Learning to Bend

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“Blessed are the hearts that bend; they shall never be broken.”

—Saint Francis de Sales

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I don’t feel 75. Seeing myself in the mirror every day, I’ve learned to ignore the lines and moles and turkey wattle so I can say to my reflection, “You don’t look 75.” But when I see myself in a photograph, bent over, my back as the Psalmist says, “like a warped bow,” I think, “Who the hell is that old fart?”

Still, I’m beginning to wonder if my bent back isn’t trying to teach me something.

Besides the fact that until I lost four inches I always liked being taller than most people, I’ve also always prided myself on not bending—that I strive for goals with single-minded determination (See https://geriatricpilgrim.com/2018/06/26/finish-line/). In high school, I spent a good 360 days a year with a basketball in my hands. While never a star, I did learn to overcome the dysplasia that would later result in bilateral hip replacement and a general lack of coordination enough so that my former 8th-grade basketball coach used me as an example of what hard work can accomplish.

As a high-school English teacher, I worked seven days a week creating lesson plans, correcting essays, organizing my classroom, and going to professional conferences. And when I left teaching to begin writing, I established a strict routine for writing at least five days a week, augmented by summer conferences. I returned to school at the age of 60 to get an MFA, and then continued with more summer conferences. I spent twenty years working on a novel, writing I can’t tell you how many drafts, changing it from a memoir to a novel (available on Amazon or from my website, http://richardwile.com).  Since then, I’ve maintained my writing schedule, publishing this blog without fail every two weeks for the past three years.

But there have been times when persistence and self-discipline haven’t paid off—have actually proved counter-productive. For years after the death of my eighteen-year-old daughter Laurie from cancer, I tried to treat my grief as another athletic opponent to be overcome by the will power that had served me so well in the past. I disdained my tears and shoved my anger down, refusing to bend in what I saw as submission to grief.

But the more I tried to bury my anger, the more it resurfaced as guilt, shame, and resentment. Recently, I learned that one definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. That was me—shutting everyone out as I obsessed with somehow “winning the battle” with grief—and if I didn’t become insane, I certainly became irrational. Not until I surrendered my shame and my guilt and my anger—in other words, my ego— to what I now call the God-of-my-not-Understanding (See “https://geriatricpilgrim.com/2016/03/07/dont-ask-why-just-ask-for-help/), was I able not only to survive Laurie’s death, but to discover joy and love and, most of all, Grace.

The more I think about it, the more I question how well my rigid single-mindedness has actually served me. In going to reunions, talking with old classmates, I can see that those years I spent playing basketball kept my circle of friends small, kept me from knowing some really neat people. I see how the game burned me out, so that I never wanted to play basketball again (and seldom watch the sport anymore). And I see that one of the reasons I was so miserable in college was that I had no idea what to do with myself without the game. (Bridge and pool were poor substitutes.)

One of the major sources of my guilt after Laurie died was thinking of all those weekends I corrected papers and went to school to put up new bulletin boards when I could have been with my child, and I still regret not spending more time with her. Now I’m asking myself whether as Mary Lee and I grow older and our grandchildren grow up, I’ll regret having spent more time focused on the computer keyboard than on them.

I’m also wondering if I’ve been too hung up for too long on the idea that to bend means only to yield or to submit. Bend also means change, growth, bending towards something—such as the way plants bend toward sunlight—or someone—such as how I bend for my grandchildren or toward the alter at church.

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And I’m thinking I need to be more intentive about bending, being less rigid, growing instead of remaining inert.

I’m going to start with this blog. I’ve enjoyed the last three years of publishing it every two weeks, but I’m also feeling pressure to continue even when I’ve nothing to say. And as I’ve been writing today’s blog, more and more things have cropped up—an upcoming pilgrimage to Africa, work on an editing position I hold, trying to put some legal stuff in order—which has made making my self-imposed deadline difficult. I think of how I burned out on the basketball court, and I don’t want that to happen.

So I’m going to take a sabbatical. Prepare for Africa, let the experience teach me what it has to teach without worrying, “Can I get a blog out of this?” and then take some time to process not only the journey to Tanzania, but also my journey toward my eighties. I hope to work on some longer writing projects that have been kicking around in the musty, dusty corners of my mind.

But I’m also planning to resume this blog. I started it just after I’d published my novel, when I wanted to write something more immediate, more spontaneous. And it’s been a great help in getting me to see not only where I’ve been but where I’m going. It’s been part of my twelve-step work, which I’m nowhere near done with.  Through this blog, I’ve rekindled old friendships and made a number of new ones with people from all over the world.

But I feel I need to bend the topography a bit, “bend” both in the sense of yielding and in the sense of turning in a different direction, writing only when I have something to say, not because I have to say something,

Until then, to return to the Psalmist’s words, “peace be within your walls and quietness within your towers.”

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The River

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“Time is the substance from which I am made. Time is a river which carries me along, but I am the river…”— Jorge Luis Borges

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Pulled by currents you don’t understand, you swing off the interstate at the exit to the small New England town in which you grew up, park the car on Main Street, and walk down the hill to where the river meets the harbor. On this crisp autumn afternoon, you stop on the bridge, both of you granulated with age, and gaze upstream, feeling the memories wash over you.

As the river rounds the bend from just below where you used to live, the waters are placid and brown. You remember swimming in those brown waters, despite the threat of your mother’s hairbrush, dogpaddling through chicken parts, dead fish, and raw sewage that drifted down from the upper falls, which from a distance was this white rush of water gamboling over great gray rocks, and you wonder if that’s why you go to church despite friends’ disdain and theological questions that bob like chicken guts—if you aren’t paddling along, trying to stay afloat, praying to catch a glimpse of Grace flowing from the chalice.

At the bend, a granite rock juts out from a bank. It reminds you of the rock further upstream on which you used to sit, watching water flow by, imagining the river taking you to far-off countries filled with adventure and romance. You still like to travel, still find traveling rejuvenates you, educates you, makes you a little less rigid.

Just before the foundation of an old sawmill, the river picks up speed, and rushes toward you, sunlit white water over mossy rocks. It’s 1959, and you’re standing on this bridge, watching the water, inhaling the smell of burning leaves—smoky fragrance of passion. She stands beside you. Sun splashes her pixie-cut. Cats-eye glasses sparkle. A smile of dimples and braces. You take her hand. Hear her laughter flow with the gushing river.

Now you stand alone on the bridge and look down to where the river slows and runs over old foundations crumbling under murky waters. You think of the good-bye letter she sent you in college … sight of her in waitress-whites grinding a cigarette into the pavement as she stepped from a car … gossip of affairs with teachers, abortion … recent rumors of dementia … Facebook picture of white-gold hair, moles, wrinkles, and the flabby ears you all have these days. You think of your own crumbling walls: divorce, a daughter’s death, defeats, surgeries, addictions, rejections …

Checking for traffic (something you never had to do in 1959), you cross the bridge to watch the water run under the interstate overpass, then empty into the harbor still filled with sailboats, cabin cruisers, and lobster boats. For the last ten years of his life, your father had a boat there, and you recall the Labor Day weekend he offered to take you fishing. That was the weekend the resentments that had smoldered for years at the roots of your first marriage ignited and you packed your clothes into the older of your two cars and drove to spend the holiday with your parents before looking for a place to live.

Despite bitching about what he thought was a stomachache (the cancer wouldn’t be diagnosed for a couple of months), you both walked along the docks to a slip at the far end, where his sixteen-foot outboard sat like an afterthought amid all the other pleasure crafts. Even a hundred pounds overweight, your father still moved with the easy grace of the athlete he was as he unbuttoned the canvas top of the boat and untied the mooring ropes. As you puttered down the river, you sat in the stern and watched him at the wheel, seeing him perhaps for the first time, not as a hero or an effigy to be burned, but as a man who always did the best he could with the tools he had.

Rounding another bend, you headed out into Casco Bay. Your father asked you to get him a Blue Ribbon and to take one for yourself. You trolled a little for mackerel. You don’t remember if you caught any fish. You don’t recall what you talked about, only that it felt good to be with your dad as he piloted you past the rocks and through the shoals and the seaweed and the occasional dead fish floating belly-up.

Filled with regret for not spending more time with your father and gratitude for having had that day, you stand on the bridge and look through the overpass at the river. Watch it leave the harbor and disappear around a bend under a steep bank of maple and birch trees. At the top of that bank is the cemetery where stones honoring your father, mother, and daughter lie under gnarled maple trees. You feel the river pulling you, imagine yourself being taken downstream to the cemetery and beyond, into a vast, unknown ocean that awaits us all.

But not yet. The same mysterious currents that brought you here today now pull you in another direction. You lift your eyes to the interstate calling you to family and friends and places you have yet to see and people you have yet to meet. The river will bring you here again, but for now it’s time to turn and walk back up the hill to the car.

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Listening to the Breath

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“There is no song more agreeable to the heart than the slow, even breath of a pilgrim learning to bless, and be blessed by, the mystery.” — Stephen Levine.

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Mary Lee and I are training for our next pilgrimage. We’re increasing the length of our walks, trying to step up our pace, and climbing hills. It’s the climbing business that I especially need to work on. We didn’t plan for hills on our last pilgrimage, and I don’t want to make that mistake again.

Rarely a day goes by that I don’t curse the Monday afternoon in 1961, two days after the State Class L Basketball Championship (where, despite my solid performance, our team was crushed, 74-52), when I filched a pack of my father’s unfiltered Camels and spent the afternoon learning how to inhale and the next forty years trying to quit. Throw in two summers inhaling woodfire smoke as part of my job as a U.S. Forest Service hot shot crew member (wearing a bandanna over my nose and mouth to keep the smoke away and then taking a break to sit under a tree and smoke a cigarette or two), and you have my scarred lungs and “mild” COPD.

But I’m finding it’s possible to increase my lung capacity. The internet is full of video instructions in breathing for singers, saxophone and harmonica players, swimmers, and the rest of us just plain folks. My osteopath is a firm believer in breathing correctly and has given me exercises to make sure I’m using all of what lung capacity I have. I’ve recently added a breathing activity based on a type of exercise therapy called Feldenkrais. And I’m tramping up and down stairs and hills any time I get the chance.

Breath, I’m finding, is a great teacher. After being physically abused at her daycare center, our granddaughter struggles with anger issues. Her counselor’s office has a “breathing ball” which expands and contracts as our granddaughter practices taking ten deep breaths for when she gets mad. We should all probably have one. Research shows that a period of deep breathing causes blood pressure to drop and stay down for as long as thirty minutes.

I think the first times I ever paid any attention to my breathing were when I played sports. My little league coach, Frank Knight, told us to take a deep breath before getting in the batter’s box, and Mr. Beal, my eighth-grade basketball coach, told us to do the same thing as we stepped to the line to take a foul shot. Fast forward forty years, and my nurse is yelling, “breathe!” the first time I try to walk after bi-lateral hip surgery. These days, my scarred lungs let me know whenever I’m tense or self-conscious—about reading or playing my banjo in front of an audience, for example—and that it’s time to pretend I’ve got my granddaughter’s breathing ball and inhale and exhale deeply.

Using the breath in some way is the basis for almost every meditation practice I know. Breath is immediate and always there. Focusing on breathing brings us back into the present moment, whether it’s pranayama, a yoga tool for self-transformation in which one varies the length of inhalation and exhalation, or Buddhist practices like counting breaths and inhaling through the nostrils and exhaling through the mouth, or Christian Centering Prayer using mantras such as “Lord, Jesus Christ, have mercy on me” or “Breath of God, breathe in me” that follow the rhythm of our breathing, or the practice I’ve found in all three traditions of simply watching the breath without trying to control it.

Breath can be a constant reminder of our connection with the energy of the universe. Focusing on the breath helps me see myself as part of a world breathing its own rhythms: the ebb and flow of the sea, the waxing and waning of the moon, the inhalations of spring and summer and the exhalations of autumn and winter. I see my life as a kind of breathing: inhaling moments such first love, first teaching job, marriage, the birth of a child, first pilgrimage, the birth of grandchildren; exhaling houses I’ve left, an unhappy marriage, the death of my daughter and my parents, jobs I have retired from, and now, the death of old friends.

Trying to observe my breathing without trying to control it (which is really hard, by the way; I’m guessing I can come close maybe one day out of every four) helps me understand the mystery of Grace, which, like my breathing, is always flowing, continually feeding, repairing, sustaining, while at the same time taking away that which is unnecessary and wasteful. Whether it’s Grace or breath, I can control to some extent how much I take in, I can work on preparing myself to better use it, but I can’t hold on to it, and the only way to stop it is to destroy myself.

So, as I prepare for the next pilgrimage, breath is teaching me what I can do, what I cannot do, and what I can learn to do. It’s a kind of Serenity Prayer: “God grant me the serenity to accept the hills I cannot climb, the courage to know when to keep gasping up the ones I can, and the wisdom to know when to stop and catch my breath.”

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The Frames I see Through

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For reasons I didn’t understand at the time, I recently decided to make a pilgrimage to the Eastern Maine Medical Center in Bangor, Maine where my daughter Laurie died almost thirty years ago of cancer. My specific destination was the hospital chapel where I’d spent so much time during the last six weeks of her life, and where I encountered perhaps the closest thing I’ve ever had to a “spiritual” experience.

The chapel hadn’t changed at all that I could see: same walnut paneled walls and altar, same cushioned chairs; the familiar hum of air conditioning punctuated by occasional voices in the hall, and, what I most remember, the large round window framed by red, yellow, brown, and blue panels, through which I could see the Penobscot River flowing downstream over the rocks—a living stained-glass window.

I sat as I used to on the left side of the altar in front of the window and thought of that surrealistic time and of my struggles to understand my daughter’s illness and impending death. But while I could recall the details, I could no longer feel the waves of anger that sometimes surged around the numbness in my heart. It was as if I were watching myself thirty years earlier, sorry for the poor bastard and all that he was going through, but at the same time more emotionally concerned with life now—working my 12-step program, dealing with the diminishments of aging and my apprehensions about dying.

Then I thought of my daughter’s dying in a room two floors above me, and about how I used to look out her hospital window at the same river, but how different the view here in the chapel was because of the shape of the window and its stained-glass frame. Which led me to consider the various ways I’ve framed events in my life, and on how often the way I’ve framed a particular incident has determined how I’ve responded to it.

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I remember hearing from one of my college English Literature professors that 18th Century travelers, uncomfortable—even afraid—of the uninhabited natural world, would carry empty picture frames with them in order to frame their views of the Alps. I can’t find anything on line about those traveling frames, but I have found that many travelers during this period put a convex tinted filter on a frame called a “Claude Glass.” Apparently, they would sit with their backs to a scene, holding the folding glass so they could see behind them. The convex shape of the frame brushed background objects into the far distance and the tinted glass softened the reflected tones in order to make settings look like the paintings of the popular 17th century French artist, Claude Lorraine.

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You can still buy Claude Glass frames today. This one isn’t tinted.

These frames helped control and tame what travelers were seeing. They also gave a distorted picture of reality. I don’t know about you, but the way I’ve framed events in my life has often done the same thing. My 12-step sponsor talks about our “frame of reference,” the values and attitudes which we use to filter perceptions to create meaning. Our frame becomes our assumptions, our “shoulds.” And it is these frames, not the events themselves, that we react to emotionally. As the Greek philosopher Epictetus wrote some two thousand years ago: “Men [sic] are disturbed not by things but by the view they take of them.”

I’ve become aware lately that my frame of reference is often one created from growing up in an alcoholic family, so that for most of my life I’ve framed events by judgments, resentments, and fear of confrontation. Thirty years ago, when I sat in the chapel at EMMC, I judged myself responsible for my daughter’s death because I had left her mother and married another woman. Rather than confront my ex-wife when she said that she wasn’t going to honor Laurie’s request for her ashes to be scattered, I refused to come to our daughter’s burial service.

With the help of my sponsor I’ve been working to “re-frame” my view of the world—looking at situations from different angles, shifting my frame of reference.

And I wonder if I went back to the chapel a couple of weeks ago because at some level I knew I needed to learn something from the time my frame of reference dramatically changed.

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Thirty years ago, when I went to the hospital chapel I saw the events around me through the frame of “Why is my daughter dying?” None of the answers—cutting down rain forests is increasing cancer rates, her cancer is a statistical accident like getting struck by lightning, God is a sadistic bastard getting kicks from torturing innocent girls, and, of course, her death is my fault—did anything to relieve her pain, and only increased my suffering.

And still, “Why?” was the question that pounded in my blood as I sat in the chair on the left side of the altar and stared for the first time through the stained-glass frame at the river roiling in a December wind.

But as I sat, I became enfolded into the window, and from somewhere I heard the words, “Don’t ask why, just ask for help.”

At first, I didn’t realize what I’d heard. When I did, I angrily framed it, OK, help me understand the reason for my daughter’s pain and why she’s going to die before she’s ever really lived.

But I couldn’t take my eyes from the window. I felt my body loosen. The stained glass seemed to keep drawing first my angry words and then all of me into its embrace.

I didn’t understand then—in fact, I may not have fully understood until now—how the words “Don’t ask why, just ask for help” encouraged me to reframe Laurie’s death, shift the question from “Why is my daughter dying?” to “How do I cope with the death of a child? How do I find the help I need? How do I gain the courage to ask for that help?”

But it was through seeking the help of counselors, spiritual directors, my wife, my family, and the grace of the God of My Not Understanding that my life has been one of not only deep sadness but great joy.

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The older I get, the more my pilgrimages involve relearning the lessons I first learned years ago. It would be great if I’d fused “don’t ask why, just ask for help” into my frame of reference thirty years earlier, but unfortunately that didn’t happen. I still ask myself, “Why can’t people think the way I do, act as I act?” instead of asking, “How do I get the help I need to speak my truth with kindness and not worry about what others think or how they behave?” Or instead of asking, “Why am I going to die?” asking, “Who and what can help make what time I have left as productive and joyful as possible?”

Claude Lorraine
Claude Gellée (Lorrain) – The Metropolitan Museum of Art 47.12. Title: Sunrise. Date: c. 1646-1647. Materials: oil on canvas. Dimensions: 102.9 x 134 cm. Nr.: 47.12. Source: http://images.metmuseum.org/CRDImages/ep/original/DT226758.jpg. 

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