Climbing (Part of) Mount Kilimanjaro

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The first morning of my recent trip to Tanzania, I went out on our cabin porch and the first thing I saw was Mount Kilimanjaro, its snow-capped peak rising over a blue jacaranda tree into cotton clouds and a blue sky. It was breathtaking … for a minute or two.

Then my demons woke up. Ever since Mary Lee and I had reviewed our itinerary back in the spring, I’d had apprehensions about the second day of our trip: a hike up part of Kilimanjaro. It wasn’t much a climb, if you were a climber or if you were fifty-five instead of seventy-five, but the idea of trekking eight kilometers (about five miles) up the mountain and then the same distance back at an altitude that began at 1879 meters (or 6165 feet, higher than any mountain on the East Coast of the United States) filled me with not a little trepidation.

Compounded by the fact that I felt I had to do it or I would somehow be a failure, less of a man. All my life I have measured my worth by what I’ve done. Probably because I grew up in an alcoholic family, shame has been the driving force in my life, and the approval of others my drug of choice, far more addictive than booze or caffeine.

That first day, while Mary Lee and I rested from our 18-hour trip by touring a coffee plantation, I kept glancing up at Kilimanjaro—or where I knew the mountain was; most of the day, it was hidden by clouds—wondering, Can I do this? What will people think of me if I can’t make it?

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The next day, Rashid, our guide came to our cabin to pick us up. Short and wiry in his mesh REI baseball cap, sweatshirt, and jeans, he looked about eighteen (although I found out later, he was in his late thirties). During the hour drive to Kilimanjaro National Park, as he talked to our driver in Swahili, I wondered if they were talking about us—okay, talking about me—my pot belly, my hunched back. Climbing a long flight of stairs from the parking lot to the Kinapa Headquarters, my lungs burned and my heart raced. There’s no way in hell I can do this!

While we were taking pictures at the Marangu Gate Entrance, I told Rashid, “Look, my wife and I do a lot of walking, but not much climbing. I’m not sure we can make it to the Mandara Huts and back.”

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Rashid grinned. “No problem,” he said. “We’re here to enjoy the mountain. Poli Poli. Slowly, slowly.”

When I start walking, my tendency is to begin at brisk pace and then slow down when I get out of breath, speed up, slow down…. Rashid set out on about the same pace I use when I’m going from the TV set to the bathroom. I took it personally. What kind of whimp does he think I am? I wanted to speed up. Maybe we could do the whole hike after all.

But Rashid seemed to be enjoying himself. He walked ahead of me, hands behind his back, looking around, a smile on his face. I found I had the breath to ask him questions about his life as a guide. He said he started as a porter. As a guide for the last fifteen years, he’d climbed all eight routes to the summit. When I said it must be dull walking with two old people like us, he replied, “No, I always find something beautiful to see. Kilimanjaro is my office.”

On the plane ride from the States, I’d read that Kilimanjaro has five ecological zones. We were hiking through the second zone of dense rain forest. Huge tree ferns surrounded us. Rashid pointed out sycamore trees, junipers, and some incredible moss called “old man’s beard” hanging from their branches. He showed us red gladiolas, a lily with yellow and red spikes, a yellow hibiscus, and “impatiens Kilimanjaro,” which only grows on this mountain and whose blossoms look like pink seahorses with yellow tails.

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Jambo.” A young woman in a red and brown striped skirt and a bright tourquoise bandanna around her head passed us as if we were standing still. She carried a large knife.

Jambo.” Rashid returned the traditional Swahili greeting. It seemed to me they winked at one another. As she disappeared around a bend ahead, he told us that she was a member of the Chagga tribe, who use the forest for firewood, farming, beekeeping, and logging. I was envious of her youth, her grace, her speed.

Still, when we came to a steep rise, I was grateful for Rashid’s slow pace. Zig-zagging up rocks and roots, I noticed my lungs seemed to have adjusted to the altitude. Rashid began pointing out birds: boubous, hoopoes, hornbills, and my favorite, a turaco, sporting what looked like a purple mohawk haircut on a green head.

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Just before noon, we reached a rest area, which Rashid said was about half-way to the Mandara Huts. Now, I knew for certain there was no way we were going to do all of our scheduled hike. My nemesis Shame pointed his finger at me and laughed.

Six German hikers— beginning, they told us, their ascent to the summit—were finishing their lunch. Rashid and their guide talked in Swahili, while Mary Lee and I ate our sandwiches. As this guide was leaving, he smiled at Mary Lee, “Good-bye, Bibi.” He turned to me, “Good-bye, Babu.”

Rashid smiled. “That means “Grandmother and Grandfather.”

My spirits sank. Shame snickered. What, you think he thought you were Robert Redford in Out of Africa?

I don’t know if my disappointment showed or not, but Rashid added, “In Africa, that is a term of respect.”

I thought, Well, Grandfather is what you are, aren’t you? And aren’t you happy to be one? Then I realized that not only was I a grandfather to four kids under seven, but I could be the grandfather of any of the six German climbers. Our guide Rashid was ten years younger than my daughter would have been if she’d lived.

I had a brief vision of eighteen-year-old Laurie lying on her hospital bed, her labored breathing: “Ash…es, ash…es.” I saw my classmate Scott, one of the best athletes I’ve ever played with, struggling to get out of bed a month or so before he died.

Hell, you’re lucky to be anywhere on this mountain.

Shame was silent.

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We continued upward. The terrain grew steeper, the vegetation less dense. Suddenly Rashid stopped. “Over to your left. Blue monkey. You don’t see them on the ground much.”

Through the trees, I saw a bluish-black monkey ambling up some rocks. Male, probably 15 pounds, maybe two feet long, with another two feet of tail that looked like a piece of rope.

Would I have seen him, I wondered, if I’d been clamoring up the mountain intent only on getting to the Huts?

An hour or so later, we hit the steepest rise of our hike. Rashid said that at the top we’d see a waterfall. Mary Lee and I looked at each other, and I said what I’d never thought I’d hear myself say: “No, I think we’ve gone as far as we need to. We’re ready to go back.”

I don’t think we’d taken more than a few steps down the path before our guide pointed up. “Colobus monkeys!” Through an overhead canopy of leaves, I saw two large monkeys, black with white trim and magnificent white tails, peacefully munching away.

If we’d kept on climbing, I’d have missed them.

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The descent was faster and easier, not only because my lungs weren’t working as hard, but because it felt as if a weight had been removed from my shoulders. As we passed through the forest of variegated flowers, feathery ferns, and lichen-bearded trees, I wondered if what hadn’t lifted was the weight of responsibility to those self-images I keep creating. How often, I thought, have I been a slave to how I want people to see me: the varsity athlete, the Kerouac hipster, the wise, knowing teacher, the grieving parent raging against God, the great writer… always reacting; seldom receiving.

As we made our way down the last slope just before the entrance to Kilimanjaro, Rashid cautioned us, “Poli poli.”

“Yes, slowly slowly. Thank you,” I said, grateful not only for his concern, but also for the gift of the day.

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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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Being in Tanzania

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I traveled to Tanzania with no expectations. My reason for going was to accompany my wife, for whom Africa had been a dream since she was in grade school. Yet, when I returned two weeks later, I felt I’d been on one of the most spiritually significant pilgrimages of my life. Whether or not I’ll say this five years from now remains to be seen, but right now, I’m reflecting on my exterior and interior journeys.

What keeps coming back to me is a comment our guide, Abel, made the morning he drove Mary Lee and me to the Serengeti Plains. We’d begun to see tall, red-robed people herding hump-backed cattle on the hills. He told us these were Africa’s iconic Masai, the semi-nomadic tribe who live in Kenya and Tanzania, continuing their age-old customs, persisting in speaking their own language, in spite of both governments’ instituted programs to encourage them to assimilate into the general culture.

“I like the Masai,” Abel said. “They are proud just to be.”

Since then, I’ve become aware of how hard it is for me to feel that way. Oh, I can remember when I was proud to be a varsity basketball player; when I was (and am) proud to be a teacher; proud to be a parent and grandparent; proud to be an American. But proud just to be? The idea has always been as foreign to me as a Masai diet of blood and curdled milk. I was raised always to consider, “What will the neighbors think?” To get my worth from how others perceive me.

The problem is that I make assumptions about how others see me, which has led to a lifetime of anxiety and resentments. With no idea who I was after I stopped playing basketball, I went into a depression that lasted almost four years. Even after thirty years of teaching, I considered myself an abysmal failure as a human being if I had a bad class. When my daughter died from cancer, convinced people saw me as a poor parent who couldn’t look after his child, my pride in being a father turned to shame. In Africa, I found myself embarrassed to admit to being from the United States for fear of being seen as a supporter of the policies of our current government.

And as the morning continued, and I got used to seeing the Masai and the motorcycles and the open fires and the outdoor furniture stores beside the road on our long drive to the Serengeti, my mind reverted to playing the same old home movies it always does when it wanders. I’m back in high school, changing the outcome of the state basketball championship game, winning by 20 points this time instead of losing by that much. I’m arguing today’s politics with some of those same teammates whose views now differ 180 degrees from mine, destroying their feeble arguments with my brilliant sarcasm. I’m dying of lung cancer, stomach cancer, melanoma, cancer of the esophagus, or Parkinson’s Disease. I’m making plans to change my life when I get back from this trip, eating more fruits and vegetables, giving up cheese and chocolate, losing ten pounds, growing another beard, maybe getting another tattoo. All of which, I see now, are just more examples of getting my identity from what I imagine other people think of me.

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But after lunch, we entered the Serengeti— miles and miles of lion-brown plains dotted with feathery trees under a vast sky. Abel raised the roof of his Land Cruiser. Mary Lee and I stood and began to see animals: gazelles and antelope at first, then the occasional ostrich and wart hog. In the distance, a road seemed to move until we came closer and saw that it was a large herd of cape buffalo chugging across the landscape. On a large boulder, a lion gazed into the distance.

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Slowly, my mind started to shift its focus, still returning, however, between animals, to those old illusions and assumptions.

Until, in the late afternoon, we saw a circle of land cruisers around an Acacia Tree. Pulling in, I could make out a female lion sleeping on a limb. At first, peering through the same sarcastic lens through which I often see things, I found the scene ridiculous—a half-dozen vehicles, at least that many telephoto lenses and maybe twenty people, all watching one lion trying to sleep? Then Abel gave me his binoculars and I watched the lion stretching and contracting her front legs. She swished her tail, arched her back, and moved higher into the tree. Onyx-colored eyes glanced at me dispassionately. She yawned, revealing a large tongue and sharp teeth. Behind her, the air seemed to glow golden and great clouds towered.

When I handed the binoculars back to Abel, most of the other land cruisers had left. I realized I had no idea how long I’d been looking at the lion. Suddenly (a word that’s easy for me to overuse, but in this case it really was sudden) I felt a feeling of peace, of “evenness,” of lightness, followed by a sense of gratitude—Wow! I just got to see that. Thank you!

The feeling didn’t last of course, but over the next week it did return and last longer: lying in our tent at night, listening to the hyenas’ r-r-r-upe, r-r-r-rip, and the heavy breathing of what we found out later were two old male buffalo who liked to wander the grounds; the sight of over a hundred hippopotamuses wedged together like sausages in a river; herds of twenty to fifty elephants parading down to another river to drink and splash and roll in the mud; a cheetah and her two cubs prowling through the grass; seven giraffe standing silhouetted on a ridge; the strange baobab trees, a prehistoric species that predates both mankind and the splitting of the continents over 200 million years ago, whose branches look like roots, and whose gnarled bark has been worn by wind and rain and millennia of elephants using them for scratching posts.

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Now I wonder if what happened was that I was, simply, being. If I set aside the old baggage I usually carry around, so that I became more open with no preconceived ideas of what I thought I needed to prove to someone else. It’s not so much that I lost the sense of who I was, it’s that I became more of who I was: in union with a much larger whole, not just a bunch of weird looking animals, but an energy, a spirit, if you will, running through animals, trees, grass, sky, clouds, Abel, Mary Lee, and me.  I may not have been “proud just to be,” but I certainly was grateful.

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Even if you don’t journey to honor a saint or to see a holy place, I think any trip can become a pilgrimage when the exterior journey triggers an interior one. Brother David Vryhof of the Society of Saint John the Evangelist recently wrote: “A pilgrimage typically involves three experiences: leaving something, gaining something, and struggling with something.” I’m hoping I left some of my defensive, passive-aggressive sarcasm behind. I know the peace and lightness I experienced continues; I notice more. I’m thinking less about who or what I am and more about that I am.

The struggle is to try to maintain this sense of just being now that I’m back dealing with jet lag that lasted a week, the cough that I brought back that won’t go away (I know it’s probably not lung cancer, but…) the season’s first snow storms, obligations, and the memories that metastasize this time of year of my daughter’s last months in the hospital and her death two days before Christmas. I’m trying to think of being in Tanzania not as some abnormal “blip” outside of the reality of my usual assumptions and illusions, but as a step toward experiencing the greater reality I’ve occasionally glimpsed, and with it, gratitude for the life I have, and the serenity of not caring what the hell the neighbors think.

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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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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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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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On Emptiness

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Gazing at the figure, I felt a physical reaction, a shiver, or perhaps more like the quiver of a struck bell. And I guess I wasn’t the only one who resonated to Romanian artist Albert Gyorgy’s “Melancolie”: the sculpture went viral on Facebook a few weeks ago. I wasn’t surprised that many comments came from viewers who’d suffered a great loss. A fellow grieving father responded: “We may look as if we carry on with our lives as before. We may even have times of joy and happiness. Everything may seem ‘normal.’ But THIS, ‘Emptiness,’ is how we feel … all the time.”

Later that same week, I mentioned to an old friend that the hole left in my heart by the death of my daughter would never go away. He seemed surprised and upset. “I had no idea,” he said. “I thought because you’re a Christian, your faith would sustain you. I feel sorry for you.”

No, I wanted to say, don’t feel sorry for me. My faith does help me. My life isn’t sad. My life is in some ways more joyful than it’s ever been. I continue to have a close relationship with Laurie. I—

And as I felt myself thrashing about, frustrated at not having the words to describe what it’s like to lose a child, I realized what an intricate and perplexing landscape this emptiness through which I journey really is.

There’s the idea of emptiness as Void, empty of meaning. It’s a frightening place. When my ex-wife phoned me with the news that what we’d always thought was a harmless sebaceous cyst on the back of our daughter’s head was malignant, I felt the ground opening under my feet. I remember needing to grab on to the counter I was standing beside. Mary Lee has since told me that when I picked her up at school later that day and she opened the door to the car, she felt an icy emptiness even before I told her the news.

The title of the sculpture, “Melancolie,” or melancholy, refers back to medieval medicine and to one of the four “humours,” black bile, thought to cause what we today call depression. This, too, is a kind of emptiness, at least when I look at some of the therapy websites that define emptiness as “a negative thought process leading to depression, addiction…”—both of which I’ve stumbled through since Laurie died.

But over those same years, I’ve also found that emptiness can be something to cultivate rather than cure.

My first readings about emptiness were from existentialists like Albert Camus, who saw meaninglessness as a reality of life, but who posited that we can and should create our own meaning. From there, I dabbled in Buddhism, where Emptiness is a central precept. But as I understand it, Buddhists do not believe life is meaningless; rather, that our images of ourselves as separate, independent entities don’t exist: they’re delusions, empty of meaning. When we can understand this meaning of emptiness, we realize that we are part of what the Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh calls “inter-being,” which is the basis for wisdom, bliss, compassion, clarity, and courage.

Then, as I’ve written about before in these blogs, I learned a form of Christian meditation called “Centering Prayer,” which is based on “kenosis,” or “self-emptying.” As Saint Paul wrote in Philippians: Jesus “emptied himself, taking the form of a slave ….” Notice how many of the parables in the Bible advocate giving up everything, whether it’s Jesus telling the young man to give up his money and possessions and follow him, or the Good Samaritan giving up his money and time to minister to the man who’d been beaten and robbed, or the servant condemned for burying his one Talent.

And it was through practicing kenosis—entering into the emptiness I felt after Laurie died, giving up my image of myself as grieving parent—that I was able to feel Laurie’s renewed presence in my life. (For more on my experiences with Centering Prayer, see https://geriatricpilgrim.com/2016/06/)

Lately, I’ve been working a 12-Step program based on surrender, which as a speaker I heard recently said, “only happens when there’s nothing left.” Only when circumstances force you to see that all of your props, your addictions, have not only proved worthless in giving you what you need, but are actually keeping you unhappy, is it possible for you to give them up, empty yourself of them.

And yet. No matter how much I read about the subject, how often Laurie’s spiritual presence fills my emptiness, my daughter’s physical absence burns like an amputation. I will never have the chance to watch her face grow more interesting as it ages, never watch her take up a vocation, fall in love, perhaps have children.

And maybe that’s the price we pay for loving someone. A friend of mine who lost her husband a year ago recently sent me the following quotation from Dietrich Bonhoeffer, German Lutheran pastor and theologian:

Nothing can fill the gap when we are away from those we love, and it would be wrong to try to find anything. We must simply hold out and win through. That sounds very hard at first, but at the same time, it is a great consolation, since leaving the gap unfilled preserves the bonds between us. It is nonsense to say that God fills the gap. He does not fill it but keeps it empty so that  our communion with another may be kept alive, even at the cost of pain.

So, emptiness for me is another landscape through which I pilgrimage—four steps forward, three steps back, two steps side-ways, circling, backtracking. Sometimes the views are bleak and dismal and the path is strewn with the rocks and roots of depression and addiction, but more and more often these days, as I’ve surrendered my seventy-year-old resentments at people long gone from my life, my judgmentalism, my shame over not being perfect, I’ve seen some magnificent vistas, felt fresh air tickling what little hair I have left, heard birds singing hymns of grace.

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