Mud Season

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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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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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Listening to the Breath

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“There is no song more agreeable to the heart than the slow, even breath of a pilgrim learning to bless, and be blessed by, the mystery.” — Stephen Levine.

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Mary Lee and I are training for our next pilgrimage. We’re increasing the length of our walks, trying to step up our pace, and climbing hills. It’s the climbing business that I especially need to work on. We didn’t plan for hills on our last pilgrimage, and I don’t want to make that mistake again.

Rarely a day goes by that I don’t curse the Monday afternoon in 1961, two days after the State Class L Basketball Championship (where, despite my solid performance, our team was crushed, 74-52), when I filched a pack of my father’s unfiltered Camels and spent the afternoon learning how to inhale and the next forty years trying to quit. Throw in two summers inhaling woodfire smoke as part of my job as a U.S. Forest Service hot shot crew member (wearing a bandanna over my nose and mouth to keep the smoke away and then taking a break to sit under a tree and smoke a cigarette or two), and you have my scarred lungs and “mild” COPD.

But I’m finding it’s possible to increase my lung capacity. The internet is full of video instructions in breathing for singers, saxophone and harmonica players, swimmers, and the rest of us just plain folks. My osteopath is a firm believer in breathing correctly and has given me exercises to make sure I’m using all of what lung capacity I have. I’ve recently added a breathing activity based on a type of exercise therapy called Feldenkrais. And I’m tramping up and down stairs and hills any time I get the chance.

Breath, I’m finding, is a great teacher. After being physically abused at her daycare center, our granddaughter struggles with anger issues. Her counselor’s office has a “breathing ball” which expands and contracts as our granddaughter practices taking ten deep breaths for when she gets mad. We should all probably have one. Research shows that a period of deep breathing causes blood pressure to drop and stay down for as long as thirty minutes.

I think the first times I ever paid any attention to my breathing were when I played sports. My little league coach, Frank Knight, told us to take a deep breath before getting in the batter’s box, and Mr. Beal, my eighth-grade basketball coach, told us to do the same thing as we stepped to the line to take a foul shot. Fast forward forty years, and my nurse is yelling, “breathe!” the first time I try to walk after bi-lateral hip surgery. These days, my scarred lungs let me know whenever I’m tense or self-conscious—about reading or playing my banjo in front of an audience, for example—and that it’s time to pretend I’ve got my granddaughter’s breathing ball and inhale and exhale deeply.

Using the breath in some way is the basis for almost every meditation practice I know. Breath is immediate and always there. Focusing on breathing brings us back into the present moment, whether it’s pranayama, a yoga tool for self-transformation in which one varies the length of inhalation and exhalation, or Buddhist practices like counting breaths and inhaling through the nostrils and exhaling through the mouth, or Christian Centering Prayer using mantras such as “Lord, Jesus Christ, have mercy on me” or “Breath of God, breathe in me” that follow the rhythm of our breathing, or the practice I’ve found in all three traditions of simply watching the breath without trying to control it.

Breath can be a constant reminder of our connection with the energy of the universe. Focusing on the breath helps me see myself as part of a world breathing its own rhythms: the ebb and flow of the sea, the waxing and waning of the moon, the inhalations of spring and summer and the exhalations of autumn and winter. I see my life as a kind of breathing: inhaling moments such first love, first teaching job, marriage, the birth of a child, first pilgrimage, the birth of grandchildren; exhaling houses I’ve left, an unhappy marriage, the death of my daughter and my parents, jobs I have retired from, and now, the death of old friends.

Trying to observe my breathing without trying to control it (which is really hard, by the way; I’m guessing I can come close maybe one day out of every four) helps me understand the mystery of Grace, which, like my breathing, is always flowing, continually feeding, repairing, sustaining, while at the same time taking away that which is unnecessary and wasteful. Whether it’s Grace or breath, I can control to some extent how much I take in, I can work on preparing myself to better use it, but I can’t hold on to it, and the only way to stop it is to destroy myself.

So, as I prepare for the next pilgrimage, breath is teaching me what I can do, what I cannot do, and what I can learn to do. It’s a kind of Serenity Prayer: “God grant me the serenity to accept the hills I cannot climb, the courage to know when to keep gasping up the ones I can, and the wisdom to know when to stop and catch my breath.”

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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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