Sunday Afternoon Drives

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The Parents. Thanks to my sister, Jaye Sewall, for the photo.

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A few weeks ago, I was sitting on the back patio, using my recent heart surgery as an excuse to doze in the sun, when I started thinking about a forgotten era in my life, in the life of many Americans, I suspect: the Sunday afternoon drive.

For me, this era lasted from the late 1940s, when my parents bought their first automobile (I think it was a used 1946 Ford), to the mid 50s, when the advent of television and Sunday afternoon sports kept my friends and their fathers at home. During that time, I recall that on Sunday afternoons from spring into the fall, anywhere from three to seven families—the Wiles and the Prides and the Loomises, the Rollstons and the Haskells, the Teffts and the Jameses—would pile into their cars and spend the afternoon traveling the back roads of southern Maine to places like Blackstrap Hill and Pleasant Mountain to look at foliage, Two-Lights and Reid’s State Parks to see the surf, and Sebago and Crystal Lakes to swim. Sometimes, we’d just take off and head into what I still think of as Maine’s Bermuda Triangle: a series of labyrinthian back roads that no matter which one we took always somehow ended up at a reed-infested body of water called Runaround Pond.

Every one of these families had a kid close to my own age, and it was great fun swapping parents, so I could ride in a car with Craig or Richie or Peter. Some parents were more lenient than mine, and let us rough house or yell or sometimes sing, which made me feel like I was playing hooky from school; other parents were more strict, making us sit still and whisper, which made me feel like my own parents weren’t so bad after all.

Watching all these parents interact gave me my first glimpse into the confusing world of being an adult. I couldn’t understand why all the men and most of the women puffed on cigarettes, filling the cars with smoke and stinging our eyes. They often spoke in a strange sort of code that I didn’t understand and laughed at things that made no sense.

(Eventually, I learned that many of these comments had to do with sex. I remember what might have been the earliest “dirty” joke I ever heard—although it took me a while to figure it out:

Question: Who was the first carpenter?

Response: Adam?

Answer: No, Eve. She made Adam’s banana stand.)

And I find that some seventy years later, my parents and their friends still seem to me to belong to a mysterious world beyond my understanding, a world now lost to me forever. Browsing through the 3”x 3” black and white photos in my mother’s old albums show them to look older than their children did at the same age: in their 40’s, they look to be in their 50’s and 60’s—probably the result of the cigarettes they smoked and the fatty foods they consumed (my father started the day with eggs and bacon right up until he died at the age of 66), but also probably because compared to today, they look dressed up. Men wore ties, some even on Sunday afternoon drives, and for the most part women wore dresses.

Compared to today, our mothers seldom used profanity and our fathers used a lot less when we were all together. And the “F Word” was rare even in a group of men. On the other hand, all our parents peppered their language with racial and cultural slurs, with epithets for Blacks, French-Canadians, Italians, Indigenous peoples, Gays, even Catholics. I could get my mouth washed with soap for saying “Goddamn,” but no one did anything except chuckle if I called John Nappi a wop.

All of our parents were affiliated with either the Congregational or Baptist Church in town, but except for my parents and the Haskells, the other families usually attended church only on Christmas and Easter. Their real religion was the United States of America. (It was during this time that “under God” was added to the Pledge of Allegiance.) One Memorial Day—I was probably 7 or 8—I was walking down the street carrying a full-sized American flag over my shoulder and Earle Pride yelled out the door of his store at me because the tip of the flag was dragging on the ground.

And if their religion was the United States, they worshipped the American Dream. New washing machines and dryers, larger television sets and “Hi-Fi” record players, pine paneled rec rooms, and most of all, new automobiles. It was common to trade in for a new car every couple of years or so, and when one of our parents did, the car became an object of veneration for weeks, with all us kids scrambling to ride in it on Sunday afternoons.

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And thanks to my sister for this photo of  Dad standing by our first brand new car!

Those afternoon drives then became a worship service, celebrating our parents’—all of whom had grown up during the Depression—rise into American’s great Middle Class, with the freedom to follow new roads to a brighter foliage or higher surf or a longer beach. And if they got lost, or suddenly found themselves back at Runaround Pond, well, there was always next week.

It’s easy for me to criticize their provincialism and bigotry (and later in life, I did), but maybe because I tire easily these days, or maybe because I’m aware that I don’t have the goals, the dreams I used to have, I find that I miss the energy, the—excuse the pun—drive of those black and white people in the old photographs.

I also realize I miss the faith I had back then in my parents and their friends. Before the advent of Elvis and the generation gap, I believed in them more than I believed in God. I remember one Sunday drive. It must have been in the late 1940’s when forest fires burned large parts of Maine. One of our parents heard that there was a big fire in Brunswick, so we all piled into the cars to go look. I don’t remember the fire, only that as we turned the cars around to head back home, I was in the back seat of Earl Pride’s powder blue Dodge with Earl’s son Craig. One minute we were horsing around, and the next minute Craig was gone and the back door of the Dodge was swinging in the wind. Earl slammed on the brakes. I looked behind and saw the other cars screeching to stops. Doors opened and parents rushed to Craig, who was still rolling in the gravel beside the road. My stomach rose into my throat leaving a great empty cavern, until I saw Earl lift his screaming son into his arms, bring him back to the car, and lay him beside me in the back seat. “He’ll be okay,” he told his wife, Doris, “just some scraps and a bump on the head.” And Earl was right. Because he was just starting to accelerate when the door opened, the car wasn’t going that fast. But as far as I was concerned, Craig was never in any real danger. Once his father had him in his arms, I knew he’d be fine.

I had lunch with Craig last week. Like me, he’s had heart surgery, but all things considered, we’re both doing pretty well. Still, other friends have gone this year, some of them almost as suddenly as when Craig disappeared from his father’s blue Dodge. It seems as if one minute they’re here, the next minute, they’re not. And I find myself searching for some older, wiser voice, telling me that everything’s going to be all right. They’re going to be fine.

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Since 70

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I spent months living in dread of turning 70, because then I would be officially “old”—over the hill, past my prime, debilitated, enfeebled, ad infinitum. Well, four months shy of turning 76, I can honestly say being 70 isn’t bad, not bad at all.

Now, I’ve been lucky. No chronic disease to live with, no financial burdens. Mary Lee is well, and her sons and their wives have no major problems other than the common difficulties in raising a family and holding a job these days. The grandchildren are (usually) a delight.

My 70s, of course, have brought about physical changes that are pretty depressing. It seems as if every shower I find a new mole or lipoma to worry about. The hair in my ears grows faster than the hair on my head. My waist is expanding. I’m longer in the tooth and shorter in the leg. (For years I taught T.S. Eliot’s “Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” and never understood the line, “I shall wear the bottoms of my trousers rolled.”) I can recall the lyrics to almost every popular song from 1957-65, but I can’t remember the names of the two women who’ve lived across the street for five years. I spend a half-hour a day hunting for something.

Over the last five years, I’ve become more aware of Newton’s Law of Inertia: an object at rest stays at rest and an object in motion stays in motion. It takes me twenty minutes of exercise when I get up in the morning for me to be able to move without hurting. Probably because of the exercise, however, my chronic back pain is less than it has been in years. Beginning a new piece of writing is like hiking through mudflats in hip boots, yet the ensuing drafts are more fun than they used to be. I like to walk, but now the first ten minutes or so, my lungs burn and I have trouble getting enough breath. Then, they clear out and I’m good to go, which often means walking too far because I don’t feel like stopping (it’s not like I have a job or anything to get to). Consequently, I’m stiffer and sorer when I get up the next day to do those exercises.

A bigger problem is that I don’t seem to be able to stop talking after I’ve run out of things to say. My father-in-law used to speak of being in his “anecdotage.” I understand. I have all these great stories that I know you’re just dying to hear, stories that will amuse, educate, and inspire you. So why are your eyes glazing over?

My tastes have changed. I eat less meat than I used to and more chocolate. I’ve grown fond of oatmeal, kale, and certain kinds of seaweed, and less interested in lettuce, potatoes—especially fries—and baked beans. Not always, but usually—and I’m still having trouble believing this—I’d rather have salmon than lobster, tuna steak than fried clams.

Two years ago, when we bought a car with satellite radio, I couldn’t wait to find the 50’s and 60’s music channels. That lasted about a month (If, for my sins, I go to Hell, “Itsy Bitsy Yellow Polka Dot Bikini” will play nonstop.) I tried “Elvis Radio” for about four hours, and “The Beatles Channel” for maybe two. I listened to a blue-grass station for a while, and then several country and western ones. Now, I’m almost always listening to a jazz or classical station. It’s not that I’ve necessarily grown more sophisticated—I play a banjo for heaven’s sake—the music just seems fresher and more varied.

Ever since my family bought its first television in 1953, I’ve watched televised sports, but now I can’t watch anything on the tube except for a championship game featuring some New England team. I’ve had it with the incessant number of commercials advertising products I don’t understand at a volume twice as loud as the programing. It was bad enough when sports became huge businesses, but now they’ve become politicized as well. I’m sorry, I watch sports to forget about what’s happening to this country. I’ll sit in the stands at a local college or high school game, if you don’t mind.

Something else I never expected: I’m learning to accept, even value, my increasing powerlessness. I’m not talking now only of my physical condition. Five years ago, I entered a 12-step program. Step One states, “We admitted we were powerless over alcohol and that our lives had become unmanageable.” Everyone I’ve ever talked to in the program says that this is the hardest step of all. Admitting powerlessness runs counter to everything I, and I think most Americans grew up learning.

Like most of you, I expect, I was raised to be self-sufficient—“master of my fate… captain of my soul,” to quote one of my high school reading assignments . As an adult, I loved hear Frank Sinatra or Elvis sing,

For what is a man, what has he got?

If not himself, then he has naught

To say the things he truly feels

and not the words of one who kneels.

The record shows I took the blows

and did it my way.

But when I began reading about adult children of alcoholics, I learned how many of us were raised to be masters of not only our own fate but also the fate of the rest of our families. For example, I somehow always knew as a child that I was responsible for making sure that Christmas was a happy time of year, especially for my parents, neither of whom growing up had had happy holidays. I took that sense of responsibility for making others happy with me when I left home and started my own families, so that for seventy years, my Christmases were never as merry as I thought they should be, and it was my fault.

This burden of responsibility became even more oppressive after my daughter died on December 23, 1988. All parents feel guilt when their child dies, but my background as a child of alcoholism magnified it. I’ve written in these blogs several times about feeling my body chemistry change after Thanksgiving and the weight of the next weeks grow heavier and heavier.

Perhaps because of my physical diminishments, however, I’m finding that I have no choice but realize my increasing powerlessness in all facets of life. As my mother said to me when she was about the age I am now, “I used to think life was a case of mind over matter; now I find that what I mind doesn’t matter.”

Yet when I’ve been able to admit my powerlessness, I’ve experienced a wonderful sense of freedom. I can say “no” to causes and activities in which I used to feel I ought to participate, but that I had neither the skills nor the real interest in doing. The last few Thanksgivings, hosting twenty people all younger than I, I finally started putting some of them to work.

And this November I asked myself if my body chemistry was about to change, or was I just opening the same dog-eared horror story of how my daughter died. Laurie loved Christmas. She certainly never wanted me moping about or yelling at motorists on the highway. What would happen, I wondered, if I closed this book and took each day for what it was (or wasn’t).

After the holidays, I’m now trying to view the rest of the year not as something to master, but as something to accept. I’ve got a long way to go. You don’t unlearn something you’ve been doing for 70 years in five years. But when I can let go of this idea that the world depends upon me to keep it turning, I can see that everything I have—my health, my family— everything I am—including being a grieving parent— is gift.

Yes, I shed some tears on December 23rd. I also had a wonderful holiday season. I hope you did, too.

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Just one reason my Christmas was merry.

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A Musical Pilgrimage

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It’s Saturday, January 28, 1956, and I’m twelve years old sitting comfortably with my family watching “The Dorsey Brothers Stage Show” on TV. Tonight, however, instead of the usual big band number, a young singer with the strange name of Elvis Presley comes on stage in a black shirt and white tie. He’s got shiny hair, sideburns, and a wise-ass smirk on his face. Beating on a white guitar, he half-moans, half-yells, “Shake, Rattle, and Roll” and wiggles his hips.

“Good God! What the hell is that?” says my father.

I love it.

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A couple of weeks ago, I was reading a blog by Paul Cannon, an Anglican priest in Australia, called “Songs Lift my Soul,” (http://pvcann.com/2018/04/15/songs-lift-my-soul/). That same week, two of my Facebook friends posted the names of their ten favorite musical albums. I started thinking about the importance of music to my earthly pilgrimage and wondering just what it is that makes music so important to so many of us.

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In high school, I worshipped Elvis and his disciples: Buddy Holly, Chuck Berry, Carl Perkins, Fats Domino, Roy Orbison, Jerry Lee Lewis, Little Richard, Ricky Nelson, Brenda Lee, Wanda Jackson, The Everly Brothers, and Ray Charles. In college I listened to the jazz of Dave Brubeck, Miles Davis, and George Shearing, as well as the folk songs of Bob  Dylan, Joan Baez, and Odetta. Rock ‘n roll, jazz, and folk music tapped into my longing for romance and freedom—my need to rebel against the small- town Maine culture I’d grown up in—while at the same time remaining safely wrapped in a security blanket of likeminded peers. In other words, I could be independent and dependent at the same time.

But almost overnight, it seems now, my love of music went from being about the promise of the future to nostalgia for the past. Perhaps because I’m just a little too old to be a Baby Boomer or because growing up in an alcoholic family made me diffident and fearful, I, for all intents and purposes, opted out of the rebellious 60s, choosing the security of marriage and a steady teaching job. For me the Beatles were about how much they reminded me of the rhythm and blues of early Elvis. I never cared for their psychedelic stuff, but I did like the rawness of the last albums, which, along with what became known in the 70s as Outlaw Music—Waylon Jennings, Willie Nelson, Kris Kristofferson, Johnny Cash, Jerry Reed—had that sense of romance and rebellion I remembered from my teenage years.

When I think of the music from the 80s and 90s, I think of my daughter Laurie. I listened to her tapes of Bruce Springsteen, Billy Joel, Paul Simon, Tracy Chapman, Suzanne Vega, and Joan Armatrading not only with my ears, but hers—heard the promise, the passion for change. Laurie was also a self-proclaimed “flower child,” and after I’d divorced and remarried, her interest in the Grateful Dead, Pete Seeger, and the electric Bob Dylan made me feel as if I had finally entered the 60s.

When Laurie died in 1988, everything changed, including my musical tastes. I became obsessed with the requiems of Mozart, Brahms, Verdi, and Britten. I saw how grief can be given a structure, and I later used some of that structure for my novel, Requiem in Stones. My interest in spirituality led me to Elvis’s gospel music and the songs of Leonard Cohen, who along with Bob Dylan and Paul Simon continue to guide me as I age.

I also became more interested in playing music. In my early high school years, even as I’d followed Elvis, I’d also played trombone in a Dixieland band “The Ivy Leaguers.” Later in high school, I’d swapped my trombone for a guitar because of the Kingston Trio, who introduced me to folk songs. I became a member of the “The Fish Factory Trio”:

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During my first teaching job in Woodstock, Vermont, I played guitar and sang Ian and Sylvia songs with “The Faculty Three.” After Laurie’s death I took up the banjo (see https://geriatricpilgrim.com/2016/07/25/joy-and-the-banjo/), the instrument of black slaves and impoverished whites, a sound of sorrow and longing, yet at the same time, joy and gutsiness.

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One reason I don’t think I could exist without music is that both listening to and playing music let me escape for a time what Hamlet called “the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune.” Or, put another way, music takes me out of what some of the writers I read call my “small,” or “false” self, leaving behind those anxieties to which I’m usually addicted. At the same time, I actually become more myself. Playing in an old-time string band, I am one of a group of musicians, all playing the same song, and yet, my part is individual; in fact, without the others playing their parts, my part makes no sense. I learn that I am the most authentic me only in relationship to others—what Courage to Change: One Day at a Time in AlAnon, calls “unity in diversity.”

And it’s this synthesis that helps me better understand that while spirituality is discovered in solitude, it is fulfilled in community. “Union differentiates,” wrote priest, philosopher, and paleologist Pierre Teilhard de Chardin. We find our true “personhood,” he said, only by uniting with others.

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But I wonder if music’s almost universal appeal doesn’t go even deeper. As I was writing this blog, I decided to take a break and go for a walk in the woods behind my house. Perhaps because of what I’d been writing, I found myself aware of the music around me—the birds’ various songs; the wind through the trees. I thought of the music from some of my pilgrimages through the years: the Sanctus of sheep bleating at sunset on the island of Iona in Scotland, the dies irae of coyotes’ wailing in Arizona, and the Kyrie eleison of rain and wind through the branches of trees outside my hermitage at Emery House in Massachusetts.

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Feeling my feet tramping through the leaves, I thought of how I have always been drawn to the rhythms of music (which is why I like the later Paul Simon more than the earlier Paul Simon), and how music connects us—well, me at least—to the earth through its tempos: the ebb and flow of tides, the pulsating whistle of the cardinal, the percussion of rain on the roof. In contemplative prayer, I feel the rhythm of my breathing, which sometimes becomes part of a much larger breathing, almost as if someone or something is breathing in me.

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 These days I’m often found, as my wife says, “down the rabbit hole” of You Tube. I look at old videos of my early rock ‘n roll idols—Oh, hey, here’s Fats Domino singing with Ricky Nelson!—reliving my life’s ups and downs. I watch clips from old-time music festivals and artists like John Hartford and Dom Flemons, slowing the videos down as I try to learn “new” old-time tunes. And then, I might watch a lecture by Richard Rohr, Thomas Keating, or Cynthia Bourgeault on spirituality.

They aren’t as different from one other as you might think.

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