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.

Claude Glass
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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Making Assumptions

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When you assume, you make an ass out of u and me.”

—Oscar Wilde

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Mary Lee and I are planning a trip to Africa. We’re reading up on where we think we might like to go and watching YouTubes made by people who’ve taken trips there. I’ve just finished Paul Theroux’s Dark Star Safari: Overland from Cairo to Cape Town. We’re getting shots for typhoid and hepatitis, and reading up on the kind of pills we need for malaria and what bug sprays to take along.

Planning, writers on pilgrimage agree, is essential to the pilgrimage experience.

What I need to be careful about is that I don’t confuse making plans with making assumptions. I’m better at separating the two—one of the benefits of aging (they do exist)—but I still fall prey to the anxieties, delusions, and disappointments that occur when I make assumptions about what’s going to happen, whether on a pilgrimage, retreat, or quick trip to the grocery store.

Several years ago, as Mary Lee and I planned our pilgrimage to Jerusalem, I assumed the old city would look like all the photographs and paintings I’d seen of glorious holy sites and people kneeling quietly in prayer. Israel, I assumed, would look like the 23rd Psalm: green pastures and still waters. I assumed I would be filled with awe and reverence. I did not assume how steep the streets are, how relentlessly hot the weather can be, and how the crowds could at times be suffocating; nor that I would become sick with dysentery, and that most of the holy sites were swarming with packs of children hounding us for money. Only later—when I returned home, really—did I recognize how important a pilgrimage I’d made. But my assumptions, I think, ruined much of my actual time there.

None of the YouTubes—and I saw a lot of them—on hiking St. Cuthbert’s Way from Melrose, Scotland to the Island of Lindesfarne off the coast of England prepared us for the hills and the cow shit. (See above photo.) None of the brochures on San Francisco prepared us for the mosquitos that attacked us one night in our hotel. On the other hand, when Mary Lee and I traveled to Iona off the west coast of Scotland, we assumed that a couple of days would be more than enough to cover an island just four miles long and a mile wide. The next year, we spent a week there and still didn’t feel as if we’d stayed long enough.

I’ve made similar faulty assumptions before going on a retreat. Once, I assumed I’d spend my time snowshoeing in the woods and spent it in bed with excruciating back pains. Another time, I thought I would enter a period of silence and slow time and wound up spending several days in tears, banging my head in rage against the side of my bed.

These previous pilgrimages and retreats have helped me learn to put aside preconceived notions about what may or may not happen and accept that what will be is what will be—a lesson I’m trying to carry over into my day-to-day pilgrimage through life. If I’m going to have lunch with some of my old classmates, I try not to assume I’ll wind up arguing over politics and spend that morning getting ready to do battle, because if the subject of whoever’s President never comes up, (which it often doesn’t) I’ve wasted the morning. If I’m going to be spending time with my one, two, and five-year-old grandchildren, I’ve learned that to assume they’re going to arrive at the house wanting me to fix them oatmeal and read books and go to a playground is only going to make both them and me miserable.

It’s taken thirty years, but I’ve learned never to assume how I will be each year from November to Christmas—the two months I spent at my daughter’s bedside when she was dying of cancer. Some years, I’m overly angry or forgetful or sad or sick. Last year, I realized that I wasn’t any of those things; that, in fact, I was cheerful and looking forward to Christmas—until the anniversary of Laurie’s death, when I suddenly spasmed into tears.

Assumptions illustrate how, as the Buddhists say, “We do not see things as they are; we see things as we are.” The year after Laurie died, besides being angry, I was confused and afraid. But what I wrote in my journal that year were rants about news articles in which I disdained everyone else for being confused and afraid: book sellers for pulling Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses off their shelves because of fear of Muslim reprisals; people for taking anti-depressants because they were afraid of not feeling happy all the time. These days, I find myself fighting the assumption that because I’m not as strong as I was fifty years ago, neither is my country; that because I’m going to die within the next twenty or so years, the United States will as well.

I find it interesting that when we talk about assumptions, we do not have them, we make them. Assumptions, then, are what we create, we fabricate. There’s also the implication that what we create is false, as when we assume a role in a play or assume a pseudonym. We make these assumptions, I think—okay, I make assumptions, I think—in order to bolster the ego, convince myself that I have control over the future, hide my anxieties about the unknown.

The problem is that these assumptions keep my mind closed to possibility, to mystery. Last week, I ran across a quote by Albert Einstein:

The most beautiful thing we can experience is the mysterious. It is the fundamental emotion that stands at the cradle of all true art and science. He to whom this emotion is a stranger, who can no long wonder and stand rapt in awe, is as good as dead, a snuffed out candle.

One thing I do now to try to avoid making assumptions is to end each day asking, “What surprised me today?” Not all of these surprises are, of course, pleasant ones—yesterday I was surprised to find caterpillar nests in the beautiful apple blossoms on the tree at the end of our street—but the practice has opened me up a little more to some of life’s mysteries. And at my age, I want to be open and standing in awe as long as I can. My candle’s going to go out pretty soon anyway; I don’t want to snuff it ahead of time.

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