Sifting Ashes

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                        Grant that these ashes may be a sign of our mortality and penitence ….

  • “Ash Wednesday Liturgy,” Book of Common Prayer

I return to my pew, ashes feeling like paste on my forehead, past the smattering of people scattered throughout the church, their faces already smudged between their eyes, my mind sifting through ashy thoughts of age and mortality.

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Love is the fire, and sighs the smoke, the ashes shame and scorns ….

—Robert Southwell

When I was growing up in a small Maine town in the 1950s, the only church that observed Ash Wednesday was the Catholic Church. (Those snooty Episcopalians drove to a more affluent community.) Which confirmed for my family and many others in town that Catholics were not like (meaning not a good as) us Congregationalists and Baptists. My great-grandfather told his daughter he’d rather see her dead than marry the Catholic man she loved, and when she did marry the man, her father never spoke to her again. On Ash Wednesday, we kids looked out of the corner of our eyes at the Catholic kids with the smudges on their foreheads as if they’d somehow become lepers with signs proclaiming them “Unclean.”

There was a lot of “Us and Them” in those days. In the newspapers and on TV, I read about Red-blooded Americans versus Dirty Commies; on Saturday afternoons I saw westerns with the White Hats against the Black Hats and science-fiction flicks with titles like Them; and on Friday night at the gym, there were our Good Guys versus the neighboring towns’ Bad Guys.

Thus, I started climbing what Courage to Change, an Al-Anon daily reader, calls “The Ladder of Judgment,” where everyone is somehow either below me or above me— economically, physically, intellectually, spiritually—with God far, far away at the top. Comparing myself to others—judging them, judging myself—has become a life-long addiction, isolating me from people, from God, even at times, from myself.

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                                                A bucket of ash

                                                and smoke

                                                gone

                                                into the air.

                                                                        —David Budbill, “Smoke and Ash”

Still, I have a nostalgia for ashes. I don’t think I ever light our charcoal grill without remembering that one of my first jobs around the house when I was growing up was to take the trash to the back yard and burn it in an old oil drum set on top of cement blocks. After pulling the newspapers apart (because if I didn’t, they didn’t burn completely and my father had a fit), I lit the trash with a kitchen match. Then I’d usually stand for a while watching the smoke billow out of the oil drum. In winter, it was a lousy job, but most of the time, I liked being outside by the fire. I still do. There’s something primordially comforting about a fire.

Every few weeks, my father would shovel the ashes into a large pail and either take them to the town dump, or save them for winter, when he’d spread them on the icy driveway. I also remember Dad, who moon-lighted as sexton at our church, in his topcoat and fedora methodically dipping his coal shovel into a bucket of ashes from the furnace on Sunday mornings and spreading the cinders across the icy sidewalk so that no one would fall going into the service.

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                        … I marle what pleasure or felicity they have in taking their roguish tobacco. It is good for nothing but to choke a man, and fill him full of smoke and embers. 

                                                                        —Ben Jonson, Every Man in His Humour

 I grew up surrounded by ashtrays. I recall square ashtrays and round ashtrays, glass ashtrays, wooden ashtrays, metal ashtrays. I remember a bumpy white ashtray in the dining room, and a small clear glass ashtray on the toilet tank in our bathroom and a matching one beside the bathtub. In the living room stood a metal stand holding a large glass brown ashtray beside Dad’s chair, where, on Friday nights, he sat and drank Blue Ribbon and ate Spanish peanuts and smoked his Camels, watching The Gillette Friday Night Fights on our black and white Philco. One memory I have of my mother is of her standing in the kitchen, ironing, with a cup of black coffee and a cigarette smoldering in an ashtray, singing along with Bing Crosby’s voice on our old record player: “Where the blue of the night meets the gold of the day  …”

My senior year in high school, the day after my last varsity basketball game, I filched a pack of Dad’s Camels from the carton he always had in his bedroom closet. I spent one afternoon learning to inhale and the next forty years trying to quit, something I remember every time I pant and gasp and puff walking up a hill.

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Through [cremation] … the body is reduced to its basic elements, which are referred to as the “cremated body” or “cremated remains.”… Depending upon the size of the body, there are normally three to nine pounds of fragments resulting.

                                                                        — cremationinfo.com

The purpose of Ash Wednesday, which marks the beginning of Lent, is to remind us of our mortality—Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return. At my age, coming off heart surgery, watching friends die, I don’t need much reminding.

This year, I find myself wondering what will remain of me after my death. I don’t mean how many pounds of “cremains,” but what will I leave behind for others? A few published stories, a novel, hopefully another book or two. Far too many photograph albums. But I think it was Maya Angelou (it was; I just Googled it) who said, “At the end of the day people won’t remember what you said or did, they will remember how you made them feel.” And in this season of penitence, I realize that it’s not so much what I’ve done wrong in my life that I regret, it’s what I haven’t done to make people feel better that gnaws at me.

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[Ashes form because]…almost everything in nature is what chemists call “heterogeneous”—that is, its composition is not uniform. For this reason, not every part is “pure” substance and will not burn.

                                                                                    —Caveman Chemistry

But I’m realizing in my “golden years” that to be human is to be, as us Protestant kids used to see the Catholic kids, “unclean,” in the sense of being impure, of being “what chemists call ‘heterogeneous.’” Looking back over the pilgrimage of my life, I see that it has been a mix of good and bad, joy and sorrow, celebration and penitence, things done and things left undone. Moments such as watching smoke waft into the sky that still comfort me; moments such as inhaling smoke that have scarred me for life.

And maybe what I want to leave behind for my grandchildren from what time I have left before I become three to nine pounds of ashes, is an example of living as if there is no Us and Them, only Us.

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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 Smells

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“Nothing revives the past so completely as a smell that was once associated with it.”

—Vladimir Nabokov

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One of the joys of being 10 weeks past heart surgery is that I can resume daily walks, especially in the woods not far from where I live. And this is a great time of year for it. The leaves are beginning to turn, the air is drier, and the blackflies are gone. But I’m interested that the first thing I noticed when I entered woods after over two months were the smells: the musky, fecund tang of fallen leaves and pine needles, yellowing bracken, and decayed trees. Not only did the smells welcome me back into the present, they took me back to walks through Scotland and England, California, Massachusetts, Vermont, and even further back to the Ponderosa forests of Idaho during my college years and the piney woods behind my house when I was growing up.

Our sense of smell, I’m told, is linked to the part of our brains that processes emotions and memories. Probably every college English major (even if, like me, they’ve never read it) knows that Marcel Proust’s Remembrances of Things Past begins when the narrator tastes a cookie called a madeleine dipped in tea, which triggers seven volumes of memories.

Fear not, gentle reader, I’m not about to attempt anything of that magnitude, but I do feel compelled to ponder a few memories—some pleasant, some not so pleasant—I tripped over the other day as I sauntered through the woods.

I don’t think any smell evokes happier memories than the smell of baking bread. (I’m told real estate agents tell people who want to sell their houses to fill them with the smells of baked bread prior to showing them to prospective buyers.) Every Saturday morning when I was growing up, my mother would bake bread for the week, filling the house with the aroma of love and security. Having spent the last couple of years working with a sponsor in a twelve-step program, I find it healing to remember that in spite of the emotional scars I carry from being raised in an alcoholic family, I was always loved and cared for.

It’s probably nostalgia, but remembrances of my growing up are filled largely with happy smells: the smell of hay and cows and horses in my great-grandfather’s barn, the smell of fried onions and potatoes in my Nanny and Grampy Lufkin’s house, the smell of perfume and cigarettes in Nanny Cleaves’s apartment, the smell of  Aqua Velva, my first aftershave lotion, the White Shoulders perfume my first girlfriend Susan wore, even the smell of wet towels, dirty socks and jock-straps in the locker-room underneath the gymnasium where I spent so much time playing basketball. (Okay, that memory’s definitely nostalgia.)

Conversely, no smell brings back more pain than the smells of shit and disinfectant in nursing homes and hospitals (where between visiting others and my own stay I’m spending more and more time these days), which invariably take me back to the two months when my daughter lay in the hospital dying of cancer—a time of fear, loneliness, and guilt—literally a shitty time.

Memories of my unhappy college years come enveloped with the acrid smell of the Old Town Paper Company blown by a stiff wind down the Stillwater River in 10° temperatures, as I pulled my collar up and stumbled my way across campus to classes I never figured out how to study for, filled with students I felt no connection with, and who, I was convinced, disdained me. And the last years of my first marriage seem in my mind’s nostrils as rank as the dregs of the pipe tobacco I used to smoke during those years.

These days, I love the smell of Mary Lee beside me in the morning, of my hot chocolate in the afternoon, of popcorn in the evening. Of seaweed and mudflats along the Maine Coast. Of dirt in the spring. Of going into the school building to pick up my grandchildren and the smells of chalk and disinfectant and young bodies taking me back to my years as a public-school teacher. And speaking of grandchildren, is there anything more uplifting than the fresh, slightly sweet smell of a newborn child?

On the other hand, I hate the heavy perfumey smell when I enter the Maine Mall, damp cellars (probably because they remind me of the cellar I lived over for twenty-two years), car exhaust on a hot day, and now, the smell of the antibiotic Mupirocin, with which I had to swab my nose prior to and after this summer’s heart surgery.

Recalling smells revives memories of my various pilgrimages and retreats even more than photographs. The exotic and sometimes stomach-churning smells of the Old City of Jerusalem—schwarma, spices, and pita bread mingled with the dust of centuries of pilgrims.

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The aroma of apple tea in Turkey. The salt-laden breezes on Iona. The tangy musk smell of the cow pastures through which Mary Lee and I hiked St. Cuthbert’s Way. The dry smoky smell of Tanzania. One of my first memories of the Episcopal monastery in Massachusetts with which I’m associated is the smell of incense wafting up from the altar into the stony steeple.

At this time of year, the woods are full of smells, full of ambivalent emotions. Fall in Maine is when the trees let go of their leaves, which brings for me not only nostalgia, but also a kind of grief. I’m well into the autumn of my life, which, along with the recent surgery, has me thinking about my mortality. So many of the smells in the woods I’ve started walking again arise from dead and dying vegetation. And yet, autumn is also the season I always feel most alive, and never more so than this year, as I find my strength (not to mention gratitude) returning. Yes, the leaves and needles and branches under my feet are dying, but at the same time the decay upon which I walk and which I smell teems with the seeds of regeneration—not only the forest’s, but also, I like to think, mine as well.

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False Evidence Appearing Real

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“The crowd of people around us suddenly became menacing.”

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I was reminiscing with myself the other day about various pilgrimages I’ve been on and got to thinking about the only one during which I was afraid. It was in 1997, when Mary Lee and I were in Israel. We’d taken a sherut, a minivan-style taxi, from Jerusalem to visit the Church of the Nativity, the supposed site of Jesus’s birth, in Bethlehem. Because Bethlehem was under the administration of the Palestinian National Authority, when we reached the outskirts of the city, the Israeli sherut stopped at a bus stop to let people out for the Palestinian bus into town. On the way, however, we’d been talking with a Palestinian couple—teachers in Europe, I forget where. Their car was in the parking lot, so they gave us a ride up to the Church. Mary Lee and I did our sight-seeing, saw the cave where Jesus was supposed to be born. (Ever since then, I’ve wondered why all mangers at Christmas time look like tropical huts), went to the gift store where we bought an olive wood creche, and then walked out into the square to find the bus.

Only to realize that I had no idea what the bus looked like or where it was. My stomach suddenly knotted. For the first time since we’d been in Israel, I became aware that Mary Lee and I were traveling alone in a strange, war-torn country. The crowd of people around us suddenly became menacing. Then, I heard a voice off to the side: “Hey! You want bus? Over here!”

The voice came from inside a beat-up blue bus hiding behind the corner of a building. The speaker was an unshaven young man of at most twenty years of age. We walked over and tentatively started to board. Before we were even settled, the guy stepped on the gas, his momentum knocking us into our seats. That was when I saw four or five teenage boys in tee-shirts and jeans behind us, their mouths curled with James Dean sneers around their cigarettes.

A cold hand grabbed my heart and squeezed. I envisioned our being kidnapped, forced in front of TV cameras to denounce the United States, and then beheaded or shot. Only when the bus squealed to a stop and an elderly woman got on did I begin to breathe more normally.

It was a good lesson in fear—what I’ve since learned is often an acronym for “False Evidence Appearing Real.” The divided country, the beat-up bus, the scruffy teenagers and their cigarettes (remember when cigarettes were sophisticated?), the speed with which we left the square were all in hindsight false evidence that these were terrorists intent on holding two middle-aged high school English teachers as political prisoners.

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Throughout my life, most of my fears have been mental: fear of abandonment, fear of not being seen (while I’ve struggled with alcohol over the years, my real drug of choice has been the approval of others), fear of ridicule, or just plain anxiety about… well, I don’t usually know what about. To use a twelve-step word, I tend to “awfulize” when anything new happens, creating worse-case scenarios in my head.

What’s helped over the years is recalling my Bethlehem experience, and that, as then, my fears are almost always false evidence appearing real. And the less I know about something, the more my mind will supply the false evidence. Even when I have had something concrete to worry about—my deteriorating first marriage, my daughter’s cancer—being afraid has never helped me change the outcome.

Life has taught me a few ways to deal with my fears and anxieties. One way is to stay in the moment. The Vietnamese monk Thich Nhat Hahn has a number of breathing exercises that I’ve found helpful over the years, one of which is breathing in and out, saying “Breathing in, I calm my body, breathing out, I smile. Dwelling in the present moment, I know this is a wonderful moment.”

Another way is journaling. I once took a day-long workshop in journaling, and one of our exercises was to draw a picture of one of our fears. I drew a huge finger pointing at me and laughing in ridicule. Next, we were directed to give our fear a name (mine was Freddy). Then, we wrote a conversation with our fear. (“Me: Don’t you shake your finger at me, Asshole. I’m not as afraid of you as I used to be. Freddy: That’s what you think, Buddy Boy …”)

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Freddy Fear

A third way, and probably the most effective when I can do it, is to turn my fear over to the God of My Not Understanding. “Courage,” as my twelve-step program says, “is fear that has said its prayers.”

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That I’ve been thinking about our trip to Bethlehem and my various fears is no surprise: I’m starting another pilgrimage. No, not the cruise Mary Lee and I are planning to make next week, but open-heart surgery.

This journey began about a month ago, when during a routine follow-up with my primary care doctor, I mentioned to him that I was having more and more shortness of breath, and that my daily walks—for years a source of joy and relaxation—now felt like climbing Mount Washington with a fifty-pound backpack. “I think we’d better schedule you for a stress test,” he said.

A few days later, after getting wired up and pounding a treadmill for six or seven minutes, I listened to a diagnosis of an “abnormality” in my heart rate. That led to first one and then two arterial catherizations, which revealed that my left main coronary artery is just over the line between “moderately” and “severely” narrowed. Since I have no shortness of breath doing normal activity, doctors have given me the okay (as well as a bottle of nitroglycerine tablets) for the cruise. Then I will have by-pass surgery when I return.

So I’m practicing my Thich Nhat Hahn, journaling (not to mention writing this blog), and spending a lot of time with my Higher Power, trying to hand over my various fears and anxieties about dying, of not seeing my grandchildren grow, of becoming a burden to Mary Lee, yadda, ad nauseum. I’m also trying to let go of my tendency to blame myself—which I realize has always been my go-to way to avoid anxiety by swapping it for guilt—feeling that my narrowed artery is because I didn’t exercise more, eat better, lose the ten pounds I’ve been thinking I should lose for the last fifteen years.

I don’t know what’s going to happen, which, as I’ve written about now for almost four years, is one of the characteristics of pilgrimage, along with hearing the call and responding, crossing the threshold where the old has fallen away and the new hasn’t yet emerged, being uncomfortable, beginning again, embracing the unknown, and coming home (wherever home may be.)

The trick, I’m finding, as with all pilgrimages, is to prepare for the future without living in it, and ignore all the false evidence appearing real.

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The Road goes ever on and on
Down from the door where it began. 
Now far ahead the Road has gone,
                                                              And I must follow, if I can…                                                                                                                                 (from The Lord of the Rings)

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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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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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