A Meditation on Meetings

Jakobspilger,

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Looking at the title, you might think this blog is about business meetings or faculty meetings or town meetings. A blog where I quote Dave Barry: “If you had to identify in one word the reason the human race has not achieved, and never will achieve, its full potential, that word would be ‘meetings.’”

I could tell you about my first high school faculty meeting in Vermont in 1965 and the two items on the agenda: 1.) a guidance department recommendation to change the students’ cumulative averages from numbers to letters—in other words, instead of graduating with an 86 average, the student would have a B average—and 2.) a faculty committee recommendation that the high school have “differentiated diplomas,” showing whether the student had taken advanced placement, college, business, or general courses. And I could say that after over an hour of discussion, we voted to accept the guidance department’s recommendation and to table the diploma question for another meeting.

I could fast forward 32 years to Maine and the first faculty meeting of the year and the two items on the agenda: 1.) a guidance department recommendation to change the students’ cumulative averages from letters to numbers—in other words, instead of graduating with a B average, the student would have an 86 average—and 2.) a faculty committee recommendation that the high school have “differentiated diplomas,” showing whether the student had taken advanced placement, college, business, or general courses. And that after over an hour of discussion, we voted to accept the guidance department’s recommendation and to table the diploma question for another meeting. And I would add that I left this meeting thinking it was time for me to leave public education.

But I don’t want to write about those kinds of meetings.

Looking back at my journal, I see that a few pages before I started writing about our cruise down the Rhine this summer, I quote Pico Iyer, one of my favorite travel writers: “Travel is at heart about the meeting between one soul and something she doesn’t know, and that encounter will never grow old or disappear.”

This is the kind of meeting I think all of us, whether we travel to Europe or to the grocery store all crave: an encounter to give life meaning.

Later in my journal, I describe a statue in Speyer, Germany entitled Jakobspilger, German for St. James’ Pilgrim. Speyer is part of the Camino de Santiago, the famous pilgrimage route to the Spanish town of Santiago de Compostela, where, according to Christian tradition, the Apostle Saint James was buried. Rereading my journal now, I realize that for almost six years now (Good Lord!), I’ve been blogging about my various travels—through both exterior and interior landscapes—as a pilgrimage.

And, I can see, as meetings.

In front of Jakobspilger’s long staff, an inscribed biblical verse from Hebrew 13:14, reads, in translation: “For here we have no lasting city, but we seek the city which is to come.” I think of my pilgrimages to so-called “thin places,” where the distance between the secular and the holy, the cities that don’t last and the city which will, shrinks and I’ve met—albeit briefly—the eternal.

Sometimes, it’s a case of immediate recognition: my first glimpse of the Scottish island of Iona rising out of the mist sent chills down my spine, as did my first look up through California’s redwoods. I felt a vital connection, a spark of divinity, bringing me to life.

Closer to home, I’ve always felt more alive this time of year. While, as you can probably tell, I disliked faculty meetings, I always looked forward to meeting my students for the first time. My life was transformed by these meetings, and I’d like to think theirs were as well. Even now, I feel a little more alive watching my grandchildren begin a new year and despite the continuing threat of COVID, evince the same excitement I felt both as a student and as a teacher.

First Day of School 2021

Of course, not all encounters between “one soul and something she doesn’t know” are holy, or even pleasurable. Meeting death for the first time when my daughter died of cancer was the most painful experience of my life. And in her suffering during the nine months leading up to her death, I met Evil, felt it as a tangible presence: obscene, grotesque, and powerful.  These encounters also immediately changed my life.

More often, however, my most important meetings have taken me weeks, months, or years to recognize as being life changing. My favorite of all the resurrection stories in the Bible is that of the two disciples of Jesus walking on the Road to Emmaus after the crucifixion who meet Jesus and don’t recognize him until later, in “the reading of scripture and the breaking of the bread.” I’ve been married twice and in both cases, my first meeting with the woman with whom I would live “for better or worse, in sickness or in health,” for twenty and thirty-five years respectively made little or no impression on me.

When I was there, I hated the old city of Jerusalem, its heat, its religious tensions, its commercialism. Yet in the following weeks, I began to realize I had a clearer understanding of the complexity of Israeli and Palestinian relationships, that I understood the Bible differently (God, people then must have had legs of steel to walk up and down all those hills, and no wonder water was so important!) and that Jesus’s crucifixion and resurrection made sense in ways it never had. Another encounter that, as Pico Iyer says, “…will never grow old or disappear.”

And then there are the times when I’ve met someone again for the first time. In some ways, I find these meetings the most satisfying. Students I taught forty years ago who reappear in my life as wise and witty adults. Old high school classmates (my 60th high school reunion is coming up), some of whom I never had much contact with, but whose Facebook posts make me laugh and cry.

The 45th High School Reunion

My wife, who surprises me every day. And, thanks to working my 12-step program, the me I’ve never met before, the one I’ve hidden for years behind any number of personas.

All of these engagements educate me, help me grow, even at my age.

So why are the other meetings so enervating? I’m not sure. I don’t think it has to do with size; I’ve had important 12-step and men’s group meetings with over twenty people in them. Rather, I think it might have something to do with whether our meetings are about making external changes—to numbers, letters, diplomas—or about personal transformation. In Al Anon or our men’s group, for example, there’s no trying to solve anything. There’s sharing instead of discussing. People speak from their hearts and not their egos.

Which shows me—and this is hard to write for someone who’s spent his life setting goals and trying to reach them—that being alive, really alive, is more about souls than it is about goals.

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Rhine Diary

The Middle Rhine

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7/25: Amsterdam. We’re here. Right up until the plane took off, I wasn’t sure this trip would ever happen. Over the last two years, I’ve booked two cruises and had to cancel both. This spring, I had a painful bone spur in my heel. For the last two weeks, I’ve been reading and worrying about flooding along the Rhine. And after two years of staying at home, I find myself anxious and reluctant to travel to another state, let alone another continent.

On the plane from Boston, I started reading Sharon Salzburg’s Real Change, in which she talked about our three responses to stress—flight, fight, and freeze—and I realized how frozen I’ve been during this pandemic.

This was painfully clear at Logan Airport. The driver of our shuttle from the hotel let us out at the wrong terminal, so that by the time we got to the ticket counter there was a pretty good line. Once at the counter, we were told we needed to fill out a special COVID questionnaire to get into Ireland (never mind that we were only in Ireland to change planes), and that this form needed to be filled out on our iPhones.

That was when I literally froze. I couldn’t get my fingers to work and had to have Mary Lee do the damn thing for me. By taking so long, we got the last two seats in the back of the plane, which meant being the last off the plane in Dublin, which meant running (or what passes for running at my age) from one end of the airport to the other, which meant barely making our connecting flight.

But after meeting the nice folks at Viking and walking the streets of Amsterdam over the canals, I can feel myself thawing a bit, feel myself flowing with the pedestrians, bicyclists, and cars past people sitting in front of cafes and coffee shops.

7/26: We’ve started our cruise on the lower Rhine, stopping at Kinderdijk to look at 18th Century windmills, used to keep water out of these lowlands. Along the Rhine delta, many trees and bushes along the banks are still under water after the floods, and last week part of this cruise had to be canceled because of rapid water.

Still, I’m finding being on the river more serene than I’d thought. I shouldn’t be surprised, since I’ve always found rivers calming. I grew up by a river, and I’ve often imagined my life as part of a river flowing from my forebears to an indeterminant future just around the next bend. This morning, Mary Lee and I meditated on our little balcony outside our stateroom, and I watched the Rhine through half-closed eyes and felt myself rocked. Held.

7/27: Cologne. Our excursion this morning was primarily through the 14th-century gothic cathedral, one of the few buildings not destroyed in WWII by Allied planes. Supposedly, it holds the bones of the Magi and was a site for pilgrimages in the Middle Ages.

Cologne Cathedral

For me, however, it was finding the Kathe Kollwitz Museum during our free time this afternoon which was my pilgrimage. Kollwitz, the German artist who worked with painting, printmaking, and sculpture, and whose son Peter was killed in World War I, showed me how powerful art can be in helping to overcome grief. Reading Kollwitz’s diaries of her seventeen-year struggle to create a monument to her son inspired me to keep working on my novel, Requiem in Stones, based on the death of my own child.

7/28: Koblenz: Woke this morning to a change in landscape: more hilly, rocky, and wooded. Koblenz is 70 kms from Weilburg (pronounced, I find, “Vile-borg”), where my paternal ancestors originated before moving to Nova Scotia in 1750. No time to visit, but I’ve got it on my bucket list.  

Koblenz, like Cologne, was 90% destroyed in WWII, so I didn’t feel as if I were looking at the physical layering of history the way I did, let’s say, in Turkey, where stones from churches, mosques, or palaces from one era were used in erecting new buildings. Instead, we were looking at Germany’s efforts to incorporate—layer, if you will—its past into its national consciousness, especially its treatment of Jews. Today, for example, we saw copper inserts in the sidewalks in memory of local Jews who were killed during the war, as well as modern art and sculpture looking at eras of German history.

This afternoon, what’s called the Middle Rhine carried us by 16 or 17 castles. Again, the sense of floating through history. The views of castles rising out of the mountains, sloped with vineyards were magnificent.

One of the many castles on the Middle Rhine

Another great regional meal on board ship and a glass-blowing demonstration and presents for my brother and sister and us. Again, the power of art.

7/29: Speyer. Walking tour, courtesy of “Hermann, the German,” 89 years old, who biked two kilometers to meet the ship and guided us on a two-hour walk through the town before biking home. Hermann talked from personal experience about post-war Germany. He was a schoolboy in the Nazi era, wearing a brown shirt because if he hadn’t, he wouldn’t have been able to go past elementary school. His father was a German soldier who spent two or three years after the war in a French prison camp.

Hermann the German

Listening to the Germans talk about their past, especially their Nazi past, helps me be more more honest about those less pleasant parts of my life, and I think we in the U.S. can learn much from Germany in how to name and accept our past genocides.

7/30: Strasbourg. Brief trip into France. Actually, since 1870, Strasbourg has been part of Germany twice and part of France twice. The Cathedrale Notre Dame de Strasbourg is another church that was at one time the highest building in Europe. The churches I’ve seen so far on this trip show me how religion almost always becomes politicized. They may contain stained glass pictures from the Bible, but I also saw statue after statue of some general or king in armor wielding a sword. After seeing these churches, I shouldn’t find the political agendas of Fundamentalists unusual.

The Cathedrale Notre Dame de Strasbourg

In our free time this afternoon, Mary Lee and I wandered beside the canals before eventually stopping in a square for hot chocolate (me), coffee (her), a croissant, and people watching. Scribbling in my notebook made me feel like Ernest Hemingway—another (for better or worse) huge influence on my life—writing in La Closerie des Lilas, in the Montparnasse quarter of Paris in the 1920’s.

7/31: Breisach and the Black Forest. More cruising into my past. Germany’s Black Forest reminds me of Idaho’s Payette Forest. ML and I joined a hike to a waterfall, another rejuvenating image for me. I’m sure we were the oldest ones on that hike. I alternate between feeling old and decrepit and old and pretty healthy.

Mary Lee

8/1: Basal, Switzerland. Today we said good-bye to Rene and Maria and Marina and Ada and Ann Marie and the rest of the staff and left our cruise for our two-day extension to Lucerne, Switzerland. For many years, I worked summers with tourists, and I know how much work goes into making vacations run smoothly. These folks were good.

Basal

On the balcony outside our stateroom waiting for the bus to Lucerne, I read more of Sharon Salzburg’s Real Change: “When I want to summon strength and power in the midst of awfulness and hate, I contemplate water. [Water is]…always changing, in motion, yet revealing continual patterns of behavior.”

I’ve found these “continual patterns” fascinating on this trip, from my reintroduction to the serenity of rivers, to my renewal of my love of Kollwitz and Hemingway, to my feeling part of the river of Wiles flowing from Weilburg, to my continued love of streams and forests, to my summers working with tourists in Bar Harbor, Maine.

Salzburg also wrote that yes, water can freeze, but it can also thaw. And I feel thawed out. My goal is to continue feeling this way.

This morning at breakfast, we looked across what is now the Upper Rhine to the other shore to see a naked man emerge from the river, where he’d been for a swim, and walk down a boardwalk to his clothes. Most people found the guy hilarious. I, however, saw him as an icon for starting each day rising from a river, naked, newly-born.

Metaphorically, of course. I don’t even take my shirt off at the beach anymore.

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Smoke & Memories

My fifteen minutes of fame (Or, after two hours of having my picture taken, this is the best she could do)

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The other evening just before sunset, I was watering my little plot in the community garden, when I smelled the rich, burnt odor of pipe tobacco. Without turning around, I knew it was Madison, whose plot is next to mine. Madison is the only pipe smoker I know these days—another example of how much the world has changed during my over three quarters of a century on this planet.

When I was growing up, almost everyone smoked. Smoke hung in the air in movie theaters, teachers’ rooms, lobbies, airplanes, trains, buses, hotel rooms, dance halls, any place where people congregated, apart from church sanctuaries and classrooms (and come to think of it, when I was a graduate assistant teaching in college, my students and I smoked there, too).

My father started smoking about the age of twelve and continued until his death at 66 from oat cell carcinoma—a highly malignant form of lung cancer that occurs only in smokers. One of my most vivid memories is of him sitting in the living room flicking ashes into a huge glass brown ashtray as he drank Blue Ribbon and smoked his Camels, watching The Gillette Friday Night Fights on our black and white Philco, while I sat on the couch, eating my bologna sandwich, aware at some level of being initiated into the male world of razor blades and beer and violence and cigarettes.

My grandfather Lufkin’s cigar was part of him, like his railroad cap, his glasses, and his hearing aid. He never put his cigar down. Wisps of smoke leaking from the corners of his mouth, he’d polish the chrome portholes of one of the Buicks he bought every two years, run a pine board through the table saw in his workshop, and point out tufts of grass I’d missed clipping along the side of the garage.

My first smoke was a cigar—a Phillies Cheroot, whose TV ads featured cowboys and wide-open western prairies before the Marlboro Man galloped into the scenery. I can’t remember who gave me that cigar, but I remember being at the local carnival with Spider and Willie and Goose and Marty–maybe even Pea Soup and Wild Bill–sauntering through the rides and the games and fun houses, looking for girls. As we paused in front of the Giant Swing to light our cigars, I met Susan, who was to become my first love, coming with her friends from the opposite direction.

After Susan and I broke up, I bought a pipe because, along with my pin-striped shirts and chinos with a buckle in the back and dirty bucks, I thought it made me ready for college. I smoked that pipe, filled with a cloyingly sweet tobacco called Rum and Maple, until I filched a pack of Dad’s Camels from the carton he always had in his bedroom closet, and spent one afternoon in front of a mirror imitating the way he smoked—wedging a cigarette into the V between my index and middle fingers, casually raising my hand to his mouth and inhaling slowly, drawing the smoke deep into my lungs, trying to exhale with a satisfied sigh as smoke seared my lungs and tears rolled down my face.

But I got the hang of it, and the next day I bought my own Camels. And after about a week, I was smoking a pack a day, just like Dad.

I was a man.

But cigarettes lost their appeal, when, after four years of two packs a day and summers inhaling smoke as a fire fighter, my lungs could no longer take unfiltered Camels. By then, however, I was hooked and it took another fifteen years of cutting down, switching brands, stopping, starting again, cutting down again before I could throw away what were now called cancer sticks.

I went back to my pipe. Which became my hundred pipes (no, really: I counted them once)—meershams, corn cobs, long-stemmed clay pipes, pipes with special filters, carved pipes with caps, a Sherlock Holmes Calabash—along with pipe racks (some I’d made myself), pipe cleaners, pipe scrapers, pipe sweeteners, tobacco pouches and tobacco jars. I had my own special blend of tobacco, thanks to the Blue Hill Tea & Tobacco Shop, which I may have kept in business.

In the teachers’ room

I used to think my pipe enhanced my teaching persona, along with my suits and vests and ties and matching pocket handkerchiefs, but I wonder now if spending all that time collecting and fiddling with my pipes wasn’t a way to avoid dealing with the disintegration of my first marriage, a way to lose myself in smoke.

After I remarried and moved back to the town in which I’d been raised, I threw away my pipes, started jogging, and mixed granola instead of tobacco. Then, Mary Lee and I bought my grandfather Lufkin’s house. One night, just after we’d moved in, I was in the garage besides my grandfather’s workbench, when I swore I could smell the fragrance of Grampy’s cigar. The next afternoon I walked to the corner store and bought a package of Phillies Cheroots.

The next time Mary Lee and I were visiting her parents in Cambridge, Massachusetts, I took a walk into Harvard Square and discovered Leavitt and Peirce, a well-known tobacco store. I went in, bought a small Hoyo de Monterrey, and went upstairs to where a couple of men—Harvard professors, I decided—were talking philosophy, playing chess, and smoking big cigars.

For this country boy from Maine, large, expensive hand-rolled cigars became the doorway into a new world of intellectual sophistication. And when, a few years later, a national magazine called Cigar Aficionado accepted my essay “Smoking on the Back Porch,” cigar smoking became the source of my fifteen minutes of fame (John Travolta appeared on the cover; I was—thanks to a two-hour photography session—on the back page), not to mention the source of one of my few substantial paychecks for a piece of writing.

In that Cigar Aficionado piece, I quote Ecclesiastes: “To everything there is a season.” Cigar smoking, which I thought had been a contemplative practice, eventually started to get in the way of real contemplation, and on my sixtieth birthday, I had my last cigar. And have had no desire to smoke since.

But I still dream about smoking again. And even now, thinking about this habit/practice/hobby/whatever that killed my father (and also my other grandfather, another heavy cigarette smoker), scarred my lungs, and cost me I can’t calculate how many thousands of dollars, I’m filled with warm and fuzzy memories.

Go figure.

I think what may attract me these days to the smell of Madison’s pipe is that smoking reminds me of important transition points in my life—entering adulthood, going to college, becoming a teacher, learning to be a writer—as well as important people, such as my father and grandfathers. All of which and all of whom made me who I am today.

And I’m happy I to be that person.

I’m also happy he no longer smokes.

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Confessions of an Introvert

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Recently, at the men’s group I help facilitate, I said that all through the pandemic, I’d been thankful for being an introvert. Except for not being able to be with my grandchildren, my life hadn’t changed all that much: I wrote in the morning, I walked in the afternoon. I noodled on my banjo, read, and watched old movies on TV. Now that the pandemic is winding down, however, I admitted I’ve been struggling to reenter society. The pace of life has picked up, the world seems louder, and I have difficulty talking with people face to face.

“You’re an introvert?” said a guy I’ve known for almost twenty years. “I’d never have known that.”

Which surprised me at first, until I realized how often in my life I have tried to cover up my need for solitude, my dislike of large groups, and my discomfort around loud people because of feeling there was something wrong with me.

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One of my earliest memories is of crawling into a cupboard next to the chimney in our living room and curling up in the dark next to the warm bricks. As I wrote in last month’s blog, I used to spend a lot of time as a boy nestled in my favorite pine tree watching the clouds. On weekends and when I was sick, I loved to curl up under the covers of my bed and listen to “Bobby Benson of the B-Bar-B,” “Sky King,” “Sergeant Preston of the Yukon,” and any number of other radio shows.

All that changed when I moved from the two-room primary school just up the street to the third grade in adjoining elementary and junior high schools. Suddenly, I was thrust into an intimidating world of sixth, seventh, and eighth graders, and because in those days students routinely repeated grades, some of these kids were fifteen and sixteen years old. Bullying was common. I started waking up early in the morning fearful that Freddy Fitts would twist my arm behind my back and make me cry, the way he had with my classmate Roland.

That’s when I discovered the value of safety in numbers. I joined a gang of guys who used to go around picking on solitary kids. It was mostly verbal (which still doesn’t make me feel any better about some of the things I used to say), and I discovered I had a knack for the quick cutting remark. (See previous parenthetical comment.) Instead of a twisted arm, I got laughs. When I began playing sports, I hung around with teammates, which fed my ego because athletes were looked up to.

In high school, there were always friends at my house, a party or a dance every weekend, and joyriding around town in between. I was selected as “Class Wit.”

Still, I occasionally snuck off by myself, sat by the river at the foot of the hill where I lived, and listened to the water and watched the birds. It’s interesting to me that looking back sixty-plus years, I remember those times by the river more clearly than I remember parties I went to or dances I attended.

It was in college that I reverted to my introverted self, not because I wanted to, but because I never had the knack (and still don’t, I’m finding as I go back into the world) of meeting new people. While my old high school classmates were joining fraternities, I sat in the back of the college den unable to break out of what I felt was a locked room, convinced I was a failure for not being outgoing and popular.

After college, I found the perfect place to retreat into my self: on stage. (I’m not alone; I’ve read about I don’t know how many actors, singers, and comedians who are deeply introverted). My stage was my classroom, where I dressed in flashy sport coats, bell-bottomed trousers, bright matching ties and pocket handkerchiefs. I arranged the chairs so that I was center stage. All of which to project confidence and wisdom. Every teaching day was like disappearing into an Iron Man suit. I felt invincible.

Until one day, I found Iron Man’s hands around my neck, twisting the life out of me.

I left my job, my wife, my daughter, my house. I remarried a woman who loved what she called (and still does) “silence and slow time.” Together, we began to practice meditation. (I remember the first time I tried to meditate, I felt foolish. I imagined old high school classmates and my students calling me crazy, until I realized, no, I’ve been doing this all my life.) Mary Lee and I started going on silent retreats, making pilgrimages, or just traveling. Almost always alone, seldom on tours, avoiding for the most part the usual tourist spots.

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Last week, I was telling another introvert about how often—and apparently successfully—I’ve hidden my introversion, and she recommended the book Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking by Susan Cain. I haven’t finished it yet, but I’m fascinated, and somewhat relieved, by the way the author shows how this country changed its 19th-Century emphasis on ‘character’ to—thanks in large part to Dale Carnegie’s How to win Friends and Influence People—a 20th Century obsession with ‘personality,’ to the point where shy children have been stigmatized, even given drugs to make them more outgoing.

I imagine some of you reading this know better than I how difficult it can be to grow up as an introvert. How people often equate being shy with being weak. I remember a principal I worked for who wrote in his evaluation that I was “diffident,” a word I had to look up. When I found it meant “lacking confidence, timid, shy,” I challenged him. Come to find out, he wasn’t talking about my classroom teaching, he was talking about the way I’d chaired a faculty meeting on accreditation, something I’d never in my life done before. (My next principal, by the way, at my going away party when I left the school, called me “One of our towering presences.”)

So how does any of this help me resurface after over a year of “silence and slow time,” especially into a world that has grown louder and more aggressive (i.e., January 6)? Well, even as I was writing the last paragraph, I realized that there’s still part of me that believes introverted means weak and that I need to hide behind some kind of extroverted persona. One of my temptations in these blogs, for example, is to pose as more of a world traveler than I am. (I’ve lived 74 of my 78 years in one state, of heaven’s sake.)

Enough people have told me that I’m a good teacher that I believe it, but if so, I continued to be a good teacher after I stopped wearing the matching neckties and pocket handkerchiefs. I didn’t need to pose. I just enjoyed teaching.  And I don’t need to pose as a wandering adventurer to approach this new post-COVID world with the curiosity, even wonder of a pilgrim. I can accept, even relish, being an introvert and try to maintain the more leisurely pace of the last year or so, making time for plenty of solitude with the God-of-my-not-Understanding. I can become more involved in my Al Anon and Adult Children of Alcoholics groups, which are made up predominately of fellow introverts (which makes me wonder how much of being an introvert is nature and how much is nurture or the lack thereof).

And I can keep calling this blog “The Geriatric Pilgrim.”

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The Climbing Tree

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In my early childhood, one of my favorite places in the world was at the top of a pine tree on the edge of the field behind our house. This tree was probably pretty small, but in my memory it loomed over me. I remember the first time I made it to the top, I felt as if I’d been climbing for an hour and that my head was almost in the clouds. At the top of the tree, I found where a couple of branches had made a saddle, and from then on, I’d climb up, wedge myself into the branches, lean back, and watch those clouds. Sometimes they were dragons for me to conquer, sometimes ships to sail, sometimes castles where a great king (my first image of God) lived.

Sometimes the wind blew, rocking me back and forth. Usually, I could hear the river at the foot of the hill. As I grew older, I’d wonder who or what made these clouds and the wind and the river, which led to curiosity about who or what made me.

I thought of “my tree,” the other day as I stood at the foot of a tall (and this one is tall) pine tree in the woods near our house, looking up at my eight-year-old grandson climbing from branch to branch. But while part of me was filled with nostalgia, part of me was scared to death. What if he slipped? My god, he might impale himself on that sharp limb below him. Oh, shit! Is that next branch safe?

Well, he didn’t try to make it to the top and he came down safely and I didn’t say anything, so we were both happy, but on the way home I got to thinking about how fearful I’ve become these days.

I don’t like it.

I’ve written before in these blogs about fear. In one (https://geriatricpilgrim.com/2019/07/) I talked about fear being an acronym for “false evidence appearing real.” These days, however, my greatest fears are various manifestations of something very real: my mortality.

These fears probably began with the death of my eighteen-year-old daughter Laurie thirty-two years ago—at least, that’s when death for me became a reality instead of a concept. But it wasn’t until twenty years later that the deaths of other people I knew and liked and loved started falling on me, first, as an occasional raindrop, now steady precipitation—my classmates Marty and Tom, Laurie’s mother, my wife’s parents, my mother, more and more classmates like Roger and Scott, Diane and Audrey. Then, two years ago, I, whose cholesterol levels, heart rate, and weight were all great, needed bypass surgery. Three months later, my former brother-in-law, who walked, swam, played tennis, and lifted weights, apparently in perfect health, suddenly dropped dead of the same kind of heart blockage that I’d had.

Not only did that make death real, it made death something over which I—always a control freak—have no control over. And that’s probably what really frightens me.

I realize the first thing I think about when I wake up in the morning are all the bad things that might happen today to me or to someone I love. Will that ache in my shoulder turn out to be a heart attack? My wife’s getting these serious pains in her knee. What if she has Parkinson’s or becomes wheelchair bound? The wind’s blowing—what happens if that tree in the back yard falls on the house and kills Mary Lee or me? I can’t find my keys again. Does that mean Alzheimer’s?

Now, so far none of that has happened. My life is good. I often go to bed at night grateful for the day. Why then can’t I wake up in the morning feeling the same way?

I suspect I’m still fighting being mortal, still trying to do the things I used to be able to do, still attempting to control the things—like my body—I used to be able to control. I need to be spending a little more time with the Serenity Prayer: “God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and wisdom to know the difference.”

So then, what can I change? What do I have control over?

I do have some control over how I die: my state has a “Death with Dignity” law. But at this point, I’m more interested in how I live until that time, and I don’t want to spend my remaining days awfulizing about all the nasty things that could happen until my death.

Maybe what I need to be asking as time grows short and I age and break down is what’s most important to me? What do I want to be able to do as long as possible?

Well, one of the things that’s important to me is to be able to look at life the same way I did when I used to climb that pine tree. I had a destination. I looked up instead of down. I didn’t mind if I got splinters or a little pitch on my hands. And once I went as far as I could, I used my imagination and wondered about creation.

Okay, I can’t go as far as I could, even a year ago. (Have I told you about my heel spur?) But I can work on looking up instead of down (or as I age, ahead instead of back. I still think most of my fears of the future go back to anxieties passed on to me by my parents). I can still have a destination (a word, remember, that means purpose as well as place)—an essay or poem to write, a book to read—even if, like Stephen Hawking, I might have to write on a computer by twitching my cheeks, or “read” through audiobooks. I don’t mind a little pain or not looking young any more as long as I can still be as curious about the changes in my grandchildren as I was about the changing shapes of clouds. I can still find beauty and wonder in nature (I just stopped writing to take a picture of our azalea bush), even if I might have to ask someone someday to wheel me outside to experience it.

That’s all worth looking forward to. Worth living for.

I think it’s time to stop asking myself in the morning, “What can go wrong today?” and start asking, “What is my destination today? What can I be curious about? Wonder at?”

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While Holding the Cat (Or: Wile, Holding the Cat)

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The beginning of Holy Week—the week of Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and Easter—and I’m sitting in a chair looking the window, trying to drink a cup of tea while holding our cat, Zeke. Not an easy task, especially since Zeke can’t seem to get settled, but during this year of COVID-CRUD, the two of us have bonded, probably because I have more patience than I did a year ago, so I wait him out.

Which is sort of what I get to thinking about. If I rise halfway out of my chair (which I can’t because Zeke has finally curled up on my arm), I can look through the window down to some crocuses poking through the ground. Spring is here, along with Easter and all it signifies about resurrection and new hope. Mary Lee and I have been double-vaccinated, and for the first time in a year, the grandchildren are coming to spend the weekend with us.

And I’m not sure I want any of it.

I think of the little delights of the previous year—not the big delights like reading and writing and flailing away at my banjo, those will go on no matter what—but the little delights that I’d never have noticed if I hadn’t had more time to consider them:

The squirrel who nearly every morning while I do my exercises bounces from the limb of one fir tree across the hollow in the back yard to the limb of another fir, making the trees look like they’re dancing.

The wooden butter knife I use to scrape the sides of the cone filter when I make coffee that always reminds me of Jeff, the guy who made it: a free spirit and real artist with wood, as well as someone I used to play music with, BCE (Before the COVID Era).

 The painted little wooden bird houses on my neighbor’s fence, which at first I thought were really kitschy until she told me her granddaughter had made or at least painted them for her, which suddenly made them really, really cute.

The pale yellow remains of the last remaining pumpkin I grew last year and kept on the dining room table until after Thanksgiving when I put it on the patio where the squirrels (probably including the one who bounces across the gully in the morning) ate the insides out of, so I threw the shell into the hollow where it still lies, weighing only a few ounces but still holding its shape.

Seeing my old friend Andy on Zoom, which is a bitter-sweet delight, since he’s battling Parkinson’s and is himself only a shell of the witty, intelligent man he was when I first knew him but who continues to handle his decline with a grace that I can only hope to maintain should anything like that ever happen to me.

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It’s probably some form of mental inertia, but I tend to grow comfortable, even in my discomfort.

Sitting in my chair, petting Zeke, I recall his predecessor, Koshka (which is the Russian word for cat—actually, female cat, which Koshka wasn’t, but we didn’t know it at the time [that the word meant female cat, not that we didn’t know Koshka’s sex]) whom we bought as a kitten after my daughter Laurie was diagnosed with cancer. In Laurie’s last visit to our house, shortly before she went into the hospital where she spent the last two months of her life, I took a picture of her holding Koshka (probably what turned me from a dog to a cat lover).

In the following years, Koshka grew to twenty pounds of CAT, his size enlarged by his being part Maine Coon and having the tail the size of a furry zuchini. He was an imposing presence, not unlike my grief, and his moods seemed to mirror mine. If I felt isolated and withdrawn, he disappeared; after I began meditating, he’d jump into my lap and curl up, his breathing a match for mine.

During one particularly bad time when Laurie’s absence was a palpable ache in my heart and I was angry at everyone and everything, he developed a urinary infection, and I remember the time his howling woke us up in the middle of the night, and I saw him standing with his back arched in the middle of our bedroom floor, staring at the cross on our meditation alter, sounding as if he were screaming to God, “Why hast thou forsaken me?”

As years passed and my bouts of intense grief grew less frequent, Koshka dropped to about 12 pounds and lost all but four teeth. But as if to remind me that grief is the gift that keeps on giving, the summer before he died, somewhere around my daughter’s birthday, he got in a standoff with another cat who’d wandered into the yard, and, when I tried to pick him up, sank one of his four teeth into my arm, sending me to the hospital (missed an artery by 2 cms.).

Twenty years after Laurie’s death, when Koshka fell in the bathroom on his way to the litter box and refused to leave and we called a vet to come to the house to help him die peacefully, I grieved for a week—not, I realize now, for an old cat, not even for my daughter, but for the loss of the grief that had defined me for twenty years.

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Zeke lifts his head, which is his way of telling me he wants to be scratched under his chin. In size and temperament, Zeke is as similar to Koshka as a chickadee is to a turkey vulture. Unlike Koshka, who used to breathe with me in my lap while I was meditating, Zeke is usually scratching frantically in his litter box at that time of the day. Which, I’ve decided pretty much reflects what’s going on in my mind lately. I too, have been a little frantic, scratching in the litter box of my mind, worried about my various aches and pains (Leonard Cohen: “I ache in all the places where I used to play.”), my grandchildren’s future, the end of democracy in this country, etc. ad nauseam. Which is probably why I’m apprehensive about the coming of Easter (my favorite Easter gospel is Mark, where the women “fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.” That’s sure as hell what I would have done.)

But Zeke has calmed down these days. At least, that’s what I think until his mysterious eyes, which have been mere slits, widen, and he bites my hand and scampers away. The next thing I know, he’s batting a toy mouse at my feet, as if to say, “Come on, Wile, get off your ass. Stop looking out the window at the world and get outside and enjoy it. Get ready for those grandchildren!”

Okay, okay. Time to rise. Sometimes you get resurrected whether you want to or not.

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Have Snakeskin, will Travel

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Over the past 30 years, I’ve made many retreats to monasteries. The silence, punctuated by worship several times a day, slows me down, increases my awareness, and keeps me centered. All of which have helped me live comfortably during this last year of COVID-enforced isolation.

But as much as I love monasteries, I’ve never had any desire to be a monk. There’s the celibacy thing, for one thing, but also the fact that, at least in the monastery I’m most familiar with, the Brothers clean out their cells every year, discarding everything but the bare essentials. As one Brother explained, “Refraining from possession helps us remember the transient nature of earthly life.”

Well, I’ll admit it. I want my possessions. The room in which I’m writing this is full of them. I have bowls of stones from the various pilgrimages Mary Lee and I have made, a hat covered in hat pins from states and countries I’ve been to, and a budding collection of banjos. I also have random things: a wooden plate made by my father, a few joke books written by an old friend, now deceased, a pencil holder that used to belong to my father-in-law…

And a snakeskin.

Almost 60 years old, the skin rests on my bookcase, brittle, brown, and bent. When I pick it up, it crinkles like old parchment. Some of the translucent scales underneath, looking like fragments of old scotch tape, have fallen off (another came off now). I can’t think of anybody who’d want the damn thing except me. And I wouldn’t part with it for $1000.

As I run my fingers over the mottled brown and yellow skin, the years fall away and it is the summer of 1963. I am slowly coming down a steep slope of something between a hill and a mountain in the Payette National Forest in Idaho. Below me is the third fork of the Salmon River. (Often called “The River of No Return.” If you can, check out the 1954 movie by that name starring Robert Mitchum and Marilyn Monroe.) As I descend, picking my way through blackened rocks and burned shrubs and grass, I begin to encounter small groves of Ponderosa Pine and Douglas Fir, which I check to make sure aren’t smoldering. But they’re fine. The fire didn’t get down this far.

I’m working on a Hotshot Crew based in McCall, Idaho, a small touristy town on the edge of Payette Lake (something like 5,000 people and eight bars) about thirty miles from here. Our crew is a regional crew, which means we’re flown to any state in the upper western United States that has a large forest fire. The term “hotshot” describes those who work on the hottest part of a forest fire. Our primary job is to dig a fire line around the fire. We have a crew of eighteen, plus a crew chief, Paul, an assistant crew chief, Tex, and a scout, Dave Bodley, “Bo Diddly,” we call him, a bear of a guy who goes ahead with a chain saw, cutting down limbs, clearing a path through fallen trees. Then, we follow in a line as close to the fire as we can get. Twelve of us carry pulaskis, a tool which combines an axe and a hoe in one head on a three-foot handle, to scrape the forest duff and chop roots.

Pulaski (from Wikipedia}

The remaining six of us have shovels to scrape and widen the fire line to about three feet or more. The idea is to cut a fire line and walk at a steady pace at the same time for as long as needed, sometimes for up to twelve hours. Once the fire is contained, we go into the burned areas and put out individual hot spots by scraping the burning coals from the trees or shoveling dirt on the flames or just digging smaller fire lines and letting the fire burn itself out. Then, when the fire’s under control, we let the locals mop up what’s left and head back to McCall.

Headed out. (Wikipedia)

Except this time we’re the locals. The Payette is our own National Forest, and after we contained the blaze, I volunteered to stay behind with Tex, Birddog, and Mike for two or three days to make sure we didn’t miss any remaining fire.

So we have two or three days to hike up and down the hills looking for smokes, swim in the chilly waters of the Salmon River, have Pulaski throwing contests, play poker around a campfire, and hunt rattlesnakes. These rocks and ravines are home to all kinds of snakes who like to come out in the afternoon and sun themselves, and I want to catch a rattler.

Despite the fact that this is my second summer on the job, I’ve never run into one. Part of our training has been to learn what to do if bitten and I have a snake-bite kit in my backpack, but so far, all I’ve seen are bull snakes, who look like the Northern Pacific Rattlesnakes that live here, but don’t have the rattles.

Then, on the ground ahead of me in front of an opening in some rocks, I see a snake. I inch my way closer, but I still can’t tell what kind it is. In addition to having rattles, rattlesnakes’ eyes are more like cat’s eyes than those on a bull snake, but I’m not near enough yet to tell.

When I’m maybe a couple of yards away, my foot crunches some gravel. Within seconds, the snake coils, raising its arrow-shaped head and tail. I hear the rattling. Without thinking, I take a giant step forward, swing my Pulaski over my head and drive it down through the snake, slicing it into three pieces.

The smallest piece is the head. I poke it with the Pulaski, noting its long thin tongue outside its mouth. I take the other two pieces to camp. Tex shows me how to skin them, and hang the skins up on a branch to dry in tomorrow’s sun. That night we have a rattlesnake appetizer (and yes, it tastes like chicken) to go with our canned Vienna sausages. Two days later, I take the largest skin, about 15” long, with me.

I know my life is transient—“like grass,” as the Psalmist says. Which is why I need to spend what’s left of it looking at more than the small grove of fir trees out my back window. Especially in this year of not being able to travel physically, I need a wider view. Of 10,000-foot mountains and a river full of cutthroat trout, bull trout, rainbow trout, mountain white fish, sockeye salmon, Chinook salmon, steelhead, smallmouth bass, squawfish, sucker, and sturgeon. Of guys from California, Oregon, Washington, Utah, Texas, Oklahoma, Nebraska, Utah, and Colorado, with names like Bo-Diddley, Birddog, Tex, Spankie, and Alfalfa.

 A view that encompasses not only space but time: when I had a different name, “Froggie,” because of the way I hopped when I was first learning to dig a fire line; when I could dig that fire line for twelve hours and then walk another ten miles out to a cattle truck taking me to the airport; when I could flip a Pulaski fifteen feet and stick it into a pine tree. When the stars at night seemed to be so close that I could reach out and grab one any time I wanted.

All of which I can access by simply holding objects like a dried-up snakeskin in my arthritic hands. Suddenly, I am standing on the top of one of those 10,000-foot mountains, gazing over the vast landscape that is memory.

3rd Fork of the Salmon River. (Wikipedia)

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Graying

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It’s a cold day in February and I’m sitting at my desk looking out at a gray world: gray sky, gray snow, gray road, even a couple of gray squirrels frolicking in the faint gray shadows of the trees in the hollow beside the house. (Sorry, they scampered out of the picture above.)

I start thinking about gray…

I’m of an age where almost all of my friends are gray, which reminds me of those great lines by Leonard Cohen: “Well, my friends are gone, and my hair is gray./ I ache in all the places that I used to play.”

Yup. The last time I played ball with my grandson, my shoulder hurt for two days. A good day’s work would kill me.

Googling what people have to say about gray, I find the comments often bleak. There’s a bluegrass song with the haunting refrain: “There’s nothing quite as lonely as the cold gray light of gone.” Besides loneliness, gray is the color of prisons, winter (“The gray dawn slaughters / the promise of Spring / Winter’s desperate last goodbye”: Kurt Philip Behm), boredom and conformity (I recall a novel, later made into a movie, called The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit, an indictment of 1950’s American values).

People often want to change gray to something more colorful. They look to others—from American writer Jane Bernstein: “You smiled. It was like the sun breaking out on a gray day”—or urge you to do it yourself—motivational speaker Allen Klein: “Your attitude is like a box of crayons that color your world. Constantly color your picture gray, and your picture will always be black.”

Speaking of coloring, 75% of American women over the age of 35 color their hair, and 11% of American men. One reason why, according to one source I found, is that graying hair is often the first sign of aging. People look in the mirror and suddenly they see their parents or grandparents. Judging from what I see on television, gray hair goes along with COPD, arthritis, and Depends.

The thing is, I love my wife’s gray hair. Actually, I like gray hair, period. And interestingly enough—at least to me—is the fact that the percentage of women over 60 who dye their hair shrinks to 55%. Maybe the lesson here is that it’s okay in our culture to begin to age after the age of 60.

As I think about it, I just plain like the color gray. That I’m not alone makes me feel better. Leonardo DaVinci apparently said that a gray day provides the best light for painting because it makes other colors stand out. That’s certainly true in New England in the fall. Nothing brings out the red, orange, and yellow foliage like a gray day, especially if there’s a little gray fog drifting through the trees.

French author and Nobel prize winner Andre Gide takes gray to another level when he writes, “The color of truth is gray.”

I think of how I was raised to see the world in black and white, like the photographs I have of myself as a kid. There was us and them, good guys and bad guys, white hats and black hats, red-blooded Americans and cold-blooded Communists… Now, however, I see life as far more often a mix of black and white—i.e. gray.

And it’s how they’re mixed that fascinates me. Despite a rather notorious (I gather; I haven’t read it) book that talks about 50 shades of gray, my on-line research tells me the human eye can distinguish 32 shades of gray. That’s still a lot. If I go to a paint store, I can find some 30 shades of gray, with names like Gainsboro, Spanish, Manatee, Davy’s, Mole, and Regent. Looking out the window at the sky, I can see a blue-gray horizon, turning to smoke gray, then ash-gray, swirled with charcoal. Or maybe the swirls are gun-metal gray… Pewter?

“Most consequential choices involve shades of gray,” wrote former U.S. Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner. That’s certainly been true in my life. I used to think of divorce as evil—black, a sin—until I had to balance that with my emotional and physical health.

I always thought suicide was wrong, until I read articles about people diagnosed with Alzheimer’s or ALS who decided for the sake of their family to go to a place where they could get help with an assisted suicide. Now, I’m not so sure what I’d do if I found myself with a similar disease.

Abortion? Reading the Bible? The death penalty? Shades of Gray.

The former U.S. Treasury Secretary went on to say, “…and some fog is often useful in getting things done.” I’m not sure how that translates into monetary policy, but it’s exploring foggy shades of gray that drives me to write, and whatever creativity I have emerges from that exploration.

When I first started teaching writing in the middle 1960’s, English teachers stressed the Five Paragraph Essay (as a matter of fact, I taught from a text with that title), where students were expected to start with a thesis—a statement summing up the main idea of the essay—put that in a sentence at the end of the first introductory paragraph, then write three paragraphs illustrating why the thesis was valid, followed by a concluding paragraph summing up what they’d already written. The problem was, I found that when I tried to write that way, I lost all my creativity because I was starting with what I knew, not what I didn’t know. Writing to discover changed the way I wrote and way I taught writing.

Maybe it’s because I’ve spent almost all of my life living on the foggy coast of Maine, but I’m uncomfortable without clouds. Without gray. I still remember the merciless sun glaring down in Israel, casting everything in a harsh light, as if it were scalding my bones. I much preferred the hazy, shimmering light on the Scottish island of Iona, which gave the heather, the hills, the stones, the sheep an ethereal glow. Or the thick blanket of fog that crept up the ravine at sunset in Big Sur, California and then turned pink before enveloping my hermitage.

Likewise, I’m really uneasy with certainties. People who proclaim some “Truth”—whether about theology, politics, or education—scare the hell out of me.

After spending much of my life searching for answers, I find that as I’ve grown grayer, I’m happier today with the questions—questions and watching squirrels play in the fir trees under a sky of a blue-gray turning to smoke gray, then ash-gray, striated with charcoal or gun-metal or pewter.  

I’d just as soon have some warmer weather, though.

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Putting Away the Past

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“…. by participating in a ritual, … you are being, as it were, put in accord with that wisdom, which is the wisdom inherent within you anyhow. Your consciousness is being re-minded of the wisdom of your own life. I think ritual is terribly important.” Joseph Campbell

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It’s January 7, the day after Epiphany. Yesterday, Mary Lee and I watched goons in red hats knock our democracy to its knees. Still, as I’ve done on today’s date for I don’t know how long, I put on The Christmas Revels, (a CD; we wore out the tape we bought right after we’d seen a performance of this Solstice celebration over thirty years ago) and begin to take down our Christmas tree, removing the ornaments, packing them away for another year.

“Wassail, wassail, all over the town…”

We take off the unbreakable ornaments first. Most of them come from our travels: several woolen sheep of various sizes and a wooden long-haired highland cow from Scotland, probably our favorite country to visit; a couple of olivewood Jerusalem crosses from Israel; a weighty wooden St. Nicholas from Cambridge, England; and a porcelain nazar, an eye-shaped Turkish amulet believed to protect against the evil eye, which we bought in the Grand Bazaar in Istanbul. (And which for some reason, I can’t get to print. You’ll have to Google it.)

“Here come I, Old Father Christmas…”

Putting them away in the bottom of the box, I think of Columba’s Bay on Iona, the cobweb of streets in the Old City of Jerusalem, drinking “Green King Ale” in The Champion on the Thames with Dick and Janet Graham, sharing Turkish meze platters with our friends Lynne and Finlay. Later today, I might dig out a map or a travel guide to expand a snippet of memory into a full narrative, some of which might even have actually happened. If not, so what? It’s my memory.

“The boar’s head in hand bear I…”

Next, we take off the homemade ornaments from the children and grandchildren. Mary Lee’s sons used to make God’s eyes—you know, running different colored yarn around various sized crosses. We’ve also got decorations showing their growth into adulthood: a couple of felt cats named for Jeremy’s first two pets that followed him around from one apartment to another, and—perhaps our most unique ornament—a soft brown diarrhea microbe, which was from Jeremy’s wedding to a professor whose PhD is in Tropical and Diarrheal Diseases.

Our most recent additions to the tree are from last year, when all four grandchildren were into fuse-beads, which for those of you who haven’t played with grandchildren lately are colorful beads arranged on a plastic pegboard to form a pattern or a shape and then fused together with a clothes iron (which is, quite frankly, the only time we’ve used an iron in the last 20 years).

“There was a pig went out to dig,

Chris-i-mas Day, Chris-i-mas Day…”

Many of the more fragile ornaments come from our childhoods and get wrapped in tissue paper. Mary Lee has an angel that her mother remembered from when she was a girl, making it around a hundred years old. I’ve got a couple of glass ornaments from our family tree, as well as a plastic Santa Claus on skis from the 1940s that I’m pretty sure came with a six-pack of Coca-Cola, which I used to drink in vanilla ice cream floats on Christmas Day after we’d opened our presents (which would have been about 9:00 in the morning. Yeech!)

“The holly and the ivy…”

Perhaps because my parents grew up in homes where Christmas was fraught with alcoholism and other family disfunction, they tried hard to make sure their children’s Christmases were happy ones. And on the whole, they succeeded. For me, Christmas is a time to remember and honor my family, not just my parents and siblings, but the extended family of which I am a part.

“Dance, then, wherever you may be

I am the Lord of the Dance,” said he…”

The two ornaments Mary Lee gave me for our first Christmas together go in their own boxes: a red ball—naturally—for the Boston Red Sox and a silver and green one for the Boston Celtics. Both teams have had their ups and down over the last 35 years, but by in large, they’ve done well. Mary Lee and I have also had our ups and downs, but I think we’ve done even better.

“Nowell, nowell, nowell,

Nowell sing we clear!…”

My most prized ornament, and I usually pack it away last so that it’s right on top to put on first next year, is a cloth ornament my daughter Laurie embroidered for Mary Lee and me for our first Christmas together. She was sixteen at the time, two years away from the cancer that killed her. Wrapping the ornament, I see by her signature on the back that this was the year she called herself by her middle name, “Leigh.” A time when a future of limitless possibility seemed to lie before her.

“On the first day of Christmas, my true love sent to me

A partridge in a pear tree…”

It usually takes just about as long to put away the ornaments as it does to listen to the entire Christmas Revels, which I’ll also set aside for another year. These songs and dances celebrate the fusion of Christianity and the pagan festivals surrounding the winter solstice and the rebirth of the year. In many ways, they are a dance of light and dark, death and life, past and present.

I’m packing away, then, not only ornaments but memories and stories, both happy and sorrowful. And while I think it’s important, especially as I age, not to dwell on the past but to focus on the present and the future, these ornaments will stay with me throughout the rest of the year in some closet of my subconscious, subtle yet constant reminders that what has saved me before in times of grief, illness, and addiction—faith, family, friends, the natural world, art and music—can save me in today’s lethal political climate, can save me in the future.

They give me a reason to want to live. They give me hope.

“God bless the master of this house,

With happiness beside,

Where’re his body rides or walks

His God must be his guide,

His God must be his guide.”

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Showing Up

Photo curtesy of Heather Spring

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A friend—I’ll call him Gary—has neighbors whose twenty-year-old son recently died in an automobile accident. Because Gary knows I’ve lost a child, he asked me if I had any advice on what he could say to them. Although I shy away from giving anyone advice on grieving (more on that later), I did send him some thoughts about what helped me and also what made things worse in the years immediately after Laurie died. A month or so later, he wrote to thank me, that what I’d written was showing him how to be with his neighbors in ways they seemed to appreciate.

Because it seems to have helped Gary, and because we are entering the holiday season, which for many of us grieving parents is the hardest time of the year, and because this year is especially hard (As I write this, 284,000 people in this country have died from COVID 19, which means, even granting the death rate is higher for older people, possibly that many grieving parents), I’m going to pass on what I emailed Gary for any of you who know someone who is grieving the loss of a child this year..

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My experience and reading both say that it’s not what you should say to parents when a child dies but what you shouldn’t say. Even the most well-meant words can ignite anger and shame.

For example:

• “Let me know if there’s anything I can do to help.” The first time I heard someone say this to me after Laurie died, I thought, Yeah, my life is a mountain of rubble and you want me to think of things for you to do? Well, screw you!

• “How are you doing?” How the hell did I know? My entire world—my values, my belief in God, my image of how the world works—had just been obliterated. Often, I would mumble, “Fine.” Later, I joined a 12-step program and learned that means, “Fucked up, Insecure, Numb, and Empty.” Which was about right.

• “Be grateful for the time you had together.” This is like telling someone who’s just had both of their legs blown off to be thankful they used to be able to walk.

• “Everything happens for a reason.” This is another comment that still has me pounding the walls, along with, “God doesn’t give you anything you can’t handle,” or “God must have wanted another angel in heaven.” Well, if God is that kind of super sadist, you can send me to Hell.

• “I know exactly how you feel.” Usually followed by, “When my grandfather/Uncle/mother/ dog/ died…” I’m sorry, but if you really knew how I feel, you’d shut the hell up.

• “Grief just takes time.” How is that supposed to help me get through the day, let alone nights that are five years long?

• “You need to get on with your life, get back to normal.” I first heard this a month after Laurie died. The most recent time was about a year ago.  My response hasn’t changed: This is my life. There will never be anymore goddamned “normal.”

• “At least she’s no longer suffering.” Or “she’s at peace.” And I’m still grieving like hell, thank you very much.

It’s not that some of these are necessarily bad advice. Thirty years after Laurie’s death, I am happy for the time we had together. The effects of grief do lessen over time. I do think she’s in a better place. I have moved on, and while my life has never returned to “normal,” it is in some ways more joyful.

But when I’m grieving I don’t want advice, even the most well-intentioned. In my shame and my anger, your advice makes me feel that you’re on some kind of pedestal of knowledge looking down on me, and I’m just that much more isolated in my grief.

What I need is to feel is that you’re beside me.

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So, is there anything you can say? Not much. Maybe something along the lines of “I’m thinking of you and wish there were words to comfort you.” I did find it helpful to have people ask me what happened, and more helpful if someone asked me about Laurie in ways that I could talk about what a beautiful, compassionate kid she was. I was particularly grateful if someone who had known my daughter had a story to share with me about her. I was grateful for flowers and for donations made in Laurie’s name, not only to the Cancer Society and the Ronald McDonald House, but also to Pilgrim Lodge Summer Camp and Amnesty International, two of Laurie’s favorite activities.

Some writers about grief suggest providing information on grief counselors or helping parents plan some kind of memorial. Although I later sought counseling and bought a memorial stone for my daughter to place in our family cemetery, I didn’t want any of that at first. For over a year after Laurie’s death, I just wanted to be left alone. But at the same time, I wanted to know someone was there when I needed them.

Bottom line: it’s a question of doing, not saying. What can you do for the grieving parent—cards, flowers, meals? Can you give them a call every week or so simply to say, “How about those Red Sox?”

It’s especially important not to disappear after the first month or so. That’s just another way of saying “You need to get on with your life.”  

Let them grieve. Listen. Don’t judge. I met with a woman for almost a year after her son died—gave her all kinds of advice, books to read, and so forth. A few years later, I ran into her and she said how much I’d helped her.                         

“Anything I said in particular?” I said, looking for guidance on what to say to others. “I don’t remember a damn thing you said,” she told me. “All I remember is that you cared enough to have lunch with me once a week.”

So, I never give advice to anyone who’s grieving unless they ask for it. I’m also leery enough about giving advice to people who want to help someone in grief to caution that everyone grieves differently and, as a general rule, men grieve differently than women (which contributes to the higher-than-average divorce rate among grieving parents.)

But if I were to give you any advice, I’d simply say, shut up and show up.

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