bell (Side Two)

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Thoughts on a Windy Day

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This is a photo of a greeting card by Pamela J. Zagarenski, ©2012

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                                    Wind shook the windows all night long

                                    And I was still awake at 3:00.

                                    I tried to imagine God singing a song

                                    When wind shook the windows all night long,

                                    But I kept recalling all the things I’ve done wrong

                                    (Which is almost everything, it seems to me),

                                    While wind shook the windows all night long

                                    And I was still awake at 3:00.

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Either because of Divine Providence or coincidence, I’ve just run across this poem (some people write haikus; I play with triolets) I wrote last year while on retreat in Arizona. And today I’m rereading it after we’ve just lost power and winds are expected to gust to 60 miles per hour.

I’m also watching the wind bend the big maple tree in our front yard towards our house, and thinking that until today the one comforting thing about living in this time of Covid-Crud has been my home, and now even that’s under attack.

Maybe the apocalypse really is upon us.

I find myself remembering Hurricane Carol, which swept through Maine in 1953. Back then, I thought hurricanes were pretty neat. The thunder-sound of the river down the hill mingled with the roar of the wind, the way the house shook, was like some big carnival ride. I couldn’t understand why my father was chain-smoking and pacing back and forth in front of the living room window, muttering, “I hope that goddamned tree doesn’t fall on us.”

These days, I understand his fear. While there are the times I still enjoy the wind—the sound of wind chimes on a summer evening, a cooling breeze on a hot day, the smells of the wind off the ocean— more and more, wind makes me nervous and apprehensive. Besides being potentially dangerous, wind is beyond my control. Wind tends to bring disorder, even chaos. Wind seems to make my anxieties more intense.

Is that true? Can the wind affect our behavior? When in doubt, ask Siri. Yes, in parts of the Mediterranean, a warm humid wind called the “Sirocco” has such an impact on behavior that people convicted of murder were once given shorter sentences if the crime was committed while the wind was blowing. In other words, turbulence in the air can lead to turbulence in the mind.

As long as I’ve got my iPhone out, what causes wind, anyway? Okay, it says here that wind results from pressure caused when warm air rises and then is pushed back down by colder air aloft, where the air then then spreads out in the form of wind. I think of my forest fire fighting days, of learning that the intense heat from wildfires can create its own wind. Some, called fire whirls, can be like tornadoes that speed the fire along from treetop to treetop. I think of the night in Wyoming I saw flames hundreds of feet high racing across the tops of the trees, sounding like a locomotive roaring down a track—one of the scariest experiences I’ve ever had.

But while the principle may be the same, I see a difference between the winds from a hurricane or forest fires and the winds of anxiety that I’m feeling these days. Not about when we might get our power back or if that maple tree is going to fall on the house, but about what kind of world my grandchildren are going to live in. As bad as the devastation from a hurricane or wildfire may be, the fear of these disasters is relatively short-lived. Yes, it may take years to rebuild from such calamities, but the anxiety over what will happen ends when the hurricane passes or the forest fire goes out. Perhaps a hundred years from now, people will look back on the time when the Coronavirus blew through our world as being relatively short, but from where I’m sitting there doesn’t seem to be any end in sight. No end of worrying about my health, about people who are struggling to make ends meet, about friends who work in hospitals, about my stepsons who are trying to home-school their children, about my grandchildren and the scars they will carry from all this.

My rector recently sent Mary Lee and me a blog called “Why am I so Tired?” by the Parasol Wellness Collaborative. The author pointed out that deep in the temporal lobe of our brains, just above the brain stem, is a small structure called the “amygdala,” known as the fear center of our brain. It directs the nervous system to protect us. Our heart rate increases, breathing becomes more rapid and glucose is pumped into the bloodstream, all of which helps us in either our “fight or flight” response. The amygdala, however, cannot distinguish between actual and imagined danger. Its response is automatic—outside our control. (Sort of like the wind, come to think of it, but then, most of the important things in life, I’m finding, are outside of my control.) This is why uncertainty is the most stressful condition our bodies undergo. The amygdala keeps stops working, which is what is tiring so many of us out these days.

The blog suggests that the way to deal with this tiring anxiety is not to make it worse by berating ourselves. Take it easy, lower expectations of ourselves, get exercise, ask for help.

Good advice. I look again at my poem from a year ago, and notice how easy it is to blame myself when anything goes wrong. I suppose it’s a control thing: if it’s my fault when I can’t sleep and the wind blows, at least I’ve got a reason for it. I also think of how often in my life I’ve voluntarily taken the blame for something just to smooth things over, whether it’s a family situation or the weather.

And yes, it’s time to ask for help from that God-of-my-not-Understanding I tend to forget about until the going gets tough. More and more, I’m coming to understand why some of my 12-Step buddies refer to “God” as “Gift of Desperation.” So many of us come to our Higher Power only because of a crisis. I know I certainly wouldn’t have the faith I have—would have no idea of God’s Grace—if my daughter hadn’t died from cancer. It’s taken me a while accept the gift of Grace—I’d much rather have Laurie back—but it’s helped me get through the last thirty years. And If I can, with God’s help, survive that, I can survive, if not this virus (who knows?) but the fear of it.

So, it’s time to stop trying to buck these winds and pray for help in riding them out, letting them blow me wherever they will.

Well, look at that. The power’s back.

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My friend Ann”s prayer flags blowing in the wind.

 

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Driftwood in the Time of Coronavirus

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On what would be the last day of Maine’s state parks being open to the public, Mary Lee and I walked down over the rocks to the beach at Reid State Park at the south end of Georgetown Island. It was just past high tide. Waves rose into the air, crested in green and white waves before throwing a blanket of bubbling white foam over the beach and then receding, leaving a skim of white to disappear into the sand just as the next wave frothed in.

We walked to the waterline and headed up the beach, often having to veer away as the water rushed at us. Along this threshold between sea and land, I walked, as I often do these days, on the verge between past and present. Somewhere in an old family album upstairs, I have a picture of me here on this beach. I’m probably seven or eight years old running from a wave that towers over me. In a more recent album, I have a picture of Mary Lee, her two sons, and my daughter, Laurie, jumping in the waves. I remembered that day, throwing myself into the water, feeling myself lifted and carried backwards, experiencing a moment of panic before being dashed against the sand.

Thanks to working a couple of twelve-step programs, they don’t happen as often, but I still have moments of terror when I don’t feel I’m in control, whether it’s being buffeted by waves, keeping my daughter from dying of cancer, or—these days—controlling the spread of coronavirus.

Maybe that’s why I come here. The beach is like an inoculation, in which I’m given a small amount of whatever I need healing from: in this case, the fear of being helpless.

At the end of the beach, waves broke over a rocky point of land, spuming into the air.

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A small cove in front of the rocks was strewn with driftwood—some of it eight, ten, even twelve feet long and over a foot in diameter. Logs, in other words, many bleached almost paper-white by sun and sea and salt. Carried in by the power of these waves, they now rested in nests of dried seaweed. Some smaller pieces of wood had been driven into the sand as if thrown by some giant; some lay broken on the beach.

It was hard not to think of bones or bodies, especially in this time of rampant disease. I recalled my grandmother telling me of waiting at the Marlboro Massachusetts railroad station for a train during the flu epidemic of 1918-19. Behind her on the platform, she said, caskets were stacked like chords of wood. (It’s possible that she was pregnant with my father then. Dad was born in August of 1919 and named for his uncle, who’d died of the flu in January of that year.)

Saying a prayer that my grandchildren would not have similar memories, I sat down on a driftwood log, leaned back, and felt the sun on my neck. I picked up a broken stick of driftwood, split, cracked, and deeply lined, jagged at both ends. One of my writing mentors, Barbara Hurd, in her book Walking the Wrack Line, defined a wrack line—that point where the high tide deposits organic matter and other debris—as the boundary between the broken and the whole. That’s a line I’ve not so much walked along as been blown back and forth across, one day feeling whole and healed, the next day feeling wounded and broken.

I ran my hands over the stick. It was satin-smooth, its grain highlighted by the sun. I’m not entirely sure why, but I find beauty in broken things. Maybe because of the different ways things can be broken. For example, the deep cracks, the gnarls, the crags, the ragged ends, the sheen, the colors of driftwood come from its friction with the world through long travel. From its pilgrimage, if you will. Looking over at the driftwood around me, I saw that none of them was the same; they had assumed an individuality they never had when they were growing as part of the dark line of trees I could see on the horizon.

I think the same is true of people. For me, faces get more interesting and more beautiful as they age. And it’s the different ways we are broken that gives us individuality, makes us as Mister Rogers used to say, “special.” Which gives me hope that while we may be broken by—and yes, die from—this disease that is sweeping the world, we as a world will go on and become more beautiful than ever.

But as I looked down the beach, my optimism was swept away by a wave of people rolling towards me. When Mary Lee and I had arrived, the beach was almost deserted. Now, people seemed to be flowing from the parking lot, many of them young, none of them observing any kind of six- foot distancing, laughing, pushing, kicking, or throwing seaweed at one another. Yes, I hope that after this disease passes there will a tidal shift in consciousness, that we will learn to live together, that since the disease is not intimidated by wealth and power, we will see that we’re all in this together and we need to share our resources more equitable, that since so many people are now isolating themselves in order to protect not only their own loved ones but people they don’t know, we will expand our vision of “community” to include the whole world.

But how do I know that coronavirus hasn’t just increased the wealth of the 1% and that when it’s over things will return to normal—that this virus will have no more effect on the way we live in this country than the school shootings have had on our gun control policies? Or worse, that the world will come to resemble those apocalyptic movies like The Road, The Book of Eli, or Mad Max?

As the young people streamed past, I turned away and looked behind me, and saw the number of neat things people had created out of the driftwood. Suspended by old twine from a teepee of driftwood, a faded and pitted lobster buoy gently swayed in the wind.

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There were several teepees and lean-tos. Someone had made a giant chair. I recalled that at home, I had a walking stick that I’d fashioned a couple of years ago from driftwood from this beach.

A reminder that as long as there are people, people will create. They will build shelters; they will make art. With whatever they have.

I felt better again. I may be helpless against the disease, but I’m not powerless over my response to it.

It was time to leave while I was ahead, while I could believe that no matter what riptides or rocks, waves or storms I run into, no matter how else I am broken, I will eventually be borne into a cove of serenity.

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Sifting Ashes

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                        Grant that these ashes may be a sign of our mortality and penitence ….

  • “Ash Wednesday Liturgy,” Book of Common Prayer

I return to my pew, ashes feeling like paste on my forehead, past the smattering of people scattered throughout the church, their faces already smudged between their eyes, my mind sifting through ashy thoughts of age and mortality.

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Love is the fire, and sighs the smoke, the ashes shame and scorns ….

—Robert Southwell

When I was growing up in a small Maine town in the 1950s, the only church that observed Ash Wednesday was the Catholic Church. (Those snooty Episcopalians drove to a more affluent community.) Which confirmed for my family and many others in town that Catholics were not like (meaning not a good as) us Congregationalists and Baptists. My great-grandfather told his daughter he’d rather see her dead than marry the Catholic man she loved, and when she did marry the man, her father never spoke to her again. On Ash Wednesday, we kids looked out of the corner of our eyes at the Catholic kids with the smudges on their foreheads as if they’d somehow become lepers with signs proclaiming them “Unclean.”

There was a lot of “Us and Them” in those days. In the newspapers and on TV, I read about Red-blooded Americans versus Dirty Commies; on Saturday afternoons I saw westerns with the White Hats against the Black Hats and science-fiction flicks with titles like Them; and on Friday night at the gym, there were our Good Guys versus the neighboring towns’ Bad Guys.

Thus, I started climbing what Courage to Change, an Al-Anon daily reader, calls “The Ladder of Judgment,” where everyone is somehow either below me or above me— economically, physically, intellectually, spiritually—with God far, far away at the top. Comparing myself to others—judging them, judging myself—has become a life-long addiction, isolating me from people, from God, even at times, from myself.

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                                                A bucket of ash

                                                and smoke

                                                gone

                                                into the air.

                                                                        —David Budbill, “Smoke and Ash”

Still, I have a nostalgia for ashes. I don’t think I ever light our charcoal grill without remembering that one of my first jobs around the house when I was growing up was to take the trash to the back yard and burn it in an old oil drum set on top of cement blocks. After pulling the newspapers apart (because if I didn’t, they didn’t burn completely and my father had a fit), I lit the trash with a kitchen match. Then I’d usually stand for a while watching the smoke billow out of the oil drum. In winter, it was a lousy job, but most of the time, I liked being outside by the fire. I still do. There’s something primordially comforting about a fire.

Every few weeks, my father would shovel the ashes into a large pail and either take them to the town dump, or save them for winter, when he’d spread them on the icy driveway. I also remember Dad, who moon-lighted as sexton at our church, in his topcoat and fedora methodically dipping his coal shovel into a bucket of ashes from the furnace on Sunday mornings and spreading the cinders across the icy sidewalk so that no one would fall going into the service.

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                        … I marle what pleasure or felicity they have in taking their roguish tobacco. It is good for nothing but to choke a man, and fill him full of smoke and embers. 

                                                                        —Ben Jonson, Every Man in His Humour

 I grew up surrounded by ashtrays. I recall square ashtrays and round ashtrays, glass ashtrays, wooden ashtrays, metal ashtrays. I remember a bumpy white ashtray in the dining room, and a small clear glass ashtray on the toilet tank in our bathroom and a matching one beside the bathtub. In the living room stood a metal stand holding a large glass brown ashtray beside Dad’s chair, where, on Friday nights, he sat and drank Blue Ribbon and ate Spanish peanuts and smoked his Camels, watching The Gillette Friday Night Fights on our black and white Philco. One memory I have of my mother is of her standing in the kitchen, ironing, with a cup of black coffee and a cigarette smoldering in an ashtray, singing along with Bing Crosby’s voice on our old record player: “Where the blue of the night meets the gold of the day  …”

My senior year in high school, the day after my last varsity basketball game, I filched a pack of Dad’s Camels from the carton he always had in his bedroom closet. I spent one afternoon learning to inhale and the next forty years trying to quit, something I remember every time I pant and gasp and puff walking up a hill.

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Through [cremation] … the body is reduced to its basic elements, which are referred to as the “cremated body” or “cremated remains.”… Depending upon the size of the body, there are normally three to nine pounds of fragments resulting.

                                                                        — cremationinfo.com

The purpose of Ash Wednesday, which marks the beginning of Lent, is to remind us of our mortality—Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return. At my age, coming off heart surgery, watching friends die, I don’t need much reminding.

This year, I find myself wondering what will remain of me after my death. I don’t mean how many pounds of “cremains,” but what will I leave behind for others? A few published stories, a novel, hopefully another book or two. Far too many photograph albums. But I think it was Maya Angelou (it was; I just Googled it) who said, “At the end of the day people won’t remember what you said or did, they will remember how you made them feel.” And in this season of penitence, I realize that it’s not so much what I’ve done wrong in my life that I regret, it’s what I haven’t done to make people feel better that gnaws at me.

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[Ashes form because]…almost everything in nature is what chemists call “heterogeneous”—that is, its composition is not uniform. For this reason, not every part is “pure” substance and will not burn.

                                                                                    —Caveman Chemistry

But I’m realizing in my “golden years” that to be human is to be, as us Protestant kids used to see the Catholic kids, “unclean,” in the sense of being impure, of being “what chemists call ‘heterogeneous.’” Looking back over the pilgrimage of my life, I see that it has been a mix of good and bad, joy and sorrow, celebration and penitence, things done and things left undone. Moments such as watching smoke waft into the sky that still comfort me; moments such as inhaling smoke that have scarred me for life.

And maybe what I want to leave behind for my grandchildren from what time I have left before I become three to nine pounds of ashes, is an example of living as if there is no Us and Them, only Us.

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Waldo and Henry

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Several years ago, when my wife Mary Lee and I were getting ready to go on a hike from Melrose, Scotland to the Holy Island of Lindisfarne off the coast of England, we drove over to our friendly L.L.Bean store and bought hiking poles. Now, Mary Lee had been using what she called walking sticks for at least ten years. Her doctor had recommended them to her as a way to build upper body strength on her early morning walks, while at the same time reducing wear and tear on her hips and back. Although I thought what Mary Lee’s doctor said might make sense for her, I didn’t need any help walking, thank you very much, and, based on her experience, I didn’t want to hear one more clown ask where my skis were.

But a 72-mile hike was different, so we both bought adjustable hiking poles with these little shock-absorbers in them to provide further cushioning. They also have straps into which you insert your hands, one for the right hand and one for the left. Maybe because I don’t have a lot of human friends and I’m not big on pets, I often name possessions. (My banjo, for example is “Joy” and our car is “Tembo”—Swahili for “elephant”). So I named my right hiking pole Waldo and the left one Henry.

Waldo is the name Ralph Waldo Emerson’s friends called him. I’d recently read Robert D. Richardson Jr.’s book on Emerson called The Mind on Fire, which brought back memories of how important this nineteenth-century American philosopher and writer had been to me at one time. When I was teaching American literature and before I started attending church again, Emerson’s essay “Nature” inspired me to take long Sunday afternoon walks through the woods of Down East Maine in search some kind of “spiritual” life, and I’m still more likely to feel in touch with the Holy in the woods or by the seashore or on a mountain than I am in the grandest cathedral.  Later in my life, as I began to feel more and more tied down in a loveless marriage and living in a town I detested, Emerson’s essay “Self-Reliance,” with its emphasis on discovering one’s true self and attaining independence, had helped give me the courage to leave both marriage and town.

From The Mind on Fire, I learned that Emerson, often portrayed as the passionless “Sage of Concord,” was a family man and good neighbor whose life was marked by grief. His first wife had died at the age of twenty, and, after he’d remarried, his first son, Wallie died from scarlet fever at the age of five. I resonated with the story that in the last hours of Emerson’s life, forty years after his son’s death, someone heard him breathe, “Oh, that beautiful boy!” As we grieving parents know, the grief never goes away, and when it hit me during our hike, it was helpful to have Waldo at my right hand.

One of Emerson’s neighbors was Henry David Thoreau whom Waldo befriended throughout Thoreau’s life, hiring him to do odd jobs around the house, inviting him to dinner once a week, even during the two years that Henry was living what he portrayed in his classic book Walden as a solitary life on the shore of Walden Pond.

I first discovered Thoreau during what I call my Kerouac years in college, when I read his famous line, “The mass of men live lives of quiet desperation,” thinking it described everyone but myself until those unhappy years in Down East Maine. After I fell in love with a woman from Colorado and I met her in Boston for an October weekend in New England, we shared tins of sardines on the shore of Walden Pond, where I read to Mary Lee from Walden: “Go confidently in the direction of your dreams! Live the life you’ve imagined.”

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Mary Lee at Walden Pond, 1985.

Fifteen years or so after that, I took a retreat day and my tattered copy of Walden and drove to Concord, where I spent the day walking around Walden Pond, stopping periodically to read from the book and write in my journal. I got there early, and a morning mist hung over the water. I walked for a while and then sat on a rock, reading and staring out over what little water I could see. Out of the mist, a canoe appeared with two elderly (probably the age I am now) women in it. As they neared, sun parted the haze, highlighting the woman in the bow of the canoe: her plaid shirt and denim jeans, her lined and leathery face framed by a red hat and bandanna. I pulled out my journal and wrote how cool I thought it was that the women were so active at their ages.

These days, I think it’s even cooler.

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I used Waldo and Henry on our trek through Scotland and England, and found, as Mary Lee’s doctor had said, how much easier it was to walk with them. They gave me a boost up the hills. They supported me on the way down. Several times they kept me from falling into the mud. I found myself talking to them, which isn’t that unusual: I not only name inanimate objects, I talk to them (especially recalcitrant jar covers—come on, damn you, open!), but I also discovered I was listening to what they had to say back—Okay, slow down here… Come on, you can make it up this hill. Move!

Since then, Waldo and Henry have accompanied me on hikes through the saguaro in Arizona, along the rocky coast of Maine, through the poison ivy along the riverbanks in Massachusetts. I’ve given them baskets to use when I go snowshoeing. They’ve come to symbolize a spirit of adventure, of pilgrimage. (After all, most images of pilgrimage show the pilgrim with a staff. The trouble is, a single staff throws my back out.)

A couple of years ago, I started using Waldo and Henry after winter storms to keep me and my increasingly fragile bones from breaking. This winter I’m using them almost all of the time for my walks. I say it’s because of the ice, but the fact is, I just feel better when I use them. I don’t have to soak my back after walking. My knees don’t ache. So as much as I hate to say it, Waldo and Henry are coming to represent my aging body. I notice people at church using hiking poles to get up and down the aisles and I see my future.

They also indicate my need for help, my need to admit that I’m not as independent as I like to think I am. The irony is, I’m more confident in who I am, less concerned with what other people think about me. When I hear, “Where are your skis?” I smile and say, “Oh, I knew I forgot something.”

In some ways, then, I’ve become more self-reliant. I think the real Waldo and Henry would like that.

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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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