Walking at Sunset

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After a wonderful but hectic Thanksgiving, Mary Lee and I spent a weekend on retreat at the Episcopal monastery of Society of Saint John the Evangelist in Cambridge, Massachusetts, a place we’ve been coming to for twenty-five years in search of silence and slow time. On Saturday afternoon, because the sun sets in this part of the world around 4:00 p.m., I decided to catch the last daylight and take a walk before Evening Prayer.

As I left the monastery, the sun was buttering tiers of purple clouds over the Boston skyline. I jay-walked across Memorial Drive, turned right, and joined the joggers, walkers, and cyclists on the path along the Charles River—a mix of races I don’t see in Maine, some talking into microphones and headsets, others conversing with one another, possibly in Chinese.

After about a quarter of a mile, I passed the Riverside Boat Club. I turned left to cross the Eliot Bridge, pulling up the collar of my coat against a raw wind coming down the river. The late afternoon sun and clouds reflected in the rippling waters of the Charles, the lengthening shadows of the sycamores, and the dank, November wind all churned up memories of another wind coming down another river thirty years earlier. I saw myself walking back from the Eastern Maine Medical Center to the Ronald McDonald House after spending the day watching my eighteen-year-old daughter die a little more from the cancer ravaging her body. I recalled the Christmas tree sellers in their vans and pick-up trucks in Cascade Park at the bottom of the hill across from the Penobscot River and how Christmas seemed at the time like some horrible joke played on the human race by a sadistic god promising peace on earth, good will to all, and then inflicting more war, poverty, disease, and death on us suffering buggers.

Now, however, I realized as I turned left after the bridge and started walking along Storrow Drive, that although I could still vividly picture details from my walk back from the hospital—the seagulls circling over the river, the mansard roofs on the houses—I could no longer feel the anger, confusion, and shame that once consumed me. Thanks to prayer and meditation and spiritual direction—much of which happened at the SSJE monastery—I’ve had joy as well as pain since Laurie’s death. Last summer I had heart surgery which has given me renewed hope that I may be around to watch my grandchildren grow up.

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The sun dropped, gilding the tops of buildings on my right. The clouds became red and gray. Just outside a patch of skim ice near the shore of the river, a dozen geese floated tranquilly, while on the other side of me, rush hour traffic hurdled by. Horns honked.

The geese reminded me of my father-in-law, George, who used to urge his employees to work like ducks on the water: calm and serene on the surface, paddling like hell underneath. He was the one who introduced me to this walk around the Charles; he made it almost every day. One of the most gracious men I’ve ever known, he and his wife Elaine retired to Cambridge to an apartment just three doors down from the monastery, which made it that much easier for Mary Lee and me to become part of the SSJE community.

Hearing the whooshing traffic, I recalled that George used to carry a plastic bag with him when he walked here, collecting what he called “street glass,” bits of broken head and tail lights from the innumerable accidents caused by Massachusetts drivers along Memorial and Storrow Drives. By the time Elaine died and George left 985 Memorial Drive for a retirement community in Lexington, he’d collected enough colored glass and plastic to fill I don’t know how many glass jars, which reposed on bookcases and windowsills all over the apartment.

Looking across the river back at Memorial Drive, I imagined Elaine, standing in front of her window, holding her glass of gin, watching the sunset behind me before heading back to the kitchen to finish preparing another of her gourmet dinners. She used to rate sunsets; I thought she might give this one a “7” or an “8.” So I made it a “7.5.”

When she died, her service was held in the monastery, and I remembered the Brothers’ chanting, and the reception back at the apartment, monks mingling with the family of academics, doctors, and journalists I married into. When George remarried, four years later, it was in the monastery, as was his funeral ten years after that.

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The SSJE Monastery from across the Charles River

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Crossing the Weeks Foot Bridge in front of Harvard’s Leverett and Dunster Houses, I realized what an important part the monastery and the Brothers have played in my life for the last twenty-five years. I walked back Memorial Drive, past Winthrop and Eliot Houses, through John F. Kennedy Park, recalling my spiritual directors who guided me along the rocky road of grief—showed me that I couldn’t keep thinking of Laurie as some photograph in an old album, that if I actually believed in this thing called resurrection,  I needed to father an ongoing relationship with her, think of her as being somehow present, here and now.  And indeed, the first time after her death when I felt her touch was as I sat at a desk in one of the guest rooms of the monastery.

I thought about how my retreats and pilgrimages intertwine, like the design on the Celtic cross tattooed on my forearm. Yes, I go to the monastery on retreat to withdraw from what Jesus and St. Paul call “the world,” but I’m also making a pilgrimage to answer a call, draw near the sacred, find a source of healing, and pay homage to those I think of as the saints in my life: Laurie, George, Elaine, the Brothers who have died, like Brother Eldridge, who helped me see that like the Father in the Parable of the Prodigal Son, I can wait in continual hope for my child, sending out my love in the confidence that she’ll receive it, or Brother John, my first spiritual director, who told me, “No, I can’t help you cut down on your drinking, but if you decide you want to quit, I’ll do everything I can to help you.” Or those Brothers who continue to buoy me, like Brother Curtis, the first monk I ever talked to here, and Brother James, whom I’ve watched lose hair, put on thirty pounds, and become Brother Superior at SSJE.

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By the time I opened the gate and entered the monastery courtyard, the sun had disappeared; inky layers of clouds, however, were still striated with gold. Streetlights glowed and lambent windows in the apartments along Memorial Drive looked warm and urbane. The illuminated cross in front of the door to the guest house welcomed me home. Although I’d been gone less than an hour and had walked maybe two miles, it felt like a much longer journey.

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Of Luck and Grace

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The First Thanksgiving, 1621—J.L.G. Ferris/The Foundation Press, Inc./Library of Congress

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The first time I ever heard about “pilgrims” was as a kid learning about some people by that name who sailed to America to have Thanksgiving dinner. Later, I learned it was a little more complicated than that—that these people were actually “Separatists” who had broken from the Church of England and come to this country by way of Holland in search of religious freedom. But they thought of themselves as pilgrims (the first child born in the Plymouth Colony was named “Peregrine,” which means pilgrim), travelers on a journey to find a home where they could worship the God of their understanding. The name stuck.

My sister tells me that she, my brother, and I are the descendants of John and Priscilla Alden and George and Mary Soule, couples who came over on the Mayflower, which may account for why I think of myself as a pilgrim and why Thanksgiving is my favorite holiday of the year. It’s a day to be with family and to give thanks.

This year, however, besides counting blessings, I’ve also been thinking a lot about luck.

Last spring, when I happened to mention to my family doctor during a routine follow-up to an earlier procedure that I was getting more and more out of breath, he told me to get a stress test and get it soon. Which I did and which led to an arterial catheterization which led to by-pass surgery. Now, I feel great. I have more energy than I’ve had in years.

I want to thank God for my good fortune, feel that I’ve been blessed. Except: as anyone who’s read this blog knows, the pivotal point in my life was the death of my eighteen-year-old daughter in 1988. Laurie didn’t smoke, didn’t drink, didn’t even eat meat. Still, she was the victim of Primitive Neuroectodermal Tumor, a rare and virulent cancer that when it strikes, usually attacks much younger children.

So how can I thank God for my life, while letting God off the hook for Laurie’s death?

Since my surgery in July, two men whom I’d known fairly well dropped dead from the same type of blocked left main artery that I had. Both men were active; both seemed healthy; neither was overweight; both died while exercising. Why am I still alive and they’re not?

I’m reminded of the evening of September 11, 2001, when our church held a meeting for all those who wanted to respond to the bombings of the twin towers and of the pentagon. At one point, a woman—let’s call her Agnes—rose and said that her son had been working that day in the South Tower, but that he was safe. “I want to take this opportunity to thank God for protecting my son four times.” Agnes said. “God showed him the way down the stairs. He moved him out of the way of fallen debris twice. He provided my boy with a private boat to offer him a ride across the river to Hoboken. I’m so grateful!”

I was happy for the woman. I was sure her son was a great guy. But I asked myself then and I ask myself now: why did God save him and let 7,000 other people die?

So although I want to thank God for my being able to be sitting here tapping out this blog instead of moldering in an urn under the snow in our family’s cemetery plot, I have to think that I was lucky, just as my daughter was unlucky enough to carry the wrong combination of inherited DNA to make her susceptible to the cancer than killed her.

Does this mean I’m not grateful this Thanksgiving? That I don’t think my Higher Power affects my life? That I’m not blessed?

Absolutely not.

As I think about how “unlucky” I was when Laurie died, and how “lucky” I am now, I find a common thread. In both instances I’ve seen, as I usually don’t, just how precious, how holy life is. I’ve never enjoyed the autumn foliage as much as I have this year. I don’t even mind (much) standing in line at the grocery checkout line.

I’m also aware, even though it’s hard to articulate, of a growing sense that this life is always being renewed, even reborn. That what I, as a Christian, call resurrection didn’t just happen once to one person, but happens to all of us many times. Someone said to me the other day that I looked like a new man. Well, in some ways, I am. I have a new heart.

Getting that new heart was at times painful; still, it was nothing like thirty years ago, when Laurie’s death broke me open. But although that hurt in ways I hope I’ll never have to feel again, her death also opened me to receive love and joy that I’d never experienced before in my closed off, child-of-alcoholic, New England male life. And it’s this experience that I’m guessing we’ve all had sometime in our lives—where from somewhere we get the strength not only to carry on but also to laugh and sing when by rights we ought to give up and die—that I give thanks for.

Which I think is the difference between luck and Grace. Luck depends on circumstances. Grace, on the other hand, is there for everyone all the time.

So I’m looking forward to Thanksgiving. This, despite sorrowful memories of my father, one of my grandmothers, and my mother-in-law all dying during the week of Thanksgiving, and a painful recollection of a Thanksgiving at the Ronald McDonald House after which Laurie’s two stepbrothers saw her for the last time. Or maybe those deaths actually help make the celebration more joyous. That when Mary Lee’s children and their families and her sister and sometimes her family come, we are surrounded by what St. Paul calls “Clouds of Witness.”

That these loved ones died, that my daughter-in-law is about to undergo surgery for cancer, and that one of my grandchildren is emotionally scarred from having been abused by her pre-school teacher is probably a matter of bad luck. That for the most part our families have the health and the means to come to our house for Thanksgiving and that Mary Lee and I feel well enough and are financially secure enough to host them is probably a matter of good luck. But that we are able to celebrate, to laugh, to cry, to love together is, I believe, a matter of Grace.

When I was finishing this blog, Mary Lee sent me a daily reading for November 22, 2019 (the anniversary of John F. Kennedy’s assassination, appropriately enough) from a website called gratefulness.org.

Grief and gratitude are kindred souls, each pointing to the beauty of what is transient and given to us by grace.—Patricia Campbell Carlson

Yup. Happy Thanksgiving, y’all.

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Another Thanksgiving, a few years later…

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Ebb and Flow

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Minas Basin, Nova Scotia

 

 

 

 

 

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Expose a child to a particular environment at his susceptible time and he will perceive in the shapes of that environment until he dies. —Wallace Stegner

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I think one of the reasons I like to travel is because I’ve lived almost my entire life in one small part of the country: the Maine coast. Like the seamen who used to live here, I want to see the world but then return home—a kind of going out and coming back mirrored in the rising and falling of the tides I’ve grown up with. The ebb and flow of the ocean has embedded itself in my imagination, shaping the way I understand my life.

For example, when I was growing up in Yarmouth, Maine, I used to play—despite my mother’s warnings and wallops with her hairbrush—in what was called “The Black Ash,” acres of black soot and gravel created some twenty years earlier when the town’s paper company, at the turn of the twentieth century one of the largest in the world, burned to the ground, leaving a cavernous wasteland of toxic ash. In college, when I had dreams of becoming the next Ernest Hemingway, I used the Black Ash in my creative writing class as a symbol of how a once prosperous town had died. Today, however, the land is grass-covered and home to a post office, a number of businesses, doctors’ offices, and a large assisted-living facility. Ebb and flow.

What I don’t think I’ve ever realized before now is that for most of my life, I’ve tended to think of ebb as something negative or low, and flow as positive or high: low as in mud flats, empty, weak, enervated, poor; high as in more spiritual, more beautiful, full, at your peak, prosperous.

The thing is, I have great memories of the Black Ash. There were ash-gray canyons peopled with—depending on what movie I’d last seen at Carlton’s movie theater—Indians, space aliens, or Nazis. I’m sure the reason my mother didn’t want me playing there was because the landscape was punctuated with dangerously deep brick wells, but as far as I was concerned, the wells led down to a land of dinosaurs and curvaceous women in leopard-skin bikinis. In the 1950s, when I played in the Black Ash, the town was small and the people friendly. It was a great place to grow up.

When I moved back to Yarmouth as an adult, I took my two step-sons to the Black Ash a year or so before the town began to clean it up and got a chance to relive my childhood.

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But, to be honest, one of the reasons I’ve since moved away again is because I never felt I belonged in the designer coffee shops, chiropractors’ and psychiatrists’ offices located where the Black Ash used to be.

Is high tide better than low tide? If you’re a swimmer, perhaps, but not for if you dig clams for a living. And while I may feel that the current political situation shows this country to be at its lowest ebb, I have conservative friends who feel we are at our highest point in history.

Ebb and flow, then, are relative, not only to each person, but, I find, to all of life. Albert Einstein’s Theory of Relativity and Max Planck’s work in quantum physics has shown how everything is dependent upon everything else. You can’t have an “in” without an “out,” you can’t have an “up” without a “down,” and you can’t have an “ebb” without a “flow.” Everything is relative; everything is connected.  Something the Buddhists have been telling us all along.

My daughter’s death was certainly the lowest point in my life, a time when I felt all my hope, contentment, and well-being had ebbed away. And yet, it is only in the years following her death, that I have felt joy, felt overflowing with happiness. Before Laurie’s death, my emotional life was limited by my New England upbringing compounded by being raised in an alcoholic family. Laurie’s death broke me open. Only by going to the depths was I able to realize the heights, feel the joy of music, grandchildren, and, most important, the physical, emotional, and spiritual love I share with my wife.

A couple of years ago, Mary Lee and I drove through Nova Scotia and spent several hours walking Minas Basin, the site of the world’s highest tidal ranges, where twice a day, the Bay of Fundy ebbs and flows through the Minas Channel between Cape Split and Cape Sharp, completely emptying and filling the Basin. At high tide, the ocean seems vast, while at low tide we walked through a landscape of red sandstone and volcanic rocks, cliffs, and sea stacks. Now you can see ocean vistas like Minas Basin at high tide up and down the Northeastern coast, and you can see sandstone and volcanic rock all over this planet. It’s the relationship between the two landscapes —the tidal range of what can be as much as 50 feet—that makes them both unique and one and the same. Much the same way Laurie’s death has emptied me with grief and let joy into my life.

As I travel further along this pilgrimage through life, I’m more aware of how its ebbs and flows run like water-colors, painting a single picture, one I can only see by looking back, but which gives me hope for what lies ahead.

And I find myself more and more intrigued by the question: Who is the artist painting this picture?

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Watercolor by Laurie Wile

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For more on Nova Scotia, you might be interested in my blogs: https://geriatricpilgrim.com/2017/10/16/here-comes-the-judge/ https://geriatricpilgrim.com/2017/10/02/rooting-around/)

 

 

 

Hats for the Journey

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Mary Lee and I are getting ready for our next trip. This one is a cruise, something neither of us has ever been on before, and one of our concerns is what clothes we should pack. The information we’ve received is helpful—dress casually, plenty of active wear for sun and rain, no jeans at dinner… Still, I’m concerned, especially about what hats to bring.

Hats have always been a part of my life. Many early pictures show me wearing a hat. I started with one of my Grandfather Lufkin’s fedoras, and then graduated to having one of my own. (How many five-year-olds can you think of who had his own fedora?)

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I also remember getting a cowboy hat for a birthday present, and of course, my little league baseball caps. In early adolescence, I played trombone in a Dixieland band called the “Ivy Leaguers.” We wore chinos and plaid caps, both with belts in the back. During my senior year in high school, our basketball coach required us to wear not only a coat and tie to games, but also a hat, because he told us wearing a hat reduced our risk of catching cold.

We had no problem with this (my hat, I think, was an Alpine job with a small feather in the band), for in 1961, all men still wore hats. Men who worked blue-collar jobs wore caps while men who had white-collar jobs sported fedoras. (Usually. One of the things that made Art Carney so funny on the Jackie Gleason show was that his character, Ed Norton, wore a fedora and worked in the sewers.)  Even though he wasn’t employed by the railroad, Grampy Lufkin often wore a blue and white striped railroad cap; a lot of men did. My father wore a khaki colored cap to work in the summer and a green and black checked cap in the winter; then, after he retired and spent a lot of time fishing, he wore a long-billed cap called a “swordfish.” No matter the occupation, however, every man had at least one fedora for Sundays. (Women, too, always wore hats when they dressed up.)

As legend has it, all that changed when John F. Kennedy was elected President. As I understand it, he had a large head and didn’t like hats, so that when he was inaugurated, he eschewed the traditional top hat and went hatless, thus creating a precedent that lasted for several generations.

I still wore hats, however, usually either to keep my head warm in the winter or ward away bugs in the summer. And without really noticing, I added a hat here and a hat there, until today 30 hats hang in the garage by the back door, not to mention another three or four stocking caps tossed in with my gloves. Some hats I take with me on pilgrimage: summer and winter weight Irish caps when I’m going to the British Isles; wide-brimmed sun hats for Israel, Africa, and Arizona.

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For over twenty years, I’ve worn a Tilley Hat, complete with horse-hair hat band, for hiking. When I play the banjo, I wear a fiddler’s cap (sort of like a Greek fisherman’s cap) or an old fedora.

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I have a fedora for church, and all kinds of baseball caps—Boston Red Sox, Portland Sea Dogs (a Red Sox affiliate for those of you not from New England), a blaze orange one for hiking the woods in the fall, and one with a blackfly over the words, “Maine State Bird.” In preparation for summer, I just bought a new Panama.

How did that happen? Why am I so drawn to hats? I read somewhere recently that almost all of us collect one thing or another. One theory is that this desire is instinctual, going back to our early ancestors who stocked food, clothing, and so forth in times of plenty for the times of famine. Okay, but I don’t see a lot of pictures of cavemen in hats.

I know that some of my hats help me preserve the past; for example, my fedoras remind me of the men of my youth that I wanted to emulate. I have baseball caps reminding me of San Antonio, Texas, and of my MFA program. I bought a winter stocking cap in the Old City of Jerusalem when the temperature was at least 90°. The hat I wear most, year-round and both around town and on pilgrimages, is a long-billed swordfish cap that I bought to replace my father’s which I wore after he died until the strap in back broke. It keeps both sun and rain out of my eyes, can be worn under a hood, and, of course, reminds me of Dad.

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One day just before my daughter’s death, before going into a conference room with some of her doctors, I put an Irish tweed cap in a closet by the door, and someone took it—I’m assuming by mistake—and left me a cap like it, only with ear flaps for cold weather. I still often wear it in her memory.

After Laurie died, during probably the worst time in my life, Mary Lee and I went to Colorado for April vacation. There, I bought a cowboy hat and wore it the whole time. The hat made me feel like Tommy Lee Jones, plain-spoken, tough, in complete control. I’ve still got a couple of cowboy hats, one straw and one wool. For some reason, they always make me feel better when I’m upset or anxious about something.

I also find it calming to go out once or twice a year and rearrange hats.

As I think about it, I started adding hats when I began teaching high school English in Down East Maine. At a time when teachers were dressing more and more informally, I wore ties with matching pocket handkerchiefs, double breasted blazers, and bell-bottomed pants, all topped with either that Irish cap I wore before Laurie died, or a wool bucket hat that matched my topcoat. They validated me as “Mr. Wile,” just as, I suppose, my other hats validate me as a hiker, a writer, a musician, or a pilgrim.

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Do I really need this validation, especially now, at my age? Do my hats represent all my “false selves”—cowboy, adventurer, academic, musician, and so on—revealing my inability to get in touch with my real self? Are they a kind of role playing, or a form of security blanket, a way for me to hide from the world?

Maybe. But I’d like to think that they represent—even proclaim—that I am multi-faceted. That, as Whitman wrote, “I am large, I contain multitudes.” Perhaps my hats are a way to ask, “Who does God want me to be today?” That they are a cause to celebrate, not denigrate.

So, what do you think, maybe the swordfish cap and the new Panama for the cruise?

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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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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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