Of Smells

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“Nothing revives the past so completely as a smell that was once associated with it.”

—Vladimir Nabokov

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One of the joys of being 10 weeks past heart surgery is that I can resume daily walks, especially in the woods not far from where I live. And this is a great time of year for it. The leaves are beginning to turn, the air is drier, and the blackflies are gone. But I’m interested that the first thing I noticed when I entered woods after over two months were the smells: the musky, fecund tang of fallen leaves and pine needles, yellowing bracken, and decayed trees. Not only did the smells welcome me back into the present, they took me back to walks through Scotland and England, California, Massachusetts, Vermont, and even further back to the Ponderosa forests of Idaho during my college years and the piney woods behind my house when I was growing up.

Our sense of smell, I’m told, is linked to the part of our brains that processes emotions and memories. Probably every college English major (even if, like me, they’ve never read it) knows that Marcel Proust’s Remembrances of Things Past begins when the narrator tastes a cookie called a madeleine dipped in tea, which triggers seven volumes of memories.

Fear not, gentle reader, I’m not about to attempt anything of that magnitude, but I do feel compelled to ponder a few memories—some pleasant, some not so pleasant—I tripped over the other day as I sauntered through the woods.

I don’t think any smell evokes happier memories than the smell of baking bread. (I’m told real estate agents tell people who want to sell their houses to fill them with the smells of baked bread prior to showing them to prospective buyers.) Every Saturday morning when I was growing up, my mother would bake bread for the week, filling the house with the aroma of love and security. Having spent the last couple of years working with a sponsor in a twelve-step program, I find it healing to remember that in spite of the emotional scars I carry from being raised in an alcoholic family, I was always loved and cared for.

It’s probably nostalgia, but remembrances of my growing up are filled largely with happy smells: the smell of hay and cows and horses in my great-grandfather’s barn, the smell of fried onions and potatoes in my Nanny and Grampy Lufkin’s house, the smell of perfume and cigarettes in Nanny Cleaves’s apartment, the smell of  Aqua Velva, my first aftershave lotion, the White Shoulders perfume my first girlfriend Susan wore, even the smell of wet towels, dirty socks and jock-straps in the locker-room underneath the gymnasium where I spent so much time playing basketball. (Okay, that memory’s definitely nostalgia.)

Conversely, no smell brings back more pain than the smells of shit and disinfectant in nursing homes and hospitals (where between visiting others and my own stay I’m spending more and more time these days), which invariably take me back to the two months when my daughter lay in the hospital dying of cancer—a time of fear, loneliness, and guilt—literally a shitty time.

Memories of my unhappy college years come enveloped with the acrid smell of the Old Town Paper Company blown by a stiff wind down the Stillwater River in 10° temperatures, as I pulled my collar up and stumbled my way across campus to classes I never figured out how to study for, filled with students I felt no connection with, and who, I was convinced, disdained me. And the last years of my first marriage seem in my mind’s nostrils as rank as the dregs of the pipe tobacco I used to smoke during those years.

These days, I love the smell of Mary Lee beside me in the morning, of my hot chocolate in the afternoon, of popcorn in the evening. Of seaweed and mudflats along the Maine Coast. Of dirt in the spring. Of going into the school building to pick up my grandchildren and the smells of chalk and disinfectant and young bodies taking me back to my years as a public-school teacher. And speaking of grandchildren, is there anything more uplifting than the fresh, slightly sweet smell of a newborn child?

On the other hand, I hate the heavy perfumey smell when I enter the Maine Mall, damp cellars (probably because they remind me of the cellar I lived over for twenty-two years), car exhaust on a hot day, and now, the smell of the antibiotic Mupirocin, with which I had to swab my nose prior to and after this summer’s heart surgery.

Recalling smells revives memories of my various pilgrimages and retreats even more than photographs. The exotic and sometimes stomach-churning smells of the Old City of Jerusalem—schwarma, spices, and pita bread mingled with the dust of centuries of pilgrims.

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The aroma of apple tea in Turkey. The salt-laden breezes on Iona. The tangy musk smell of the cow pastures through which Mary Lee and I hiked St. Cuthbert’s Way. The dry smoky smell of Tanzania. One of my first memories of the Episcopal monastery in Massachusetts with which I’m associated is the smell of incense wafting up from the altar into the stony steeple.

At this time of year, the woods are full of smells, full of ambivalent emotions. Fall in Maine is when the trees let go of their leaves, which brings for me not only nostalgia, but also a kind of grief. I’m well into the autumn of my life, which, along with the recent surgery, has me thinking about my mortality. So many of the smells in the woods I’ve started walking again arise from dead and dying vegetation. And yet, autumn is also the season I always feel most alive, and never more so than this year, as I find my strength (not to mention gratitude) returning. Yes, the leaves and needles and branches under my feet are dying, but at the same time the decay upon which I walk and which I smell teems with the seeds of regeneration—not only the forest’s, but also, I like to think, mine as well.

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Cruising Through Heart Surgery

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“If you want to make God laugh, tell him about your plans.”

—Woody Allen

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In trying to clean up a bit after what’s been an interesting, to say the least, month, I found the guide for the cruise Mary Lee and I had booked for this summer. Turns out I wound up with a different itinerary.

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Thursday, July 18, 2019: Transfer from Oslo, Norway Airport to Hotel Bristol, Oslo. Oslo is … a medieval and Renaissance gem….

Thursday, July 18, 2019: Drive into Portland as the moon sets over Maine Medical Center. Check in, get a body shave, talk with my anesthesiologist, and then lose consciousness until I feel my esophagus being ripped out. Mary Lee, who’s been waiting for me to come to, tells me the breathing tube has just been removed.

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Friday, July 19 & Saturday, July 20: See gargantuan snowcapped mountains, magnificent fjords, and one of Europe’s largest glaciers, as you travel to picturesque Bergen, an ancient city with deep Viking roots.

Friday, July 19:  ICU, Maine’s gargantuan Medical Center. Awake and panicky. Having trouble breathing. To prevent pneumonia, my nurse gets me up at 3:00 a.m. to sit in a chair until 5:30, when I go back to bed. Visit from P. from my 12-step program who works here. After someone tears drainage tubes out of my gut, I move from ICU to picturesque Room 104. Find the classical channel on TV and leave it on all night.

Saturday, July 20: Never could sleep on my back, just some drug induced Never-Never Land. Wake around 3:00 with a medicinal smell in my nose and a clattering of trumpets from the TV that sounds like a party of drunken horses. Spend the day getting to know my nurse as she escorts me between bed, chair, and bathroom. Decide to write a country & western song, “Lasix and Me.” Apparently, I’ve added ten pounds of fluid in my legs. Using a walker, I head down the hall with the nurse beside me and Mary Lee behind me with a wheelchair, which is good because I have to sit down after about 60 feet. Get my own incentive spirometer. Can barely bring it to 500 mg.

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Sunday, July 21: Bergan, Norway. Enjoy a relaxing tour by deluxe motor coach as you tour the main sites… Hear interesting stories about Bergen’s colorful past…

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Sunday, July 21: Nice visit from my colorful rector, who’s supposed to be on vacation, and B. from Men’s Group, who’s full of interesting stories. Walk without a walker further down the hall and back, but still have to rest in the wheelchair half-way through. Spirometer up to 750 mg. Down two pounds of fluid.

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Monday, July 22: Cruise to Geirangerfjor … Seven Sisters Waterfall…the Suitor waterfall…Eagles Bend towers…

Monday, July 22: Cruise down the hall to 111A, where I now share a room with J. When he orders a lobster roll and French fries for lunch, I almost throw up. Since Thursday, I’ve choked down a bowl of cereal, a fruit cup, and a container of yogurt. No waterfalls, but I do have my first shower. Make it around the nurses’ station without walker or wheelchair, and get the spirometer up to 1000 mg. Nice visits from friends and clergy. My nurse tells me I should go home tomorrow.

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Tuesday, July 23: At Sea: Relax, Renew, Recharge at The Spa. … peruse our Library…

Tuesday, July 23: Maine Med. & Home. Still not sleeping, so I’m awake when they come to give me a chest x-ray at 5:15 a.m. Get word I have a “slightly collapsed” left lung, so go for another x-ray at noon, then wait 20 minutes in what feels like a refrigerated meat locker for transport back to my room. Take another shower to warm up. Finally get word that the second x-ray shows no change and that my surgeon isn’t worried. I can go home. Which means another two hours of paperwork plus getting rid of all the rest of the IV portals and wires. See myself. I look like a zippered pincushion.

Home! Feel as if I’ve gone 15 rounds with a black rhino.

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Wednesday, July 24: Travel among the majestic mountains and fishing villages of the beautiful Lofoten Islands…

Wednesday, July 24: Two hours with R. from home health care. Two concerns: my back, which looks like I might be developing sores that can lead to infection, and my lungs, neither of which seems to be operating at anywhere near capacity. Try to do three ten-minute walks around majestic Willow Grove.

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On a nice note (pun intended), receive more personal mail today than I’ve had in the last six years.

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Thursday, July 25: Tromso, Norway. Meet your local guide and drive through the city known as the “Gateway to the Arctic”…

Thursday, July 25: Don’t quite make a mile around Willow Grove, but following the advice of Dr. R.’s nurse to put a pillow under my arm, am able to sleep on my side and as a result, get the best night’s sleep I’ve had in over a week. Feeling more improvement. After watching me climb stairs, get in and out of bed and get up and down from the toilet, PT person from home health services says I don’t need her.

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Friday, July 26: Honningsvag, Norway. Take in …one of Europe’s most stunning natural sights…. The cliffs of Nordkapp rise more than 1,000 feet from the sea waters and are topped by a large, flat plateau…

Friday, July 26: So much for stunning self-confidence: Today’s nurse, J., is concerned about possible infection in the incisions made in my legs to get the vein for part of the by-pass, so I’m blaming myself for not paying more attention to these incisions and for wearing the same pair of pants for three days. Now, these incisions seem to burn, and my face feels hot. Convinced I have a fever.

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 Saturday, July 27 & Sunday, July 28: At sea. Designed in the spirit of the boutiques along the world’s finest boulevards, we are proud to feature our onboard shops…clothing and handicrafts … jewelry and …cosmetics and skincare products.

Saturday, July 27: a night of catastrophizing. When I went to bed, my feet felt hot and tingly, and within fifteen minutes I’d developed kidney failure, started dialysis, and died. Tried Thich Nhat Hahn breathing exercises, prayers, psalms, replaying the 1961 Class L State Basketball championship game. This morning after two phone calls, one to home health, one to the surgeon’s office, I’m told my options are to ride it out or go to the emergency room. Decide to ride it out. Walk up to the community garden (Mary Lee gives me a ride back.) Something cheerful about gardens.

Sunday, July 28: Best night’s sleep so far. Increase my walking to 15 minutes each time. Feet feel fine, but because I have to have something to fret about, I’m concerned about my faster heart rate.

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Monday, July 29: Shetland Islands… Farmland and dreamy meadows unfold toward seal-dotted beaches. Columnar sea stacks and rocky cliffs… Medieval castles… Shetland ponies…

Monday, July 29: I’ve had three major operations and The Lord of the Rings has pulled me through each time. More aware this reading of the beauty of the language and the underlying sadness that runs through the entire trilogy. Even if the Ring-Bearer is successful against Evil, the world the characters know will fade away. Realize that despite priding myself on my ability to keep growing, keep changing, my life as I know it is slipping away—culturally, politically, physically—and today I want to cry.

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Tuesday, July 30: Orkney Islands.  …embark on a scenic drive to the Ring of Brodgar, the finest known circular stone ring from the early Bronze Age…follow the coastline of Scapa Flow…

Tuesday, July 30: My sister brings over lobster rolls for lunch, as well as the obituary for my great-grandfather Bennett.

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Ever since I got the diagnosis of a blocked artery, I’ve been asking: why me? My cholesterol levels have been low, as has blood pressure, and heart rate. I’ve always been a walker and watch my weight and what I eat. Turns out, you can’t fight your DNA. Grampy Bennett’s obit reads like an autopsy: “at 6:00 p.m. last Saturday night, Clifford Bennett, age 63, died suddenly in his kitchen of acute indigestion. He’d been in good health prior.” Googling “acute indigestion,” I find that up until the 1920’s that was the term for what we now know were heart attacks, often brought on by the same blocked main artery that I had.

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Wednesday, July 31. Edinburgh, United Kingdom. See highlights of Scotland’s capital city…from gracious architecture to a storied castle…

Wednesday, July 31. Our gracious friends J & D bring over supper for tonight: a shrimp and rice casserole with coleslaw. J’s had a stroke, a by-pass, and a valve replacement, and has just taken up rollerblading again.  While I’m inspired enough to try walking without either my hiking poles or a walking stick, I’m not about to get on any damned roller skates, thank you very much.

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Thursday, August 1: At Sea. We invite you to browse our selections of cutting-edge activewear at our onboard shop.

Thursday, August 1: Nice evening walk to water the garden, but then noticed before going to bed that my left ankle was swollen again. Spent the night browsing my Catalogue of Really Ugly, Horrible, Awful Things that Might Happen. Finally took Tylenol and slept until almost 8:00 a.m. Called my twelve-step sponsor and feel better.

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Friday, August 2 & Saturday, August 3: London. Discover Greenwich’s maritime and royal history by foot… Shakespeare’s Globe Theater… West End musicals…Tower Bridge… the London Eye. Return home.

Friday, August 2: Mary Lee is off with one of the grandchildren, so I get up, meditate, go for a walk, fix and eat breakfast by myself—a first! Home health nurse says I’m doing well. Still some “crackling” in my lung and some swelling in my ankle, but I’m walking faster and standing straighter. Can keep the spirometer’s button in the smiley face area for over 5 seconds each time.

Saturday, August 3: the day we should have been flying home, ending our original cruise. For this cruise through heart surgery, I’ve still got at least another month. I don’t know what I’d have learned from those majestic mountains and castles and villages, but I have definitely learned at least two things on this trip I’m on now. First, I’m not in control. Three months ago, I had no idea I had anything wrong with my heart. Now, I don’t seem to have any command over how I’m doing each day, either physically or emotionally; all I can do is surrender my life to the God-of-my-not-Understanding.

Second, I live primarily through Grace, in this case, the compassionate professionalism of my doctors and nurses, the cards and visits and emails from friends, and the unwavering love and support of my family, especially Mary Lee.

Not to mention the Grace to have accepted my surgeon’s advice and not put all this off until next week.

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False Evidence Appearing Real

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“The crowd of people around us suddenly became menacing.”

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I was reminiscing with myself the other day about various pilgrimages I’ve been on and got to thinking about the only one during which I was afraid. It was in 1997, when Mary Lee and I were in Israel. We’d taken a sherut, a minivan-style taxi, from Jerusalem to visit the Church of the Nativity, the supposed site of Jesus’s birth, in Bethlehem. Because Bethlehem was under the administration of the Palestinian National Authority, when we reached the outskirts of the city, the Israeli sherut stopped at a bus stop to let people out for the Palestinian bus into town. On the way, however, we’d been talking with a Palestinian couple—teachers in Europe, I forget where. Their car was in the parking lot, so they gave us a ride up to the Church. Mary Lee and I did our sight-seeing, saw the cave where Jesus was supposed to be born. (Ever since then, I’ve wondered why all mangers at Christmas time look like tropical huts), went to the gift store where we bought an olive wood creche, and then walked out into the square to find the bus.

Only to realize that I had no idea what the bus looked like or where it was. My stomach suddenly knotted. For the first time since we’d been in Israel, I became aware that Mary Lee and I were traveling alone in a strange, war-torn country. The crowd of people around us suddenly became menacing. Then, I heard a voice off to the side: “Hey! You want bus? Over here!”

The voice came from inside a beat-up blue bus hiding behind the corner of a building. The speaker was an unshaven young man of at most twenty years of age. We walked over and tentatively started to board. Before we were even settled, the guy stepped on the gas, his momentum knocking us into our seats. That was when I saw four or five teenage boys in tee-shirts and jeans behind us, their mouths curled with James Dean sneers around their cigarettes.

A cold hand grabbed my heart and squeezed. I envisioned our being kidnapped, forced in front of TV cameras to denounce the United States, and then beheaded or shot. Only when the bus squealed to a stop and an elderly woman got on did I begin to breathe more normally.

It was a good lesson in fear—what I’ve since learned is often an acronym for “False Evidence Appearing Real.” The divided country, the beat-up bus, the scruffy teenagers and their cigarettes (remember when cigarettes were sophisticated?), the speed with which we left the square were all in hindsight false evidence that these were terrorists intent on holding two middle-aged high school English teachers as political prisoners.

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Throughout my life, most of my fears have been mental: fear of abandonment, fear of not being seen (while I’ve struggled with alcohol over the years, my real drug of choice has been the approval of others), fear of ridicule, or just plain anxiety about… well, I don’t usually know what about. To use a twelve-step word, I tend to “awfulize” when anything new happens, creating worse-case scenarios in my head.

What’s helped over the years is recalling my Bethlehem experience, and that, as then, my fears are almost always false evidence appearing real. And the less I know about something, the more my mind will supply the false evidence. Even when I have had something concrete to worry about—my deteriorating first marriage, my daughter’s cancer—being afraid has never helped me change the outcome.

Life has taught me a few ways to deal with my fears and anxieties. One way is to stay in the moment. The Vietnamese monk Thich Nhat Hahn has a number of breathing exercises that I’ve found helpful over the years, one of which is breathing in and out, saying “Breathing in, I calm my body, breathing out, I smile. Dwelling in the present moment, I know this is a wonderful moment.”

Another way is journaling. I once took a day-long workshop in journaling, and one of our exercises was to draw a picture of one of our fears. I drew a huge finger pointing at me and laughing in ridicule. Next, we were directed to give our fear a name (mine was Freddy). Then, we wrote a conversation with our fear. (“Me: Don’t you shake your finger at me, Asshole. I’m not as afraid of you as I used to be. Freddy: That’s what you think, Buddy Boy …”)

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Freddy Fear

A third way, and probably the most effective when I can do it, is to turn my fear over to the God of My Not Understanding. “Courage,” as my twelve-step program says, “is fear that has said its prayers.”

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That I’ve been thinking about our trip to Bethlehem and my various fears is no surprise: I’m starting another pilgrimage. No, not the cruise Mary Lee and I are planning to make next week, but open-heart surgery.

This journey began about a month ago, when during a routine follow-up with my primary care doctor, I mentioned to him that I was having more and more shortness of breath, and that my daily walks—for years a source of joy and relaxation—now felt like climbing Mount Washington with a fifty-pound backpack. “I think we’d better schedule you for a stress test,” he said.

A few days later, after getting wired up and pounding a treadmill for six or seven minutes, I listened to a diagnosis of an “abnormality” in my heart rate. That led to first one and then two arterial catherizations, which revealed that my left main coronary artery is just over the line between “moderately” and “severely” narrowed. Since I have no shortness of breath doing normal activity, doctors have given me the okay (as well as a bottle of nitroglycerine tablets) for the cruise. Then I will have by-pass surgery when I return.

So I’m practicing my Thich Nhat Hahn, journaling (not to mention writing this blog), and spending a lot of time with my Higher Power, trying to hand over my various fears and anxieties about dying, of not seeing my grandchildren grow, of becoming a burden to Mary Lee, yadda, ad nauseum. I’m also trying to let go of my tendency to blame myself—which I realize has always been my go-to way to avoid anxiety by swapping it for guilt—feeling that my narrowed artery is because I didn’t exercise more, eat better, lose the ten pounds I’ve been thinking I should lose for the last fifteen years.

I don’t know what’s going to happen, which, as I’ve written about now for almost four years, is one of the characteristics of pilgrimage, along with hearing the call and responding, crossing the threshold where the old has fallen away and the new hasn’t yet emerged, being uncomfortable, beginning again, embracing the unknown, and coming home (wherever home may be.)

The trick, I’m finding, as with all pilgrimages, is to prepare for the future without living in it, and ignore all the false evidence appearing real.

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The Road goes ever on and on
Down from the door where it began. 
Now far ahead the Road has gone,
                                                              And I must follow, if I can…                                                                                                                                 (from The Lord of the Rings)

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The Stay at Home Pilgrimage

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Recently, a former (a word I prefer these days to “old”) high school classmate sent me a podcast of Krista Tippett’s Becoming Wise, in which Tippett talks with Paulo Coelho, author of such popular books as The Alchemist, and The Pilgrimage. In talking about his own “pilgrimage of who am I?” Coelho said that since pilgrimage involves leaving our homes and discovering something new—meeting new people, paying attention to the elements, being open to life—we are on a pilgrimage from the moment we are born to the moment we die.

Of course, I loved hearing this since for over three years the idea of this blog has been to talk about the similarities between the pilgrimages and retreats I’ve been on and the everyday trips I’ve made to basketball gymnasiums, a Ronald McDonald House, 12-step meetings, weekly old-time music jam sessions, high school reunions, and family burial grounds. But Coelho has me wondering if I’m paying enough attention to the pilgrimages I make even when I don’t leave the house.

I have one of these thingies on my smartphone that tells me how many steps I make in a day, and I’m proud as hell when I get over 20,000 steps. But lately, I’ve been focusing on just 12 steps. My daily readings, my phone conversations with my sponsor, are journeys of discovery. Not all of these explorations are pleasant. Just as on a hike I can twist an ankle tripping over an unseen rock, or scrap a knee, or, in the case of a recent hike in Arizona, come back punctured with cactus stickers, I can stumble over a repressed childhood memory, scrape my defenses, puncture my ego. Yet all of these wounds have helped me learn to let go of the perfectionism that has tarred and feathered me with shame and resentment for over seventy years.

As Coelho and other writers on pilgrimage have said, it’s the letting go that makes any journey—interior or exterior—a pilgrimage. And it’s those survival tools I learned growing up at home, such as perfectionism, judgmentalism, codependence, solipsism, and the like, that I’m learning to leave behind.

On my various travels, I’ve met new people, some of whom I’ve written about in these blogs. At home, through my 12-step programs and the writing of this blog, I have also met new folks. And I’ve come to see people I’ve known before in new ways. Yes, I knew Brynna, who sent me the Krista Tippett’s podcast, in high school, but not well. Only in the last few years have I come to see what a delightful person she is. While in Arizona, I took an afternoon away from my retreat to have coffee with Richard, with whom I’d grown up, but had had almost no contact with from grade school to about a year ago. Both he and his wife Alexandra are two of the friendliest and most intriguing people I’ve come to know.

Reading new writers has always been part of any of my pilgrimages or retreats, whether in Arizona, Scotland, or here in Brunswick, Maine. Lately I’ve been reading Martin Laird, whose three books on silence have become the foundation for what I euphemistically call my spiritual life; Beldan Lane, who writes of nature in a way that resonates with and through me; the mystery writer  Jo Nesbo; and David Mitchell, author of Atlas Shrugged, The Bone Clocks, and The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet. I’m also reading new works by authors I think of as old friends—Patricia Hampl, Pam Houston—and rereading works like The Aeneid and the novels of Wallace Stegner with new eyes.

The grandchildren are now almost seven, four, and three, and are new people every visit. And so, if I pay attention, is my wife.

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Mary Lee, my companion on all my travels, is on her own personal pilgrimage, and at dinner we sit and talk about our new discoveries that day. My 12-step work on codependency has shown me that If she and I are to keep growing, we need to give each other the space to do so. Especially since our retirements (at least from paying jobs), it’s important for me to see my wife through new eyes, both mine and hers.

It was after my eighteen-year-old daughter’s death from cancer that I began to find solace in traveling. Then, as I began to see parallels between my journeys to other lands and my journey through the landscape of grief and grace, these trips became pilgrimages. Laurie has been dead now for over thirty years, and each year, she becomes less of a memory and more of a daily presence in my life, no matter where I am. There’s part of me that feels guilty for saying this, but I struggle to recall what my daughter looked like. Seeing her picture on the table in the hall with all the rest of my family usually shocks me a bit. The other day, when I was talking with a student from forty-five years ago, now a dentist working on a novel in which an eighteen-year-old girl is dying, I realized as I was telling Chris about how the girl’s father might feel, that I can talk of Laurie’s suffering and death with detachment. Usually, in November and December, the anniversary of the final two months of my daughter’s life, I’m both physically and emotionally fragile. Last year, however, these months were, for the most part, joyous occasions for friends and family visits. Laurie’s suffering and death, her compassion and joy, our walks together, our disagreements, our shared laughter and tears, have all become one breath, inhaling and exhaling, keeping me alive, while making me less fearful of my own dying. Laurie is not in some far-off land, waiting for me to join her at some future time, but here, now, as I’m coming to believe are all our loved ones.

So, does looking at my life as a series of daily pilgrimages make any difference in the larger scope of things? Well, it’s probably not going to solve the immigration crisis or eliminate global warming, but it is helpful for my serenity to look back and see my life as full of mystery and paradox: wounds that heal; forty, sixty, seventy-year relationships that have become new; togetherness built on separation; physical absence and spiritual presence. And it’s this looking back that makes me less afraid of the future, both of my own and of the world’s.

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Mud Season

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“Poor March. It is the homeliest month of the year. Most of it is mud, every imaginable form of mud, and what isn’t mud in March is ugly late-season snow falling onto ground in filthy mud heaps that look like dirty laundry.” —Vivian Swift, When Wanderers Cease to Roam: a Traveler’s Journal of Staying.

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Mud is the most poetic thing in the world. —R. H. Blyth.

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I’ve just returned from what is becoming an annual retreat at the Desert House of Prayer, outside of Tucson, Arizona. But if you want to read about the desert, you should read a couple of my earlier blogs— https://geriatricpilgrim.com/2016/03/07/dont-ask-why-just-ask-for-help/ and https://geriatricpilgrim.com/2018/03/19/return-to-the-desert/.  I’m going to write about mud.

Which was the first thing I thought of when I woke up the morning after returning from my retreat and looked at a brown, wet, New England landscape choked with trees that looked like sticks, the houses dirty and sad, muddy cars sloshing through puddles, splashing up brown water. Later, I walked to our development’s compost pile through a morass of muck that coated my shoes and tracked into the house, the gunky footprints welcoming me to what we call mud season. Which here in Maine can last longer than springtime.

Let’s face it, mud can be depressing on any number of levels. Our language is full of negative responses to mud: we are “bogged down” in work, “swamped” by debts, “mired” in triviality. We don’t want to “muddy the waters,” and we accuse politicians of “slinging mud.” The Psalmist writes, “… the Lord drew me…out of the miry bog, and set my feet upon a rock.”

Speaking of bogs, one of our current President’s campaign pledges was to “drain the swamp in Washington.” Whether or not he’s succeeding or sinking us deeper into “the miry bog” in debatable, but generally speaking, our civilization has tried to move out of swamps, draining them of mud, replacing them with concrete. (Not always successfully. I once owned a house built on old swamp land, and for the twelve years I lived there, the swamp kept inviting itself back, flooding the cellar, leaving a rug of mud on the cement floor.)

Mud is a place of ambiguity. It’s indefinite, uncertain, and we are a culture that values a distinct, separate self, even if it means putting up walls to keep things and people from seeping through. My Puritan ancestors hated swamps, I suspect, because, in a spiritual sense, there’s nothing to hold on to. Everything is fluid, murky. Like the swamp my house was built on, nature is always about to leak through the tight barriers of morality and hard work.

And yet, while on retreat, I spent time going back into my early childhood, doing some twelve-step work, and realizing that my earliest memory is of playing in the mud. Most children, in fact, are drawn to mud; making mud pies apparently gratifies our first creative instincts. And it’s actually good for us. According to a neuroscience journal, dirt and mud are natural anti-depressants, because the bacteria found in them trigger the release of serotonin in our brains.

Mud rejuvenates. When Mary Lee and I were in Israel, we went to the Dead Sea and covered ourselves in mud—something about the slight buoyancy of mud together with traces of pumice scouring off our dead skin cells. I just thought we looked cool.

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And also sort of sexy. Which makes sense because life on this planet may have been conceived in the mud. Adam, we read in one version of creation, was made from mud. In many Native American creation stories, our continent began with mud. Several recent scientific theories—and one not so recent by Charles Darwin— suggest that the early building blocks of life may have been created in a mud puddle of volcanic ash and warm water some 3.8 billion years ago.

Every year mud season brings new life: daffodils poke from the ground and buds swell on the trees. So, we need the mud for what grows from it. At the same time, when you realize that mud is made up of decayed vegetation and rocks that have been pounded for millions and millions of years into silt, every mud season is also a kind of death. More of that messy ambiguity again.

My trouble is not so much where mud season is taking me, but what I have to go through to get there. I’ve certainly gone through my own personal mud seasons: depression, divorce, the death of a child, illness, addictions, crises of faith. I expect you have, too. Times when nothing is clear, when you have no firm foundation, when you seem to sink deeper and deeper into the mire. And yet, out of these times, you find new life, find yourself growing in ways you never expected.

When I returned to school to get an MFA, one of my mentors was Barbara Hurd, who wrote a wonderful book called Stirring the Mud. In mud, she writes, “the boundary between physical and spiritual melts and we see that one is always infused with the other.” She points out that all of us are more than ninety percent water—“liquid mosaics of mutable and transient urges, and we give ourselves headaches when we pretend otherwise, when we stiffen ourselves into permanent and separate identities.”

Maybe I’m supposed to get dirty. Maybe I’m not supposed to be clear about the fluidity of self. Last week on retreat, during our daily meditation sessions, I saw how elusive, insubstantial, and fleeting my thoughts are. Looking back over my life, I can count at least ten different “identities” I’ve assumed over my almost seventy-six years. I used to call these identities “false selves.” Now, I’m not so sure but that these selves simply leaked back and forth through my life, and what made them “false” was that I clung to them instead of letting them flow.

I have not only returned from Arizona to mud season, I have also returned to the Christian season of Lent, which, as I think about it, is its own kind of mud season, a time of ambiguity, of waiting for new life, while watching where I put my feet. As Philip Simmons puts it in his book, Learning to Fall, “The path to resurrection lies through the mud.”

I’m hoping that during this Lent and this mud season, I will be granted the grace to let the mud teach me to be ambiguous, paradoxical, non-dualistic, non-hierarchical, and receptive—that I may learn to play in the primordial soup of possibility.

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Since 70

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I spent months living in dread of turning 70, because then I would be officially “old”—over the hill, past my prime, debilitated, enfeebled, ad infinitum. Well, four months shy of turning 76, I can honestly say being 70 isn’t bad, not bad at all.

Now, I’ve been lucky. No chronic disease to live with, no financial burdens. Mary Lee is well, and her sons and their wives have no major problems other than the common difficulties in raising a family and holding a job these days. The grandchildren are (usually) a delight.

My 70s, of course, have brought about physical changes that are pretty depressing. It seems as if every shower I find a new mole or lipoma to worry about. The hair in my ears grows faster than the hair on my head. My waist is expanding. I’m longer in the tooth and shorter in the leg. (For years I taught T.S. Eliot’s “Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” and never understood the line, “I shall wear the bottoms of my trousers rolled.”) I can recall the lyrics to almost every popular song from 1957-65, but I can’t remember the names of the two women who’ve lived across the street for five years. I spend a half-hour a day hunting for something.

Over the last five years, I’ve become more aware of Newton’s Law of Inertia: an object at rest stays at rest and an object in motion stays in motion. It takes me twenty minutes of exercise when I get up in the morning for me to be able to move without hurting. Probably because of the exercise, however, my chronic back pain is less than it has been in years. Beginning a new piece of writing is like hiking through mudflats in hip boots, yet the ensuing drafts are more fun than they used to be. I like to walk, but now the first ten minutes or so, my lungs burn and I have trouble getting enough breath. Then, they clear out and I’m good to go, which often means walking too far because I don’t feel like stopping (it’s not like I have a job or anything to get to). Consequently, I’m stiffer and sorer when I get up the next day to do those exercises.

A bigger problem is that I don’t seem to be able to stop talking after I’ve run out of things to say. My father-in-law used to speak of being in his “anecdotage.” I understand. I have all these great stories that I know you’re just dying to hear, stories that will amuse, educate, and inspire you. So why are your eyes glazing over?

My tastes have changed. I eat less meat than I used to and more chocolate. I’ve grown fond of oatmeal, kale, and certain kinds of seaweed, and less interested in lettuce, potatoes—especially fries—and baked beans. Not always, but usually—and I’m still having trouble believing this—I’d rather have salmon than lobster, tuna steak than fried clams.

Two years ago, when we bought a car with satellite radio, I couldn’t wait to find the 50’s and 60’s music channels. That lasted about a month (If, for my sins, I go to Hell, “Itsy Bitsy Yellow Polka Dot Bikini” will play nonstop.) I tried “Elvis Radio” for about four hours, and “The Beatles Channel” for maybe two. I listened to a blue-grass station for a while, and then several country and western ones. Now, I’m almost always listening to a jazz or classical station. It’s not that I’ve necessarily grown more sophisticated—I play a banjo for heaven’s sake—the music just seems fresher and more varied.

Ever since my family bought its first television in 1953, I’ve watched televised sports, but now I can’t watch anything on the tube except for a championship game featuring some New England team. I’ve had it with the incessant number of commercials advertising products I don’t understand at a volume twice as loud as the programing. It was bad enough when sports became huge businesses, but now they’ve become politicized as well. I’m sorry, I watch sports to forget about what’s happening to this country. I’ll sit in the stands at a local college or high school game, if you don’t mind.

Something else I never expected: I’m learning to accept, even value, my increasing powerlessness. I’m not talking now only of my physical condition. Five years ago, I entered a 12-step program. Step One states, “We admitted we were powerless over alcohol and that our lives had become unmanageable.” Everyone I’ve ever talked to in the program says that this is the hardest step of all. Admitting powerlessness runs counter to everything I, and I think most Americans grew up learning.

Like most of you, I expect, I was raised to be self-sufficient—“master of my fate… captain of my soul,” to quote one of my high school reading assignments . As an adult, I loved hear Frank Sinatra or Elvis sing,

For what is a man, what has he got?

If not himself, then he has naught

To say the things he truly feels

and not the words of one who kneels.

The record shows I took the blows

and did it my way.

But when I began reading about adult children of alcoholics, I learned how many of us were raised to be masters of not only our own fate but also the fate of the rest of our families. For example, I somehow always knew as a child that I was responsible for making sure that Christmas was a happy time of year, especially for my parents, neither of whom growing up had had happy holidays. I took that sense of responsibility for making others happy with me when I left home and started my own families, so that for seventy years, my Christmases were never as merry as I thought they should be, and it was my fault.

This burden of responsibility became even more oppressive after my daughter died on December 23, 1988. All parents feel guilt when their child dies, but my background as a child of alcoholism magnified it. I’ve written in these blogs several times about feeling my body chemistry change after Thanksgiving and the weight of the next weeks grow heavier and heavier.

Perhaps because of my physical diminishments, however, I’m finding that I have no choice but realize my increasing powerlessness in all facets of life. As my mother said to me when she was about the age I am now, “I used to think life was a case of mind over matter; now I find that what I mind doesn’t matter.”

Yet when I’ve been able to admit my powerlessness, I’ve experienced a wonderful sense of freedom. I can say “no” to causes and activities in which I used to feel I ought to participate, but that I had neither the skills nor the real interest in doing. The last few Thanksgivings, hosting twenty people all younger than I, I finally started putting some of them to work.

And this November I asked myself if my body chemistry was about to change, or was I just opening the same dog-eared horror story of how my daughter died. Laurie loved Christmas. She certainly never wanted me moping about or yelling at motorists on the highway. What would happen, I wondered, if I closed this book and took each day for what it was (or wasn’t).

After the holidays, I’m now trying to view the rest of the year not as something to master, but as something to accept. I’ve got a long way to go. You don’t unlearn something you’ve been doing for 70 years in five years. But when I can let go of this idea that the world depends upon me to keep it turning, I can see that everything I have—my health, my family— everything I am—including being a grieving parent— is gift.

Yes, I shed some tears on December 23rd. I also had a wonderful holiday season. I hope you did, too.

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Just one reason my Christmas was merry.

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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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