The Society of Saint John the Evangelist, Emery House, West Newbury, Massachusetts:
5/31/arrival: Hermitage #5, 5 years after our last retreat here, 30 years after our first. Hazy ride down from Maine, courtesy, I’m told, of Canadian wildfires. I’m also hazy about my plans for the next four days, except to try to pay attention—something I haven’t been doing enough of lately. Have also brought to read Parker Palmer’s On the Brink of Everything: Grace, Gravity & Getting Old. May play with writing some poetry.
Later: It doesn’t take much effort to pay attention to my age. I’m guessing Mary Lee and I are older than the 3 brothers and 2 other retreatants here by 40 to 50 years. The hill from the hermitages to Emery House is steeper and I am moving more slowly than 5 years ago. Tonight, at supper, I didn’t have the strength in my left hand to hold a full bowl of soup (something called “ulna nerve entrapment). Mary Lee and I were the last to finish eating.
So it was important tonight to read in On the Brink of Everything, Wendell Berry saying, “…we are either beginning or we are dead.” What am I beginning these days? How can I cultivate what Buddhists call “Beginners’ mind”?
6/1/: Morning walk through Maudslay State Park, next door to the Emery House grounds: miles of blooming rhododendrons and azaleas, stone walls, & winding paths through groves of towering pine trees overlooking the Merrimac River. Hazy sunshine over the river, which may be more smoke, which may be why I had to rest my scarred lungs more often, once on a stone memorial bench in memory of F—B— “An Optimist, Local and World Wide.”
But I spent the most time this morning contemplating a dead tree by the side of the road:
Like this standing shell of a tree, gray and
Dry and cracked—that’s how I feel, as I watch
Young people walk or run past, wait for me
As I struggle to open a door, or
(and this is worse) open the door for me.
That’s of course when they’re able to see me;
Often, I feel invisible, like this
Dead tree amidst the towering white pines.
But the old tree still stands at attention,
Still offers its broken arms to the sky.
As beautiful as polished driftwood, it
Still provides a home for the animals
And maybe insects for the woodpeckers.
I could do a lot worse at my life’s end.
After the noon Eucharist and lunch at Emery House, I was walking back to the hermitage along the mowed path at the edge of the field, & almost stepped on a box turtle.
Turtle in the grass
Sudden shadow overhead
Karma, chance, or fate?
6/2/breakfast: Eating my Cheerios, looking out at the field between the hermitages and Emery House, & at the red-winged blackbirds swooping over the buttercups, I go back to 1993 when I first came here. Then, as now, I’m struck by how life & death, beauty & ugliness, good & evil intertwine in this place. Or—more probably—how I notice them more here—from the choirs of songbirds to the decaying & dead trees lining the road; from the lovely bluebells and buttercups to the poison ivy that seems to be everywhere; from the bucolic pond on one side of the bridge that leads to Maudslay Park to the mudflats of the tidal Merrimac on the other side.
What did I read last night in On the Brink? Okay, here it is: “Life’s most important realities often take the form of both/and rather than either/or.”
Green shoots in dead leaves
purple plants, poison ivy—
The dancing goes on.
Later in the morning: After traipsing through fields of long grass (check for ticks tonight!), I found the path I’d been searching for through the woods on the Emery House grounds. I’m now in front of the iron statue of Jesus on the Cross, which has been here I don’t know how many years …
Jesus hangs in shadow
Weather spots across bronze chest,
Legs looking splattered with dry mud.
In shadow, Jesus melts into
The pine tree overlooking the river.
Dead limbs surround him.
Needles grow abundantly,
As if a crucifixion
Could create new life.
Later: For the last two days, the weather has been the hottest it’s been this year. Tonight, however, at Compline …
Through chapel windows
Layers of smudge-colored clouds.
Chilly winds whip trees
Distant thunder, rain splatters,
Candles flicker but don’t fail.
6/3: After two days of tee-shirts & shorts, I walked through Maudslay this morning in fleece & long pants. The flowers look bedraggled by last night’s storms. Found a charming dam I’d never been to.
Have been trying to avoid the phone, but noticed on my walk I’d a missed message, & back at the hermitage, I gave in. From Dick B—, friend & member of our Men’s Group, telling me that his wife Anne, had died in his arms at their camp. Both Dick and Anne are in their 90s. Anne & I did lay pastoral visiting together. “She died peacefully,” Dick said. “After bidding one heart at Bridge.”
In life & death
O Thou, who remains a mystery
Abide with me,
Thou to whom I keep returning
In sorrow & joy, in sickness & health
In life & death.
Even as I remain ignorant,
Blind, deaf, & dumb, grasping for guidance,
Abide with me.
In the woods or the fields,
In 80° or 40, sun or rain,
In life & death,
No matter how much longer the road may be
No matter what, if anything lies at the end,
Abide with me.
From the sun’s rising to enveloping darkness,
Thou whom I do not know, but whose I am
In life & death,
Abide with me.
6/4: Have returned from Sunday Eucharist, walking to our hermitages past a large snapping turtle, plodding along beneath two flowering dogwood trees. Beautiful in an ugly, primordial way, the turtle almost took ML’s hand off when she put her hand on its shell.
Now, with cup of tea before I start to clean up for the next retreatant, I reflect that 30 years ago, when I was in Hermitage 4, next door, I was obsessed with my daughter’s death. Now, I view the world through the lens of my own death. Which, as I finish On the Brink, may not be a bad thing: “… Saint Benedict,” writes Parker Palmer, “said, ‘Daily keep your death before your eyes.’ If you hold a healthy awareness of your own mortality, your eyes will be opened to the glory and grandeur of life.”
Palmer also writes, “I can’t think of a sadder way to die than with the knowledge that I never showed up in this world as who I really am.”
So, I leave Emery House, recommitting myself to keeping my eyes open, and showing up as I really am. Hoping, like my friend Anne, to leave this life having bid my one heart.