A Pilgrim’s Journal: May 31-June 4, 2023

The Hermitages at Emery House


The Society of Saint John the Evangelist, Emery House, West Newbury, Massachusetts:

5/31/arrival: Hermitage #5, 5 years after our last retreat here, 30 years after our first. Hazy ride down from Maine, courtesy, I’m told, of Canadian wildfires. I’m also hazy about my plans for the next four days, except to try to pay attention—something I haven’t been doing enough of lately. Have also brought to read Parker Palmer’s On the Brink of Everything: Grace, Gravity & Getting Old. May play with writing some poetry.


Later: It doesn’t take much effort to pay attention to my age. I’m guessing Mary Lee and I are older than the 3 brothers and 2 other retreatants here by 40 to 50 years. The hill from the hermitages to Emery House is steeper and I am moving more slowly than 5 years ago. Tonight, at supper, I didn’t have the strength in my left hand to hold a full bowl of soup (something called “ulna nerve entrapment). Mary Lee and I were the last to finish eating.

So it was important tonight to read in On the Brink of Everything, Wendell Berry saying, “…we are either beginning or we are dead.” What am I beginning these days? How can I cultivate what Buddhists call “Beginners’ mind”?


6/1/: Morning walk through Maudslay State Park, next door to the Emery House grounds: miles of blooming rhododendrons and azaleas, stone walls, & winding paths through groves of towering pine trees overlooking the Merrimac River. Hazy sunshine over the river, which may be more smoke, which may be why I had to rest my scarred lungs more often, once on a stone memorial bench in memory of F—B— “An Optimist, Local and World Wide.”

But I spent the most time this morning contemplating a dead tree by the side of the road:

Like this standing shell of a tree, gray and

Dry and cracked—that’s how I feel, as I watch

Young people walk or run past, wait for me

As I struggle to open a door, or

(and this is worse) open the door for me.

That’s of course when they’re able to see me;

Often, I feel invisible, like this

Dead tree amidst the towering white pines.

But the old tree still stands at attention,

Still offers its broken arms to the sky.

As beautiful as polished driftwood, it

Still provides a home for the animals

And maybe insects for the woodpeckers.

I could do a lot worse at my life’s end.


After the noon Eucharist and lunch at Emery House, I was walking back to the hermitage along the mowed path at the edge of the field, & almost stepped on a box turtle.

Turtle in the grass

Sudden shadow overhead

Karma, chance, or fate?


6/2/breakfast: Eating my Cheerios, looking out at the field between the hermitages and Emery House, & at the red-winged blackbirds swooping over the buttercups, I go back to 1993 when I first came here. Then, as now, I’m struck by how life & death, beauty & ugliness, good & evil intertwine in this place. Or—more probably—how I notice them more here—from the choirs of songbirds to the decaying & dead trees lining the road; from the lovely bluebells and buttercups to the poison ivy that seems to be everywhere; from the bucolic pond on one side of the bridge that leads to Maudslay Park to the mudflats of the tidal Merrimac on the other side.

What did I read last night in On the Brink? Okay, here it is: “Life’s most important realities often take the form of both/and rather than either/or.”

Green shoots in dead leaves

purple plants, poison ivy—

The dancing goes on.


Later in the morning: After traipsing through fields of long grass (check for ticks tonight!), I found the path I’d been searching for through the woods on the Emery House grounds. I’m now in front of the iron statue of Jesus on the Cross, which has been here I don’t know how many years …

Jesus hangs in shadow

Weather spots across bronze chest,

Legs looking splattered with dry mud.

In shadow, Jesus melts into

The pine tree overlooking the river.

Dead limbs surround him.

Still, overhead

Needles grow abundantly,

As if a crucifixion

Could create new life.


Later: For the last two days, the weather has been the hottest it’s been this year. Tonight, however, at Compline …

Through chapel windows

Layers of smudge-colored clouds.

Chilly winds whip trees

Distant thunder, rain splatters,

Candles flicker but don’t fail.


6/3: After two days of tee-shirts & shorts, I walked through Maudslay this morning in fleece & long pants. The flowers look bedraggled by last night’s storms. Found a charming dam I’d never been to.

Have been trying to avoid the phone, but noticed on my walk I’d a missed message, & back at the hermitage, I gave in. From Dick B—, friend & member of our Men’s Group, telling me that his wife Anne, had died in his arms at their camp. Both Dick and Anne are in their 90s. Anne & I did lay pastoral visiting together.  “She died peacefully,” Dick said. “After bidding one heart at Bridge.”

In life & death

O Thou, who remains a mystery

Abide with me,

Thou to whom I keep returning

In sorrow & joy, in sickness & health

In life & death.

Even as I remain ignorant,

Blind, deaf, & dumb, grasping for guidance,

Abide with me.

In the woods or the fields,

In 80° or 40, sun or rain,

In life & death,

No matter how much longer the road may be

No matter what, if anything lies at the end,

Abide with me.

From the sun’s rising to enveloping darkness,

Thou whom I do not know, but whose I am

In life & death,

Abide with me.


6/4: Have returned from Sunday Eucharist, walking to our hermitages past a large snapping turtle, plodding along beneath two flowering dogwood trees. Beautiful in an ugly, primordial way, the turtle almost took ML’s hand off when she put her hand on its shell.

Now, with cup of tea before I start to clean up for the next retreatant, I reflect that 30 years ago, when I was in Hermitage 4, next door, I was obsessed with my daughter’s death. Now, I view the world through the lens of my own death. Which, as I finish On the Brink, may not be a bad thing: “… Saint Benedict,” writes Parker Palmer, “said, ‘Daily keep your death before your eyes.’ If you hold a healthy awareness of your own mortality, your eyes will be opened to the glory and grandeur of life.”

Palmer also writes, “I can’t think of a sadder way to die than with the knowledge that I never showed up in this world as who I really am.”

So, I leave Emery House, recommitting myself to keeping my eyes open, and showing up as I really am. Hoping, like my friend Anne, to leave this life having bid my one heart.

Emery House, as seen walking up the (ever steeper) hill from the hermitages


Traveling the Landscapes of Anger


In my various pilgrimages, I’ve traveled through deserts where the temperature was 114° and snowshoed through forests at -10°. I’ve walked slippery rocks in a driving rain and picked up cactus stickers that took months to work themselves out of my skin. I’ve sprained ankles and wrists, brought home dysentery and COVID. But, as I’ve often written in these blogs, a pilgrimage is internal as well as external, and some of the most difficult landscapes I’ve traveled are the landscapes of anger.

There’s more than one. Sometimes, anger can resemble burning terrain caused by the forest fires I used to fight when I was twenty: not only hot, but smokey, so that I can’t see where I’m going.

Most forest fires run along, or even under the ground, or to be more precise, under the “duff”— organic debris on top of mineral soil—of the forest floor, until, given the right conditions, a tree or trees will “candle,” suddenly bursting into flame.

That was my childhood. My parents, both of whom grew up in angry, even violent, environments—my mother once told me she was in her 30s before she learned people could drink and not yell at each other—usually kept their anger hidden under a duff of sarcasm. But when their anger did candle out, it frightened me, so that I spent much of my time trying to make sure they never got angry at me, which has led to a life of people-pleasing and other codependent behaviors.

Meanwhile, my own anger scared me even more than my family’s. Most of time, I could use sarcasm to mask my anger, but sometimes it would explode, often on the basketball court. (I may still hold the record for most fouls committed in the shortest period of time—four fouls in 18 seconds of game time.) And yet in other games, I was passive, easily intimidated by an aggressive opponent, because of my inability to control how I’d react.

A forest fire can smolder in the duff for years before bursting into flame. A year or so ago, I found myself engulfed in a blind rage of unfocused anger, which, I came to realize, was based on the same confusion, angst, and helplessness I often felt at sixteen.

Other times, I’ve crossed other landscapes. For almost exactly three years after my daughter died, my anger was a wasteland of burning rocks and rattlesnakes and prickly-pear cactus. I raged at the pastor of my church, my family, my teaching colleagues, my students, motorists on the road and pedestrians on the sidewalks. Evenings I would shut myself in my den, drink scotch, and write angry letters to the editor of the local newspaper (which, thank God, I never sent) about how my community, the country, and the world were falling apart.

Then, there’s the landscape of shame, often defined as anger turned inward. For me, shame is like walking through mud in a raging thunderstorm, hunched over, cold, frightened, head down, not looking anyone in the eye because I’m sure I’m being laughed at.

And it’s all my fault. So the angrier I get, the worse I feel. I’ve trudged this landscape as a child, convinced I was fat and ugly, as a college student often sleeping twelve hours a day, embarrassed by my lack of shoulders, buck teeth, and poor grades, as a young adult who used a bad back to get out of Viet Nam, as a grieving parent, sure I had somehow caused my daughter’s death, or as a vapid thinker, failed writer, and lousy parent and grandparent.

Still another landscape is the angry ocean of change. I feel as if I’m adrift in a rowboat amid mountainous waves, clinging to a tiny life preserver of nostalgia, which as someone once wrote is a form of anger, or at least resentment.

I long for a time I’ve lost. When life was simpler, the music better, the men stronger, the women better looking, and the food healthier.

Before I go any further, let me say what you may be thinking: anger is natural, and anger can be effective. Charles Duhigg, in a recent Atlantic article on anger, writes that anger can convey more information more quickly than any other emotion. Expressing anger in an argument can make people more willing to listen, more inclined to speak honestly, more accommodating of each other’s complaints.  Anger motivates us to undertake difficult tasks. We’re often more creative when we’re angry.

The problem, Duhigg and others note, is that to be effective, anger needs to be focused. That’s certainly been my experience. On the rare occasions on the basketball court when I could focus my anger, I had great games. (I think there might have been two or three.) Focusing my anger after Laurie died on God instead of other people led me to meditation practices and ultimately to sorrow instead of anger. Using anger as part of my physical therapy has helped me recovery from three major surgeries.

But. I find that most of the time I can’t focus because I can’t separate justified from unjustified anger. So, I’ve come to feel that just as there are people who can drink responsibly but I can’t, there are people who can channel anger in a way I’ll never be able to.

Which is why I try to replace anger with other reactions whenever and as soon as I can.

One other reaction is acceptance. Given my alcoholic upbringing, anger is always going be smoldering in my emotional duff. I need to accept that those fires were set generations before me. Which leads me to the importance of cultivating compassion, both for the angry 16-year-old and the raging geriatric of a year or so ago.

Still another response is surrender. Yes, anger at God helped me deal with my daughter’s death, but it wasn’t until I surrendered to God of my not Understanding that my tears of hot anger were replaced (and I can tell you exactly when this happened: three years almost to the day of Laurie’s death when I watched a high school Christmas concert) by soothing tears of sorrow.

I accept that anger is often going to be my first reaction to change, whether it’s grief over a major loss or simply the daily diminishments of being 80. But it doesn’t have to be my final response. Responses such as acceptance, compassion, surrender, curiosity, and patience are not going to change the landscapes of my anger, but they can water the deserts, dry up the mud holes, blow away the thunderstorms, and smooth the angry waves of change.

# #

Easter in the Time of Coronavirus


Having grown up going to church and continuing to be an active church member, I’ve always spent the Easter season preparing, reading, serving, and celebrating. This year, however, thanks to COVID-CRUD, Mary Lee and I were Easter observers rather than participants, viewing from our living room, isolated in a bubble of congestion, coughing fits, and fatigue.

But it was not entirely unpleasant. Sitting on the couch with Mary Lee, watching the live-stream services from our church, I drifted in and out, my mind sometimes considering the computer screen, other times contemplating memories of other times, other Easters.


I’m eleven years old, waking Easter Sunday to the smell of shoe polish in the kitchen, where my father has lined the family’s good shoes on the counter and put the Kiwi to them. Jumping out of bed, my younger brother and sister and I search for bright yellow marshmallow Peeps Dad and Mom scattered through the house the night before. After breakfast my brother and I put on new pants and socks and my sister wiggles into her new dress and maybe a new hat and gloves. Dad wears the suit he saves for Easter and Christmas, and Mom dons her best dress and a pink broad-brimmed hat that looks like a pastel frying pan. As crocuses bud and sparrows sing, we walk up Bridge Street past white houses and the brick buildings of North Yarmouth Academy to the First Parish Church. The air smells of fresh dirt. After walking together up the walkway and through the double doors, we split up: Dad stays in back to usher, Mom takes Jaye and Roger to the pew with the brass family nameplate on the arm, and I go up to the balcony to sing with the junior choir, looking down on the congregation as we all sing “Christ, the Lord is Risen Today,” our voices lifting our collective All-le-lu-ias! through the doors and windows of the church, carrying me over the streets of town, over fields and coastline, and into enfolding arms.


As a young father, I sit in another church balcony, singing in another choir the tenor part of Handel’s Halleluiah Chorus. It’s too high for me and I’m sure I sound like Tiny Tim singing “Tiptoe Through the Tulips.” Below me, my daughter Laurie in her new Easter outfit and haircut, smiles up at me from her seat with the youth choir. Earlier, I watched her sing, intense and enthused, her head thrust forward, swaying with the music, once again, feeling that yes, Virginia, there is a god.


A grieving parent now, I sit on a bench by the Charles River under Harvard’s golden cathedral domes glowing in wind-driven clouds, watching a man in faded flannel shirt and frayed cargo pants, curled in a stained sleeping bag against the Weeks Footbridge like a bedraggled cat. Around him, joggers seek endorphin blessings, couples reverently stroll hand in hand, parents rejoice in their children, and twelve ducks meditate on the river.

This morning, the Brother Superior of the monastery lit a bonfire and declared Lent over. I held my candle, sang “Hail Thee, Festival Day” “Now the Green Blade Riseth,” “Jesus Christ is Risen Today,” prayed to a god I no longer believe in, and walked to the Charles Hotel for bacon, eggs, hash browns, croissants, and coffee.

A black cumulus settles like a boulder over the sun. Wind suddenly pounds wet nails into my skin.

Runners and families scud away like the ghosts of those I’ve loved and lost. The river churns and ducks bow their heads. I turtle into my jacket. The man by the Weeks Footbridge entombs himself in the mummy bag. Earlier, I proclaimed, “The Lord is risen indeed!” but like the women in Mark’s Gospel who fled the tomb in terror, I’m afraid to believe it, for fear of resurrection’s undermining my understanding of the world, my security, even the security of an emptiness I carry like a cross.

Then the cloud is rolled away, the wind shifts to the south, and the man by the bridge rises. From his tattered trousers, he takes bread, breaks it, and casts it on the water. One by one, the ducks come forth to share his Eucharist.


It’s 11:00 p.m. on Holy Saturday. Father Paul lights a bonfire behind the Chapel at the Desert House of Prayer, outside Tucson, Arizona. As we retreatants gather under a full moon for prayer, coyotes howl in the distance. We process past a Saguaro, its arms lifted as if in prayer, into the chapel for the “Liturgy of the Word,” the Old Testament readings that prepare for the New Testament and the New Covenant, which we celebrate after midnight with Hosannas and Alleluias. Afterward, Mary Lee and I walk hand-in-hand back to the hermitage where we’re staying, a cottage with a double bed, a microwave, a coffee pot, and our own fox, who sometimes comes to the bird feeder when we turn on the outside light.

As we stroll under the moonlight, I recall Father Paul’s telling us at supper on Maundy Thursday that he thought Mary Lee and I were examples of trust and the love of Jesus in the face of Judas’s betrayal, and then think of how Mary Lee and I betrayed our former spouses. I recall at dawn this morning, Mary Lee and I renewing our wedding vows in front of the 15th Station of the Cross, and after breakfast, hiking the trails of the adjacent Saguaro National Park through mesquite, cactus, and red rocks to an abandoned mine. After lunch, the wind blew furiously, knocking a picture off the wall and a lamp off the desk in our hermitage. And I ponder how good and evil, loss and gain, Good Friday and Easter interweave.

Back at the hermitage, I turn on the outside light and Mary Lee and I sit in the darkness of the porch and wait for the fox, which like my faith this week, comes and goes as it wills.

Early Easter morning, it comes: large, I’d guess 25-35 pounds, the chest and some of the face reddish, but mostly gray. Silently, it moves in and out of the flood light, half-cat and half dog, as it mouths the apple peels we’ve set out. My heart races and I feel myself overflowing with gratitude.

The fox trots into darkness. The moon hovers overhead. Mary Lee and I rise and dance in its light.


Back on the couch in Brunswick, Maine, watching through fuzzy eyelids the tiny figures on the computer screen coming to the altar for Easter Communion, I reach for Mary Lee’s hand. For a moment, I experience something I choose to call Grace.

Maybe I’m more a participant in Easter this year than I’ve realized.

# #

Crossing to the Holy Island


One of the great beauties of making a pilgrimage is that the interior journey continues long after the physical one has ended.

Case in point: A friend who read The Geriatric Pilgrim: Tales from the Journey, emailed me that while he liked the book, he wanted to know more about the last leg of our walking pilgrimage along St. Cuthbert’s Way to the Holy Island of Lindisfarne, where Mary Lee and I walked to the island at low tide in our bare feet.

Replying to Finlay led me back through photographs, my travel journal, and books I’d read at the time, walking in my mind once more across the sands and mud to the Holy Island, seeing some things for the first time.

For new readers or as a reminder to old ones, St. Cuthbert’s Way is a 62-mile walk from Melrose. Scotland to Lindisfarne, off the coast of England, supposedly in the footstep of St. Cuthbert, who in the year 651, received a vision that propelled him to walk from Melrose to the Holy Island to become prior of Lindisfarne’s monastery, which had been founded by Saint Aidan of Iona in 634.

The island itself is 8 miles around the perimeter, which is shaped like an axe. Its most imposing (and photographed) feature is a castle, which looms against the horizon like something from Middle Earth, especially at sunrise, which is when I first saw it.

Twice a day for 5 hours, the island is completely cut off from the mainland, and you need to plan your walk around the tides—the best time being during a four-hour period before and after low tide, which when Mary Lee and I did it, was around 8:00 a.m.

As I recall, we left our B&B in Fenwick (“Fen-ick”) around 5:00 a.m., walking two or three miles through coastal pastures. I also remember crossing a high-speed railroad line, where you have to use a yellow phone to speak with the signalman before crossing, and passing I don’t remember how many anti-tank blocks from WWII. Along the way, a flock of over 70 sheep moved towards us, herding us on our way to the causeway between the mainland and the island. At some point, the sun rose above a line of clouds over the ocean to our right like a pale pink balloon.

There are two ways to cross to Lindisfarne: a causeway for cars or for walkers who don’t want to walk barefoot or in mud boots, and the Pilgrim’s Path, a 2.3-mile journey across the floor of the North Sea through sands and mud, marked by wooden poles, two with refuge boxes at the top, just in case you’re caught by the surging tide. (And it does surge. Every year, people must be rescued by boat or helicopter.)

We walked to the causeway and down onto the beach. At first the sands were like Maine beaches at low tide, light brown and rippled and firm underfoot. Mary Lee had tied her hiking boots to her backpack so she could use her hiking poles, but at first, I carried my boots in one hand and my poles the other.

I remember a sense of triumph—we’re almost there!—and exhilaration. A stiff breeze blew against our faces and the air smelled of salt and something else: fecund and primordial. Besides walking barefoot, Mary Lee had her blue hiking skirt and I’d put on shorts, which added a touch of titillation to the experience.

Until the brown sand turned to brown mud and then to something the color and consistency of cold tar. Nothing I had read prepared us for this. I, too, tied my boots around my neck and grabbed my hiking poles. At one point, I went into the mud over my ankles, leaving my feet and lower calves coated in black. I was doubly glad we’d left our legs bare.

But that stretch really was short lived and soon we were back on the sands, splashing through a shallow tidal stream to wash off the mud. Clouds reflected in the water, and along with the sound of the wind whipping the air, I heard a chorus of seals cheering us to our destination.

And lo, there was the beach at Lindisfarne, with the church and ancient priory peeking over a bank of seagrass. We sat on a bench in front of the bank and looked back, not only at the channel but at the entire pilgrimage. Rejuvenated (which I always am when I look back and see how far I’ve come), we put on our hiking boots and set out to explore the Holy Island.


I’m writing this at the beginning of Lent, which, as I think about it, is sort of like the low tide of the Christian year. It’s a time of emptying out, on deciding on what’s important in my life. A time to practice trust that, as one of my spiritual mentors wrote, “All will come of its own accord in good time and with abundant fullness (I’m suddenly thinking of the surge of the North Sea), so long as one does not attempt to hoard or cling.” I’m good at hoarding, whether it’s having too many hats (most of which I don’t wear), or too many habits (I must have my hot chocolate every morning), or too many doubts and prejudices (far too numerous to list). Lent is a time to let the tide take those away.

In Lent, I remember that most of what I euphemistically refer to as my “spiritual life,” has been about emptying out, a process that began over thirty years ago, when my daughter died from cancer. After a year of raging at God, I decided to shut up and listen to what God had to say. Which led me to Centering Prayer meditation: emptying myself of thoughts. I also remember that emptying myself of thoughts produced what an early spiritual advisor called an “unloading of the unconscious,” which, I’m realizing, was like mentally walking through noxious black mud, but which I had to do before I could reach the other side to acceptance.

I’m also aware that I am nearing the end of my earthly journey, one, as I wrote in the last blog, to what I sometimes visualize as an island. Even without Lent, I, by necessity, am “self-emptying,” losing vitality, agility, libido, short-term memory, but I’m also finding it easier to empty myself of judgmentalism, fear, co-dependency. So far, the journey has been across relatively smooth sands, but I’ve no doubt they’ll be some mud holes ahead. Still, I’ve slogged through a few of those before, and it’s helpful to stop and look back and see where walking through them has led me. Especially when I’ve kept my eyes open for the guide poles and rescue houses of grace along the way.

# #

My Pilgrimage to Paradise

Photo by Bernard Hermant on Unsplash


If you’ve read these blogs before (or my latest book, available on Amazon or through Maine Authors Publishing, hint,hint), you know that making physical pilgrimages to places like the Old City of Jerusalem or San Francisco’s City Lights Book Store helped me discover how my life itself has been a pilgrimage, one through both grief and grace.

These days, my great pilgrimage is one into old age, and I’m finding it helpful to try to bring the same curiosity towards aging that I had when Mary Lee and I walked St. Cuthbert’s Way—Hey, there’s a new pain in my shoulder. Never had that before!

Now, pilgrimages are all about having a destination, a place of personal, often spiritual, significance, and lately I’ve been asking myself, just what is my destination, as I age?

The obvious answer is death. My Christian faith teaches me that death means some kind of afterlife, and over the years Christians have been stereotyped as believing in two kinds: heaven and hell. I’m not big on either one. I prefer the way Brother Geoffrey Tristram of the Society of Saint John the Evangelist describes the afterlife: “We have a specific destination: our heavenly home. Our pilgrimage journey is toward God.”

My faith, and other religions with which I’m familiar (not to mention any number of secular books and films), often refer to this heavenly home as paradise. But while I can think of my own pilgrimage as being one toward God, perhaps because God remains such a mystery to me (I always refer in these blogs to God of my not Understanding), I have trouble imagining what this heavenly home, this paradise, looks, feels, tastes, sounds, and smells like.

I’ve just finished the book, The Half Known Life, by my favorite travel writer, Pico Iyer. Iyer tells us the word “paradise” comes from the old Iranian term paradaijah, a walled garden, which then became an emblem of and an enticement toward “the higher garden that awaits the fortunate.”

The Garden of Eden with the Fall of Man by Jan Grueghel the Elder and Pieter Paul Rubens, c. 1615. Public Domain

Christianity, of course, has the Garden of Eden as a paradise. And while I agree gardens are nice, having worked in a market garden 70 hours a week, I can tell you they’re not my idea of paradise. When Pico Iyer journeys to various “paradises”—Iran, North Korea, the Himalayas, Japan, Ireland, Jerusalem, Sri Lanka—he finds dirt, danger, and disappointment. So, he decides paradise is an “an elusive place where the anxieties, struggles, and burdens of life fall away.”

Now, this is a definition I can get my teeth into. Isn’t this where we all want to go, regardless of our spirituality, religion, or lack thereof?

But I still ask: where is this place and what does it look like?

My answer comes in remembering that after my daughter died, the only way I could visualize her was in a photograph album somewhere between one week and eighteen years old. Gradually, however, as I began, through meditation and counseling, to develop a new relationship with her, I began to imagine her in a stone cottage on a rocky cliff overlooking the ocean, painting, sculpting, and cooking gourmet vegetarian meals. Then, one day I was sitting in Harvard Square in Cambridge, Massachusetts, having coffee and picturing her at a potter’s wheel, when suddenly, I knew she was sitting beside me. I felt her hand on my shoulder. It was one of the most “real” experiences I’ve ever had.

These days, I can easily forget what Laurie looked like during her life here on earth (coming upon her photograph now will sometimes surprise me). Rather, my daughter is more like the air I breathe, unseen but vital to my life, no longer living in some distant land, but always with me.

You may say—and some people have— “It’s all in your head. It’s merely your imagination.”

Yes. But.

I think imagination is not in the head but in the heart. And there’s no “merely” about it. As I think about it, through imagination, I’ve experienced both hell and heaven. (How many times, I have a made a situation worse, hellish, actually—an operation, an argument, a power outage or a frozen pipe—by imagining the worse-case scenario, “awfulizing,” as 12-steppers say). But then, at least lately, if I can shift my focus, my imagination, to God of my not Understanding, grace happens.

So, what is my “imaginary” picture of paradise? As when I first envisioned Laurie, my paradise would be overlooking the ocean (got to have water!), on a bluff, surrounded by spruce, pine, and fir trees (complete with smells). I would have a cabin—wood, I think, with a lot of windows, at least one circular, framed in stained glass. A stone fireplace…bookcases…leather chairs… music (lots of music)….

And where is it?

Obviously, dummy, it’s right here. In front of my computer in what I call my cave, in my house, in my town, in my state, in my country. My destination these days should be to the here and now of this imperfect world, but the here and now of this imperfect world seen through the divine gift of imagination. Laurie came to me in the middle of the gassy fumes and dirty snow of Harvard Square to become this constant, vital, presence.

So I conclude paradise is a state of mind, and my pilgrimage a journey toward recognizing the divine in both the hell and the heaven of the everyday.

This state of mind is for me, and I expect for all of us, a never-ending work in progress, one which involves challenges and doubt at least as much as stability. It involves letting go of old habits, compulsions, and preconceived ideas: heaven is for “good” people, hell is for anyone I don’t like…I can find my daughter only in old photograph albums…I need to go to Jerusalem or India or the South Sea Islands to find paradise. Instead, it involves discovering serenity in the midst of confusion, trauma, and disappointment. It involves wonder and imagination and creativity.

All challenges. But as I think about it, I can’t imagine paradise, either here or in some afterlife, without having a challenge. I certainly don’t want to spend eternity just sitting in my heavenly log cabin looking through stained glass windows at the ocean and listening to early Elvis.

# #

Handling Change

Anastasia and Beatrix walking through the woods to our house


For the past ten years, Mary Lee and I have provided a second home for our granddaughters, first Anastasia and then three years later, Beatrix. Both girls became part of our daily lives—a big part.

Last weekend, Anastasia and Beatrix left Maine to live with their father, who has moved to Oregon. It’s a huge change for them, and Mary Lee and I worry about the girls. But it’s also a major change for us. The girls will be back, of course, and we will do Zoom and FaceTime; we will become frequent flyers from one Portland to another. Still their absence will create a huge change in our day-to-day lives. Even when Anastasia and Beatrix weren’t physically with us, Mary Lee, especially, was thinking of things to do when they would be. Their toys, books, and crafts were as much a part of our house as our carpets and chairs.

 At the same time as we were trying to prepare ourselves for the girls’ move, our thirteen-year-old cat, Zeke, developed—overnight it seems—pancreatitis and cancer. After taking out a sizable bank loan, we’ve been able to make him comfortable, but he’s definitely not the same lively and free-spirited pet he was. I miss the sound of his racing around with his toys after breakfast.

Many of our friends are also suddenly facing changes, many of which are far more serious than what we’re dealing with. Several couples are now coping with Alzheimer’s or dementia in one spouse; two church members I’ve worshipped with for over twenty years—both younger than I— now come to the services with walkers; it seems as if every week someone I know goes into the hospital for a major operation; one man in my men’s group just lost his wife.

My geriatric pilgrimage is starting to feel not as if I’m moving through a new landscape, but that a new landscape is coming at me, faster and faster, like one of those painted panoramas unrolling while I stand still, my head spinning.

The other day, my 12-step sponsor asked me how I was. Well, I said, I’m walking more, I’m meditating more, I’m—

“No,” my sponsor said, “I didn’t ask what you were doing, I asked how you’re doing. How are you feeling?”

“Okay,” I said, “Mary Lee and I are talking a lot, I’m playing the banjo—”

“No, no! Look, close your eyes. Take three or four deep belly-breaths. Get out of your head and into your body. Breathe… Now, how are you?”

I paused. I breathed. “Tense. My face is tight. My hands feel as if they’re clenched. As if I’m waiting for the next shoe to drop. Or maybe it’s a boulder.”

Probably because of the way the future is hurtling towards me, I’m turning to the past, longing for what seem like slower and more stable times. (And why wouldn’t they seem that way? I know how events turned out.)  But I’ve always resisted being one of those geriatrics who lives in nostalgia for a past which never existed, and I really don’t want to stay lost in the 1950s for the rest of my life.

What I should be doing, of course, is focusing on the present, as all the contemplative practices I’ve learned over the past thirty-some odd years have advised. But while I can still be in the moment occasionally during my daily meditation, I’m not taking that focus from the meditation corner of the house out into the world.

 What else can I do? How do I navigate the now, especially a now that seems to be more and more out of my control?

There’s an old saying in AA: “to change a thought, move a muscle.” This week, I started working with my Feldenkrais instructor on relaxation exercises, trying to soften the tension in my arms and my face. I’ve also begun practicing what I’ve come to call “geriatric walking”: walking not to get in any particular number of steps or to close the rings on my fancy watch, but paying more attention to the world around me, stopping frequently, breathing deeply, and noticing the lessons Nature has to teach me about change.

Thanks to a Christmas windstorm, trees have fallen across two different places on a well-worn path in the woods behind my house, which means I must learn how to climb over tree trunks.

The pond by that path is icing over, and every day I’ve watched ducks swimming in circles, trying to ward off the encroaching ice, much the way I’ve felt lately as if I’m running in circles trying to ward off change. The ducks aren’t going to be able to keep the ice away all winter, and I’m not going to be able to hold back change, not matter how many Buddy Holly songs I listen to.

I’m also reading about change, and last week I read a letter from Brother Paul Quenon, of Gethsemani Abbey in Kentucky to a friend contemplating a major vocational shift, in which Brother Paul wrote that just as monks make a vow to “stability of place,” he thinks they need to make “a vow of commitment to change—a vow of un-stability (his italics).”

And New Year’s Eve, I made a recommitment to seeing my life as a pilgrimage. To being the one doing the moving, even if I’m not moving the way I used to. To having a destination, a goal, a place of spiritual significance. And to be guided by my Higher Power, that God of my not Understanding, trusting, as the hymn says, that the Grace which “brought me safe thus far” will “lead me home.”

I’m not yet sure where the journey will take me next. I want to be more active in helping others through my 12-step work, talking with others—especially men—about grief and loss, and about the value of seeing life as a pilgrimage toward a closer connection with one’s Higher Power, especially these days, when, as Thomas Merton wrote, “the whole mechanism of modern life is geared for a flight from God.”

Because we 12-steppers love our acronyms, I’ve created one for CHANGE: “Contemplate How Action Needs God’s Embrace.”

Otherwise, I think we’re all just ducks, swimming in circles, trying to ward off the inevitable.

# #

Of Relics

Portion of Saint Anne’s forearm at Sainte Anne-de-Beaupre, Quebec, donated by Pope John XXIII, July 3, 1960.


The other day, I was in our local bookstore, talking to the owner, Gary, about my new book, The Geriatric Pilgrim: Tales From the Journey, now available just in time for Christmas (hint, hint) from this website, independent book stores like “The Gulf of Maine” in Brunswick, or, as a last resort, Amazon.

Now, Gary is a true pilgrim who’s made a lot more pilgrimages than I have; he’s even taught a course called Pilgrimage. When he started talking about the relics he’s seen on his travels, I realized that in the seven years I’ve been writing this blog, while I’ve written about the stones I’ve collected and a snakeskin I cherish, I’ve never written about relics.

So, when I returned home, I did some research, beginning with what constitutes a relic. The word is connected to the Latin, reliquiae, which refers to the fossil remains of animals or plants. In a secular sense, a relic can be a remnant—even a person—who belongs to an earlier time but has survived into the present. Usually, however, we use the word to describe an object or article of religious or spiritual significance from the past consisting of either the physical remains of a saint or other revered person, or something closely connected to that person which has been preserved for the purposes of veneration.

The veneration of relics is a big part of religions such as Christianity and Buddhism. One of the first recorded uses of a relic is in the Bible’s Old Testament, when the prophet Elisha picks up the cloak of his mentor Elijah, who has just ascended to heaven in a chariot of fire, and uses it to strike the Jordan River, parting the waters so he can cross. In the New Testament, handkerchiefs that the Apostle Paul had touched were applied by others to cure the sick. By the Middle Ages, veneration of relics was a common practice in the Christian Church.

The worship of relics, however, got out of hand. I recall reading somewhere that if all the pieces of “The True Cross”—the cross on which Jesus was crucified—were gathered, you’d have enough wood to build a city. In graduate school, I read Geoffrey Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, a collection of stories told on a fictional 14th-century pilgrimage to the shrine of the martyred Thomas Becket in Canterbury, England. One of the pilgrims is a pardoner, a seller of relics. Perhaps because he’s drunk or perhaps because he’s an egomaniac, he reveals that his relics are sheep bones and other fakes. Later, after a few more drinks, he tries to sell his wares to the audience anyway.

Influenced, perhaps, by Chaucer, I’ve always disdained relics as phony and venerating them as foolish. I remember going to the Basilica of Sainte-Anne-de-Beaupre in Quebec and snickering at what’s supposed to be a 4” portion of the forearm of the mother of Mary encased in a glass reliquary. And a couple of years ago, when Mary Lee and I visited Cologne Cathedral, all I could think of was how in hell the bones of the Magi (I grew up calling them the Three Wisemen) wound up in Germany. (It’s a long story. Look it up.)

As close as I could get to the Bones of the Magi in Cologne Cathedral

But maybe because I realize that I’m a sort of relic myself these days, belonging to another time, surviving into the present—a relic who wouldn’t mind a little veneration—I find myself reevaluating the practice of revering relics. I wonder if making a pilgrimage to Sainte-Anne-de-Beaupre is all that different from going to Ford’s Theater Museum to see the blood-stained pillow on which President Lincoln died. What about the millions who pilgrimage to Cooperstown to see Babe Ruth’s 35 ¾”, 38 oz. baseball bat, which he notched every time he hit a home run?

Which has me thinking: have I ever revered a relic?

And looking around my office, I discover the following:

—Five paintings and one wood-burning done by my daughter before she died.

—A letter holder my father made for my mother when they were going together in high school and a wooden plate I remember him carving before he spent his evenings drinking and watching TV.

—Two banjos: one bequeathed to me by my friend Margaret, who was probably the closest things to a saint I’ve ever known; and one I bought from my recently deceased friend Jim, whose obituary described him as an internationally renowned legal scholar and “unrepentant” banjo player.

—A pencil holder decorated in hieroglyphics that belonged to my late father-in-law.

—At least ten different joke-books written by my old basketball and baseball teammate, Scott, before he died of cancer.

At lunch, I look around the dining room and behold a candle box and two cup holders Dad made during his retirement and a collection of demi-tasse cups that came from my mother-in-law. Various pieces of china from Mary Lee’s family sit in a china cabinet that used to belong to my grandmother.

(I’ll spare an inventory of the living room, the family room, the bedrooms, and even the bathrooms. You get the idea.)

What does that tell me about the value of relics?

I realize the relics I’ve identified in my house probably serve the same purpose as the Eastern Buddhist home altars and shrines to the family dead. Relics link us to the past, which, as I’ve often written, is where my hope for the future lies: in the love that we experience from family and friends that continues even after their deaths, and which shows me that no matter what happens to this country or to me, love is stronger than death.

Relics remind me that my Episcopal branch of Christianity considers all of us saints, and that I keep relics as reminders of the goodness of the saints in my life and their role in God’s work. They inspire me to pray to God of my not Understanding to live the same kind of grace-filled life they did.

I’m also thinking of Bob Dylan’s line: “… it may be the devil or it may be the Lord, But you’re gonna have to serve somebody.” Relics, it seems to me —whether the relics we pilgrimage to or those we have in our homes—are a pretty good indication of who or what we serve. (I’m thinking now of the millions who travel every year to Graceland and the Super Bowl, or collectors, such as the guy who paid $382,000 for the transaxle from the Porsche 550 Spyder in which James Dean died.)

So, of course, I have to ask: what relics do you venerate?

Two of my relics, I suppose: a painting and a wood burning both done by my daughter, both of which hang over my desk.

# #

The Pilgrimage Continues


“The Road goes ever on and on,

Down from the door where it began …”

The Lord of the Rings


Seven years ago this month, I published my first Geriatric Pilgrim blog. As it turns out, this is now the month that my book, The Geriatric Pilgrim: Tales from the Journey, based on fifty of the 130 reflections/musings/essays/memoirs/whatever I’ve posted over the last seven years, comes on the market.

When I decided to pull these essays together, I thought it would be a simple matter of picking out the ones I liked best and putting them down in the order they were written. Instead, creating this book became its own pilgrimage, and like any pilgrimage, the journey was both more difficult and at the same time more rewarding than I’d expected.

Writers about pilgrimage agree that pilgrimages are about the often-uncomfortable experience of beginning again.  The first thing I realized as I read over my blogs is that a lot has changed since November of 2015. Barak Obama was still President of the United States. Few people wore masks except on Halloween or to rob banks. When we talked about getting our shots, we meant flu and shingles shots. Women’s right to abortion was taken for granted.

I, too, have changed. Looking at my first blogs, I saw that I was concerned, possibly even obsessed, with the differences between pilgrimages and vacations, but that over the years I’d discovered that any journey could be a pilgrimage. In 2015, I’d just started attending Al Anon meetings but had not begun attending the meetings of Adult Children of Alcoholics, meetings that opened my eyes to years of denial about my alcohol/anger-fumed childhood.

In those early writings, I worried I wasn’t a good grandfather to my, at the time, four grandchildren. I fretted about my deteriorating back and that I was four inches shorter than I’d been in high school and that I could no longer put a basketball in a hoop. And, as I had since my daughter’s death, I was struggling with the way my body chemistry changed this time of year, because the lengthening shadows and 4:00 p.m. sunsets reminded me of when I was living at the Ronald McDonald House in Bangor, Maine, and watching Laurie die.

Those feelings, too, have changed.

I decided to rewrite these blogs to reflect where I am and who I am now: an 80-year-old man working his 12-step programs, grateful for his now five grandchildren, for his health, which, thanks to a repaired heart and an exercise program that has relieved much of the back pain he’s had since he was in his early thirties, is in some ways better than it was seven years earlier. A man who’s learned to navigate the emptiness left in his heart by his daughter’s death, and to recognize and be grateful for the numerous graces which he’s experienced on his journey over the last seven years.

All of which meant that I felt as if I were beginning the writing all over again. Many of the revised musings that make up The Geriatric Pilgrim: Tales from the Journey are almost complete rewrites. For some of them, I combined two, even three earlier blogs. Even some whose whose content and structure remained the same took as long to revise as they did to write because I saw sentences that needed to be simpler or that I hadn’t used the right word.

And then there was putting these essays in an order that made sense. I no longer wanted to set them down in the order they’d been written. I decided to put all the physical pilgrimages Mary Lee and I made together—all the St. Cuthbert’s Way essays with each other, all the Iona essays, etc.—followed by those dealing with my internal journeys—all those directly dealing with Laurie’s death, all those on aging, a collection of living with COVID essays ….


So, I took a deep breath and began moving the pieces around like a mosaic, trusting in my intuition. I hope it works. If not, well, it’s hard to get good help these days.

One important characteristic of pilgrimages is that they are made in homage to someone or something greater than ourselves. But as I re-read my earliest blogs, I saw that, although I never came right out and said so, I was chaffing at this relationship with my Higher Power. Yes, I’d been going on religious retreats for the previous twenty years; yes, I’d been meditating for that long; yes, I could honestly say I believed in God. But I was still angry at God for taking Laurie from me, still inclined to leave God behind when I left my meditation corner or retreat house, still judging other people (not to mention myself) as if I were God. I found that reworking these blogs for the book helped me focus on God not as a problem to be solved but as a reality that I’d experienced.

And that experience had been, I saw in rewriting my reflections, one of healing, which is another characteristic of the pilgrimage experience. Before I began posting the blogs, I read many books by writers who’d walked the Santiago de Camino from France to Spain or hiked or biked from England to Jerusalem or walked across Afghanistan or India in search of spiritual or physical healing. Pulling my blogs together revealed to me not only my physical healing from a blocked left main artery in my heart and relief from chronic back pain, but my continued healing from grief. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: the pain of losing a child never, never, never goes away. But, as I’ve also written, healing doesn’t mean curing. Healing means being more whole. It means accepting that pain is part of the game, part of being human, part of what it means to love. Accepting my pain has meant that I no longer dread this time of year. Laurie’s death has become like the sky over my head: always there, sometimes storming, sometimes even a hurricane, but also sometimes bracing and beautiful.

And by recognizing my healing, I’m far more likely to write about my experiences as a way to pay homage to—in the words of Dag Hammarskold, former Secretary General of the United Nation—“Thou whom I do not know but whose I am.”  

Which has given me hope. Looking back at my life through these blogs, I see I’ve survived growing up in an alcoholic family, a dysfunctional first marriage, the death of a child, heart disease, and countless stupid decisions to find myself eager to get up every morning. And I realize I’m just one illustration of humanity’s God-given capacity not only to survive famines and plagues, wars and tyrants, but to flourish.

Finally, pilgrimages are about relying on the kindness of those we meet on our journeys. One thing I didn’t change in writing the book is my gratitude for the aid of others: friends, family, teachers, spiritual directors, sponsors, who’ve always appeared when I’ve needed them. Not only is The Geriatric Pilgrim: Tales from the Journey an homage to my Higher Power, but to my wife Mary Lee, who’s been my companion on just about every retreat and pilgrimage I’ve made, including the writing of both blogs and book.

I am blessed.

And, as Phillip Cousineau writes in his classic book The Art of the Pilgrimage—he calls this “the pilgrim’s law”—“You must share whatever wisdom you have been blessed with on your journey… The story we bring back… is the gift of grace …”

Which I keep trying to do, along with the wish that you will be inspired to see your life as a pilgrimage, one that will give you hope and healing.

See you along the road.

# #

September Slant

September, 2022


Tell the truth but tell it slant.—Emily Dickinson


A few weeks ago, about an hour after sunrise, I took a walk through the woods. The air was crisp and the only sounds were of my footsteps crushing the occasional acorn and the breeze blowing the leaves of the trees. Ethereal light ribboned the trunks of the elms, maples, and birches.

Ever the old literature teacher, a line from an Emily Dickinson popped into my head: “There’s a certain slant of light.” When I got home and looked up the poem, however, I found that she was describing light on winter afternoons that “oppresses, like the Heft/Of Cathedral Tunes—”

For me, the September slant of light lifts, like the lightness of a Celtic harp.

Why Celtic? Probably because I hear one when I think of the Scottish island of Iona, the most spiritual place I’ve ever visited— in large part because the light there seems to shimmer, casting heather-covered rocks in an unearthly glow. I’m also uplifted by sunlight through trees, whether it’s here in the woods behind my house, or through towering redwoods in California or the gnarled maple trees over my family’s cemetery plot. And ever since I was a kid going to church with my parents, light shining through stained glass has always lifted me into another reality.

Light figures heavily in my Christian faith. “Let there be light,” God says in the first chapter of Genesis. “I am the light of the world,” Jesus says. “Praise the Lord, I saw the light,” sings Hank Williams.

 But the light I love, I realize, is indirect or diffused light. Direct light, whether it’s the sun beating down overhead in Israel or the Arizona desert or overhead lights—especially those damned florescent things—is both physically and emotionally painful, especially after my cataract surgery.


I can’t think about light without thinking about the work of Edward Hopper. For me, his slants of light are what turn his paintings into stained glass windows into another—deeper— reality. One of my favorites is “Rooms by the Sea.”

(Photo from WikiArt)

Hopper once wrote: “All I ever wanted to do was to paint sunlight on the side of a wall.” In this painting, trapezoids of sunlight on two of these walls illuminate what I see as liminal space between the sea and what appears to me to be a living room. I note that this space takes up more area in the painting than either the sea or the furnished room. I chuckle at the irony of a light switch highlighted by sunlight. Seeing no visible steps between the doorway and the ocean, I feel both linked to and separated from the natural world and the domestic world, with these two shafts of light as my connection. Perhaps because there are no people in this painting, I find myself pulled into the little rooms of my mind, with those two slants of light becoming my moments of occasional insight into a larger world.     

You may have a different slant on the painting, which gets me to the secondary meaning of the word: “to have or be influenced by a subjective point of view, bias, personal feeling or inclination, etc. (usually followed by toward).” The word “bias” sounds negative, but for me, whether it’s in painting or music or writing, it’s the slant that produces shafts of illumination what I need to light my way on my pilgrimage. Otherwise, just as direct sunlight can give me a headache, too much information can be overwhelming. In both cases, I can’t distinguish between blemishes and blossoms, imperfections and purity.

Which is why I prefer essays and memoirs to journalism and biography: the writer’s slant is more important than the writer’s subject. I’m learning about the author, his or her encounters with memory, not about the subject or what the author did. I know people who don’t like memoir because they feel the authors are solipsistic, self-absorbed. For me, the less successful writers of memoir are not self-absorbed—or I would say, self-aware—enough. They focus on the writer’s accomplishments or their suffering without going into who their accomplishments or suffering have made them to be. One of the paradoxes of art, it seems to me, is that the more deeply artists explore themselves—their slants, if you will—the more universal their work becomes.


Of course, slants of light change. The trees I’m looking at outside my window as I write this in October are different from the trees I saw on my walk a few weeks ago: the ribbons of light are gone; the tree trunks are entirely in shadow.

I think of how my own slants on things have changed over time. Up until a year or two ago, I used to spend hours watching sports on television. While I can still root for my New England teams, I can no longer watch them on TV. My slant on the games themselves (especially basketball), the politics of sports (especially football), and the commercialism of sports (especially all of them) have driven me—literally—to minor league, college, or high school sports events.

My slant on God changes daily, even hourly.

My twelve-step programs are helping me change my emotional slant on life from anxiety to curiosity, from judgmentalism to acceptance, from pontificating to listening. My Feldenkrais exercises help me change my slant on my back pain, so that I no longer awfulize about every twinge, accept the discomfort, and try to be curious about ways in which I can adapt the exercises to my crooked, aging bones.

Pointing out to me that just as direct sunlight can be too much information; the same slant will eventually become old. Yes, the ribbons of September light on the tree trunks are gone, but now I get to see the October light on the leaves as they change color.

October, 2022

I even enjoy that slant of winter light Emily Dickinson found oppressive: to me, the long shadows of the trees on the snow look like Japanese calligraphy.

So whether it’s the writer’s slant on memories, or the visual artist’s slant of light on the canvas, the slant of sunrise on the Saguaro cactus in Arizona promising new possibilities, the slant of sunset off the Florida Gulf offering peace at the last, or the slant of autumn sunlight through the trees outside my window, I am—excuse the pun—both lightened and enlightened by these slants of reality.

# #

Notes From Squirrel Island

Circa 1940s. Wikipedia (It hasn’t changed much)


“A journey, in fact, appeals to Imagination, to Memory, to Hope—the three sister Graces of our mortal being.” Sir Richard Francis Burton (1821-1890)


I copied this quote from explorer Richard Burton into a pocket notebook, where it has remained for the last couple of years, along with any number of passwords, titles of books and movies people have recommended, email addresses, ideas for writing projects, directions for setting up new AV equipment, grocery lists, descriptions of sunsets, coffee shops, beaches, and airport terminals, Al Anon acronyms, and other quotes that have struck my fancy.

I can’t recall when I didn’t carry a pocket notebook and a pen. They are as essential a part of my wardrobe as underwear.

And before I add this notebook to the others going back to 1965, I’ve flipped back through it, trying—often unsuccessfully—to remember where I was when I wrote an entry, why it was important to write it down, and whether it’s important to me now.

What intrigues me is how the Burton quote helps me flesh out another entry a few pages later: a page and a half of description of a trip I made with my wife Mary Lee last July to Squirrel Island, Maine.

For those of you who don’t know, Squirrel Island is a small island in the Gulf of Maine—about 2 square miles, I think—established as a summer community in 1871. Apparently, it got its name not because of its squirrel population but rather because the shape of the island looks like a squirrel holding an acorn. Practically all its inhabitants are summer residents—I think there might be a caretaker or two who live there year-round—and most of the families have been coming to the island for a hundred or more years. The only motorized vehicles allowed are for maintenance workers. A boardwalk circles the island.

Besides beaches, tennis courts, a library, and a restaurant, there is also a chapel.

And for the last several years, Mary Lee has been asked to preach there one Sunday a summer. I go along as eye-candy.

To get to Squirrel Island, you take a ferry from Boothbay Harbor. It’s a nice half-hour trip (another reason I tag along), and this year, I remember the weather was warm and sunny. A nice woman from the chapel Board of Directors met us and took Mary Lee into the church to go over the various technicalities of the service, leaving me to walk the boardwalk until I found an Adirondack chair overlooking the water, where I sat, and, as is my wont, began to scribble in my notebook.

My first line noted the rotten egg smell of low tide, and how a smokey southwest breeze swayed some yellow lilies in front of me. I went on to describe a small harbor of motorboats pointing out to sea and the weathered cottages with gambrel roofs and wide verandas on the shore gazing out at South Port Island.

Reading those lines now reminds me that the first time I ever heard of Squirrel Island was when my Grandmother Cleaves worked summers into early October as a cook and caretaker for an old woman living on the island. I remember Nanny’s letters to me from there when I was in college, and how I chuckled at her rambling stories of people I’d never heard of and the latest gossip from the movie magazines she devoured like popcorn. (“Liberace’s Wig-maker Tells All.”)  Today I know my grandmother was an unhappy woman, the ex-wife of an alcoholic, who for years took her anger out on my brother, my sister, and me, but at the time, I denied the fact that she scared the hell out of me by imagining her as a comic figure. These days, I’m trying to accept that both her acid tongue and her love for her grandchildren were equally true.

My notebook tells me I noticed a seagull “dive-bombing a lobster boat,” and some sparrows chirping in the large mounds of beach roses under a blue sky “scarred with thin white stripes.” I mentioned the distant hum of lobster boats, the cry of an unhappy baby, and the “coo-coo-coo” of a dove. Which made me remember my friend and mentor Al, a retired Episcopal priest, who facilitated our church’s men’s group for many years. I wrote in my notebook of his love of pigeons, and worried about his severe asthma, compounded by heart problems, which had just sent him to the hospital and then to a nursing facility.

Al died about a month later, and I’ve just been asked to read at his funeral. I’m honored. Al was one of the kindest, gentlest men I ever knew, humble, with a great sense of humor. He was also a courageous advocate for social justice and civil rights. He attended Martin Luther King Jr’s March on Washington in 1963 and organized transportation from Newark, N.J. to the 1965 March from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama. He continued to work for equal rights for all, and in his last years wrote passionate letters to the editor urging us to become better stewards of our planet. He approached his death with dignity and curiosity, looking forward, he said, to the next stage in the journey. I hope to have the same attitude when it’s time for me to pass on.

I made more notes of white moths dancing over some sumac bushes and of a middle-aged woman in a black and white sleeve-less jersey walking her terrier along the boardwalk,  but when I heard the church bells from the chapel ringing out the old hymn, “Let Jesus Christ be Praised,” I thought again of Al, who, a year or so earlier, had written a children’s book, Soren’s Story: A Parable About Bullies and the Peaceable Kingdom.

As the full title makes clear, the book is not only about pigeons, but also about the dangers to children of bullying. I suspect Al, who had come from a dysfunctional family, had suffered bullying himself.

Soren’s Story ends in an old church, not unlike the one on Squirrel Island. Here’s the conclusion:

“Nor did anyone quite know how to explain it, but the great bell in the meeting house tower, long silent, began to move and then to swing and ring out ….

‘Hope on,’ it said. Gong!

            ‘Do justice and love kindness.’ Gong!

                        ‘Take courage and confront evil,’ it rang out. Gong!

                                    ‘And remember mercy.’ Gong!

                                                ‘For there is no future without forgiveness.’ Gong!”

 Reading notes from my Squirrel Island journey, I realize the truth of Sir Richard’s words. Memory takes me back to that day, imagination leads me to my grandmother and Al, and I’m hopeful. As I’ve written in these blogs before, hope for me is not based on some expectation of the future, but on what I’ve learned from the past. Keeping these various notebooks and going back to them, I can see where I’ve struggled, where I’ve been blind, where I’ve been down-right wrong, and yet how I’ve not only survived but thrived afterward. I can also sometimes see where I’ve had inklings of God of my not Understanding, often through mentors like Al, who give me hope that even in this time of threats to our country, both from home and abroad, in this time of one climate disaster after another, love, kindness, courage, and forgiveness can ring out.