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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Roots

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“A tree stands strong not by its fruits or branches, but by the depth of its roots.”

— Anthony Liccione.

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Trees have always called to me, from the white pine tree I used to climb behind my house as a kid, to the stately Douglas Fir and Ponderosa pine I fought forest fires to save when I was in college, to the four-trunked maple tree in the back yard of my home for over twenty-years, to the mighty redwoods I visited a few years ago. Lately, though, I’ve been thinking more about the roots of trees than their trunks or branches, perhaps because I’ve been thinking a lot about my own roots.

In doing some reading about trees, I find that their roots can branch out seven times the height of the tree. When these roots interweave with other roots, they create a single organism. “You can think of a [tree] trunk as really fingertips on a buried hand,” writes ecosystem ecologist Dylan Fisher. The 106 acres of quaking aspen in Fishlake National Forest in Utah are all connected by one 80,000-year-old root system known as Pando, or The Trembling Giant. The trunks, branches, and leaves connected to this system weigh in at 6,600 tons, making this the heaviest known organism on earth.

In thinking of my own roots, I find they also spread out as least seven times beyond the family trunk. My trip to Canada last fall introduced me to an interconnected web of Wiles I never knew existed, stretching throughout southcentral Nova Scotia. My sister spent last year engaged in a genealogical pilgrimage, and has traced the names of our immediate family—Wile, Cleaves, Bennett, and Conrey—back to Reeds, Pooles, Hitchcocks, and Crocketts,  back further to  Whitneys, Davises, Rosses, and Hamiltons, and before that to Giles Corey, the only accused witch in Salem Massachusetts to have been pressed to death instead of hung (his last words were supposedly, “More weight!”), and Priscilla and John Alden (“Speak for yourself, John Alden”). Branching further back to England, my roots include Franklins, Densytes, and Mullins; and in Germany, the Weils, one of whom— Johann Frederich—emigrated to Nova Scotia.

Trees survive through their roots. Fungi infiltrate roots, not to attack but to partner with them, sharing nutrients across threads of what are called fungal hyphae that form what’s known as a mycelium web—a kind of underground internet, linking roots of different plants, helping one another with not only food, but information.  Jennifer Frazier, writing in Scientific American, describes how plants being eaten by herbivores release chemicals that are sensed by neighboring plants, who then increase their defenses. Paper birch send carbon to Douglas-fir seedlings, especially when they are shaded in summer, probably enhancing their survival. In spring and fall, the Douglas-fir return the favor when the birch have no leaves.

And what’s my mycelium web? What nourishes me, gives me information, helps me survive? I have survived as long as I have because of my second wife, Mary Lee, who has been a beacon of love during the darkest days of my life and who continues to nourish me with laughter, eros, food, and friendship. Her children, her grandchildren, her friends, her sister and her sister’s children all grace me with their affection.

My oldest community is made up of the friends I grew up with, many of whom I still get together with regularly, either in person or electronically. Through them, I’m fed not only through stories that no one else but us know (and we’d just as soon keep it that way), but also by the sharing of our pilgrimages through life—our ups, our downs that both sadden and gladden my heart.

There are the teachers I’ve taught with who continue to inspire me with their wisdom, the writers in my various writing groups who educate and challenge me to, as Herman Melville put it, “dive deeper,” the musicians I jam with who bring song and rhythm to my life, the folks I take Communion to in nursing homes who sustain me with their inner strength and perseverance. The writers I’ve read, the records, tapes, and CDs I’ve listened to, the chocolate I’ve eaten. There are the pilgrims I’ve met as I’ve journeyed to my roots, whether they be family homesteads in New England and Nova Scotia or the roots of my faith in Jerusalem, Ephesus, Iona, and Lindisfarne.

More and more as I age, I find my roots sustained by the unseen and the silent. “Everything you see has its roots in the unseen world,” wrote the Persian poet, Rumi. The Jewish Kabbalah’s mystical Tree of Life is pictured with its roots in heaven and its branches and leaves reaching down toward us. Many of the communities that nurture me are connected with this unseen world: my church, the Episcopal monastic order to which I’m an associate, the interfaith organization of contemplatives I belong to, the men’s group I attend Wednesday morning and the Al-Anon groups I attend.

During a recent Quiet Day at my church, I realized that one reason I’ve become concerned with roots is because mine have stopped growing. My only child died of cancer. My brother is gay. My sister’s only son and his wife cannot have children. Thus, my family name ends with my brother and me, and my family tree ends with my nephew and his wife. I found myself drawing the follow picture:

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But even dying trees can support not only their own species but other species as well. For example, according to Jennifer Frazier, when Douglas-fir begin to die, their roots, through fungi, send food to young ponderosa pine battling to survive.  I’d like to think that I might also nourish others who are struggling, through the stories, laughter, love of silence, perseverance, and music that have fed me through the years.

Probably one of the purposes of these blogs, come to think of it.

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And if you liked this blog, you might also be interested in reading:

“Call to the Redwoods”: https://geriatricpilgrim.com/2016/08/22/call-to-the-redwoods/

“Rooting Around”: https://geriatricpilgrim.com/2017/10/02/rooting-around/

 

 

 

 

 

 

Making Assumptions

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

—Oscar Wilde

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Bedside Pilgrimage

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High School Graduation 1988. I can see the cyst on the back of my daughter’s head.

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For the last few months, up until his death from cancer, I regularly sat in a nursing and rehab center by the bed of an old friend. The long corridors, the smell of disinfectant, the sounds of TV sets, the charts on the walls of Scott’s room, the nurses with their clipboards, brought back memories of when my daughter Laurie was in the Eastern Maine Medical Center in Bangor, Maine, and what I would now call my six-week pilgrimage through strange, often surrealistic landscapes.

A little background: From the time she was twelve years old, my daughter had a cyst on the back of her head. Her pediatrician said it was probably harmless, but that if it got larger, she could have it removed. During her senior year in high school, the cyst doubled in size, so during February vacation, Laurie went for surgery. In March of 1988, a routine biopsy determined the cyst to be malignant.

Suddenly, my daughter, her mother, and I were picking up the pieces of our lives and trying to put them back together. The diagnosis forced Laurie to withdraw from an American Field Service program to spend a year abroad, but that summer, when the tumor disappeared after radiation and chemotherapy, she applied to The Portland School of Art, planning to continue her treatments while taking one or two classes. Then, less than a week before school started in September, her leg collapsed while she was walking along a beach. She began physical therapy and made plans to reapply to art school in January. Confined to a walker at home, she found a job painting murals and designing menus for a new restaurant in town. When physical therapy did nothing but cause her more pain, she went into the hospital, at first for more tests, but after she developed a fever, her primary care physician decided to keep her there and begin another round of chemotherapy. That was when I took a leave of absence from teaching and moved into a Ronald McDonald House, less than a mile away from EMMC.

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Summer, 1988, when we were hopeful. It’s hard not to see the irony of her tee-shirt.

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Every morning and evening at the Ronald McDonald House, strangers on a journey none of us wanted to take would sit down together in the dining room to share stories. I’ve forgotten names, but I remember a woman—square and sixtyish—moving in slow motion in and out of the morning shadows cast by the light coming through the window over the sink, as she fried sausages for her husband, getting radiation for prostate cancer. I recall a five-year-old girl who was being treated for a brain tumor, and her stuffed penguin, Opus, sitting on the chair beside her at meals. And a man whose nineteen-year-old daughter’s transplanted kidney, the one he’d given her twelve years earlier, was failing and no one knew what to do next. “I can’t help her this time,” he’d often say to me. “What the hell do I do?”

At no time in my life have I ever felt more like a stranger wandering through an alien land. I had no control over the day’s events, no say in the final outcome. Every day, I would enter Laurie’s room and see that the morphine level on the gizmo intravenously feeding pain medicine was higher than the day before. Contractions in her throat and pain in her esophagus made eating more difficult, until Dr. Brooks made decision to stop the second chemotherapy and to feed her through another IV.  She experienced pain in her leg, ankle, and foot. “I only want it to be over!” she told me. Yet, with each new setback, she’d ask, “What’s next?” What’s next was pneumonia, and test results that revealed her pelvis to be riddled with cancer. Soon she could only sleep for half to three quarters of an hour before contorting with pain. When Doctor Brooks prescribed an epidermal catheter put in so that the morphine could be administered directly to the nerve endings, the doctor who put in the catheter told me Laurie was now receiving as much morphine as anyone had ever received at EMMC.

I recall the morning she opened one eye at me while I sat by her bedside, holding her hand. She was on her back, but her head remained turned to the left, so her left eye was swollen. She reached up and touched my beard. “You need a shave,” she said. Those were the last words she ever said to me. Soon, her breathing became a combination of moaning and gargling. A nurse brought in some kind of suction device to clean out Laurie’s throat. The next night, when I walked into her room, all I could think of was the sound of my mother’s old coffee pot percolating from Laurie’s bed. That morning at 12:15 a.m. my daughter died.

I wish I could say that being with Laurie when she died was some kind of mystical experience, but all I remember was holding her hand and trying to keep her mouth cleared of mucus while tears and snot ran down my face. There was no feeling of the transcendent, no sense of having arrived anywhere. During those weeks, I read books on spirituality and theology. I spent time in the hospital chapel between visits. Yet I have to say that I never felt anything like the presence of God during that time, never felt comforted, experienced nothing except numb emptiness.

Yet, if there’s one thing I’ve learned from writing these blogs it’s that pilgrimage is an interior journey that continues long after the external one is over. As I found out in the months and years after I came back from the Ronald McDonald House, what I now call the God of my Not Understanding had been there. There had been a purpose to each of those days that I’ve never had since. I knew in the morning where I was going and why I was going there. No matter what else was going on, the great mysteries of life and death were always present. I learned more about courage, grace, and strength in the face of suffering from my daughter than from any coach, athlete, or soldier I’ve ever known. The reading I did, my experience with the silence of the hospital chapel, my giving up of control and entering into the unknown, all became the foundation for my life after Laurie’s death.

There were many times during November and December of 1988 when I wished Laurie’s doctor would just give her a shot that would end her suffering, but today, I treasure those last weeks I had with my daughter, They have become a sacred time, and my chair by Laurie’s bedside a sacred place, turning the experience into a pilgrimage— the most arduous of my life, and one I’m still, at some level, making.

Laurie
1987 Self-Portrait

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